Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I am not a trendsetter. I don’t own an i-phone, I don’t live in a funky suburb, I’m not sure what the hip kids are up to these days, and wearing cartoon-character T-shirts to the gym seems to be something only I find pleasing. And yet in the last few months I have had a taste of what it might be like to be one of those cool cats who live on the cutting edge of the in-the-know zeitgeist. And all because everyone in the known universe has wanted to borrow my copies of the ‘Hunger Games’ series.*

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and it’s fab. Yep. Why bother with 600 words of  thoughtful consideration before sharing my (always subjective and entirely  personal) views on the novel. Plus it’s been three weeks since a post, it’s time to get moving. So. It’s great. Top-shelf action and adventure for the young adult in your life, and all the adults who like reading young adult books.

This novel fits in neither the Here nor There categories I decided to straitjacket myself with earlier in the year. Unless of course it fits the latter in a ‘never want to have to go There’ fashion. Panem is not a country you want to live in. It’s not even a country you want that Lexus-driver who cut you off this morning to live in. It’s certainly not where you want the characters you give such a damn about to have to exist, even if they have won the Hunger Games and have an easier life than they had before. And that’s all a ruse, anyway. We wouldn’t be launching ourselves into book 2 if we thought all we were going to be reading about was a couple of teenagers living in nice houses trying to make the poor folk around them have a slightly-nicer-than-down-right-horrible existence. Something sinister is afoot and it’s got that evil bastard President Snow’s fingerprints all over it.

In the first bookour heroes Katniss and Peeta fool the Capitol into making them both the victors in the annual Hunger Games—a (traditionally) winner-takes-all fight to the death for conscripted teenagers from the downtrodden districts of Panem. In this second book the Capitol seeks it revenge, throwing Peeta and Katniss back into the arena with a group of previous games victors, for the ultimate-mega-champion fight to the death. Once again the vicious reality of kill or be killed faces our heroes and their fellow competitors. Who is aligning with whom? Who can truly be trusted? Will Katniss save Peeta again? Or will he foil her plan as he tries to keep the girl he loves alive? And back in the districts there are whispers of rebellion; a bubbling undercurrent of anger fuelled by generations of wrong; and a growing sense that the girl who beat the Capitol once, can lead them all to do it again.

Suzanne Collins has written a heart-stopper of a novel; suspenseful, action-packed, stirring. Yes, there is violence. And gore, misery and destruction. Senseless death and ruthless greed. But there are wonderful characters (especially Peeta, oh how I love Peeta), endearing relationships, bravery, selflessness, humour and inspirational acts, with only the occasional tinge of sentimentality wafting in. All together they meld into a well-plotted and executed story that when I wasn’t reading it had me permanently distracted from any other task I was meant to be focusing on. Who wants to work/shop/exercise/socialise/eat when they could be reading Catching Fire?

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* And they’re not even my copies but were lent to me by my friend Kate, who is one of those lovely, generous, kindhearted people who doesn’t mind that I dish out her  books to all and sundry like some kind of short-order cook.

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Book 25: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This is one of those books I almost didn’t read because the gushing had become close to overbearing (I tend to the Public Enemy way of responding to this sort of thing: don’t believe the hype). I mean really, how good can a book be? … Well, of course, we all know the answer to that: pretty bloody good. But was this book?

Let’s face it, any story full of banter between friends, cricket-talk and description, writing and book talk, and a sound argument for why Batman is the greatest superhero ever is going to be a book for me. Fill it with sensitive, funny, conflicted, awkward, brave, smart, endearing teenage-boy characters and I’m all over it.

I love Craig Silvey’s writing because I love reading good dialogue and there is a lot of that in this book. It’s strong, funny, informs us of the characters and progresses the plot. I adore the way Jeffrey and Charlie converse.

When reading Jasper Jones I could smell the eucalyptus, hear the cicadas and taste the dust in the back of my throat. Maybe because I was far from home when reading it I was more attuned to these aromas of Australiana wafting through the novel, but I suspect it was more to do with Mr Silvey’s writing.

I’m a little bit in love with all three of the boy-characters, for different reasons. Charlie for his brain and slight awkwardness, for his phobias and uncontrollable adolescent reactions; Jeffrey for his enthusiasm, bravery and sport-loving; Jasper for his strong-silent-type qualities, for his survival… plus he sounds pretty hot. Jeffrey is certainly my favourite – he’s fantastic, hilarious, a gem of a character. I adore him. Though of course he prefers Superman, which is where I must side with Charlie…

I devoured this book in three sittings, which for me is frickin’ fast. Backpackering in Nova Scotia, I had no interest in those pastimes the young kids like to participate in during the evening hours. Pub crawl? Oh no, I have a book to read.

I’m glad in the end that I missed reading Jasper Jones when everyone else – including my book group – was reading it. Sometimes when a book is buzzing you can get caught up in everyone else’s enthusiasm and in some ways, that can deplete your individual enjoyment of it. You have to cast the experience within the group (you remember who liked it and didn’t, forget whether your favourite bit was yours or someone else’s). I now understand their enthusiasm, but am secretly thrilled that I had the Jasper Jones experience to myself.

If you haven’t read it, go and get yourself a copy. Pronto.

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Canadian depository: Bookshelf at Charlottetown Backpackers Inn, Prince Edward Island.

Book Five: Mr Pip, Lloyd Jones

mr-pipPeople who like books and reading like to read books about books and reading. And as you would assume that novelists are included in that bunch of  ‘people’ there are a lot of novels out there with books, reading, libraries and authors as their theme. Mr Pip is a novel about how one novel in particular was an integral part of a girl’s life and the affect it had on her life.

The novel in question is Great Expectations. This was probably the main reason I wanted to read Lloyd Jones’ award-winning novel. I love Dickens and as a result I tend to want to read novels that claim to be about him or one of his novels (look out for Wanting and Hard Times later on in the year). Why do I love Charles Dickens? His works give me great pleasure, and for me, that is one of the best compliments I can give a book. Yes they are long and ye old-e world-e and he loved a bit of over-drama and poor, forlorn females but I love them I tell you. But back to Mr Pip.

Set in PNG in  the 1990s during  the troubles between mine, rebels, Port Moresby, Francis Ona etc. (if you can’t tell, my understanding of this time in PNG is extremely limited) the lone white man left on the island teaches school by reading Great Expectations to his charges. This man – Mr Watts – is a mystery in himself, and the combination of this and the wondrous spell of ‘Mr Dickens’ entrances the narrator, Matilda, and her fellow pupils.

Throughout the story we learn of the effect Great Expectation‘s protagonist, Pip, has on our own protagonist. We also learn of the simple life she and her fellow villagers are living and the very real fear they live with being the pawns in a battle between the  government’s ‘redskins’ and the rebels. In a way it is an easy-to-read non-taxing kind of narrative. A simple story in a way. But it is powerful and though I won’t give it away the climax is all the more affecting because of the ease in which you have read up to it.

I think that is the success of this novel. It appears like a small, easy read but it is actually quite layered. Because you follow most of it through the eyes of a young girl who knows nothing but this small village, I found myself often falling into step with her innocence and merely enjoying her enjoyment in Mr Dickens and Pip. I knew what dangers she and her village were in, I knew there was vast poverty and sorrow, I knew that we couldn’t ignore the rebels, soldiers and coups and I knew that there had to be more to Mr Watts, but tended to join Matilda at her level of understanding of life until we were both forced to face reality.

I can’t say I adored Mr Pip the way I adore Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Great Expectations, but I can see why it has come in to so much praise. It’s definitely worth a read – if anything because it speaks to us book people of something we can utterly relate to: the power a book (books) has to change, enhance, support and shape our lives.