Why did I wait this long: a review of The Hunger Games

There’s a drowsy in-between period when I can hear the last few strains of her music although she’s lost in the leaves. When I fully awaken, I’m momentarily confused. I try to hold on to the peaceful feeling of the dream, but it quickly slips away, leaving me sadder and lonelier than ever.

The Hunger GamesWHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK?!

Ahem. That outburst accurately sums up my feelings about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and I ought to leave it at that. But because this is a review, let me explain my enthusiasm.

The eponymous Hunger Games is a Battle Royale for children — a televised sporting tournament that throws the rich and the poor, the untrained and the athletic, together in an open arena where they must survive against the elements and each other in a fight to the death. It’s also the biggest reminder of the Capitol’s power and how much control it wields over the twelve districts of Panem.

The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (yes, it’s a weird name, but there’s a reason for it), comes from an incredibly poor area called the Seam. Through memories and recollections that feel organic to the story (they’re woven in), Collins shows us how capable and battle-hardened the character is before she even enters the arena. Katniss watched her father die, cared for her innocent little sister when her mother’s mind and body succumbed to depression, and started hunting outside the district limits, beyond the fence  — a pursuit that’s forbidden but so essential to the simplest human survival in Panem. Hunger is their oppression.

Life is a little easier when Katniss meets with her hunting partner, Gale, but their relationship is strictly business and friendship. At least, it was. A trace of romance seeps into their talks in the woods just as the next annual Hunger Games are about to begin, and not Katniss or Gale but her little sister Prim is chosen, with a single odd against her. That’s when Katniss volunteers to take her place and her entire perspective on life changes — mainly, that she won’t have one for much longer.

That’s the most fascinating part about The Hunger Games to me: the meanings of words. Survival, romance, killing, mercy. At first, survival is making it through another day of gnawing hunger in the Seam, and then it’s outsmarting your enemies and the ravages of nature in the Games. It’s owing someone and living for them, or being owed.

Romance is thinking of love in terms of practicality — raising a child in a world where hunger is law — or putting on a show to give the citizens of Panem, the “audience,” the drama and excitement they crave, all to better ensure survival (popularity means sponsorship, which means more gifts during the Games). Murder (dare she use the word when the Capitol treats the Games as national celebrations) is the difference between killing an animal and killing a person, someone who could easily be a friend, and sometimes is. Or it’s ending a life when a quick death is preferable.

Collins plays with these dualities and more, and she does it in a way that’s natural and perfectly paced, that’s ever urgent and deeply affecting, with a protagonist who’s both likeable for her strength and moral values yet hopelessly graceless in times of social need. For once of such talent and intelligence, Katniss is clumsy with words, clueless near boys, and faithless about her own abilities. But these flaws only make her more impressive — more real. Every time I was on the verge of tears (which was pretty often), I held them back because I knew Katniss would do the same. She had to. Perceived weakness is death in the Games.

Some vulnerability is okay — that of love. Much of the Games veers toward Katniss’s fabricated romance with the boy tribute from her district, Peeta. To win the favor of the audience, they play the roles of star-crossed lovers, partners and teammates all while knowing one of their fates must be cut short, possibly by the other’s hand. There can only be one victor. Their relationship is always reminiscent of this pull and tug: enemies or friends, lovers or actors, Katniss is never quite sure. And at home, watching them onscreen, is Gale.

Our curiosity about what Gale, her loyal and trusted friend, must be thinking is never answered. That awkwardness is tangible with each kiss or smile Katniss and Peeta share, but at times, when the moment is right, it vanishes completely. They experience a whole lifetime in that arena, and that’s something Gale can never match. But he and the Seam promise normalcy, or close enough to it, and Peeta is everything but.

The second book, Catching Fire, should parse the truth from the fabrication, the genuine feelings from the ones born out of the instinct to survive. And I can’t wait to read it.

Grade: A

Awesome book cover Friday: The Lowest Heaven

Happy Friday! Today’s book cover pick is The Lowest Heaven by editors Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin, available June 13.

The Lowest Heaven
Below is a description. You can learn more about the book here.

The Lowest Heaven is a new anthology of contemporary science fiction published in partnership to coincide with Visions of the Universe, a major exhibition of space imagery at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Each story in The Lowest Heaven is themed around a body in the Solar System, from the Sun to Halley’s Comet. The stories are illustrated with photographs and artwork selected from the archives of the Royal Observatory, while the book’s cover and overall design are the work of award-winning South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi.

So what do you think of the cover? Is this something you’d be interested in reading, too?

Awesome book cover Friday: Irregular Creatures

Happy Friday! Today’s book cover pick is Irregular Creatures by author Chuck Wendig.

irregular-creatures
I love cats, so … yeah.

The book is 99 cents on Amazon and actually sounds pretty cool:

Contained within are nine stories featuring bizarre beasties, mythological mutants, and overall “irregular creatures” – including flying cats, mermaids, Bigfoot, giant chickens, and mystic hobo hermaphrodites.

It also includes stories about a radioactive monkey (cocktail … which I’m guessing doesn’t end so well for the imbiber) and a zombie that won’t die.

If anyone reads this, let me know how it is! I’m actually quite tempted to buy it, but I have a couple other books that are taking priority at the moment. This is only 45,000 words, though, so I may get it anyway.

Enjoy the weekend!

Awesome book cover Friday: The Explorer

Happy Friday, everyone! Today’s book cover pick is The Explorer by James Smythe.

The Explorer by James Smythe

You can only find this cover on the hardback edition, which is unfortunately out of print with limited availability. But you can buy a newer e-book version.

Here’s a description:

A tense, claustrophobic, and gripping science-fiction thriller from the author of The Testimony. When journalist Cormac Easton is selected to document the first manned mission into deep space, he dreams of securing his place in history as one of humanity’s great explorers. But in space, nothing goes according to plan. The crew wake from hypersleep to discover their captain dead in his allegedly fail-proof safety pod. They mourn, and Cormac sends a beautifully written eulogy back to Earth. The word from ground control is unequivocal: No matter what happens, the mission must continue. But as the body count begins to rise, Cormac finds himself alone and spiraling towards his own inevitable death…unless he can do something to stop it.

What do you think of the cover? I love how it reflects the emptiness and darkness of space — the astronaut looks like he’s gently falling, but he’s tumbling into nothingness.

Awesome book cover Friday: The Mindwarpers

Happy Friday, everyone! Today’s pick is an Eric Frank Russell book you might not have known existed.

The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell

At least, that was the case for Tor.com writer Jo Walton, who discovered The Mindwarpers for the first time last month. And just look at that cover. I haven’t read any Russell, but that might have to change. And the best part is that you can find it for cheap on sites like Amazon.

Here’s an alternate cover that’s also pretty cool:

The Mindwarpers alt

Russell was a British author who lived from 1905 to 1978. Aside from The Mindwarpers (also called With a Strange Device), he wrote full-length sci-fi books such as Sentinels from Space and Wasp, along with many shorter works and essays.

What do you think of these covers? I think the first one is so weird, it’s awesome; and I love the colors and design in the second.

Feel free to email me with any tips on awesome book covers!

Extra lives and lovesick avatars: a review of Ready Player One

Okay, I know some of you are probably sick to death of hearing about this topic by now, but … tough. Video games are my thing!

Along with books, of course! So here’s one for you. Ready Player One!

All I had to do was to get to my new apartment, set up my rig, and log back into the OASIS. Then everything would be all right. I would be back in familiar surroundings. I would be safe.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an extremely niche book. I’ve seen a lot of advertisements for it popping up all over the web lately, revealing the new edition and cover (left). I wouldn’t at all call it “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix,” but I understand the connection. It’s a race to the ultimate prize, only everyone gets a golden ticket. And the competition unfolds in a virtual world. But there’s not really any singing or cute moral lessons about television and gluttony.

But anyway — niche. Ready Player One is not only marketed toward serious video game fans (although I suppose anyone with a passing interest could enjoy it), but also rife with ’80s references. This book is going to date itself like a bad hair style in about 10-20 years.

Fortunately, at the heart of the book is a well-written story about a group of friends and the most famous video game programmer in all history — fictionally, anyway. James Halliday invented the most widely used, authentically household game, an MMO called the OASIS. Creating an account and entering the game is free; traveling and purchasing in-game weapons, armor, and items is not. But what made the game even more popular was a video message that appeared upon Halliday’s death: an announcement that informed people across the world that whoever found his special Easter egg (a carefully hidden secret) would inherit his considerable fortunes. And so the Hunt began.

Wade Watts — or “Parzival,” as he calls himself when logged into the OASIS — is one of the “gunters” dedicated to spending almost every waking hour studying Halliday’s life and works in search of clues that will lead to the discovery of the egg. It’s that conviction and inherent talent for video games that allow Wade to find the first key — one of three needed to open three separate gates, the last of which protects the wildly sought after egg.

Cline takes video game fans on one of the greatest virtual (and textual) adventures ever conceived, with the most difficult trials of knowledge and raw skill awaiting them. Every passionate gamer can tell you with envy how impressive passing them would be.

Halliday’s tests focus more on classic games — like Joust — old movies — like Blade Runner — and the best of ’80s pop culture than they do on modern games, but Cline compresses a lot of meaning and hot button topics into one book without ever straying from his true focus: the Hunt. On one hand, gamers can consider Ready Player One a lesson in industry history, as it combines fact and fiction and draws a clear line between the two. The book also puts a heavy emphasis on MMOs and the costs of living almost completely in an imaginary world, which are purely contemporary concerns. It’s an extreme look at the future of video games that asks, “What happens when virtual reality is better than the real thing? When we can feel, smell, and touch environments while sitting in a chair, what use do we have for what’s outside of it?”

The answer is a bleak one. Wade might clock endless hours in the perfect game, a massive universe of planets and possibilities, but when he looks out the window (when he ever does), he reflects on the devolution of society and human interaction. The game has taken over. What was once today’s handful of eccentric news stories about one gamer ignoring his or her family has become the norm. People have forgotten how to communicate and connect offline.

The book also explores other issues, such as Internet dating (which made me think of web sensation Felicia Day’s “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar” mock music video) and the ongoing free-to-play debate — which is a rising trend in the industry right now. Cline accomplishes all this and an emotionally resonating narrative in under 400 pages, and he ends it with optimism.

And it’s an utterly absorbing read that only gets better as the pages turn.

The perfect pet: a review of The Caline Conspiracy

His arms were outflung and his mouth was a wide, lipless—no, his mouth was closed, it was his throat that gaped in a ragged, cheerless grin.

Last week Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, who write together as M. H. Mead, got in touch and offered me a review copy of their latest book. By the sounds of it, The Caline Conspiracy wasn’t something I’d normally pick up, and the cover screamed the nineties, but I agreed to give the book a shot. Sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zones.

As silly as the plot felt at times—it’s a murder mystery in which a genetically enhanced pet (a “caline”) is the only suspect—the writing was, well, good. Nothing ground-breaking, but better than a lot of the books I’m handed to read on assignment. I didn’t have to parse the prose to discover the kernel of worth within it. The Caline Conspiracy is written by two clearly talented people.

Of course, M. H. Mead might be writing about the perfect pets (and the not-so-perfect pets), but that doesn’t mean their book is flawless. The writers brush on a futuristic gloss at will, rather than building a believable sci-fi world from the ground up. You can’t have your character make tea or order pizza and then have her use some sort of holo-vid system without making readers wonder if maybe the science fiction part wasn’t a high priority after all. If you’re going to set your story in the future, you have to simulate the future down to the very last detail. Or at least have a robot ringing the doorbell with a steaming pie.

The story held my interest regardless of its slips, but I have to wonder about the scene with Aidra, Edo, and the perficats. The grand realization that occurs then doesn’t seem to have much purpose overall, other than to maybe foreshadow how crazy meddlesome scientists are with things that shouldn’t be meddled in.

I’m not sure I entirely believe a few other plot threads, either: Aidra’s totally lax, “cool mom” treatment of her son had me cringing; and the explanation for their new family member at the end was surprising but not entirely convincing.The backstory about their old dog Nutmeg gave the characters and story some valuable context, but it was never explored as much as I would have liked. A few minor characters could have used more attention after their biggest scenes—like Quinn’s unexpected trip to the hospital and Freddy and his wife. These characters deserve more than a passing role.

These failings in plot aren’t as extreme as they might sound—the only parts I was rolling my eyes at were the one near sex scene that didn’t belong and the aforementioned introduction of Aidra’s son Jon. I can’t recommend The Caline Conspiracy to everyone, but if you like the suspense of mysteries or you’re just a huge animal enthusiast, then you’ll likely find enjoyment in its story.

Thanks to the authors for reaching out and providing a review copy!