Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Disappointments

I'm moving house soon, so thought it was time for a good clear-out; there's a surprising amount of stuff in what is actually quite a small flat, so it seemed as good a time as any to get rid of the clutter. I duly purged my wardrobe of all and any clothes that were too small, too old, rarely worn or just inexplicably in there, and either donated them or chucked them. Feeling cleansed, I then moved onto the books, which was a painful, and far less successful, attempt. In the end I only managed to whittle my collection down by nine volumes - and one of them is getting donated because I have two copies of it already (no one needs three versions of The Odyssey, especially when two are the same translation). It was a pathetic effort, but I did notice that, of those nine books, there are two pairs of books by the same authors, and one by an author I no longer care for. This lead me to muse on the subject of disappointing follow-ups, when you read a book that you think is brilliant, buy some others by the same author, and discover that actually, the first book was the best. So, now I present to you, my very own selection of The Disappointments - the authors who never lived up to the first read.

David Nicholls
The First Read: One Day
The Disappointments: Starter For Ten and The Understudy
 Before I get started, I should just clarify - I don't actually like One Day a great deal. I think the concept is excellent - each chapter focuses on the same date, over the course of twenty years, allowing you to follow the characters through their lives, with all the ups and downs they experience. I didn't like the characters, though - Emma was a bit annoying and Dexter was worse, and they kind of ruined the magic for me. However, it enchanted me enough with it's originality to make me want to read more by David Nicholls. Starter For Ten was the first one I read - focusing on a student's desperate attempts to simultaneously make it on to University Challenge and win the heart of his dream girl, it seemed like it would be an entertaining romance - far more so than I found One Day. But I didn't get on with it. I found the characters predictable, the plot a bit boring and just felt it was a bit of a non-event, really. Still, when my sister leant me The Understudy, I remained hopeful - maybe it would be third time lucky? Not so. Again, the plot was intriguing - a failing actor, who is convinced the big break that will propel him to stardom is just around the corner, suddenly finds himself the understudy (and reluctant friend) to a film star who is treading the boards for the first time. But again, I was a bit bored. The love story felt contrived and forced, the characters a little one-dimensional, and I felt that the overall plot was just a bit too bleak. In fact, I generally get that from Nicholls' books; in his determination to write something 'real', he seems to feel the need to deliver unnecessarily harsh blows to his characters, which, for me, doesn't really improve the narrative. I wouldn't ever say One Day is a favourite of mine, but I was sufficiently impressed by it - it's a shame the others were not so.

Karen Maitland
The First Read: Company Of Liars
The Disappointments: The Owl Killers and The Gallows Curse
I LOVE Company Of Liars. It's one of my favourite books ever. It's chilling, it has a fantastic plot, the characters are compelling, the pace never slackens and around every corner, there's a new twist. It's a rare horror story that I enjoy. Every time I read it, I discover something new, and even though I know the ending, I still find myself looking over my shoulder when reading it to make sure no one's there in the scary bits. So when I found The Owl Killers - the story of a group of women living together, who incur the wrath of the local population when they remain mysteriously untouched by plague - naturally, I snapped it up immediately. However, it was nothing like Company Of Liars; for starters, the plot felt clunky - there was too much going on, and not enough pace to propel it forward. I lost track of the actual plot a few times, and when the final, shocking climax eventually arrived - I was not shocked, and didn't even notice it was a climax until I'd already finished and realised there was nothing more to come. Still, The Gallows Curse might have more welly to it, so when that came out, I bought it too - and whilst it did have a more cohesive plot, and a bit more pace to it than The Owl Killers, I found it was still lacking in the same impact and chill-factor that I had found in Company Of Liars. I think the problem is, Maitland was trying to pull the same tricks with different plots, and it didn't work quite so well; if you keep writing the same kind of twists over and over, they become predictable, and cliffhangers aren't cliffhangers if you're expecting one.

Lisa Jewell
The First Read: Ralph's Party
The Disappointments: 31 Dream Street, The Truth About Melody Browne and After The Party 
Lisa Jewell has written nine books, and I have read all but one, the latest title. As regular readers may know from Books I Love To Hate, as a teenager I fell in love with her way of writing, and fell hard; in the beginning, she was funny, witty, observant and sharp. Her plots were original and her characters relatable. Ralph's Party is still my favourite, with it's messages of optimism, fate and hope, but there's a special place in my heart for A Friend Of The Family, a novel focusing around the lives of three brothers who are none of them where they feel they ought to be in life. For a long, long time, I bought nearly every book she's written - I think the only ones I don't own are Vince And Joy - which I did own, but was borrowed and never returned - One Hit Wonder, which I borrowed from the library and The Making Of Us, the latest publication, which I have avoided. Up until 31 Dream Street, I was perfectly satisfied with the relationship; she wrote cracking books, I happily devoured them time and again. It was good, we were happy. But 31 Dream Street, and the titles that followed, changed everything for me; I don't know whether I outgrew her, or if something had changed in her life to make her a bit more cynical, but the magic was gone from her novels. The Truth About Melody Browne sounded appealing - there's a cult, and family secrets - but turned out to be a bit dull, and After The Party almost ruined two of my favourite characters for me. I don't know what it was that changed everything, but the love affair is over.

Jasper Fforde
The First Read: The Eyre Affair
The Disappointments: Lost In A Good Book and The Well Of Lost Plots.
I think the problem I have with Jasper Fforde is that he's too clever with an already genius idea. The three novels listed above are all from a series about a literary detective called Thursday Next, and are set in an alternate universe which values literature very highly; there's a roaring trade in black market copies of classic novels, and so many people have changed their names to that of their favourite authors or characters, the authorities have had to insist on numbers being tacked onto the end, like a chatroom avatar (example: Mrs Dalloway32). The first in the series - The Eyre Affair - was a fast-paced adventure, with a race against time to save a beloved character and restore the plot of a classic to it's former glory - or something better. Being a bit of a book nerd (if you hadn't realised), I loved all the literary references and in-jokes, and enjoyed the little nuances that seperated that world from this; actual neanderthals who drive the buses, dodos that have been re-created as pets, airships instead of trains as the first option in cross-country travel. But the next two books in the series lacked the same panache; new characters aren't as compelling as the old, villains are less villainous and the plots are considerably - and unnecessarily - more complicated. Furthermore, even though they all seem to be books of roughly the same length, it still takes me longer to read the later ones than the first. I don't quite know what happened, but it seems Fforde is determined to out-do his first, excellent novel, with the result that there's an element of desperation around the others. It's a real shame as well; there's so much about the books that I find appealing, and if Fforde was maybe more focused on developing this world he has created, as opposed to make each book more action-packed than the last, it might work - as it happens, they are starting to feel over-done.

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