Monday, 27 February 2012

Books I Love To Hate

I've been thinking about this and it occurred to me that I'm probably only going to really bother reviewing books I like; this is mostly because, for the time being at least, I'm reviewing books that are particular favourites of mine, or ones that have resonated pretty deeply with me. So I thought I'd give a brief run down of some particular novels which I have read once and WILL NEVER READ AGAIN. Well, okay, 'never' is a long time, but definitely not for ages.
This is not designed to put anyone off these books, and these are just my personal opinions. So here they are, the books I love to hate:

1. American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
I'll admit straight up that I saw the film first (despite being about 12 when I saw it - not quite sure how I snuck that one past my mum), and it's still one of my favourite films. I think Christian Bale was absolutely fantastic in it, and I just find it hilarious - that scene where Bateman kills Paul Allen to Huey Lewis and the News? Bloody brilliant. So when I was going on holiday one year, and I saw the novel as part of a Waterstones 3 for 2, I bought it (despite some initial misgivings about the cover - same as pictured - which I found unsettling for some reason), assuming that since I'd enjoyed the film so much, I'd enjoy the book - which I think is a fair enough assumption to make! After all, I knew the plot from the film, knew that it was more a journey into the psyche of a deeply troubled, shallow man, knew that there was going to be scenes of extreme, gratuitous violence. What I did not know was just how much, or indeed in such detail, these scenes would be in. I will admit I'm writing this many years after reading it, so my memories can hardly be called fresh, but I do remember exactly how I felt; horrified, uncomfortable and incredulous. I know now I was, quite frankly, too young to read it, and probably didn't 'get' what the violence represented - his tortured soul, maybe? His need for attention and validation? - but  I don't think I've ever read anything that made me question the sanity of the author; after all, ideas have to come from somewhere - so where the blazes did Easton Ellis get this idea from? And I remember reading one particular, infamous scene, which is probably uncomfortable reading for all, but especially women, when I was literally thinking, 'Who actually writes stuff like this?!' I believe this is considered a modern classic, but I have to say if this is a modern classic, you can keep it; novels are meant to make you think, laugh, cry, scream, jump, shock, escape the world - but American Psycho goes too far for me.

2. Starbook, by Ben Okri
Easily one of the biggest disappointments I've ever experienced, novel-wise. Once again, this was a holiday purchase, and I saw this beautiful cover whilst on my way to the till. I instantly fell in love with it, and when I read the blurb and saw it was 'a fairytale for adults', I was hooked, and genuinely excited about reading it. So excited, that I saved it - treasured it, even - til  it was my very last read. Just take a look at some of my previous entries on Book-Cover Judging and Fairytales, you'll see why I fell for it.What. A. Letdown. I'd love to give you a brief summary of the novel, but I simply can't remember (beyond there's a prince, and a princess, and possibly an enchanted sleep, though I may be making that part up), because all I can remember is that it was so desperately dull and pretentious that it clouds everything else. The language has been described by critics as poetical, beautiful, lyrical - and yes, yes it was. Except, nothing happened. I cannot stress that enough - nothing, even the bits where stuff was meant to be happening. It was just one long novel of nothing, and whilst I stuck at it doggedly to the end, I picked it up each time with the same enthusiasm as I might a maths textbook (no offence, mathematicians), and when I got to the end I was profoundly relieved. I'll own up and say, I probably was my own worst enemy - I put it up on a pedestal from the first glance, expected great things, and as soon as I realised it wasn't going to live up to those expectations, I promptly sulked about it, and so probably stopped myself from enjoying it. Maybe one day I'll attempt it again - part of me is still hopeful, when I glance at that cover - but all I can remember from reading it is the bitter disappointment I felt as I sat in the sun, painfully turning the pages, hoping for something to happen.

3. A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer
This is a bit of a rogue cannon entry, as I don't actually hate this book (so I probably shouldn't have called this blog 'Books I Love To Hate'... Oh well, you live, you learn). This is a noble book. It was a brave thing to write this, and I applaud Dave Pelzer for it. The life he was subjected to by the person who should have loved him the most - his mother - is just horrific, and it makes any sane person wonder what kind of mental state you'd have to be in to treat own flesh and blood that way. So to not only live through that, but be able to write it down, recall it, in such a calm fashion, not only breaks your heart but swells it in appreciation of what strength of character it must take to survive such ordeals. And this is why I shall never read it again; because it is simply too real to manage more than once. Whilst I can't even begin to comprehend how painful his life must have been, the glimpse I got was just too much for me. I love books because they take me somewhere else; they transport me to beautiful countries with exciting people, darstardly villains, and teach me lessons about things I didn't even know about. Whilst I'm glad I read it, I could never read it again; knowing that the man who wrote the words lived the awful childhood you're reading about, knowing that there are actually people out there who do things like this to defenceless children - it makes me sick. I would say that everyone should read this book once, but no more than that; it's just too upsetting.

4. We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
This was an odd one. Like Starbook, I found the premise interesting - a mother reflects on the childhood of her firstborn son, who is serving time in prison for committing a massacre; like American Psycho, I found it to be very different to what I was expecting, and similar to A Child Called It, I found it upsetting at times. But - and this is why it's made this list - mostly I just didn't care. Obviously I wasn't a fan of the homicidal Kevin - I don't think you're meant to be - but I didn't care about his mother, Eva, the narrator, either. Nor was I fussed about his father - who I liked about as much as Kevin, actually - or even his little sister, Celia. There was just no one I felt any interest in whatsoever, no real connection with the characters, and as a result, even though I knew this was probably one of those books which I would in later years be told I just 'had' to read, I just wasn't interested. I persevered nonetheless, mostly because I refused to be beaten by it, and I'm stubborn that way, but I really did find it a bore. It's hard to enjoy a book when you just can't connect with the characters, even less when it's an unpleasant enough story by itself. I didn't struggle through it in the same way that I did with Starbook - that's the beauty of having an actual plot - but I certainly felt the same sense of relief that I did when I finally got to the end.

5. After The Party, by Lisa Jewell
This was another disappointment. Lisa Jewell was one of the first 'grown up' authors I loved, and Ralph's Party - the novel to which After The Party is the sequel - remains, in my opinion, one of the most gloriously romantic, realistic, genuine books I've ever read. So when I heard there was a sequel, detailing the continued relationship of two characters from Ralph's Party, I just had to have it, and I bought it as soon as I could, and devoured it in one weekend. It left me, to continue the eating metaphor, empty. The first book was a witty, clever, insightful glimpse into the relationships between several different people, and how the oddest little events can affect something so much bigger, and I just loved it - I still do. I fell in love with Jewell's writing style, and the way she seemed able to voice thoughts I'd had but never been able to word. Consequently, I read all her others - and there are a few - and whilst I started to lose faith around the awfully-titled 31 Dream Street - ugh - I still kept on buying. But this was the last straw. I found After The Party cynical, bitter and more than once got the impression that it was less about the characters and more about a personal experience, and whilst I have no idea about whether my hypothesis is true, it made me sad that two of my favourite characters had been taken and twisted in this way. The end of the novel was somewhat hopeful, I guess, but the damage was done by that point. I guess this suffered from Starbook-ism, in that I was let down by my own expectations, but this wasn't the first time I felt that Jewell had lost her mojo a bit, and in fact was, for me, the definitive proof she had. One of the saddest things to happen to a person is to fall out of love, and I felt some of that sadness when I read this book and finally realised that I, too, had fallen out of love with Lisa Jewell.

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