Saturday, 21 April 2012

Books I Have To Read

A little while ago, I got caught out by a colleague during a conversation in which I was forced to admit that I've never read The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. I say 'forced', which implies I was reluctant to admit it, but in fact I was quite happy to - until my colleague told me she was surprised I hadn't read it. Immediately, I felt a little bit embarrassed; it's a well-known modern classic, and yet not only have I never picked it up, I've never even felt a vague interest in reading it. To be perfectly honest, until about 3 years ago, I suspected it was something of a horror book, of a Freddy Kreuger-type; it's the whole, there's something in the rye, it's coming to catch you thing, and I'm not a fan of horror books. Obviously I know differently now, but it didn't change my feelings towards it - I simply wasn't interested. But since then, it has got me thinking about all the books I kind of should read, but haven't, and recently I've been pondering the idea of finding a list of the Top 100 books, and working my way through it - as a blog-related challenge, but also in an effort to broaden my own literary horizons.

There's no question that I love books, but sometimes I do find myself reading for the sake of reading, just for something to do, and not noticing what's on the page. Of course, there will be times when I don't want to read something clever; I had a moment like this just this week, when, after what can only be described as a monumentally awful working-week, involving all kinds of crap, I flung aside Catch 22 - another modern classic - in a fit of pique and picked up The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which I bought last week but wasn't letting myself read out of respect for finishing Catch 22. The Song Of Achilles is really enjoyable, well written and yet another intriguing take on the Trojan War story, but it's not great literature. So, in the most pathetic rebellion known to man, I said 'screw it!' to cleverness, modern classics and mind-broadening, and went for comfort-reading. Sometimes, you don't want to read except for the sake of reading. But, nonetheless, there are thousands of brilliant books out there that will make me think, question, discover and learn, and all the while I will be doing one of the things I love doing most - reading (and drinking tea at the same time - heaven). So, give me the list, and let's get cracking!

Except, of course, nothing is that simple - such is life. A quick Google of 'ultimate top 100 books' (I like the word 'ultimate' - it's so powerful) lead to more results than I'd care to look at. There's the BBC's collection, compiled about 8 or 9 years ago from nominations for their Big Read campaign; then there's a list from The Guardian, from 10 years ago; then there's all the fan-compiled lists, such as's Top 100, and's Best 100 Novels. I myself have previously been checking novels off a list that I found via an app on Facebook - in fact, when I Googled 'ultimate top 100 books' I was intending to find my list, and link it to this here blog, but I can't find it. Now, with so many options, I find myself a bit stuck; how do I pick which list I am to use as my guideline? What really are the best 100 books? (That, by the way, is not a question I am even going to bother attempting to answer. Call me lazy, but let's face it, if there's that many options out there, you could be there forever. Maybe one day - who knows? - I will compile a list but it will not be today.)

Looking through these lists, several names seem to crop up in each one, a bit like London socialites at swanky events. John Steinbeck, for example, and C.S. Lewis. Salman Rushdie occasionally puts in an appearance but can be a bit unreliable, but George Orwell's always there and so is Fyodor Dostoevsky - they even turn up twice on a few occasions. Shakespeare and Harper Lee are often there, and there's usually something by Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood. These, it would seem, are some members of the hardcore gang, the authors of the books you really must, must read - although there sometimes seems to be a bit of indecisiveness about which novel of theirs is the One to Read. As I perused these lists, I did start to get a bit concerned about why some of these books are on the lists; not because I doubt their worth, but I do sometimes wonder - are they on they just on the list because to miss it off would be noticed? War And Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, for example - that's a title everyone knows, and yet, I myself haven't got a clue of what the plot is. Simply, it's reputation precedes it, and it has become so well-known that it's inclusion on any Top 100 list is almost like a free pass; it's War And Peace, so it has to be on there. Other ones, however, I do find surprising; The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger is one such title. Now, I love this book; it's a heart-breaking romance of fantastical proportions, it's beautifully written and it's a brilliantly unique, clever idea - but I'm not sure I would include it on a Top 100 list. Personally, I'd swap it for Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson, and that's not just because Pettigrew is my favourite book, and I'm biased, but because it's a little lost piece of history, it's charming, it's delightful, it's funny, it's hopeful, it's a classic fairytale. Books shouldn't be included on Top 100 lists just because they're cleverer or more well known than other books.

I think the list I'm going to use will be the Best 100 Novels; it just seems like a more concise list of titles, both modern and pre-20th century, and there's actually quite a few titles on the list that I've been wanting to read anyway, which obviously makes it more appealing! There are, however, quite a few I have no interest in reading - The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, for example. My sister read that one quite a while ago, when the film came out, and gave me the basic rundown of the plot, and I can't say it appealed to me - as frequent readers of this blog will know, I prefer my novels to be more about escapism; the less realistic or political, the better. But then, I was positively dreading reading 1984 by George Orwell, and I actually really enjoyed it, so what does that tell you? However, they have included The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer on this list - now, I know that, culturally, these books are quite significant, given it's fanbase, the revival of interest in vampires it caused and just the general hype surrounding both the film and book series, but I'm a bit disappointed to see it. But then it is the only duff title on the list, so I guess I can let it slide.

If I'm going to work my way through this list, I'm going to have to commit to it, and that's that. I'm actually quite excited really; I've usually been a bit of a book nomad, reading what I like, when I like. Now I feel like I have a bit of a sense of purpose with my reading. I'm sure at times it'll be a hard slog, especially with books I don't want to read, or find hard to follow, but I think it'll be worth it. I'd like to say I've managed to read my way through 100 of the finest novels written. I've already read 22 of them, and I'm currently reading Catch 22 (when I'm not casting it aside in favour of Greek love stories) so I've got a bit of a headstart, but still got 78 to go. Mind you, I'll probably have to buy a Kindle now - can't afford to pay full-whack all these books, financially or space-wise. That's a bit of a bummer.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Lost Art Of Re-Reading A Book

I've been a bit slow with my blogging lately, which is down to two things. Firstly, work has reached one of it's even-busier-than-usual points in the year, when around 80% of my time is spent either working or thinking about work, 15% is spent sleeping and the rest of the time I'm eating. Not a hugely healthy lifestyle, nor one that allows for a lot of anything fun (although eating and sleeping are two pursuits of mine that I usually enjoy immensely). As a result - and this leads to the second thing - I've been severely lacking in time to read. This has been made worse by the fact that I am attempting to read two books at the same time, which are  both incredibly different to each other, and both entirely new to me: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. I have to say, I'm mostly enjoying this dual-reading; when I tire of Yossarian deeming everyone to be crazy except himself in Catch 22, I can turn to a hugely entertaining book on the normal, every day aspects of medieval life that you tend to forget about, what with all the wars and plagues - what people wore, how they got themselves from one part of the country to another without a map, and so on. They both have their merits, and are both, in their own ways, really funny - so, considering one is a modern classic, and the other is a history book, I should be in my element, right?

No, no. I cannot relax with these books. This is not because they are not good books. It is because they are new to me, and so I have to concentrate on every page. I have already slipped up a few times with both - I got a bit bored learning about medieval currency in Time Traveller's Guide, and now I have no idea what the author means when he says such-and-such will cost you 7s 2d. Similarly, in Catch 22, I  had to read one conversation between two characters four times, because my mind kept wandering to things like, 'did I send that email on Friday?' 'I mustn't forget to do that on Monday!' and 'I'm so, so sleepy...' I just can't quite let myself get as absorbed as I usually do, no matter how much I want to. Instead, my mind keeps turning to an article on The Guardian last week, on the merits of re-reading books. The more I think of it, the more re-reading a book becomes a far more attractive possibility at the moment.

This is a subject I have touched upon before myself, in my own entry for World Book Day, in which I explored some of the elements that contribute to making a book a good one. I concluded, rather diplomatically, that it doesn't matter what you're told makes a good book, but what you feel is a good book, and that 'good books are the ones on the shelf that are dog-eared and battered, and they'll be different in every home.' Obviously, to batter and dog-ear the books, they have to be read and re-read time and again. So what brings a reader back to the same book? There's billions of books out there, in a myriad of languages and genres, books you've never imagined, subjects you've never explored, characters you've never encountered. There are bookshops and libraries all over the country, e-books all over the internet, and any number of websites who will send any book you like direct to your house - some will even recommend some new ones for you. Why not reach for a new one every time?

I can't speak for others, but I can speak for myself. A new read is thrilling; even before you've opened the book, what you're holding could well be your new favourite book. I'm quite flighty in my choices - ask me my favourite book in the morning and I could well have a different answer by the evening - but for me, precious little beats reading that first page for the first time, becoming immersed in the story, becoming familiar with a new world. Regular readers of this blog (hi, you two - thanks guys) may have seen that I did not get on very well with American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, but one thing I did enjoy hugely was the fact that I had absolutely no clue about what was going to happen next - the plot was entirely unpredictable, and it kept me on my toes. I love that about a new book, the discovery of it - both in terms of it's plot and my relationship with it, be it positive or negative.

However, I did say 'precious little' beats a first-time reading of a book. That 'precious little' is re-reading a book. You might know the plot, you might think you know the characters, you might think you know every little event that occurs - but the fact is, you don't. An English teacher of mine once said that you can never know a book cover to cover, because every time you read it, you'll discover something new - a word to describe a character that changes your perspective of them, a scene you've managed to dismiss as unimportant during every previous read, even a witty comment you've never found witty before. Most importantly though, if you've read a book several times over a long period of time, you yourself will change, and so will your views. A character who was once despicable to you, suddenly is one you sympathise with. That scene that seemed so superfluous, you suddenly connect with a later event in the novel which increases the earlier scene's importance. An event in your own life may suddenly connect you to a book in a way you never anticipated. Suddenly, just knowing how it ends, and how the characters get there, is not important; it's what you learn as you travel the same road. It's a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day - eventually, he becomes so familiar with his surroundings, he is able to see things that, the first time around, he was blind to. When you re-read a book, you already know the important bits, leaving your mind free to explore the subtler elements of the plots and characters.

Of course, this is the 'clever' way of looking at it. The reason why re-reading a book has become such an attractive option to me right now is because I can do it for the sheer pleasure of indulging in a creature comfort. With a re-read, I know where I stand; there will not be any unexpected surprises, and I will know when I can put it down, because I know the main plot back to front already. If my mind wanders a tad, I will not be missing anything I don't already know - no crucial plot points, no essential information, will be missed. I can sit back, relax, and know that, no matter what happens, this person will travel to this place with this person, where such a thing will happen, and this will result in this particular conclusion. No guesswork, no extra attention required. If I want to learn more from it, I can, by paying more attention to the text. Alternatively, if I'm just needing something to help me drift off to sleep at night (in the same manner as a whale-song CD does for others, or nightlights, not because it's boring) then a re-read is the thing I need.

The trouble at the moment is, I've re-read all my books so many times, I don't particularly want to read any of them. How's that for a catch 22.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Review: 'American Gods', by Neil Gaiman

This was, quite possibly, the strangest book I have ever read. It was recommended to me by a few people after I reviewed the Troy trilogy, by David and Stella Gemmell, so I freely admit that, when I borrowed the book, I was expecting something, if not similar to a historical romp, at least in the same vague area (as it happens, American Gods is to the Troy trilogy what Anchorman is to Citizen Kane). One quick look at the blurb and endorsements, however, was enough to stop me in my tracks: the novel is described as 'deeply unsettling', 'some kind of miracle' and 'dark'. Immediately, I was intimidated. Here was a book that already felt like it was bigger than me, somehow, like it confronted issues and thoughts I could never dream of having. It gave me the same feeling The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck did: like I was going to embark on a journey that would force me to question things I've never had to consider before. I'd also noted that it was the winner of the Bram Stoker award, from the Horror Writers Association, so, naturally, I steered clear of it for about two months. I don't want you to misunderstand me; it's not that I didn't want to read this novel, it's that I found myself a bit scared by it - not by it's content, but by what was implied to be lying within it's pages. For me, it was a bit like going into a room where I think there's a spider, but I'm not sure where.

To give a brief summary, the story focuses on a young man, named Shadow, who has been released from prison a few days early because his wife has died in a car crash. Whilst trying to deal with his reinstated freedom and the death of his wife - including the circumstances in which she died - he is pursued, rather ominously, by an older gentleman going by the name of Mr Wednesday, who is determined to hire Shadow as his new errand-boy. Shadow eventually agrees, as it is clear from his first meeting with Mr Wednesday that his enigmatic new boss is a force to be reckoned with. As the novel continues, Shadow is increasingly exposed to a world he has never dreamed of, figures he believed imaginary, and forces that are more powerful than any he has ever known.

As novels go, this is a slow-moving one, though when it comes to climactic scenes, they occur so suddenly, and with such force, that at times I felt almost like I had been punched in the face. Revelations were casually dropped into the text, so casually that a wandering mind might not realise at first what had been said, suddenly notice that the tone had changed, and be forced to backtrack, frantically scanning the pages to find the crucial line, paragraph, speech, word that had caused this shift. You may have guessed already that my mind was prone to wander in this; it certainly was. The trouble I found was that the novel moved so languidly at times that I was thoroughly unprepared for the sucker-punch moments; however, I like to think that Gaiman did this intentionally, because it certainly increased the emotion of the scenes - not only was I privy to those feelings of Shadow, which at times would've been emotional enough, I also had my own feelings to deal with, like the panic I felt when I suddenly realised I may have missed something crucial. This novel taught me to not be complacent.

Shadow, however, was too mysterious for me. I understand that this was intentional; he is, by the very definition of his name, fluid, unknowable, at times there, at times not. He's also an 'everyman' character, deliberately vague and hazy around the edges to allow the reader to project themselves onto him, thus increasing the emotional attachment to events of the novel. However, I was startled by his characterisation; at times he was so silent it was painful, at others he was laugh-out-loud funny - I'm thinking of a conversation he had with a crow as I write this - and at others someone I felt so little sympathy for him that I wasn't particularly fussed about what happened to him next. That's not to say he is an unlikeable character - he really is - but he is unrelatable; we know so little about him that at times I couldn't really get to grips with him as a person, and so consequently couldn't get to grips with the events surrounding him.

I mentioned before that this book gave me the same feeling The Grapes Of Wrath did, and the comparisons I made didn't stop there. It's true, I've read The Grapes Of Wrath recently, and it has stayed with me after finishing - a sign of a good book - but there are many parallels to be drawn (but I don't want to bore you, so I'll only stick with the main ones that have occurred to me). For example, the long-drawn out, descriptive style of writing - Wrath moved very slowly, with sudden moments of action and life that caught me off-guard. Gaiman also adopted the technique of filling in the back story to events and characters through aside-chapters, designed to increase your knowledge of the world and the characters, whilst also drawing you further into the story. Finally, of course, this is a great American novel, dealing with an issue that maybe some modern Americans would like to forget; that the nation is founded on the backs of immigrants, that to start with, this was a country with many religions, borrowed and brought over by those few who hoped to make a new life in the new land, and the age-old question; can different religions, founded on different principles and beliefs, ever get along? This book provided me with an answer, but I imagine someone else reading it would come to a different conclusion.

This is one of those novels where you do have to suspend all rhyme and reason, and just follow the path it takes you; trying to rationalise it would not only ruin the experience, but would also distract you, and you do not want to be distracted. It's a brilliant thing to behold; everything, from Shadow's 'chance' encounters with homeless gods who eke out a living in this modern world - it's both enchanting and upsetting, seeing these fallen gods living our lives - to the sheer banality (at first) of the sleepy town of Lakeside is written beautifully. It's also unpredictable; there's some books where you know, almost from the first page, how it will end, and there's others where you can guess at the general direction the plot is going to take, but American Gods was one where I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next - every twist, every turn was wonderfully played out, both surprising me, and yet making sense within the overall plot.

However, I must be brutally honest now - I can't say I enjoyed it. I did find it difficult to concentrate, owing to the meandering pace, and the sheer size of the story did, at times, make me feel a bit stupid; I felt like I wasn't quite grasping the purpose of the novel, and this did impact upon my experience of it. It's difficult to feel warmly towards a novel when you feel like you're failing a test, somehow. I would, however, read it again; it's the kind of book you must read more than once, because the first read leaves you a bit startled, like you're not quite sure that what you think you've read is actually what you've read. I didn't enjoy it, but I will read it again, and who knows? Maybe, now I'm a bit more prepared for the story, I'll be more prepared to enjoy it.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

To Kindle, Or Not To Kindle?

I've reached a bit of a crisis point with the long-raging inner battle over whether to cave in and get a Kindle. It first started to get to me when I got a bit frustrated whilst packing for my holiday - all the books I featured in my Holiday Collection were surprisingly weighty, causing me to very nearly go over the baggage limit. I carried another in my hand luggage, which not only was surprisingly heavy (again), but bulky and took a lot of room up in my bag, making it a wee bit uncomfortable to be lugging around an airport - not to mention that I momentarily lost my passport when it got caught in the pages. It was then that I found myself thinking, 'wouldn't have this trouble with a Kindle'. I then recalled several Facebook posts a friend had sent to me, detailing all the reasons why she loved her Kindle - these ranged from easy to use, ease of access to thousands of books, lightweight and space-saving. Ironically, she was writing her review because she was on the train to her boyfriend's, and the battery on her Kindle had run out. See, you'd never get that with a book.

There are many reasons why I've not wanted a Kindle. Firstly, and to quote myself from a previous entry,  'I prefer the feel of a proper book; of pages, the spine, the way my fingers sometimes smudges the print on lesser-quality publications, the simple sensation of holding a book'. It's these aspects of literature that I have taken great joy in in the past, and especially browsing in bookshops - one of my 'happy' places in town is the Waterstones (situated in a converted chapel), where I can go in my lunch break and lose myself amongst the shelves. When I get the chance on weekends away, I love it when I stumble across an independent bookshop, and will spend ages there - even if I don't buy anything, the feeling I get when surrounded by so many books is one I don't get anywhere else. The best way I can put it is that last year, for my birthday, my boyfriend suggested we go to the British Library for the day, and I was ridiculously excited about it, like I might've been when a child and I was told we were going to the zoo, or a theme park.

I also resent the fact that Kindle downloads are not much cheaper than the physical copies - this, I believe, is a bit of a rip-off, as surely, once the book in question has been scanned into their system, it cannot cost the same to produce as a physical copy? For example, Mockingjay, the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy, would cost you £3.99 as a physical purchase, and £3.59 as a download. Yes, the download is cheaper, but why not by a larger, worthwhile percentage? A Kindle costs around £100, give or take - so give me a reason to use it!

I am also, as many people know, a bit of a - how shall I put it? - Clumsy Clara. Many books, ranging from Harry Potter, The Odyssey and Through The Looking Glass, have all ended up (accidentally) in the bath. A Kindle would not respond well to a bath (mind you, the books didn't fare too well either). Then, there are the times when, either very tired or slightly tipsy, I have been lying in bed and dropped the book I was holding on my face. Hilarious with a book, painful with a Kindle. And we haven't even got started on the amount of times I've dropped books, knocked them off the arms of chairs, accidentally ripped pages, stepped on them, - never mind asking 'can I handle a Kindle?' I'm not sure the Kindle could handle me.

Then, of course, there are my beloved bookshelves. I love to look at all the books I've amassed over the years, and muse over the different stages therein that represent my life (much like Rob's music collection in High Fidelity). There's the books from my university years, with all the classics: Metamorphoses by Ovid, The Odyssey by Homer, The Poems by Propertius and so on - and just next to it is my 'pretentious' stage, where I tried to read all of Paradise Lost by John Milton and Dante's Inferno. And look! Just along are the shameful vampire books - some of True Blood, some of Twilight - sat, rather oddly, next to my own History Renaissance - A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins and 1000 Years Of Annoying The French by Stephen Clarke. All the favourites sit smugly on the smaller bookshelf in the bedroom, close to where I need them most. How could I give up building my collection? How can a list of downloaded titles compare to my bookshelves? Look on my books, ye mighty, and despair. One of my most desperate desires for my future life is to have my very own library in my house, complete with fireplace for the winter,  big windows for the summer and a huge wingback leather chair to curl up in. A lone Kindle on the shelf would make that library a very sad-looking one, not to mention a massive waste of space.

But then....

A Kindle would mean I could carry a book with me always, something I always want to do, but sometimes can't due to space restrictions, forgetfulness and an inability to find a book I want to read. With a Kindle, I could download anything I wanted at any time (wi-fi provided). I would never again encounter book-block, and find myself staring irritably at my bookshelf, telling myself to just pick a damn book so I can leave already. I would have a choice of thousands! If someone recommended me a book, I could just download it then and there, and not have to traipse around bookstores searching for a copy, or wait for it to be delivered! Oh, what a happy day that would be. Plus, there are books that are free to download - I thought they would just be crappy, no-one-would-read-those-unless-desperate titles, but no, there's classics in there too, such as The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and whilst they wouldn't be physical copies on my shelf, I would still own them, still be able to see them, read them.

I am well and truly stuck. I almost know that - one day - I will succumb to technology and get a Kindle. I will probably love it. It will save a huge amount of space in what is a small flat that is already overflowing with books. I will have many books as my constant companions. I will never again have to choose between books for a holiday (I took loads this year, and not all the ones I wanted to). Come to think of it, I will never run out of books on a holiday again, and find myself re-reading the ones I read at the beginning of said holiday. But there's a part of me that is near broken-hearted at the idea that I will be the one to take away one of my own greatest pleasures - browsing in a bookshop and leaving with a bulging bag of new reads. The growing of my book collection will probably slow dramatically, which depresses me no end, and it just sounds like it would feel weird, lying in bed every night holding a cold slab of technology, as opposed to the warm, fanned pages of a book. But most of all, I'm scared that my book-collecting will go the same way as my CD collecting went - I haven't bought a new CD in almost a year, because I download everything. It's quicker, occasionally cheaper and I can pick and choose the songs I like - but no matter how much I love my iPhone and MP3 player, I still miss browsing for CDs, and there's not much point in buying the same song twice, one hard copy, one download - the same fate, surely, for books.

This book nerd is torn. But I suppose Kindle pages wouldn't be.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Review: 'The Hunger Games' Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I'm going to start this entry with a little anecdote, so bear with me. About four years ago, I was at home for Christmas when me, my best friend, my sister and my sister's boyfriend decided to go to the cinema. Sister's Boyfriend was particularly enthusiastic about seeing a film that has just come out called Twilight, which he knew was about vampires, and so thought would be good. He's been known to sulk if he doesn't get his own way, and he's a champion sulker, so we three girls reluctantly agreed to go see what we thought was going to be two hours of vicious throat-ripping. What ensued was, in fact, two hours of us girls giggling a bit manically, and Sister's Boyfriend snorting disgustedly at the romance panning out on screen. After the film, I rushed home and promptly ordered all four books of the Twilight series off of Amazon, and spent the remainder of Christmas reading the books with ravenous energy, not realising for longer than I'd care to admit that the series was a worryingly glorified depiction of an extremely unhealthy relationship. So, when I realised that the hotly-anticipated big-screen adaptation of a popular teenage series called The Hunger Games was coming out soon, I thought it might be best to read the books first and form my own opinions, rather than allow Hollywood to cloud my judgement with pretty faces.

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic country called Panem in what used to be North America, where twelve districts each take a responsibility for an industry - for example, District 12, where our hero and heroine come from, mines for coal, whilst District 4 fishes, District 1 makes jewellery, and the Capitol, Panem's centre of decadence and consumption, reaps all the benefits. Another thing they reap is a boy and a girl, aged between 12 and 18, who are taken from each district to 'participate' in the Hunger Games, a brutal annual television show in which the competitors are forced to fight to the death. The point of these games is to remind the citizens of Panem of the Capitol's power, and to punish them for a revolt that lead to the destruction of the thirteenth district seventy-five years ago.

The plot is certainly original; the very idea of children and teenagers deliberately setting out to destroy one another is not one that sits easily with me, much less so when the story is aimed at the very age group of the contestants. As it happens, Collins handles it well - most of the death scenes (and there's a lot of those) are done without too much gore, but plenty of horror, so you feel the impact without being forced to read detailed accounts of children - and adults - dying. She's also a master story-spinner; throughout the trilogy there's twist, after twist, after twist, each one as unexpected as the last (though there is one in particular in the second book, Catching Fire, that, whilst initially shocking, seemed a bit desperate when given a second thought). I found it incredibly difficult to put any one of the books down, as every chapter seemed to end in such a cliffhanger that I had to know what happened next. I particularly enjoyed the references to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds - not only are there elements of the Theseus myth incorporated into the story, such as the tributes being donated to a bloodthirsty ruler, but many of the characters have Roman and Greek names - Plutarch, Caesar, Castor, Pollux, Cato and Octavia are just some of the many examples.

Characterisation was something I had a bit more of a problem with. Katniss is undeniably hardcore in the first book - she's brutal, ruthless, unsympathetic and only really shows genuine affection to her sister, Prim. This becomes a bit diluted in the second book, when she's unable to decide between Gale and Peeta, which is a shame, as she's such a strong character she doesn't need a love story to prop her up. She does get her mojo back in the third book, Mockingjay, though, so that's something. Peeta, however, doesn't seem to gain a backbone until Mockingjay, so there's a lot of mooning about which bothered me as much as it bothered Katniss. Yes, he's in love, yes, he wants to protect Katniss, but couldn't he do it all without being quite so... one-dimensional? Nearly all his character seems to be formed by Katniss, and whilst that could be put down to the fact that it is told from Katniss' point of view, and so we're seeing him as she sees him, I do feel that he's just a bit too... much, I suppose. When he does, however, find his backbone - through means that wouldn't be out of place in 1984 by George Orwell, unfortunately - he's such a strong character, that he becomes more likeable and his love story more believable. Other characters, such as Haymitch and President Snow, don't get as much page-time as I think they deserve, which is a shame, as Haymitch was my favourite character and thoroughly more interesting to me than Gale, the handsome hunter, and I would've liked to know more about President Snow, as I imagine his character would've given us an insight into why Panem is the way it is - a backstory that is severly lacking.

As I mentioned in my Holiday Collection, Part 2, I found it initially difficult to settle into the story, as I had forgotten amidst the hype that this is a series written primarily for teenagers, so the larger font and somewhat simpler writing style threw me slightly. Once I was back on track, however, the ride was thrilling, and whilst it did clunk along a bit at times, I can't deny that this is an excellent story not just for it's content, but it's message. In a world where Syria is being violently suppressed at the same time that Simon Cowell is trying desperately to prove that Britain has talent, it's a stark commentary on what atrocities you can ignore if you've got it lucky enough. It's also a refreshing antidote to Bella, Edward and their own star-crossed lover act in the Twilight series, and whilst I can't argue that the romances in The Hunger Games blossom under healthier circumstances, at least the story might inspire interest in politics, in the great outdoors and in history. If nothing else, it's a well-written, exciting, warning tale of what humans are capable of - both in acts of greatness and horror.

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.