Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

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Catching Fire, Dystopia, Fantasy, Suzanne Collins, Young Adult

Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 33


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

In book two of Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, Gale, and the gang are back – and better than ever.  In Catching Fire, Collins exposes her readers to the deeper horrors and animosities of the Capitol and of President Snow.  Just when Katniss and Peeta begin to feel safe, President Snow, ever vindictive, turns up in District 12 to remind them that they have defied him and the Capitol, and vengeance would be served.  Soon, the Hunger Games are brought to the districts and as uprisings begin to occur, Katniss and Peeta are dragged back to the games – their punishment for defying President Snow.  What this sequel has that the first book lacked is a deeper and more realistic connection between this fantasy story and the world around us.  The ideas of oppression, capital punishment, and resistance – passive and active- are well-developed, leaving the reader eager to find out what happens in the final installment of the series, Mockingjay.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Though characterization is still one of the “weaker” elements in Collins’s series, Catching Fire was certainly an improvement over The Hunger Games.  The majority of the story takes place in the districts, rather than inside the Games themselves, so the reader spends much more time with Katniss in the “real” world.  This allows her relationships with Gale, with Peeta, and with Haymitch to grow and develop further, which is interesting to watch and builds the connections necessary for the reader to really start to care about what happens to them (something the first book lacked).  Minor characters, too, like Cinna, refugees from various districts, and some of the previous Hunger Games victors are given page-time and attention, which adds to the believability and intrigue of this story’s universe.


Prose/Style:

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Once again, Collins demonstrates her talent for progressing a story smoothly, naturally, and at an appropriate pace.  As with the first book, there are some disappointing deus-ex-machina moments, which provide resolutions to seemingly irresolute problems; however, in this case, the deus-ex-machina serves as a cliffhanger and catalyst for the third and final book.  This is an added complication from the conflict resolutions employed in The Hunger Games and, overall, it works.  There were moments where the story seemed to move too rapidly, as when the victors are called back to the Capitol.  At times, these rapid changes made it seem as if Collins was writing the story without much forethought and without a clear idea of where she was heading with the story.  This might not be the case, but the final impression is ultimately what matters.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The tension Collins builds in this second book is superb, and it adds that realistic element readers of the series might be looking for after the knock-out introduction to the story, provided by book one.  The idea of this story is what to love about it – the writing is good, the characterization is getting better, and the setting is interesting, but it is really the premise and underlying themes which make the book tick.  Basic human rights and the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” are at the core of this series, and it is a notion which is easily relatable to current events and human history.  President Snow is like the love-child of Hitler and Nero – a leader who rules by fear and who is so evil and sadistic, he must be clinically insane.  The psychological aspects too – how family, friends, and neighbors cope with sending their children off to die (or fight to the death)- are intriguing, and the new element – the resistance of the Districts against the cruelty and corruption of the Capitol government is just what this series needed to lift-off.  Interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking.  Not to mention a little bit terrifying.


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: MG, YA, Adult

Interest: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Dystopia, War Games, Politics,

Notable Quotes:

“The bird, the pin, the song, the berries, the watch, the cracker, the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay. The one that survived despite the Capitol’s plans. The symbol of the rebellion.”

“So it’s you and a syringe against the Capitol? See, this is why no one lets you make the plans.”

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Science-Fiction, Suzanne Collins, Young Adult

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the first book in a series of three that takes place in an unspecified future, in what one would assume is a post-apocalyptic United States of America.  “The Capitol,” which rules all of the thirteen outlying districts (a throwback to the original thirteen colonies, perhaps?), I envision as a New York City or even a Los Angeles (given the many references to over-the-top costume and makeup and the televising of live-action reality as entertainment (i.e. Hollywood).  I enjoyed the story – the plot was eerily and frighteningly believable, but when I compare this first book in the series to other of a similar genre and focus, such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Takami’s Battle Royale, I feel underwhelmed and a little ill-at-ease.  What I mean is that I felt like this book was simultaneously underdeveloped and too far advanced for an introduction to a series.  There was too little time spent on getting to know the characters (who turn out to be heroes), so I could not cheer as heartily for them as I would have liked to – though, shamefully, I do admit that I was struck by Peeta’s romantic chivalry, possibly as it gives me embarrassing flashbacks of my own love-struck boyhood and how I would risk just about anything for the love of my teenage life (insert nostalgic sigh here). Still, even this sub-plot could have been much more intriguing and engaging if it had been further developed.  I feel that The Hunger Games could have been the second or third book in the trilogy, after a book or two spent on character development, building up to the crux of the “Games” and perhaps focusing on the relationships between Peeta & Katniss and Gale & Katniss (since this, too, was so underdeveloped that I was hard-pressed not to believe Katniss would not just choose to ditch her old “flame” altogether for the charming Peeta).  Still, the idea of the game itself, as well as the political and socioeconomic examinations, are all very interesting and when graced by the hand of an effortless prose, it was easy to sink into the story, despite the many overdone plot devices and a sometimes nauseating reliance on dues-ex-machina.

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

The biggest complaint I have with this book is the lack of development in its characters and character relationships.  So much could have been done with these very interesting and differing personalities – from Katniss and Peeta, to Cinna and Haymitch.  The way these characters interact with one another was glazed over, but could have added extraordinary depth to the story – particularly since the plot is truly terrifying and thought-provoking.  The one relationship which redeemed the book was, in my opinion, that between Katniss and Rue.  More could have been done, again, to further develop and enhance the story, but when Rue meets her fate – I can honestly feel Katniss’s emotions in this scene, and I love the way in which she deals with it, tenderly and defiantly.  There is no other moment in the book like this one but the sad thing is that there could have been many.  I found quite a few of the characters to be interesting, but superficial.  I hope that in later books these characters get more page-time – I would love to know more about their histories, motives, and passions.  I feel that if the time had been spent on this development in book one, as I mentioned above, the story and series overall would have been elevated to another, higher level.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The best praise I can give for this book (which is not to say that I did not enjoy the book – I am being critical because I feel the book could have been so much greater, honestly, had more time been spent in certain places) is its prose.  The pace of the book overall was fantastic and the language was fluid and simple, without being dull.  Now, setting aside the many obvious “automatic out” moments, which allowed Katniss and Peeta to suddenly escape danger through no real ingenuity of their own, I would find it difficult to find much, if any, fault with the style or structure of the book.  I think the three portions were split in the appropriate places and though we are seeing the story through Katniss’s eyes, I do feel that each of the characters had a small something which distinguished them from the rest –particularly the more major players.  This was not found so much in the dialogue as it was in description of body language and reactions, but sometimes that is enough to do the trick.  There was also a great sense of wit and strength in Katniss, which, again, did not come through so much in the characterization as it did in these glimpses of moving scenes and self-reflective personality and emotion.  Katniss’s inadvertent projection of her sister, Prim, onto Rue, for instance, was a touching part of the story and it was managed through the language rather than through the plot-action itself.

Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

As I mentioned in the plot section, one of the most interesting things for me about this book is how real the idea is – and this is both a statement as to the fragility of humanity, as well as a brutally honest account of the nature of politics and class warfare.  These underlying elements, for me, are what prop this novel up and what could have, with lengthier and more in-depth development of the story and its characters, made this book nearly brilliant.  It saddens me that I cannot rave about what greatness this book achieves, because I can see it working toward that peak but falling just short.  Still, the story was engaging and these underlying themes helped to propel the action and were particularly effective when Katniss would give a wink and a nod to “The Capitol,” letting the world-at-large (and the reader) know that she understands this horrid game and, whether or not she can beat it, she is not fooled by it.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult+
Interest: Dystopia, War-Games, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Notable Quotes

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games”

“Here’s some advice.  Stay alive.”

“Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.”


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