Series: Earth’s Children by Jean Auel

Clan of the Cave Bear was a fantastic read. The pacing was slow, but it had compelling characters, interesting themes, and made me feel transported to the world of the Ice Age. I would, without hesitation, rank it among my favourite books.

Valley of the Horses was interesting in a different way. Divided in two, with Ayla’s survival tale and Jondalar’s travel narrative, it didn’t pack nearly as strong a punch as Clan of the Cave Bear had.

After that, the narrative slowed down even more, getting worse with each new instalment. Plains of Passage warranted only a few chapters, the “does he, doesn’t it?” plot of Mammoth Hunters should have been a quarter as long, and the final two books ought to have been combined. 

The narratives were stretched out with endless repetition. The sociological descriptions and explanations of the natural environments are great and add a great deal of the flavour that I love to the series, but even these suffered from a great deal of repetition. Far worse, however, is the endless explanation of plot. It makes sense to review content from past books, especially when a lot of time has passed since those books were published, but that’s now what Auel is doing much of the time. “If you’ll remember” passages can cover the same information multiple times within a couple chapters, and some of the content covered comes from earlier in the same book! There’s so much repetition that I got into the habit of not bothering to re-read sections if I zoned out because there was no point – I knew I’d be told again what had happened shortly.

I found the relationship between Ayla and Jondalar to be disturbing. Their love is consistently described as being intense, yet it seems to lack substance. As far as I can tell, it’s based on nothing more than Ayla having a vagina deep enough to take Jondalar’s large penis, and Ayla being infatuated with the first man she’s ever seen (not to mention the first man she’s ever had good sex with).

Further, the plot of two out of the six books revolves around Ayla and Jondalar having a falling out. In both cases, it never seems to occur to either of them to just talk things through. Instead, they avoid each other and work themselves up based on assumptions and misunderstandings. The first is resolved by Jondalar raping Ayla (which was totally good because she liked it!), and the second is resolved by Ayla essentially trying to commit suicide. If there was ever a definition of an unhealthy relationship…

I did find the series compelling enough despite its flaws to see it through until the end, but part of that was sheer stubbornness. I really enjoyed the sociological discussions, and mostly tackled the final book for them, as I had largely grown tired of the characters and plot.

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Series: The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

I’ve read sixteen of these things now, so I think I’m ready to comment on the series as a whole.

This graphic novel series is about Rick Grimes – a police officer in a past life, but now simply trying to survive in a world overrun by the walking dead. Early on in the series, he is reunited with his wife and son, as well as a small group of survivors, and they travel around the Atlanta/Washington area trying to find a safe home.

There’s some good character development in the series. It’s not an easy thing to take a reader who feels reasonably safe and secure, and make them believe that someone is, if not justified, at least understandably turning into a monster. Rick’s progression is slow, and – at first – his increasingly unhinged decisions seem justified. And maybe they are in book 16 as well, but it’s sure clear enough that he’s lost that wide-eyed innocence that made him so compelling in the first few books of the series.

The plot is quite interesting. There are many twists and turns, and there’s no holding back on killing off main characters so there’s a real legitimate fear of main characters dying when things get hairy. Taking the survivors through a number of different locales keeps in interesting and allows us to see all the different ways that the people in Kirkman’s world have found to survive. There are some overly convenient bits – such as when the group is separated and then just happen to stumble on each other later on – but it’s easy enough to ignore.

The big issue with the series is the dialogue. It lacks flow, people say painfully artificial things (particularly the monologues, but this happens in conversation too), and the phrasing is very stilted. Some of the errors could be solved easily with an editor, but this seems to have been bypassed. The central theme of “humans are the real monsters” is spelled out over and over again, which is terribly unnecessary given that a) it’s an easy enough theme to convey through subtle means, and b) anyone familiar with the zombie genre is already going to be expecting it since wowzers, can anyone say “overdone”? I’m not really into graphic novels, but given that Kirkman’s only job is to write plot and dialogue, I’d expect him to do the latter much better.

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Series: Harry Potty by J.K. Rowling

I’d read The Prisoner of Azkaban before, but without having it situated in the larger narrative, it just didn’t resonate. So, instead, I focused on the plot issues and dismissed the series.

I’m very glad that I decided to give it a second chance. The series does have a lot of issues, especially in the early books (it does seem that Rowling came into her own as the series progressed – or perhaps her publishers finally saw her as worth the expense and gave her a better editor), but all of that is overshadowed by the interesting worldbuilding and great characters.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the series is how it seems to “grow up” through the volumes. Books one and two are very innocent, focusing on the wonder of the magical world and on the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. By book three, the world starts to become more dangerous, and the reader is introduced to more complex relationships (Hermione acting rude, but it having to do with a personal issue and nothing directly relating to Harry).

By book four, puberty sets in, and the friendship starts to morph as the characters become more gendered. From there, the plots and the relationships between the characters become more complex, the baddies more scary, and the books themselves become longer.

This was masterfully done, so that a child starting to read at the appropriate age and spacing the books out can really feel like they are growing up along with the characters.

Teachable Moments

I liked that the series provides so many “teachable moments.” Topics are raised, but answers aren’t necessarily forced or spelled out, so it gives parents and children reading the series together a great opportunity to discuss the issues together. For example, Barty Crouch is so obsessed with catching baddies that he starts to become a baddie himself, which could very easily lead to a discussion on how the pursuit of justice can be taken too far.

I also enjoyed the fact that success in the series so often depends on hard work, rather than on natural talent. For a series specifically about a magical birth right, this was especially interesting. Throughout the books, Harry struggles with fame and the perception that he is naturally powerful and can accomplish anything, but the reality is that he still needs to work quite hard at learning magic, and he must accept help from others who know more than he does or are more talented in certain areas.

Hermione

Hermione is a fantastic character, and a great female role model. She’s part of Team Harry, of course, but throughout the series, we keep getting hints about a life lived entirely outside of HarryWorld. She has friendships among the other girls that Harry has no access to (and frequently has no knowledge of), her relationship with Viktor is played out off-scene, she has interests and passions that do not intersect with Harry’s, etc. She doesn’t just fawn over Harry in the way that Ron does, but rather has a private life of her own that even the reader – who has access only to Harry’s perspective – sees only in glimpses.

As a girl, she’s the perfect mix of smart, capable, nerdy, not overly concerned with her appearance, yet she is still feminine. She has friendships with girls on a “girl level” that Harry can’t understand, she has a relationship, she has crushes (but is not crushed by them), she pretties herself up when she chooses to… She has a solid identity, of which her gender is a part but that is not defined by her gender.

All in all, I found her to be one of the most well-rounded and deep characters that I’ve seen.

The Movies

Not a fan. The actors are great and very well chosen for their roles, but the press of covering too much material in too little time means that they barely have the time to read their lines before a scene change, and haven’t the opportunity to explore their characters. This made them all feel terribly rushed.

There were also artefacts of the books cropping up in weird places – for example, in The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore asks Harry to accompany him when destroying a horcrux (as opposed to Harry begging to go in the book), yet later, Dumbledore tells Harry that he “promised” to take him along.

I don’t automatically poo-pooh silver screen adaptations, but in a case like this – when the books are so popular and well-loved, I don’t think that it’s possible to make a good movie from them. There’s just too much pressure to remain faithful to the books, which prevents the directors and characters from having any input of their own into the work, making it little more than a pale re-enactment.

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Series: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a dystopian series set in the distant future Appalachia. The world – as much as we know of it – has destroyed itself and been reborn as Panem. In the centre is the Capital, where people live in luxury and entertain themselves with fashion and the drama of the Hunger Games. Around it are twelve districts, each focusing on a single industry so that all dependent on each other for the basic necessities of life. Once, 75 years before the series begins, the districts rebelled in what has come to be known as the Dark Days. There were thirteen districts then, but the Capital destroyed one in the battle. To ensure that the districts would never again seek to rebel, the Capital instituted the Hunger Games – a gladiatorial event in which two children, a boy and a girl, from each district is selected by lottery and entered into the arena, there to fight to the death until only one child is left.

The odds were in Katniss Everdeen’s favour and she was not called to be a tribute for the Capital’s Hunger Games, but her little sister was not so lucky. When Katniss volunteers herself to take her sister’s place, her personal refusal to accept the Capital’s rules lay the groundwork for a return of the Dark Days and the possible extinction of what’s left of human society.

Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale?

The Hunger Games series followed many conventions that could have reduced it to a superficial, silly novel – the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale perfectly illustrates my point. It would have been all too easy for the Hunger Games to become about Katniss’s “boy troubles,” to make her struggle be about the men in her life. The narrative does flirt with this at a few points, but it does so in a psychologically real way that preserves Katniss’s identity as an individual in her own right, rather than as an object for the competition between two males. As Shoshana Kessock points out, the only real team in the Hunger Games is Team Katniss.

Living vs Surviving

Katniss’s reaction to her dystopian government grows and changes in interesting ways. In the beginning, she is resigned to her fate, content merely with survival. She dismisses the interests of both boys in her love triangle because she cannot envision a future with either, a future which may include having children, in a society that would allow have something like the Hunger Games. It’s Peeta who offers her an alternative to simple survival – living – which, paradoxically, may mean martyrdom. His refusal to sacrifice who he is as a person to play by the Capital’s rules is a lesson to Katniss that simply surviving isn’t enough. She comes back to this lesson again and again through the series, each time understanding a little more about what Peeta meant.

Coming back to the romance tropes, it was so refreshing to see Katniss and Peeta help each other grow as individuals rather than simply learning to don a new identity at the expense of the self. Bella Swan, of Twilight fame is a perfect example of the latter. She sheds her self to take up the identity of her paramour (in this case, his identity as a vampire). In the Hunger Games, on the other hand, Peeta serves as a lesson, but it changes Katniss in a way that is unique to herself. She doesn’t become a copy of Peeta, but rather a person who has been shaped by her relationship with him.

Moral Complexity

In the first book of the series, the sides are fairly clear: the Capital is bad, the Districts are victims. But by the second book, Katniss is unable to reconcile her hatred for the Capital with her love for the Capital people in her life, such as her design team, Cinna, or even Effie. By the third book, the moral line that divides the sides becomes even more complicated as we meet the people of District 13 and fine them to be something less than the rescuers they have presented themselves to be. As with so many of our real world revolutions, when the rebels win the war, they adopt all the habits they had so recently fought against. There’s a lesson there for readers about trying to fit groups into a “good guy vs bad guy” narrative, and about thinking too uncritically about one’s in-group.

Image

Much of the series revolves around Katniss’s image. Throughout the series, characters are always dressing Katniss, using her appearance to tell a narrative that promotes their own agenda. I kept thinking of our fashions and the way that clothes often display the maker’s branding in a highly visible spot, using their customers as walking billboards. Through it all, Katniss struggles to keep hold of who she is as a person, an individual separate from the image is made to project.

There’s also a lesson here about the importance of image, and how powerful our appearances can be.

Conclusion

This series is absolutely fantastic. At only three books, there’s really no reason not to go out and read it. It’s very well written and excellently plotted. If you haven’t already, give it a try!

Edit: And hey, if you think that the Hunger Games (the actual games, not the books) were awesome, you can now experience them first hand (sort of)! Presenting “literary tourism.”

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