Sunday, December 14, 2014

For Review: The Hunger Games - Catching Fire ~ Suzanne Collins

Even two years ago I was late to the party when I finally caved and read The Hunger Games. I'm quite a cynical reader, so not one who is prone to following hype. When I did finally get round to it, I was pleasantly surprised by the novel, but it didn't leave me in any rush to read the sequel. Obviously, since it's taken me two and a half years. Wait or no wait, reading Catching Fire was extremely underwhelming.

The novel begins where the first installment leaves off - it's no great spoiler that Katniss and Peeta both survive, especially thanks to pretending to be in love, which the audiences and sponsors have lapped up. However, their little charade doesn't end there, and they have to continue to act as though they are lovers as they do a victory tour around Panem. Katniss soon discovers that her little act of defiance (that there were two winners and not just one) has caused a wave of discontent through the Districts. There are murmurs of an uprising.

Before Katniss can really decide between running away and joining the resistance of the Capitol, she is called into yet another round of the Games. As it is the 75th year of the Games, the rules are different, meaning one male and one female victor must play again. So that's Peeta and Katniss, just nine months after they left for the first time. Back in the Games, the tactics are different, as is the end result.

Plotwise, fair enough. Although there was so much explanation quickly squeezed into a paragraph or two at the end of the novel, a clear lead on to the end of the trilogy, Mockingjay.  I had to read over the last few pages several times because a lot of it didn't seem to make much sense and had the sense of being very rushed. The characters though? They drove me completely spare this time. In The Hunger Games, I liked Katniss, and found myself really gunning for her. In Catching Fire, I actually disliked her. And Peeta. The only character I did have much time for was Gale. He seemed to be the only character with any kind of dignity or sense of integrity. So what was wrong with Katniss?

The Gale vs Peeta thing, and her inflated ego. Not much of the novel actually takes place at the Games, most of it happening in District 12, where Katniss left behind Gale to pretend to be in love with Peeta. But who does she really love? Who loves her the most? This is in Katniss's headspace for the most part of the novel. She is constantly thinking about how very much in love Gale is with her, and Peeta too. She always guesses how they're going to react based on how desperately they love her. And wow, she's often right. They both just love her so so much that they'd both die for her, and she is constantly repeating this to herself. It is utterly nauseating, and she really needs to get a grip of herself. As the novel is told from Katniss's point of view, I couldn't tell if Collins was deliberately intending to make Katniss look completely daft and confused, or if it was just the writing itself. Poor Katniss, every time she makes a decision she has to consider how dreadfully awful the consequences would be, not for herself, but for Peeta and Gale beacuse it must be awful, because they love her so much. We get it. Get a grip.

So that drove me insane. And so did Peeta. Again, I wasn't sure if Collins was deliberately portaying Peeta in a certain way to throw readers off a scent, but what a wet blanket. Oh, Katniss you're so beautiful, oh Katniss I love you. Once more - get a grip. There seemed to be absolutely nothing to Peeta other than his love for Katniss, and that's very disappointing. I didn't much like him in The Hunger Games, but I definitely don't have much of a care for him now after reading Catching Fire.

Bits I did like were - exploration of celebrity. That's what Katniss is now, and that's what she's struggling to deal with: how she should look, how she should act, what people expect of her now that she's so well-known and admired. That a nice bit of subtext. Also - conspiracy. The bubbling-under-the-surface resistance and the politics that I enjoyed in The Hunger Games came back a little bit here. In particular, there were some interesting comments on what the media choose to show, and what the media choose to hide or omit.

Largely, though, Catching Fire was a big disappointment. What I enjoyed about the first book seemed to take a complete U-turn here. I have Mockingjay on my shelf, so I'll probably read it eventually. One of my pupils revealed major spoilers in a book review he wrote, so I know how the trilogy will end, but I'm not particularly bothered by this anymore. I'll get round to it eventually, but it took two and a half years for me to pick up Catching Fire. If the second installment is anything to go by, it'll probably take just as long for me to get round to Mockingjay.

Scholastic, 2009;
472 pages.

Monday, December 08, 2014

For Review: The Other Ida ~ Amy Mason

As a young girl, Ida Irons attempts to drown her sister, a mimic of a scene from her mother's famous play. Years later, nearly thirty, Ida and her sister Alice are reunited following their mother's death. The two women have grown up separately and are distinctly different. A novel with so much discomfort and conflict is quite to my taste.

The Other Ida works on multiple timelines, namely 1999 (the year of Bridie Adair's death), and various points of Ida's childhood. Growing up in the shadow of her mother and her controversial play, Ida has to contend with neglect, and caring for both her mother and her sister in a way that she can't cope with. As a result, Ida falls into her own series of difficult and disappointing experiences, and she learns to deal with this the only way she knows how - through drink, drugs, and unhealthy relationships.

Ida is the centre piece of the novel, the plot focused on her character, detailing her life and habits at the time of her mother's death while also exploring the events that have led up to her present. The way she treats her sister and, indeed, herself, becomes a close parallel with the way her mother brought them up and her inability to look after herself. Ida is a real hurricane of a character, and her self-destruction is fascinating to read. She seems utterly determined to run herself into the ground, and to cause as much of her own pain as possible. It's difficult to read at times, and as a reader I was torn between wanting to give her a slap and a warning, and wanting to scoop her up and rescue her.

The Other Ida is the winner of this year's Dundee International Book Prize, and quite deservedly so. Mason writes Ida's story in the third person, but it's close enough to be in the first, revealing deep and troubling thoughts and feelings. Characterisation is definitely the strong point to this novel, with a slow-burning plot and subtle 'reveals'. Mason has brought to life a disturbingly raw and troubled character with Ida, and yet somehow made her very addictive too.

Many thanks to Cargo Publishing for the advanced copy, 2014;
269 pages.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

For Review: Love in Small Letters ~ Francesc Miralles

Life is full of random little twists and turns, and lately I've even had a few people saying to me about my own life, 'Isn't it strange how things sometimes work out?' Love in Small Letters is peppered with such twists and turns, one random decision leading to another unexpected result.

Samuel decides one morning that his life is either going to continue in a lonely, mundane manner, or something unusual and exciting is going to happen to him. With this idea firmly in his mind, Samuel soon discovers a stray cat that he can't seem to get rid of. This, of course, (in a way that can only remind me of Murakami) sets off a strange turn of events that lead him to his long lost childhood love.

Along the way, Samuel meets an old intellectual neighbour, an eccentric who carries around a manuscript about the moon, and a man who stays at the same bar for exactly seventeen minutes only. These characters help Samuel along his way while he tries desperately to befriend his childhood sweetheart - a woman who pulls him along through considerable heartache and emotional turmoil.

This particular edition is an excellent translation in the way that it seems so effortless to read despite not being in its original language. Miralles writes in a way that is simple but very effective. The chapters are short and succinct, and while the language is at points very lovely, it never feels over done. Just comfortable and easy to read. Love in Small Letters is the kind of book that you can pick up and read after a long, difficult day at work, and when November was such a busy month I really appreciated that.

As a whole, the novel lilts along quite happily, and I found myself caring for Samuel quite deeply - I wanted him to achieve what he wanted to achieve, and I felt sympathy over his difficulties and downfalls. That said, the ending did disappoint me. Everything fell together in a way that probably should have been quite satisfactory, but what was so enjoyable about the novel was following Samuel along with his discoveries, so something seemed to lack when loose ends were tied.

Ultimately, though, Love in Small Letters is as adorable as the title sounds. Miralles brings together bizarre characters and unusual circumstance to create a novel that is actually charming. Given that I can't read Spanish in the slightest, I hope there are more translated works by Miralles that I can read and enjoy.

Alma Books, 2014;
Translated by Julie Wark;
281 pages.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

For Review: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls ~ David Sedaris if reading David Sedaris hadn't been suggested to me, the chances of me picking up this book on the basis of its cover and title would have been pretty high. Quirky and owls gets me every time. Before reading this particular book, I'd watched some of his videos online and really enjoyed them. Even in writing, Sedaris comes across as clever, witty, and funny - so Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls was just what I needed right now.

The book is a series of snippets of writing about life - some autobiographical, or at least semi-autobiographical, others in the form of letters or short stories, and ending on a poem too. Sedaris examines the mundanities of life as well as the most bizarre of circumstances, often blending the two together. Across the various episodes, Sedaris covers taxidermy, bigotry, migration, sexuality, travel, and frustration of the ins and outs daily life. Despite the weight of some of these subject matters, they're dealt with lightly, and include humorous observations on interactions with strangers and overheard conversations.

Often writers attempt this and it comes across as very self-indulgent, self-important, and the deliberate effort to be 'cute' is painfully obvious. Sedaris, however, manages this in a fluently effortless way. Writing is what this man does, Day In,  Day Out (it's even a chapter title in the book) and it shows. While Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is enjoyable, it doesn't have the same compelling grasp that a novel has (largely because this isn't a novel). For the busy busy month of November, however, this has suited me just fine. I've been able to read when I've had time, put down the book when I've had marking to do, or parents' evenings to go to, and pick it up when I've had the time without feeling lost. That's the bonus of reading short stories and essays - they can be put down, and picked back up whenever.

Ulimately, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls was a smart and enjoyable read, suiting me just find as a cosy autumn read. It's also inspired me to think more about my own writing. I've often thought about cataloguing my own day to day observations more thoroughly or, in fact, even bother to write them down at all. While I can't see my own amusing glimpses of humanity and satire being even close to as spot on or interesting as Sedaris, it's still an avenue I'd like to explore. So thanks for that, Sedaris. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work, and he's visiting Edinburgh as part of a tour next June, so I might have to get on board with that too.

Abacus, 2014;
275 pages.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

For Review: City of Ashes ~ Cassandra Clare

Although I did read a few books between City of Bones and this novel, I was actually pretty excited about getting round to the second installment of The Mortal Instruments series. I'm really not much of a series person at all. In fact, I've only ever read Harry Potter and the Narnia series before now. But with this particular series I can really see how young adults get themselves so quickly involved with a world, and what makes it become 'fandom'.

Following on from book number one, City of Ashes follows Clary as she continues to learn the ways of being a Shadowhunter while her world is thrown into further turmoil. It's a little difficult to go into too much detail without giving away what happens in City of Bones, but suffice to say that this novel is full of a whole load of fast-paced action, a few twists and turns, and plenty of romance. As far as young adult fiction goes, Clare knows how to tick all the boxes. Despite the heft of the actual book itself, it's a quick read that ends with a hook that's already pulling me towards book number three.

The characters certainly had more space to be fleshed out and it's always good to see changes and developments from one book to the next, even if the novel largely takes place over the space of just a few days. There is, however, quite the host of different characters here. Clare's narration sticks mainly to protagonist Clary, but the perspective often switches to a different character's point of view which can sometimes be quite confusing. The plot moves along as swiftly as the previous novel, keeping the pace quick and exciting and there was much less exposition as with last time.

Although at points the language was somewhat clumsy and repetitive (such as descriptions of the colour of the sky, the smell and the taste of blood), what Clare really excels at is giving details and descriptions of young love. Again, I won't say too much for the sake of spoilers, but the scenes depicting forbidden love are very well done. Reading sections of City of Ashes really brought me back to what it feels like to be sixteen or seventeen and obsessed with someone, and that idea of love being stronger than anything else.

Ultimately, I think I'm sold with The Mortal Instruments series and along for the ride. Looking forward to seeing how the larger battle between good and evil, angels and demons, turns out, and keen to see what happens with all that unresolved sexual tension. In the meantime, I just have to say away from any spoilers or fanart kicking around the web.

Walker Books, 2008;
411 pages.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

For Review: The Haunted House ~ Charles Dickens

Typically, I'll read whichever book I'm in the mood for at whichever time of year. I'm not much of a 'oh, it's summer, I'll read summer things' type of reader. This year, though, I thought I'd give it a bit of a try. So, over the Halloween weekend, I read The Haunted House.

Despite what it says on the spine of the book, The Haunted House includes stories from more than just Dickens, so I was able to read a little bit by Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins for the first time too. The concept idea of The Haunted House surprised me too: a man and his sister live in a haunted house (obviously) and they're both going through a high servant turn over because of all the creepy goings on in the house. So the narrator man of the house and his sister decide to go without servants and to get to the bottom of the paranormal activities. They invite a small group of friends, charging each of them to spend some time living in different rooms so that they can take account of any strange phenomena they might experience. The stories aren't all told by the narrator and written by Dickens, but instead several are written by other writers, including a narrative poem.

The stories in The Haunted House range from tales of women hearing voices of dead sons, to men stricken with illness, disgraced nuns, and ghostly apparitions. The idea alone is brilliant, I think. I love stories within stories, and that they're told by different characters and by different writers is even more fun. In fact, I like this idea enough that it's something I'd be interested in trying out myself with some of my writer friends. In The Haunted House, the concept works quite charmingly. Despite all the horror films set in the Victorian times, none of these stories were overly ghostly or creepy. It's hard to say whether these were scary or not for the original contemporary readers, but there were some stories that were more amusing or more interesting than others.

A short read, and not desperately scary, but Dickens' narrator and the structure of the novel[la] (if it can really be called that) make The Haunted House a quirky kind of enjoyable.

Oneworld Classics, first published 1862, this edition 2011;
120 pages.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

That time of year again, and actually only my second time taking part in NaNoWriMo!

I had fun with July's Camp NaNo, but I uhmed and ahhed over whether or not I'd do the same again in November. NaNoWriMo might trip off the tongue, but I find November to be such a horrible time of year to do it - when I was a student, there were always so many essays due, and exams coming up. Now I'm a teacher and November is pretty much the same game. So I've set myself a smaller goal than the 50K, but I'm hoping this will really give me the boost I need to get novel number three finished!

So, reviews here might be a little quieter this month - but I'm still around!

My username on NaNoWriMo is.... subtlemelodrama (surprise!) so feel free to add me as buddy.

Best of luck to everyone taking part this month!~