Miss Kate’s CBRV reviews #10, 11,12: The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

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(Ok, I’m really going to start writing these reviews as I read this year instead of waiting!)

ANYWAY. I’m a little late to this party, and probably the last person I know to read these books. My husband has had the first movie uploaded to our Tivo for awhile, and we haven’t watched it because I wanted to read the books first!

Anyway, in the future, after the oceans rise and North American continent has been reshaped, the former United States is now called Panem. Split into 12 districts, they are ruled over by the Capitol. There had been 13 districts, but 75 years before the 13th district led a rebellion against the Capitol. The rebellion was crushed, and the 13th District was detroyed. As a lesson to the rest, every year the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games. Two young people from each district are chosen to compete in a fight to the death. The people are forced to watch, and the winner gets food and shelter for themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.

Katniss Everdeen is a 16 year old girl living in District 12 (what is currently Appalachia). She hunts illegally with a bow to feed her mother and sister. She’s a tough cookie, but she has to be to survive. When her little sister’s lot is chosen in the Hunger Games, Katniss takes her place.

She is sent to the Capitol to prepare for the games with Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son and the other “tribute” from District 12. There they are trained and sent into the arena to meet and try to kill the tributes from the other districts.

The first book, The Hunger Games, tells of this first competition. It’s harsh. I’ve heard these books described as the “anti-Twilight”, and while they are more than that, I can’t think of two more opposite characters than Katniss and Bella. Katniss is smart, resourceful, but also vulnerable in a way that feels genuine. She’s not supergirl, but she’s pretty awesome. Young girls need more characters like her. The Hunger Games ends with the end of the competition and announcing of the winner.

Catching Fire starts where the first book left off. We find Katniss dealing with the consequences of her decisions in the arena. The Capitol is not happy with her. I won’t spoil it, but she has to go back and compete again, this time against new characters. This book felt the shortest, and I read through it pretty quickly. Where the first spent time setting up the Hunger Games universe, this just rolled right out of the gate and was fast paced.

Mockingjay, like Catching Fire, begins exactly where the second book ends. In this book, Katniss finds herself the unwilling symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. I think while good, (and a fitting end to the trilogy), I enjoyed this book the least. The pacing is necessarily slower – there is a great deal of soul-searching and we do see growth from all of the characters.

There is a quote that runs through all 3 books, from Haymitch, former champion and mentor to the tributes from 12: “Always remember who the real enemy is.” In the end, Katniss does.

Read more reviews at misskatesays.com: http://misskatesays.com/2014/01/04/miss-kates-cbrv-reviews-10-1112-the-hunger-games-trilogy-by-suzanne-collins/

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The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #43: The Chosen

Hi.

How are you?

How’s the family?

Here’s my last book review of the year (more than my half-cannonball, less than a full), hope to hear from you in the new year!

I picked up Chaim Potok again this fall in order to offer an alternate text to students who had either already read, or were personally opposed to another book in my standard curriculum. As I did I remembered just how detailed and immersive a writer he is.

Covering the often tenuous uncertainty of friendship between an hasidic and a modern Jew in 1940s era New York City, Potok gives plenty of details about the cultural conflict between each sect. He also has an impressive ability to weave international incidents into the flow of a story with natural grace, giving the reader a sense of time as well as place.

But Potok’s best sense of immersion is at play in how he describes the people. Characters are rich and detailed, their behaviors motivated through histories both ancient and personal. Reuven, Danny and their fathers are beautifully crafted and sincerely engaging. They seem less like characters you’re reading about and more like people you’re sitting beside.

Before I prepared the quizzes and assignments associated with the book, I had described The Chosen as “a classic that captures friendship, feuds, growing up and growing old.”Re-reading it, I feel like I can shorten that again to “a classic”.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR Review #36: Eleanor and Park

 

I’m the guy who hated Romeo and Juliet (spare me captain boner and lady dumbass). I’m the guy who hated Wuthering Heights (go jump off a moor Heathcliff, I like the cat better anyway). I’m the guy who shakes his head at every protestation of love I ever hear from students, every hand-holding, sweetly embracing pair of fools who will end up in tears in just a few weeks.

I’m also the guy who nearly broke down crying at this book. Rainbow Rowell doesn’t try to oversell the seriousness of the relationship, it’s not life or death–but it may feel that way. She doesn’t try to make her characters more mature than their years (they seem downright childish at times), nor does she make it infantile crushing. You have to root for a pair of kids who seem so familiar to us all and so eager to live for the sake of living.

It’s a supremely sweet story, honest and exhilirating and a little bit brutal…just like teenage romance is.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #35 Winger

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Another realistic and truly genuine teenager…the only problem is that in creating him Andrew Smith created a genuine teenage voice: one that is by turns immature and absurdly irritating. While the book jacket is laden with praise for how marvelous the main character/narrator, Ryan Dean West is, I couldn’t help but think he was the most egotistical whiner since Harry Potter in book 5 (without an ounce of Harry’s heroism), and the most gratingly obnoxious snot since Holden Caufield (though at least Holden owned his profanity).

Smith’s reliance on giving his narrator a limited vocabulary is primarily responsible for this. Sure, most teenage boys have a limited vocabulary and turn almost any situation into a homophobic slur, but doing it again and again despite the West’s repeated claims that he’s not homophobic (and that he’s the smartest kid in the whole school) just seems hypocritcal. Sure, teenagers struggle to change, but when West spends almost 400 pages turning every image of a woman into an instant sexual fantasy, the final 50 pages of maturity is a little underwhelming. And the less said about the Ryan-Dean-Hyper-Hyphenated-Scales-of-Irritatingly-Punctuated-Asshattery the better.

I will admit, Smith is spot on in his portrayal of boarding school culture, so much so that I found myself missing my old stomping grounds in India, despite the irritatingly pompous protagonist. And one of the final lines contains a kernel of truth that almost redeems the rest of the reading experience: “almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and maybe, not having it.” But ultimately, no matter how brave it is to write a brutally honest teenage character, if you fail to balance a teen’s maturity with his immaturity, you will alienate the reader as much as an average teenager alienates their neighborhood.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #34 Out of the Easy

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Ruta Sepetys’ protagonist is less easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp of 18: boys to choose from, applying to college, dealing with an absentee father, finding friends, balancing academics and work, avoiding the same mistakes her mother made, growing into her womanhood.

Of course, she’s also the daughter of a prostitute who is also caught up in a murder investigation set in 1950’s era New Orleans, so it’s not exactly a perfect match.

Still, It’s a credit to Sepetys that her characters are believable and the setting feels fresh rather than mothballed or stuffed with overwrought sentiment. The 50s and its segregated past are there, so is the setting of New Orleans, dank and musty. And still we can connect to the drama surrounding Jo, wondering whether or not she can break the cycle of dependency and degradation of life in the French Quarter and find a better place somewhere else.

It’s a further credit to Sepetys that she makes us care whilst juggling plotlines like a stilted mardi-gras parader juggles flaming torches. At times it feels a little ungainly (again, like the juggler on stilts), lunging for a plot point that you might have forgotten about, but she keeps them all in the air, and builds her world with a number of valuable, believable characters (even amongst those who only appear for a page or two).

In the end, Out of the Easy beautifully pairs a rich setting with a believable (if not entirely relatable) character. As Jo gradually ticks off each of her dramas, she becomes a powerful and winning character whose setting enriches her, even as she seeks to escape it.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #20: Who Could That Be at This Hour?

Blahblahblah shameless plug, blahblahblah please read my other writing, blahblahblah here’s the link: The Scruffy Rube.

I don’t know where to begin with Lemony Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler’s) newest foray into the world of the series. “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, whose weird and wild sense of mystery incorporated a plethora of new vocabulary words and a huge helping of literary, scientific and philosophical allusions, offered an exciting alternative to the Boy Scout of Hogwarts. And after the final book (fittingly titled The End) Handler seemed all too happy to walk away from Snicket, satisfying himself with silly one offs like the hilariously Hannukkah-themed Latka Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming.

 

Yet Snicket is back in a series titled “All the Wrong Questions” which begins with Who Could That Be at This Hour? A prequel of sorts that throws us into the world of Snicket before he was simply the chronicler of the Baudelaire triplets’ exploits, WCTBATH takes us to an odd setting, filled with odd adults and odd children in which only our protagonist can offer a rational perspective.

 

There’s plenty of mystery and vocabulary to play around with, and even a few well chosen allusions (though, since Snicket is a child at this stage he only alludes to classic children’s literature). But there’s simply no core to the characters. Snicket always remained mysterious, aloof and distant as the narrator of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” so you don’t really know him, and you don’t particularly care about him in this book. Nor do you have any fear about what will happen to him, because, obviously he goes on to a whole other series in a few years.

 

Having a big walking question mark as your protagonist leaves you hoping that supporting cast members will carry the load, but there’s none of the quirky magic that filled “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. No random lectures on Herpetology or digressions into goofy divinations, instead there’s just a pack of local people who lack an ounce of the depth you find in the other series.

 

When clever characterization is stripped away, all that is left is a pile of authorial idiosyncrasies and a plot so wrapped up in mystery that you’re not only unsure about what happens, but unsure why you should care. As a fan of Snicket’s/Handler’s, I was truly disappointed to reach that conclusion.

 

Here’s hoping I missed something, that some commenter will correct me, that someone somewhere out there knows why an authorial encore should be cheered for and applauded every bit as loudly as the first finale. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #19: The Red Pyramid

For more on young adult fantasy literature (especially meta-cognitive thoughts about the nature of YA Franchises) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

Rick Riordan never really left the page. One year after finishing the Percy Jackson series he was back with not one but two series. The similarly Greek themed “Heroes of Olympus” and an Egyptian styled series called: “The Kane Chronicles”. My school happened to have a cache of The Red Pyramid the first book in “The Kane Chronicles”, so naturally I picked up a copy both to see if Riordan still had a deft touch for action-adventure with a dollop of mythological education, and to see if it was worth discussing in the classroom.

 

To be sure, Riordan has a teacher’s style, a strong ear for teenage dialogue and a fair sense of fun when delving into exposition heavy monologues. He attacks Egyptian mythology with the same sincere appreciation of history and coming-of-age stories that made Percy Jackson such a pleasure to read, and seems all too happy to guide readers beyond American shores into London, Paris and Cairo.

 

Beyond different deities, Riordan separates “The Kane Chronicles” from Percy Jackson in one major way: altering the narrative focus from a single first-person point of view, to a pair of narrators telling their story through an “audio recording” that comes close to second-person point of view. It’s a clever conceit, one that I haven’t seen done in young adult series before and it helps to equalize the power balance between his two protagonists, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane.

 

Unfortunately, that conceit also mucks up the act of story telling. The story starts with a plea to go quickly and a sense of urgency, then the narrators fixate on prosaic style. I readily believe that teenagers (whether they’re descended from an ancient order of Egyptians or not) would record their every thought, feeling and interest. I don’t know as I can make the leap from that kind of teenager, to the kind who possesses an incredible recall for events of several months before or who casually incorporates description like: “His clothes were similar to those he’d worn the day before, and I had to admit the guy had style. His tailored suit was made of blue wool, he wore a matching fedora and his hair was freshly braided with dark blue lapis lazuli“particularly if there’s an urgency to telling the reader a particular story.

 

While Sadie and Carter often sound like teenage siblings (particularly in the bickering, squabbling, under-your-breath insult arena), they also sound far more worldly than any teenager/magician/possible demi-god has a right to. The narrative bogs down in their descriptions and whenever there’s a hint of an explanation coming up, both characters are hurtled into a fresh action sequence, jumping from one monster to the next with a seemingly interchangeable array of adult guardians.

 

Still, give Riordan credit. He knows enough about what fans want to read (action and a healthy dose of mythology) that he can satisfy them while exploring other avenues of his own artistic interests as well (altering the narrative format, expanding the world around him). He even gives a satisfying glimpse into social dynamics of a mixed-race family, even if that point gets largely subsumed by falcon heads, swinging swords, ravenous hippopotami and plenty of explosions. I might not have asked for an encore to Percy Jackson, but I can’t say that Riordan’s half-assing his way off stage.