The Hunger Games #2: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Read: 5 March, 2012

After Katniss defied the Capitol in Hunger Games, forcing them to allow two winners of the Games for the first time in their history, she returns home and tries to patch together a life that has been irrevocably changed by recent events. Her budding feelings for Peeta become even more confused now that Gale is once more by her side. But for now, she’s tried to put the events of the Games aside as best she can while she carves out a new routine. Unfortunately, the Capitol is not so willing to forget her defiance.

Discussing Hunger Games with a friend on Facebook recently, someone chimed in to say that they truly enjoyed Catching Fire and actually considered it superior to the first book. I’m not sure I agree, but I can certainly understand where she was coming from. It starts out fairly slow, showing us a Katniss who is trying to make sense of her post-Games life, but then the story really catches fire (har har) and I found it impossible to put down. And with the fictional world and character exposition taking care of by the first book, Catching Fire was free to focus on development.

There were some weird authorial issues. I don’t want to give too much away, so… this next bit is a total spoiler. Sorry. So, in both books, Haymitch communicates with Katniss in the games through the gifts he either gives her or does not giver her. So when there are five people in Katniss’s alliance and they keep receiving bread rolls in multiples of 6, I assumed that Haymitch was trying to tell Katniss that her group should be looking to include Chaff (since Chaff was Haymitch’s friend, and because Peeta had so easily remembered that he was still unaccounted for). And yet while much page space was given to Katniss trying to interpret all of Haymitch’s other gifts, she barely gives the rolls a second thought. The only reason I could think of for this is because Suzanne Collins knows the answer, knows that it isn’t anything she wants Katniss to guess, so she’s just dropped it. It feels like a missed opportunity for some character development. Up until that point, Haymitch’s gifts were always communicating to Katniss, but this time the message was meant for her allies. Katniss could have tried to guess the meaning and come to the wrong conclusion, and then had to deal with her feelings later about Haymitch “cheating” on her (which, frankly, would have made her anger at Haymitch’s supposed betrayal at the start of Mockingjay – which I’ve only just started reading, so forgive me if this does get covered – far more palatable).

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The Hunger Games #1: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Read: 11 February, 2012

Every year in Panem, two children are chosen by lottery from each of the twelve districts to compete in the Hunger Games. Twenty-four kids enter the arena to fight to the death, and only one can survive.

The general story is a fairly common one, and I don’t do well with stories heavy on action, so Hunger Games could have gone quite badly. But the action was just present enough to keep the story interesting without ever making me feel “actioned out.” As for the plot, the interesting characters keep it fresh.

There is a love triangle, which seems to be a required theme in these sorts of books, but it never felt forced. Katniss naturally starts to develop feelings for Peeta when she finds herself in a life-or-death, high stress situation. Rather than coming off as a silly girl unable to decide what she wants, Katniss is instead confused by the stress of being so near death. I found this to be much more psychologically plausible and it avoided the demeaning perception of girls/women as too silly to know their own minds.

Even beyond the love story, the gender portrayals were refreshing. There are no helpless princesses in need of rescuing in The Hunger Games. Peeta is vulnerable, but even he shows enough strength to prevent the story from simply being a flat reversal of gender stereotypes. Katniss is strong, but realistically so, with failings and weak moments that don’t feel token or trivial. She is a genuinely strong person, and a complete character to boot.

It was a bit of a shock to read The Hunger Games right after reading Clash of Kings. For one thing, the simplicity of the plot made for a difficult switch in my reading. But once my brain caught up, I found that I truly enjoyed the book. The setting was a dangerous one, and the novel could have easily devolved into a bludgeoning “message,” but while the criticism of our present world are very much there, I never felt like it was overly forced.

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Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

Read: 26 December, 2011

It’s the end of the world. Christianity is growing in Iceland, threatening the power of the old gods, and the land itself seems to be in revolt. Meanwhile, two star-crossed lovers fight against the feud that divides their two families against a landscape that is both real and mythical.

There are two stories being told in Ice Land, that of Fulla and her growing love for Vili. Theirs is a Romeo and Juliet story, their families feuding, perpetually seeking revenge on each other in a never ending cycle. Meanwhile, we have Freya’s quest for a magical necklace that has the power to end the apocalypse, preventing the destruction of the world.

I enjoyed the story, or at least I feel like I should have. Despite a fairly standard outline, Tobin does manage to take her two stories in a fairly unique direction. In particular, I enjoyed the way that she tried to mingle the real world with the world of mythology, making the one seem plausible and the other magical.

But maybe I just read the book at the wrong time. I found that I simply couldn’t lose myself in the story and I rushed to finish towards the end. I do suspect that the problem was with me, though, since I can’t think of anything that could have turned me off.

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Read: 7 February, 2010

I took a course during my university career on Science Fiction and Fantasy, taught by a heavily accented Ukrainian woman with very little qualification in the subject other than personal interest. The class structure was very informal. We had a reading list, but the syllabus included notes for each book where watching the movie would be a suitable alternative. Dracula was one such book, although the syllabus stipulated that only one version would be acceptable.

This was the same year that I was taking Victorian Literature and Colonial Literature, both courses assigning full length novels on a bi-weekly basis. I read so much that I got eye-fatigue and had to wear glasses for the rest of the year. I read so much that one of the professors (the Victorian Lit one) apologized to my mother at graduation. If I could lessen me reading load by one book, all the better.

I’m glad that I took advantage of the movie option because  I was so harried by schoolwork at the time that I was reading far too superficially – skimming to intake just enough for the tests but not enough for enjoyment. So I was able to approach the book a few years later with a clean impression and all the time chance and nature give us.

I didn’t realize from the movie or pop culture that the book is written entirely in letter, news articles, and diary entries. In the story, this style is explained when one of the main characters collects all the story’s fragments from the other characters and compiles them chronologically (so that they can examine and compare what they know so far about the story’s baddy). It’s done wonderfully, adding a sense of realism to the story.

The epistolary style is rarely done well. With the more usual narrative style, characterization is easier to fudge. But when characters are given their own voices, it suddenly becomes much more obvious if the author fails to give them unique personalities – or, just as bad, tries to differentiate them with the use of cheap gimmicks. But Bram Stoker pulls it off perfectly, making Dracula the single best example of the multiple narrator style that I’ve ever seen.

I really can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this book. It’s brilliantly written, the plot is interesting, the characters have depth, the suspense is maintained, and there’s an actual ending (something of a rarity among those easily-distracted Victorians). Other than a few points of plot, it’s really nothing like any of the pop culture we’re all familiar with.

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Thanks for the recommendation, Kristin!

Read: 3 October, 2010

In a small Wisconsin town, Ralph Truitt, a wealthy business man, places an advert in the papers for a reliable wife. After carefully reviewing the applicants, he finally selects Catherine Land. Now he waits in the bitter cold for her train to arrive. But when she disembarks, Truitt sees that she looks nothing like her picture. And so begins a relationship fraught with deception.

This is a novel of bad and broken people trying to find hope in each other. It’s a sad story, set in a bleak and unwelcoming landscape. It was difficult reading at times, with characters I couldn’t help but like despite knowing that I shouldn’t, doing things I know I should disapprove of.

The writing style was excellent, very accessible. It’s always lovely to be able to focus on the story without having to worry about meandering sentences. The characterisations were excellent. I really felt as though I were getting to know Catherine and Ralph, as though they were real people with complex goals and emotions that exist independently of the author.

This is a fantastic book to read on a cold wintry day!

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Bear by Marian Engel

Read: 2005

Lou is a recluse, working in a basement and rarely going out. After five years of living like a mole, she is given an assignment: to catalogue a 19th century library in northern Ontario. Soon after she arrives, she encounters the house’s only other inhabitant – a bear.

This is a rather shocking story about a woman exploring her sexuality with a bear. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, it’s graphic.

I read this book as an assignment for my Canadian Literature course in university – a course that prompted this émigré to define Canadian literature  as “roughing it in the bush with animals.”

Reading this book for a class was a great experience. We spent about two weeks on it, during which we had to discuss, as a class, sex with bears. By the end of the unit, our chairs were polished with the amount of uncomfortable shifting we were doing. The best part was that, at the beginning of the year, we all had to sign up to read a portion of a book (pages to be decided by the professor) in class. We got to pick the book, but of course no one had read Bear yet so no one knew to avoid it. I will always remember that poor girl who had to stand up before at least 50-60 people and read a scene in which a woman has sex with a bear. Her face would have blended in perfectly with a basket of tomatoes.

I initially enjoyed Bear because it was shocking. It was fun to tell my friends about what I was reading for class, and to watch their faces contort in wilful disbelief. But as time passed and I’ve had the chance to remove myself from the “omg, I’m going to be sick” factor, I’ve come to realize that Bear is actually a great work of fiction.

There’s an economy of elements to the book. No character is present who isn’t necessary to Lou’s psychological development. There are no filler scenes. I’ve also come to notice that much of the book is either symbolic or allegoric. Even the house Lou is living in, and her movements within that house throughout the story, can be reinterpreted in view of her transformation.

This is a really good book. It’s rather uncomfortable to read, but it’s short and you then get to say that you’ve read a book about a woman having sex with a bear.

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The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Read: 6 April, 2010

True love is incredibly rare, but Buttercup and Westley have found it. When Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink. She’s kidnapped just before her wedding, and is followed by a mysterious stranger. Who is he? Has he come to rescue her?

This was a fantastic book. I was pretty sure it would be after knowing and loving the movie for many years, but there was so much more to the novel form. The movie follows the story of Buttercup and Westley pretty accurately, but that’s only half the book. The other half describes the narrator’s relationship with S. Morgenstern’s novel, the way it impacted his relationship with his father and with himself, and the way he hopes it will impact his relationship with his son.

The Buttercup portions of the novel are greatly entertaining for readers of all ages. The adventure is exciting and fast-paced, and it never takes itself too seriously. But the addition of the narrator’s story is what promotes The Princess Bride from great novel to masterpiece. The novel could pass for a treatise on the value of books and literacy, and for the deeply personal and emotional ties we can have to our books.

Choose to read this superficially and be entertained. Or, choose to read it deeply and be challenged. Goldman pulls both facets off with rare skill. This book should be on everyone’s reading list!

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Bridget Jones’ Diary 2: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

Read: 2005

I am often typecast by friends and family as “the one who likes books.” To non-readers, a book is a book is a book, so I often end up getting some really weird books that I would never pick up for myself. This is how I ended up in possession of The Edge of Reason, Helen Fielding’s second Bridget Jones novel.

In this novel, Bridget stumbles through her day-to-day life, surviving one ridiculous mishap after another, until she is finally reunited with her love.

The writing is designed to imitate a form of shorthand that might be used to keep a diary. It reminded be somewhat of Flowers for Algernon in the sense that the form was an important part of the content (something that we (should) see often in poetry, but that is quite a bit rarer in novels). It was interesting and it gave the story quite a bit of verisimilitude. The short sentences kept me reading at a faster pace than I do normally, which was rather interesting. And even though I read this about four years ago, I still use the “v.” (or “vee,” if I’m speaking) as a shorthand for “very.”

Bridget Jones herself is a hilariously inept character, bouncing from one situation to another with little agency of her own. I have a soft spot for such characters, so long as they aren’t annoying about it, so I rather enjoyed her as well. The situations themselves were so ridiculous (particularly the one involving a naked boy and a bunny – yes, really) that they had me laughing quite a bit as I read through.

This is the ice-cream of the reading world – it’s enjoyable, not particularly nutritious, but it won’t rot your brain out either (provided it’s consumed only sparingly and interspersed with meatier fare).

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Sand Daughter by Sarah Bryant

Read: 3 December, 2009

Part historical fiction and part fantasy, Sand Daughter is the story of Khalidah, born of a Djinn mother and a Bedu father.

I had just picked it up without knowing what it was about, and the first portion read like a standard historical fiction, so I was taken rather by surprise when the story veered off into fantasy territory. That’s not to say that it was unpleasant. Bryant managed to combine the two in a way that worked, inserting magic into real history while still keeping a good hold on the novel’s verisimilitude.

The storytelling was quite good, making the book very readable. This is always a plus, especially in longer works!

Another aspect that I quite enjoyed was the inclusion of a homosexual romance as one of the subplots. It’s lovely to see homosexuality dropped into a story without it being the story, normalizing it as just another possible pairing, undeserving of freakshow attention.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. There are aspects of the history that I could argue with, but that seems unimportant in the face of a good story. Recommended for fans of both historical fiction and fantasy, but not for purists in either genre.

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Welsh Princes #1: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 18 March, 2010

Joanna, King John’s illigitimate daughter, is married to prince Llywelyn Fawr of Wales to secure an alliance. But John didn’t count on his daughter falling in love. When the relations between the two men start to deteriorate, Joanna is caught between her love for her father and her love for her husband.

As Wikipedia points out, one of the draws of Here Be Dragons is that it’s virgin territory; there are very few novels out there about historical Wales and, I confess, it was a milieu that I knew almost nothing about.

The historical aspects of the novel were fabulous, but it did occasionally cross into the territory of romance. Fair enough, I realize that many do like that sort of thing, but I found it rather boring and frustrating. Apparently, it’s a staple of the romance genre that people who are in love absolutely refuse to communicate with each other and, instead, simply assume the worst of the other person. I’ll never understand how this sort of thing came to be called “love” in our culture, but there you have it.

I realize that I’m not one to complain given how wooden and choppy my own writing style is, but I found Penman’s style in this book to be rather difficult to read. She has the awful tendency to force what should have been several sentences into one, joining them awkwardly. For example, she writes: “He even tried to forget the atrocity stories that were so much a part of his heritage, tales of English conquest and cruelties.” It works fine for effect now and then, but she uses it nearly every other sentence!

The book is meticulously researched and Penman is able to really bring the setting to life. The story, although about a class that is all-but extinct living lives that are so unlike anything we are familiar with, is, at the same time, very accessible. The conflict of allegiance between one’s parents and one’s spouse is something that I think most readers would be able to sympathize with.

Despite it’s flaws, I’d put Here Be Dragons as one of the better historical fiction novels on the market, well worth the read for anyone interested in the Middle Ages.

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