Saturday, May 28, 2011

Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games (Book Review)


Reasons for reading: The Hunger Games (or its sequels) found its way onto so many Best Of lists that I had to read it. Also, it's post-apocalyptic, which is a good enough reason for me.

In a distant future, there is nothing in North America but ruins, devastation and a nation of Panem, an isle of civilization amidst destruction. When one of its 13 districts surrounding the glorious Capitol rebelled, the Capitol destroyed it and created Hunger Games to punish people of the districts for disobedience: every year, each district must sacrifice two teenagers, one male and one female, to compete with the others for fame, glory and comfort. Katniss Everdeen is just an ordinary girl, but when her younger sister's name is drawn at the lottery, she volunteers to take her place in order to save her – the Hunger Games mean fight to death and there is only one winner.

The Hunger Games came as a huge surprise for me. Despite all the hype that surrounded the recent publication of Mockingjay (or maybe because of it), I remained wary of the series and only ordered Book I when it found its way to numerous Best Of lists. I'm glad that I did.

The plot of The Hunger Games is nothing very new or unique – a reality show where teenage contestants fight to death and/or the one who survives the longest wins. I was introduced to the concept in Stephen's King The Long Walk and it intrigued me even then, so naturally, the main plot of The Hunger Games appealed to me despite its similarities to The Long Walk*.

What came as a real surprise, though, was that The Hunger Games was incredibly exciting. Saying that a story is 'gripping' sounds like a major cliché, but it's true; I've read it in one sitting and I loved (almost) every bit of it. I can't remember when I've last read a book with this much suspense and a story so vivid. Collins constructs a very interesting post-apocalyptic world which actually works and doesn't feel too fake or too rigid. Of course, there are questions that go unanswered, especially regarding the economy of Panem, but the reader's attention is gently redirected to the central part of the story – the games – so the reader quickly stops dwelling on other things and becomes immersed in the action..

Katniss is a very likeable character and I was glad to see that, for once, the protagonist of a YA novel is not the archetypal troubled teenager. Sure, Katniss is troubled by some typical teenage problems, and can, at times, be a bit of a Mary-Sue: she has no serious character flaws as far as I've managed to discern, she is pretty, an amazing archer and a capable hunter, brave and caring … The situations she finds herself in, however, make her concentrate on survival and other tasks at hand instead of herself. It also helps that Collins plays the reader incredibly well – one can never be really sure who exactly is and who isn't Katniss friend in the arena at most times.

Speaking of the arena – I half-hoped that there would be some kind of a twist that would show the reader how Katniss' point of view isn't always 100% accurate. There were some passages where Katniss admits to forgetting how many contestants remain in the arena; I hoped that the author would take advantage of Katniss' and reader's confusion to add to the suspense by surprising us with a character we completely forgot about. Sadly, this was not the case; for better or worse, Collins keeps track of all contestants who matter and Katniss never misjudges a situation severely.

Although I practically devoured The Hunger Games, there were still some things that bothered me. I already mentioned most of them, but the one that bothered me most of all was the slight shift of attention from the Games to the love-triangle-in-the-making in the last third of the book. I mean, really? Why does every YA series need one of those? I honestly can't remember me or any of my friends being in that kind of a dilemma when we were teenagers, but in the world of YA series, it seems like a really common thing. Luckily for the reader, Katniss doesn't pay it much thought, but still – the ending is not very promising in that aspect. I'm also not sure whether I like the whole 'rebellious youth' thing; it feels just a bit too generic, even though it's actually logical here, as Katniss lives in a very oppressive world. I just hope that The Hunger Games won't turn out to be one of those YA series which has an empty husk of a protagonist who seems to have all the typical teenage problems combined plus the problem of saving the world/his family/his life.

Despite these flaws (which are, I think, typical for YA genre in general, not just for this novel), The Hunger Games is an incredibly exciting read, filled with action and suspense. I just hope that the sequels stay focused on things other than teenage romance.


* I watched Battle Royale in the week between writing and posting this review. What can I say? Some of the things are exactly the same (danger zones, young couple, etc.), but the atmosphere is completely different. In any case, Battle Royale is a great film, but I must admit it made me value Hunger Games a bit less.

By the way, if you want to read a really detailed analysis of The Hunger Games, check out this blog. I admit I barely noticed most of the things she mentioned, probably because I read the whole book in one big bite.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Eye Candy Covers: The Islanders by Christopher Priest

Eye candy covers! There was no post about covers here on RoSF in two years or so, because - actually, I have no idea why. (Probably because Thrinidir did those, and Thrinidir does not contribute to this blog as much as he used to.)
Anyway, I think it's about time to resurrect this column, because everyone loves a nice cover.

The Islanders by Christopher Priest is probably my most-awaited book of 2011. (Yes, I'm anticipating it even more than ADwD, simply because I won't believe that ADwD is finished until I hold it in my hands.*) Here's the working image for its cover:

Damn. This is hardly an eye candy. As Adam noted, it's very retro; my problem is that I don't like retro at all. I like the Gollancz paperback covers of Priest's books; they are elegant and pretty:


This one, however ... I really hope they change it. If I saw The Islanders in a bookshop, I'd walk straight past it with a cover like that - to me, it seems to scream 'BORING'. It also looks a bit like the books my mother read when I was a kid, which is in fact probably one of the reasons why I think 'boring' when I see it.

Source: The Wertzone

* Not that this has prevented me from pre-ordering it

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Pile: March & April '11

The TBR pile - we all have one and it grows faster than we can read. Mine is no exception. I thought it might be interesting to round up and present all of my recent acquisitions once a month, so ... here we go.

I completely forgot to do The Pile for March! Luckily, I've presented some of the books in the Monthly report; otherwise, this list would be even longer than it already is.

Max Brooks: World War Z

This one was on my to-buy list for a very long time until I finally decided to buy it. On one hand, it's the book everyone mentions sooner or later when there's a debate involving zombie apocalypse; on the other hand, I'm not really a big fan of the zombie apocalypse. We'll see whether World War Z makes me change my mind. Reading priority: medium.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man's Fear

Do I even need to say anything about this one? I liked The Name of the Wind very, very much. I do have to re-read it, though, so The Wise Man's Fear will sit on my shelf for a bit more. Reading priority is therefore medium.

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

I don't know much about this one other than it's a classic SF novel and that Lem is a pretty good writer. I bought it completely on a whim when I found it on a shelf of a local bookshop. Reading priority: medium.

Stephen Baxter: Flood

It's post-apocalyptic and it has a cool cover. Reading priority: high! (Yeah, this is essentially my criteria for which book to read next. I'm a shallow person. :D )

Christopher Priest: The Prestige

Another one of those 'saw the movie, bought the book' novels. However, I don't really think I'll forget the twist of The Prestige anytime soon, so reading priority is medium (and not low, as Shutter Island's is). I mean, this is Christopher Priest, how can I buy a book of his and not read it anytime soon?

Iain Banks: Transition

You know how it is when you absolutely need to buy a book and ordering it from the Internet is just not good enough? At times like these, I have to resort to local bookshops which don't really have that many books in English, and I buy the first thing that looks half decent. I don't know anything about Transition other than it was written by Banks, but that's good enough for me. Reading priority: low. (Ugly cover. Sorry, Mr. Banks.)

Iain Banks: The Crow Road

I also have this habit of buying at least one book whenever I travel abroad. I picked this one up in Belgrade, mostly because it starts with 'It was the day when my grandmother exploded'. How could I not buy it after an opening like that? Reading priority: high. (Pretty cover.)

Richard Matheson: The Shrinking Man

The second book I bought in Belgrade. The Shrinking Man is about a man who one day starts growing smaller and smaller (as the title tells us), and discovers that being really tiny is no fun at all. I really liked I Am Legend, so I hope this one will not disappoint too badly. Reading priority: medium.

Steven C. Schlozman: The Zombie Autopsies

I got this one as a review copy from Bantam. Looks very similar to World War Z - it's written as a journal kept by a neuroscientist who investigates a zombie disease. Reading priority: low.

Jon Steele: The Watchers

Another review copy from Bantam! This one looks much more intriguing than The Zombie Autopsies; 'a number of more or less ordinary people whose paths eventually intersect' is always an interesting, if much used, premise. Reading priority: high.

The Pile Special

I bet you know the feeling when you have a book on your TBR pile that seemingly everyone has read and praised, but you still haven't gotten around to reading it. I have plenty of those, and I will select and present one every month. My goal? To read it ASAP, preferably during the next month. This month's special is:

Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast Trilogy

The story here is the same as with all of the previous The Pile Specials: I bought the book some time ago (Goodreads tells me that 'some time' in this case means 'more than one year') and never read it, even though I've been told that given my love of the fantastic, I'll surely enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

William Gibson - Neuromancer (Book Review)


Reasons for reading: I had to read it for a paper I was writing.

As soon as I started reading it, I realised that Neuromancer is a very curious book. At first, it's all a bit confusing, with paragraphs describing seemingly random images in the life of a man named Case. Case also seems like a totally random person; we told that he is something, and that he used to be something else, but we have no idea what those 'somethings' actually are until later in the book when we manage to cobble it all together.

In general, Neuromancer is very fragmented. Almost every paragraph deals with a different point in time and space than the previous one, and they all begin in medias res, so the reader is – at least in the beginning – perpetually confused. In other novels, after the initial shock of being thrown into the middle of a story, the reader would slowly get to know what is actually happening (and where); here, he only has time to register the unfamiliar setting before being thrown elsewhere. This has an interesting side effect: for me, reading Neuromancer was a bit like trying to read something written in a language I'm not yet fluent in – I knew it made sense and understood some of it, but mostly, I had no idea what exactly the names and the phrases referred to.

When the prose pauses to describe something in some more detail, however, it's surprisingly evocative:

He'd missed the first wasp, when it built its paperfine gray house on the blistered paint of the windowframe, but soon the nest was a fist-sized lump of fiber, insects hurtling out to hunt the alley below like miniature copters buzzing the rotting contents of the dumpsters. […] He saw the thing the shell of gray paper had concealed.
Horror. The spiral birth factory, stepped terraces of the hatching cells, blind jaws of the unborn moving ceaselessly, the staged progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp. In his mind's eye, a kind of time-lapse photography took place, revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection.

When I finally managed to put enough pieces together to understand what was going on, I actually began to enjoy the novel. It's the first cyberpunk book I've ever read and I was surprised to find it more intriguing than The Matrix which it inspired (and which I loved). I don't know what exactly it was that drew me to the book so – probably that action is heavily laced with other things, like the mystery of Wintermute and Armitage, the depictions of Villa Straylight and the different parts technology plays in different social groups. I still felt a bit distanced from the story itself, though; maybe it was the jargon that is present throughout the book, but I think the real reason was the general tone of the narration. I don't read much SF precisely because there always seems to be this atmosphere of cold detachment which is also present in Neuromancer – I don't feel especially connected to the characters, even though I might find the book incredibly exciting, as was the case with Neuromancer.

I have to say that Neuromancer is a very good novel. I felt it in the way it was written and in the way the images were practically leaping at me from the pages. My reading experience, however, was not so pleasant – the book didn't really grip me until the last third of it, and by then it was too late – even though I felt that my efforts to keep reading have paid off, the fact remains that getting through the first two thirds were a bit of a chore. I've heard that Neuromancer is a love it or hate it type of book, but I don't really agree with that – I think everyone should at least give it a chance. Neuromancer can be a laboured read or a wondrous journey, and I found a bit of both in it.



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