May 2010 archive

#19: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey by Jasper FfordeEddie Russet was planning to take his exam, marry Constance Oxblood, never ask any questions, and live a useful life. But then he and his father get shipped to the Outer Fringes, where everything is a little weird, and among other unpleasant people he meets Jane, who (between attempts to kill him) lets him in on the fact that there’s a lot to question in the world… and not just why they’re forbidden to manufacture spoons.

If that summary seemed a bit confused, that’s more or less how I felt reading the book. I really wanted to like Shades of Grey; I very much enjoyed Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and a friend had recommended it to me, so I had high expectations. Unfortunately, it just didn’t quite work for me. But I think that’s in equal parts because of me as a reader as it is about the book itself.

About the book itself, well, I’m not sure prose is the best form for this story. It’s a story about color — specifically, it’s sort of a dystopia, taking place 500 years after Something That Happened,1 and now people are entirely different (I was never quite sure how, but they can see only tiny bits of the color spectrum, one color each, and the society is organized around how much of what color people can see; and there were other things, mentions to how they look at paintings of the Previous and see exaggerated differences between the sexes and creepily large eyes; they have barcodes growing on them, are susceptible to mildew and spores, and often get limbs torn off and sewn back on, so… huh). It’s hard to represent those things, especially the importance of color and how much of it people can see, in a completely non-color, non-image medium. There are also a lot of weird and whimsical elements, which might have worked better visually, too.

But aside from that, I’ve come to realize in the last couple of years that I’m really into structure, and that extends from what I write into what I’m reading. Which means, among other things, I have no interest in stories where the protagonist isn’t actively engaged. If the main character isn’t trying to do something, even just figure out what’s going on, I get bored. I know some characters and some stories don’t require the protag to act in as huge a way as others; the fact that epic adventures loan themselves to, well, epic struggles is part of why sci fi and fantasy appeal to me so much. I get that not every story has that; not every story needs that. But, as a reader, I need something to latch on to — a sense that there’s a story going on, and not just a person drifting through events. Or if the character is drifting, at least a sense that the character cares about the events and would like to figure out why they’re happening.

Eddie Russet spent three quarters of the book not doing that. He wanted to marry Constance, but didn’t spend much time on it — he wasn’t in love with her or anything, she was just the best option, so he was only attempting to woo her because it seemed like he ought to. He did want to pursue Jane, but for most of the book was intimidated out of it. Weird things kept happening to him and around him, but for the most part he wasn’t too concerned about it. His society considers it unacceptable (not to mention impolite) to question things, so he didn’t, just sort of collected awareness of the things going on around him.

The last quarter of the book does pick things up. Eddie finds himself with yet another potential… well, not love interest, but marriage prospect. As he attempts to get away from her, he agrees to lead a dangerous expedition, and in the course of that he figures out a few things, has a few more shown to him, and is finally forced to make real decisions, pick a position, and stick with it. Not shockingly, that was my favorite part of the book!

My other, much more minor, issues: I had trouble keeping track of who a lot of the minor characters were, and I found much of the book just over the edge of Weird For the Sake of Being Weird. Then again, I know a lot of my friends enjoy that a lot more than I do. So basically, it boils down to this: if, like me, you are really into the pacing and structure as elements of what you read, this might not be the book for you. But if you enjoy voice and tone, this book very easily could work for you. It’s yet another case where I don’t think what I’ve read is a bad book, it just isn’t a book for me.

  1. Significant Caps abound.

#18: The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mike Cochrane

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mike CochraneSince Molly’s father died, everything has felt a little bit off. Especially her mother, who has become distant and unreachable. Molly has no idea what to do — until she rediscovers her love of baseball, the game her dad taught her to play, and decides to go out for her school’s team. Not the girl’s softball team, with it’s larger, softer ball, but the real baseball team — and she has a secret weapon, the knuckleball pitch her father taught her.

This book is lovely. One of my very good friends recommended it to me, because she knows I love books about baseball and family, and, well, that’s this book exactly. And there are so many wonderful things this book gets right: Molly’s exasperation with her mom, who she loves but doesn’t know how to talk to; the weird, pressure-filled feeling of talking to a boy she maybe sort of likes but maybe just wants to be friends with.

The book’s tone is distant, more like someone’s memory than an immediate story. And one narrative quirk I didn’t love that goes along with that was semi-frequent telling-rather-than-showing; scenes summed up as, “Later, he and Molly would discuss their families, and she’d get to know him better,” or, “Later, she and her mother would make up.” It does fit with the book’s tone, but at the same time, it was frustrating because some of those scenes were important character things — it would have made Lonnie’s apprehension over seeing his father and step-mom more powerful if we’d actually seen how hurt he was by his parents’ divorce, rather than a third-hand account as the narrative summed up what he’d told Molly about how he felt.

But I loved Molly, and I especially loved Celia, her best friend, who was somewhat of a weirdo. (Always with a craft project, a font of random knowledge, outspoken on social issues… basically, the character I most identified with.) I loved a few of the messages within the book: that one minor failure, even if it’s embarrassing, is really not the end of the world; and more importantly, that it’s okay to want things, and work hard for them, and be upset when they don’t work out. They’re small lessons in the grand scheme of things, but I think important ones, and beautifully presented as Molly tries to figure out how to forgive her dad for dying.