Monday, February 27, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

#1 New York Times Bestseller
#1 USA Today Bestseller
Wall Street Journal Bestseller
Publishers Weekly Bestseller

In the future, North America has been changed by un-named disasters. The nation of Panem arose from the ashes: with the Capitol in the Rocky Mountains and thirteen districts spread over the rest of the continent. However, about seventy-five years ago, the districts rebelled against the Capitol’s oppressive rule. During the Dark Days that followed the thirteenth district was totally destroyed and the other twelve were beaten into submission. In order to demonstrate its total control over the defeated districts, the Capitol announced the first Hunger Games. Each district was required to send one girl and one boy chosen by lottery from all the children between the ages of twelve and eighteen. These twenty-four Tributes were then placed in an Arena to fight one another until only one remained alive whilst the whole event was broadcast live to the nation. Since then the Hunger Games have been repeated every year.

In District twelve, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen is struggling to provide for her younger sister, Prim, and their mother, who has been unable to function since the death of their father in a mining accident. Only two things have kept them alive: the food that Katniss hunts or collects illegally from the forest outside of the district fence and the extra food she receives by increasing the number of times her name is placed in the annual Reaping for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place, even though she is sure that this will lead to her death. The male Tribute selected is Peeta Mellark, the son of the local baker, who once saved her family from starving by giving her some burnt loaves of bread.

We follow the Tributes to the frivolous luxury of Capitol where they are prepared for their roles in the Games. Once they have been waxed, styled, interviewed and given minimal training, they are sent into the Arena, which this year is a forest, much to Katniss’ delight. Despite the dangers, she survives because of her mental strength and hunting experience. She tries to avoid killing the other Tributes, and even forms an alliance with Rue, the tiny girl from District eleven, but eventually she is forced to confront the other Tributes in order to stay alive. All the while she cannot forget that to become Victor she must kill them all, even Peeta, who has declared his love for her and to whom she already owes her life.
Wow! So many people had told me that this was a great read, but I wasn’t prepared for how seriously good it was.

I know that it is billed as a Young Adult title, but I never once felt that the author pulled her punches because of the intended audience. In this respect it reminds me much more of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy than J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’. This title has real grit: we follow Katniss through blood, sweat and tears to Hell and back again. The first-person perspective and usage of present tense increases the sense of immediacy and tension as we are insulated from any outside knowledge. In fact we are kept ignorant of many details, just as Katniss is. The fact that some of the Tributes make no impression on her, so that she knows them only by their district numbers, whilst others are quickly analyzed makes the stream-of-consciousness so much more realistic than an endless pile of exposition. I’m not normally a fan of either first-person or present tense, but here they added to my connection to the character, rather than being a barrier.

Katniss herself is a wonderful, sympathetic character, but the secondary characters are fleshed out beautifully as well. They fell real, which makes it even more difficult to read some of the sections in the Arena. Indeed, the underlying cruelty and sadism in Panem can make for harsh reading. This is a society where the majority of people are barely able to survive starvation, whilst the privileged few in the Capitol enjoy a luxurious, hedonistic lifestyle.

“I open the parachute and find a small loaf of bread. It’s not the fine white Capitol stuff. It’s made of dark ration grain and shaped in a crescent. Sprinkled with seeds. I flash-back to Peeta’s lesson on the various district breads in the Training Center. This bread came from District 11. I cautiously lift the still warm loaf. What must it have cost the people of District 11 who can’t even feed themselves? How many would’ve had to do without to scrape up a coin to put in the collection for this one loaf?

Collins makes many references to Ancient Roman culture. The nation’s name is taken from a phrase used by the satirist Juvenal: ‘panem et circenses’. This is often translated as ‘bread and circuses / games’ and bread certainly plays a pivotal role in the life of most of the people in Panem as they desperately seek to feed themselves. The circuses / games were the amusements that the privileged classes would stage to entertain the masses. These often occurred in an arena and could be as simple as a pair of gladiators fighting one another or as ornate as the recreation of an event from history, complete with set and costumes. Bread was usually thrown to the crowd as part of the proceedings. The arena also served to demonstrate the power of the nation to the masses, though the Romans saw this more as a celebration of their military prowess against the barbarians, rather than being used as a way to subjugate its own citizens. 

Seeing the events in this context, I have to disagree with Sarah at Bookworm Blues when she finds the whole idea of the Reaping to be unbelievable. Children have been given away out of necessity throughout human history, and still are in some parts of the world. We are told that in District eleven, where they harvest food, that to steal any piece of food is punishable by public execution. In a world with that kind of brutal dictatorship in place, I don’t find it so unbelievable that the misery of two families would be outweighed by the general population’s fear of reprisals for disobedience. This also meshes with the presence of the Career Tributes ‘allowed’ from some of the wealthier districts – where the Capitol has no doubt encouraged the idea that being a Tribute is a huge status symbol for the child’s family.

One thing that Collins does very well is to show the societal effects of the Games. As AnimeJune says at Gossamer Obsessions, we are constantly reminded that many of the most brutal and demeaning aspects of them are televised live, so that Katniss is always aware of how she must appear to the audience in order to win them over to her side. We see that if the Tributes are not being entertaining enough the Gamemakers will manufacture a natural disaster or provoke confrontations by offering a boon. Also, we get to hear how even Katniss’ prep team fail to see the Tributes as real people, instead viewing them as actors in an entertainment. I found this to be one of the most chilling aspects of the book and an intriguing statement about the celebrity culture surrounding reality shows. We see this most clearly in the 'romance' between Katniss and Peeta, which is used to manipulate the audience quite shamelessly.

This emotionally-engaging and action-packed book is highly recommended to all adults: young or otherwise.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Elfland by Freda Warrington

My Rating: 4.0 / 5

Winner: Romantic Times Book Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel 2009

Centuries ago the Aetherials ventured from their worlds in the Spiral to move amongst us. At first they showed their true forms, part animal or winged, but they soon learnt to appear human, and so the memories of animal-headed gods and winged angels became myths and folklore. In modern England, the small village of Cloudcroft is home to a number of Aetherials, including Lawrence Wilder, the Gatekeeper, who controls the Gates to the Otherworld. There are many small Gates spread all over the Earth, but every seven years, on the Night of the Summer Stars, all adult Aetherials gather at Freya’s Crown, near Cloudcroft, to travel through the main Gates to reconnect with the essential energy of their home realms. However, this time, Lawrence detects a great danger in the Otherworld that threatens to travel through the Gates and destroy all the Aetherials on Earth, so he seals all of them and refuses to reopen any of them for any reason. As the years pass, the young Aetherials cannot take part in the usual rite of passage in the Otherworld and struggle with the decision: to remain true to Aetherial culture, or to reject it and become as human as possible. Ugly family secrets and personal feuds bubble to the surface as the Gates remain closed and the need to reclaim their connection with the Spiral becomes a necessity to all the Aethereals, young and old.

We follow the families of young Aetherials Rosie Fox and Sam Wilder as they grow to adulthood amongst their Earth-bound families. Rosie seems to have the perfect home and family, although her elder brother, Matt, is domineering and distrustful of their Aetherial heritage. She and younger brother, Lucas, are more intrigued by their unusual abilities, such as their perception of the parallel Dusklands, which are like a psychedelic version of Earth. Sam is a delinquent who cannot seem to stay out of trouble, although his motives are often protective of his younger brother, Jon. Over the following years Matt rejects everything Aetherial as he takes a human wife, the mouse-like Faith, while Jon and Lucas attempt to reopen the Gates by using a combination of drugs. Rosie is desperately in love with Jon, but he is seemingly unaware of her existence and she finally agrees to marry Alastair, a human friend of Matt’s. However, bad boy Sam has always been fixated with her and as the wedding approaches she is hopelessly drawn to him. When a terrible accident occurs, Rosie and Sam must journey into the Otherworld to defeat the Evil lurking there in order to save themselves and their families.

I have read quite a lot of fantasy, and would count myself as a fan of the genre, so I was looking forward to this unusual version of the fairy / elf world. The Aetherials’ Spiral, their history and culture are fascinating, as are the parallel versions of Earth that they can access. However, I felt that we spent far too little time exploring that aspect of the story. Instead, most of the book is given over to the family dramas that surround the main characters, which I found a little disappointing. The first half to two-thirds of the book was slow and got bogged down in exploring the family relationships and dynamics, with the fantasy elements really pushed to the background. However, once the transition to the Otherworld occurred, and the fantasy aspects came to the fore, the pace increased and the book became much more successful. Unfortunately, as Liviu Suciu at Fantasy Book Critic points out, even here the world building could have been far more detailed, and I hope that the second book in the series spends much more time exploring this fascinating world.

The main characters are very three dimensional, though not necessarily very likeable. Many of the characters have secrets and do not behave honestly with their friends and family, which leads to a great deal of drama and tension, but makes it difficult to sympathize with them. This becomes a major problem when they are placed in danger and we need to care about them and their survival. Not that the human characters are any less dysfunctional. In fact, the two most destructive characters in the book are humans, bringing abusive incest and homicidal psychopathy to the party, so in some regards the Aetherials are far more sympathetic. However, infidelity is a recurring motif, as is self-deception, so it seems the author has a fascination with the lies we tell one-another and ourselves. Although there are a lot of clichéd Romantic Fiction aspects here, I do have to agree with Sarah at Bookworm Blues: the more melodramatic romantic plot points did not have me rolling my eyes and reaching for my sick bucket. The characters are so well drawn that their actions are totally believable, in a “Oh no! Don’t do that!” kind of way.

One aspect of this book that I really loved was the way in which the various houses and buildings have their own life force and presence. The Foxes’ home is warm and inviting, which seems to reflect the family’s connection to the earth magic of their particular Otherworld realm. The fact that the house can change and shift to provide what the characters need is almost more fantastical than the whole ‘alien elves living amongst us’ idea. We see this to much greater effect in the Wilder house. Being of the air realm, these characters are much colder and cerebral, with Lawrence, in particular, having a kind of obsessional self-containment that borders on madness. His house has a cold menace that is truly chilling and makes the unpleasant secrets that are revealed there even more unbearable. The disturbing images that surround the characters in prison reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of Hell, making me wonder how any Aetherial could survive an extended time in such an environment without losing their mind.

I really wanted to love this book as much as Kristen at Fantasy Cafe, and I did appreciate the wonderful writing and characterization, but I wanted more fantasy and less family angst in this ‘Fantasy’ title.

Friday, February 17, 2012

NYOBG February Meeting

The meeting last night was great fun, as usual. We had a bigger turn out than normal, with some new faces, which was good to see. I like to think that people were curious to see the new Nooks that were available for us to borrow, but I might be wrong.

Everyone was very positive about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, while Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen was generally agreed to be very good, but not as good as her Garden Spells (reviews will follow next week). The Hunger Games really gripped everyone and I foresee a rush of requests for Catching Fire and Mockingjay, though these books are so popular that it might be a long wait for some of us. There was even talk of a trip to the cinema to see the new film when it comes out . . .

The March reads, which we chose last month, are The Woman In Black by Susan Hill and The Magicians by Lev Grossman. The April reads are Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich and the wonderful Soulless by Gail Carriger (review to follow next week, I hope).

My borrowed Nook is happily settled on the coffee table . . . now to write some more reviews . . .

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Summer To Remember by Mary Balogh

My Rating: 4.5 / 5

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5

I have to admit that I have not been a great fan of romantic fiction in the past. Apart from a brief flurry of hormone-driven reading in my teens, I have tried to steer clear of a genre that can be so cliché-ridden that it makes my teeth grind. I’m trying to think of the last romance novel to grace my bookshelf . . . I guess that it was probably Bridget Jones’ Diary, which I don’t think is actually classified as a romance, but is as near as I’ve got in the past twenty years or so. However, Jan was convinced that we would enjoy this book, and I have come to trust her recommendations . . . mostly! So, with some trepidation, I picked up my inter-library loan and prepared to dive in.

Lauren Edgeworth was a contented young woman until her fiancé’s first wife, who had been presumed dead, interrupted her wedding. Being a logical person, Lauren took this public humiliation as convincing evidence that she should prefer to remain a spinster. However, family commitments have brought her to London where she is shocked and confused to find herself pursued by Kit Butler, an infamous rake. Kit has recently lost his elder brother and must now return to the family home in order to take his place as the dutiful heir, complete with an arranged marriage that he wants to avoid. To fulfill a wager, Kit determines to win Lauren’s hand in marriage, but the lady is steadfast in her determination to remain unmarried. Finally, they make a deal: she will pretend to be his betrothed so that he can break his engagement and, in return, he will give her a summer to remember, full of excitement and adventure. As the summer progresses, and Lauren becomes fully integrated into his family, Kit comes to regret that theirs is not a real engagement, but respects her right to decide her own fate . . . while Lauren starts to question her determination to remain unmarried, but believes that Kit would be happier with his former fiancée, the outrageous Lady Freja Bedwyn.

So, was I converted to romance fiction? I’m not sure I would go that far, but I was certainly converted to Mary Balogh’s writing. Set in the Regency period, this has a definite feel of Jane Austin, with a suitably stubborn and independent heroine. The setting is conveyed brilliantly, with such a wonderful turn of phrase that I found myself giggling in delight at many of the scenes. For example, when we meet Kit, in the very first scene, he is bare-chested . . . in public . . . fighting no fewer than three ruffians . . . who had been harassing a milkmaid . . . oh, the scandal! This scene gives us a great insight into Kit’s character, whilst being very funny and setting up the society that the characters inhabit. This is vital, because their reactions, decisions and behavior are all driven by the social etiquette and expectations of their time. Although Lauren makes some very modern decisions, she is still bound by manners and her place in society, and must act accordingly. After all, this is a society that is shocked beyond belief that . . . Brace yourself! . . . Lady Freja wears her hair unbound and loose around her shoulders!!!!! . . . sorry if you fainted away there, but the truth had to be told!

As AnimeJune notes in her very funny review, many aspects of the plot are fairly conventional. Some might find the pace a little slow, but this fits with the historical setting and provides us with the breathing space needed to appreciate the complex characters, both lead and secondary, who populate this world. Just as Lauren comes to understand the friends and family that she encounters whilst living in Kit’s home, so we also move beyond our initial impressions and appreciate the real motivations behind their behaviors. In fact, one thing I really did like was the absence of overwhelming passion and the irrational behavior often associated with it. This is a story of deep, intense feelings, most definitely, but they are tempered by rational decisions driven by the best of intentions. The leads fall in love in spite of themselves: this not only makes the story much more believable, but also increases our involvement with them.

"The people we love are usually stronger than we give them credit for. It is the nature of love, perhaps, to want to shoulder all the pain rather than see the loved one suffer. But sometimes pain is better than emptiness."

With such profound understanding of the human condition, Mary Balogh held me enthralled to the very end of the story. I do have one criticism: due to the fact that many of the characters are ‘titled’ they often have two ‘names’: for example, Christopher (Kit) Butler is also Viscount Ravensburg. This means that it can be a little confusing to work out who is who and their relationships to one another, but this really is a minor quibble for a book that was almost perfect. The characters are believable and engaging, while the dialogue is witty and funny. Like Kit and Lauren, I felt some regret when the summer ended, but I shall remember it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

February Relaunch

I thought I had sorted everything out last month . . . and then I attended a class on blogging at the library, which was very helpful and renewed my enthusiasm immensely . . .

Unfortunately, I now want to make a load of changes and I'm not sure how long they will take, so please be patient as I try to bring you CCCP mark 3! :D

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