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.

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.

12312008-world-war-z

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.

11302008-seeing-redd1

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

Cally’s War

52. Cally’s War (Legacy of Aldenata) by John Ringo. 326 p. Published October 2004.

At the end of Hell’s Faire, Cally and her grandfather were declared dead, casualties of the nuclear exchange during the final Posleen push. In reality they were snuck out by members of the Benne Sidh, a secret organization working against the industrial-political powers running the galaxy.

Finishing the training her grandfather started, the Benne Sidh raised Cally to be one of their spy-assassins, and for the last 40 years she’s been living a life of aliases, random lovers, and violent endings. As Cally finishes each mission and the miraculous medical sciences patch her up good as new, she finds pieces of herself have begun to slip away and she worries that it may be to late to start having a real life. However, any hope of that happening has to be put on hold for Cally’s next mission.

There’s a traitor in the Benne Sidh, selling information to the military. Cally, physically altered to match an actual officer, is planted as a secretary in the counter-intelligence office investigating her organization. Digging around, Cally finds herself sleeping with the general, but falling for  his aid-de-camp. Pulled between finding the traitor, keeping her secrets, and her attractions, Cally must come to terms with what she wants out of life. And the Benne Sidh must figure out whether Cally is worth the risk of extracting.

Setting Cally’s War 40 years later, Ringo gives the reader an idea of how humanity is fairing after repulsing the invasion. Despite the interesting look into the future and Cally’s development, the switch in pace from the previous 4 novels took some getting used to. Despite that and a few predictable twists, Cally’s War provides a decent enough read.

The first five chapters of Cally’s War are available on the publisher’s website.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Viewpoints Critical

51. Viewpoints Critical by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. 350 p. Published  March 2008.

Viewpoints Critical is the first collection of short stories by L.E. Modesitt. Modesitt, who is known for his work in both fantasy and science fiction,  penned one of my favorite series, The Saga of Recluse.

This collection begins with five stories from Modesitt’s early career as a writer. Covering topics like  global warming, justice, the economy, and religious belief, each story illustrates Modesitt’s ability to grasp issues critical to the future. These are followed by more short stories, many of which feed from Modesitt’s experiences in Vietnam. “The Swan Pilot,” for example, attempts to combine Modesitt’s fighter-pilot experience with futuristic mythology.

Standing distinct among the other stories are three which connect to Modesitt’s novels. Both “Black Ordermage” and “Sisters of Sarronnyn, Sisters of Westwind” tie into The Saga of Recluse while “Beyond the Obvious Wind” was the original story to inspire the Corean Chronicles.

Spanning over almost 40 years of Modesitt’s career, Viewpoints Critical provides a glimpse of this author’s gift. However, as Modesitt himself admits in the foreword, his true talents lie in novels. While many of these stories proved interesting, I found all but a few lacking that inefible depth that comes from an author’s devotion to the story and the world being created. Now, I’m not saying the Modesitt put out inferior work. Rather, the work I usually associate with Modesitt – namely Recluse and the Spellsong Cycle – is so rich in detail and character that these stories pale in comparrison. Still, Viewpoints Critical is a decent compilation and worthwhile reading for any Modesitt fan.

Rating: 2 out of 5