The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. 374 p. Published September 2008.

I’ve known about The Hunger Games since it climbed the bestseller lists a few years ago but haven’t had the chance to actually read it myself until now.

With her mother not up to the task, Katniss Everdeen has had to fend for her family since her father passed in a tragic mining accident. despite being only 16, She’s perfected the hunting and foraging skills he taught her and, together with her friend Gale, managed to eek out a living with daily forays into the forbidden forests beyond the distrtict’s border.

Katniss lives in The Seam, the poorest part of Panem’s Twelfth District. The 12th, known mainly for it’s coal production, lies farthest from the capitol of what remains in a post-apocalyptic North America. The Capitol, in an effort to remind the districts where the power lies, hold a yearly competition dubbed The Hunger Games. 2 contestants, heralded as idols, are drafted from each district outside the Capitol to participate in this twisted reality series where fame and riches await the victor. The catch: they must outlive the other 23 contestants, all of whom are out to murder them.

Katniss is horrified when her younger sister is picked in the lottery and is quick to volunteer in her place. She knows that it’s a death sentence – no one from her district has survived a Hunger Games in decades. This is driven home when her compatriot, a childhood friend, is drafted and the pair meet their notoriously inebriated trainer.

What follows is a mesmerizing tale of wit, love, despair, and heartbreak. Collins immerses the reader into the paranoid mindset of a girl hellbent on survival with almost dizzying rapidity. Mixing in elements of science fiction, this young adult title does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into it’s world and characters. The complaint I hear most often from dissenters is how infuriated they get with the protagonist’s paranoid perspective as she reacts to imagined or misinterpreted slights. I, however, find this to be a true mark of Collins’ skill developing a character – after all, have you ever been around a teenage girl without becoming irritated at the irrationality of the experience?

While I’m not sure I’ll enjoy the movie when it comes out in 2012, I’ll probably see it. However, I’ll definitely be reading Catching Fire, the 2nd book in the series, as soon as I get through the current stack of novels on my shelf.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Other Reviews of The Hunger Games: FyreFly’s Book Blog, Caribou’s Mom

Real Steel

 So even though it was only 2 days before the official release, a few friends and I were lucky enough to attend a pre-screening of Spielberg’s latest film, Real Steel. With Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, and Evangeline Lilly, Real Steel is set in the near future where “to-the-death” robot combat has become the premier sport.

!SPOILERS! from here on.

Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a retired boxer struggling to make a living fighting his robot wherever he can. With mounting debts, Kenton sees a possible solution when custody of his son Max (Goyo) reverts to him after the passing of his ex. Having never been a part of Max’s life, Charlie is willing to give up his rights to a family member in exchange for a sizable payday. The only catch: Max’ll have to spend the summer with his father.

From the very start, father and son are stricken by emotional friction and it’s almost funny how much their roles seem reversed, with Charlie acting the less mature of the two. After a particularly upsetting bought, Charlie hits rock bottom – digging for parts in a scrap yard. Max, who tags along, comes across a real find – Atom, an older model robot with minimal damage. Charlie, extremely skeptical, sets Max up for his first fight, an underground match in an abandoned zoo with an inbred-looking robot named Metro. When Max manages to pull out the win, Charlie is forced to recognize Atom’s potential, and training the robot begins to bring father and son together. Soon the pair are fighting in matches across the country, building a real reputation, and quickly garner the attention of the professional circuit. But can father, son, and junkyard Atom compete in the big show?

So my impression? Actually, I enjoyed myself. The script is decent, letting Jackman’s natural talents shine through (as much as they can in a PG-13 movie) while giving Goyo a mature yet realistic character. The plot, while pretty predictable (especially towards the end), is still compelling. The fights are exciting, which is to be expected considering Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant on the film.

As for the robots? Well, Dreamworks really did a great job. Even if you aren’t a fan of mecha, it’s easy to see the individual personality shine in each bot. And if you are, then, like my friends and I, you’ll have a grand time noticing little homages to genre classics like Gundam (a statue outside a stadium), Big-O (the big-bad’s finishing move), and Neon Genesis Evangelion (Noisy Boy’s head looks just like Unit 01’s).

Honestly, my only hang up was with Dakota Goyo, and it wasn’t something he could help. The kid just resembles Star Wars: Phantom Menace‘s Jake Lloyd too much. Thankfully his acting ability is real enough to make up for it.

All told, this movie is a fun time and I can see it being a big family hit, especially among boys and young men.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

It took me three days (off and on) to write this review. But since the movie doesn’t come out for 3 days (at the time of this posting), it’s still on time!

My friend and I were lucky enough to attend a pre-release screening of Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, thanks to one of our local comic book retailers. While I don’t consider myself any kind of a film-buff, I’ve seen a few of del Toro’s previous works and appreciate how deftly he weaves art and context together to form his stories. Even more interesting,  del Toro didn’t direct this one himself (wrote and produced), instead picking Troy Nixey based on his sole previous effort, Latchkey’s Lament, a short film of unique vision.

My immediate impression experiencing Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was that the movie takes a novel approach.  Instead of trying to woo the audience into complacency with ideal scenes of nature or mundane every-dayness (thus making it easier to have an impact), the very first scene is twisted, dark, and shocking. It tells the audience “Hey, this is a movie that’s going to make you squirm” right in the first few minutes (and boy, are you going to squirm).

I mean, that’s something right out of the classics! Even the opening credits try to recall the golden age of horror films (like The Phantom of the Opera or Dracula), but with a more modern twist. The closest I can compare it to is the title sequences from the PBS program Mystery!, which was based on the artwork of Edward Gorey.

Now, the rest of this is going to get a bit spoilery, so as fair warning:

!SPOILERS!

The plot is pretty straightforward. You meet Blackwell, famed artist, in his basement as he attempts to appease the creatures who took his son, and fails. Flash to modern day, and his house, long left in disarray, is being painstakingly restored by Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex’s daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) is coming to live with them. It soon becomes clear that Sally has had an abnormal childhood, thanks in large part to her mother (who has had her on medication) and the divorce. Kim, herself a survivor of a rough childhood, empathizes with Sally, but there’s obvious tension as she is “the girlfriend”. With no one her age around, and looking for some kind of escape (common theme of del Toro’s), Sally goes off exploring the mansion and grounds, discovering a hidden basement, a rarity in an area plagued with sinkholes. Alex, enthusiastic for the rare find, finds the entrance, and they all go in. Sally discovers an old ash pit, and subsequently, the dark fey creatures discover her.

Okay, that wasn’t so much spoilery as it was the first 30 minutes of the movie.

The creatures themselves are quite fascinating. I’m not going to name them since it’d ruin del Toro’s fun, and the man is a true master of weaving mythology into his stories (almost on par with Tolkien, Gaiman, and Pratchett in my opinion), but I will mention their voices. It’s like Gollum, but a bit more whispered. Very creepy and very addictive (my friend and I were using the voice for days after).

This movie really exemplifies the deftness with which del Toro, and apparently Nixey, can capture attention without resorting to modern horror-industry staples designed to shock and disgust the audience (buckets of gore, appalling dismemberment, unbelievably impractical means of bloodshed, etc.). To my recollection, there are only 3 moments of true gruesome violence, and each one is deftly placed for maximum impact. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing subtle about the horror here – it’s simply more refined. You aren’t effected because it’s disgusting to see torn flesh or hear the sickening crunch of bone, but also because there’s a gut-wrenching emotional evocation. It brings a certain beauty to a genre built on the ghoulish.

At this point, I’m sure you think I’m far from objective. But you’d be wrong. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does have it’s flaws. There are scenes that were too slow to my liking. Kim has an affinity for old flashbar cameras, that while frequently seen and used as a plot device, is never quite explained (or are we just supposed to accept it as part of her hipster nature?). And Alex is too shallow as a character for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, he has his moments, but there’s something vital missing from his character. And, (!SPOILER!), why are the locals hiding the faeries’ secret to such an extent?

But while the movie doesn’t have the same perfectly-polished feel as one del Toro directs himself, Nixey is no slouch (did I mention he’s an accomplished comic book artist?). Through a breathtaking combination of cinematography, plot, and artistic vision, he seeks out that primal emotional center in each audience member, caresses it, and then starts squeezing. Take the above plot summary as an example: by opening the movie with Blackwell and introducing the monsters to the audience, but keeping his main characters in the dark, there is a simple yet pressing tension throughout the movie.

There’s nothing new or groundbreaking in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. But that wasn’t the goal.  It’s less a big-budget scream-fest and more a treatise on the Horror genre. The goal was to take what works about classic horror, give it a contemporary twist, and scare the pants off the audience. And it succeeded: the ending – well, in del Toro’s own words “[H]its you like a motherfucker!”

Attack the Block

 I was lucky enough to get passes and see Attack the Block this week. In case you’re not familiar, it’s a British science fiction movie, and the tagline does it pretty good justice: “Inner City vs. Outer Space”. Here’s the trailer:

So pretty straight forward – bunch of disenfranchised youth living in an inner city apartment building (the ‘Block’), encounter an alien invasion, and decide to fight back. Gory hi-jinks ensue.

First and foremost comes the hurdle of watching a movie portraying South London but not being British. Accents, unfamiliar slang, and some cultural differences occasionally led to an occasional break with the audience, especially right at the start. But whatever culture shock occurred, the actors and staging bridged the gap with a compelling portrayal of urban life. Despite being an ocean apart, the character motivations are quite relatable – boredom, pride, and finding a place in the world – things every young man deals with, not just those in the inner city.

Once past that part, it’s a pretty fun blend of sci-fi monster movie and stoner comedy. There’s a bit of foreshadowing (a few really obvious cases of Chekhov’s Gun) making much of the plot predictable, but it’s really the dialogue and characters carry the movie. The street punks and their leader Moses. The absolutely bonkers drug dealer. The doe-eyed, steel-spined nurse. The two 9-year old pyromaniac anarchists. The unlucky nerd stoner. The hulking blacker-than-night beasts from another planet. You really love them all by the end of the movie.

It’d be really easy to tear this low-budget movie apart. But by the end of it, you don’t really want to. It’s a zany twist on the ‘group of troublesome teens’ comedy and strikes just the right balance of action, gore, comedy, drama, and politics. It’s simply a bit unfortunate that the movie debuted the week before England’s youth broke into raving rioting mobs.

If you don’t have the opportunity to see it in theaters, this is definitely something to rent once it’s available!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

World War Z

58. World War Z (Audiobook) by Max Brooks. 6 hours long. Published October 2007.

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Rumors of a plague begin to spread. Beginning in rural China and quickly swarming west, the dead have begun to rise. Soon the entire world is enveloped in panic as zombies begin to feast on the unwary.

World War Z serves to chronicle the aftermath, recording live testaments from survivors around the world. From the doctor treating the initial outbreak to refugees in India and military personnel from Israel, South Africa, and the U.S., this documentary depicts how the world failed to realize the threat until it was almost too lat and then fought to regain supremacy.

I felt that for a book this theatric, the audio performance would be far more fitting. With actors like Alan Alda reading the roles and Brooks himself acting as the interviewer, even this abridged version is a real treasure. My only qualm with the performance lies in Brook’s occasional interruption to describe the behavior or feelings of the interviewee – something that comes through in their voice.

With everyone reading this book before the movie is released, the audiobook is a worthwhile and entertaining alternative to turning the physical pages.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Seeing Redd

57. Seeing Redd (The Looking Glass Wars) by Frank Beddor. 371 p. Published August 2007.

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This second novel follows immediately after The Looking Glass Wars. Alyss has taken her place as Queen of Wonderland but still worries after her aunt Redd, whose daring dive into the Heart Crystal – the source of all imaginative power – provided a last minute escape. Doing what they can to piece the queendom back together after Redd’s disastrous rule, Alyss and her advisers often end the day in exhaustion, a fact that King Arch of the neighboring Borderlands is willing to exploit. Sending an attack of Glass Eyes, a weapon salvaged from Redd’s army, Arch inflames fears of Redd’s return and uses the Diamond family to get Molly, Alyss’ bodyguard, to unwittingly trigger a devastating explosion in Wonderland’s primary transportation system, the Looking Glass.

Meanwhile, Hatter Maddigan, who has taken a short vacation to mourn the passing of his beloved, stumbles upon proof that Molly is, in fact, his own daughter. He rushes back to Wonderland in hopes of finding her, but is too late, the young girl taken back to King Arch under the guise of a third party’s kidnapping. Hatter follows her into the Borderlands, neglecting a direct order from Alyss.

Redd, who had spent the intervening months on earth to gather an army, finally returns to Wonderland in hopes of navigating her long-neglected Maze and gain full control over her own powers of Dark Imagination. Alyss is hard pressed on all sides, knowing that her country cannot survive a fight on two fronts, and is forced to make a decision that will change the face of Wonderland forever.

From the start it was obvious that, unlike the first book, Seeing Redd couldn’t rely on the novelty of retelling Alice in Wonderland. Instead, Beddor begins to build upon the story, making it his own. On the one hand, he does a marvelous job, developing a sense of realism in the characters. At the same time, much of Seeing Redd came across as monotonous, spending too much time delving into motivations and machination and the story only begins to pick up towards the rear of the book. Ending with a cliffhanger, Seeing Redd leaves a lot for the third and final novel.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Foundation

56. Foundation (Valdemar: The Collegium Chronicles) by Mercedes Lackey. 340 p. Published October 2008.

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This is the latest book in Lackey’s Valdemar Series and starts to catalogue how the Collegium is founded (hence the title) through one of its earliest pupils, Mags. An orphan, Mags is raised to work in a mine, digging jewels out of the rock from dawn till dusk and fed the meagerest of meals. He and the other orphans do their best to keep their heads down and out of trouble, knowing that there is little hope outside of simple survival. But when a Companion appears, accompanied by a Herald, things change in ways Mags never imagined.

Taken to Haven, Valdemar’s capital, astride his very own Companion, Mags is enrolled in the newly founded Collegium to train his gift of Mindspeech. But the college is so new that all of its buildings are still in construction and the housing shortage places Mags in the stables. As he adjusts to life as a Herald-trainee, Mags makes friends among the trainees from the other colleges (Healers and Bards) and in the city. Soon enough, thanks to his particulawr gift, Mags is buried in intrigue and political subterfuge. But when a overwhelming blizzard burries the campus, one of his friends goes missing, and Mags must do all he can to save the life he’s grown to love.

Lackey is an amazing wordsmith, her descriptions of the world as vivid as the characters she populates it with. But Foundation, while starting a new chapter in the Valdemar universe, fails to provide anything of real substance. This growing-up-with-magic tale, while engrossing, just doesn’t compare to the vivid and inspiring books that compose the rest of the world. Frankly, it comes off as an attempt at hooking some of the growing young adult audience.

The books of Valdemar are some of my favorite from High School, and while Foundation doesn’t do them justice, hopefully the following novels in the Collegium Chronicles will rise to the challenge.

Rating: 3 out of 5