When do you give up reading a book?

So, when do you give up reading a book? I mean, if you’ve started it, but realise you’re not enjoying it? Do you push on, telling yourself it might get better in the second half, or do you cut your losses, give it to charity/sell it on eBay, and read something else? Is there a point you have to get to (halfway? quarterway? eighthway? Captain Janeway?) to prove to yourself you’ve given it as much chance as it deserves, or can you really only know a book isn’t for you if you’ve read it right to the end?


It’s stupid, but I always feel guilty about giving up on a book instead of finishing it, even if it means slogging through pages of prose that feel like wading through mud. Partly because there’s always the nagging feeling that I’d be missing some magical best bit that redeems the whole thing. As in: “You gave up before the scene with the toadstools? But that’s the whole point of the book! It all makes sense after that!” (Because I did find one of my favourite books, A Voyage to Arcturus, a bit like that till the penultimate chapter made me look at the whole thing in an entirely different way.) But on the other hand, there’s that exchange between Will Self and Richard Littlejohn, about Littlejohn’s novel:

SELF: I’ve read 200 pages of it and that is a 200 page recruiting leaflet for the BNP.

LITTLEJOHN: Well, you can’t comment until you have read the other 200.

SELF: Why? Does it suddenly turn into Tolstoy?

It should be obvious, shouldn’t it? If you’re not enjoying a book, give up and read something else. It’s not going to suddenly turn into Tolstoy. But instead, I agonise. I go to Amazon and read the reviews, hoping for justification that I’m right to give up on it. Inevitably, there are just as many good reviews as bad, which makes me go back to the book and give it a second chance. After all, every book deserves a second chance, doesn’t it? It’s been lovingly crafted by its author as the heartfelt, earnest expression of his or her deep-held beliefs, hasn’t it..? Hey, stop that cynical laughter at the back there!

One of the reasons I agonise, I think, is because of whatever it is that made me buy the book in the first place. You read a blurb or a review, or sometimes (I admit it!) just get a glimpse of a cover, and it lights up your imagination. “Yes, that’s just the book for me!” you think. “I know exactly the sort of thing it’s going to be!” But when you read it, of course, it’s never exactly the sort of thing you imagined it being. A good book — perhaps this is the definition of a good book — is always one that’s so much better than your idea of what it was going to be, that it just wipes out all your expectations, and suddenly the book could only ever be what it is, and you’re so glad you’ve read it.

The Magus by John FowlesBut far too often, it’s the opposite situation. The book’s not quite (or no way near) as good as you imagined. But because you’re still hoping (ever the optimist, me), you keep reading. I find that if I put a book down and stop reading it, I’m all too often haunted by that initial idea of how it could have been. And once or twice, after a few years, I’ve even convinced myself I must have been totally wrong about the book in the first place, and started reading it again — even to the point of having to buy the stupid thing again to do so! (I’m talking about John Fowles’s The Magus, here, which I read to the end, was disappointed, then convinced myself to read all the way through to the end again a couple of years later, because I couldn’t believe it really was as disappointing as it had turned out to be… And then realised it was! So I’ve kept it on my shelf as a reminder. (I liked The Collector, though, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman — apart from the modernist bits, which seemed, oddly enough, rather dated.))

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanThe book I’m wavering over at the moment is Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which sold itself to me as a sort of slightly grown-up, grittier Harry Potter. It’s been getting a lot of attention and reviews. I reached page 75 or so and started faltering. Then I got the far better Logicomix in the post and rushed through that in a couple of days. Then I forced myself back to Grossman’s book and now, about two weeks after I started it, I’m still not halfway through. I keep finding other things to read instead. The trouble is… it’s got no life. The characters have no character. One of them, a girl called Alice, is described as being “painfully shy” (that cliché is bad enough) on one page, and on the next is happily speaking whole paragraphs. In fact, however much the writer tells us she’s shy, she rarely acts it or sounds it. And another weird thing is, for a book about magic, there’s no sense of magic at all. No-one seems excited to be in a college teaching magic. The only good bits — the only bits that have kept me reading, so far — are when Grossman talks about his lead character’s love of a fictional Narnia-type world called Fillory, but that’s such a minor part of the book it’s hardly worth reading the rest for. But I don’t want to write a review of The Magicians (I feel I can’t, because I haven’t finished it yet!). Some people obviously like it. I just happen to find it rather lifeless…

There, I’ve admitted it. Now I can stop reading the damn thing and get on with something I might enjoy. Thousands of books are published ever year, but really, really good books are so rare. What makes it worse is that sometimes it seems everyone else likes books which I find limp, dull or shallow. Which means the limp/dull/shallow ones get published and publicised, and the good ones take some hunting down. (Or perhaps — eek! — don’t get published at all!)

But, you know, what if it does get better in the second half? Damn, maybe I really ought to finish it…



King of the Castle

There are two children’s TV programmes I really remember being frightened by as a kid. (Doctor Who, oddly enough, isn’t one of them, even though I distinctly remember seeing episodes when I was as young as three or four. My mum did once tell me I used to hide behind the sofa to watch it, but I can’t see how, as our sofa was against the wall!) Of one of the programmes, all I can remember are scary shots of power lines and pylons, along with some weird music. A little online research reveals that it must have been The Changes, shown in 1975. Judging by the plot description, that’s one I’d really love to see again, but there’s no DVD release. The other programme I remember, though, has been brought out by Network DVD, earlier this year, so I thought I’d give it a go.

All I remembered from King of the Castle was its basic premise: a kid gets in a lift, which plummets down to some sub-basement level, stranding him in a weird, underground fantasy world. That was enough to scare me back in 1977! And, of course, to make me want to watch it. (The series was planned to be shown during the week, but apparently it was thought too scary, so was moved to the Sunday teatime slot when kids would be watching with their parents. This has long been a traditional time for TV fantasy, usually on the BBC. King of the Castle, though, was ITV.)

Watching the programme now, of course, I wonder what on Earth I found scary about it. Probably, just the opening sequence with its plummeting lift — all that metallic-electric menace is enough for an imaginative kid to start scaring himself silly. The rest of the programme is a bit like a slightly dark Alice in Wonderland, as young Roland (named after the knight in Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came“, which gets quoted at one point) starts journeying his way upwards from the dungeons of the Castle into which he has fallen, encountering its weird denizens on the way, and having to elude their attempts to capture him, enslave him, or just plain kill him. The twist I probably missed back in 1977 is that each of the characters Roland meets in the Castle is a warped, nightmare version of someone from his daily life — his choirmaster becomes a mad scientist who tries to steal his voice, his stepmother becomes an evil sorceress who wants to make him forget his real life and remain with her, and so on. The early episodes all feel a bit, well, episodic — unrelated, and not adding up to an overall story — till we get to the last two or three parts (of seven), when Roland finally reaches the top of the castle and makes himself its king. It’s only then that you get a sense of the journey he’s been on having a more meaningful plot, as all the old characters come back for an Alice in Wonderland-ish trial. Episode two does have a rather effective chase sequence, though, where overlapped images give the scene a fittingly nightmarish confusion:

Throughout, Roland is helped (in various, not always obviously helpful, ways) by Vein, the keeper of the keys (played by the wonderfully Welsh Talfryn Thomas), who serves a role somewhere between the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, with perhaps a bit of Mad Hatter thrown in. It’s he who sees Roland through the journey, even opposing him when he becomes king, which is where the series really picks up. (Unfortunately, that’s right near the end.)

It turns out, of course, to be a rites-of-passage growing up story, as Roland learns to stand up for himself against the people keeping him down in the real world, including a rather pantomime-style bully (who crumbles unconvincingly when Roland finally stands up to him). I was a bit disappointed that Roland demonstrated his new grown-up status by throwing away his comics. Howard the Duck, I’m sure I’d have agreed with, but what about those old copies of Hammer Horror?

And scary moments? The things that seem scary to a kid are quite different from what seems scary to an adult. As I say, at the time the thing that most scared me was the idea of being stuck in that underground world via a plummeting lift. Watching the programme again, the thing I found most scary was the creature that the scientist Hawkspur (played by Fulton Mackay) creates. His attempts to steal Roland’s voice and give it to his creation results in a weird, semi-electronic honking coming out whenever the creature opens its mouth. That seems far more frightening, now, but I probably just found it funny as a kid…


Alice at R’lyeh

Here’s a little project I’ve been working on for a while and now have finally got finished, including bells and whistles (i.e., a mini-website and an actual printed booklet). Alice at R’lyeh is the story of what happens when Lewis Carroll’s Alice finds herself in H P Lovecraft’s nightmare corpse-city R’lyeh, just in time for dread Cthulhu to start stirring from his sleep… Lovecraft and the Cheshire Cat turn up, too. And, as if the whole thing needs another nail in its coffin, it’s told in verse…

If your sanity can stand it, you can read the poem online, or download it as a PDF, and I have a small printing of booklets for sale, too. All at the Alice at R’lyeh mini-site.

Alice at R'lyeh