Last August, I was harping about waiting from the third installment of Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games Trilogy, Mockingjay. Well I’ve finally read it, and I’m not disappointed. From my previous post, you can tell how much I admire this work.
I won’t get into specifics here. You can read about the trilogy’s plot and theme in that previous post.
What’s so admirable about the work to me—beyond the imagined world, plot twists and tight writing—is the author’s uncompromising vision of the main character, Katniss Everdeen. This girl can be stubborn beyond belief, infuriating to the max, and independent to the extreme. She has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and has a special art for assessing a situation and then doing the most unexpected things. She also has a steady moral compass, is fiercely loyal to family and friends (the few she has), and has a problem with issues of trust. Yet all of these are the qualities that allow her to survive in a futuristic hell of devastating war and poverty.
Would she have been as believable in a third-person narrative, or a narrative with multiple viewpoints presented? I don’t think so. Throughout the trilogy, Katniss is the sole voice of the story, and we only see the action through her eyes. We hear no other character’s thoughts or can surmise no other character’s motivations. All we know is what Katniss is thinking, what Katniss is seeing, what Katniss is hearing. And as a result, we are with her, and only her, all the way to the end.
Not once did I believe Collins’ betrayed the nature of Katniss as the story progressed. The author knows this character inside and out. She is what she is. The world may change, but Katniss remains Katniss.
There be spoilers: As far as the book’s ending, let’s just say there is some controversy out there. Four Oklahoma youth librarians take sides about it on this podcast. Finish the trilogy, and then have yourself a cup of tea while you listen to their discussion about Mockingjay.
Working with youth librarians has inspired me to pick up some children’s books and young adult novels that are quite appropriate for adults as well — Neil Gaiman‘s The Graveyard Book and Suzanne Collins‘s miraculous Hunger Games Trilogy, for example. Although marketed to younger readers, they sacrifice nothing when it comes to imagination, artful writing, and expert plotting. Like all good fiction, they have plot points open to interpretation, they beg for analysis, and, more than anything, they’re fun to talk about!
A book jacket quote from the The Times in London says it’s “one of the best fantasy novels written for a long time.” I agree with “one of the best,” but I would say this is more a work of science fiction.
Incarceron takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that has picked itself back up with some unique solutions. Because of the devastation wrought by war and technology, people in the former UK live under a peculiar protocol of behavior and lifestyle (think Victorian England) in order to prevent change, technological progress and the possibility of future devastation. The idea is to create a paradise “free from the anxiety of change.” Another paradise is also envisioned: Incarceron, a prison that “could be no kinder or more compassionate (a) guardian for its inmates.”
The two worlds live apart and ignorant of each other, with each side believing the other is a paradise. This is far from the truth. Outside is stagnant, depressive and filled with dangerous political intrigue. Inside has become a downright nightmare that would be at home in a Harlan Ellison story.
Only the Warden of Incarceron knows where the prison exists, and the story revolves around the warden’s daughter Claudia and a young Incarceron inmate named Finn. The two find themselves with keys to the prison, technological wonders that allow them to communicate with each other. Scattered bits of memory convince Finn he has lived outside the prison, and he wants to escape. Claudia is convinced Finn is, in actuality, the “dead” prince Giles who was cheated out of his rightful title by her father and Giles’s conniving step mother, the Queen.
What follows is a trip of wonder, danger and surprise as Finn and his band navigate within the vast prison to find a way out, and Claudia navigates the deadly political games in the outside world. Surprise is the key word here, and readers can’t help but experience a jaw dropping moment when they discover where and what Incarceron is.
There be spoilers here: Three Oklahoma youth librarians discuss Incarceron in this podcast, and it’s a delight. Careful, though, if you’re planning to read the book. If that’s the case, better to devour this great novel, then come back and listen in on the discussion.
Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.”
Thus begins Justin Cronin‘s epic, The Passage. Epic at 766 pages. Epic in the scope of the story. Epic, as in: expect some sequels to this modern vampire tale. This is the Stephen King story you’ve been waiting for all these years.
OK, I’m sure there could be people who will be upset by that King comparison. Maybe they would be upset because King Rules! Or maybe they would be upset because they believe Cronin writes on a higher level. After all, Cronin is a literary darling who has picked up a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Stephen Crane Prize, and the Whiting Writer’s Award; while King is the book world’s undisputed, uhh… king of horror and suspense.
I’m not insulting either writer. I employ the comparison for simply one reason: I haven’t felt this way about a horror novel since King’s The Stand. It’s that intense. It’s that good.
Science gone wrong leads to a post-apocalyptic world in both novels, but King’s work is firmly rooted in the ancient supernatural struggle between good (God) and evil (The Devil), while Cronin is content to imply that any seemingly supernatural goings-on (telepathy, blood-lust, near immortality) are qualities of our genes that have perhaps lain dormant for millennia—qualities that have been activated by a scientific experiment to extend the human lifespan. (To say this experiment has military implications isn’t surprising, given the stereotypes of the genre, and it isn’t giving anything away.)
Little Amy is the only subject of this experiment to retain her human identity; the other, older guinea pigs are transformed into creatures that can only be described as vampires. These creatures escape the lab and the world falls around Amy, but she continues to live, aging at a much slower rate. The savage beasts recognize her as one of them, so they do not attack her; and they recognize her as someone who can answer the question their minds continually ask: “What am I?”
Following our introduction to Amy and her transformation into a near immortal, we travel almost 100 years into the future to meet a struggling community of surviving humans. Amy eventually joins the survivors, and travels with them as they seek a way to save their haven. Ultimately she confronts one of the original 12 vampires that were created prior to Amy’s transformation, and events are set in motion that will continue in Cronin’s next two books, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors.
Like in King’s The Stand, the ultimate payoff in Cronin’s work lies in watching the creation of a new, loving family in a harsh and unforgiving world. If you ask me, you couldn’t ask for anything better after the apocalypse.
And there’s gonna be a movie.
Here’s what’s on my nightstand:
• Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable by Bruce Hood (Beyond culture and the handing down of beliefs, Hood thinks there is something inherent in our nature that makes us believe the unbelievable.)
• The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (An adventure in an alternate world, where people really–I mean, *really*–value literature. What kind of drugs is this author taking?)
• The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham. (Latest installment of maybe the best comic/graphic novel series ever!)
(If you’ve been following this blog, you may be interested to know that Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is no longer on the nightstand!)
And what has been taking up Miss Kitty’s time?
• No Going Back by Lyndon Stacey (An ex-cop and his retired police dog solve a crime.)
• Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth (It’s about our relationship with food.)
• The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (A modern-day woman discovers she has a connection to the Salem Witch Trials.)
Plus, Kitty says she’s so fed up with this weather she’s getting ready to read a Christmas romance: Scrooge and the Single Girl by Oklahoma’s own Christine Rimmer.
OK, now it’s your turn. What have you been reading this hot, hot season?
Hmmm… with all these titles, I wonder how many categories I should tag? Let’s see…
One, I just finished reading The God Engines by John Scalzi, up for a Hugo Award for Best Novella. Second, the Hugo awards will be presented on September 5th (my birthday) at the AussieCon. Sounds like an omen to me.
This book or novella, whatever, is considered a fantasy, not sure why it’s not science fiction but smarter people than me make up these distinctions, so just go along with it. This small work really packs a big punch.
Story: Captain Tephe has his hands full with an angry god who has been enslaved to power his spaceship. He has a reluctant crew who have barely survived a recent hostile encounter with insurgents. Many souls in the universe do not believe Tephe’s Lord is their Lord. And he’s being sent on a conversion mission to claim new souls for his true god as directed by the powerful Bishopry Militant.
This is only the beginning of Faith tested. Is this Scalzi’s indictment of religion? Does the strongest theology endowed with the stongest military force create the true belief? Is there a truth stronger than belief? Is religion only about subjugation of the weak to the beliefs of the strong? Particularly relevant to our time of religion and war.
This 136 page book should ignite a conversation about faith, and belief. Just another reason why the Hugo Awards are so important. The nominees’ works make us think. So pick one, or two and see what affect they have on you.
A Facebook friend posted a tantalizing photo on her wall the other day. It was a picture of herself happily sitting with an advance copy of Suzanne Collins‘ hotly-anticipated Mockingjay. (Yes, she was “mocking” all of us who would give our eye teeth to get our own advance read!) This sent librarians into a Facebook comments frenzy for a bit, and then the FB friend eliminated all traces of the photo and conversation. All is calm again, except 99.9999999% of us are still waiting for Mockingjay, which won’t be officially released until August 24.
Why the anticipation? Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire, are the first two tomes in Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy—a science-fiction adventure aimed at young adults, but discovered and devoured by adults as well. The first book is an award-winner, has sold 800,000 copies, is available in 26 foreign editions, and has been optioned for a movie. No, we’re not talking anywhere near the success of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight novels (and don’t even think Harry Potter territory). What we have here is a dark horse that received positive buzz online, and lots of reader-to-reader recommendations. I knew it was hot with young adult librarians, but when Chicago Tribune TV Critic Mo Ryan sent out tweets about how great and suspenseful the work was, I knew I had to give it a try myself. I’m glad I did, and now I recommend it to friends and family.
There are many reasons to love this tale: The trilogy is the story of young Katniss Everdeen, a resourceful and charismatic heroine for our time. She is steadfast and loyal, fiercely brave, and ultimately true to her convictions. Everdeen’s world is a nightmare: a despotic government keeps tight control over 12 districts that provide consumer goods to the lucky citizens of the Capitol, while residents of the districts barely survive their harsh conditions. An ultimate annual reality show pits young teams from each of the districts in a fight to the death, a ploy to keep the districts in fear and in line. But something happens when Katniss participates in the Hunger Games. She becomes a star to citizens of the districts, and a catalyst for rebellion.
Plots can intrigue, but it’s the writing that makes or breaks a book, and Collins comes through with flying colors. And so, we wait for Mockingjay—wait to have our questions answered about the rebellion and the mysterious District 13; wait to see if Katniss and her family and friends will survive; wait to get another, and final, fix of our favorite book series of the moment.
If you read this blog from time to time, you know how much I love science fiction. There’s a dirty little secret I’ve been keeping that I’m ready to reveal: I’ve never read perhaps the most famous science fiction novel ever written: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
I’ve owned it for some time, but it wasn’t until I was discussing great works of science fiction with a friend that I was really moved to pick it up and crack the cover.
So now I’ve started the book (the original uncut version depicted at left) and I’m on page 231, and I’m… absolutely appalled!
It’s not the Sci-Fi or suspense elements that upset me. The story elements dealing with a human raised by Martians, the glimpse into the Martian world, the unbelievable powers of young Valentine Michael Smith, and the political intrigue surrounding the foundling, are all fascinating. No, it’s the fact that this is one of the most sexist books I have ever had the displeasure of discovering.
Now, I know this was published in 1961 (you just have to watch Mad Men to discover, or remind yourself in my case, what it was like back then), and I expect a book to be a reflection of its time, but take a look at this quote from the novel:
He knew that such twisting of the tiger’s tail was dangerous, for he understood the psychopathology of great power as thoroughly as Jill Boardman lacked knowledge of it…”
“He” is news reporter Ben Claxton. Jill is his love interest, and she’s a nurse. So… a news reporter knows more about psychopathology blah blah blah than a nurse who probably had a course that covered psychopathology blah blah blah. The reason Ben knows more, and the reason all of the male characters are written as superior to the female characters is because of ONE BIG REASON: Men are better than women. Sorry, but this misogynistic attitude seems to soak every page of this so-called classic.
Surely, there’s a reason for this. Surely, the author must be setting us up for some kind of stunning social commentary. Is there a point to the fact that Martian-born Valentine Smith is the only character who does not look down on women? Will he reveal that men and women are of the same species, shocking the Earthlings? Is there a point to any of this? Have I wasted my time?
HELP! Should Young Bill Young keep reading this book?
I had a lot of fun last Summer working with youth librarian Adrienne Butler on October’s Teen Read Month. The theme was “Read Beyond Reality.” The focus of the project was speculative fiction, everything from hard sci-fi to wispy fantasies.
One of our lesson plans for the project was on the big “What-if” of science fiction, and it challenged young people to come up with their own “what-if” scenarios that could form the basis of a story. You know, things like, “what if we were visited by aliens,” and “what if humans began to develop telepathic abilities,” and “what if the machines really did take over?”
The possibilities are endless, really, and it’s one reason why science fiction is such a rich genre. Of course, the best sci-fi, like the best of all fiction, isn’t just about the idea; it’s about the characters and how they react in their environment.
The big idea in Nancy Kress‘s new novel, Steal Across the Sky, is really big. Aliens do come, and they tell us that ten thousand years ago they committed a crime against humanity. The aliens wish to atone for this crime, and they select a group of people to travel to other human-inhabited planets in order to discover for themselves the nature of this wrongdoing. The aliens can’t just tell us, we have to see it for ourselves. The aliens need witnesses to their crime. Humanity needs to hear the devastating news from their own kind. (But you won’t hear it from me; I’m not going to tell you what the crime was. And stay away from reviews that purport to keep you spoil-free while revealing too much.)
I fully expected the novel to revolve around the revelation of this crime, and that the main characters—young, emotional Cam; grieving scientist Lucca; and cautious, responsible Soledad— wouldn’t discover the truth until the next to last chapter. But Kress throws us a curve ball. The actual crime is discovered less than half way through the book, and the remainder of the novel deals with the impact of the truth on the sentient inhabitants of Planet Earth, and, ultimately, deals with the act of atonement by the aliens.
A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”
And so, following the revelation, we see the emergence of a deadly cult; the celebrity of witness Cam; the targeting of the witnesses by extremists; the romantic thawing of Soledad; the isolation of rational Lucca; and the imperturbability of humanity as it goes on about the business of life of death, despite the startling revelation about our true nature. For some readers, the last part of the book won’t be able to live up to the first part; for others, the subsequent chapters give the book its heart and soul.
Never read sci-fi? “What-if” you try it?
Young Bill Young here. Last Sunday a friend of mine asked what mysteries I’ve read lately that I would recommend. Other than suggesting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I didn’t have much to offer. As I’ve said, after running through Agatha Christie’s books during junior high, I rarely pick up a mystery.
My friend knows I read lots of sci-fi, and he hasn’t read very much in that genre. So he also asked what science fiction books I would recommend to a sci-fi newbie. I pretty much aced that part of the interrogation. Here’s what I recommended:
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
I’m calling it a list of five, since the second Simmons book completes the story that begins in Hyperion, and the Brin books take place during the same time period in his Uplift Universe.
So, tell me: what mysteries would you recommend to someone in the mood for a good whodunit?
Yes, I could look up the lists of award-winning mysteries, but I really want to know what you folks think. Come on mystery fans! I know you’re out there…
WLT or as most people know it, World Literature Today, published by the University of Oklahoma, has just put out what I believe is it’s most readable and enjoyable issue yet. International Science Fiction. While the journal has always been scholarly it has sometimes lacked appeal. Over recent years it seems to be moving in the right direction, of course that’s IMHO. Anyway please try to pick up this latest issue, guest edited by Christopher McKitterick, including a feature article by him. And China Mieville ( I’m impressed) introducing Fiction by Reza Negarestani.
WLT is our reminder of a bigger world, not exclusive to American ideas and writings but consistently seeking a broader perspective. Step outside that door and look around, you’ll be amazed.