Hunger Games and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jul 19, 2013 05:07

Thoughts/reviews of books I read traveling:

nutshell: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is better written, but Hunger Games is a better book for my money. Both have very cool cover design.

Some (minor) plot spoilers, so I put everything behind a cut.

Hunger Games
Everyone knows the plot to this, right? In the dystopic near-future, people from 12 districts are selected by lottery to fight to the death, and it's televised.

Very readable and easy to zip through. Good YA. I thought it was a little heavy-handed in the "this girl is soooo tough grr" in the beginning, but I soon got into it, and I prefer the tough and pragmatic/less-emotional heroine to the opposite if we're going for cliches. As we went on, I thought our heroine Katniss was fairly well-balanced, and, especially later, I really sympathized with her emotional confusion about "what's just for the cameras" vs "what's just platonic affection" vs "what's possible romantic feelings." Plus her annoyance with people with inconvenient emotions. The language gets out of the way of the story and the world-building is nicely revealed in casually dropped details in chunks of "just enough."

I loved that we got the detail that Katniss didn't shave anywhere until the Capitol stylists got their hands on her, and things like her musing on how near-impossible it would be for her to recreate a fancy multi-ingredient dish she eats in the Capitol with what she can scrounge up at home. Definitely ends with the expectation of another book, which always annoys me, but luckily for me, they're all out.

I do think it was a little convenient she never really had to make any ultra-tough calls about killing people, but it's not something that really bothered me. Also I liked the description of the fancy dresses. :D

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
In a Napoleonic-era England where magic has always existed, we (mostly) follow the (mostly) VERY DULL perambulations of the gentlemen/scholar/magicians Norrell and Strange.

This book is probably more something to read for things like "tone," "sentence construction," "tight historical AU," "English identity stuff," "meta novel stuff," "Napoleon," "scholarly in-jokes"... or basically ALMOST ANYTHING but an engaging plot and sympathetic characters. There were some b-level characters who I was fairly interested in, but they spent large chunks of the book frustratingly faerie-mind-controlled or off stage, and I was left feeling a bit dissatisfied at their endings. Meanwhile our protagonists Norrell and Strange have basically a happy ending, even though Norrell was pretty much the cause of the faerie problems, and both spent annoyingly large chunks of the book failing to notice things the author had made clear to the readers.

It's pretty dangerous story-telling-wise to have the main character oblivious to something the readers know. At least for me, I end up spending way too much mental energy thinking "notice XYZ you moron!" at them. This does not make for a happy reader.

btw Strange and Norrell are both gentlemen, fairly rich, and (of course) white. The characters I was more interested in all lacked at least one of these traits. So it was even more annoying that Strange and Norrell get the happiest ending of yay upper-class bros doing some magic together forevs! :P

I suppose it could be read as realistic, but meh. I got the sense the author was thinking I'd be rooting more for Strange and Norrell at the end than I ultimately was. And I'm someone who usually is all about the heroes! It's not that I think the author was exactly unaware of some of the race/class/gender/annoyingness currents, and there's a lot of dry observations that are quite witty about things, but I'd need Pratchett-level charm to get me traveling with these guys happily and that wasn't there.

Norrell especially is presented as very petty and boring... which is fine, but then we follow him in detail for hundreds of pages! And I get the fun of the scholarship stuff and footnotes, but maybe a little more balance towards the magic itself and how it's done and the creepy ineffability of it? The few sections of it were really cool, but so rare and fleeting! At some point it tips from "good job showing how humans would attempt to tame and integrate this ineffable thing into their lives," and into "but wait you are not showing any of the cool parts, like how they actually do the spells half the time.... zzzzz." I suppose it's also realistic that these guys would touch the magical and infinite a bit, but still remain very small-minded, but it's just kind of sad ultimately.

This book is also very long. This no doubt exacerbated the annoying things for me, since I think I would have been much more ok with things like the combo of Norrell's dull unlikability + author's subtle dry wit if I had not been dealing with it for 800+ pages. I mainly continued reading in hopes that something horrible would happen to our "heroes" or that something interesting would happen with the secondary characters... plus pure cussedness once I was over halfway through this brick. But after finishing it, I kind of regret the time spent on it. It makes me feel like a philistine, due to the craft in this book, but I think an abridged version would be much more to my tastes, since there are some quite good sections and cool images and scenes.

Basically would only recommend if it's firmly in your wheelhouse (ie you love English novels/literature, Napoleonic era etc), and save your time if you want sympathetic characters and exciting plot.

A potentially unfair complaint: I didn't think the style of the illustrations matched the tone of the book at all, and didn't like them enough otherwise to be happy with their existence.
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