(This got really long – sorry. You probably shouldn’t try to read all of it in one go).
It was all Bean Mom’s fault.
It was very sneakily done: she posted her review a couple of weeks before Christmas, while I was trying to find a book to buy for Mr E Man that would make up for him being pretty lukewarm about the last couple of books I’d bought him. Based on her description (you should read it, because as regular readers will know, my book reviews are short on actual details about the books in question), I thought he might like it. Half an hour in, on Christmas morning, he reported that it “has promise”; on Boxing Day he declared it “really good, actually”, and by the 28th he’d basically stopped talking to me as he sank deeper and deeper into the land of Westeros. As soon as he finished it he requested book two, and my own addiction began as I launched into the first one. We’ve now both read all five published books of the planned series of seven, watched both seasons of the HBO adaptation, and are eagerly awaiting book six / season three.
I hadn’t read any fantasy since Lord of the Rings and wasn’t sure if I’d like this series, but by the time the fantasy elements started ramping up I’d been so drawn into the characters and the political intrigue that I forgot any misgivings I might have had about the genre as a whole. There are so many twists and turns, so many complexities and ambiguities to each character, so many moments when you shriek “NOOOOO!” as one of your favourite characters is killed off and you literally throw the book away from you (I did this twice), before going immediately to retrieve it because you just have to know what happens next… I admit I got slightly bogged down in book four (Martin split books four and five into two more-or-less chronologically parallel narratives, with the split based on the geographical location of the characters, and as it happens most of my favourites ended up in book five – also, there were too many new characters introduced too quickly), but that was just a very brief slow-down as I accelerated towards the nerve-wracking cliffhanger at the end of the story so far.
The really great thing is that a critical mass of people at my new job have either read or are reading the books and/or watching the series, and we frequently discuss them in the lunch room. Out of deference to those still near the beginning of the series, some of our conversations are along the lines of “you know in book five, when Daenerys goes to that place, and that thing happens? Wasn’t that AWESOME?!“, but it’s great to discuss and argue about the series with fellow fans (see also: repeated and extended Facebook conversations with bloggers who may or may not wish to identify themselves). In fact, I may or may not have yelled “TEAM TARGARYEN!!!” very loudly across the lunch table during one such argument… I’ll never tell!. And yes, like Bean Mom, I have my own conspiracy theories about secret identities and other things that are Not As They Seem.
I’ll be pre-ordering book six as soon as it’s announced. In fact, I may have to buy two copies, to prevent a divorce…
I started reading another of Bean Mom’s recommendations, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, a couple of days after I finished the last available Song of Ice and Fire volume, seeing it as a possible methadone programme to treat my withdrawal symptoms. I was pleasantly surprised to quickly find myself just as engrossed – the two series are very, very different, but I love The Hunger Games just as much if not maybe just a tiny bit more (maybe). Again, I’m not going to get too far into the details of the books, but the characters are just as ambiguous, there’s just as much intrigue, and plenty of violence (although much less sex and gore than in Martin’s work).
I watched the film version immediately after I finished the third book, on a plane to Montreal. I liked it, but found that the ambiguity of the characters was one of a few fairly crucial aspects of the book that didn’t come over as well as they should. Katniss in particular is much more complex and conflicted in the book than the straight-up heroine portrayed in the movie. Her snarky sense of humour was also missing – in the book she had some wonderful inner monologue one-liners about the absurdity of the situation in which she found herself; as I laughed, I was reminded very strongly of the funniest and snarkiest of Nina‘s grumpy fieldwork posts (see the Bragging Rights Central archives linked in the right sidebar for my favourite examples).
Other things that I didn’t think came through in the film adaptation were how genuinely clueless, rather than heartlessly cruel, most people in the Capitol were about the situation, as well as how much the characters from the Districts (and the contenders in the Games in particular) were motivated by hunger and thirst. Maybe you’re supposed to infer the latter from the title alone? As with Katniss’ ambivalence about her motivations and her role, I think these lapses will start to become more harmful to the success of the movie interpretations as the trilogy progresses, but no doubt I will still be watching regardless!
As with A Song of Ice and Fire, I find myself surrounded by other fans of The Hunger Games. Most people in my team at work have read them, my Dad (who would never usually like this kind of thing) now raves about the books after seeing the film “by accident” when the film he’d wanted to see was sold out, my Mum also really enjoyed them, and at a working dinner in Montreal I found that everyone on my flight in – including PIs and the heads of several major funding agencies – had watched the film at the same time as me, and all wanted to talk about the film and the books instead of science. This ability to discuss my new favourite series has added greatly to my enjoyment of the bulk of this year’s reading!
I have read other books since my last review post, believe it or not, and next up after The Hunger Games was Phillip Pullmans’ His Dark Materials trilogy. I liked this set a lot, although the books didn’t grab me on an emotional level as much as the two series mentioned above. Perhaps reading these books immediately after two series I’d completely fallen in love with wasn’t quite fair to Pullman, but I’ll very probably be reading these books again, so we’ll see if my emotional involvement catches up with my intellectual appreciation and admiration of the Materials series.
It really is a staggering achievement. The sheer number, scope and complexity of the ideas included in these books is above and beyond anything I’ve ever encountered in children’s series. But the fact that it was more obviously written for kids than was The Hunger Games may have been what threw me off a little bit; there were a few obvious “tell, don’t show” moments in the first book in particular that seemed to block my flow as I tried to get into it. However, I’m very glad I persevered. As with all good books I find myself still thinking about some of the ideas I encountered within the pages of books two and three in particular (book two was definitely my favourite), and I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys being challenged by their reading material. Just, maybe wait a few weeks if you’ve just finished reading something you absolutely love!
I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass, but heard it was disappointing. Any thoughts from people who’ve both read the books and seen the film as to whether it’s worth tracking down?
I promise the rest of my reviews will be much shorter.
The Night Eternal: Book Three of the Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I loved the first book of this vampire trilogy despite its substantial flaws, but book two was just frustratingly awful. I’m pleased to be able to report that the third book totally redeems the series. It was still crappily written in a style that more resembles a screenplay than a novel, but the excitement and the page-turning anticipation of the next scene was back in full force. And the best thing is that the first couple of chapters recap pretty much every important plot point from the second book, so I think it’s fairly safe to say that you can skip from crappy-but-fun book one straight to crappy-but-fun book three, avoiding just-plain-crappy book two completely!
See, I read the crappy books so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri. This book freaked me out at first, although this was due to the manner of its arrival rather than the book itself. This was the book I posted about last year, which arrived direct from the publisher with no note or anything, and which all likely candidates denied having sent. The combination of the title and the blurb on the back (saying that it involves secrets and a gruesome murder) seriously made me think that I might have acquired a scary internet stalker. A couple of weeks later, though, I sat bolt upright in bed at 3 am having just remembered that I’d won a book by tweeting what I was reading that day with the hashtag #FridayReads. A quick 3:05 am Google session revealed that this was indeed the book, which I promptly deemed safe to actually read. I’m glad I figured it out, because it was a great story of police corruption in Argentina – there’s a parallel narrative about the man writing the book alongside the main story itself, which is a device I usually don’t like but that worked very well in this case. It was a fast read that hasn’t become a firm favourite, but that I’m glad I read.
Not quite as glad as I am that I don’t have a scary internet stalker (that I know of), though.
Postcards by Annie Proulx. Proulx’s The Shipping News is one of my all-time favourite books, so I had high hopes for this novel. It was as beautifully written as I’d hoped, but oh my god this is a bleak, bleak, depressing book. It starts with a much-regretted manslaughter and everything just gets worse and worse for everyone involved from that point on. Do NOT read this book in winter. Do NOT read it if you’re feeling a bit down. In fact, do NOT read it unless you’re an extremely emotionally resilient person, surrounded by love and warmth, in the middle of a very sunny stretch of weather. You have been warned.
The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. Meh. My parents and sister, whose tastes I generally share, keep telling me how much they love Anita Shreve and how amazed they are that I’m not a fan. I read A Wedding in December a few years ago to see what all the fuss was about, but really didn’t like it. It just hit all the wrong buttons: I don’t usually like books where a character is an author and parts of “their” writing are inserted in the text (see above for a surprising exception; I can’t figure out why it worked for me in The Secret in their Eyes and also in The World According to Garp, but not anywhere else); I’m thoroughly sick of books set in or featuring alumni of English / other liberal arts university courses. These may not be reasonable pet peeves, but hey, they’re mine – and A Wedding in December contained both of them. However, I felt somehow compelled to pick up The Pilot’s Wife when I spotted it at my sister-in-law’s place at Christmas (while Mr E Man was getting stuck into Game of Thrones, the lucky bastard). And, like I said – meh. It was OK, but I found it very predictable, and the important revelations towards the end that I’d totally already predicted felt compressed and rushed. And why is Shreve so bloody obsessed with describing in great detail what every character’s wearing in every scene? I DON’T CARE!
Wow, apparently this author pisses me off more than I’d realised. In fact, I hope she reads Annie Proulx’s book and gets so depressed she never writes another novel again. (Don’t worry, I’m sure she’s made enough money from my relatives and other suckers to last her a lifetime…)
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. As I said in a comment on Bean Mom’s Hunger Games post linked above, “It was beautifully written – just absolutely gorgeous – but didn’t “grab” me at all. I even put it down for a few weeks when I got my hands on the fourth Martin book (my husband started the series first so I always have to wait for him) and didn’t miss it at all; I came back to it later with a sense of obligation to finish it rather than any excitement about catching up with the characters or the narrative”
I’ve had this experience with Ondaatje’s writing before, and it always makes me feel like I’m missing something. I’ve enjoyed the experience of reading all his novels, because they really are absolutely beautifully written, but I’ve only really liked a couple of them as novels. This was not one of them, but I’ll keep trying when his next one comes out.
Wow, that got long. Sorry. I’m now going to pretend that I don’t already have massive piles of unread books all over my house and ask for reader recommendations to tide me over until Martin’s next book comes out…