Archive | September, 2010

Uncomfortable Reading At Its Best – And This Is True

28 Sep

A few months ago,  a friend of mine (and a hell of a fiction-slinger over at Hatchard’s) lent me an unassuming – some may say boring-looking – plain white proof copy of And This Is True, by debut novelist Emily Mackie. “It’s great,” she said earnestly. “It’s about a boy who’s in love with his father.”


Under other circumstances, I might have just politely smiled and hidden the book behind some prettier spines on my shelf, but this friend is not one to recommend things lightly. If she doesn’t like something about a book – prose, theme, dialogue, title – you are going to hear about it. Okay, in this case, she didn’t like the title, but that’s like a frigging standing ovation.

I finally got around to reading And This is True, and despite my reluctance to face the very unflinching subject matter, found it to be very readable, and even enjoyable. The kind of enjoyable you feel bad about, because you know you should just be appropriately disturbed. And even though I’d been warned, the casual confession on the first page still startled me: “I kissed my father once; when he was sleeping.”

Teenager Nevis and his father Marshall have just spent a near-solitary eleven years living together in a van, among piles of Marshall’s secret, never-published writing. When this kiss happens, things unravel in a pretty solid way – the van crashes and is ruined, and the two men are forced to quit their wandering ways and re-enter civilization. In an effort to forget what’s happened, terrified father Marshall rejects Nevis, often leaving him alone for hours on end (alone because Nevis is also busy hiding from their new hostess’s clingy daughter). We know that Marshall’s cruel behaviour is because what happened was Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, but that doesn’t make Nevis’s deep sense of betrayal any less keen.

In the face of this rejection, Nevis shuts down and stops talking. When he surfaces, he takes a cue from his father and begins to write, circling closer and closer to the concrete details of their past life in the van and the events surrounding the kiss(es?). This is classic unreliable narration at work, and even Nevis himself is aware of this, which is why he keeps trying to revise his writing to move towards the titular “True” story. By the end, we’re still wondering what exactly happened, but through Nevis’s own writing (and his exposure to other people who are not Marshall), he gains a crucial understanding of his father that he clearly lacked at the beginning of the novel.

I often get bored or annoyed with this style of narration. I end up thinking, “Enough now, I get the point. Yes, there is no objective way of truly documenting an event, etc, etc.” But this sometimes overused method seemed like a good fit when dealing with such an extreme psychological issue. Plus, Mackie gives Nevis such a fresh, believably naive voice, that the structure feels natural rather than forced for the sake of cleverness. Most importantly, she deals with what could be a simple shock-value premise with depth and restraint.

A good reminder to read things that may make me uncomfortable.

Mockingjay – more like MockingLAME

17 Sep

After succumbing to countdown clocks and completely unrealistic expectations, I finally received my copy of Mockingjay, the third (and final?) instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I didn’t like it, and I’m crushed. I was so utterly convinced of the addictive power of the other two books that I hadn’t even imagined that this one wouldn’t be just as thrilling. That addiction I was hankering for never kicked in, and I’m left jonesing for something to take its place.

So how is it possible that I was such an easy mark for the original Hunger Games books, while this one fell flat for me? As I admitted even back then (oh, those innocent Christmas days, when I was so swept away by the lure of teenage violence!), there were always some plot holes and iffy writing and other pesky problems that I couldn’t quite ignore. But these issues were easily forgiven for the sheer adrenaline rush that came with the breakneck pace of the plot.

The appeal of The Hunger Games lies entire in its Battle Royale/Reality TV show premise. Kids killing kids with hilariously improbable weapons! Never gets old, or so you would think. When you have a formula that good, you’re  bound to disappoint fans by veering off it. I don’t blame Suzanne Collins for trying (after all, she was probably already stretching it a bit with Catching Fire, in which she basically rehashed the plot of the first book), but she probably should have resisted the urge to go serial in the first place.

In Mockingjay, the ever-gutsy heroine Katniss is still juggling two boys (so now you know what’s up if you ever hear teeny-boppers – NOT ME – talk about “team Peeta” or “team Gale”), and still fighting the man, aka The Capitol and President Snow. In a very modern move, the revolutionary forces prop her up as more of a figurehead of the movement than as an actual leader, and she ends up feeling like just as much of a pawn as she did when she was forced to kill off her peers for prime time TV.

Thank God Collins still threw in a few trademark sewer-prowling mutts and invisible capsules that turn into killer bees and tar-like tidal waves (although these make almost no sense at all outside the concept of the old game arena set-up), because otherwise I would have been entirely bored by Collins’ attempt to portray an actual revolution. As it turned out, even her impressive ability to invent new ways for people to die wasn’t enough to save this overly long and unsatisfying story. The “shocking” twist at the end that’s clearly meant to be a tearjerker left me unmoved (and that’s really saying something – I still cry at this). Even Katniss settling down and choosing one of her suitors feels a bit anticlimactic by the time she finally makes up her damn mind.

What I’m trying to say (while also trying to scrounge up the tiniest bit of bookish dignity) is that this book did not feature a pre-teen getting impaled by a spear, there was not a Survivor-style alliance in sight, there was very little double crossing intrigue, and no “last-man standing” excitement. Maybe I should just read the first one again to console myself and then go read some grown-up books.

Adventures in Learning – You Are Here #2

5 Sep

More fun facts from my latest non-fiction find, You Are Here by Christopher Potter:

You know how on some nights you can see the crescent moon, but also a faded impression of the rest of the moon alongside it? I’ve always thought (without really thinking about it too much) that this had something to do with the regular sunshine getting to the moon. Actually, the reason we can see the rest of the moon, albeit dimly, is because it’s illuminated by reflected earthshine. The most important thing I learned from this is that I should stop accepting half-assed scientific theories of my own ridiculously uninformed creation, and actually look things up on a regular basis.

One of the brightest stars out there is a red supergiant named Betelgeuse (and, like Michael Keaton’s gross-out afterlife criminal, pronounced Beetlejuice). The word comes from a long ago translated version of an Arab word, with possible original meanings varying from “hand of the central one” to “armpit of the central one.”

Quasars. Always heard the word, always vaguely assumed they were something that didn’t necessarily exist (or possibly even belonged completely to the sci-fictional realm). Turns out they’re the light caused by a black hole eating up all the matter around it, until there isn’t any more in its gravitational reach. So in this active quasar stage, black holes are anything but black, and even scarier than regular black holes – after all, there seems to be one at the centre of every galaxy, including our Milky Way, but it can’t get us… in case you were worrying about that. I was.