Friday, October 29, 2010

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Spoiler Alert - Plot points are given away in this book review.

The second book of The Hunger Games trilogy reunites us with Katniss and Peeta - the winners of the previous year’s Hunger Games. They’re walking the tricky line of being the first co-winners of the Hunger Games, a contest that has never had more than one winner. Their unique situation inspires rebellion among the districts against a violently controlling Capitol and especially places Katniss in a very precarious position. She must cow-tow to the Capitol - feigning love for Peeta and going through the preparations to marry him while indulging in her rebellious spirit - sneaking off outside the walls of her district to hunt with the boy she truly loves.

Then, the announcement is made - it’s a Quarter Quell - a special year in the Hunger Games where new stipulations are introduced just for this Games. The new rule is that only past winners can go back to the Games; one girl and one boy from each district. Katniss is the only girl winner from District 12. In she goes along with her “partner” Peeta. The Games begin again.

Catching Fire focuses on themes more mature than what we saw in The Hunger Games. Yes, self-preservation within the arena and gruesome violence are both still covered, but Katniss is heading toward adulthood and that alters what she sees and feels. Love, for one thing is explored as Katniss hides her love for Gale while fighting off sexual urges she begins to feel when she kisses Peeta. Political tyranny and what the common man must suffer in order to rebel is also a central theme to the novel. Violence is observed beyond the arena in Districts’ squares as deadly punishments are doled out by the agents of the Capitol. The Capitol-ordered brutality seen in the districts is almost more gruesome than what occurs during the Hunger Games - it’s slower and meant to cause pain while the violence in the Hunger Games is from an immediate necessity of survival.

At the same time these complex themes are being explored we’re still reminded that Katniss is just hanging onto the edge of adulthood; mostly she’s still just a child. Her comprehension of what’s going on is limited and her ideas of rebellion are poorly thought out and immature. What will running away to a shack in the woods solve?

Equally exciting as The Hunger Games but with a very different, heavier, feel, Catching Fire takes us further into the world of Panem. We go beyond the scarcity of District 12 and the over-indulgent glamour of the Capitol to see the world everyone lives in - and it’s a bleak place. Again, it was so easy to become attached to the characters and their story that putting the book down was difficult. We might have read straight through if we didn’t have Olivia bringing us back to reality.

We highly recommend the book but stress that you must read these in order. The second would lose power without the background gained from the first. Pick up the whole trilogy. Once you start, you don’t want to stop. We’re already reading the final book in the series, Mockingjay.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Real Wizard of Oz by Rebecca Loncraine

I was an avid reader as a child - picked up just about anything I could get my hands on and easily got addicted to books in a series. Beyond the usual Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley High books there was the Oz series. Bet you didn't know that L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz was just the first book in a lengthy series spanning decades? The series was even continued after Baum's death. I didn't read them all, but I loved the ones I read (and still have them,) so when I came across this biography of Baum I was excited to learn more about the author's life and how Oz came alive for him to share its tales with us.

The Real Wizard of Oz takes us through Baum's entire life, most of which was spent doing other things than writing about the magical land of Oz. Baum was an actor, a playwright, a store owner, traveling salesman, and journalist. He lived all over the country throughout the late 1800's and early 20th Century. He saw the U.S. grow up right in his backyard. Eventually ending up in California, Baum bought property in Hollywood when it was just a bunch of empty land.

What I liked most about Baum - he lived in the moment. At a time when the world was struggling through wars and economic depressions Baum lived to meet his family's sometimes extravagant needs. What I liked least about the book - the author's writing style. We get way too much boring information right from the start of the book. I really didn't need to know about the births and young deaths of everyone in Baum's extended family.

The narrative also gets extremely choppy. Details that seem to go together either because they're similar in nature or contradict each other are strung together in a way where you feel the author is just listing facts one on top of the other, cramming things into paragraph form just to get every little detail into the biography.

One particular aspect of Loncraine's writing style gnawed away at me throughout the book and ultimately killed it for me. She assumes so much about the people she's writing about, which would be fine normally since all her characters are dead, but she tells you about each assumption (most of which add absolutely nothing to the narrative.) I don't need to know that Loncraine assumed Baum's wife thought the sounds of him writing on the wallpaper were like rats scurrying around the house. The interesting thing is that Baum took notes on the wallpaper by his bed at night when ideas came to him in his sleep. This unique aspect of Baum's life is diluted by the addition of Loncraine's assumptive detail.

In Loncraine's defense though, her narrative style isn't all bad. There are some very well-written, colorful bits of detail. If the whole story was written using that same style, the book would have been amazing. As is, these bits are more like hidden gems that appear without any warning as you read. Loncraine also shares a lot of details about Baum's life that I didn't know so I felt like I learned a lot about who he really was. I didn't know that Baum wrote under multiple pseudonyms in order to compartmentalize the different genres he wrote for, only using his real name for his "fairy tales," or that the Oz series was considered one of the first modern day fairy tales.

All in all, this book was disappointing in style but worth the time as far as the content. The goal of the book is achieved - to share the life story of L. Frank Baum, however I would have preferred it to have been authored by someone else.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age is a fascinating Sci-Fi novel that takes place in a future where nanotechnology has become so commonplace that everyone, even the very poor, has access to it. The story centers on a young girl named Nell and the path that her life takes after she accidentally receives an amazing piece of technology (the primer). What starts as a story about a little girl who is stuck in the slums turns into a sweeping mini-epic that spans decades and changes the landscape of the entire world!

As with other Stephenson novels, the plot is so layered and nuanced that I can't competently describe it in too much detail without giving exciting plot-points away. I can, however, discuss some of the central themes of the novel that I found fascinating. One of the main themes examines the way that culture has developed in the world of The Diamond Age. The world has split into many different phyles, (or tribes) these phyles define the culture of the people within them. For example, the neo-Victorians style themselves after English Victorians while The Han are deeply connected to Confusion teachings. There are also many smaller phyles such as the mysterious hive-mind drummers who live underwater or the technology-driven CryptNet. Stephenson spends a lot of time showing how the characters of this world deal with their own identity and reconcile it with the cultural identity of their tribe. Another theme deals with the availability of technology. As we are introduced to the world we see that hunger has been all but eliminated because all people have access to public matter compilers that can create food, furniture, clothing, etc. However the feed of atoms to the matter compilers is controlled by the state, and there is a philosophical discussion over whether or not the flow of matter should be controlled at all.

This book is an amazing ride from start to finish. The story starts very small and over the course of the novel expands to deal with events that change the course of the world. I can definitely see Stephenson's style transitioning from the his early style (Snow Crash / Zodiac) to his later style (Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, Anathem) He uses some very cool narrative techniques in this story. A large part of the book deals with Nell's adventures in The Primer. These adventures are connected to her real life in that they help form her as a person, yet the experiences also stand alone as a self-contained story that is quite entertaining and informative. One of these stories teaches Nell binary and the origins of computers in a way that is so easy to understand that you come away from it with a whole new perspective on what computers are and what they can do. This book is a great read, it doesn't have a lot of the heavy technical sidetracks that turns some people off of Stephenson's other books, and his view of how the existence of nanotech would change the world is exciting to experience! Often in SciFi there is a tendency to use nanotech as a type of future-magic, but Stephenson shows its usage in some very practical ways (food creation) that have huge ramifications to society as a whole. Of course he shows some of the other more miraculous ways that it can be used; to create a fantasy-island for a little girl's birthday party. The Diamond Age is a gem of a novel and as with all Stephenson's books it will have you thinking about it long after you've finished reading it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kraken by China MiƩville

Let me preface this post by saying that I am a HUGE fan of China Mieville, I've loved his writing ever since I read Perdido Street Station back in 2001. He has a knack for writing characters who are multi-dimensional (sometimes literally), colorful, memorable and often very flawed. His characters always seem real and tangible, even when they inhabit a world that is completely foreign, scary, and bizarre. This is the style of writing that I expected going into Kraken, but it's not at all what I got.

The protagonist of Kraken, Billy Harrow, is a simple curator at The Darwin Centre. After a giant squid inexplicably disappears from his museum, Billy dives headlong into a London where magic is common, cults are everywhere, and his knowledge of giant squids (in particular the missing squid) makes him a wanted man. He partners up with a renegade squid-cult warrior and sets off on a quest to discover who stole the giant squid and how it's theft ties-in to an impending apocalypse. Billy has run-ins with a colorful bunch of characters who are significantly more memorable than he is.

What didn't appeal to me about this book was the overall tone. I've grown to appreciate Mieville's strong political views appearing in his work as well as his dead serious approach to what is often completely fantastical content. In Kraken, it's almost like he's trying to write a comedic novel. There are some humorous moments to be sure, but overall, I think I just missed a lot of the humor. Maybe you have to be British to get it. Maybe you have to be more familiar with the city of London to appreciate his treatment of the city, but I definitely missed the humor and most of the London references. The pacing of the book is painfully slow for the first three quarters. It picks up considerably toward the end, and at moments I thought that Mieville could pull the story out of the fire. It just never happened.

The book wasn't all bad, there are moments of brilliance that really push it from a cheeky comedy toward the genre that Mieville claims he writes: Weird Fiction. There were a lot of cool characters and concepts in the book; a character who only exists in statues, a character made of ink, a teleporting Star Trek fan, and a group of thugs whose heads are nothing more than clenched fists. These are all very funky and cool creatures to read about, but they are only tertiary characters. By contrast the main character is so bland and boring that I had to push myself through this book.

China Mieville is an amazingly talented author. His Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) are an amazing example of contemporary fantasy (or 'weird fiction' as Mieville calls it). I highly recommend Mieville as an author, but I just can't recommend this book.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin (Audiobook read by: Scott Brick)

The Passage is the story of a virus released in the US that turns 10% of those infected into blood-craving, sunlight-avoiding vampires. The story focuses on the people who caused the outbreak, those who survived it, and the one person who can save humanity from it. The novel starts out a handful of years into the future and follows a young orphan named Amy Bellafonte and an FBI agent named Brad Wolgast. The book traces the roots of the virus from the jungles of Bolivia to its eventual release from a top secret army facility in Colorado where it is being developed and studied. You become quite attached to all the characters you meet leading up to the release of the virus, then suddenly the narrative jumps 90 years into the future, and we are treated to an entirely new story. Cronin drops us into a world that bears little resemblance to the world we know today. We're introduced to an (almost) entirely new cast of characters who are just beginning their voyage to reclaim the world from the virals who have replaced them as the dominant species on the planet.

I simply can't say enough good things about this book. Cronin uses some very distinct narrative techniques that make the book an unique experience. It's not often that a book can be clearly split into 2 stories and still hold itself together. The stories are connected only vaguely, but they work together to give you a deeper understanding of the world of "The Passage." The emotion that Cronin pours into the pages of this book brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion and, as with any great book, I felt a real hole in my days when I no longer spent them with the characters of this book.

As with any audiobook I review I have to discuss the narrator, Scott Brick. He is amazing, just spot on with all the character voices. His pacing and tone match the story perfectly. He imbues the story with emotion and passion without it seeming forced. Audiobooks can often detract from the story if the narrator isn't right for the book, this was not at all the case with this book, and if you have a long road trip (as I did) I highly recommend this audiobook.