A Marvelous Trio of Books

This summer has been super duper cool, temperature wise, and therefore a great time for reading some non-academic tomes. I also finally got a library card to my new library — Patrick and I went to check it out one day.  He had a little trouble with the quiet part, but shelves and shelves of books?  He was sold.  And the best part is I finally figured out how to get library books on my Kindle!  2004 here I come!

So I first checked out Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  The creepy cover got me interested, but having the author stand behind us in a line at the LA Times Book Festival got me even more intrigued.  You mean he’s a real person?!?!?  Yes, a real person with a fabulous kate spade typewriter satchel.  The story was fantastic, and definitely one that did give me pause to read right before bedtime. The monsters in this one, and the heroes too for that matter, are skin-crawly creepy sometimes.  There are pictures, real pictures, all throughout the book which fit with the story or reveal things about the plot or characters, or sometimes just creep you out.  The macabre in me really enjoyed this book, and I’ll definitely check out the second one when it comes out.

I was way behind the curve on the next book, but I am so glad I read it.  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead takes its inspiration from A Wrinkle in Time, and I still have vivid memories of the Children’s Theater adaptation from the early 90s.  Now when I read young adult novels, I really get interested in the parent characters — go figure, right?  Miranda’s mom and her soon-to-be step-dad were excellent, and the little glimpses we got of Annemarie’s dad made me want to know her family more.  I guess it’s only natural that as I grow older, I’m more interested in the hesitance towards commitment in Miranda’s mom than I am in the difficulties the kids themselves are having at school.

The third in my trio was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and wow.  Heavy, dark, and excellent.  While dealing with his mother’s illness and impending death, the adolescent main character “accidentally” calls a monster to help him.  The grieving the protagonist goes through is realistic — messy, confusing, heartbreaking.  And the illustrations reminded me of the ones from Scary Stories to Read in the Dark…so, pretty creepy also.  But this book made me cry in the end, and not because of anything sappy.  Unexpected from the cover art.

All three books gave me little thrills and chills — shimmy shivers, as I call them.  There were moments for each of them when I was a little afraid to get up in the night, and when for sure I didn’t want to brave the walk up to the marina bathrooms after dark.  Shimmy shivers.  But they all had strong main characters that I could really feel for, and get involved with, which is just the kind of release and literary relationship I’m looking for in a summer read.  I recommend them all, if you’re in the market for a summer read that will help you work some emotions out and release some pent-up stress with good thought and deep feelings.

Since I haven’t written in a while, here are some of the other books I read this spring with abridged reviews.  They each deserve their own feature-length extravaganza, but the books keep coming, and any specific thoughts I had about them are a little lost in the haze.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson — amazing supernatural/religious/sci-fi mash-up with great twists!  Put it on your list!

Broken Harbor by Tana French — I loved French’s first two books, the third was too similar to the others, and this fourth one was void of surprise and overtly gruesome.

Anasi Boys by Neil Gaiman — LOVE!  Can we get more stories from the American Gods world, please?  Please?

Villette by Charlotte Bronte — This book changed my thinking.  Whatever was going on with those Bronte sisters, man, they made it happen.  I assume this one takes the back seat to Jane Eyre because the ending is…unexpected, but I think that maybe… … MAYBE… … I liked this one better than Jane Eyre.  Read it.  Do it now.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente — Fun, but I think it would have been much more meaningful to me if I knew more about Russian mythology or fairy tales.  I was able to figure out who some characters were, but ultimately, I was an outsider on the inside jokes here.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

In the end, satisfying and worth reading.  The third novel isn’t substantially different than the first two, and, to avoid spoiling any plot points for you, I’ll focus on the series as a whole.

First off!  What I liked:

  1. The ending — It made me tear up a little bit, I’ll admit it.  And the love triangle, while not super captivating, did end in a way that I hadn’t foreseen but had hoped for.  Tied up most of the loose ends a reader might care about, and made me feel the span of Katniss’ journey.
  2. The message — Autocracy — bad.  Societies enslaving whole groups of people — bad.  Simple messages,  but good ones for a young crowd to internalize.
  3. The “young adult” traps that were avoided —  I did have to remind myself, often, that these books weren’t really for me.  They were written for the me of 17 years ago, and the me from back then would have LOVED them.  LOVED.  But the me of today appreciated that Collins avoided many “young adult” tropes.  Her main character was constantly dealing with the guilt and aftermath of people she had killed or had caused to be killed.  But not in an off-hand way — it was a large part of her character.  She also did not become a killing machine, even in either of the arenas.  She only actually killed a few people, many less than the other Hunger Games victors we were introduced to, and, also unlike them, she was never able to put a cold distance between herself and those she had killed.  Collins also kept the books realistically violent — terrible things happen, and are not sugar-coated for younger readers.  But the book is stronger for it.  It doesn’t shy away, it doesn’t hide from what might actually happen in a war.  And there’s a lot of confusion — the enemies are not as cut-and-dry as other young adult fiction.  Katniss trusts someone, then learns they can’t be trusted, finds out her source was the one who was untrustworthy, but that STILL doesn’t make the person she did trust trustworthy.  Collins gives her readers some credit…after all, what middle school student doesn’t know all about the dangers of trust and deception?

What I didn’t like:

  1. The epilogue — Didn’t need it.  From the actual end of the book, I felt like I had everything I needed…I knew which characters were going to survive, and I knew how the rest of Katniss’ life was going to play out.  The epilogue was another tablespoon of sugar on top of some lemonade.  Leave it out.
  2. Inconsistent characterization  — I talked about this in my post on Catching Fire.  Honestly, the problems I had with her characterization of Katniss as dim-witted when it came to others cleared up in the third book.  In this one, she seemed just as aware of the motives of others as she had in the first book.  So, one problem solved. 
  3. Unnecessary deaths — Once again, I don’t want to say WHO dies, but some main characters die in the third book.  For one of those deaths, I almost missed it.  I had to page back and read again…”Oh, he died?  Wait, what?  Just like that?”  Some die in sudden, quick ways, but it seems incompatible with their personal stories, and incompatible with the narrative Collins set up.  They should have either had more of a send-off, so I would really feel the loss, or not died at all.  Another character died dramatically, but her death makes her entire existence in the novel seem inconsequential.  She lived only so she could die so that Katniss would find the strength to do what needed to be done…but Katniss already seemed fairly committed to doing all she could.  I think some young adult novels really try to pack in the deaths at the end of a trilogy, but go too far.  There’s a line there, between realistic intensity and caricatured violence…many authors cross that line, trying to make sure their young readers really see the devastating toll of war and unwarranted bloodshed.  But it just makes the work seem a little sloppy, and also makes sensitive readers (like myself) feel like they’re just killing off characters for sport.  If they can’t write about them anymore, the characters will just have to die.

Overall — a good series.  Lots of interesting talking points for a young folks’ reading group, and something for everybody.  I’ll look forward to the movies!  More than other stories I’ve read lately, it really lends itself to the screen.  In the meantime, I’ll just hope that this isn’t actually in our country’s future and settle down to cuddle with my own little Buttercup cat here in District 13.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

That was quick.  As far as sequels go, it was captivating, and the cliffhanger at the end threw me right into the third and final book.  The science fiction aspects of this second book were more what I was looking for.  The arena for the Quarter Quell games was mind-boggling, and fit much more with my thoughts about where any kind of reality-show games might be held.  It follows that if a society is going to go to the trouble of filming humans hunting and killing each other, they’d  add a little more dramatic flare to the arena, not just put them in a one-note biosphere.

But for most of this book, I was distracted by one big inconsistency — the idiocy of Katniss.

In the first book, she is a fearless huntress, much more like Artemis than any of the other contestants.  She is an excellent hunter, able to take down any prey swiftly and silently.

She’s still this huntress in the second book, but here’s where the characterization began to fall apart for me: she’s also an idiot.  I mean that in the nicest way possible — but it’s still true.  She’s become a symbol for a revolution, an uprising, and even when she learns that, she doesn’t piece together SIMPLE events, BLATANT events, that should show her what exactly is happening in her world.  Even when it is perfectly obvious to the reader, Katniss doesn’t connect the symbol of the mockingjay with the rebellion.  Time and time again, other characters show her some hidden token with a mockingjay, look at her meaningfully, and wait for understanding…but she just thinks they’re being odd.  For someone who is so smart in the arena, I don’t buy it.  It’s a fault of characterization, and someone really should have said something to Collins about it.  I can believe that a girl who has grown up devoid of romantic contact would have trouble understanding her relationships with both Peeta and Gale, the two other points of the love triangle, but I can’t believe that she wouldn’t figure THIS out a little earlier than the last three pages of the book.  Doesn’t work for me.

That said, I did like it enough to continue on to the third book.  The story is still intriguing, and the world fully-realized…and the plot is chugging along in a satisfying way.  I’ll see it out to the end.  I just hope that in this next and last book, I get to see a Katniss who feels a little more real…a little more true to the intelligence she’s shown in the past.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’m so glad to have read a young adult novel that doesn’t make me feel old.  This book is a quick read, and a good one, too.  A dystopian future for North America, with a sacrificial games element.  I’ve also read Gregor the Overlander by Collins, and I applaud the way she can create darkness and maintain that darkness in a story that still contains all the regular tropes of young adult fiction.  I’m already on the second one, Catching Fire, and am breezing happily through that book as well.

Students have been listing this as their favorite book ever since it came out in 2008.  But students also told me to read Twilight, and…yeah.  I don’t always take their reading advice.  It’s tricky reading young adult fiction as an “old” adult now — those books are no longer written for me.  They contain plot points or characters who I find tedious because I’ve seen them before in countless other novels.  It just gets boring after a while, feeling like “they don’t write them like they used to.”  They need those elements, however, to instruct their young readers on what book reading is like, what you can hope to take from it, and how to write.  The amount of times I’ve told students that I DON’T want to know what everyone is wearing in their short stories…Gack!  But I know where they get that idea from, and it’s a good idea for their age — keep them observing and thinking about details that belong in a story.

Rant!  Back to reality — I really enjoyed this book because I did NOT feel like I’d read it all before.  Sure, you’re able to kind of guess the ending before you get to it, but Collins surprised me at times too.

I’m curious to see how the main character, Katniss, will mature in the next two books.  There’s a trend in young adult fiction now to have a female main character who in some way doesn’t recognize how special she is.  It could be that she doesn’t know how beautiful she is, or doesn’t understand her full potential.  But this lack of self-esteem is a central part of these characters, and that worries me.  Is a girl really only beautiful if she doesn’t know it?  Can a girl who doesn’t know how smart she is really be that smart?  Do we only appreciate young women who are humble or completely self-aware?  Hmm.  I’ll report back on whether this develops or not. It’s continuing in the next book, but I’m hoping it will be part of her journey to become more self-aware and more self-confident about everything, not just her prowess at hunting.

Right now, I’m excited that they’re making this into a movie.  And the casting looks spot on, which is a real treat.  My advice would be to not check out the movie pictures yet until you’ve read the book — it’s a good read, it won’t take long — and then get a pleasant surprise when the cast looks almost like you pictured them in your head.  Pretty cool.

I also found out from a little peek on Wikipedia that Suzanne Collins was a writer for Nickelodeon AND wrote for one of my favorite shows when I was in middle school, Clarissa Explains It All.  Well, now I’m a real fan.  Plus, that picture takes me back.  I bet that’s exactly what Drew and I would have looked like, if we’d studied together in middle school.

I’ll keep you posted when I finish the next book, which should be….wait for it….almost done…

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