Thursday, May 28, 2009

Go Katniss! The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"Any book that starts out with 24 children and ends up with 22 of them dead--that's tough to beat."

Lois Lowry

I was really scared to read this one. Despite the MASSIVE love for it out there from everyone from teens to critics to every blogger in the kidlit universe, I was sure it would make me sick. I don't have much stomach for cruelty, and I had heard enough about the plot of this dystopian book to know that it would hit a particularly vulnerable place for me--cruelty to children. I made a bargain with myself--I would start it, but if it got too bad, I'd stop immediately.

I read the damned thing in less than a day. The kind of reading where you don't stop to eat, breathe, or listen to people trying to ask you questions at the reference desk. The reputation this book has is well deserved--it is completely, absolutely gripping. Right until the very last page. And even beyond, because....aaargh!'s the first part of a TRILOGY! Which means a MAJOR LACK OF RESOLUTION even for those who have raced to the end! Now I know why those lucky people who have landed arcs of the sequel are all gloating.

The plot, in case anyone doesn't know it yet: Katniss Everdeen lives in a bleak futuristic society where, every year, each district surrounding the capital must select one boy and one girl for the Hunger Games, a barbaric televised "entertainment" where they must fight to the death until there is only one survivor. This is the capital's way of punishing the poverty-stricken districts for having dared, once, to revolt. When Katniss's younger sister is chosen to be the female Tribute for her district, a horrified Katniss volunteers to take her place, and she is plunged into the brutal world of the Game.

Why do we all get so caught up in this story? M.T. Anderson, one of my literary heroes, put it best:

The reason I think this book deserves the attention it's getting--beyond the pacing, beyond the pleasing dissonance of the unresolved love that in it, a central and real and very troubling question--to what extent is compassion merely a weakness--and kindness merely an evolutionary flaw??--that question is played out quite directly through the action, embodied directly in the plot in scene after scene. We deeply care about Katniss in part because we deeply want some shred of what we think of as humanity to survive. When I read it, I thought it was remarkable that Ms. Collins took this terrifying question and really explored it. She didn't back down or soften the investigation....

The Hunger Games, by the way, was declared winner of this year's inaugural and very entertaining Battle of the (Kid's) Books hosted by School Library Journal. Go take a peek.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Perhaps [the gods] do exist. I want to know why they act as if they don't...

I've been a lover of Terry Pratchett (his books, I mean) for many years now. To me, his books feel like old friends who happen to also be outrageously funny. I've heard critics say his humour is sophmoric, but I think that's just sour grapes. He's a brilliant man. With Nation, he has produced a book which stands out from the rest of his work, a book which allows his trademark wit to be complicated by deep emotion, loss, and the failure of faith. Nation is a coming-of-age story of great sophistication and maturity, yet magically it's also enormously entertaining. Only Pratchett could attain such a balance. I think it is telling that he wrote Nation during the period that he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, a diagnosis which he reacted to with a "sense of loss and abandonment" and great anger. These feelings find plenty of expression in Nation, particularly in the character of Mau, the book's protagonist. Despite it being precisely tuned into its teen audience, this feels to me like a very personal book for Pratchett.

The story takes place not in Pratchett's usual discworld, but in a parallel universe to earth, on an island in the Pacific Ocean which the inhabitants refer to as the Nation. Mau is nearing the end of his people's coming-to-manhood rites, which involve being taken to another island and left to build your own canoe and paddle home. Mau leaves his boy soul on the boy's island and will receive a new man soul upon his return to the Nation. But while he is at sea, a tidal wave sweeps over his island and destroys his whole people. The same wave deposits a British passenger vessel on the island, its only survivor a minor royal Mau's age named Daphne. Mau and Daphne, who share no common language or culture, together take on the responsibility of survival, and eventually of reforming the Nation out of the survivors from nearby islands who straggle in. But Mau, according to his people's beliefs, no longer has a soul, and is plunged into a spiritual crisis which causes him to question many things. Why have the old gods failed him? Why do the voices of the grandfathers now deliver such futile guidance? Can he have faith in anything but death?

Thinking: This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.

Nation has been awarded the L.A. Times book prize for young adult literature.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Haven't Read the Book, But Love That Title! true. I don't know what's more discouraging, seeing people who deserve self-esteem slog along without it, or seeing people who don't deserve it revel in it.

Can't wait to read this.