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.

Books that made me: Playing Beatie Bow

I have an overactive imagination. I am inclined to spend a reasonable amount of time in my head, and if left to my own devices the head stuff can start to dominate. It is difficult to explain. My mind doesn’t easily brake once a story is let loose, whether it is someone else’s tale or just a notion toodling around in my head. If you’ve seen the film Miss Potter and recall how Beatrix would occasionally address her painted creations, it’s a little bit like that. Rest assured I have all my faculties. I’m just a vivid daydreamer, I guess. On the politically correct school reports I believe exist these days (my teacher-mother once told me she can’t say a student ‘doesn’t understand’ something as that may imply that they’re thick) this habit would be referred to as: Strong visualisation skills. If  only I believed in all that The Secret rubbish.

I impart this weird personal information so that you know that when I say that every time I find myself in The Rocks in Sydney I think about what would happen if I turned a corner and found my modern self back in the ‘olden days’, you know that this is a fairly regular-type thought for me.  Let me explain. One of my very favourite books is Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Published three decades ago it is set in one of the oldest (and thus was one of the most notorious and wretched) parts of Sydney. A teenage girl, Abigail, is transported back to the late 1800s where she is taken in by the Bow family. It is a historical drama where Abigail learns some of the things she’s struggling to realise (or is lacking from others) in her contemporary life—ideas of family, of self-reliance, of love. In Abigail’s time Beatie Bow is an urban legend, a scary woman named in a children’s game. Abigail ends up in the past after following the child Beatie who she spies observing at the edge of one of these games,  through some kind of time slip.

The first time I read Playing Beatie Bow I finished the book, closed it, then promptly opened it and started all over again. I remember exactly the spot where I was sitting on my bedroom carpet.  The novel seemed to have everything a 10 or 11-year-old girl needed (sorry, I can’t quite recall how old I was). In my teenage years I read it several times, and that is rare. I am not a re-reader. Too many books, not enough time… Perhaps I did it more when I was a young thing, before all the necessities of life got in the way.

Why I wanted to re-read this particular novel is hard to explain (and, to be honest, clearly remember) apart from saying that I really liked it and that Ruth Park was a Very Good writer (which is hardly worth the trouble of posting, is it?). What I do remember is being swept up in a story that I never wanted to end, of caring very deeply for the characters (even though the protagonist could be a spoiled brat), of falling in love with the boy Judah just as Abigail did. I suspect that the boy thing had a lot to do with my quick re-reading. I have very strong recollections of some very strong reactions to the romantic elements in this novel. There is a kiss on a rowboat that filled me with giddiness the first (second, third, fourth) time I read it. Perhaps it was just the bloom of adolescence. Perhaps it was just exquisite storytelling.

On the blooming adolescence, there is also a mention of eyebrow licking that bamboozled me at the time and I must say that I am yet to come across it in my adult life  (well what I imagine was meant by it, anyway). It’s an odd thing to recall, I know, and it is merely the author describing some of Abigail’s previous innocent experiences with boys but it has always stayed with me. There are other, small (less odd) things I recall to this day: the lace of Abigail’s dress, a fire. It is not unusual for me to see or hear something even today which will make me think of  Beatie Bow. Especially when I am wandering The Rocks.

I have always been fascinated by The Rocks in Sydney. Harbourside with its wharves and chandleries, its sandstone buildings, narrow laneways and secret staircases, tales of murders and other awful crimes, houses of booze and ill-repute, the cellar rooms where unsuspecting schmucks were shanghaied onto ships, cobbled streets, the garrison church, the oldest pub (where I almost lost Middlemarch last week), and the observatory on the hill watching over it all. Perhaps it’s my convict ancestry which informs my interest. Perhaps it’s just the living, breathing history of the place that appeals. I don’t think Playing Beatie Bow started it (I think it was my mother, who has a great historical knowledge, is a keen family historian and used to take us off on fabulous excursions to places like The Rocks as children) but my affection for this book certainly helped lock this area and its stories into a part of my being.

Ruth Park won many awards for Playing Beatie Bow, both in Australia and internationally. I am not alone in my love or admiration for it. It is still in print (with the same cover I might add) and in the mid eighties a successful TV series was made of it. I suspect watching the series prompted me to want to read the novel, or inspired my mother to give it to me. It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on the book, just that I did.

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Ruth Park died in December 2010.

N is for New York

I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure of late. To be in the loop. To be in touch. To be up to the same goddamn Mad Men episode as everyone else. And to be honest, at this near-festive time of year, it’s all becoming a bit much. I’m close to announcing that ‘The Mortal Instruments’ will be the last I read in the young adult fantasy/adventure series genre for a while*. The stress of having to ‘read the next one’ is tiring this lowly bookworm. I need a  break. At least for a few weeks. At least until my friend who gets me on to these introduces me to something new. At least until I get the urge to read book 2 in the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy.

Recently I choofed off up the coast for a week of relaxation and quality time with my grandparents, so it seemed a good opportunity to read something a little light and indulgent. And I did need to finish the Mortal Instruments series. Well, what I thought was the end of the series… I think there are now three more to come! Oh, let’s not have a whinge about flogging the life out of an idea with a range of prequels and sequels; here we discuss book three in Cassandra Clare’s shadowhunter extravaganza: City of Glass.

Clary Fray is safe in New York. Momentarily. All shadowhunters are being called back to their homeland of Idris for a grand conference to try to work out how the heck they’re going to stop Valentine and his destructive quest. And Clary feels she must go. Even if not to help her recently-found brethren she needs to meet with a warlock who may be able to help her mother awaken from an enchanted coma. Once in Idris, the true depth of Valentine’s evil is revealed and all are in danger. The capital city is not safe, the shadowhunters are at odds with each other and with their downworlder neighbours (faeries, werewolves, vampires, warlocks), a great battle is on the horizon and all it suggests is large-scale bloodshed. And among our group of adolescent heroes: Simon is discovering more and more about the realities of his vampiric existence, Clary and Jace still have sibling/romance issues, Alec is still hiding his true self, and a new boy—Sebastian—is causing all sorts of consternation. Yup. Quite a bit to deal with.

So N was for New York, was it? I realised by about page 12 that my ‘clever’ idea of selecting this book on the basis of its setting may have been misguided. City of Glass was going to be set in an invented enchanted city. Whoops. The Richard Price novel in the pile glared at me and fingered the glock hiding in its pocket. A bit of research, Pile o’ Books, a bit of research. Lucky for me Clary and Simon are such New York natives that Alicante (not the port city in Spain, but rather the capital city of Idris) is always being compared to the Big Apple, and just like New York informs the action in the first two books, Alicante is a firm, thought-out concept in this third novel. So we’re talking big cities, we’re talking New Yorkers, we’re talking New Yorkers comparing everything they see, smell and touch in other cities to their own big city. There’s a certain relevance. Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Mr Price, I apologise.)

Ms Clare does well in this instalment to pull together the different strings of her ongoing story, to create mystery and suspense, to let her characters grow, to occasionally surprise her readers. At the end of the novel I felt satisfied and also pleased with how the story of Clary, Simon, Jace etc had panned out, at the level to which I had been entertained, that my reading time had been put to good use. Questions raised throughout the series are answered, things left hanging are resolved, and you have to be happy with that. At times the author still over-explains (in case the stupid 13-year-olds don’t get it) but there are thrilling passages of action and suspense, sound descriptions of place, and on the whole her characters are individual and reasonably well-formed. She also writes humour and conversation well—some of the quips that come out of characters’ mouths are very funny, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism you expect from young adults (and not-so-young adult book-bloggers). There’s a line early on from Luke (our werewolf father-figure) suggesting that what a lovesick teenage boy should be doing is standing outside Clary’s window holding up a boom box, and Clary quickly replies that not only has he probably got better things to do, but no one has boom boxes anymore. Little additions like this make me laugh and smile, anyway, and what’s more they ring true and I appreciate that, even if I can’t quite appreciate as much some of the overtures of love and relationship crises that run through these novels. (And a quick, indulgent, aside: I finally pegged recently why we called ghetto-blasters, ghetto-blasters. It never occured to me as a child in the 80s/90s; it was just a name for certain type of stereo. My discovery both pleased me and made me wonder what on earth I use the majority of my reasonably-sized brain for.)

Despite feeling a little world-weary with the various young adult series I’ve read this year (or intended to read), I can’t say that you shouldn’t try ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series**.  It’s the concept (and act) of series-following which tires me. After all, I could still be found curled up in bed (surrounded by the boxes) reading City of Glass at 2 am one morning, and a school-night at that, because I wanted to find out how the book ended. You can’t complain about a story that does that.

* Please note: I’m very talented at announcing all sorts of wild statements which I don’t end up honouring.

**  After ‘extensive research’ it seems the planned next three books in the series follow a different storyline, so I feel like I’m under less obligation to ‘keep up’. (Not that we should ever feel obliged to read a book.)

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.

A is for… Ashes

Rising from the murky mists of strep throat (yes, yes, I know it’s a ‘kissing disease’ – move on, people) finally we come to the official start of the Pile o’ Books year with the letter ‘A’. Bienvenue, as they say at the Olympics. And we begin the official program with Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes (A is for Ashes, geddit?) the second novel in her ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series.

Regular readers will remember that in a previous post, while begging for your forgiveness for my January tardiness, I said that I was loving my ‘A’ book. It’s a guilty pleasure if anything and it’s all excitement and emotion, all fantastical and demoniacal. And I’m compelled to point out that the other-world battle scene near the end is thrilling, top-shelf, save-us-from-the-demonic-hordes stuff. Very impressively constructed. But there is one thing about this series that puts a slight damper on my fiery enthusiasm for the Shadowhunters and their lycanthropic and vampirish brethren. Though I’m sure it says a lot more about me than the books.

I mentioned this in my post about the first book City of Bones;  there’s just something about romance in teen fiction that makes me feel a bit icky. Now. Of course it didn’t when I was a teenager. Back then I found it either hopelessly romantic, intriguing or exciting. Occasionally I found it funny…  I have a fond memory of my year seven home room teacher blowing her stack as our class cackled at a friend’s recitation of a scene in Judy Blume’s Forever. (He put aftershave where?) But I’m not referring to the realistic, honest, non-condescending and often heart-wrenching novels of Ms Blume when I talk about literary teenage romance and sex making me feel weird. Back then we giggled because we didn’t quite yet understand about sex, love and romantic relationships (not that we necessarily do now, but it was even less then) and because making the teacher lose it held cachet. These days I feel uncomfortable (though now it’s more of a furrowed brow than a giggle) because I find myself wondering at the ideas about teen love and relationships we’re perpetuating in some of our YA literature and wishing it was all a bit more Blumey.

So here are my top three ‘teen romance’ icky-fiers:

1. At 15 you will meet the person-of-your-dreams (POYD) who you will spend the rest of your life with. It’s destiny. Oh and you and POYD have some kind of barrier to your undying love, but it can never be extinguished, and all will see the righteousness of your love in the end. The example in these books is that the two main characters are siblings. Well, they think they are and we think they are too, and yet feelings are being felt… As a friend pointed out ‘all the characters in the book just accept that something is going on between them and that it’s ok, but it’s not’ – I guess one assumes we will discover they are not related, but at the moment, people, they are.

2. 15- and 16-years-olds talking about sex as if they know what it’s all about. I know we all knew everything when we were 16, but the thing you work out as an adult is that you actually knew shit. So why do adult authors like to instil in their teen characters the vocabulary, wit and life-knowledge of a 30-year-old? Did the abomination of Dawson’s Creek teach us nothing? Teens are smart, witty and awesome as they are. Write them so. And every now and then let them be a bit awkward, slightly clueless and perhaps a little honest about the whole physical romance thang. What 16-year-old guy is wanting to make love out of some unshakeable belief in his lifelong, heartfelt desire for his POYD?  (Actually what 28-year-old guy… but I digress).

3. I don’t want to read about adolescents having sex (or talking about having sex). Putting all the philosophical, social, psychological and cultural arguments to one side, there is very little which appeals to me about the idea of two teenagers getting it on, however flowery, fantastical, romantic and oh-so-wonderful it is made to seem. I don’t know if this one just makes me seem cynical and lacking in empathy and imagination or what, but there you are. I do realise I’m not the target market, but still. And I understand that as readers, women especially, we often figuratively place ourselves in the character’s role and don’t think I’m immune to the idea of some handsome rune-covered boy seeing me as his POYD and wanting to … well, we digress again… it’s just that a part of my brain even when lost within a romantic (or sexy) paragraph will whisper in one of those stage whispers that isn’t a whisper ‘but they’re only 16’. And then I am re-icked.

City of Ashes is not as strong a novel as its predecessor but the strength of the final third (and needing to know what happens) will whirl me into the next one. And the above revelations of my own issues with love and relationships aside, the ick-factor of teen romance does not dominate the book. It’s much more about werewolves and fairies, warlocks and vampires, shadowhunters and their gleaming weapons, fantastical lands and monstrous acts. And battles. Battles against evil, battles of faith, battles of friendship and life, and even battles of the heart. Slight ick-factor or not, Cassandra Clare has created a world that is hard to resist wanting to be a part of. And you know that when that world is full of demonic presences and other things that go bump in the night and you still want to be a part of it, that the author must be doing something right.