Today I’m delighted to welcome Julie Morris, book blogger and the inspiration behind her village’s Community Library.
Hello and welcome, Julie. Many congratulations on winning Media Star of the Year in the RNA’s Publishing Industry Awards 2020. Could you start by telling us how your love of books grew into setting up A Little Book Problem and could you explain that title?
Hi Sue, thank you so much! I was stunned but thrilled. And thanks for inviting me on to the blog—it makes a lovely change to be the one answering the questions instead of asking them!
I’ve loved reading since being a young child, but it was always quite a solitary occupation until I discovered the existence of book bloggers in 2016. Imagine, a whole world of people like me discussing books, it was a revelation! I started following one or two, then more and more. Eventually, I decided it was something I’d like to have a go at. At this point my TBR pile was so out of control, my youngest daughter had christened it ‘Mount Bookarus’ and it was in constant danger of toppling on to me in the night, so I decided that in 2017 I would not buy any new books, only read ones I already owned, and use a blog to keep track of my progress. And so ‘A Little Book Problem’ was born, the name deriving from my addiction (which is anything but little, as my bank balance will attest).
Needless to say, four years on, my TBR is at least four times as big as it was when I started, so in that respect the whole project has been a dismal failure, but I’ve had lots of fun and made great friends along the way.
I see you are no stranger to awards, having been nominated for Best Book Blog by the Annual Bloggers Bash in 2019! What in your opinion are the key elements in creating a blog that readers will want to keep coming back to? And how do you decide what to cover in your blog?
I think the key thing is just to be yourself and let your blog reflect your personality. Let the readers know who you are, and share what you love. I think people respond mostly to enthusiasm and honesty. If you look at popular blogs, they are all as individual as the people who write them. Some are very serious, mine is quite irreverent and fun, I think. Also, it is really important to engage with the community—your readers, other bloggers, authors and publishers. It’s all about being part of a group that supports and promotes its members. I think this has been very important this year in particular.
Deciding what to cover on the blog is easy, whatever takes my fancy! I just keep trying new things and then adopt the ones that my readers respond to, and the ones I enjoy the most. In the end, this is a hobby and something I do for pleasure. I think readers can tell when you are having a good time.
On your website you mention a love of travel (chance would be a fine thing lately!). What’s your favourite destination of all the places you’ve been and why?
That’s a hard question! Can I pick two? Rome has to be top of the list, I could go back there again and again and never get bored. The sheer amount of history to be explored is staggering, plus it is just beautiful and the Italians are so friendly. And I’d be lying if I denied that the food and wine are a big draw.
I also love Key West and it is another place to which I keep returning. It has all the best bits of the USA and the Caribbean combined, with its own unique atmosphere. When I get there, I am instantly relaxed. I mean, who doesn’t want to drink strawberry daiquiris in a bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway?
You have a wonderful book room. Do you always obtain a paper version of the books you read and review or is it a mixture of that and ebooks? Which do you prefer?
Practically all of my advance reader copies come in digital format, so I read a lot on my Kindle, but if I am buying books for myself, I almost always pick a paper version. I love the feel of a physical book, and being surrounded by books makes me extremely happy. Books are things of beauty. I would say that about 50% of the books I review on the blog, I end up buying in paper format afterwards, either for myself or as gifts or to put in the community library I run outside my house. I’d buy them all, if it wouldn’t bankrupt me!
Could you tell us more about the community library?
It was inspired by the Little Free Libraries in the US. Our local library was defunded and is now run on a very limited basis by a charity, so there are far fewer opportunities for local people to get books, particularly the children. I live in a very rural area—all we have in our village is a pub—so I thought a small library would be a nice facility. I have so many books floating about, it was the obvious thing to do with the extras!
It has been running for 18 months now, and is very well used. Lots of parents tell me how much their kids in particular love visiting it to choose a book. It is set in the verge right outside my house, and I love spotting walkers and cyclists stopping to have a browse. A lot of people donate books too. It’s a great, inclusive project, highly recommended for book lovers. After all, the next biggest joy after reading a book is sharing a book!
What an inspirational idea and I love the photo! I see you enjoy a wide range of fiction—to what extent does romance feature in the books you read and review?
I do love romance, it is my go-to comfort genre. Reading a romance never fails to soothe me at times of stress. For example, I’m currently re-listening to Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire novels on audio and they are such great, escapist fun. I would say about 45% of the books I read involve romance in some form or another.
And, if it’s not giving too much away, you’re writing a romance and are a member of the wonderful RNA New Writers’ Scheme. What type of romance are you writing and where did you get the inspiration?
I actually have two romance novels on the go at the moment! The first is emotional women’s fiction/book club fiction and it is based on a personal experience I had as a mother (although I must stress, it isn’t autobiographical!)
The second is lighter, more of a romantic comedy, and that was inspired by visits to a stately home local to me and a Celtic rock group called Runrig!
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA, as for many other organisations. I wonder how the selection of books and authors you review reflects these principles?
Honestly, I have always chosen books based purely on whether or not I liked the sound of them, from reviews by other bloggers or, quite often, just by loving the cover. I often won’t know anything about the author, other than their name, until I go in search of a photo and bio for the review, particularly if it is a debut or a lesser known author. In this regard, I think my choice of books on the blog has probably reflected what has been promoted in the publishing industry in a wider context.
Over the past year or so, now that the blog has become more established, I have become conscious that this isn’t enough and that I need to do more to promote a greater range of books and authors. So, for the first time for 2021, I have taken the deliberate decision to draw up a list of books by diverse authors or covering marginalised subjects, to read and review on the blog, which I hope will go some way to achieving this. The work that groups such as the Rainbow and the DISCO Chapters of the RNA are doing to promote authors from minority groups is so important, and anything I can do to support that, I will do gladly. I am always open to suggestions on how I can improve, and I encourage people from all backgrounds to please approach me for inclusion on the blog. Everyone is welcome, always.
That’s great to hear. Can I ask some more about choosing what to read. As a member of a book group, I faithfully read the nominated book every month and sometimes realise I’d not have chosen to read it, had someone else not selected it. How important is it, do you think, to stretch yourself and try different genres/authors/topics rather than go for the tried and tested comfort of a familiar author and genre? Or is life too short?!
I do tend to read a wide range of books, including quite a lot of non-fiction, and I try to push myself out of my comfort zone from time to time. Blogging has definitely increased the frequency with which I do that, because I come across so many books this way that I would never have known about otherwise. I have been pleasantly surprised on many occasions by books that I would never normally have picked up, so now I try not to limit myself too much because you never know what you might like if you don’t try it at least once.
There are some genres I know through experience are just not for me though, and I don’t read them. Sagas, for example, (sorry, fabulous Saga authors!) and most books set in war time. Very complicated sci-fi novels. Erotica. There is no point me taking these books on because I hate having to go back to authors and tell them I did not enjoy their book, when I know it is my personal preference and not the book that is the issue.
In the end, people read for many different reasons, but there is little point in forcing yourself to read things you really don’t like. Life is definitely too short for that, and there are far too many fabulous books out there to be enjoyed! 2020 has definitely been a year for reading the comforting and familiar in particular.
You’re in the business of reviewing books. When I check out reviews of a book I’ve read (and I usually do it after rather than before—is that unusual?) I notice they can vary a lot in terms of what they pick up and the overall assessment. What in your opinion are the ingredients that make the most helpful review?
Reading is so subjective, I think all you can do is give your honest reaction to the book. The main thing to do is try and explain what it is that you did/did not like about the book, then readers can try and work out if that is something that would also appeal to them. I try and pick out what appeals about the characters, setting and themes of a book, and any interesting issues that are covered. Sometimes it is very hard when you are trying to avoid spoilers, which are the biggest no no in a review!
As you say, reviews are so varied, and I am often surprised when I read other people’s reviews of books I have read that they have picked up very different things, and sometimes things I had never thought of, or reacted in a totally different way. Once you get to know a blogger, you will have a better idea of whether you have similar tastes in books and if their reviews reflect your likes and dislikes.
For more about Julie and A Little Book Problem, here are some links:
Thanks so much Julie, for taking time off from your reading and reviewing to talk to us.
Julie was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: (Website: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)