Wednesday, January 12, 2011

CBR III Review #6 - Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

"It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart." 


I finished this book last night (marking my completion of the series in well under a week, even with a full time job and plans over the weekend), but I needed time to recover before posting.  Anyone who says this series is overrated after reading all three volumes is probably just covering up for the fact that they spent so much time ugly crying over this book.  If the scene with Katniss and Buttercup does not make you ugly cry, you are broken and empty inside.

On to content.  As with the other two books in this series, it’s hard to share too much without ruining what happens.  The last book ended with Katniss being told by Gale that District 12 had been blown up and no longer existed.  Mockingjay picks up with Katniss visiting the ashes of her home.  Peeta, Johanna and several others are being held by President Snow, Katniss is recovering in 13, and the Districts have entered a full fledged war on the Capitol.  Plutarch, who we met in Catching Fire as the new head of the Hunger Games, is working for the President Coin, who runs 13.  He and Coin have plans to use Katniss as The Mockingjay in a series of “propos” (propaganda spots) to inspire the rebels.  Katniss, as is her usual M.O., is incredibly reluctant to jump into this role.  She is adjusting to life in the incredibly regimented 13, and her guilt over the loss of 12 and the captivity of Peeta and the others.

Most of this book delves into the war prep and the war itself, as well as Katniss dealing with her guilt over every life she feels has been lost due to her actions (or inactions, as the case may be).  If you thought Suzanne used up all of her ideas for horrible things to do to people, you’d be wrong.  She comes up with some truly awful things that happen to the characters you have grown to love.  In order to shock Katniss, she has to come up with new things to shock the readers as well.  The first of these comes in the form of what is done with and to our beloved Peeta.  The majority come in the form of the new myriad horrors the Capitol releases on the rebels as booby traps. 

This is not to imply that the entire book is one great big downer.  There are some really lovely moments that happen amidst the atrocities of war, which I feel is a good reflection on reality.  While a lot of what goes on is soul crushingly awful, both for the characters and the reader, there is still hope and joy to be found.
The end of the book feels a little rushed, although that may be because you never really catch your breath.  I’m not sure it’s a bad thing with how bad things get – dragging out some of the bad points might have felt more like torture.  There’s a lovely, brief epilogue (which ALSO made me cry) that lets you know a little more than the last chapter would have left you with.

This is really a lovely, heart wrenching conclusion to some brilliantly written books.  Ignore the YA label and just enjoy them for the great lit that they are!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

CBR III Review #5 - Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

"In that one slight motion, I see the end of hope, the beginning of the destruction of everything I hold dear in the world. I can't guess what form my punishment will take, how wide the net will be cast, but when it is finished, there will most likely be nothing left."


I’ll ask that you kindly refer to my review of Hunger Games to catch up on summary of the series as a whole.  As I warned before, to review this book at all requires me to spoil Hunger Games.  Otherwise all I can do is write vague generalities about writing style.

Catching Fire starts about a month after Hunger Games leaves off.  Katniss is living with her family in Victor’s Village.  She and Peeta have developed an incredibly cold relationship after her confession on the train at the end of Hunger Games.  Katniss keeps sneaking into the woods to hunt, even though she no longer needs to in order to survive.  Most of what she catches she gives to Gale’s family, as he is now working in the mines 6 days a week.  The only time they spend together is hunting on Sundays, but their relationship has been greatly altered by the romance Katniss and Peeta played up in the Games.  Katniss is miserable, trying to determine her feelings for each boy as well as her place in this new world where she no longer has to want for anything.

Soon after, the Victory Tour is set to begin.  After a terrifying visit from President Snow, Katniss realizes this has all gotten much more complicated than she realized.  There are rumblings of dissent and uprisings in the Districts, and it’s possible her romance with Peeta may have no discernible end.  The tour, however, brings many things to light that I won’t spoil here.  Katniss and Peeta prepare for their future, which includes the 75 Games, also known as the Quarter Quell.  The Quarter Quell brings more surprises than they could ever anticipate, and the embers of revolution blossom into flames.

This is a harder book to review at length, because so much of the content has to be left out in order to keep spoiler free.  I’ve read some reviews that label this as a sophomore slump, but I could not disagree more.  I believe the writing matures, the characters deepen, and the pace quickens still further.  I burned through this book faster than its predecessor because I found myself more invested in every twist and turn involved this time around.  Peeta grows from someone I found a little too saccharine to a truly interesting, three dimensional character.  Katniss starts to get a better handle on how this world works, how fucked up the government really is, and her part to play in it all.  And the way the rebellion starts to grow is both natural and engaging.

This book also introduces some wonderful new faces with the fabulous old, many of whom we will follow into Mockingjay.  This book has the first death that really got to me, which I also won’t spoil.  Finnich and Beetee are probably my favorite new characters, and neither of them ends up who you expect them to be.  This makes more sense knowing that the book is from Katniss’s perspective – if she doesn’t have them totally figured out, you shouldn’t either.

I think that’s part of what I like most about this series.  The way Katniss handles her situation feels frustratingly real.  She’s a 17 year old girl, completely unprepared for a lot of what comes her way.  In a lot of lit, this leads to an immediate rise to the occasion, taking on challenges with maturity and intelligence.  Katniss doesn’t really do that.  She fights what she has to do, and doesn’t understand things the way other people thinks she should.  She is, above all things, a kid who has had all of this thrust upon her.  Does this make her annoying from time to time?  You bet your ass. But what 17 year old isn’t?  How she reacts to things feels very real, and I enjoy watching her grow up and mature from the girl who has to endure to the woman who chooses to lead.

Again, totally recommend this whole series.  Will get Mockingjay’s review up once I finally finish it!

CBR III Review #4 - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“Here’s some advice. Stay alive.”

By now, I’m sure most of the world knows the plot of these books and has a general idea of what they are about.  Hell, I’m sure a lot of you have already read them.  But for the sake of those just catching onto this craze, like I was but a week ago, I’ll throw some summary in anyway.

The Hunger Games trilogy (including Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both of which I’ll be reviewing later) is the story of a post apocalyptic society called Panem.  Essentially, we fucked up the earth and it all fell apart.  The people who survived gathered together near Appalachia and formed Panem, a country made of The Capitol and Districts 1-13.  There was a rebellion against the Capitol at one point, which leads to the destruction of District 13 and an oppressive regime controlling the other 12.  Each district is responsible for producing something important to the country’s survival; ie coal in 12, electronics in 3, crops in 11, etc.  Most importantly, the country has a yearly event called The Hunger Games to remind everyone what happens when you rebel, and to keep everyone in line.

Essentially, the games work like this.  There are two “tributes” selected from each District, one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18.  The theory is that it is random, but it’s not.  The poor are able to sign up for things called tesserae, which grant their family more food and grain, but for each of those you sign up for, your name goes in another time.  Also, your name is entered the number of times you’ve been eligible – so if you are 15, even without the tesserae, your name is in the bowl 4 times. The tributes are then shipped off to The Capitol to be trained, interviewed, primped and paraded about for entertainment (and to gain sponsorship from those who can send things into the arena to help them).  When the games begin, the 24 teens enter a battle royale – last one alive is the winner.

Katniss Everdeen is our protagonist in these books.  A young woman from District 12, she is the head of her family since the death of her father in a mining accident.  She hunts and trades illegally with her friend, Gale, and basically keeps her family functioning.  When her sister, Prim, is selected for the Games, she steps up to take her place.  She and the boy tribute, Peeta, are then sent on their way. 
I’m going to stop my summary here, because I really feel like anything else I might say enters spoiler territory and this book should NOT be spoiled for you.  It’s worth it.

My best friend got me into these books, as she is a librarian in an elementary school, so children and YA lit is her milieu.  She raved about these books, and for good reason.  While there is a slow start, the book picks up pacing from the moment they step on the train to the Capitol straight through to the end.  It suffers the same problems of the first installment of any series.  Since they are establishing a world and characters you need to know well to enjoy the rest of the series, it’s bogged down in a lot of exposition to start.  My easiest comparison is Harry Potter.  Sorcerer’s Stone didn’t really get compelling until after Harry’s arrival at Hogwart’s – the same can be said here with Katniss and Peeta heading to The Games.

I want to stress something very important – these books are NOT for young children.  What happens during the Games is dark and graphic, and at times disturbing for an adult mind, let alone a young one.  I appreciate Suzanne’s unwillingness to compromise on this, since to do so would miss the point.  But I wouldn’t expose anyone under maybe 13 to this writing.  Hell, maybe older than that.

The characters of Peeta and Katniss make wonderful foils to one another.  Peeta is full of charm and light and Katniss is so lost and negative.  I think my two favorite characters in this volume are Haymitch, the mentor (aka previous Hunger Games victor), and Cinna, Katniss’s stylist.  They are developed in such lovely ways, and add so much dimensionality to the story.

I’m still finishing up Mockingjay, but I can already strongly recommend the entire series to anyone who thinks they can handle the kid-on-kid violence.  It’s a real page turner that I had trouble putting down (so I finished it in about a day) and I’m going to miss these characters when I finish the final volume.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

CBR Review #3 - Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein

 'Walk away from the story and walk away from your job, and it'll be like it never happened. Write the article, and there is nowhere in this country that we will not hunt you down. Understand?'"

Tokyo Vice is a true crime account of a Jewish American reporter who gets in way over his head working the police beat in Japan.  Jake Adelstein, graduate of the Sophia school, essential decides on a whim to become a report.  His natural skill with both English and Japanese (and some moxy as well as a great deal of luck) earn him a place on the staff of the Yomiuri Shinbun, the largest print publication in Japan.  The novel follows his journey from his first assignment in Saitama to his incredible take-down of a yakuza crime boss.  

I'll admit, I was drawn to this book when I saw Jake interviewed on The Colbert Report.  It's a different book than I had anticipated, being far more about Jake's time as a journalist in Japan and far less about his battle with the yakuza (in fact, the primary issue that is addressed in the book's Prologue, regarding Goto, isn't approached till the last quarter of the book).  At first I wondered why we weren't getting to the heart of this yakuza thing faster.  However, Jake's stories of life and reporting on the police beat in Japan sucked me in.  I'm slightly biased on this subject matter - I work for a Japanese company and am constantly seeking ways to understand the culture that built the organization I work for, and that so many of my colleagues come from.  This book gave me some really interesting insight into the seedier side of Japan.

Jake jumps around a bit, which makes his narration a little inconsistent, but his heart is in the right place.  His relationships with certain recurring characters are my favorite moments.  His evenings spent with Sekiguchi, the cop, and his family.  His unfortunate relationships with the women in his life.  All of the little details that make the story Jake's are also what make the story interesting.  You can tell that he has more ease with Japanese than with English - his use of Japanese idioms is fabulous, while some of his English feels a little stiff.

This is an overall great read.  I'd highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys good non-fiction.