Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy; Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Piergories

Review: I generally avoid young adult fiction unless it begins with the words "Harry Potter" but after years of hype and my friends carrying on about The Hunger Games books I decided to jump in. They are not that long and to quote my almost-brother-in-law, "those are the books with 6 words per page, right?" In short, I figured it wouldn't be that much of an investment if they turned out to be stupid.

The Hunger Games is a certified cultural phenomenon so I am sure you are aware of the plot. It is a dystopian story about North American sometime in the future. A rich capital in the Rocky Mountains rules and subjects everyone else in the country (divided into 12 Districts) to poverty and essentially slavery. To punish the Districts for a rebellion 75 years earlier, the Capital hosts the annual Hunger Games. One girl and one boy from each District are drafted to compete to the death in an outdoor arena that is full of death traps and misery. It is like a futuristic Roman Colosseum. The Hunger Games are both a punishment and a form of intimidation and control.

As I read the books I noticed they read more like movie scripts than novels. I was not surprised to later find out that the author was a television writer. I really enjoyed these books but I think this is a story meant to be told on the big screen. I am thrilled the movies are being made and based on the trailers, the first one at least looks excellent.

The first book is the tightest and the best. The second and third book are not as good as the cast of characters and scope of the story get big and somewhat unwieldy. That said, they are still incredibly fast-paced and entertaining. I was a bit worried because when I initially heard the plot (kids fighting to the death) it seemed so incredibly silly that I couldn't imagine it would work - but it did.

I think my favorite part of The Hunger Games Trilogy is that the main character and narrator is far from perfect. She is incredibly brave, strong and capable of incredible acts of love and selflessness. That said, she is also insensitive, self-absorbed, a bit mean-spirited and short-sighted/impulsive at times. In short, she is a deeply flawed person that is capable of great things - just like most people. I like how even though the story is told through her eyes and she is the catalyst for so much of the action in the story, I would argue she is not the hero of the story. In my opinion, someone else is - I liked that. Also - the book doesn't shy away showing how badly the trauma of war (inside the games and out) have affected her and others. These are not characters who can be victims of, and the cause of, numerous horrors of war without significant scarring.

Obviously, I also like that the main characters came from District 12 (ie Appalachia). Yay for Appalachia - Did you know that Pittsburgh is the Paris of Appalachia?

As I was reading the third book, I was kind of disappointed although I still was enjoying it. The story just started declining in the second and third books but I am not sure why exactly. 3/4 of the way through the last book I prepared myself for a lackluster ending because I had heard less than great things about the third book and I didn't really like where I saw the story heading. However, the end of the third book really won me over - I loved it. The ending is...well..realistic. The scars of trauma and war remain. There is no such thing as a fairy tale ending for people who have endured the absolute breakdown of humanity. I like that Katniss finally made her choice and I like the choice she made. I like wondering how much of a choice she really even had. I like how it isn't a neat and clean ending but a complicated one with elements of both deep sadness and hopefulness as well. It basically perfectly reflected the themes of the book as I saw it: That humans are capable of incredible evil but our capacity for love also propels us to do amazing things; That survival sometimes forces us to sacrifice some of our humanity - how much is too much? How much can you sacrifice and still go back to a normal life? In sum, I liked that the ending was more complicated and subtle than I expected it to be. Loved that the author didn't take the easy ending or the ending her readers probably wanted.
Here's hoping the movies can capture what made these books so great.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson (2005)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies with a Disappointing Aftertaste

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a long book and I read it in about 2 days. I could not put it down and tore through it like there was no tomorrow. The mystery at the heart of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is totally captivating and I can respect any storyteller that can capture my imagination and interest so well.

Due to the popularity of the book and the current movie pretty much everyone is at least briefly familiar with the plotline. A disgraced journalist and a emotionally disturbed computer hacker join forces to solve a mystery involving a serial killer of women. At the heart of the mystery is the Vanger family - a wealthy family of industrialists comprised of oddballs, nazis and perverts.

My favorite part of the book was probably the setting. I have never been to Scandanavia and I cannot recall having ever read a book set there either. I really enjoyed becoming immersed in Swedish culture and lifestyle even though many of the political and cultural references were completely lost on me. Also, the characters are interesting even though they are totally unrealistic. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a male fantasy projection. Every woman in the book throws herself at him sexually and he successfully avenges all who have wronged him. He bangs every main female character without consequence even though a normal man would have major ethical constraints on such behavior (one conquest is a co-worker, one is a rape victim half his age who works for him and the other is a person he is supposed to be objectively studying for a book he is being paid to write). But I guess its okay to bang all these women despite the inconvenient context because they initiated it. How Conveeeeeeenient - male fantasy much??  Lisbeth Salander is a really great character but she is basically an aspergers ward-of-the-state and emotionally disturbed rape victim who just happens to be a world class hacker and researcher even though she had no education or training to speak of - seriously, she might as well be a member of the X-Men.

Many of my friends said they struggled to get through the beginning of the book but I didn't have a problem with getting sucked in immediately. However, by the time I had finished the book I wasn't as in love with it as I had been initially. Basically, I felt I could have just seen the movie and not have missed much by skipping the book. In fact - I am going to skip the next two books in the series. Life is too short and there is too much I want to read.

Although I appreciate that the mystery in the book was totally solved by the end, I found the revelation to be not that interesting, imaginative or surprising. It was both over-the-top and totally underwhelming at the same time. Half way through the book  Bible clues are introduced ala The Divinci Code but as it turns out they were pretty much totally irrelevent. The connection between the Bible verse clues and the solution to the mystery were tenously related at best.

Another aspect of the book that confused me was the message behind the sexual violence. This is an extremely violent book and the violence is almost all sexual in nature and almost always directed towards women. However, if there was some social commentary or higher message regarding such violence it didn't come through. Between portions of the book, random statistics about sexual violence are stated. I kind of felt like these statistics were included to make it look like the author was making some sort of stand or commentary on the inhumanity of such violence. However, at the end of the day this book totally uses such violence itself as the engine behind the drama in the book. Those statstics just came off as a poor attempt of trying to have one's cake and eat it too. Obviously, that is just my opinion.

Even though there were aspects of the book I didn't love it is definitely worth reading simply because the mystery is set up masterfully and the character of Lisbeth is great (albeit completely unrealistic).
Also, I LOVED the final scene of the book (which had to do with the relationship between characters not the underlying mystery).

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (2011)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 pierogies


This book has the following things:

1. Creepy old photos.

2. Bird-people.

3. Time travel.

4. Monsters.

5. Scary half-human-half-monsters.

6. An abandoned orphanage.

Obviously you need to read it.



Peregrine is written in a very conversational tone, so it's a breeze to get through. The plot is quick-moving and does not dwell in drama or emotion, it's all action action action.

In terms of character development, Riggs only focuses on a handful of characters. It's enough to get the reader invested in the key players, but not so much that the reader gets bogged down in back stories.

Riggs builds Peregrine around real vintage photographs. He takes the easy way out by creating a world of "Peculiar" children. My imagination got distracted wondering about the real history behind these photos. They are so strange, how did they possibly come about?

Like Veronica Roth, Riggs is a contemporary writer with a blog. He is not as prolific as Roth, but he still writes enough to give you a glimpse into the life of a "real" writer. As a ridiculous book nerd, I tend to deify authors. It's amazing to me to see how down to earth they really are.

Peregrine has been tapped for the silver screen, with Jane Goldman (X-Men First Class) signed on for screenwriting, and Tim Burton for directing. Peregrine is so visually focused and action driven that it will easily translate to a great movie.