Monday, 2 April 2012

The Holiday Collection, Part Two: On Second Thought...

A few weeks' ago, in a fit of pre-holiday excitement, I decided to review my selected holiday reads before I read them, based on the blurb, cover and general feel I got from the book. Well, the books have been read, the notes scribbled down in barely legible writing and I'm back with judgements to give out. Now it is time for the results...

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
As predicted, I caved in before I went away and bought the next two books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I'm glad I did, because not only were they extremely difficult to put down and enjoyable to read, a few of my other holiday books turned out to be surprisingly disappointing, so it was nice to have something decent to settle down to. Given how the film has now come out, and that I've read the trilogy, I've decided to write a more concise review of all three of the books, so I won't go into much detail in this entry. I would say, however, that all the hype around the films did make me forget that this is, essentially, a book for teenagers, so I did find myself a bit caught off-guard by the sizable font and the general writing of the book - that's not to say it wasn't good, but I did find some parts of it severely lacking in descriptions, making some of my images of Panem and the Games themselves a bit hazy. I also found myself not liking Peeta very much - as a character he's almost entirely defined by Katniss, in the sense that everything about him revolves around her, and so he wasn't very convincing. I like my heroes to have a bit of a backbone, and I'm sorry, but he was just a little bit too all-the-light to Katniss's dark. Nonetheless, I was hooked from the first page, enjoyed every bit of it, and I've already read it through twice. For the more in-depth analysis, click here.

The Map, by T.S. Learner
Well, I chose this on the basis that it was going to be one of those pseudo-religious, pseudo-historical romps through Europe, and as a result an easy read - perfect for lounging by the pool. Well, it wasn't easy to read, because it was so rubbish. From the first few pages I was cringing at the poor writing - actually cringing, pulling faces, wincing. The plot was just fiction-by-numbers: an academic with a military past and a secret burden on his soul is pursued through France, Spain and Germany by Interpol, MI5, the CIA and a mysterious woman with mysterious powers, all of them after a book in his possession. It's cheesy to the point it's not enjoyable, with badly-written and unnecessary sex scenes, cliched characters and a surprisingly complicated plot - though my difficulty in following it may have been down to the fact that I was so bored by it. The 'hero', August Winthrop, is thoroughly unbelievable - it's like Learner tried to re-create a younger version of Robert Langdon from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, and failed - I'm struggling to explain how frustrating he was. I found that I not only didn't care at all about him, or his companion (female, of course), or their 'frantic' chase across the continent, but that I hoped he'd get caught, just so he'd stop mooning over said female companion in what can only be described as the most contrived love story I've ever read. There are aspects of the plot that were quite different from the genre, and so a bit refreshing; elements of Jewish mysticism are combined with the somewhat secretive culture of the Basque region in Spain, and in another book, I may have been compelled to learn more about either subject. However, the best I can say for this book is that it passed the time on the plane when I couldn't sleep because the bloke behind me was getting drunker and louder, and when packing to come home I decided to leave it on the communal bookshelf in the hotel for some unsuspecting holiday-maker.

The Well Of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde
This was the book that I was most certain I would enjoy out of the lot, as I'd read the first two books, so kind of knew where I stood with them, and comfortable ground is always an assumedly safe place to be. I was, however, fearful of a sliding scale of enjoyment; I had enjoyed the second book of the series less than the first, so with this in third place, I was concerned it would be even less enjoyable than the previous two. Sadly, I was right. The series is undeniably clever, and I have to say that Jasper Fforde has done an amazing job of creating a world inside fiction, using everything he can in the literary arsenal as tools to give this storybook world depth and humour. For example, footnotes are used as a means of communication, a character in the story gets misspelled to death by a "mispeling vyrus", and it is possible to physically enter the plotline of a novel by reading the text - if you have the know-how. It's clever - too clever. There's just too much going on, too much to pay attention to, too many characters jostling for space; it gave me a bit of a headache, actually. Characters kept cropping up that I'd forgotten about, the encounter with the supposedly main antagonist was a massive anti-climax, and there was an apparently crucial-to-the-plot encounter with the three witches from MacBeth and a prophecy, which went completely unnoticed by me. By the time the point of significance came round, I had forgotten what the prophecy entailed - barely remembered it had been made, even - and so the revelation had no impact. I did, however, enjoy the literary-references; there's a brilliant scene where Miss Havisham and Thursday, the heroine, go into Wuthering Heights to give all the characters an anger management seminar, and there were a few funny references to a Jurisfiction agent (the body who police fictional character behaviour) called Godot, whom they're always waiting for. I was also particularly pleased about a reference to my favourite of the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling,  The Beginning of the Armadillos. To be honest, it was these little refential tidbits that kept me ploughing through. I actually read the book as quickly as I could because I just wanted to get it out of the way, because I was a bit bored by it. It's not the most boring book I've ever read, but it wasn't a gripping read by a long shot. I think the most telling thing about my attitude to these books is the fact that even though they're a series, I'm not eagerly purchasing all the books as quickly as I can; I'm leisurely moving from one to another. I'll probably read all the books eventually, just to see what happens to Thursday, but to me it's a bit like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise of the film world; the first one was bloody good, and the rest are doing a poor job of matching up to it.

1984, by George Orwell
This was a surprise. I was really not looking forward to reading it, and only took it because it seemed like the best time to read a novel I felt I should read, without too many distractions/excuses to put it down. To be honest, I feared it was going to be a hugely political, ram-it-down-your-throat novel and I just don't like political, ram-it-down-your-throat novels. My opinions in politics aren't relevant to this blog, so I'm not going to go into it - my initial lack of interest in this book was down to the fact that I just don't like political books. However, this is actually just a story with a warning - something which I found easy to focus on - and it turned out to be one of the best books I read on holiday. The first thing that struck me about it was how funny it was. Not laugh-out-loud funny - as you can probably imagine, it's not that kind of book - but the text in Part One was peppered with witty, wry comments. It might have been the surprise these comments caused, actually, that lessened the impact of the novel on me - I felt like I should be feeling more, and that maybe I wasn't 'getting' it. However, that fear abated and I felt the full impact in the last few pages; the changes forced on Winston by his gruesome experience in Room 101 (a passage which made me shudder when I considered the many options that could be in my own Room 101) and his subsequent life was one of the most pathetic, sad things I've ever read. I would say, though, that I did find the dialogue to be a bit dated, which didn't really bother me until Winston speaks with Julia for the first time - this kind of jolted me a bit and took me out of the novel for a few pages, as I couldn't help thinking how out-of-place it appeared. What I did marvel at, however, was Orwell's vision of the future - most specifically, if somewhat oddly, the telescreens. He had imagined televisions that not only could you see and hear and watch, but that people could see and hear and watch you back through it; a passage in which Winston takes part in mandatory exercises suddenly made me think of the Wii-Fit - unexpected, as I'm sure you'll imagine. All in all, I'm so glad I read it - it's not a novel that's changed my life, or my outlook, or my opinions, but it's a story that I thought I'd hate before I picked it up, and that I now know I'll want to read again - that should say it all.

The Grapes Of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
I went into this novel almost blind, only having a very basic knowledge of what it was about. I didn't really know what to expect, beyond a sense of something like fear that was caused by Steinbeck's own comment, 'I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied.' This was certainly the case of with me - the entire novel, accounting for the family's preparation to move West, their journey and what they find when they arrive, was full of moments of positivity, followed by an event that brought you back down with not so much of a bump as a whimpering sink to the floor. It wasn't even difficult to read, emotionally (although I would say the language was almost poetical in places, and that I did struggle at times with the phonetically spelt speech of the characters), but the entire novel was imbued with a sense of weary inevitability, which succeeded in numbing me, almost, to the pain of the way in which the lives of the characters had been changed. Nothing felt unexpected, in the way that if you're having a bad day, you're never surprised by yet another bad thing happening to you. It also seemed like Steinbeck got angrier and angrier as he wrote this, reaching an emotional crescendo in a desperate chapter that spawns the title of the book - admittedly, I had to read the chapter twice to really understand it, but on the second go I felt myself tearing up at the injustice rampant capitalism inflicts on the poor. This was one of many moments throughout the novel in which the lines between fiction and reality were blurred - rather than solidly focusing on the Joad family, Steinbeck used almost aside-chapters (not dissimilar to those featured in All My Friends Are Superheroes) to explain and clarify the reasons why the Joads were moving West, why they were not alone, and why the paradise waiting for them there turned out to be a purgatory. That's not to say it's a depressing novel; the strength of several characters - particularly the matriarch, Ma - and the relationships in the tight-knit family drives the novel forward, almost assuring the reader that no matter what happens, they'll be okay. Whether they are or not is something I won't reveal, as the road in the cover above suggests, this is more about the journey, not the destination.

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