Book Review: Mockingjay

August 26, 2010

In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel The Hunger Games reached popular and critical acclaim for its compelling portrayal of the intricacies of love and loyalty when set against the human desire to survive. Its sequel, Catching Fire, moved seamlessly into the lengths to which an oppressive ruling power will stretch to maintain their fragile control, and what it takes to forge a revolution. In Mockingjay, the third and final chronicle of the Hunger Games, Collins takes us on a spare-no-glance tour of the cost of war on a nation and on the human soul, and of how far we are willing to go in defense of a fragile conception of moral right.

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who was on Fire, has survived two of the infamous death matches known as the Hunger Games and has unintentionally made herself into the symbol of the resistance against the Capitol’s tyrannical rule. Peeta, the one person who has been through as much as she has and understands, has been captured by the Capitol. District 12, her home, is a firebombed ruin. All around her war rages– the districts are revolting, and at last President Snow’s regime will be toppled or will crush them all.

Katniss is safe in the hands of the surviving District 13, protected as the face of a revolution must be. Inside, she is terrified by the loss of Peeta, enraged by the abuses of the Capitol, and discomfited by the “allies” who seek to use her standing for their own ends. The only stable thing in her life seems to be Gale, her oldest remaining friend, and even he seems to be someone she doesn’t quite recognize any more. Amidst all of this, Katniss must put aside her misgivings and come to terms with the fact that she is the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for a nation, who is responsible for countless lives.

Anyone who has read one or both of the previous Hunger Games books knows that Suzanne Collins pulls no punches with her vivid prose, but even knowing this I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of Mockingjay. This is a book about love, trust, family, and heroism, true, but above all else it is a story of war and what war does to us. You will not necessarily like this book; you may come out of it hating Collins, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, or any other of the numerous characters. But it will resonate with you, and that, combined with your hatred, will be how you know Collins succeeded in what she set out to do– her characters are human. They have human lusts, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. Their every defeat is diluted by hope, and their every victory is tainted by regret. At the end, you will be hard pressed to say who won, exactly, because each side– every individual, in fact–left so indelible a mark on the outcome that the idea of “winning” seems nothing more than a nostalgic fantasy from before everything was set in motion.


Book Review: A Dog’s Purpose (Cameron)

June 22, 2010

*ARC Alert*

A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron will be released on July 6th, 2010 by Forge Books (Hardcover, $22.99, 320 pages).

Ever since around the time Marley & Me came out, the “dog book” has been a strong genre. Mostly they’re memoirs, but the occasional novel, like this one, fit into the group by following the formula, which parallels actual dog ownership– laughter and love, ended by heartbreak. A Dog’s Purpose takes this journey across multiple lifetimes with the dog who is first Toby, then reincarnated as Bailey (the name I’ll use for this review), Ellie and Buddy. Each time he finds purpose and meaning by linking his life to humans, and each time he dies thinking that his journey has ended and his duty fulfilled, only to discover himself born again in search of an even higher calling.

The best, most pervasive part of this book was how absolutely dog the narration was. Of course, we can’t know what goes on inside our furry friends’ heads for sure, but as of the first chapter of this book, I imagine it to be exactly as Cameron paints it. (I’ve found that it benefits my puppy as well– instead of being angry when she gets into the garbage, I laugh at her imagined confusion in response to my reprimand. “The girl is obviously confused. How can it be a bad dog idea to eat out of the can? Does she know that there’s chicken in the can?”) Bailey is full of such doggy wit and wisdom in all of his incarnations. In fact, the only thing that matches his humour is his heart– just like any good dog.

As necessitated by the “dog book” genre, I cried a few times in the middle and definitely at the end. However, mostly I laughed, and laughed often and out loud. When I was finished I handed it off to my mother, who enjoys such books, and she had pretty much the same reaction. I would recommend this to anyone who loves dogs, or humour, or stories about life, or humourous stories about dogs’ lives. I think Kirkus Reviews put it best when they described it as “Marley & Me combined with Tuesdays With Morrie“. Truly, a touching tale.


Book Review: The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi)

May 23, 2010

There is no denying that Orwell’s 1984 was a relevant and terrifying speculation on the future when it came out in 1949, and that elements of its prophecy have come true, but fascism is not the threat to our way of life that it once was. The world has changed, and its nightmares have changed with it. Paolo Bacigalupi has provided an updated account of what humanity is doing to itself: welcome to the world of The Windup Girl, where domestic cats have been supplanted by flickering engineered cheshires, calories are currency, and governments and corporations struggle to stay one step ahead of the bio-terrorist super-blights which ravish the world’s rapidly diminishing supply of produce.

Many of the world’s nations have already fallen to blister rust, cibiscosis, genehack weevils, and the predations of the midwestern monopolies, which sell sterile crops so that none can take their market. Thailand has survived by nationalizing its seedbank and keeping the secrets of the last natural flora for themselves, but Anderson Lake has come undercover from AgriGen to take their secrets for his company’s profit. But his factory manager Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from genocide, has plans of his own.

Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, leads the Environmental Ministry’s white shirt enforcers and spends his days intercepting and destroying smugglers’ loads of illegal produce and trying to elicit a laugh from his stoic second, Kanya.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a beautiful and illegal genetic hack designed to be the companion of a wealthy Japanese businessman, abandoned on the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as abhorrent and unnatural by the Thais, she allows herself to be pressed into the life of a prostitute in exchange for shelter from the white shirts who would euthanize her.

These are the characters around whom Bacigalupi unfolds his epic tale of the age after oil, the characters whose intrigues and desperate attempts at self-preservation may tip the scales on the fate of the entire kingdom in which they machinate, may push humanity to the very brink of extinction. The Windup Girl is as relevant and terrifying as 1984 must have been when it was new. It is a vivid and fully realized conceptualization of what world we may find in the next century, and a dire warning for us all.

For more information and free reading of a few short stories set in the world of The Windup Girl, head on over to Bacigalupi’s website.

This book contains explicit sexual content.


Book Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Pearson)

March 8, 2010

Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox awakens after more than a year in a coma to find herself in a life—and a body—that she doesn’t quite recognize. Her parents tell her that she’s been in an accident, but much of her past identity and current situation remain a mystery to her: Why has her family abruptly moved from Boston to California, leaving all of her personal belongings behind? Why does her grandmother react to her with such antipathy? Why have her parents instructed her to make sure not to tell anyone about the circumstances of their move? And why can Jenna recite whole passages of Thoreau’s Walden, but remember next to nothing of her own past? As she watches family videos of her childhood, strange memories begin to surface, and she slowly realizes that a terrible secret is being kept from her. (synopsis from School Library Journal)

This is one of those books that makes me feel somewhat out of the loop. Apparently it was something of a Big Deal. Like Keturah and Lord Death, it’s not the next great American novel or anything, but well-received and sort of acclaimed. I had never heard of it and picked it up on a whim. But I am glad that I did.

Now, personally, I will gladly debate almost anyone on politics/religion/the big questions- American culture, Christianity’s merits and flaws, LGBT rights, whether the human race deserves to go extinct… just about the only thing I won’t touch is medical ethics. This is because medical ethics are very, very scary. Drawing a line between doing right and saving lives and playing God, meddling with what shouldn’t be meddled, that is something which I refuse to have an opinion on, because it seems like a question so convoluted as to be impossible. With the kind of technology we have today, and will have in the years to come, we can do some amazing things to help people. But atque in luce, sic semper in tenebra (“as it is in light, so always in darkness”), and so on. We as human beings always manage to hurt people with our miracles, and the capacity for harm in some of the things we’re developing is mind-boggling. I don’t want to get involved.

So when someone, in this case Mary E. Pearson, tackles the very questions I’m too wussy to examine with literary grace and aplomb, I tend to cheer them on. Not only is this book full of deep thoughts, but it presents them in a way that provokes further examination long after you’ve closed its covers. Ultimately, it even presents a funny kind of hope, though the limits Pearson defines are too far past my own personal lines for comfort. It’s only 265 pages, almost slim, but is weighs on you heavily enough that it feels much longer. Gripping and powerful are the two words that come to mind, overused though they may be.

The romance seemed a little thin to me, and never quite got the point of the character Dane- he could probably have been cut out and I wouldn’t have missed him- but otherwise I liked it. Jenna herself seems to be emotionally distant for much of the book, but it fits with her lack of/developing identity, so it works. Four stars.


Book Review: Keturah and Lord Death (Leavitt)

March 6, 2010

I will tell you a story of magic and love, of daring and death, and one to comfort your heart. It will be the truest story I have ever told. Now listen, and tell me if it is not so.

So begins Keturah and Lord Death, the story of a sixteen year-old girl who becomes lost in the woods and meets Death. With her gift for storytelling, Keturah is able to charm Lord Death into giving her one more day- and into promising that if in that time she is able to find her true love, she may live.

Keturah, of course, wants to live very badly. She immediately returns to her village and begins examining all of the local bachelors, but time is short, and her quest grows ever more desperate. Added to her concern for herself is concern for everyone in her beloved village, because before letting her go Death lets slip that there is a terrible plague on the way. Can Keturah save the ones she loves? Can she save herself?

I admit that the book-jacket synopsis (which of course wasn’t as wonderful as the one that I just wrote) didn’t make Keturah and Lord Death sound terribly magnificent, but this book is a gem. It’s one of those treasures that I stumbled upon accidentally, in a shipment from BookPig, in fact, but had never heard of before. But for whatever reason, I picked it up anyway, and now I’m terribly glad I did.

Keturah and Lord Death is a fairy-tale in the same way that The Book Thief is a story about the Holocaust- technically true, but so much more (for fairness’ sake, I have to add that while magnificent, K&LD is not the next great classic, as The Book Thief will probably be). It’s one of those books that puts you in a daze for an hour or so after you read it, and when people ask you, “Hey, what do you want for lunch?” you stare at them blankly and change the topic to a philosophical conversation about death.

There were a couple of moments where I felt like there was a brief jar in the story, but they were for the most part small, and the book was gripping enough that I didn’t really mind. The climactic finish was unexpected, but inevitable. Keturah and Lord Death will be one of those novels that becomes part of my consciousness and affects the way I look at the world for years to come. Five stars.