Coming as it did after reading The Hunger Games, K.E. Mills‘ novel Witches Incorporated, the 2nd book of Rogue Agent, was quite a shock. After the breakneck speed of Suzanne Collins bulldozer fiction, the blunderings and the continual twittering of the protagonists in Witches Incorporated seemed set on slowing the advance of the story to a snail’s pace. Of course, the characters were meant to be funny and endearing, and in a way they were. Hilarious even at times. The pace of the first part of the story was so leisurely, being distracted by other activities was a frequent occurrence. My progress in reading the book was very slow in the beginning.
Witches Incorporated is based on a risky premise: capitalise on the ridiculous things people get up to whether it be in their daily lives or in wild adventures and make people laugh and enjoy themselves and possibly even think. As such it could be seen as the antithesis of the type of fiction epitomised by The Hunger Games. K.E. Mills mocks heroes and commoners alike with slapstick joy and wordy banter. When I say the characters twitter, it’s not just because one of them is a bird! The only difficulty in such an approach is to maintain credible characters and hold the reader’s interest. And it is here that there’s a sort of quiet miracle in this second book when one or other of the characters, amid chaos and confusion, suddenly displays competence and grandeur. It’s like the sun rising! A real joy!
Peeler N., Tracking the Tempest, Orbit, 2010
I enjoyed reading Nicole Peeler‘s second book of the Jane True stories called Tracking the Tempestalbeit after a hesitant start. Hesitant? The style of the book made me uneasy. Coming as it did after reading Kate Forsyth‘s fairy tale, The Puzzle Ring, the abrupt change from the (f)airiness of Forsyth’s tale to the (gl)amorous preoccupations of Jane True was probably the cause. All the same, I reread the beginning of Peeler’s book in an attempt to understand if more was at stake. Please excuse the unintended vampire pun. The first chapter is almost devoid of any description of the place where the action is happening. As a result, there is a tenuousness that is not so much otherworldly as disconnected or possibly even claustrophobic which could be quite appropriate given the story. This insubstantiality is accentuated by the first person narrative in which much is given over to Jane’s preoccupations and the (a)musings of her inner voices.
As I made my way through the book I was more and more caught up in the story and less disturbed by stylistic questions. I found Jane became increasingly likeable. Of course, it’s always good to discover that the heroine has much more to offer than she imagined, but the real clincher for me came when I felt Jane had rediscovered her humanness that went hand in hand with vulnerability but also self-assertion.
Kittredge C., Street Magic, St Martin’s Press, 2009
I had been following Caitlin Kittredge on Twitter for a while and what she had to say or rather the way she said it had me intrigued and made me want to read some of her books. So I bought Street Magic. The book left me with mixed feelings. I found the story gripping and read it with passion but at the same time the main character, Pete, and her often gratuitous violence didn’t convince me that she really was a detective inspector. It may just be my imagination but I always saw her as somewhat younger and aspects of her behavior added credence to that impression. The unruly and unconventional nature of Pete didn’t help make her fit in an institution like the police. In addition, the milieu of the police was so sketchily evoked that it didn’t convince me she was really a police inspector. Talking of sketchiness, the story revolved so tightly around Pete and her mage friend Jake that it was dense and claustrophobic which often suited the storyline well. Beyond those limited boundaries the world surrounding the story dissolved rapidly into smokey vagueness. The unfolding of the almost incestuous relationship between the detective and the mage was well handled if a little predictable. One of the most striking things about Kittredge’s writing was the way she used language to create an atmosphere, using words to build images in surprising but generally very efficient ways.
Forsyth, Kate, The Puzzle Ring, Scholastic, 2009
I have just re-read Kate Forsyth‘s book The Puzzle Ring for the second time. The one-liner on the front cover sums up the story well: A past full of secrets and a future full of magic. A strange letter from a relative in Scotland awakens thirteen-year-old Hannah Rose Brown to the fact that she knows nothing of her long-lost father’s family. Therein lie the secrets and the promise of magic. Despite the fact that I already knew the plot and I was reading the book more to study the language, I was quickly embarked in the delights of an enchanting fairy story only to find myself at the last page as if by magic. Unlike some of the clumsier attempts I have read recently, no names mentioned, Kate Forsyth really knows how to tell a story. Hers is a solider, more classical way of writing but it has none of the painful weaknesses of some would-be authors’ attempts that try to wrap their shortcomings in a veil of supposed literary audaciousness. If you enjoy tales of resourceful children that mix modern life and the magic of the fairy world then I can highly recommend this book to you. And if you prefer slightly more (young) adult tales then I recommend Kate Forsyth’s saga of The Witches of Eileanan.
Hats off to Suzanne Collins; she’s an excellent storyteller. The moment the first page of Mockingjay is turned you’re whisked off into the world of the Hunger Games and plunged into the rebellion against the Capitol and President Snow seen through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Few authors manage to produce such a deep immersion of the reader in a story. You burst from the waters at its end and collapse on the verge gasping for air.
One newspaper critic quoted on the cover of the book praises the plot and the pace. Not satisfied that the power of Suzanne Collins storytelling lies solely in the story structure, I plunged back into the book a second time, furiously making notes to avoid being carried away again. I wanted to explore her use of words and sentences. There’s no way you can watch out for such things when fully immersed in the story. And that’s our clue. The words and sentences don’t get in the way of the flow of the story. Nothing fancy or outlandish in her choice of words or the turn of her sentences. She uses sentences of varying lengths but frequently cuts them up into shorter sentences, accelerating the rhythm. Rather like the sparing use of food in war-stricken District Thirteen, Suzanne Collins tolerates no digressions or wordiness. A reference to a past event is dismissed in one sentence. Nothing must get in the way of the flow. Personal thoughts and feelings emerge between two sentences, adding to the story. And we move on. Inexorably to the end.
Another cover snippet sees the book as thought provoking. It is indeed. Terribly so. But the continual immersion in the story leaves us as readers no place to voice emotions. No distance to think. We have no choice but to take part. The story is! And we are part of it. Only when we step outside and look back can we reflect on what is happening. This might explain why, as reader, I felt I had been taken on a ride against my will. But Suzanne Collins is careful not to alienate the reader. Even when incendiary bombs slaughter innocent children as a key twist to the plot, we shudder with the emotions but can only move forward with the story. The story is all. And we as readers give it life with our emotions.
(Credit to Frederic Kaplan for the idea of reading as immersion)
Kagawa, The Iron King, Mira Books, 2010
Julie Kagawa writes best when she is not borrowing from well-known fairy tales. As a result, the second half of The Iron King in which she explores a fairy world tainted by modern myths is somewhat more effective than the first half where I had the impression she was trying to glue together quotes from various sources to little effect and didn’t really have a feel for her story. The Puck character, for example, might have worked much better simply as Robin and she hadn’t directly revealed that he was the legendary figure Puck. She manages to handle the emerging love story better than she handles the relationship between the main female character, Meghan, and her brother, Ethan. The girl’s attachment for her brother is supposed to be the main driving force in the story and the motivation for Meghan’s exploits but I personally found it hard to believe. Most of the characters do not really take on a life of their own. Having said all that, once I got to the end of the story I did have a hankering to buy the next book to find out what happened so maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that!
Collins, Suzanne, The Hunger Games, Scholastic, 2009
I was seriously thinking of passing on writing a review about Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games. My feelings about the book were so extreme and contradictory that I had some difficulty coming to terms with them. Frankly, when you think about it, the story line is repulsive. It’s a cross between Roman gladiator fights in which the participants in the arena are teenagers who fight to the death in games that are a vehicle of supreme repression of human spirit and a television reality show in which the audience delights in children ripping themselves apart with the collusion of the producers of the show. The rules of the game make any thought of kindness, of kinship, of friendship, or of solidarity a dreadful risk lest it be as a strategy to gain the deadly upper hand.
No doubt it is this extreme situation that makes us identify so strongly with the main protagonist, Katniss, in her fight against oppression. I say fight against oppression, but in reality, despite her being a natural rebel, her fight in many ways is limited to a desperate attempt to survive. Such are the odds against her, I imagine you saying. And you’d no doubt be right. I suppose her role as a rebel will evolve and grow in the remaining two books which I have yet to read.
Having said that, at no time, as a reader, did I find the story repulsive. At no time was I so shocked that I put the book down in disgust. On the contrary. I was totally captivated by the story from the outset and greatly enjoyed reading it. Does that make me akin to the blood-thirsty TV spectators of the Games? In my defence and that of most readers, I imagine, let it be said that I sided with the rebel not the Game organisers or the authorities. When we reached the death of the youngest competitor that Katniss had befriended despite the cut-throat atmosphere of the Games I broke down and cried as I imagine did many others, cued in by both the organisers of the Games and the author. And as for Katniss, there was no relief for me as a reader in reaching the end of the story with her as the survivor and triumphant winner. The story left me feeling somewhat estranged from myself and the world around me. On reflexion, my feelings were akin to those I get on the rare occasions when I watch a TV programme about a subject that deeply disturbs me. I feel both invaded and violated in some way. I doubt if I will be able to allay that feeling by reading on, but read on I certainly will.
I went back and re-read the beginning in the cool light of dawn, more as a writer than a reader, trying to ascertain if the language used contributed to the impact of the story. I was struck by the low-key nature of the language used. No fancy stuff, just the words the story needed. The conclusion I reached was that the skill of the storyteller, in this case, was to use such language that it in no way obstructed the flow of the story but rather carried us, the readers, along with it until we were cast ashore et the end, dazed and wondering what had happened to us.
Sharpe T., The Gropes, Arrow, 2010
I began reading Tom Sharpe‘s The Gropes thinking it might be good to have a laugh from time to time. And laugh I did. But maybe not the kind of laughter I expected or possibly not the kind I needed. If I said ‘restrained hilarity’ would that seem too much of a contradiction? I found the book extremely British: stiff upper lip combined with delirious humour that reminded me of Monty Python or the Goon Show. Under the cover of enforced normality the most absurd and catastrophic things happen. What interested me most – probably because I am exploring the question myself in my own writing – is the way Sharpe portrays how people continually tell themselves the wildest of stories about what happens around them and take those stories for reality and then act on them producing the most absurd, if not tragic results.
On the cover of my copy of Catching Fire, the second book of Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games there’s a quote from Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame saying: “The Hunger Games is amazing.” Amazing? Surely not the astonishment my dictionary mentions to explain the word. There’s a line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Benvolio beseeches Romeo to flee because he’s killed Tybalt saying: “Stand not amazed.” Amazed? Paralysed. Bewitched. Hypnotised at the sight of what takes place. Unable to move and to escape from danger. Do we not as readers stand thus amazed before the Hunger Games. Surely this is the amazement Stephenie is referring to. Gripping is too weak a word to describe the effect the book has on its readers. But surely there is no danger, you say. Does not the danger lie in being unable to move yet driven by the strongest of emotions? A friend on Goodreads wrote that she wanted to throw the 2nd book against the wall when she finished it such was her frustration with the author’s choice of ending. When I reached the end of the 1st book I wondered why I felt both exhausted and worked up. There was nowhere for those emotions to go. Lest it be to seep into my daily life where they didn’t belong. Now, having read the 2nd book, I believe I understand why. The book holds you bound in its spell while the story tears you apart emotionally. No wonder we feel elated and crushed and outraged and sad and angry and a host of other emotions at the end but have no satisfactory outlet for those emotions. At the root of the word ’emotion’ there’s ‘movement’. In other words, Suzanne Collins simultaneously nails us to the spot and incites us to move with the greatest force she can muster. No wonder we are exhausted. You don’t believe me? Try pushing and pulling a wheelbarrow at the same time. You get nowhere. It is very tiring and frustrating. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from reading the book, even if I believed I could. Let the emotions role.
Stiefvater M., Ballad, Flux, 2009
I greatly enjoyed reading Maggie Stiefvater‘s Ballad which in no way suffered from me not having previously read her earlier book, Lament. It was a pleasure to discover the unfolding relationship between a young, cocky musician and an all-powerful faerie bent on sucking the life out of him. The story literally overflows with desire and yearning and unrequited love and deep-felt hurt and cutting humour; a tale in which music is the prime mover.
I was wondering why Ballad reminded me of Julie Hearn’s The Merrybegot. Rereading the beginning of Ballad I think I found the answer: both authors give more than ample room to a wider range of senses than other authors. As a result, both books are very sensuous. However, Ballad has one key facet that is not in The Merrybegot: that sensuousness overflows into sensuality and beyond to potent sexuality, albeit held at arms length, like in the scene in the practice room on the piano stool.
The intense passion that gripped me as I read Ballad dissipated somewhat towards the end. One possible reason could be the incursion of other characters in the dense relationship between the two main characters. But a more likely explanation was the acceleration of the story and the need to conclude and resolve the plot before the end of the story whereas I would have preferred to have lingered with that relationship and kept the tension unresolved.