Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Book Introductions

I hate book introductions. Hate them. And yet I always make the mistake of reading them.

Recently, I read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. It was preceded by an introduction written by Kate Mosse (I believe, I'd check but somebody else has put the book away, meaning I'll almost definitely never see it again) which I started to read. I stopped when [SPOILER] she told me that Eva was an unreliable narrator. Now, that might not seem like much of a spoiler, but it ruined my enjoyment of the book in a specific way. I was looking for the 'solution'. If the narrator is unreliable, then you have to look closely at what they're saying and decide what's true and what isn't. Now, since most first-person narrators are unreliable (in fact, all of them are unreliable because they're telling what happened from their perspective, because everything they say is coloured by opinion) usually we do this without even really thinking about it. But the fact that Mosse felt the need to specifically point it out to me meant that Eva was, for an actual reason, more unreliable a narrator than most. Which meant there were things to dig out of the text, twist endings to guess. I had about half a dozen different theories at different points in the text, and it was frustrating. I don't mind when I come up with theories naturally, and think "oh, I bet this is going to happen." What bothers me is when I'm actively searching for the 'solution' because I've been told that a character is unreliable.

Kevin isn't the only book that I've had this problem with. My copy of Wuthering Heights came with an introduction that provides a superb and quite detailed summary of the entire novel. So detailed that there was no need to read the book itself, because I already knew the story. I wouldn't start a novel by saying "Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess. The princess was guarded by a dragon and the prince slayed it, then married the princess. Now, sit back while I'll tell you all that in a lot more words." Sure, you might start at the end and work backwards, you might start in the middle and jump all over the place, but you don't tell your reader every plot point right away. So why outline it all in the introduction? It makes no sense to me.

If I'm honest, I don't really understand why books need introductions at all (well, novels, I can see why a non-fiction book might benefit from one) but giving them introductions that spoil the book before you've even read the first line just seem ludicrous to me. Have you ever read an introduction that enhanced a book?



Wednesday, 23 May 2012

TORN

A while back, I read a book called Switched by Amanda Hocking. I did not particularly like it. Then I read the sequel, Torn, because I like to pretend I am edgy and out there. Yes, buying the sequels of books I didn't like makes me edgy and out there.

Well, it's better than the first one. 

I'd originally decided not to bother with the second instalment, after being so thoroughly unimpressed by the first, but then I found out that it was about Stockholm Syndrome and falling in love with your enemies, yada yada yada. And I'm a sucker for that stuff. I don't know why, but I'm fascinated by Stockholm Syndrome, so I had to read this one.

Except...there really isn't anything like that in this book. Okay, so after a while she makes goo-goo eyes at the 'bad' guy (and I put that in inverted commas because he is so clearly not a bad guy and that's clear within, like, a page of him entering the story) and there's a kiss that takes place at a really strange moment, but that's it. He doesn't even kidnap the girl like I was led to believe, not really. She's in the dungeon at the proper bad guy's house for like an hour before the clearly-not-a-bad-guy helps her escape. And then it's back to the exact same crap I didn't like about the first book. And then the clearly-not-a-bad-guy gets locked up and she starts to fancy him. It's like reverse Stockholm Syndrome. Sort of. I can't find an eloquent way to put it because it's all really stupid. There's not really another word for it.

That being said, I am almost definitely going to by the third book in the trilogy now, because I've invested this much time into reading the first two and I do kind of want to know who the main character (I refuse to call her by her name, see my review of Switched for more details on that) ends up with. I hate myself for it, but I do need to know and simply looking it up on Wikipedia isn't going to be enough. So, here's hoping she doesn't write a fourth book.



Tuesday, 22 May 2012

What Makes a Good Book?

This is something that bothers me as a writer, and often as a reader as well.

Sometimes I read books that I know are very good, but I don't care. I don't like them. They're dull.

Sometimes I read books that are utterly terrible, but I love them. In fact, most of my favourite books aren't very well-written at all. The important things is that they have good stories, characters that I find interesting, and are gripping. All the fancy writing in the world can't make up for that. All the Creative Writing degree nonsense can't make up for that (only I am allowed to say that because in a few weeks I will have a Creative Writing degree)

Of course, there are some books that are excellently written and which are enjoyable. Off the top of my head, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

And then there are those books that really aren't written very well - like The Hunger Games - which have excellent stories and sell millions of copies. They give me hope. My writing isn't brilliant, I'm the first to admit it, but I like to think I have to kind of stories that people will engage with. That people will enjoy, even if I'm not the next Tea Obreht or Jennifer Egan. Hopefully a publisher will see it the same way, too!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

THE NEXT THREE DAYS

Last night I watched The Next Three Days. Basically, Russell Crowe's wife gets arrested for murder, and after her appeal fails, he decides to break her out of jail. As you do.

It's actually quite good. My initial feeling was that it was much longer than it needed to be, but I've put that down to the fact that I had a splitting headache and felt quite sick at the time. I think maybe the problem was that I was expecting it to be a full-on action movie focusing almost entirely on the titular three days, and it's not. It's much cleverer than your standard action film, and spends a lot of time with Crowe preparing for those three days. I just didn't expect that, but I feel it was crucial to the film. It would have been hollow without it.

Elizabeth Banks seems a bit underused as Crowe's imprisoned wife, she seems more of a plot point than an actual character, and the blink-and-you'd-miss-it appearance made by Liam Neeson was a bit of a shock. I remember seeing him in the trailers when the film was first released, and expected him to be in the film for more than the thirty seconds that he is. I kept waiting for him to show up again, but he never did. Olivia Wilde makes a couple of appearances as well, and I expected her character to play a bigger role, but really Crowe has to carry the entire film by himself. I was quite impressed by him, but then I am possibly the last person left who hasn't seen Gladiator

I'd definitely recommend this film because it's different. It's an action movie with a bit more depth than is usual, but there's some comedy in there, too. I really was quite impressed.



DEADLOCKED

Deadlocked is the latest instalment in Charlaine Harris's 'Sookie Stackhouse' series, the series that True Blood is very loosely based on. Now, by my estimate, it's about book twelve in the series, so I imagine this review won't hold much sway. If you're not interested in the series already, you won't be convinced to buy book twelve. If you're already reading it, me telling you that it's crap won't stop you from buying this one.

Because it's bad. Honestly, none of the books are great. They're so poorly written that sometimes it makes me want to cry. I liked the series and somebody bought me the first three books. When that happens, I feel obliged to read all three, even if I don't like the first. They didn't start off too badly, the stories were quite interesting, but now...first off, I hate the fairies. Okay, I really hate them. Second, Sookie is so stupid that it hurts. It physically hurts me. And third, well...the Eric in the TV series is a lot better than the Eric in the books. And that's not even just because of Alexander Skarsgard. He helps, of course, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.

My biggest issue with this book (I can't list them all, I don't have the time or the energy) is the lack of recapping. Now, I haven't read the last book since it was released, but I expected to understand what was happening in this one. So Sookie is mad at Eric for something, but she won't say what it is. And I don't remember what it is. Then, some woman turns up at Sookie's house and she knows who she is, but I don't. She refers to her as the queen. Still nothing. Then she calls her Freyda. Still no bells ringing. Finally, after several pages, she explains who she is, and it all clicks back into place. I remember who Freyda is and, actually, why Sookie was mad at Eric. Is it so hard to drop in a line early in the book to jog my memory? No, I don't think it is.



GONE

I was first attracted to Gone by Michael Grant because its pages are edged in fluorescent yellow. I'm aware this is a pretty lame reason to pick up a book, but I thought the story was interesting, too. Basically, one ordinary day, everyone over the age of fifteen disappears into thin air and a strange barrier appears around Perdido Beach. Suddenly, the kids are left to look after themselves and try to find some way to live. Obviously, comparisons to Lord of the Flies will be drawn, but I've never read that and so couldn't possibly comment.

The book's okay. It's not great, not as good as I wanted it to be (I haven't decided whether I want to buy the second in the series, which makes me sad because they all have different bright colours on their page edges and the set would look really cool on my shelf). My main problem with it was that I didn't like any of the characters. Well, there was one that I quite liked, but she really wasn't much more than a minor character. I didn't like a single one of the major characters.

I was also kind of bothered by the fact that suddenly all of these kids had powers. Okay, not all of them, and I get the impression that the powers will be explored in much more depth in future instalments, but for some reason it bothered me. I didn't like the switching point of view, either. There are forty chapters (I think) and usually the chapters have three sections, each told from a different character's perspective. The character I liked, Diana, had maybe two sections in the whole novel. Sam, who I consider the main character, has at least thirty.

The ending wasn't great either. If you have the bad guy there in front of you, you kill him. Especially if you're living in a tiny area with no adults to step in and tell you to behave. The fact that [SPOILER] Sam lets Caine get away says to me very clearly that he'll be coming back in a later book. Which would be fine if he'd escaped, but he didn't. Sam let him get away. What kind of stupid ending is that?



The Detective as Hero

I don't read many crime novels, or even watch that many TV shows that fit the genre. They've never really appealed to me for some reason - I suspect that's because my parents read/watch crime stuff almost exclusively - but I've been thinking about it recently, mostly because an idea for a sort-of-crime-novel has been brewing.

Mostly what I've been thinking about is the idea of the detective (or other police officer, but let's say detective) as the hero. Or protagonist. Yeah, protagonist is better. It's strange to me because, presumably, the villain is the character actually going around and doing interesting things. The detective just follows him and makes observations, not really doing a whole lot until, say, the final third when it all comes together and they apprehend the villain.

Is this why so many detectives are given complicated backstories or dysfunctional relationships? To make them interesting? I recently read an open letter, I think it was in the Radio Times, criticising the fact that there are no settled, sensible, content police officers on TV. And it annoyed me. Contentment is boring, we need drama and conflict. Without it, the programme would be dull and the fact that the villain should be taking centre stage becomes much more apparent.

The protagonist of my soon-to-be sort-of-crime-novel isn't exactly a hero. In fact, she's very much a criminal, but the story couldn't work from anyone else's point of view. It has to be her. She's not exactly a villain, but she's definitely the bad guy. And she's the most interesting character in there.



Wednesday, 9 May 2012

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN


We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver is an odd book. The Kevin of the title has, prior to the beginning of the novel, killed several of his classmates and a teacher in a high school massacre that is likened to Columbine. Each chapter of the book is a letter written by his mother to his father, trying to understand Kevin's actions and the years leading up to them.

Like I said, it's an odd book. I didn't really like it, but I wasn't expecting to. I was expecting it to be "good," though, as it's very critically acclaimed. My theory is that the writer (or, perhaps more importantly, her editors) thought the premise of the book was compelling enough to convince people to wade through the sea of dross that is the first hundred or so pages to get to the point where it becomes interesting. Not only is this a really stupid plan, it wouldn't have worked on me. If I hadn't been at home with my mother nagging me to read the damn thing, I would've given up after ten or twenty pages. And for me, never giving up on a book is a point of principle. I start a book, I finish it. End of.

Despite how hard I found it to read, and the fact that I was definitely losing interest towards the end (which is a shame because that really lessens the impact of the climax), Shriver deals with some interesting topics that I have a personal interest in. The whole idea of loving or liking your children just because they're your own has always been something of a foreign concept to me. Like the idea of people falling in love. What are the odds of you falling in love with someone who will fall in love with you? Out of the infinite number of people you're child could turn out to be, what are the odds of you actually liking them? I thought she was brave to tackle these subjects, though I was a little disappointed to discover that she doesn't have children. That her fear of not loving them kept her from having children. Until then I'd thought she might be writing from personal experience, it has a lot less impact when you realise it's entirely hypothetical.

What really worried me about the book was how often I found myself agreeing with Kevin. His contempt for people who seek meaning in life was alarmingly close to how I feel about the same thing, and his perceived envy of people with passions certainly struck a chord. I would never condone the action that he took, but I feel that I understood where he was coming from.

It's an odd book (yes, I've said it three times now) and it's very hard to talk about without spoiling it for people who haven't read it. I haven't watched the film yet, but I'm told that this is one where you need to read the book before you see the film. If you can be bothered to read it at all. Perhaps it's just me, I really didn't like the writing style, but there must be a reason my mother forced me to read it, and I really need to think that reason isn't that she's trying to break it to me gently that she isn't overly fond of her children!



THE AVENGERS

Hmm.

So, I saw The Avengers last night. I refuse to call it by its offical title because its official title is stupid and I refuse to believe that anyone got confused between the Marvel film and the ancient TV series of the same name.

Basically, Loki (brother of Thor) has come to Earth from Asgard to retrieve a cube of unlimited energy called a 'tesseract' for his Evil Alien Overlords. Why they want it and why Loki's working for them is not made abundantly clear, but let's ignore that gaping hole in the film. However, we all know that this is a BAD thing and Nick Fury has to gather the Avengers - Iron Man, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Captain America and, ultimately, Thor. They have to work together to stop Loki from getting to cube, and then stop him from using it to destroy the world he's planning to rule.

I'm not really selling it, am I? It's okay. It's not a bad film. I'm not a comic book expert, I've never read one in my life, but I've seen all of the necessary movies except for Captain America. It's funny, the CGI is impressive (mostly) and there are worse ways to spend 2 hours and 15 minutes. But the story's weak. I still don't know why the Evil Alien Overlords wanted the magic energy cube, I still don't know why Loki wanted to help them, or why he suddenly seemed set on destroying the world he'd spent a bunch of time talking about ruling over.

Also, I get that they didn't want to alienate anyone who hadn't seen the entire recent superhero back-catalogue, but it was kind of boring to watch them go into detail about each and every character.

Then there are the costumes. When you have somebody like Chris Hemsworth (Thor) in your movie, why would you have him wear a shirt throughout? Seriously, why? Rookie costume designer mistake.

It's not a bad film, after all it was directed by Joss Whedon who is incapable of bad, frankly. I've seen worse, (Green Lantern), and I've seen better, (Batman Begins/The Dark Knight) but it's not the worst way to spend an evening. It's entertaining enough, it's just not as good as I thought it was going to be. And the story was weak, there's no escaping that.

Oh, and why is Cobie Smulders like the only character who doesn't at some point in the movie say "Suit up!" Missed a trick there.



May Movie Round-Up

I've been neglecting my reviews a bit recently, mostly because I'm lazy. I've seen quite a few films recently, some of which I don't want to tell you about in case it ruins them. So, here's a quick round-up of what I saw and what I thought of it.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!
I think that's the title. Basically, it's an Aardman film, which essentially guarantees that it'll be good. Now, let's be honest - it's no Chicken Run, but it's damn good. I saw it with mostly adults, all of whom seemed to enjoy it and find it very funny. Personally, I like the little touches, funny posters and the fact that one of the characters has a Blue Peter badge on his pirate hat. But there's plenty in it for younger viewers as well, the kids in the cinema seemed to find it funny as well. Of course, they thought Queen Victoria falling over was the highlight of the movie, but that's kids for you. It's worth seeing, but maybe not at the price they'll bring the DVD out to start with.

(The) Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon produces. Chris Hemsworth stars. A story I can't tell you anything about because it'll spoil it for you. Basically, I'd heard that it was a horror movie that wasn't a horror movie and was intrigued. This isn't entirely true, I think it's a clever horror film but still horror. What it's not is a member of the 'torture porn' genre that the Saw franchise has inflicted upon us. The movie was filmed in 2009, which is why Hemsworth has a smaller role than you might expect/want, but it's by Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon. Surely that makes it worth seeing?

Safe
Yup, this is a Jason Statham movie. No, you will not judge me for that. I happen to like Jason Statham, and if you're after a mindless action movie...well, there aren't any Liam Neeson movies out at the moment and this really isn't that bad. I quite enjoyed it. The dialogue isn't great, the premise is shaky and at one point I did get a little bit confused (because of a plot hole, not because I'm stupid). It's fun, it's entertaining and it's got Jason Statham in it. Possibly a good one to go to with the boyfriend - you'll score girlfriend points for seeing a boy film and it's actually not that bad. Win.


Coming Soon:
- The Avengers (which I saw tonight and refuse to call by its offical name because it's stupid)
- Dark Shadows
- Snow White and the Huntsman
- Prometheus
- The Dictator
- Friends with Kids
- The Five Year Engagement


Or a subset of these, based on available funds. If you'd like a review for a particular one, please send me money so I can afford to see the film.


Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Prologue to an Untitled Novel

So, I've been kind of absent lately, and will probably be more so over the next few weeks. I found out about a writing competition for young writers (aged 18-25) and am trying to write a novel to enter. It's not going too badly, I have the first 5,500 words. I need 4,000 initially, and then between 50,000 and 90,000 if it goes through to the next stage, so I have a lot to write. I'm not assuming it'll get through, I just like to be prepared. Can you imagine how horrible it would be if they asked for the full manuscript and you didn't have it? Much worse than them saying no after you'd spent a few weeks working on it.

Anyway, I'm not telling you what competition it is, because quite frankly I don't need any more competition (but I'm sure a lot of you are familiar enough with Google to dig it up for yourselves), but I thought I'd post the prologue here. To show off. No, just to prove that I am writing something, even if I'm not writing blog entries. Comments and constructive criticism are much appreciated, and if you have any thoughts on a title, I'll love you forever. It's a YA novel. So, here goes...

---------------------------------------------


Something was wrong. Kinley slowed to a halt, looking around her nervously as her brother and sister carried on ahead of her. The undergrowth crunched beneath Titus’s shoes, the cloth bag over his shoulder starting to grow damp with the blood of the rabbits they had collected from the traps. Little Pip practically danced around him, chattering away, the muddy roots from the rattis fruit leaving dirty marks on her dark dress. Titus turned, noticing she was no longer with them, but she didn’t move to join them. Something was very, very wrong.
            When Pip stopped talking, aware of the change in her siblings, Kinley heard it more clearly. Voices. Angry voices. She and Titus exchanged worried looks and then hurried on, wanting to get back to their father. They hadn’t been gone long, he’d sent them out to check the traps and gather some greens less than half an hour ago, but it wasn’t safe to linger in the woods. It wasn’t safe to linger anywhere. It wasn’t until they reached the edge of the trees that they realised their mistake. They saw their father being marched out of the tiny wooden house, surrounded by guards in the familiar dark green uniform. 
            Kinley instinctively clamped a hand over her sister’s mouth, and then froze. They watched as their father was pushed down onto the road, as he struggled into a more dignified kneeling position, as a guard put a gun to his forehead. Kinley felt Pip screaming against the palm of her hand, but they were far enough away that the guards wouldn’t hear the muffled sound. Keeping her hand where it was, she turned her by the shoulder so that their wide eyes met.
            “Run.”