What I’ve Been Reading Lately
I’ve read a few things over the past few months and although I didn’t have an entire post’s worth of stuff to say about any of them, I thought I would do a quick summary of a few of them here.
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins (The second book in the Hunger Games trilogy)
Flavius tilts up my chin and sighs. ‘It’s a shame Cinna said no alterations on you.’
‘Yes, we could really make you something special,’ says Octavia.
I flew through this one in about a day again and yet I can’t say I really enjoyed it as much as the first. I thought things were headed one way and then they sort of twisted back to repeat a lot of the first book (I actually wrote “Not again,” at one point in the notes). Not a lot of new ground covered and, if anything, this time Katniss gets really lucky and has a lot of help rather than relying on her own skill. Which is fine. She’s just one girl being thrown toward death by a nefarious government desperate not to lose control. It’s okay for her to have help. But in a first-person narrative I think it gets a bit tough to tell the bigger story that is going on in this world, especially when Katniss is in the dark about what’s really happening 90% of the time. And the love triangle gets frustrating what with everything else seeming to be of so much more immediate importance.
I thought the first book showed a steady growth of Katniss’s ability to manipulate the media and undermine the Capitol, from her arriving uncertain at the Games and having the stylists or Peeta’s involvement compensate for her inability to take on a likeable persona, to a point where she could actually use the cameras to get gifts from the audience. And by the end she is literally relying on her ability to play a role to keep her alive (both in the Games and in the interviews afterward). But in this book we learn that actually Katniss’s on-screen relationship with Peeta wasn’t that convincing and we again see times where she relies on stylists or Peeta to appeal to people (you would think that the Capitol would learn to stop airing Peeta and Katniss’s interviews live by now to avoid surprises; just a thought). It seems like a step backwards. Maybe it’s meant to be that Katniss is in her element in the Games, so that’s where people come to love her. Or maybe it’s Katniss’s lack of confidence in her interpersonal skills combined with the first-person narration. Or maybe it’s meant to show that fame is capricious and it takes many people to maintain it. There are multiple possible explanations, but it’s not clear. The interactive nature of media in the Games and the way the Capitol loses control of it was one of my favourite things about the first book, so I would have liked a bit more clarity about that.
The writing also gets a bit heavy-handed at points, which was maybe true in the first book but just didn’t bother me as much because I enjoyed the story more). “A mockingbird is just a songbird. A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist.” Gee, I wonder if there are any other characters who might have been considered just songbirds but became something the Capitol never intended to exist.
Still, this book is enjoyable (as always it’s easier to criticize the things you didn’t like). In my opinion, it is at its best early on when Katniss is focused on what exactly happened during the Games and what role she is meant to take on now, how much power she may have and whether she should continue to lie low and obey the Capitol.
I also enjoyed the influx of new characters. Katniss’s choices for her team confirm my own beliefs: when in doubt, go with the engineers.
Wool 2-5 – Hugh Howey
Walker was the one who had taught Scottie that it’s always okay to admit when you didn’t know something. If you couldn’t do this, you would never truly know anything.
I mentioned the first book here. I really enjoyed this series. I liked that it was high stakes: it’s established pretty early on that no one is safe. Generally, it’s about whether being safe is more important than the truth; whether you can be safe if you’re trapped; why we believe things we’ve always been told; whether revolution is ever justified; whose responsibility it should be to remember the past, even if (especially if?) it’s horrible. Lots of good stuff. Saying too much might ruin it so I’ll leave it there.
A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin (first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Spoilers for the first book)
Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.
It took me a while to get into this because every chapter shifts the point of view character and there are a lot of POV characters so you read like ten chapters before you get back to someone you know. I was starting to fear I was just not cut out for epic fantasy (I never made it through Tolkein and when this book began with so much walking and discussing how cold it was, I worried. But then it picked up). There are a lot of underdog stories-Arya, Jon, Tyrion-and I love rooting for underdogs, so once I could keep everyone straight, I got really into it.
Additionally, I like a bit of humour, which Tolkein is kinda light on. Game of Thrones is still fairly serious, but has some chuckles. Most of the Starks are, as their name implies, pretty sober, but Tyrion pokes fun at things. The narration also gets sarcastic, though often in a darker way. A few moments revolve around the value women are seen to have, like when Daenarys has to eat a raw heart as part of a Dothraki pregnancy tradition:
If she choked on the blood…the child might be stillborn, or come forth weak, deformed, or female.
Oh the horror! Or the moment when Joffrey moves to put his mother on the small council.
Sansa heard a soft murmuring from the lords around her, but it was quickly stilled.
Because murder and throne-stealing and lies we were cool with, but a woman on the council? THIS WILL NOT STAND.
Then there are the Lannisters, who fill the role of the villains in that they stand against the Starks, but are never completely vilified and indeed Tyrion is a point-of-view character. And if you think about it, they’re actually some of the most progressive people. I mean, if you forget being power-hungry jerks who think they can buy loyalty and commit infanticide multiple times, they live in a land with a hereditary monarchy and they’re undermining that (although not with democracy). Their small council includes a woman, a dwarf and a low-born dude. It is possible, in a world where the Lannisters are in charge, to earn your way into a position of power, no matter who you are or where you came from, in a way that it really wasn’t before they showed up.
Likewise, the very beginning of the second book (I started it but ended up having the same problems as initially when new characters were introduced that I wasn’t yet interested in. Move along Davos; I need to get back to Arya. So I got distracted by another book during the first Davos section, but I’ll get back to it soon I think) suggests that Stannis has let some women have a lot of power, has proposed huge religious changes and so even though he represents the continuation of the line, his rule would be very different from that of his brother.
It’s the Starks who are really the conservative ones. Novels often make the main characters the force for change and you’re meant to root for them, but here you want desperately for things to stay the same and every time they don’t and someone dies or whatever, it’s frustrating. Compare, for example, Catelyn Stark wishing she had never encouraged Ned to leave home with Bilbo wishing he had never left home in the Hobbit (keeping in mind that I never finished The Hobbit but I do remember Bilbo wishing he had not left home “and not for the first time” an awful lot). For Bilbo, he knew that home was safe, but there is a sense that adventure is good and helps you grow and even though there are bad things out there you can’t just stay home and ignore them. We don’t know that Ned would have been safe if he’d stayed home, but there certainly is a sense that the North is tradition and stability, so that it is really only threatened from the outside (the capital is unsafe and constantly threatened from within). Ned didn’t need an adventure; he’d already grown into a leader with the responsibility of taking care of his home. And the sense is that there isn’t really anything in the capital for him to learn or grow from. Sure he’s too trusting, but if he learned to be more suspicious and less honest, he wouldn’t be the same character.
I suspect I will probably have a great deal to say about this series, especially about Sansa and Arya, who I find fascinating both as individual characters and when thinking about how their relationship might have been different or whether it can be rebuilt. But things change so fast and, again, it seems as though anyone could die, that anything I might say about it now could become ridiculous in the space of twenty pages.
The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer
‘Let me tell you, my dear cousin, that I should be better pleased if you would refrain from meddling in the affairs of my family!’
‘Now, that,’ said Sophy, ‘I am very glad to know, because if ever I should desire to please you I shall know just how to set about it. I daresay I shan’t, but one likes to be prepared for any event, however unlikely.’
This was what I ended up reading on vacation in Australia and it was a great choice for vacation reading. I saw it recommended on Bookriot as historical fiction for people who don’t read a lot of chick lit and then things went a little Baader-Meinhof as I saw was sure I’d never heard of Heyer before and then saw her name come up a few times in quick succession after that. Fortunately I did not see any comparisons to a certain other author of Regency stories about women, which were everywhere when poking around afterward. I think if I had gone in thinking of it as “Jane Austen-lite” I would have been disappointed, but thinking of it as “breezy historical fiction with spunky, independent girl upending the staid, dull lives of her relatives and all for the best” works quite well.
There is this running gag that a character we keep hearing about but don’t meet until quite a bit later, Charlesbury, is so inconsiderate as to come down with the mumps at a very inconvenient time.
‘A man who would contract the mumps,’ declared Cecilia, ‘would do anything!’
You would think it would get tired (and I’m sure for a certain type of person it does), but every time I laughed harder. Then I came back from vacation to find a note from Occ Health saying the titre I had done to check immunity came back inconclusive for mumps. So I had to get my MMR again. Wouldn’t want to be as inconsiderate as Charlesbury.
We have established that you can procure chairs in a rainstorm.
The novel is just full of little bits of sparkle like this. Even in single words: fopperies, pantaloons, frippery, magniloquently, punctilious, liefer.
The story ends a bit too abruptly, and Charles seems to change weirdly at the end, but that didn’t spoil the overall romp-y feel for me (apologies for using the word romp, which is much overused in book reviews).
I’m currently reading: The Rook – Daniel O’Malley, which is pretty interesting. Sort of an epistolary with only one character. Not a strict epistolary, but the main character lost her memory and knew she was going to lose her memory, so she left a lot of letters to herself to try to piece what happened together. Perhaps I will try to do a better job of updating what I’m reading. Perhaps.