Monthly Archives: February 2014

Genre challenge 2 : Dystopia (Jennifer Government)

Book Genre ChallengeTo start, an announcement: I’ve found myself a job! And it’s in London! And it’s even further from home than the last place I worked so I’m going to be spending even longer on the tube!! My reading should pick up again around the beginning of March and I can’t tell you how excited I am!

And now to business. Month 2 of the genre challenge centres on dystopian fiction which is something I’ve always enjoyed reading so I was looking forward to it much more than last month. The only problem was, what to choose?

Then my housemate solved the problem for me. She’s moving out next week (sob) so she was trying to reduce the number of books she had to pack which resulted in a nice little windfall for me ūüôā Among the new volumes I picked up was a book called¬†Jennifer Government by Max Barry. She found it when we visited a book swap at Morden¬†tube station a while back and I was secretly gutted that she spied it before I did.

But seeing as she’s one of those strange people who never seems to actually finish a book, she was happy for me to read it and return it to her once she’d moved. That didn’t quite work out though because I got a bit too in to it and finished reading it the next day. It’s currently sitting on top of her packed boxes looking forlorn.

Jennifer GovernmentSo you’ve probably gathered that I enjoyed¬†Jennifer Government¬†and it’s probably not worth me telling you how fast-paced it is, how the twists and turns of the many subplots keep you gripped and how intriguing it is that all the disparate characters keep coming across each other accidentally. So I won’t.

The story (in a nutshell) is set in a future where people are defined by their careers. So much so that they take the name of their employer as a surname, Jenifer Government for example works for the government and you also have names such as Hack Nike and Hayley McDonald’s.

It features as a starting point a ruthless marketing campaign by Nike in which they decide for some reason (I’m not quite clear on what) that the best way to sell their new brand of footwear is to kill people who are buying it. Like I say the premise is confusing but it serves as commentary on the self-serving nature of some of the big corporations and a (hopefully) extreme example of what could happen in a world of unchecked capitalism.

The fallout of this marketing campaign is huge, as you might expect, and features personal repercussions, a global chase scene and a technological showdown of the highest degree. If I’m honest the plot is slightly ludicrous but it kept me turning the page. It had a very strong female character at its core which is always nice to see although some of her decisions were highly questionable and one of the other characters was someone I came to really care about but several of the others were somewhat forgettable. Actually looking back from a distance of a couple of weeks I’m struggling to see what it is that had me hooked on this book, all I can tell you is that I was.

So having begun as a rave review this is actually finishing with a bit of a lukewarm shrug of the shoulders. I like it but whether it works as a social commentary, like some of the best dystopian fiction does, I don’t really know and whether you should read it or not I couldn’t really say. Hmmmm.

 

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83. Holes, Louis Sachar

HolesAt 83 on The List¬†Holes is one of the few children’s/YA books I haven’t read. It was published in 1998 when I was 10 and I spent much of the next year looking at a poster of the cover that was on the wall in my school library both intrigued and slightly terrified by the giant lizard on the front. In 1999 I went to high school so didn’t see that particular poster again but I can’t tell you how pleased I was that when I finally got a copy of the book it had that cover, reading a different version just wouldn’t have felt right.

I knew I wanted to read Holes, I didn’t really know what it was about but that poster had stuck in my mind so vividly that I knew I had to read it. I’ve passed up countless opportunities to read it in the past, I feel a bit like the book is Ross and I’m Rachel from¬†Friends, we know we’re going to end up together but it’s a long time coming. Alright, weird analogy but you get the picture.

Anyway, last Sunday I was lying in bed, not quite ready to get up yet so I thought I’d read a few lines and see how it went. Two and a half hours later I turned the last page and thought to myself, ‘Why on earth did I wait SIXTEEN years to read this book?!’ Safe to say I enjoyed it.

To give you a brief summary,¬†Holes tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, sentenced to 18 months digging holes at Green Lake juvenile correction facility for a crime he didn’t commit. Green Lake is a harsh place, in the middle of the desert where water is tightly rationed and there are any number of things hiding in those holes waiting for their next meal to come along. Not only that but being overweight and cursed with the bad luck of his ‘no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-great-grandfather’, Stanley is used to being at the bottom of the pecking order and now has to find a way to live with a group of hardened teenage criminals.

Can Stanley find a way to survive his sentence? Why exactly are they digging holes in the middle of the desert? And will anyone ever believe in Stanley’s innocence?

It seems like a pretty grim situation but Holes is a story of friendship, loyalty and repairing past mistakes told with an innocence and a dark humour which makes it impossible to put down.

Interwoven with the main story are subplots which tell the story of how Stanley’s great-great-great-grandfather managed to get his whole family cursed and the tale of how Green Lake lost its lake both of which add depth to and support the book’s overall theme of destiny.

There’s no doubt about it,¬†Holes was definitely worth the wait!¬†And if you can read the final showdown without squirming, you’re a braver soul than I am.

Curb Your Expectation

I’ve just finished reading my first (adult) Terry Pratchett book –¬†Wyrd Sisters. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had difficulties getting into Pratchett’s work because they’re meant to be funny books and for some reason that just doesn’t float my boat. I don’t think I’m a humourless person, I like a good laugh, I think the problem is that I’m more of a wallower and I like my books to contain a heavy dose of misery in order to make me grateful that there’s less misery in my own life. So when I’m told how funny a book is I always treat it with a healthy amount of suspicion.

Which is one reason I’d never got into Pratchett. The other reason is that I felt his brand of humour to be too over the top. Too, “Isn’t this so absolutely, totally utterly weird it must be funny? Riiiight?”

For example, the Disc itself is a flat world mounted on top of four giant elephants stood on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. Now that’s absolutely, totally, utterly weird but why does that make it funny? It’s over-the-top stupid and for me that doesn’t equal laughter.

BUT there are no less than five Terry Pratchett novels on The List so it was clear I was going to have to get over this aversion at some point. So what with my mum being the font of all my bookish knowledge as well as a die hard Pratchett fan, for Christmas I asked for the best book to start reading Pratchett, one that would show me what all the fuss is about. And she obliged with Wyrd Sisters which she tells me is the first that she read of the Discworld series and therefore clearly a good starting point.

Wyrd SistersI started reading it quite a while ago now and I finished yesterday on the tram (just to show there are other forms of transport in London).

So….what did I think?

Well first, I didn’t find it hilarious but it was funny. There were a few moments when I found it to be over the top but only a few, mostly I thought the humour was more subtle which is how I like it. I didn’t fall off my chair but I did chuckle.

But more importantly, I liked the story. It took me a while to realise this as I was obsessing over whether it was funny and why I wasn’t finding it funny and pinpointing bits that did make me chuckle to actually realise that, funny or not, I liked it.But once I had made that stunning revelation I was able to relax¬†a bit more and just read it for the story itself rather than trying to force a laugh out of every page. I¬†liked the characters (especially the Fool), I liked the storylines and I really lied all the references to Shakespeare .

So in the end I found myself enjoying a great tale about a lost king, his ghostly father and the witches not meddling in any courtly goings-on. And I didn’t slap my thighs or shake my belly like a bowlful of jelly but that’s ok because I appreciated the book in my own way and in the end that’s all that matters.

In the words of a very wise lady (Armande Voizin from¬†Chocolat): “Don’t worry so much about ‘supposed to’ “*.

*I watched this film again and realised that the correct quote is: “Don’t worry so much about ‘not supposed to’ ” but the sentiment is the same and my original misquote serves my purposes better.

Genre Challenge 1: Historical Fiction (The Other Queen)

Book Genre Challenge

Oh dear, my reading has taken a serious nose-dive since Christmas. I’m no longer going into the office which means no tube journeys which in turn means no reading. I know, I’m at home all day every day it’s not like I don’t have any time to read but the thing is that I’m writing my thesis (still) and at home there are distracting things like old episodes of Casualty,¬†and the boxset of¬†The Returned¬†and food. All of which mean that reading is getting put on a backburner.

But seeing as I love a challenge and a list to tick things off, I was determined not to get behind on the monthly genre challenge I decided to take on this year. January was historical fiction which isn’t a genre I’m fond of to tell the truth. Still I headed to the library and wandered around for ¬†what felt like an age in itself before I found a book I thought I might enjoy. I picked up a copy of¬†The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory.

The_Other_QueenThere are a couple of reasons I chose this one; the first being that I’ve heard lots about how wonderful Gregory is as an author so I thought this would be a good time to check her out for myself . The second is that as a British schoolchild there are only two periods of history that you learn about in any real detail – the Roman Empire and the Tudors (actually doing GCSE history I also learned an awful lot about the history of transport but the less said about that, the better). My favourite of these two was always the Tudors and in particular Queen Elizabeth I. She always seemed like such an impressive ruler, hers was one of the longest reigns to date and she saw off challenges to her rule from a significant proportion of the world who saw her as a heathen bastard (in the traditional sense of the word) who had no right to the throne. One of those challenges came from her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots who believed herself to be the true Queen of England, Scotland and France, and the subject of¬†The Other Queen. It’s a story I thought I knew but I was interested to flesh out my limited understanding which was my second reason for choosing to read this book.

Tudor family tree

The Other Queen is set in the period (1568-1587) of Mary’s imprisonment in England after fleeing from Scotland when she was forced to abdicate because of wide-spread opposition to her marriage to Lord Bothwell. She came to England believing that her cousin Elizabeth would help her reclaim her throne but was instead imprisoned for almost 20 years culminating in her arrest and execution for treason.

The book is told from three perspectives – Mary, her jailer/host George Talbot, the earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Bess. When we first join them, George and Bess are newly-weds who are greatly honoured to be playing host to a queen, whatever her fallen status. As the years go on however, things begin to sour. Supporting a queen in the manner to which she is accustomed takes its toll on their treasury and George falls for the beautiful, charming Mary and is blind to her endless plotting for escape and rebellion. Bess on the other hand is far too astute to be taken in and is mortified by her husband’s foolishness.

I’ll be honest, I struggled with this book. I found the plot somewhat repetitive, Mary was always plotting, Bess was always worrying about what to mortgage or sell and George was always moping about, disheartened that he couldn’t declare his love for Mary and that no one else could see her innocence. Even when there was an uprising all we saw of it was a cross-country trip to a new castle and second-hand reports of who was where. I can’t blame Gregory for the plot, she could only work with what she had after all, but it was a thick book to have so little variation of theme.

I also struggled to really care for any of the characters. To begin with I quite liked Bess but although I could see why she was so preoccupied with the cost of keeping the Scots Queen,I got tired of hearing how afraid she was of losing her house at Chatsworth and what it meant to her and how much she was putting rent up by and how her husband had so many debts and so and so forth. George I found incredibly shallow and while his loyalty to the queen (Elizabeth) is something to be admired, his refusal to stand up for what he truly believed in coupled with his capacity for whining about his refusal to stand up for what he truly believed in really got on my wick. Not to mention the fact that his loyalty only lasts as long as the queen is on the throne, as soon as a new monarch is declared he would change his religion, his values and his whole life. That kind of loyalty may have been necessary for survival but it’s not particularly admirable.

What I did like about this book is that it presented a different view of a story I thought I knew. You know that old adage about history being written by the victor? Well I think we tend to think of history (the subject) as being objective, academic, the passage of time giving us the clarity to make rational judgements about who was at fault and what the facts of a story are. The story I was taught at school was that Mary ‘s second husband Lord Darnley was murdered by her lover, Lord Bothwell so that they could marry making him King Consort. The story presented in the book is of a frightened woman abducted by Lord Bothwell after seeing him murder her husband, raped and forced to marry her abuser because of a pregnancy which could have cost her her throne, her son and her life. Not a story I’d ever heard before and whatever the truth may be, it was a good reminder that we only ever really hear one side of a story.

The other thing that I got out of¬†The Other Queen¬†is something I remember thinking as I read¬†Katherine,¬†my only other foray into historical fiction, which was set significantly further back in history. This was the sense of how perilous life at court must have been. Actually you can probably get the same idea from watching Blackadder II but it’s harder to get a serious idea from a comedy show. There’s a point when George remarks that everyone at court must be guilty of treason on a daily basis as it takes so little for a crime to be committed – something as small as mentioning that the queen may one day die is considered an arrestable offence and the situation grows ever more volatile. Despite the limited life expectancy, incredible poverty and general misery, it was probably far preferable to be a serf in the 16th century!