Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Fistful of Reads: September Edition

Well, September is over and that means another month of reading is through.  I only got through three books this month, and sadly I wasn't a fan of any of them.  I hate when that happens, when you bite into a book and wind up finishing it, not because you're endeared to it or even remotely interested in the outcome but because you have that urge to always finish what you start.  That's pretty much what happened this month, outside of 'Catching Fire', which wasn't good but was at least interesting (and I was mostly interested because I read the first book).  

On another note, my goal for the year was 30, and these three books brought me up to 26, so I'm going to reach my goal this year and that makes me really happy!

So, here are my thoughts on the books of the month:

Q & A (Swarup) **/*****

I had no idea this would be THAT bad!

I want to start this by saying that I like tragic stories.  I love drama and heartbreak and emotional connections through horrible situations.  I can’t deny it, but it sucks me in and holds me close.  That being said, there comes a point where your incessant badgering of tragedy upon tragedy becomes manipulative and unsuccessful.  I faced that problem while reading Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’, the inspiration for Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. 

This is one of those rare occasions where the movie is better than the novel.  That isn’t saying a whole lot, since the film was mediocre at best, but it is saying something.

First of all, to anyone who wants to read this book because they loved the movie, beware.  This book is VERY different.  The same core plot is there.  A young boy has won India’s ‘Who Wants to Win a Billion’ and has been arrested on charges of cheating.  Now he has to explain how a poor waiter could have possibly known all the answers to the questions and he takes us on his journey through life.  That is where the similarities stop.  Many (most) of the stories he tells are not in the film.  The love story is not there (there is a small love story unveiled at the very end of the book, but not like the one in the film) and all the jovial lightheartedness of the film is missing in the book.  Instead, we are faced with chapter after chapter of tragic surroundings that heap upon the reader with each passing sentence.

Children are molested, people are murdered, women are abused, money is stolen, children are maimed for financial gain; life is hopeless.

All of this could be forgiven had Vikas Swarup not been such a lazy writer.  This isn’t to say that every paragraph he crafts is a mistake, but he has a tendency of creating a nice buildup and then throwing it all away in the conclusion.  Each chapter ends with a brief conversation between the accused and his lawyer as they prepare to watch a clip from the show and see how his story helped him answer the question.  These conversations are poorly written and just plain lazy.  They are abrupt and show cracks in Swarup’s storytelling.  The final chapter (more specifically, the Epilogue) is a mess of rushed ‘tying up of loose ends’ and winds up ending the novel on a very sour note.

But there’s more.

Tapestry stories are all the rage these days.  Let’s show you bits and pieces of separate stories and then unveil magically at the end of the said film or book or TV show how all those pieces interconnect to create on elaborate story.  This works sometimes and then feels forced others.  When you are a lazy writer, it doesn’t work.  ‘Q & A’ is a tapestry film, and this is all unveiled in the final chapter (‘The Thirteenth Question’) and really feels like a rushed mess of a conclusion that makes this reader roll his eyes.  I won’t reveal the big ‘twist’ (either of them) but I’ll say this…

It’s dumb.

As you can see, I’m in the minority here.  I’m sure that many of the five-star reviews come from people who loved the film and enjoy an underdog story (there isn’t a bigger one than this) and liked that the book, while extremely different, followed the same narrative.  Good guys win.  Bad guys lose.  Hope overcomes tragedy.  I just can’t get behind this book.  The film was manipulative enough, but at least it was competently made (and the changes made to the story, as clichéd as they were, actually helped this a great deal) and moderately entertaining. 

This doesn’t.

The Reserve (Banks) ***/*****
I wanted to love this so much!

Picking up ‘The Reserve’, I was aware that it was considered ‘lesser Banks’, but coming off of ‘The Lost Memory of Skin’, I really didn’t think that anything could be ‘lesser’.  In fact, ‘The Reserve’ is better than that rubbish, but this isn’t very good either and it has me worried.  I have lauded Russell Banks for years as being the greatest American author writing today, and with masterpieces like ‘Affliction’, ‘Cloudsplitter’ and ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ under his belt, it is easy to see why I feel that way.  Still, the last two books of his that I’ve digested are so blandly uninspired and show a lack of connection that I fear he’s losing touch with what makes him so great.

I hope that he bounces back quickly.

‘The Reserve’ opens rather beautifully.  In fact, it felt very much like what might happen if Russell Banks decided to rewrite a Nicholas Sparks novel.  In other words; it was poetically romantic without feeling clichéd and dull.  Sadly, that first chapter closes and the second one begins and everything goes downhill from there.  The mixture of romance and mystery don’t pan out well here, and the forced nature of Banks’ character development (something he’s usually so good at) makes the latter half of the novel almost painful to read.  As Banks attempts to convince us of a certain central character’s insanity, he delves into laughable dialog and improbably plot points that paint a murky picture no one wants to hang on their shelf.

I still love Banks.  He has such rich storytelling capabilities, but he’s faltering.  This feels lazy, like he was under contract and had writer’s block and needed to throw something at his publisher so he didn’t get yelled at.  The rich backdrop of the beautiful wilderness and the World War II setting is completely wasted on this half-witted effort, and at the end of the day I’m just in tears over what could have been and what this inevitably became.

Catching Fire (Collins) ***/*****

The fire fizzled quick...
First I just want to point out that this is part of a series.  These are not individual books but part of a trilogy, and so if you have not read ‘The Hunger Games’ then you may not want to read this review as I will be referencing that book and the events within it and so if you don’t want spoilers you may want to avert your eyes.

Alright, so under immense peer pressure from, not only the teenage kids I know but also their parents, I decided to give ‘The Hunger Games’ a whirl last year.  Besides, I really didn’t want to be the ONLY person out of the loop, and I like to (at times) read the books before or at least around the same time that I see the movie.  I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed ‘The Hunger Games’.  It wasn’t the perfect read (the Young Adult style of writing often irritates me) but it was a breezy and easy and engulfing read (I couldn’t put it down).  I found the conclusion a tad sloppy, and yet the buildup was great, the explanation of the games itself was nicely done without being over-the-top and the character development (and that romance between Peeta and Katniss) was nearly perfect.

‘Catching Fire’ picks up a few months after ‘The Hunger Games’ left off, with Katniss and Peeta the surprise victors of the games and their act of rebellion (those berries) serving as a catalyst for the districts themselves to turn on The Capital.  Katniss in particular has started a movement she isn’t aware of and cannot stop, but the question arises; does she really want to stop it?  President Snow hates her, in fact he loathes her for what she has done and is determined to DESTROY her and the ones she loves.  Couple that with the approaching Quarter Quell (I’ll let Suzanne Collins explain that to you) and the lockdown in the districts by Peacemakers using excessive force to ensure peace and you have high tension within Katniss’s life.

Not to mention her confused feelings for both Peeta and Gale.

I really can’t say more.  I mean, that only covers about a quarter of the book, mainly because there is one major plot twist that I don’t want to spoil, which also prevents me from explaining any more of the book.  So that leaves me at a little bit of a loss because explaining my personal feelings on the matter and the reasons I feel that this book is a step down from the previous sort of requires that I get into the stuff I don’t want to spoil for you.

Let’s just say this; there is a ‘games’, it isn’t what you think and the ending here is almost just as sloppy as the first.  But, worse than that, the book is too repetitive, especially with the constant reminders of Katniss’s confused emotional state, and then many parts, especially in the middle of the book, begin to feel like ‘The Hunger Games’ redux.  Then you have the treatment of the games and the cast of characters, which is lazy and uninspired (possibly overworked) and doesn’t really ring true with the intentions set out in the first book.  The set up for ‘Mockingjay’ is rather good though, and makes me anxious to get my teeth in that one, but overall this book feels like a sophomore slump to me.

I’m sure rabid fans will disagree, but it’s how it all felt to me.


  1. After hearing about the love story being added to Slumdog, I've no interest in reading Q & A, since one of the film's most crucial elements isn't present. The film isn't even in my top 10 of 2008, but I do still like it. Though, it's too depressing to watch much.

    I haven't read any of the Hunger Games books. I'll just wait for the films. :)

    1. Yeah, the lack of the love affair makes the bleakness of the story almost too abrasive. The first half was very hard to read.