Monday, May 9, 2011

And So It Ends...Mockingjay (Book #9)

I have been having a hard time coming up with a way to even start my review of Suzanne Collins's Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  It's almost like letting go of a beloved friend...though perhaps not as devastating as the final installation of Harry Potter, in which I sobbed almost uncontrollably at 3am.  Once again I must warn you...if you have not read the two previous books in this trilogy, read no further!!!

The revolution against the Capitol is in full effect and Katniss Everdeen is, currently, on the losing side (the rebels).  She's been recovering from the 75th Annual Quarter Quell Hunger Games in the underground city of District 13, along with fellow survivors:  Finnick and Beetee.  District 12 has been destroyed and people are dead and dying.  All of the districts are rebelling against the Capitol, save a few, and are meeting heavy opposition.  The fate of the districts lies in the hands of District 13 and Katniss.  Will she join the revolution and take on the mascot's position?  Essentially, will she become the symbol of the revolution (the Mockingjay)?  This is a question that Katniss continually asks herself throughout the beginning of the text before eventually agreeing to become the poster child and unifying force of the people.  Of course she accepts in her own way and demands a few things in return.

During all of this we know that Peeta Mellark is still a prisoner of the Capitol.  We also know that he's being tortured in several ways for information about the districts and about Katniss.  What we don't know is that this torture will have affects that can never be undone completely.  The Peeta Mellark that went into the 75th Games will not be the same Peeta that comes out.

Eventually a plan is put into place to rescue Peeta and any other surviving Tributes that have been taken prisoner by the Capitol; namely Johanna, Enobaria, and Annie.  Katniss is not allowed to go on this mission, but Gale, Katniss's childhood best friend and perhaps more, is.  Peeta, Johanna, and Annie are all rescued during a risky and costly mission, but Enobaria is not.  Once the trio is returned to District 13, the level of trauma suffered becomes apparent rather quickly.  No longer is Peeta able to see Katniss as the girl he's been in love with for years.  Instead, he sees her as a Muttation and the biggest threat to the survival of the Capitol.  It takes everything that District 13 can offer to attempt a reversal of the damage done to Peeta.  While Katniss struggles with the emotions Peeta's transformation evoke, she must also train and prepare for the invasion of the Capitol that is fast approaching.  

Once the mission has been set into place, the location of the book changes from District 13 to the outskirts of the Capitol.  There are major preparations and enforcements prepared to take on whatever the Capitol dishes out.  Originally, Katniss's unit sets forth to film propos, promotional videos, for the rebels.  What they walk into is something that sets the climax of the novel into motion.  Instead of mere filming, the group is forced to take the lead role in the invasion of the Capitol.  They are able to survive the onslaught of artillery that's thrown their way, with minor losses in the beginning.  As they travel deeper into the bowels of the city center, more are lost.  Some that leave the reader a little speechless.  New evils are introduced and new tactics are used to survive.

As the novel draws to a close, the action focuses specifically on the center of the Capitol and President Snow's mansion.  It is here that one of the most shocking and tragic episodes takes place.  This event sets Katniss into revenge mode and we realize that she can't and won't be stopped in her mission.  Collins does throw quite a few unexpected turns and twists into the end of Mockingjay.  So many, in fact, that it lends the feeling of a race at the end.  You don't quite know who to trust and what's happening until it's already happened and then there is no place to go but forward...into larger questions and bigger disasters.

By the time everything is said and done, destruction surrounds everything and everyone.  Nobody is exempt from the tragedies that befall the citizens of Panem.  Even the Epilogue throws a shocking twist into the mix.  Though, despite this twist, I felt that it was the most fitting end and it renews a lot of the broken hearts that accumulate throughout the three novels.  Ultimately, I have to say that Collins wrote three brilliant novels, each a complete entity unto itself. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Catching Fire (Book #8)

CAUTION:  SPOILER ALERT!!!

Seriously...if you haven't finished or even read The Hunger Games do not continue reading!  I warned you...that's all.

Suzanne Collins's sequel to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, does exactly what it sets out to do:  catches everything on fire.  The reader is brought back into Katniss Everdeen's life as she gets ready to embark on her Victory Tour, along with Peeta Mellark, her District 12 co-champion, for winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games.  They survived and outlasted 22 other tributes from various districts by employing a tactic that showed, though unintentionally, a strong sense of rebellion toward the Capitol, thus placing the two of them (more-so Katniss) on the governments Black List, all so they could return home and live in luxury.  Little does Katniss, or anyone else know, that luxury is not exactly on the agenda.  Yes, when the duo first return home, they are given new homes in the Victor's Village of District 12, along with their mentor and previous Hunger Games winner, Haymitch Abernathy, but that is short lived.

The pair, together with Haymitch and several other individuals from their Hunger Games prep team, are required to take part in the Victory Tour of the districts.  As they journey through the districts, inevitably getting closer and closer to the Capitol, they witness varying levels of unrest in several.  This escalates in District 8.  Once Katniss and Peeta make it to the Capitol, they must put their "game faces" back on and impress the citizens and prove to the leader, President Snow, that they aren't a threat to security.  Unfortunately, Katniss is unconvincing in Snow's eyes.

While this is playing out there is also the question of the Quarter Quell.  Every 25 years the makers of the Hunger Games put together a special series; a ramped up version of the Games, if you will.  The rules are different for every one, have been planned out since the beginning, and are revealed at the Capitol after the final interviews from the Victory Tour.  The 75th Annual Quarter Quell Hunger Games are a whopper.

As Plutarch Heavensbee, this years Head Gamemaker, reads the rules laid out for the Games, a shock falls over the entirety of the districts.  Only previous Victors will be fighting; one male and one female tribute from each district.  This, inevitably, throws Katniss back into the Games by default as she is the only female victor from District 12.  Peeta then volunteers to be the male tribute for the district and the two of them are back in the Games.

Once again there is the fight for survival as soon as the victors are all thrown back into the Games.  Only this times it's more difficult for them to kill one another because they all know each other.  There are new horrors introduced and new parameters that the Gamemakers have included within the arena and time is running out.  Several of the players team up and work together, thus prolonging their survival.  But, as this is not the goal of the Games, things are forced to escalate.  Those paired up with Katniss, namely Peeta, Johanna, Finnick, and Beetee, put together a trap to kill the remaining victors, but things go array.

Katniss ends up performing a very bold, and decidedly defiant, act against the Capitol which causes the entire arena to explode and leads to mass confusion among the players.  As she's transported from the arena, both reader and character alike question what's happening and where she's being taken.  We eventually find out that she's been evacuated by rebel forces to District 13, the district that supposedly doesn't exist, along with Finnick and Beetee, because District 12 has been destroyed by the Capitol.  Peeta, instead, is taken to the Capitol.

Thus ends Collins's Catching Fire.  We are left questioning what will happen to Katniss and to Peeta.  Along the way there are deaths of characters beloved and hated alike.  We must remember that a revolution is coming...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Holy Hunger Games (Book #7)

WHY!!!  Why did I wait so long to read this?!?  Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, the first in the trilogy, is absolutely brilliant and impossible to put down!  The young adult novel is set in a post-apocalyptic America in which there is one government (very Communistic) ruling over 12 scattered districts.  It centers around Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year old girl from District 12 who volunteers to take Prim, her 12-year old sister's, place in the annual Hunger Games.  In the games, two tributes, one boy and one girl, are selected randomly from each district.  These 24 tributes are then required to fight to the death in an undisclosed location in order to return home.  This is done for several reasons:  to ensure complete control of the government and as a reminder to the districts of the power that the goverment holds over them.

The acts that these children, ages 12 to 18, are required to withstand in the Games are absolutely atrocious.  The fact that the ruling community broadcasts the entire fight live across the country further lends to the absolute barbarism that Collins describes.  Her new-age approach to the eyes and clout of Big Brother forces the reader to question their views on authority and how far they would go to survive.  Honestly, I don't know if I could be as brave as Katniss is, or as cunning.  She's absolutely brilliant.  You really feel for the characters in the book and HATE those in charge.  In fact, you even hate some of the tributes.

I can't go into much more detail because it would give everything away and I really think that people should read this themselves.  It's a very quick read and well worth it.  I loved it so much that, as soon as I finished, I jumped in my car, drove to Borders and bought the second and third in the series...in hardback.  That's saying something!  Also, as the film version comes out sometime next year, everyone should be prepared.  I'm interested in seeing how they approach this and my mind is still unsure about the casting...

Gutsy Women (Book #6)

Marybeth Bond's Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom from the Road is just that, a book of traveling tips and tidbits specifically geared toward women of all ages.  The book is divided into chapters that walk you through preparations for packing and departure, for eating, shopping, and meeting people, and designated traveling types.  Interspersed into each chapter are quotes from well-traveled writers that pertain to the section.  Some are entertaining, some are true, and some are unnecessary.

Bond opens the text with a quote from Alexandra David-Neel, a French explorer and writer, who stated that "travel not only stirs the blood...it also gives birth to the spirit."  Honestly, I could not agree more.  As a fellow traveler, I can attest that the times where you venture into unknown territory, though at times frightening, leads to some of the most rewarding experiences of your life.  Whether searching for a fellow traveler in the middle of the night by candlelight in a Bavarian forest or dodging fireworks and inebriated people in a city-wide festival during Silvesterferien in Vienna all while trying not to get vomitted on, you can not help but to soak in the spirit of the place you are and celebrate the unique experiences that they bring.

I think that the most promising, and entertaining, chapters fell in the middle of the text.  The chapter dedicated to eating, "Dining on the Road," offered a lot of sound advice and a very apt truth to travel:  "some people travel specifically to eat, and one of the best ways to gain an understanding of another culture is through its cuisine."  This is so spot on!  I found that while traveling through Venice, Italy I was more willing to spend money on food (especially gelato!) than I was on any souvenirs or the like.  This was also clearly evident when I went for a week-long visit to the South, specifically Gulfport/Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana.  I didn't buy anything...except food!  And let me tell you, it was well worth it!

I found that a lot of the tips Bond includes are very common sense.  But then, she does gear this toward both those who've never traveled and those who are seasoned in the backpacker's paradise of musty clothes and bleary eyes so she has to cover the entire range of traveling tips.  Probably one of the most practical, and ingenious, tips she gives on safety is to buy one of those rubber doorstoppers.  They're cheap and highly effective if you feel unsafe while sleeping in a foreign place.

Gutsy Women closes with an entire list of references that range from books and magazines to services and organizations and even packing lists broken down in to several areas (clothing, hygiene, medical, documents, and miscellaneous).  Ultimately, this would be an ideal selection for a first time traveler, but I feel like it was all old hat.  However, it did make my feet itch and my wallet burn!