What makes a book good? Now, isn’t that the ultimate question that readers and writers face, alike. It’s, at times, a really difficult question. There isn’t one answer and it’s strangely a gut feeling, just like love.
I’ve recently read three books. I gave them all about three stars (I really wish Goodreads had half-ratings.) But in the end, I feel very different about them and my recommendation of them is far more complex than a simple star rating.
When I begin a book, I mark it as “currently reading” on Goodreads and do a quick scan of the reviews. I find that it can help temper my expectations or get me in the right head space. The first book was Summer Hours at the Robbers Library. It’s a light, fluffy read, but it didn’t get the best reviews.
The reviews were right in one sense. This book isn’t an award winner. The story is a bit discombobulated. The point-of-view constantly changes. The flashbacks are subtle but can lead to confusion. The characters are developed but a little troup-y. And yet…
This was one damn delightful read. Yes, critically it’s a bit of a dud, but I had a co-worker catch me in a full-on grin as I was reading this book. She smiled and said, “It must be good.” And damn it, it was!
Once I finished Summer Hours, I started The Life of Pi. Obviously, this not only got a fairly solid rating on Goodreads, it’s award-winning. There was a lot of hub-bub and a movie; nevertheless, when I finished it I felt pretty meh; hence the three stars. I get why it won awards, but it didn’t grip me. It didn’t really evoke my emotions. It was a little too out there for me to identify with the character or story. And while I gave it the same rating I would recommend Summer Hours before The Life of Pi.
Finally, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. The highest rated book according to Goodreads of the three. It is viewed as a feminist classic and like The Life of Pi almost everyone has heard about it. However, I in the end, wasn’t blown away. If I were able to, I might have said three and a half stars, but since I can’t I couldn’t in good conscious give it four and thus three it was.
Despite The Handmaid’s Tale being critically and average joe acclaimed and the fact that I might rank it slightly higher than the other two, I still would recommend Summer Hours first and foremost. It’s more accessible. It’s sweet and fluffy. It isn’t going to make your head hurt or make you attempt to make heads or tails of what happened or what it all meant in the end.
I get why The Handmaid’s Tale caused a stir and partially what it’s getting at (I will not claim I get it all because frankly I don’t.) But it’s a bit heavy handed in a purposely befuddling way. I see what Atwood is up to, I just don’t really know that I can get that excited about it.
So, if you’re looking for a book to read and happened to not have read any of these my advice would be: If you’re looking for a new contemporary masterpiece of literature, Summer Hours ain’t it, but if you need something to warm your heart and make you smile. This is good choice. I admit that I’m a sucker for feel good tales. They are my comfort food in reading. If you want the philosophical- The Life of Pi. And if you want literature that inches remarkably close to our modern times, The Handmaid’s Tale is the book for you.