Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

It seems to me that ‘these days’ we can’t leave a good thing alone. Suddenly a Snickers has almonds it, pizza’s gone tandoori, TV shows need a film release, films need a sequel—and now a prequel, and successful young adult books must be trilogised.

The fact is that  Suzanne Collins’ first book in the Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games, could stand by itself. There was nothing about it that required sequels to be written, except that it was successful. In saying this, I really liked books two and three, but I think this is a good opportunity to highlight the integrity of book one, and that if it had been a ‘one-off’ story the novel would still have been a great success and still been a book you would recommend to others. Actually, not just recommended to others, but waved about and tried to foist on them.

But here we are with book three, Mockingjay, after a perfectly enjoyable book two and, to be honest, I was darn excited to be reading it. Who needs to work or organise moving overseas when they can be reading an adventure tale? Or, as it was more realistically in my case, who needs to be sleeping at all?

I know some people, loyal readers of this blog included, were left a little disappointed with books two and three in this series. As one so wonderfully stated her case: ‘My view is that it’s like The Matrix—you’d prefer that movies two and three had never blighted the face of the earth. I’m not quite as harsh about this, but book one was such perfection that anything was going to be a letdown…’. I suppose I haven’t felt as let down by the sequels as some have, although in retrospect book two is definitely the weakest of the three. But hell, it was still good, and there was clearly a lot I liked about it or I wouldn’t have been so positive. Sure the ‘let’s have an ultimate Hunger Games’ plot could have indicated a little panic on the author’s part, but if that’s what it was initially she certainly turned things around by using book two to set up book three and conclude the series in splendid fashion. Because sure, book three is not book one (if a more obvious and redundant statement has ever been made please let me know), but you know what? I thought it was pretty darn good. (Oh, this may be where, for the sake of a review-gauge, I point out that I also liked the second and third Matrix movies. Okay, the third not so much.)

Mockingjay leaves the Hunger Games’ arenas behind as we follow our heroine Katniss in her new not-so-rosy life in District 13 and her involvement in the rebellion’s plot to overthrow the Capitol once and for all. But who is seeking to destroy who? And for what? And in exactly what way is Katniss their secret weapon? And during all this empire building, where is Peeta?

The final novel in the Hunger Games series takes us into the streets of the Capitol as the rebellion assault begins, and we travel with Katniss and her team as they navigate the twists and turns of the booby-trapped city. Collins doesn’t hold back as the realities and randomness of war affect the characters in ways we’d rather not deal with. And then there is Peeta, dear Peeta, who is fighting a war within himself, against his enemies, against his friends, against Katniss.

There were easier ways to complete a Hunger Games trilogy. We could have seen an arena battle three times over and merely had some of the faces change, we could have focused on the love story between Katniss and Peeta and watched everyone live happily ever after, some kind of vampire could have been involved. I don’t think Suzanne Collins took the easy way out. When faced with turning her first wonderful novel into a trilogy she looked at the world she had created and expanded the tale she would tell. In the end, the whole of Panem was an arena—filled with dangers and people with personal vendettas, with people who would kill you as soon as look at you, with power struggles and turncoats and a foreboding sense that at any moment you were probably going to die. But it also contained people you could trust, people who would sacrifice themselves for others, who would help you reach your goals; it was an arena where there was hope and redemption and not just for the ultimate winner.

The Hunger Games is most certainly Suzanne Collins piece de resistance, but the whole series is more than worth your reading time, and Mockingjay is a very fine way to end it all. If you like young adult adventure tales set in a ruthless dystopic future-world, you will like the Hunger Games trilogy. In fact, you will love it. And the books will also appeal to you if you just want to read a set of addictive, well-written stories that keep you on the edge of your seat and manage to remain reasonably devoid of cliche in both character and prose. Whether you will like them based on your opinion of The Matrix film series, I just cannot say.

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.

V is for Virtual Reality

Sometimes I finally get around to doing one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and end up disappointed. Perhaps the anticipation outweighs the pleasure of completing the task. Perhaps it was never a good idea to begin with. Being a dedicated, loyal type of person doesn’t help.  Something I agreed to months earlier, or decided was a new interest, has—as a notion—passed its natural expiry date but I am loath to let it go due to my previous commitment and/or original enthusiasm. When it turns out well I congratulate myself on going through with the activity; when it doesn’t I wish I’d kept it as merely a happy thought in my head.

Earlier in the year my book group read Neuromancer by William Gibson. Touted as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the best science fiction novel, the book that invented the internet etc. we thought we’d give it a whirl. After all, there were Dr Who fans among us, we could read science fiction and love it. Plus a few of us had been meaning to read it for, oh, a decade or so. As I traipsed off to my independent genre bookshop, I was feeling all uber-geeky and techno-cool at the thought of crossing this ‘intended task’ off my list. But in the end I felt a little deflated. The techo-cool became techno-tepid.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept—the ideas—are fantastic. Even 27 years after the book was published. They’re probably not as ‘unique’ as they were back in the early eighties, but then, as you read it you see that Neuromancer was most likely where a whole lot of writers and filmmakers got their inspiration. So I appreciated it from that point of view. I liked its dystopic, grungy, metallic feel. And, in a small way, I liked that I was getting around to reading it. But liking a concept and being able to tick it off your list are different things to making a connection with a book.

This could be one of those times when my reading and comprehension abilities let me down, but honestly, if I hadn’t seen The Matrix trilogy I would have had a hard time visualising (and somewhat following) what was going on in cyberspace. Maybe if you spent your adolescent years pulling  apart motherboards it would all make sense, but I struggled at times to have a clear idea of ‘what was going on’ when protagonist Case was in the system, and to move on in the novel I just had to continue blindly and assume my brain would pick things up again when it could. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re after some literary leaps of faith, but potentially frustrating for a reader who is spending more time trying to comprehend, instead of engage.

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m failing to connect with a book I start finding other things wrong with it, and the current edition that I read left a little to be desired production-wise. As an editor I know more than anyone that there are always small mistakes in books but Neuromancer has been kicking around for almost three decades and yet it seems no one could be bothered on one of the trillion reprintings it must have had to fix any basic typos, dodgy line spacing, or update the internal design to something that looked less Gutenberg. The cover was pretty naff as well, in my opinion.

None of these whinges should have too much effect on a reader if they are loving what they’re reading, but this wasn’t my experience. Maybe seminal cyberpunk just isn’t my thing, and I’m happy to accept that. I’m also happy to accept that I may be a narrow-brained dunce and missed the whole point, but William Gibson’s breakthrough novel just didn’t leave me feeling particularly enlightened or entertained, just kind of fuzzy-minded and slightly disappointed. Even the satisfaction of doing something I’d been meaning to do for years wasn’t quite enough. In the end the biggest influence it had on me was that it made me want to watch The Matrix again.

H is for Hunger

Despite not being able to describe myself as a ‘young adult’ – I recently turned 30, but who’s counting? – YA fiction still appeals to the reading-me. Is it because I’m hopelessly immature? Borderline illiterate? Has moving back to my parents’ house led to some kind of mental and/or emotional regression?

Or are there things about teen novels which make them more generally appealing? Gone are the days when one stopped reading young adult fiction when one left high school. Harry Potter and the Tomorrow When the War Began series proved that, the Vampires continue to prove that. If the story is strong enough, if the characters appeal, if there is a thrill-aspect, if there is something in the writing or narrative which ‘speaks to’ the reader, then a book can be for anyone, no matter its target market or placement in the bookshop, no matter – in this case – the Stephenie Meyer quote on the cover.

H is for Hunger because our book on this occasion is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a thoroughly enjoyable, well-told adventure tale set in a frightening future-America.

Each year the wealthy, powerful, slightly mysterious Capitol demands tributes from its 12 downtrodden districts. A tribute of 2 children from each district to fight all the other tributes in the annual Hunger Games. Fight each other to death. There can be only one, and that one, after managing to survive the carnage of battle and malevolence of the gamemakers, can return to their district victorious, rich and able to provide for their families and neighbours. Katniss volunteers herself as District 12’s girl-tribute when her younger sister’s name is drawn from the ballot. Peeta is the boy-tribute, the baker’s son who has always been in love with Katniss – or has he?

What follows is a well-conceived story, told with little of the condescension or over-explanation which sometimes weaves its way through novels aimed at readers of a certain age. Suzanne Collins’ novel is smart, intense, emotive and entertaining. The characters have weight to them, the plot kept me guessing, and on a personal note even the dash of teen romance managed to not yuck me out (high praise indeed!).

The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy though you can tell that it was originally written as a complete tale, as there is no narrative reliance on stringing things out. Sure there are plotlines and a couple of stray comments which I can see will be expanded on in the upcoming books but I wouldn’t have finished the story feeling dissatisfied if the end was the end. I’m pleased there are more books to come (the third is published any day now) because I was so entertained and I like the characters, but at the same time I do wonder if ‘we’ sometimes overdo the series-thing. Can’t a good story simply sit on its own without being stretched out or built upon over more and more books? I say this as a reader who occasionally feels overcommitted with all the series I’m trying to keep on top of (books and television!), which I need to try to read before accidentally finding out what happens; either by an enthusiastic friend, oblivious stranger or ill-conceived internet search. As a publishing professional I, of course, understand the advantages of releasing series, especially for the younger folk who will want to ‘collect them all’. My shelves, too, were once lined with Pen Pals and Girl Talk installments, not to mention the crime series I follow now. And as I said I’m glad there are more Hunger Games books to come. In fact, I can’t wait to meet the characters again and see what the evil Capitol has planned and how the good people of its districts will fight against it.

If you enjoy a well-written adventure tale then The Hunger Games may be for you. Despite the teenage characters and illustrated cover, it’s a great read and you may find yourself catching the all-stations train on purpose just so you can get in more reading time. Good stories are for all readers – even those of us who are no-longer-so-young adults.

D is for Dystopia

To be honest, I blame my dad. Encouraging your very young children to watch the movie version of Watership Down over and over again is only going to lead to them having weird views about how the world works, the English countryside, socio-political powers … and rabbits. I know it’s not classic dystopia, more of a fantasy novel with a heroic quest theme (Ah! The Quest! My favourite stories), but I tend to include Richard Adam’s tale with those other books where the world has gone wrong which were formative in my literary education. I also think the term ‘dystopia’ covers such a wide array of stories that we can mould, stretch and bash it to suit a number of literary purposes. Which is possibly what I’m doing now…  

Hello! We are with D and D is for Dystopia and our featured book is The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall.  When announcing this as the next book on the blog, I quoted my old high school foe WB Yeats and this book also reminds me of him because my brain likes to partner ‘Carhullan’ with ‘Cuchulain’, the legendary Irish warrior who Yeats was so fond of. But we’re not in Ireland now, we’re in England, but a different England where indeed the world has gone nightmarishly awry (thus, dystopia, got it yet?).

My feeling with stories set in a crapped-out future is that they need to be equally disturbing and compelling to be satisfying. Not disturbing in an escaped-convict-dangling-a-bleeding-head way, but in that cold-stomach, the-world-has-gone-topsy, I-don’t-know-what’s-around-the-next-corner way. And despite this disturbance you feel the need to keep reading; because the writing is so good, because the story or world is so fascinating, because you want to see the characters safe, because you hope to all hopes that if you just keep turning the pages maybe something good will happen, because viewing your world through a hellish looking-glass can give you so much perspective.

In Hall’s tale we follow one woman’s escape from the confines of an awful, authoritarian-controlled city to a fabled rural community of women warriors, where she learns how to be herself again and how to try to take the world back. Hall’s world is well-created: it’s believable, it’s awful, it’s frightening, its downfall is comprehensible and possible. And it’s close enough to our own that it’s not hard to imagine a future like it, where a first world nation has sunk into ruin, reliant on overseas aid, where people are squashed into disease-ridden tenements, where wild dogs roam the streets, where a faceless authority control everything, where women are implanted with devices to prevent them falling pregnant and where police can do random checks to make sure the device is intact.

I believe in Sister’s (our protagonist) world and in her desire to escape it and join the self-sufficient community of women living off the grid in the mountains; I believe in the community of Carhullan and their survivalist lives; I believe that this band of warrior women can’t be all they are cracked up to be; that life is still hard; and that they can’t just live for ever after safe and happy; that something else will have to be done for the good of everyone, for the long term. But there was some little thing missing in my reading of The Carhullan Army which meant that I wasn’t completely ‘on board’  – to use a terrible managerial term – with the tale. It’s just a little bit quiet. Just a tad. And I felt ever so slightly removed from the characters and the story. I didn’t care quite enough and my personal experience of these sorts of books – when I love them – is that  you care a lot, that you’re thrown into this topsy-turvy world, dragged through the centre as it shifts and quakes, that you feel you have no choice but to witness, to experience, to finish the tale, to be involved. I liked The Carhullan Army, I like the idea and I think it’s written by a very good writer, but on finishing the novel I wished I had cared more, felt more, known more about the characters.

There is much about this novel to recommend, like and admire; it gives you a lot to think about, it just didn’t give me everything I was hoping for. It seems unfair to criticise, then, when mostly I can say I think the book is well written, inventive and that the story carried through my reading attention. I guess sometimes those stories which seem to fall just short of the mark can feel more disappointing than those which failed miserably. Such is the reading life.

Book 21: The Year of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

What is it about the world spiralling out of control into a future of death, disease and the end of humanity as we know it that gets me all excited? Some kind of meglomaniacal obsession with destruction? A terribly pessimistic outlook on life? Some kind of God complex? I don’t know, but tell me that life as we know it is at breaking point, that the cities have become lawless, that the powers that be are all caught up in a conspirafloodcy and that there is some weird disease or super-destructive weapon killing everyone and I will be there in my HAZMAT suit carrying a knapsack filled with practical items (and something really poetic and impractical like a first edition of a Jonathan Swift or the back catalogue of Muddy Waters – you know, there’s always room for a little art).

If we are talking distopia (“Danger, danger, world in crisis”… as the Doug Anthony All Stars used to shout out… or hang on was that Graham and the Colonel on The Late Show? I’m getting my 80s ABC comedy confuddled…) then it is fitting that the book to launch this discussion is the new novel from Canuk author extraordinaire, Margaret Atwood, who does a very fine line in distopic novels. And as I am currently writing this in an internet cafe in Canada, it is doubly fitting.

Allow me to gush: I think Margaret Atwood is the most wonderful of writers. I can’t even begin to explain how GOOD she is. Or how versatile. How thought-provoking, how point-perfect. Of course, this ain’t news to anyone. The Booker Prize panel didnt have to wait for me to say anything… (thank goodness because I’m sure they’re not one of my committed 28 readers).

The Year of the Flood is set in the same world as Oryx and Crake. You may have previously read me mentioning that I kind of forgot who Oryx was… I mean, I knew Oryx was important, it just slipped my mind she was Crake’s girlfriend. Not off to a great start but don’t let my senility get in the way of a good story, and my forgetting of this vaguely major character didn’t affect my reading of the book. In some ways I think it may have been easier to read The Flood if I hadn’t read Oryx and  Crake as I was always trying to remember what had happened (all be it not very well, as proven) or what some organisation was or what a certain person had done in the other book. Again, it didn’t stop my enjoyment, but my reading wasn’t as smooth an experience, perhaps, with all these little aide memoires that I wasn’t memoiring. What would have been best for me was to have read O and C directly before Flood. If you haven’t read either, and want to, then I suggest you do that. Or at least don’t leave a few years in between the reading. But if you read Flood clean, that will work too.

So what are some of the reasons people like me enjoy reading novels that other people find terrifying, horrific, dark, nightmarish, unthinkable? It’s certainly not to read about the world and/or humanity self-combusting. There’s no pleasure in that. I think for me it’s perhaps because I worry about some of these awful things happening that I’m drawn to reading about them. I think partly these kind of extreme conditions bring out the real soul of characters and I find that idea fascinating. You examine the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ and whatever ‘fittest’ means, and the idea of survival vs living. It’s a fighting against all odds thing too. On a very different kind of level I am a sucker for a sporting movie where the underdogs come in to beat the supremos. An absolute sucker. And there’s something about that chance of redemption in distopic novels which makes me read them.

For me, following a character on a fraught journey (physical or otherwise) through a terrifying world, desperately trying to adapt, to make do, to survive, to hold on to their humanity, to discover a safe haven – and hoping they make it (whatever that means) – speaks to me as a reader. The themes in distopic novels curl around my head like smoke and reach into my soul and touch me in that soft mushy place where we are all just people; fragile, scared, looking for meaning, and all capable of so much more than we can ever realise.

So while I read these books of parallel disaster and nightmarish scenarios, it’s possibly that little twinkle of hope in them (or that I hope is in them) that makes me read these novels as much as a slightly ghoulish fascination with the evils of human civilisation and watching characters cope within them (or  not). Perhaps I hold more positive beliefs in the potential of humanity than even I realise.