Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Suzanne Collins

REVIEW: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

REVIEW: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Note: This review contains spoilers. I would also expect any potential comments to contain spoilers as well. Readers wishing to avoid spoilers will want to skip this. But for the people who’ve already read the book, as well as the spoiler-loving seekers, come on in. Let’s discuss.

Dear Ms. Collins,

When The Hunger Games came out two years ago, I initially dismissed it as a clone of Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. I read that book already. Why do I need to read an Americanized version of it? But I’m glad I worked past my first impression and gave your book a chance because similarities aside, I ended up loving it. Catching Fire was released a year later and while it didn’t quite leave the same impact as the first book, I enjoyed it and grew to appreciate it more on subsequent rereads. Which brings us to Mockingjay, the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy and easily one of the most anticipated books since Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn.

Mockingjay CoverFirst, a refresher to bring newer readers up to speed. The Hunger Games trilogy is set in Panem, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic North America consisting of a Capitol wielding totalitarian control over twelve Districts. In the past, there used to be thirteen Districts but a rebellion against the Capitol resulted in the annihilation of the thirteenth and the creation of the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a televised event in which each District sends one boy and one girl to an arena where they kill each other until one remains. In The Hunger Games, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen, a girl who goes to the Games as District 12′s Tribute in place of her younger sister whose name was originally drawn. Katniss — along with her fellow Tribute, Peeta Mellark — manages to win the Games through sheer survival instinct and an engineered romance geared to pull the audience’s heartstrings. But while Katniss saw it as nothing more than a means to bring the two of them home, Peeta viewed it as something more. In Catching Fire, we learn the Capitol’s President Snow is enraged because Katniss managed to outwit them by ensuring an unprecedented two Victors, an act of defiance that fans civil unrest throughout Panem. As punishment, for the Quarter Quell — a sort of uber-Hunger Games held every 25 years — the Tributes are reaped from the existing pool of Victors. Because Katniss is the only living female Victor from District 12, she is guaranteed a spot and sent back to the arena.

Catching Fire ends with Katniss, along with two other Tributes, sex symbol Finnick Odair and quirky genius BeeTee, being broken out of the arena and brought to District 13, whose reports of having been destroyed were greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, Peeta, as well as another Tribute, Johanna Mason, were left behind, thus subjecting them to the Capitol’s tender mercies. By which I mean mind-breaking torture. We also learned that for Katniss’s unwitting instigation of the rebellion against the Capitol, District 12 was destroyed.

Mockingjay opens with Katniss recovering from the physical and mental trauma caused by the arena breakout and its subsequent repercussions. But the rebellion waits for no one, and Katniss must step into the role foisted upon her once again. The rebellion needs their living symbol out and about, front and center — to keep morale up within the resistance and to show the Capitol that they will not lose. When initial plans to use Katniss in scripted television spots tailored to bolster rebellion hopes fail, she is then sent onto the battlefield, traveling from wartorn District to ravaged District with a television crew in tow. It’s not the safest place for the rebellion’s walking symbol, but it’s where she’s best suited and it takes her mind off Peeta’s fate.

Although most of District 12′s residents died in the bombings that wiped out their home, the survivors are taken in by District 13. This isn’t out of the kindness of their hearts or the District’s President Coin, however. While District 13′s underground bunkers protected them from the Capitol’s assault 75 years ago, it could not protect them from smallpox and the plague wiped out a good chunk of their population. The influx of District 12 refugees introduces variety into their gene pool. This speaks volumes about District 13′s mentality: everything is controlled right down to how many calories a person can consume in one day. If the Capitol controls through fear and deprivation, District 13′s residents are controlled through micromanagement. They even have daily schedules tattooed on their skin every morning, giving each person a strict agenda to follow. It’s a life but I wouldn’t call it freedom.

Now instead of simply trying to survive the arena, Katniss must survive a war, not only with her body intact but her mind as well. President Snow has every intention of breaking Katniss, and Peeta offers the perfect avenue. In addition, she must embrace the Mockingjay persona pushed upon her while also maneuvering the unexpected complication of having a District leader who by all accounts should be an ally but who instead views Katniss as a threat to be tolerated only until her job is done, after which she becomes a threat to be eliminated immediately.

One of the things I regret as a reader is the risk of high expectations. I know this is something that has burned me in the past and in fact, was part of the reason why I wasn’t so enthused by Catching Fire when I read it for the first time. It’s so difficult for a book to live up to those expectations. But what’s even harder is when I, as a reader, expect one kind of narrative but the author proceeds to deliver something else.

I anticipated the story arc of the Hunger Games trilogy to be one in which Katniss gains agency and freedom. In The Hunger Games, she’s a pawn of the Capitol, a Tribute participating in a televised bloodbath for the entertainment of some people and for the despair of others. In Catching Fire, she’s caught between being a pawn of the Capitol by being a Tribute once more and being a pawn of the rebellion by being their Mockingjay. My expectation of Mockingjay was that Katniss would begin a pawn of the rebellion and fight her way out of that role. This never happens. Katniss remains a pawn until the end. Even in the climactic act, which should have been emblematic of her reaching autonomy, Katniss was driven to it, reacting to her circumstances. Perhaps we are meant to view it as a decision reached through calculated thinking, but I was never convinced.

Instead Mockingjay gives us a story that is not about a girl growing from being a pawn to being an independent figure with agency but rather it is about war, its effects upon the innocent, and most especially its effects upon the soldiers it uses and burns through. In the opening pages of Mockingjay, Katniss is recovering from a mental breakdown, weaning herself off the drugs that have been sedating her. She spends the majority of the book swinging back and forth from almost normalcy to breaking apart once again. Finnick is a wrecked mess who wanders around in a hospital gown and his underwear. When Peeta is finally rescued, he’s been brainwashed and has trouble differentiating between his real memories and those implanted by the Capitol. In the end, Mockingjay is a story about people broken by war, PTSD survivors and shell-shocked soldiers.

When combined with a strong tone shift, as I considered the previous two books to be more action-adventure survival narratives whereas this is a more introspective narrative, the book becomes a bleak, grinding read. I do believe this was intentional on your part, to depict the true horrors of war. But it can be tough for a reader who comes into this book expecting something more like the previous books.

As for the question of Peeta versus Gale, I admit I haven’t been interested in that aspect since Catching Fire when it became apparent to me that the final choice would be Peeta. That said, even though Katniss does end up with Peeta, I have a difficult time calling it a happy ending because that’s exactly what happens: Katniss ends up with Peeta. She doesn’t really choose him because circumstances made it so that an ending with Gale would be near impossible. Again, I do think the ending is realistic when viewed as that of a conclusion to a war narrative — existing and living on as best you can in the aftermath, finding your peace and healing, but it might not be exactly what the most ardent of Peeta proponents were expecting.

As for Gale, I have nothing but sympathies for the Gale supporters. He does finally have more page time in Mockingjay but his portrayal here may be off-putting to his fans. I don’t think his actions were unexpected — in fact, I expected his rage and bloodthirstiness — but I do think his motivations were underdeveloped, mostly because he had such little page time in previous installments. I know how readers can sometimes fill in the details left vague by the narrative. I’ve done this myself. I think that sharp contrast between vagueness to detailed presence can be very jarring here.

And finally, while I realize these are odd comments to make about a trilogy whose premise is essentially a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies, there is violence in the book that readers may not be able to stomach. Wartime violence is never pretty and Mockingjay captures that extremely well, but I suspect it may exceed some readers’ tolerances. It is a different sort of violence than what we glimpsed in Hunger Games and Catching Fire. We go from violence committed to survive to random and senseless violence we often see in war. In addition, there is a scene towards the end of the book involving child hostages that many readers may find objectionable whether or not they dislike fictional violence towards children. I realize the violence was depicted to show how horrifying war is, but perhaps amount of violence was more than necessary.

Despite all this, I don’t think Mockingjay is a bad book. I think it had a specific goal in mind and from an objective point of view, I think it succeeded. But I am not an objective reader and from an honest standpoint, I will say that I did not like this book. I did not hate it and I don’t regret reading it, but I have no intention of ever reading it again. If I want to think about the horrors of war and its aftermath, I only need to wake up and go to work every morning. Others may denigrate me for this choice, but this is not why I read. I read to escape.

Assigning this book a grade is very difficult because I have such a split mind about it. Objectively, I think it is an excellent book, gripping and realistic. I think it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. But it’s not the story I expected and it is the not the story I wanted to read. These two reactions are irreconcilable and as far as I can tell, will remain that way. So balancing out those two very strong opposing reactions, I can only give it a C.

My regards,
Jia

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook | BN | Borders
| Sony|

REVIEW: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

REVIEW: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Dear Ms. Collins,

Catching Fire by Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games was my favorite novel of 2008.   For me it had the perfect combination of a great heroine, fast-paced plotting, and gripping tension.   And considering the cliffhanger ending, I’ve been looking forward to Catching Fire since I finished last page of that book.

To refresh readers, and to bring people new to the series up to speed, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are set in a dystopian future in the remains of what was once the United States.   At some point in time, an apocalypse occurred, which caused society as we know it to fall apart.   From the rubble arose Panem, which consisted of the Capitol and thirteen surrounding Districts that provided the various materials and goods to keep the nation running.   To be more accurate, the Capitol ruled over the thirteen surrounding Districts with an oppressive regime that eventually led to revolt.   Unfortunately for the Districts, the revolt was squashed and the thirteenth District was utterly destroyed.   To top it off, as punishment, the Capitol created the Hunger Games, an annual battle royale designed to remind the Districts who was in control.

Catching Fire picks up nearly immediately where The Hunger Games left off so those who haven’t read the book, please be aware that everything from here on out will be a little spoilery so tread carefully or stop reading.   In The Hunger Games, we were introduced to Katniss, the female Tribute from the twelfth District who is sent to the 74th Hunger Games in place of her younger sister, whose name was the one actually drawn in the reaping.   Despite the odds stacked against her, Katniss manages to not only win the Hunger Games but also keep both herself and her fellow Tribute, Peeta, alive.

When Catching Fire opens, Katniss and Peeta are fulfilling their duties as champions of the Hunger Games: touring, interviews, and public appearances.   They also now live in the winners’ village which every District has to house its champions and their families.   Unfortunately, District 12 isn’t known for putting out victors so the village is kind of empty.   In fact, the only other person to live there is Haymitch, their former mentor and the town drunk.   Kind of sad, if you ask me.

But Katniss finds that things haven’t become easier now that she’s won the Hunger Games.   In order to secure both her and Peeta’s survival, Katniss trapped the Capitol and used its own love of media control and public opinion against them.   In short, she humiliated them.   Can you imagine?   One lone girl from a backwater District known for sending loser Tributes outsmarting the all-powerful Capitol?   Yeah, they didn’t take it too well and intend to punish her.   This isn’t helped by the fact that during their tour, Katniss and Peeta have caught glimpses of civil unrest throughout the various Districts.

And so Katniss is worried.   Is the Capitol going to target her family?   She went to one Hunger Games to save her sister.   What would they do now?   Or are they going to target her best friend Gale, with whom a shared kiss has been witnessed by Capitol spies?   But what does happen is something she never predicted.

Every 25 years, the Capitol holds a sort of super Hunger Games, called the Quarter Quell.   When the Hunger Games were created 75 years ago, the founders supposedly wrote “special” provisions on slips on paper which would be drawn every quarter-century to keep things interesting or, in other words, to remind the Districts of just how bad and naughty they were.   During the 25th Hunger Games, people from the Districts had to vote on who they wanted to send as Tributes.   During the 50th Hunger Games, twice as many Tributes were sent.   For the 75th Hunger Games, the Tributes are to be reaped from the existing pool of champions.   And because Katniss is the only female victor from District 12, she is guaranteed a spot in the Hunger Games.

Sequel books are tricky, the second books in a trilogy in particular.   We’ve all seen sequels that don’t quite live up to their predecessor, especially when that first book is very memorable and stunning.   We’ve also seen how second books in trilogies function as bridges between the first book that introduces us to a new world and conflict and the final book that wraps it up with a bang.   While I do feel that Catching Fire is not as good as The Hunger Games and does indeed function as a bridge between it and the final book in the trilogy, I think it’s still an entertaining installment in its own right, albeit a flawed one.

I’m torn on the concept of the Quarter Quell.   On one hand, it fits within the context of the world and the Capitol’s methodology.   On the other hand, it’s also more or less a retread of the first book.   While the concept of the Hunger Games in and of itself is not a new one (see: Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale), it has a freshness to it in the context of this world and this series.   Returning to another Hunger Games when in truth, I was looking forward to seeing Katniss in a new arena — that of being a victor going up against the Capitol via secret rebellions and machinations, is kind of a letdown.

But on yet another hand, I did like seeing previous victors.   After all, my favorite new character, Finnick, came from this group.   In him, we saw a damning critique of our paparazzi’s tendency to oversexualize child stars and how they practically count down the seconds to when a child star turns 18.   In this respect and others involving the older victors, I did see more of the social commentary we got in The Hunger Games but was somewhat lacking here.   We have victors who are walking freakshows, who revel in their status and want nothing more than to return to the arena for more bloodshed.   We have victors who are well-past their prime.   And sadly, we have victors who have been broken by their experiences in the arena and who can only be called insane.

While I know this story is Katniss’s and the book itself is categorized as a young adult novel so the focus, of course, needs to be on the young adults, I do wish we’d gotten to spend more time with the other victors.   We only caught the barest glimpse of how the Hunger Games and the ensuing years as victors affected them, but except Finnick, the others’ individual stories didn’t really stand out.

I regret having to say this because I liked this aspect of Katniss’s character in the previous book and actually found it charming, but wow, is she dense or what?   I really wish we could have seen her getting more of a clue or at least being a little quicker to accept her role in the impending rebellion against the Capitol.   Yes, she’s more concerned with protecting her family and her own but I feel a bit disappointed that her time in the Hunger Games and on tour throughout the various Districts didn’t make her a bit more in tune to what was going on.

Along those lines, what was up with the ending?   I don’t really want to go into the details here but I was left feeling a little bewildered at the end of the book.   After I finished it, I immediately emailed Jane the following message: “WTF??????” To be honest, I feel as if the book came up against a hard deadline or a word count limit, which was why the ending was the way it was.   Because in contrast to the previous book in which Katniss was in control of the events culminating in the climax, it was nearly the opposite here.   Considering she’s the protagonist of the book, I can’t help but feel cheated.

Finally, to address that age-old debate of Team Gale versus Team Peeta, while nothing was explicitly confirmed, I do think it’s obvious which way the wind is blowing.   One team has far more evidence supporting it while the other not at all.   As for myself, I’ve abandoned the debate almost entirely because I discovered that Finnick is far more interesting a character to me than either Gale or Peeta and I’m more interested in seeing the (platonic) relationship between Katniss and him develop versus any romantic one she might with the two available options.   How’s that for fickle?

So while I don’t think Catching Fire is a match for, let alone exceeds, The Hunger Games, I do think it was a worthwhile, entertaining installment.   Given how the book ends — and yes, it is a cliffhanger once again although whether readers find it worse or better than that of The Hunger Games will vary — I still want to read the next book.   Because I’m hoping I’ll get that in-depth rebellion action I was hungering for but didn’t get in this one.   B

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook format.