*Not My REAL Bookshelf

*Not My REAL Bookshelf

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"The Hunger Games", by Suzanne Collins -- A STUDY ON A SERIES, PT. 1/3

Most of you by now have at the very least heard of the phenomenon that is The Hunger Games. This novel by Suzanne Collins and its sequels have engendered such a tremendous buzz, that Hollywood felt the need to stick their own fingers into the popular pie and generate a film series based on the trilogy. While I have enjoyed the films most ferociously, that is not why I'm here today. We all know that the book is ALWAYS better than the movie, and this case is no exception.

My first knowledge of the story came from my then twelve-year old Mini Munchkin, who insisted that I simply HAD TO read this! Since her literary tastes in those days typically ran more towards the Junie B. Jones set, I was reluctant to take her advice on the subject. To be perfectly honest, it sounded godawful -- children being chosen by lottery to fight to the death for entertainment, like some sick and twisted reality show?? I was appalled. It wasn't until after her thirteenth birthday party, which consisted of taking her to see the movie in the theater the day it was released, that I finally saw the light. I positively devoured The Hunger Games, which took me approximately 3.87 hours to do, and quickly followed up with the other two tomes in the series. I've been utterly addicted ever since!

Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year old girl living in a dystopian wasteland once known as the United States. It is now known as Panem. She shares her life with her little sister Primrose, and their mother. Their father was the victim of a mining accident, and that one event has served to shape their lives in ways that will come to decide the future of every citizen of their nation.

The ruling city of their homeland, better known as The Capitol, has decreed that one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts will be offered up as Tribute in an annual event called The Hunger Games. The Capitol citizens view this monstrous affair as the last word in entertainment -- the rest of the nation has no choice but to follow along with these Games in order to preserve the lives of them all. As fate would have it, Katniss winds up taking her sister's place in order to spare her from a terrible death. The boy chosen to accompany her is Peeta Mellark. Peeta is the person who quite literally saved her life years before, though they have never spoken to each other before. The tale truly begins with their journey into the arena, to fight to the death with twenty-two other Tributes from the other districts.

After a dizzying trip to The Capitol and a round of spectacular makeovers, the Tributes are prepared for what they are about to face. Interviews, strategies, training, and subterfuge collide to create a powder keg of emotion, hubris, and fear. Little by little, we come to know these kids and the forces driving them. Once their time in the arena begins, only one can emerge victorious, and it is the fear of letting down young Primrose that drives Katniss forward into survival.

Fighting off injuries and the elements proves to be a Herculean task for most of those who survive the opening moments at the Cornucopia, where all of the supplies are stored before the Tributes arrive. Each day brings death, and often the nights do as well. After the calamitous losses suffered on all sides, Katniss and her district partner are eventually forced together into a pact to survive the Games. The difficulties they face as they carry on toward the ending are both harrowing and grave. By the end, the showdown is so brutally disheartening that it left me breathless with horror. Imagining my own children being left to such a fate is the kind of thought that keeps me awake at night.

Throughout the novel, Katniss' journey into a jaded sense of enlightenment keeps the reader guessing start to finish. Her actions as she comes to realize the depth of the deception they have faced has consequences that are incendiary and far-reaching. By the time I reached the conclusion, I was so intrigued that I could barely concentrate on day-to-day life. I simply HAD TO continue the saga and learn the fate of the so-called "star-crossed lovers of District Twelve".

All in all, I was swept away by the storytelling elements of this book. Collins' simple prose and powerful imagery made for one hell of a good read. The immediate appeal reminded me quite a lot of the Harry Potter saga, another set of tales yet to be covered in this particular blog. Anyone who skipped the books in favor of the films has done themselves a grievous disservice. There is so much more to this trilogy than can be properly addressed in the condensation process of turning a book into a screenplay.

Rating: ★★★★★

"Catching Fire", by Suzanne Collins -- A STUDY ON A SERIES, PT. 2/3

Reading works in a series frequently causes me endless despair, in the interminable waiting for another sequel to be released kind of way. This is why I typically avoid series if I can, at least until all of the stories are already published. I was fortunate to be a latecomer to the fandom for this series, keeping me free of that particular brand of anguish.

I've often felt that it would be difficult for your average, ordinary mortal to follow up such a genius work as The Hunger Games with any degree of success. Lucky for us, Ms. Collins appears to be on a higher plane of mortality!

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and Peeta back home in District 12 picking up the pieces of the friendship that was shattered by Katniss' post-Games revelations. Due to the nature of the requirements placed on the shoulders of any Victors, the pair is preparing to be thrust back into the spotlight once again for the sake of maintaining the image that helped them become Games favorites in the first place. They are reunited with stylists and prep teams, coming to know them even better than before. This all leads up to the Victory Tour, placed midway through the year between the Games, for the Districts to celebrate the individual Victors in person. New threats cause new rifts in relationships both old and new, and loyalties become divided in ways nobody could foresee.

The real trouble begins with two things: The arrival of a new and excessively militant Head Peacekeeper, and the announcement of the third Quarter Quell, which occurs every 25 years. These Games always come with especially cruel mandates. (In the second Quarter Quell, the Reaping called for twice the usual number of Tributes, one of whom was Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss' and Peeta's mentor.) The emergence of a pair of Victors of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games elevated District 12's number of living Victors from one to three. When the announcement called for the Quarter Quell Tributes to be reaped from the pool of existing Victors, it meant only one thing -- Katniss was headed back into the arena.

Preparing for their newly-decided fate meant a variety of changes for the pair and their mentor. Constant athletic training for the Tributes, sobriety for the mentor, and changes to friendships and familial relationships alike were the new order. Even the Capitol's preparation period prior to the Games was wildly different, with alliances being formed and reformed both in secret and out. The culmination of their preparations was still no match for the arena that was chosen. It was a challenge for all manner of skill sets right from the start, save a select few from District 4. Overcoming stereotypes was a challenge for nearly every Tribute in the Games.

As the plot thickened, it was easy to see the change coming over Katniss where Peeta was concerned. But the mystery of other Tributes seeming to put his survival ahead of their own was both a source of consternation for Katniss and the reader, and a bit of clever foreshadowing. By the time the climax of the story arrives, the suspense is palpable. The events that bring the Quarter Quell to its end are as disastrous as they are disturbing, and the aftermath of those actions and reactions will leave you shaken to your core. I know they did mine!

All told, I positively flew through this story! It was impossible to put it down, and left me desperate to get to the finale that was waiting in the third installment. I would venture to say that it was my favorite of the three. Dazzling mental imagery interspersed with suspense and danger and a heartwarming approach to young love all combine to create a story that I found captivating. I could honestly have done without the whole "two's a couple, three's a crowd" angle, which is seriously DONE. TO. DEATH. in all manner of fiction these days. But beyond that, it was a positively thrilling read.

Rating: ★★★★★

"Mockingjay", by Suzanne Collins -- A STUDY ON A SERIES, PT. 3/3

In the third and final installment of the saga of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins brings us Mockingjay. This incredible story chronicles the details of a nation's revolt against those who would seek to keep it under their thumbs, and the power of love and friendship in the face of tremendous adversity.

It is the time in the aftermath of the Quarter Quell, and Katniss Everdeen is hanging by a thread. Everything she has ever known has been lost, except for her mother, her sister, and her best friend Gale. Panem is in full-scale rebellion. The disastrous end to her latest trip to the arena keeps her mental state in constant disarray. In addition to all the rest, she is having to struggle to learn a new way of life outside of the only home she has ever known. Alliances formed during the Games are the only link she has to her life before everything around her exploded away.

With Peeta and many of the other Victors being held captive, all thought is bent on how to free them from whatever horrors they must be enduring. Spies from inside the Capitol have the intel they need to strike back, but it comes at a terrible cost. It is only after their mission succeeds that they learn exactly how injurious that may be.

Life after the return of the captives turns to keeping the Mockingjay in the public eye, to give the rebels the strength of will to carry on. As Katniss is shuffled from one district to another, she has to learn to grieve everything that she has lost. Old friendships begin to die out in the face of what has been done to her, leaving precious few allies in her court. Her mother and sister remain in their new home, receiving medical training. Slowly, she begins to find the courage to be the person that everyone already believes she is.

When the fight for Panem finally reaches the Capitol, Katniss endures weeks of physical training to be eligible for combat. She and her squad begin attempts to make it to City Center, with the assassination of President Snow being the main objective. Many heartaches are suffered along the way to achieving their goal, and true colors begin to be shown. When the fighting reaches its horrifying climax, the cost is too much to bear, leaving Katniss shattered beyond repair.

Once the final mission is over, the former residents of District 12 begin to slowly trickle back into their old lives. Stock is taken of everything that has been lost, and people begin to rebuild what the war destroyed. Some return, while others can't bear to come home. The mental instability that gripped Katniss at the outset has had a resurgence, and only one person can help her to lift it away -- Peeta, who has finally returned to her after being hijacked by those in the Capitol. As the story comes to a close, we see the bright new future that waited for the people of Panem.

While this was my least favorite of the three, the book was incredible nonetheless. (The mental illness Katniss suffered hit a bit too close to home, and made reading from her perspective somewhat more difficult than I was quite prepared for.) Definitely a fitting end for a dystopian masterpiece, however heartrending the anguish may have become prior to the conclusion. I can't recommend this trilogy highly enough!

Rating: ★★★★★

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"My Lame Life: The Queen of the Misfits," by Jen Mann

Since my first days in the Blogosphere, I've seen some incredibly talented fellow writers and bloggers published. One of the most entertaining of these writers is Jen Mann, author of such gems as I Just Want To Pee Alone and People I Want To Punch In The Throat, both of which are AMAZING books with hysterical commentary on the ins and outs of parenting...and being a societal introvert who hates wearing pants. (And honestly, don't we all??) Her newest foray into the world of publishing is a YA novel entitled My Lame Life: Queen of the Misfits, her first jaunt into the genre. Because of my humble blog here, I was so fortunate as to receive a signed copy from Jen to read and review. Having done the former, I am now ready to tackle the latter!

Fourteen-year old Plum Parrish is not the kind of girl you'll find in the middle of a group of cheerleaders, or whose name is revered by the other students at her school. For Plum, life exists of one best friend who understands her, and nothing else except her passions for both reading and for learning French. She revels in her misfit status, because it is her niche in life. But all of that changes when she receives an announcement from her parents that throws her entire world into disarray: Due to a promotion, her parents will be moving their family far away from the only life she knows. The journey to her new life is fraught with the same battles she was waging with the so-called "cool kids" in her previous school, and makes for some heady drama once school starts up again. Her shenanigans even manage to drag her brother and her parents into the fray, which results in some hilarious moments as well as some tender ones. One is left desperately hopeful that Jen will continue the saga of Plum Parrish, since the novel ended with a bit of a cliffhanger that absolutely found me wanting more!

This is a novel that celebrates the kids who are different, who march to the beats of their own drummers, and I found it refreshing and wildly engaging. As always with Jen's work, I walked away from this read with a smile on my face and affection in my heart. You can't go amiss here -- I wholeheartedly recommend this book to tweens/teens and adults alike. Nothing quite so nostalgic as remembering the days of our own misspent youth. LOL

Rating: ★★★★★

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"Power Play" by Penny Jordan

When I was a high school junior, our small-town Texas football team was able to achieve enough wins to be eligible for the Semifinals game for the 3A Conference State Championship. Travel to Irving to play at Texas Stadium (where the Cowboys played at the time) was an excitement I could scarcely have dreamed of, but it was quite some distance from home in those days -- a solid 10 hours or more when the speed limit was still set at 55 MPH. I brought my Discman along, but the supply of batteries I had available was soon exhausted, and I was left with my go-to option for my free time at home, which was to pick up a book to read. I had pilfered a title on my way out of the house that was new to me, a novel called Power Play by Penny Jordan. The cover was provocative in a subtle way, no busty, scantily-clad maiden being passionately clutched to the bare-chested man of her dreams to be found. It was a temptation too great for sixteen-year old me to resist, and into my bag it went. I read somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of the book in the time I had available to me during the trip to and from Irving, but somehow managed to drop the novel into the overhead compartment when we were disembarking upon our return. A call to the charter bus company revealed that the book had disappeared, and I was left distraught. My OCD demands that I finish reading a book once I've started, and there was zero chance of such after that.

Fast forward nineteen years later, when the internet has become the best friend of those whose brains are incapable of retaining certain tiny pieces of information such as specific book titles or the names of authors. A Google search of the details I could recall about the characters and plot reminded me of the title I needed, and a quick visit to half.com got me reunited with the book at long last. I made quick work of finishing up the read, and it was just as great as I remembered. (A relief, truly, since many things fail to hold up over time in terms of how completely they captured your interest before.) It now holds a cherished place on my bookshelf, and remains a favorite I won't be losing again.

Pepper Minesse is a fierce and incredibly competent businesswoman, one who holds herself aloof from all manner of personal relationships with men after enduring a terrifying assault in her past. When first we meet her, she is in the process of mailing out letters to everyone who was involved in that most hated and shameful piece of her past. Sending those letters sets her long-awaited plan for revenge into motion. The four men, all equally powerful in their own right, are extremely resistant to Pepper's demands. The blackmail she has acquired ensures that they have no choice but to comply, and this leads them to form a plan of their own to combat her revenge. As the past, present, and future begin to merge, a growing danger mounts, and Pepper's very life is placed into grave peril. It is only through the intervention of one of the same men whose life she is attempting to ruin that she is able to triumph over the danger she faces. Shocking twists and terrible crimes abound as the plot races toward its finish, leaving several people dead and many lives irreparably changed.

All in all, this is one book that was written with the reader in mind. Gripping and powerful, the story is one that will stay with you. There were a couple of small elements that bugged me about Pepper's acquiescence, which make me reluctant to give it a full five stars. But it is a solid read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"The Time Machine", by H.G. Wells

Many moons ago, I was mired in the long days of a high school career. Summer vacations were a splendor whose days were numbered, with the end of such allowances marching ever closer. Being a student of AP English meant one thing during these languorous stretches of free time -- summer reading lists. Filled with the names of tomes whose authors were long deceased, it was a dread for nearly every student. Lord knows how I suffered through the tortures of Great Expectations in the summer before my freshman year. Nothing but a no-fail cure for insomnia there. Another challenge faced in such a small town as ours was the availability of the books on the list. The local library was sure to have a copy or two, but it was also certain to be checked out on a constant basis if the title was a popular one. With the nearest bookstore hours away by car, one had to face a harsh reality as summer began to wane: A different book would have to be chosen from the list before time had run out. This is how I came to read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells in the space between my sophomore and junior years, in addition to the ever-popular Romeo and Juliet.

During a dinner at the home of one known to the reader as the Time Traveller, the aforementioned character arrives with much ado and excitement to relay the tales of his recent journey. He weaves such a tale of his trek through time, spanning all the way to the literal end of the Earth and back again. Along the way, he has met many different people of various stations in life, experienced a crushing loss, and encountered many things the likes of which the people of his own time could hardly even dare to dream. He learned of an eventual split of the human race into a veritable caste system, one which persisted for millenia. He fostered relationships with the people he met, some to good ends and some to bad ends. These travels have impressed so much into his psyche that, upon his return to the Victorian era, he finds himself a drastically changed man. His is now a haggard and careworn sense of self after everything he endured, and his recounting of the many things he experienced leaves those in his party speechless and disbelieving. The traveler then vanishes a day later, never to return.

I found myself so swept up in his story that I flew through the pages with abandon, desperate to find out what would happen next. It was easily the greatest of all of the assigned reading I ever attempted, with perhaps Night by the late Elie Wiesel being the only exception. I wouldn't exactly call this an easy read, since the language of Wells' time doesn't quite sync up with our own in a way that fosters immediate understanding. But once you clap on to the vagaries of these differences, the book practically reads itself. It is a masterpiece, and one that I like to revisit as often as I can.

Rating: ★★★★★

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"The Girl On The Train", by Paula Hawkins

Not too long ago, our book club took on an assignment of the bestselling thriller The Girl On The Train by British author Paula Hawkins. It was timed to coincide with the release of the film, which we watched as a group after having read the novel. Ultimately, I found the film to be seriously lacking in comparison with the book for a variety of reasons, which is nothing new. But as this is a book review, I'll try my best to stick to that instead.

Rachel Watson is a woman in her twenties with a life in shambles. Abandoned by her ex-husband for another woman, stuck with a judgmental roommate, and nursing a not-so-secret habit of heavy drinking, she's watching her existence fall to pieces around her. Her only joy in life is during her daily work commute into London, watching a happy couple from her old neighborhood whom she has dubbed Jason and Jess. One day she witnesses something shocking from the train which shatters her illusions about the couple she has grown to envy and admire. This is further complicated when a disappearance makes the news in the area, and it haunts her in ways she cannot reconcile with her memories of the day in question. Now sober in the face of this turn of events, a newly-unemployed Rachel decides to become an amateur sleuth to puzzle out the details of the situation. The realities she unearths along the way bring her to the precipice of dangers she could not have foreseen. This allows her to unveil a truth connecting the circumstances of the present to her old life, which left me floored and speechless.

The story moves slowly at the outset, fraught with the complexities of a narrative based solely on Rachel's emotional and drunken mindset. It requires a measure of patience to arrive at the place where the action becomes intriguing. But once that point has surfaced, you won't be able to tear yourself away from the gripping tale of the protagonist's treacherous quest to discover the truth. In this case, the juice was worth the squeeze. :)

Rating: ★★★★☆