Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

by Emily Steers

If you’re a female between the ages of 13 and 45 and your love of fantasy and science fiction wasn’t completely stomped to pieces by the Twilight franchise, you’ve probably already devoured The Hunger Games and have a likeness of the protagonist on your computer desktop. If you aren’t in that demographic and value strong characters, vivid alternative realities, and unapologetic underdog stories, the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy offers an arresting summer read.


The Hunger Games begins with the first person, present-tense narrative of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old woman living in the 12th district of the post-apocalyptic country of Panem. She’s a bit bitter, pig-headed, and armed to the teeth, though the latter is accomplished on the sly, because The Capital likes to keep the regular folk in check with the threats of violence and a perpetual state of near-starvation.

Katniss uses her analog weaponry (bows, arrows, knives, snares) to go hunting in the woods just beyond her district to feed her mother and sister. In true storybook fashion, her saintly father had taught her these skills but was killed off in a mining accident, leaving her mother comatose and unable to care for her two daughters; the entire district remains too poor and completely unable to lend a hand.

If living on the brink of starvation wasn’t a big enough F-U to the people of Panem, the Capital overlords keep an even bigger leash on the people by holding the Hunger Games, an annual event pitting one male and one female teenaged “tribute” from each of the twelve districts in a fight to the death. A televised, must-see-TV fight to the death. Harvested at random through a lottery, it’s “supposed” to be noble to participate in the Games, but obviously no one is too thrilled when the annual reading of names rolls around.

Katniss’s angelic younger sister Prim gets chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. Using the survivalist skills she’s honed over the years hunting and keeping her family alive, Katniss takes to the Hunger Games in an emotionally fraught battle for survival.


The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Suggested to me by a 30+ year-old male friend, never has the story of a teenaged girl’s struggle with high expectations, growing up, and first loves been so completely universal—and, let’s face it, badass. If there’s a struggle to get young boys and men to connect with female protagonists, I suggest The Hunger Games be required reading for middle school classes. Throw out those beat-up copies of Jacob Have I Loved and let the guys connect with a girl who can stand up for herself.

The writing is filled with technical flaws. It’s difficult to read past the present tense verbs, and character development relies pretty heavily on the narration telling you things about each character rather than having personality traits divulged through action. Essentially, everything is told rather than shown. Additionally, since the world of Panem is entirely fictional and loosely based in reality, new “outs” are created on the fly, which can be beyond frustrating for readers used to more technically flawless books.

This book is difficult to put down. Because of the life-and-death nature of the conflict, the story is cinematic and very compelling. Collins is a young-adult and children’s book writer. Adults will have no problem breezing through the novel, and the content should be considered PG-13 for the gruesome demises of major characters.

Overall: 8.49

Make sure you have a free 24 hours to read this book from cover to cover!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, part 2

by Brian McGackin

Harry is seriously so annoying in this book.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Chapter 20: Hagrid's Tale

What I Did On My
Summer Vacation, Hagrid
Edition: Giants

Chapter 21: The Eye of the Snake

Prof. Umbridge audits
Hagrid's class. Harry kisses
Cho and bites Ron's dad.

Chapter 22: St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

Weasleys and Harry
head to hospital, visit
snake-bitten Arthur.

Harry overhears
adult conversation: he's
possessed by Voldy!

Chapter 23: Christmas on the Closed Ward

Harry is angsty
until Ginny sets him straight.
Hermy ditches 'rents.

Back at hospital,
Harry and co meet Neville's
gran and addled mom.

Chapter 24: Occlumency

Snape and Harry start
anti-mind-reading lessons
(Dumbledore's orders).

Chapter 25: The Beetle at Bay

Death Eaters escape
from Azkaban. Harry and
Cho go on bad date.

Hermione has
Rita Skeeter write Harry's
story for Quibbler.

Chapter 26: Seen and Unforseen

Tabloid star Harry
sucks at Occlumency and
sees Voldy's bedroom.

Meanwhile, Umbridge sacks
Divination prof. Sibyl;
Dumbledore hires horse.

Chapter 27: The Centaur and the Sneak

Centaur Firenze—new
Divination professor—
says war is coming.

Cho's friend snitches so
D.A. disbands. Dumbledore
evades Fudge, arrest.

Chapter 28: Snape's Worst Memory

With Dumbledore gone,
the twins take their mayhem to
a whole new level.

Then, Harry sneaks peek
at Snape's worst memory: picked
on by Harry's dad!

Chapter 29: Career Advice

Despite Umbridge's
protests, Prof. McG vows to
help Harry find job.

Harry talks through fire.
Twins build portable swamp, fly
off into sunset.

Chapter 30: Grawp

Hagrid's bro-giant
is hidden in the forest.
Weasley is our King.

Chapter 31: O. W. L. S.

Fifth years take tests. Fang,
McG knocked out. Hagrid sacked.
Sirius tortured?

Chapter 32: Out of the Fire

Harry's annoying;
he won't listen to reason
about Sirius.

Rescue plan devised
but thwarted by Umbridge,
who Hermy then deceives.

Chapter 33: Fight and Flight

Umbridge abducted
by centaurs. Then Grawp rescues
Hermy and Harry.

Ginny, Neville, Ron,
and Luna duel Slytherins;
all mount bat-horses.

Chapter 34: The Department of Mysteries

Flight to Ministry:
Harry and friends search for Black,
find only weird rooms.

Chapter 35: Beyond the Veil

Harry finds glass orb;
Death Eaters arrive, chase kids,
try to steal the orb.

The Order joins in.
Dumbledore to the rescue!
Black killed by cousin :'(

Chapter 36: The Only One He Ever Feared

Dumbledore! Voldy!
Duel of the Century! With
help from some statues!

Defeated, Voldy
retreats. Fudge finally sees
Dumbledore was right.

Chapter 37: The Lost Prophecy

Harry learns truth 'bout
Voldy: neither can live while
the other survives.

Chapter 38: The Second War Begins

The Wizarding World
now knows Voldemort is back.
Dark times lie ahead.

Harry heads back home.
The Order inform the Dursleys
they better be nice.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts professor...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fun & Games (Duane Swierczynski)

by Thom Dunn

The latest novel from Marvel comics scribe and fervent crime fictioneer Duane Swiercyznski, Fun & Games is the first installment in a trilogy of novels featuring Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop (well, cop-ish) with a bloody past. This being a Duane Swiercyznski novel, the obligatory references to his hometown of Philadelphia still manage to sneak their way in, but for this story (and, presumably, the rest of the trilogy), Swierczy exiles his protagonist from this comfort zone and drops him right into the brushfires of Los Angeles.

Fun & Games serves as a kind of love-letter to LA noir and a wake to its history, embedded deeply in the Hollywood Hills. Swierczynski's excitement for the genre bleeds through his prose with a ferocious, whirlwind, almost ravenous energy that engulfs the reader with no apologies, from the epigraphs (quoted from film noir classics and more) to the biting, cynical criticisms of the film/media/LA industries.

It's kind of like Mulholland Drive, except it actually makes sense.*

You know, in a way, I kind of don't want to tell you. Because going into this book, I knew very little about it myself, and that may have made the ride even wilder. But here's at least a bit of background for you.

Charlie Hardie is a man with a past who now makes his living as...a professional house sitter. He arrives in Los Angeles to watch after the home of a successful film composer, who is off on business in Russia for a month. He is surprised to find a young, attractive movie star named Lane Madden hiding in the house, tripping on a cocktail of cocaine and heroin and hysterically ranting about some mysterious "Them" that's been trying to kill her. Charlie soon realizes that Lane Madden may not be as paranoid — or as innocent — as she appears, and finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy of Hollywood insiders who might actually control the world through their (literal) plotting.

Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski

Story: 8.6
Fun & Games is the kind of story that grabs you by the shirt in the first few pages and then throws you off a cliff. And since it's the first book in trilogy, the ending offers you a small foothold, but its only enough to brace yourself for a moment before you continue falling down the rabbit hole. Swierczynski is an intricate master plotter, and the story is full of moments that shock you and then make you smack yourself in the head and go "Duh! Of course that was going to happen!" Everything has a payoff, almost as if Swierczynski wrote and solved a mathematical proof for an unashamedly juiced-up pastiche of pulp/noir stories.

Style: 7.8
While omniscient 3rd person narrators have never turned me off from a story, I have to admit that I've never been particularly fond of them (I like my narratives to have limits, or at least somewhat unreliable). However, Swierczynski employs a unique method here, which is multiple 3rd person limited narrations that hit you like a slurry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its affections for Hollywood and moviemaking, Fun & Games flows like a movie, full of fast-paced jumpcuts and surprising scene changes. Some of these changes come so rapidly after one another that it's hard to keep up (which is part of what keeps the reader on the edge the whole time), especially as it shares the same moment from multiple perspectives (and always in a carefully calculated way — Swierczynski knows how to reveal pertinent information with the strongest impact).

General: 9.4
Not only did I blow through this book in record time, but when I finally reached the end, I immediately tried to figure out when I could get my hands on a copy of the sequel, Hell & Gone. It's like a flash thunderstorm in the middle of a glorious summer day (or maybe that's just the weather outside right now -- yup, looks like). Anyone who considers him/herself to be a fan of mysteries, thrillers, noir, "the dark side of Hollywood," crime stories, or wild conspiracies would be a fool not to read this book. Swierczynski might not be breaking ground with his new Charlie Hardie series, but he's building such a labyrinthine structure of wheels within wheels that it's hard to resist. Fun & Games only shows us the tip of this conspiracy, but its undeniably intriguing, as Swierczynski offers us a well-developed and scathing commentary of what really goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood — and the world.

Overall: 8.6

Fun & Games is available June 20, 2011 from Mulholland Books.

*I actually quite enjoyed Mulholland Drive. I thought it was a very beautiful experimental/slipstream poem, on film. But let's be honest, that movie didn't make any sense.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, part 1

by Brian McGackin

Wherein Harry apparently goes through puberty.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Chapter 1: Dudley Demented

Dudley's soul almost
face-sucked out. Mrs. Figg knows
Harry's a wizard?!?

Chapter 2: A Peck of Owls

Harry gets expelled;
his aunt explains dementors;
Dudley voms on porch.

Plus foreshadowing,
yelling, a bit of intrigue,
and so many owls.

Chapter 3: The Advance Guard

Hodgepodge wizard pack
lies to Harry's guardians
and fly him away.

Moody, Lupin, Tonks,
Shacklebolt; how does Rowling
come up with these names?

Chapter 4: Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place

Who's a little prat?
Harry is. He's finally
with friends and flips out.

Chapter 5: The Order of the Phoenix

Sirius explains
the Order, updates Harry
on Voldemort news.

Chapter 6: The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black

Summer spring cleaning:
Grimmauld Place dolled up; house-elf
Kreacher hates Hermy.

Younger brother Black
is dead Death Eater. Blacks and
Malfoys: related!

Chapter 7: The Ministry of Magic

Apparently it's
Take Your Youngest Son's Best Friend
Harry To Work Day.

Chapter 8: The Hearing

Cornelius Fudge:
pretty much the wizarding
world's own Judge Judy.

Dumbledore and Figg
to the rescue! Harry is
saved from expulsion.

Chapter 9: The Woes of Mrs. Weasley

Ron, Hermy: prefects!
Mommy Molly Weasley's fear:
her family dead.

Chapter 10: Luna Lovegood

Only Harry and
Loony Luna Lovegood can
see weird bat-horses.

Chapter 11: The Sorting Hat's New Song

Who is this Umbridge
joker, and why is Seamus
suddenly a tool?

Chapter 12: Professor Umbridge

Umbridge is a bitch.
She gives Harry detention
for telling the truth.

Chapter 13: Detention With Dolores

Harry gets "I must not
tell lies" tattooed on his hand
during detention.

Chapter 14: Percy and Padfoot

Sirius speaks through
fireplace. Percy sends Ron mail,
condemns Dumbledore.

Chapter 15: The Hogwarts High Inquisitor

Ministry passes
stricter school laws. Umbridge starts
reviewing the profs.

People seem perturbed
by Umbridge's promotion;
Hermy has a plan...

Chapter 16: In the Hog's Head

Hermy convinces
Harry to head up secret
dark arts defense club.

Less than legal club
formed in dingy side street pub?
Nothing could go wrong!

Chapter 17: Educational Decree Number Twenty-Four

All Hogwarts clubs banned,
including those recently
started up in bars.

Sirius attempts
firespeaking with Harry, has
near miss with Umbridge.

Chapter 18: Dumbledore's Army

Start with the basics:
Harry teaches Dumbledore's
Army to disarm.

Chapter 19: The Lion and the Serpent

Harry and the twins
are banned from Quidditch for life
post-punching Malfoy.

Make sure you come back
next week when we finally
learn where Hagrid's been!

Friday, June 3, 2011

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Robin Black)

By Melanie Yarbrough

Short stories: I can't get enough of them. Last year, I won a copy of Robin Black's collection of stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This from Fiction Writers Review, and it is one of the best collections that I haven't paid for. There are ten stories in this collection, six of which I absolutely loved. This is one of those collections where the title story is definitely the strongest and most haunting. Black's narrator in "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This" elicits empathy without pity, anger without self-righteousness.

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Story/ies: 6.0
Like I said, six of these stories I absolutely loved. The other four, however, I felt lacked the rich characters in the other stories. Where structure and experimentation took precedence to character, I felt a little lost and unsatisfied by the end. Luckily, the ratio is 6:4, so I'd say it's a win.

Style: 5.8
Black does not hesitate to experiment, to tell the stories from many different angles, with many different voices. Some of these fall flat, while others fill up to their potential and carried me along to the end of the story when I realized I hadn't breathed since I started. In those, Black's style is strong, melancholic, and self-aware. She stares unflinchingly at the world and tells us exactly what she sees.

General: 6.2
I enjoyed the collection as a whole, despite my affinity for some stories over others. The stronger stories, namely the title story, kept me going and satisfied even when Black's structure or prose fell flat. The best part about short story collections is the ability to move on when one's not particularly working for you, and Black's collection is no different. The stories that worked for me were definitely worth the ones that didn't.

Overall: 6.0

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