Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Mockingjay (*minor spoilers*)

Unlike my hiatus between reading The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, I wasted no time in starting the final piece of Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic trilogy, Mockingjay. 

To be quite frank, there's very little of the story I can divulge here without spoiling significant plot points in the book. Let me just say, this installment has an entirely different feel from the previous two. The series' landscape series changes drastically and the series' protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, must decide what part she will play in the shaping of Panem. 

The story continues right where Catching Fire left off and it takes plenty of twists and turns throughout. We are introduced to new characters (more on that later), new locales, and new obstacles for Katniss. Parts of the story are somewhat slow-paced, but it makes sense with what's occurring. Once the core conflict begins, it builds rapidly and we're left with an incredibly intense climax ending in one the series' best twists.

One writing style variation I noticed with Mockingjay is how choppy sections of the story came across on paper. This could be because I plowed through this volume rather rapidly; however, my gut tells me otherwise. Rather, I think it more likely this was a specific stylistic choice by the author. Again, without giving too much away, Katniss suffers from a series of post-war effects resulting from the violence, loss, and the sheer emotional roller coaster that takes place throughout the series. 

Continuing with the series' tradition, Katniss conveys the events in first person throughout Mockingjay. She's broken,confused, and at times, completely detached from reality. This all but confirms the theory that the somewhat choppy writing is intentional. Of course Katniss is going to have trouble recollecting the events that take place throughout this war-torn world of Panem. 

My biggest gripe is in the sheer magnitude of new, flat characters. Finnick, Johanna, and Betee all return; however, other newcomers are glazed over and we barely get a chance to know them. Near the middle portion of the book, I found myself constantly asking "who?" as I attempted to recall the character's origin and relationship to Katniss. There were several points in the book when I truly had no recollection of certain characters. 

Yet again, I'm hesitant to judge too harshly for this perceived flaw. I remind myself of the 1st person narrative and how this is Katniss' story. Perhaps the characters are coming and going just as fast for her as they are for the reader. She's been continuously manipulated so I'm inclined to believe she's simply struggling to trust those around her. Because of her mental state, she can ill-afford to spend time making friends with her new companions. Regardless of Collins' intent, I found the choppiness more tolerable than the "faceless" characters parading around with Katniss during the series' climax.

Collins' anti-war theme rings like a trumpet throughout Mockingjay. Characters we've come to know and love suffer from severe post-traumatic stress. Some disappear altogether leaving us empty because of their absence. Beloved characters die. Others barely want to live. War.

I enjoyed the ending yet it's far from a "feel good" ending. In fact, the brief epilogue is a minor attempt to assuage the pain that takes place in series' final moments. Even the epilogue leaves a hollow sensation in your stomach because the reader truly comes to understand the magnitude of the barbaric Hunger Games.

Finishing the series has given me a greater appreciation for the first installment and although my qualms still stand, I can certainly see why this series has garnered such a following. Count me among that number. I'll be one of the first in line when The Hunger Games hits the big screen this March.

4.5 out of 5.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Review: Catching Fire (*minor spoilers*)

Roughly one month after completing The Hunger Games, I decided to continue with Suzanne Collins' 2nd installment in her 3-part series. Although giving the first book a 4 out of 5, I admitted I was somewhat disappointed. As a result, I didn't begin book 2 immediately. Looking back, I wish I'd read Catching Fire sooner because I found it to be equally entertaining and slightly more unpredictable.

The story kicks off shortly after the end of book 1. Katniss must slowly come to terms with the fact that she is a rallying point for many citizens of Panem. By committing one specific act near the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen took a stand against the Capitol...without even realizing it. As a result, President Snow makes a personal visit to Katniss' new home in Victor's Village. Snow is briefly mentioned in the first book, but we really get a chance to see just how evil he is in Catching Fire. 

In short, he's incredibly displeased and issues a rather daunting ultimatum for Katniss, which I won't spoil here. We get to know Gale even more as a character, Peeta and Haymitch return, along with several new characters who I found interesting and effective. Finnick, Johanna, and Beetee are a few of the fresh new faces for Catching Fire. All three have intriguing backstories, yet they refrain from stealing the spotlight of other fan favorites.

I won't give everything away here, but let's just say this installment surprised me much more than book 1. Some of the tropes are familiar; however, I was still pleased with the payoff more often than not. There's one very surprising twist midway through the book that I truly didn't see coming. "Cruel" and "despicable" are just a couple of the words that come to mind. Overall, the book manages to keep the same dark tone as the original. The characters are again one of the strongest points of the series. Katniss remains as brooding as ever with an even more somber outlook for her future. 

I never realized it while reading The Hunger Games, but Collins true purpose becomes indisputable throughout Catching Fire. The entire series is anti-war, anti-violent, and pro-peace. Despite the countless acts of violence, Collins boldly states her claim that war can never lead to true peace.

Catching Fire ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger and I have to say, I felt much more compelled to read book 3 after finishing this time. I began Mockingjay almost immediately and will have a review up soon. 

Ultimately, Catching Fire was ever so slightly stronger due to its ability to surprise on several different occasions; that, combined with the series' staples, gives it a slightly higher overall score. I can't wait to see how Katniss' story ends.

4.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: The Hunger Games (*minor spoilers*)

As with any book that garners significant media attention, I found myself intrigued by what I heard about The Hunger Games. My hype and expectations for the series were quite high starting out. The Harry Potter series is truly what turned me on to reading more than a decade ago and many of my fellow Potter fans spoke highly of The Hunger Games. As a result, I decided to check it out.

Suzanne Collins' first installment of her post-apocalyptic trilogy tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old resident of District 12 (what used to be parts of Appalachia). Katniss comes off as a confident, sometimes even brash, teenage girl with a keen eye for hunting game. She and her best friend Gale routinely break the law, slipping under the District 12 fence to do what they do best: hunt.

Unfortunately for Katniss, my previous sentence was not a typo. Hunting any sort of game is considered a punishable offense according to the Capitol. This post-apocalyptic world isn't a pleasant one and the Capitol is hardly a peaceful ruling body. The 12 districts are forced to provide them with natural resources, yet the Capitol takes it a step further. Every year, they demand each district participate in what is aptly named, The Reaping. All 12 distrcits must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the dreaded Hunger Games, a sickening fight to the death between children. The unfortunate "winners" are then given the title of Tribute. Only one can leave the Hunger Games alive and thus, claim the title of victor...but at what cost?

I'll leave the rest of the story to you. As for my take on the book, I was honestly a little let down; however, I would still highly recommend it. Let me explain. Firstly, my expectations were probably too high going into the series. I expected something epic and what I got was just a solid, well-written novel with an intriguing story.

My biggest qualm with the book is a simple one: predictability. There were very few times I was shocked by an event or surprised at some of the "twists" throughout. Although incredibly brave and smart in her own right, Katniss is not a terribly good judge of people. Self-admittedly, she struggles with communicating her feelings throughout the book and is a terrible public speaker (also self-admitted). So while I saw almost everything before it was about to happen, Katniss seems stunned at the most obvious plot twists.

In her defense, you can never be too trusting in an arena full of 23 other teenagers whose only hope for freedom is to slit your throat. For that reason, I can forgive Katniss and understand Collins' reasoning in writing Katniss as such a cautious protagonist.

Aside from that, Katniss is a character I absolutely loved to read. The story is told through her eyes and you instantly relate to her from the very first page. Her strong bond with her younger sister Prim. Her longing for her deceased father. And her struggling relationship with her mother. There's something here for anyone to relate.

Katniss isn't the only strong character. Peeta Mellark is probably my favorite character of the entire series thus far. He keeps Katniss guessing throughout. Haymitch Abernathy and Cinna are two other characters you'll quickly grow to love or hate.

From a technical standpoint, The Hunger Games is a quick read and one most young adults should have no problem reading. Katniss isn't overly wordy and Collins does an excellent job of letting you see the bleak world through her eyes. As with many young adult novels, the primary concern for allowing a child to read or not is definitely subject matter. Many young people - children, even - die gruesome deaths throughout the Hunger Games. I expected Collins to shy away from this due to the young adult focus of the series; however, she stays true to her story and lets the reader in on all the grizzly details.

The Hunger Games will certainly draw comparisons to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga, mainly due to the complicated love triangle persistent in each series. However, that is where the comparisons should end. The Hunger Games is a tragic, unique tale that stands on its own as a bleak, all the while riveting, account of a seriously disturbing world. Part of what makes The Hunger Games so great is its ability to take part of the world we know, and totally twist it into a chilling future. The environment may be different; yet humans still find a way to live, love, and ultimately, a way to overcome. Expect to see this series catch even more fire (pun intended) as it hits the silver screen in March of this year.

4 out of 5.

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