Rachael Herman

Tag: Reading

‘Just Another Piece In Their Games…’

Yes, in the vein of all you cool teenagers and shameful adults alike, I too have joined club ‘Hunger Games’. You know, I seriously thought I had buried this penchant for the puerile fantastic years ago – along with poor Dobby the house-elf hims-elf – in the bid to revel in the far more grown-up Anna Karenina and Vanity Fair. It turns out, however, that this grave for the juvenile was evidently a shallow one. (Sorry Dobby, my love, I’m afraid it’s still game over for you.) This latest slip into the realm of childish indulgence happened no sooner than when the credits of the first film in Suzanne Collin’s franchise had started to roll; replenishing both excitement and wonder to an imagination parched of both, and reinaugurating the ugly obsessive nature that tends to go hand-hand with a good children’s story. (Whatever I say in the next few hundred words about the books, I’d like to make it clear that I view the movie as an excellent and exciting piece of film-making; Gary Ross, I doff my hat to you, sir.) So where to go from there, I wondered. Why to the books of course! Before the film came into my life, I was unaware of the books’ existence, but a birthday favour later and I was the proud owner of the trinity: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Here is what I made of them…

Book One: The Hunger Games (aka the eye-opener)

Having seen the first film I was obviously aware of what was going to go down in the first book. One may argue that this would perhaps defeat the purpose of even reading the story, however, I found that the heads-up gained from the viewing only allowed me to concentrate on details that had either been deliberately omitted from the books or proven too complicated to deliver on screen. One example of this would be the unfolding of the relationship between young tributes, Peeta and Katniss. In the film, it is not particularly clear as to what the nature of  their relationship actually is, more specifically Katniss’ take on the whole thing. However, I do understand that the adaptation of a first-person narrative from print to picture will always prove to be a problem in the absence of a narrator. But yes, the book did adequately shed some more light onto the ‘Patniss’ (Peeta and Katniss, duh) love saga, which I was happy about. What I was not so thrilled with, on the other hand, was Collins’ decision to make use of that ghastly present tense and terse, pointed sentences in order to put us firmly in the ‘midst of the action’. Not when EVERY sentence apparently fits this description. No thank you.

Book Two: Catching Fire (aka the favourite)

By the time I had reached the second book – and I mean it was a struggle when up against such a tirade of tiny, tiny sentences – I can safely say that I was starting to grow weary of Katniss’ annoying whine of a voice. Yes, I realise that she is a typical seventeen year old girl, but all this to-ing and fro-ing between love interests, which is only matched by the to-ing and fro-ing she makes to the hospital, really devours any sympathy I once had for her. There really is no logic to her affections. ‘But there is no logic to love!’ I hear you cry… Shut up, no one who demands that amount of nobility for her actions should be that capricious. She is just too weak. Another gripe I was beginning to realise I had  with the way Collins had chosen to tell her tale was the fact that every chapter seemed to end with some sort of cliff hanger; to the point where it was just getting ridiculous. There were moments in the chapter where, I must admit, I felt like screaming, ‘Really Suzanne?! Did that REALLY happen?!’ No, I don’t think it did. I think you are just terrified that no one will want to read on if you don’t end each chapter with some outrageous dramatic one-liner. Please. Have a little more faith in your own writing and give the reader a touch more credit to the fact that they will NOT slam the book shut in utter disgust that nothing astounding has happened in the last five pages. It’s all about subtlety, love.

Example from Catching Fire, p209, of a classic Collins-cliffhanger.

I would next like to address the issue of president Snow. The first book showed promise of a somewhat enigmatically calculating villain, and with the second book I was undoubtedly vying for a deliciously dark and troubled back-story to get my teeth into, to establish in my mind a smart and intimidating villain. It turned out that there was no real back-story – at least Volders had a troubled past that we could revel in; to explain why he was a twisted, cold-blooded killer. Snow just had some botox that went wrong…I don’t get the wrong impression here, I do in fact likeCatching Fire, especially the brilliance that is the second arena, complete with tactical alliances to boot. Fantastically intriguing. Let us only hope that justice will be done to this creation on the big screen!

Book Three: Mockingjay (aka the struggle)

‘Just another piece in their/his/her/my Games’, was the phrase that was now causing me physical and mental anguish every time I happened upon it, which was pretty much in every other chapter of Mockingjay. As if this wasn’t enough, the complete overkill of the rather pretentious name itself, Mockingjay, was answerable to a reflex of steaming anger bubbling up from inside of me every time it was mentioned. All in all, I have to say that I found this book incredibly hard to deal with, mainly on account of its clumsiness in addressing the rebellion, and its lack of our main man: Peeta. I felt that the poor boy, who, let’s face it, is the best written character in the whole saga, was rather made a mockery of. His absence was really quite telling, particularly when the romantic interest was in favour of Gale, as I found myself becoming really quite uninterested in the whole thing. What a DULL character Gale is. Clearly Collins thinks so too, as it goes to show back in Catching Fire. Subsequent to his whipping for crimes against Panem, we are informed that Gale was in a critical state being tended to night and day. Then in the next chapter we find out, in a rather off-handed reference, that Gale is back down the mines. Does Collins even remember he was injured?! Speaking of miraculous recoveries, Peeta’s plight against the Trackerjackers in what we commonly call a ‘highjacking’ was a rather dubious one. No light was ever really shed on exactly HOW our man was saved from this nasty fate. All  the information we receive is that dear old Delly has been having a chat with him now and again, coaxing him out of his (righteous) hatred for Katniss. Hmmm, interesting.

Example from Mockingjay, p37, of ‘Mockingjay’ overkill.

Overall, I feel that  Katniss’ final romantic revelation actually epitomised the way the series has been written: way too sudden and inadequately explained. ‘So yeah, by the way, I’m with Peeta now. I decided that Gale and I are too alike, oh well I guess that’s that. Sigh.’ Collins kicked things off with a great concept, managed to run with it insofar as creating a decent world and a handful of interesting characters (Hamish, Peeta, Finnick, Johanna and Beetee being among the elite), yet she has unfortunately stumbled at the final stretch. It just so happened that the ‘final stretch’ incorporates the entirety of the third book. Never mind, hey, it’s only a children’s book.

Chocolat, Joanna Harris

‘Witches… Jeez, great. And it was all going so well.’ – Just some of the thoughts that materialised in my slightly irked mind mere moments after reading the first few chapters of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. Adamant that I was not going to enjoy the rest of the book, having so prematurely resigned myself to the fact that I was to be following the life and times of a hip and happening single witch mother for the next 200 or so pages, I was thrilled to discover that I had, in fact, made a serious misjudgment. Thank heavens. Yes, there are undercurrents of witchcraft, tarot and folklore, however they are not the driving force behind the story, à la Harry Potter and pals. Instead, Chocolat is principally centred around the efforts of a 30-something single mother aspiring to successfully integrate herself and her young daughter into quaint rural French life; all the while trying to avoid stepping on the wrong people’s toes along the way – it is a tale of fitting in and finding one’s place.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the protagonists. Our leading lady is the charming, yet suitably mysterious Vianne Rocher, who quietly sets up shop in the middle of parochial French village, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Vianne is not alone in her quest to adapt to rural living after a long stint of temporary urban abodes, as she is accompanied by her delightful 6-year-old daughter, Anouk – owner of a very Pantalamon-esque (see Philip Pullman about that one) animal friend Pantoufle – who serves us well as the voice of innocence and enquiry. On the other side of the fence we find Lansquenet’s resident priest, Francis Reynaud, whose efforts to rid his perfect church-going village of those heathens, the Rochers, come to a rather comical climax. I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to give anything away – you need to read it! – but what I will say is that the whole affair is thoroughly well executed due to Harris’ excellent writing skills. There is a steady and subtle build up over the course of the novel, so that when that glorious moment finally arrives, we are cringing away with the best of them. It is very much a case of chocolate on the chops, as opposed to egg on the face.

If I had to pick a favourite character it would have to be stubborn Armande – an outlandish old dear with a feisty spirit, an affinity for folklore and everything gypsy. I simply love the precious relationship that she shares with her bashful grandson and I find the fact that he bought her red silky underwear for her birthday downright hilarious. Now, one not-so-precious relationship was the ‘coming together’ of Roux and Vianne. I think I can safely say that I did NOT enjoy this at all as it was so totally unnecessary and unbelievable. I mean I realise that Vianne probably hasn’t entertained a gentleman in a fair while – saying that the book only documents a time period of 40 days. How libidinous is this woman?! – but a grizzly red-haired old water dweller? Really?! No, it just wouldn’t happen. Sorry, Joanne.

The entire piece is told from an interesting perspective; interesting in that it is from two perspectives: an alternation between the extremes of Vianne and Francis. Due to the pair voicing opinions that are worlds apart, there was never a problem – when it came to making the distinction of who was narrating – that couldn’t be solved by reading the first 3 lines, thus allowing for smooth continuation in the telling of the story. Also, I’m sure the fact that both voices are centralised around the same plot and close-knit community helped matters. This juxtaposition of ideals was a different and thoroughly engaging way of reading people. On the one hand we had indulgence and the other, abstinence; the unorthodox and the religious in the form of the villager. Some other themes that turned my cogs were: the outsider contemplating one’s own moral views in the face of such opposite insularity; rebuilding one’s image after being chagrined by the clique; the lengths one will go to in order to ‘save face’; the everyday – I absolutely love the way Harris deals with the everyday. It is so tactile, so sensual; the sights, sounds, tastes, aromas. Delicious.

With the word count being 750 I feel that I should end now, and what better way to do it than with my favourite quote of the book, which basically sums it all up far better than I could write:

‘The battle of good and evil reduced to a fat woman standing in front of a chocolate shop, saying, ‘Will I? Won’t I?’ in pitiful indecision.’

Watership Down, Richard Adams

So then, let’s get started shall we?

My first encounter with the Watership Down story was, rather unfortunately, courtesy of Martin Rosen, whose particularly disturbing film rendition lured one and all into a deep false sense of security with thoughts of fluffy white rabbit tales – and indeed tails – before unleashing lagomorphic insanity upon unwitting and innocent children, myself included. To this day the haunting notes of ‘Bright Eyes’ chill me to the very bone – something I don’t think I can truly forgive Mr. Garfunkel for. Not to mention those empty, staring eyes and gnashing teeth (of the rabbits, not Art), which are enough to place the humble bunny firmly at number one in Steve Backshall’s ‘Deadly 60’.

Anyway, I digress. The book is what needs to be praised and not the film dismantled. First things first: location, location, location. We initially find ourselves delicately dropped into the heart of the gloriously idyllic English countryside – you can almost breathe the fresh, evening air – next to our main protagonist, a rabbit named Hazel. Adams has no trouble at all in evoking feelings of joy and nostalgia with his intricate descriptions of the wildflowers in the hazy twilight – those hours in which one’s senses are heightened. Throughout the novel, one has an notion of being not just an onlooker but actually a part of the environment, a necessity if we are to buy into this world.

Now let us turn to the players themselves. An interesting observation I have made during my reading career – with regards to my own affinity for fictional characters – is that instead of becoming immersed in the campaign of the hero as intended by the author, I tend to develop an adverse penchant for the more troubled soul. I have even been known to share in the tyrannical glee of the main antagonist as he/she wreaks havoc on his/her victims. How naughty. Anyway, back to those troubled ones with prime example being the dark and fitful Fiver, who is perhaps my favourite character. His blatant struggle with that rare form of rabbit – schizophrenia is admirable, bless him, although there are moments when his melodramatic moaning about blood and nightmares does prove to be more than a little tiresome. Why won’t Hazel just listen for once so that all can have a slight reprise from the all rabbiting-on…?

Which brings me nicely to my first real point of contention: Rabbit tales – are they necessary? Could not Adams merely have popped a little sign on a cowslip next to the entrance of the warren, marked FIB (fable in progress), allowing for us to opt out of consuming these scraps of narrative doled out by dear Dandelion and to instead continue with digesting the juicy meat of the real story? No? Oh. I suppose that Dandelion had to have some sort of quality other than ‘he runs fast’. But seriously, I do believe that the omission of these rather drawn-out tales would do wonders for the pace of the main story.

To end this waffle I shall finalise matters by saying that, all in all, I found this book to be a wonderful and absorbing read with veins of melancholic beauty running throughout this enjoyable stay in the countryside; spanning the breadth of the valley, following the course of the river and delving deep down into the temporary abode of the warren. The delightful world of rabbit relations envelops the reader entirely, causing an insatiable desire to speak Lapine; Silflay in the moonlight with good friends and whisper about the latest exploits of the merciless General Woundwart, who is enough to drive anyone Tharn…