Friday, March 16, 2012

Fiction Friday (9)

One of the best things about reading a long novel is the speed at which others seem to fall in its wake. Anyone else notice how much faster the next book goes down after trudging through some epic? Of course, none of that matters if you don't pick the right book to read. I've always felt that choosing the next book is a lot like creating a music playlist. Making awkward jumps can be unnerving. But sometimes I find myself ignoring those rules simply because there is something I've been dying to read. That's what happened last time I picked out a book. Needless to say, it didn't turn out too good. This latest book reminded me of another which I felt the same way about last year. I thought I'd share them both. Though neither really grabbed me, I think the 11 year old inside of me would have enjoyed both and therefore they are worthy of mention.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
(Del Ray, 2007)

When I first read about this book, I admit that a little drool formed in the corners of my mouth. To say a story heavily inspired by Neverwhere and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is right up my alley would be an understatement. So when I got this book, I tore right into, only to find that while it may have been inspired by those other stories, it lacked their inspiration.

The story takes the main character, a young girl named Deeba, into an alternate version of London named UnLondon. This city is alive with a cast of intriguing characters including trashcan ninjas, half-ghosts, utterlings (words that come to life) and other ideas that play on Lewis Carroll's brand of nonsense. The problem is, nearly all of the imagination put into creating UnLondon feels overly forced. Much like the environmental message of the book, it is so heavy-handed that it seems to take the joy right out of the story.

Another obstacle preventing me from loving this book was my lack of concern for really any of the characters, especially the main character. The structure is partly to blame for this. The beginning fifth of the book or so, the author tries to get the reader emotionally invested in Zanna. And then, just when you do start to care for her, she's out of the story. Deeba, a character who is frankly terrible in the first part of the book, now becomes the one we're supposed to follow and cheer for. I think I never quite got over that switch or my initial dislike of her.

It felt clear to me while reading Un Lun Dun that I was encountering a gifted writer who was working outside his comfort zone. Rather than criticize, I'd like to applaud the risk even if the end result felt a little flat. But all of that said, there was still plenty of enjoyable moments, especially the well-paced action scenes. I also thought the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey were one of the most fascinating elements I've encountered in a long time. Overall, disappointing but entertaining.

Starcross by Philip Reeve
(Bloomsbury, 2008)

What this book does have going for it; lots of action, twists galore, and plot to spare. For a lot of people, that makes for a great book. And if plot is your thing, I would say this book wouldn't fail to entertain. I can see tons of readers falling in love with this book for that very reason...unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.

Overall, the book felt extremely forced to me. I found a lot of the imaginative elements to be contrived. There are any number of writers who try to capture inventive ideas, but few can make them feel effortless, such as Roald Dahl for example. I also thought the characters were very stiff and kind of unappealing. There's an obvious attempt to create a tongue-in-cheek meta-narration such as you find in the Series of Unfortunate Events books, but never quite achieves it to the affect those books do. And in general, I just found the writing style to be sort of clunky. However, that's a matter of personal taste in writing style.

I also had a huge problem with Myrtle. She has to be one of the most obnoxious characters I've encountered in years. Granted, she's supposed to be the annoying older sister. However, her anti-feminist, 19th century young lady spiel is so irksome and I certainly don't want her as the narrator of two lengthy sections of the book. I also couldn't help finding myself wondering how her attitude plays out in the minds of young readers, especially since the target audience of this series is, without a doubt, boys. There is nothing cool about any of the female characters in this book, those traits are all reserved for the male characters. Seriously? How uncool is that.

I hate being harsh on books, especially books that I did genuinely enjoy at parts, such as this. I loved the Doctor Who spacey sci-fi adventure nature of this book. I also think this would be a great book for a reluctant boy reader. But when I see a mediocre book that gets such high acclaim as this (multiple star reviews, year-end best lists, etc), it really bothers me.

In all fairness, my 10 year old self would more than likely give this book 4 or 5 stars. But editors and book review publications are not 10 years old and should've come out this with a more educated view in my opinion.

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