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Having Favourite Authors. Not Liking All Their Work

A photo of the Oxford University Classics editions of Persuasion, Sense And Sensibility, and Pride And Prejudice

This may be more of a personal subject, but it’s one I’ve wanted to write about for a while. I will say that it’s in the context of technology today – our ability to strike up a conversation with writers that has come about thanks to social media and email.

I don’t have one favourite author, at least not presently. What I do have is a variety of favoured writers, and in most cases these are people whose work I don’t always like. (Most often this is the case where the author has written a fair few books – does anyone else find they’re more likely to like everything someone has written the less books there are? I know it sounds obvious, but at the same time it’s easy enough to find yourself disliking a second book, so it still warrants wonder.)

Here is a sample of some of my favourite writers whose work I have not liked in its entirety:

Jane Austen: I have enjoyed exactly half of her adult output, finding the others mediocre.
Elizabeth Chadwick: I like this author’s work so much the only thing I asked for when asked what I’d like for Christmas were her books. Yet I find they tend to go on longer than they ‘have’ to and I’m in two minds about that. I’ve also found some to be strictly alright.
Shannon Stacey: Her work is very hit and miss. She’s a favourite because the hits are so amazing.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with not liking everything an author writes, but I go back and forth between thinking it means they can’t be favourites, and thinking they can.

One of the reasons I think they can is that it’s good to be objective, it’s good to be honest with yourself. I think that if we become a gushing fan, no matter how natural it is and how difficult it can be to hold back, it does make the almost inevitable dislike of something down the line (be it dislike of an entire work, a solo plot point, a character) awkward for us. It’s like the awkwardness that arises when you’ve lauded a book you loved as a child, only to reread it, hate it, and wonder if your friend will think twice about asking you for recommendations in future. You might feel like a fraud or you might feel the writer can no longer be called your favourite.

I feel this way sometimes and other times think that it’s not necessary to like everything. I wonder if being a fan can actually help you consider this new, disliked, book better. You’d likely be considering it in its context and may be more objective. Then again, if you’re completely disappointed your review or conversations might be more biased against the book than that of someone who isn’t a fan. And if we lie and stay positive when we’re not feeling it, then that’s simply false.

It can feel wrong continuing to call an author a favourite, but it’s not, is it? We can have a favourite musical artist and not like all their songs, and we have favourite sports teams who we moan about when they lose1.

How does all this fit in with social media, with our ability to talk to authors in real time? The subject of liking and disliking books has moved on from being something personal and private to pubic and open to argument. Of course not everyone talks to authors, but by blogging or by being on a bookish site, what you say can be found by them.

If you talk to an author and later dislike their book, is it awkward? You talk to the author, they likely know you’ve loved their work in the past, and then your next review or star rating isn’t very favourable. Perhaps they would appreciate it, maybe more so because you have a rapport with them, but it must be more awkward than reviewing a book by someone you’ve never interacted with in any way.

Would it be difficult striking up conversation in future? I don’t actively contact many authors but have had occasions where a writer has found my 5 star reviews (I assume from a friend or through Google Alerts) and I’ve wondered how they’d take my 2 star later on. This invites discussion on saying what we want to say, I know, but that’s a topic for another day.

There are two questions really: do you have favourite authors whose books you haven’t always liked? How do you feel about the way social media means that what we write can be found (and commented on) by those we write about?

1 Credit where credit’s due – my boyfriend brought up the sports team comparison.

Suzanne Collins – Catching Fire

Book Cover

Having struck the match…

Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 437
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-407-10936-7
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2014
Rating: 5/5

Katniss and Peeta, free of the games, moved into District 12′s Victor’s Village. Three people now take ‘pride of pride’ in the exclusive neighbourhood, but it was never going to last. President Snow sees Katniss as the catalyst in the rebellion just as everyone else does – excepting the girl herself. But Snow isn’t worried. As far as the Capitol’s concerned, the rebellion will soon be over because the Quarter Quell is about to begin and there’s always a twist…

Catching Fire is the awesome second book in Collins’s trilogy and whilst repetitive (somewhat expectedly) the book is on a par with the first: no holds barred; quick pace; a writing style that makes you want to skip meals so that you can read on.

Due to the similarities, let’s focus first on the differences. There are new characters, including a new master gamesmaker, and a whole set of tributes to get to know. (In this book there is more of an emphasis on getting to know the tributes, and for good reason.) Of course there is the furthering of the rebellion of which our strong, brave, but still naïve heroine finds herself the projected leader.

This naïveity first began in The Hunger Games, however this time it is more frustrating than understandable, the reverse of what it was. Not too frustrating – it won’t put you off reading – but enough that you wish Katniss would just get with the times, as it were. She’s reluctant, she doesn’t believe she’s the best person for the job, and as the novel’s told from her perspective the reader can understand this. But as she’s inspired others and wants to be part of the rebellion it’s hard not to wish she would have more confidence and desire.

Honestly, however, beyond that there’s little to dislike or consider in terms of whether it works or not. There is another Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, and your expectations as to what it is and who will be entered will be met. Perhaps you may feel that Collins could’ve been more original, but it’s hard to deny that another games wasn’t a good idea. There is something that could technically be considered a cop-out at the end, however the Quarter Quell is on the whole a success for the book. The games are different in setting, colour scheme, costume, you name it, it’s only the goal and the manipulation that remains the same. And as if the last games weren’t bad enough, Collins attempts to make this one worse. The tributes are a new set of people altogether and at first glance you may think it a lesser evil, but the author is at pains to show you that it’s not. The hideous injustice doesn’t end with children here.

New also is the war and the place the war originates from. If the previous book was about the Capitol and emphasised how bad it was, Catching Fire hones in on all the things you aren’t supposed to know about what remains and has been kept secret.

You will still forget the evil, maybe not so much because this time you’ve come prepared, knowing Collins will manipulate you as the Capitol manipulates its residents, but it will happen. However what you will see is a stronger attempt to right the wrong, a better display of rebellion than the aborted nightlock poisoning (that is to say the display here is easier to set in motion and not quite as drastic, all things considered). You will be with the tributes, at one with almost all of them, as they work their way through the games. The careers are still there, but the difference in who they are means that even they are not quite as straightforward as last time.

Collins hasn’t let us down and it’s clear that she’s a writer to continue watching long after the games are over, long after they are hopefully over for good.

The odds are in your favour; Catching Fire is excellent.

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Jessica Clare – Wicked Games

Book Cover

Where a very rare situation is the conflict.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 142
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 4th March 2011
Date Reviewed: 1st July 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

To continue being a book reviewer for the newspaper, Abby must agree to take part in a survival reality TV show. She’s not interested in the show and sees through it all, but the rewards offered by her employer (besides keeping her job!) are too good to miss. She gets on the plane to the Cook Islands. It’s evident she doesn’t fit in with the other contestants and it’s also evident she may have betters skills than them as well. But she wouldn’t have bet on finding the arrogant one attractive. Teaming up with Dean may help her win, but how real are people’s personalities when $1million is at stake?

Wicked Games is a novella that uses a basis everyone will be familiar with. Clare holds to the stereotype, making her reality show exactly what you’d expect. But she doesn’t let it take over.

This is both good and bad. It is good for the obvious reason – why would anyone want to read about a (regular – considering we’ve The Hunger Games) reality show when there are plenty of them to watch? It’s bad because it inevitably means that once the romance begins a lot of what could have been written about the show (the concept of survival, for example) is lost.

The characters are pretty good. Abby loses herself a little once she falls for Dean, but she never changes completely except in circumstances where the premise of the book dictates the need for it (interviews, for example). Abby is one of the better prepared contestants and her position as a reluctant participant provides the reality check for the rest of the understandably stereotypical cast. (In this case that the cast is stereotypical is understandable – the undeveloped characters make sense and it would be hard not to assume that their very lack of development was not a conscious decision.) Dean, too, is stereotypical, and again, he’s meant to be – though Clare has cause to show the reader how appearances can be deceptive.

So it would be fair to say that Clare uses the premise as much as her audience would be okay with, and instead of looking into uncomfortable ‘challenges’, focuses on the longer-term consequences, the sort that take a while to be covered in the media. The book is predictable enough that you know what will happen, detailed enough that that doesn’t matter.

Except in certain cases, for example the set up between Abby, Dean, and a few other contestants. The idea of teamwork to win is in itself understandable, but the way Clare goes about it suggests a lack of belief in reader intelligence. The reader can see through the set up so much that it’s an unnecessary addition – Clare makes Abby suddenly oblivious to something the Abby of the previous pages would have spied from the first moment. Inevitably when the ruse is revealed it is of no surprise to anyone but the characters.

Wicked Games has a fair premise, an understandably predictable plot, and good exploration of reality, fantasy, and that in-between that makes up television. But it could have used more planning.

It’s nice that it’s not a wicked game in terms of the show itself, and not wicked when you consider the reality of humanity and competition, but it may be wicked for the reader who has to wade through the water. It’s light, it can be fun, and it’s ripe for summer, but whether it comes in first place is up for discussion.

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Ai Mi – Under The Hawthorn Tree

Book Cover

First love – a time to worry.

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 352
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08703-7
First Published: 2007
Date Reviewed: 18th July 2014
Rating: 3/5

Jingqiu’s family has been written off as the lowest of the lowest. Landowners, in the time of Mao they are hated. Jingqiu works hard to provide for her mother and sister and sees her future as one of inevitable manual labour. She would hope to return one day. On a field trip, as a writer for the new school textbooks, she meets Old Third, the so-called foster brother of her teacher’s family. He’s obviously not as poor as Jingqiu – there would be issues if they became more than friends.

Under The Hawthorn Tree is a book that starts very well and offers much to those interested in the history, but slowly descends into what is to all intents and purposes stupidity.

The stupidity can be found in Jingqiu’s choices. She is a fair enough character and works more than is healthy so that her family has money, but she declines all offers of support and legitimate ways to get around her situation. The love interest, Old Third, has much to offer and asks for nothing in return; he wishes Jingqiu out of danger. Jingqiu rejects his money and puts her life on the line working in factories that use poison and taking on heavy lifting duties that could kill her. Perhaps it is meant to be endearing, but instead it comes across as silly and selfish. It’s a miracle the character survives at all.

Some, only some, of Jingqiu’s concerns are valid. She worries about being seen with Old Third in a society that will reject her if they believe she’s lost her virginity out of wedlock. She worries about her family’s already low status. But by and large her worries don’t hold water. There are the constant musings on what people are referring to (metaphors and innuendo). Jingqiu’s innocence is believable up to a point, but it’s hard to believe that by 25 she still dismisses those happy to clarify matters and to be the only person (seemingly, at least) in her home town who has not learned anything. Personal experience doesn’t enlighten her, either. Sex itself is one of the few things that is discussed openly in the city, at least enough that everyone knows a good amount, everyone except Jingqiu.

Jingqiu’s love isn’t believable. She goes through some motions, and perhaps it is down to the lack of knowledge, but it’s hard to phantom that one day she won’t fall in love for real and relegate Old Third to a crush. Old Third loves her, that is certain, by Mi does not present the love on Jingqiu’s side very well.

The writing is hit and miss, however because we’re talking of a translation, it’s hard to say for definite whether or not the repetitive words and juvenile phrasing is down to the author or the translator’s choices. (The translator is Anna Holmwood.) It is safe to say that the translation needed editing, because you’d expect errors in the original text to have received some sort of mention, if just to clear the translator’s name.

What’s good about the book is the pace – it’s quick and easy to read – and the history. Beyond the silliness there is a lot of interesting information, and it’s localised to Jingqiu’s community. You can learn much from this first-hand account, albeit fictional, and its status as a best-seller (it was adapted for the screen, too) goes some way towards informing you about how much you should believe. Jingqiu may not be devoted to Mao but she refers to the rules and texts enough that you see how people were affected.

As an insight into the history it’s not bad, but you shouldn’t pick up Under The Hawthorn Tree expecting to be wowed. If you are, all well and good, but most likely you’ll be happy to move on.

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The Fault In Our Stars And “You Used To Call Me Augustus”

A screenshot from the film adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars, which shows the main characters sitting on a bench in a semi-embrace

Screenshot from The Fault In Our Stars (film), copyright © 2014 Temple Hill Entertainment. This post is primarily about the book, but is likely relevant to the film also (I haven’t seen the film to be able to say for definite).

“You used to call me Augustus.”

There are many metaphors in The Fault In Our Stars and of note is the fact that most are obvious. I know I personally appreciate this and Green’s further efforts to the same effect, because his topic would not do to be drowned by the need to study. This is a particularly interesting point when you think of the way disease is often hidden due to distaste, fear, and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

What I’m thinking about today is something that can slip under the radar until Green tells us: Hazel’s transition from calling her boyfriend Augustus, to calling him Gus. The theme begins upon Hazel’s noticing, whilst Augustus’s condition deteriorates, that his sisters call him Gus in a context of pity. She notes that they see him as frail, as a person who needs looking after.

As the book gets closer to the end, Hazel adopts this new term herself. She adopts it as Augustus’s sisters have, but seems unconscious of it as you might expect. (She never mentions the change and as it is her narrative, you would expect that she would have had she realised.) A person in a similar position to the one dying is going to understand that person and is very likely to see them as their equal, at least in terms of health and so forth. They will see them as a full person as they, too, are, unfortunate circumstance be damned. At the same time, the fact that Augustus is dying (or is it that we should see him as already dead and replaced by a ‘Gus’?) lends itself to the change, to explain things. If you, the reader, catch Hazel’s transition when it happens then it’s surely a subtle head’s up as to what is going to happen.

In Augustus’s statement, the quote above, we see the difference in perspective. Augustus sees himself as no different. He’s dying, but that doesn’t mean he’s changed in the ways that matter. That he’s in a relationship with Hazel hasn’t magically changed with the switch in health. Hazel sees a difference, however, and she is technically rendering her boyfriend as different no matter his thoughts. Certainly the romance is altered.

You could go further and say that the possession in “me”, as spoken by Augustus, shows a reluctant submission to the term and change, although by that same possession we can see that he’s noticed the difference in attitude and doesn’t like it.

The statement ends the discussion, for us at least, bringing us full circle on that theme. And it’s the literal nature of it, that we have something textual to compare to Hazel’s earlier analysis, that closes the thread. Poignantly, although the film replaces the last line of the book (why it does, and the consequence, is a question for another time), in the book, Hazel reverts to ‘Augustus’ by the end. Did she need the distance to remember who he was?

What personally strikes me most about this theme is the way Green comments on the larger society. There is the sense throughout of a slightly wider message, the one that is plain when you think of the humour, that cancer sufferers may be in pain and be limited in various ways, but they are still the people they always were, not weak and helpless. Yes, they need physical help and emotional support, but they are the same intelligent person they always were. I saw this as in the context of cancer, of course, but as also applicable to many other situations – accidents, disability, old age, and so forth. People have their ideas and listen to the (often wrong) opinion of the majority and people who generally have no first hand experience, and treat those categorised by a stereotype in accordance to that belief, no matter the individual they are dealing with. It may be that the book is about cancer, and it may be that not everyone will view the themes as owing to a wider context, but I think the wider context is there for the taking.

Book cover

Just thinking of the Anne Frank house episode furthers this. On IMDB there is a discussion about the relative moral values of this (filmed) scene (warning: bad language), which invited comment on the reaction of the ‘audience’ when the couple kiss. Were the audience clapping a cute couple, a cute oh-poor-dears couple, or were they applauding triumph? Green provides no answer, the answer depends on the reader and will possibly change over the course of their reading depending on where they were when they first approached the book.

Instead of writing any more, because I could but I’d inevitably start repeating myself, I’ll ask you.

If you’ve read the book (and/or seen the film – if the dialogue is included), what did you make of the naming transition? What did you make of the scene at Anne Frank’s house? And what do you think of the possibility of a wider message? If you’ve not read the book/seen the film, feel free to comment on what’s been discussed as you will – after all, the theme is by no means limited to the text.


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