Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I had hopes for this series. Hunger Games' premise was fascinating, the writing and characterizations superb, and the theme--Katniss learning to accept and offer love--compelling. Catching Fire stalled a bit for me, with almost no character development, but still I turned every page eagerly.

But with Mockingjay I had to keep forcing myself forward, just to see how it ends. When I got to the end, it wasn't really worth it. I’ve been trying to pin down why. My friend, Angela Hallstrom, nailed it in her Goodreads review. I think, ultimately, the novel’s failures all come down to Collins being more driven by her message than by her characters or story.

Angela writes that "Katniss is acted upon instead of acting of her own free will during much of the narrative." For me, Katniss in the first two books
wasn't always likable, but she was always compelling and always a free agent. In fact, her independence was her defining trait. I wanted her to grow into her role as Mockingjay, to finally become the strong leader the previous stories seemed to be cultivating.

Instead, I think Collins' message forced her to make Katniss a helpless pawn. No doubt her message--that war is hell and no one wins and both sides can be equally evil--is important. But people read novels for character and story, and Collins, unfortunately, puts her agenda first, leaving her main character limping on the sidelines.

Allowing the agenda to drive the novel also probably explains the final problem Angela identifies: the sense that we’re slogging through irredeemable violence. Collins primarily wants to show that war isn’t worth it. So we slog. And then her attempt to wrap up, heal, and redeem feels hasty and tacked on.

Perhaps worst of all, Collins resolves the three-books-long love triangle so quickly and
dismissively that it's an insult to both character and reader. It shows disregard for Katniss' deep, enduring friendships and disrespect for the complex individuals involved, reducing them all to allegory.

I give the book two stars because it offers some interesting things to think about--the parallels between the Capitol and District 13, the various manifestations of power-lust, the way both sides use Peeta and how he recovers.

Overall, though, I was sorry I'd bought the book and got rid of it as soon as possible. Still, the first book was great and might make it worth reading the series. From the library.

The Hunger Games

If I could've I would've read this book all in one sitting. It's that engrossing. I loved the Gregor books, and again Suzanne Collins doesn't disappoint. As in The Underland Chronicles, she's the master of capturing a scene or a character with very few words.

There's nothing lyrical or poetic about Collins' language; rather the few words and images she picks area always dead on. It's the epitome of science-fiction/fantasy writing--clean, clear, and straightforward. That, of course, does make the violence a bit gruesome since you have no trouble picturing it exactly.

But, actually, for me it wasn't as bad as it had been built up to be (though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone younger than 14). And, really, for being a violent, action-packed dystopia novel, it's loaded with humanity. In fact, I sometimes found myself feeling the author was letting her characters off too easily. In a world designed to force even the most humane to act inhumanly, her characters never had to completely face the monster within.

I think that's because the story Collins really wanted to tell was the slow, even frustrating at times, transformation of her main character, Katniss. For me, this seemed primarily a story of Katniss learning how receive love, how to trust in it, and how to return it.

What an unexpected setting for such a story: an enclosed, highly controlled and manipulated world of futuristic reality television, where you win when all the other players are dead. Add to this an obsession with unreal physical beauty, and the Hunger Games look almost too much like what often passes for modern entertainment.

But it's not social commentary that makes this book, it's the characters. Katniss especially is intriguingly complex, a very real mix of selfish and selfless. Though she has the survivor's instinct, and she doesn't think of herself as someone who loves people, she naturally reaches out and takes care of others. In this book, she is just beginning the journey to understand herself and how she connects with the people around her. I look forward to watching the rest of the journey. I'm not very patient with series and often don't finish them. But this one, I'm sure I'll finish.

p.s. Since writing this review, I did finish the series and wasn't crazy about how Collins ended it. (hmmm . . . I didn't like how she wrapped up The Underland Chronicles either.) Still, I'm glad I read Hunger Games.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Death Comes for the Archbishop

I read this book some years ago and it didn't exactly reel me in at the time. But I picked it up again on a recent trip to New Mexico and really loved it the second time around. Perhaps it was because I was seeing the harsh desert landscape Will Cather describes so beautifully and learning about the history that serves as a backdrop to this novel. We even visited the San Miguel Mission where the real bishop lived and the dramatic cathedral that was his legacy. I guess having those visuals so fresh in my mind helped me "get" this book a little better.

There's not much of a plot to Death Comes for the Archbishop, which may be what I was looking for the first time I read it. Cheri described it really well it in her Top 10 post as "a stack of paintings, showing the same subjects (person and landscape) in different moods, lighting, times." It's just a quiet portrait of a truly amazing place and a good man who does the best he can with the difficult task he's given – to reform the fractured and corrupt diocese and reinvigorate the faith among the Mexicans and Native Americans who occupy the New Mexican territory.

I appreciated the respect with which she wrote about the native cultures, her sympathetic characters, and her wonderful descriptions of the desert landscape. But what I loved most in this re-reading was the way Cather's simple, matter-of-fact style and the vast, epic setting gave me a feeling of serenity. That feeling is what made it such a pleasure to read.