Sunday, 29 April 2012

Divergent by Veronica Roth

DivergentIts not very often that I re-read books. Not because I don’t want to, but because there are so many unread books out there. Thus, re-reading is usually reserved for when I’m unwell and need that comfort of something familiar, something that I know will work out alright in the end - Harry Potter or anything by Eva Ibbotsen. This week, though, I have been re-reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent.
What is Divergent about? I always have great difficulty trying to summarise Divergent for my customers at Waterstones. It’s set in a future world where society is comprised of five factions, each one characterised by the ideals it subscribes to. Citizens are born into a faction, but when they turn 16, they undergo an aptitude test to determine with which faction their temperament more closely adheres to. It’s the choice of a lifetime: to stay with their family or to change allegiance, and risk never seeing them again. Tris’s choice is made even harder; her aptitude test reveals that she is a divergent, that she has no single overriding aptitude. How can she possibly know which faction is going to be best one for her? And, even worse, if anyone discovers she is divergent, her life will be forfeit.
Clearly, there’s a lot more to this book and this world than the above. The boundaries between factions, instead of maintaining peace, as was the original intention, are breaking down. The factions are supposed to make everything black and white, but Tris is set to discover that the truth is usually grey. Factions, instead of leaving each other in respectful peace, are starting to criticise one another, to demand change. Is war on the horizon? And Tris’s chosen faction is definitely not what it seemed. People are out for power, and they aren’t going to let little things like morals get in their way. 
This is a novel written for teenagers, and so incorporates all the teenage standards and coming of age stuff: drama, action, a bit of romance, and learning to question what, in childhood, what was easily accepted. It’s great escapism, and that’s one of the reasons why I chose to re-read it. Another reason is the dreamy Four, who I defy anyone not to fall for. Also, the follow-up to Divergent is released in May - Insurgent - and I was having trouble remembering exactly what happened at the end of Divergent. I thought about just re-reading the last few chapters, but caved and decided I needed to learn about Four from the beginning all over again!
Verdict? It was as good this time around as it was the first time. There are a lot of teenage dystopian-style books on the market at the moment and this is definitely, in my opinion, one of the better ones. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve got a crush on Four. It compares favourably with Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Ally Condie’s fantastic Matched. They all tackle similar issues, granted - the role of government in determining the minutae of everyday life being a significant theme - and to someone who isn’t that bothered about teenage books they make look similar, because they tackle similar ideas (the utopia/dystopia boundary, governmental power and corruption), but each one has does have an originality rather than just hashing out the same basic storyline. And, even though I’d read it before, Divergent still got my heart pounding just as hard this time around.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

The Art of FieldingBizarrely, and completely unintentionally, two of the books I recently read were overflowing with references to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The connections between this classic and the first book are pretty obvious: Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn follows the author’s sea-bound adventures on the trail of 28,800 plastic bath toys that were lost overboard one stormy night on a routine trip across the ocean*. The link between Melville and the second book I read, though, were more unexpected.

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is, essentially, a coming-of-age novel. Set in small-town, fairly privileged America, it follows five members of Westfield College through baseball season. The baseball team in question is called The Harpooners, a reference to the college director, Guert Affenlight, who, as a teenager, discovered that Herman Melville once visited and lectured at Westfield.

This is Harbach’s debut, a Waterstones 11 and Waterstones bookclub selection, and has been widely hailed as one of the best books of the year, with Harbach suffering comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. The truth is, I never really understood the term ‘great American novel’ before reading Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I’ve never read Franzen, or Foster Wallace (or Moby-Dick, for that matter), but now it’s as if a little light has come on in my head; its almost as if the term was coined for this book. I can’t quite pinpoint what makes it great, what makes it American - other than the obvious, of course: the setting, the subject. It just oozes something inherently American-like that I can only assume comes simply as a result of the writer being a citizen of the country.

As much as I can’t define its American-ness, I also can’t quite define the actual content, suffice to say it’s good. Very good. It follows each of its five key characters as each goes through normal life type stuff: growing up, the search for happiness, for love; dealing with change. What happens when your dreams change? When everything that always came naturally, that you always believed in, gets flipped on its head? How do you cope with that, how does it change you, and how do you change it? These are the questions our characters are facing, and they face them head-on with, generally, aplomb.

One of the most interesting things I found about this book was Harbach’s approach to his story. It unfolds through the different characters’ eyes - Henry, the prodigal baseball player, who is suffering from a crisis of confidence; Schwartz, the team captain, with a troubled childhood and an uncertain future; Pella, President Affenlight’s lost daughter returned from an unhappy marriage, trying to find out who she is and where she belongs; and Affenlight himself, sixty and in love not only for the first time, but with a student. But then there is Owen.

Owen is as much a part of the book as any of the others, but we never see things from his perspective; all we know about him is what the others tell us. Beautiful, smart, popular, gay; from Owen much of the rest of the book unfolds. Was this a conscious choice on Harbach’s part, to not write Owen’s side of the story, to leave me wondering where he really fitted in, what he thought about the events surrounding him - or did Harbach not feel confident to write from Owen’s perspective (given, perhaps, Owen sexual orientation)? From a storytelling perspective, it’s intriguing because the reader never really gets to see Owen the way they see the other characters; I can never really discern his true feelings and motivations, particularly when it comes to his relationship with Guert - is Owen leading him on, is it just a fling or a bit of a game to take advantage of Guert’s obvious interest, or does he have genuine interest in Guert himself? Although I felt like I knew Owen, when I stopped to think about it, I realised that he’s actually a bit of an unknown quantity.

And Moby-Dick? Well, as I said, I’ve never read that one, so I don’t know whether it infuses The Art of Fielding in more ways than one. Despite never selling through the original print-run in Melville’s lifetime, the whale is now considered to be ‘a great American novel’. Is The Art of Fielding in the same league? Well, some of the storylines do work out rather conveniently, perhaps more so than such things would do if experienced in ‘real’ life, but that’s no different to a thousand other good books, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much had that not been the case. A satisfying ending, where all the strings come together is, after all, part of the joy of reading. Aristotle’s emotional carthasis and all that. Plus, I’m pretty sure that at this point its sold a chunk more than its first print-run, and made Harbach a few bob more than Moby-Dick made Melville.

To sum up The Art of Fielding, life-affirming is the word that springs to mind. Chad Harbach is definitely worth the hype.

(* I reviewed Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck briefly on my other blog, The Plastic Diaries, so won’t repeat that here)

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Welcome to The Stardust Reader

I am a bit of a bookworm. This may be an understatement. I love books, I love reading, and I love talking about the books I'm reading. I work for Waterstones - the main UK book chain - which means that all day, every day, I am surrounded by dreams, and dream of reading them all. It also means I get sent more free books from lovely publishers than I have the time to read. It's wonderful, but actually quite frustrating - so many books, so little time. If only I could read them all!

I also recently completed an MA in Professional Writing (ok, a year ago now). This means I often view books and read books differently to how I did before, which I find really interesting. Instead from turning reading into a negative experience, something I was afraid would happen, it has simply made me want to talk about books even more. To deconstruct them, see how they work, what makes them so enjoyable - or, as is occasionally the case, unenjoyable. I find myself thinking about it at quite odd times of the day. So I thought, why not write my thoughts down? If even nobody reads them, it'll help me spill out all these ideas that are buzzing around in my mind when I 'm supposed to be driving home, or going to sleep.

Why The Stardust Reader? Some people may think it a reference to Neil Gaiman, which I guess maybe it is, in part - what a great writer to aspire to, and what a simple yet perfect fairy story his Stardust is. But then I looked 'stardust' up in the dictionary: "an imaginary dust that blinds someone's eyes to reality and fills their thoughts with romantic illusions." Which I thought fit rather well.

Do books blind my reality, fill my thoughts with romantic illusions? Some certainly do! And sometimes that's the point, the fun, the enjoyability factor. The escapism. Although the really good books do a lot more, of course. And the really, really good books - whether fiction, non-fiction, thrillers, literary, fantasy, sci-fi - twist this whole concept around, making reality more real, shedding light on those big questions we all have about life. And that, dear reader, is why I love books.