May 22, 2012

Book 20: Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
Connie Willis

Connie Willis pulled out all the stops for this dynamo of a novel, utilizing such ordinarily disparate elements as a post-quasi-apocalypse near future, a deadly contagion, and time travel. Yet though its narrative action is divided between two fairly disparate temporal settings, Doomsday Book maintains a fairly urgent sense of suspense, a remarkable feat to accomplish in any 550-page book. Though there are times when the pace slows considerably, Willis is careful to pull back and switch settings, always seeming to change just when the current story becomes the slightest bit tiresome or when the reader begins to get curious about the concurrent story. Willis also does a good job of handling narrative synchronicity, vital when juggling stories that take place in a future present and in the Middle Ages, where an intrepid time traveler has managed to go while on winter holiday at Oxford. Though any time travel system has its peculiar quirks, the one in this particular book has its rules fairly clearly outlined early enough that readers are inclined to believe it, and to accept a strange intertwining of past and present events, which crucially move along at a similar rate. And though the thematic link between the historical destination and the future is more obvious than insightful, it packs a dramatic wallop. Willis also explores the potential difficulties faced by a time traveler and- not so subtly, mind- highlights some of the necessary impossibilities faced by any historians, allowing her temporal voyage to highlight both the differences and similarities between our times and those past. That she manages to do this without becoming preachy is a testament to the author's restraint and, in another way, to the strength of her characters. Not everyone is likeable, but these seem to be living humans, not caricatures, and they all serve their respective purposes superbly. Even more remarkable is the strength of the medieval characters, and the author's ability to make them seem both of their times and relatable to ours, again without too much pomp or undue over-attention. Though the story can seem to drag at times, the book simultaneously seems to read quickly, and the accelerated pace of the third book is much appreciated after a not-so-suspenseful attempt at a Big Reveal. Regardless, everything about the book is executed nicely, with effective prose and obvious- and appreciated- deliberation. Doomsday Book can be a bit of a slog in the middle, but it is a remarkably executed hybrid novel well deserving of its many accolades.

Grade: A-

May 8, 2012

Book 19: Mockingjay

Suzanne Collins

I'm not sure whether it's easy or incredibly difficult to properly follow up on such a prominent and well-written series as the Hunger Games books, but in Mockingjay Suzanne Collins suitably, if not brilliantly, wraps up the loose ends and brings the series to what feels like an inevitable, but appropriate, conclusion. We rejoin our heroes a while after the cliffhanger, revelatory, but ultimately unsurprising ending of Catching Fire, where they're firmly embedded in a typical dystopian good-versus-evil plot. Though much of this book, like its predecessors, operates in a highly simplified moral fabric, Collins mercifully throws an ambiguous wrench in the operation, forcing readers to re-think things a bit and, by the end, everything becomes far from simple. Though she is far from a master of subtlety, Collins is able to construct characters and a plot with considerable depth. Much appreciated is her handling of the books' central romantic triangle, which resolves itself in an incredibly realistic way. These things seldom escape the feeling that they are forced upon the characters in question, and to have teenagers acting like actual teenagers, but also like themselves, is refreshing. Also refreshing is the author's continuing willingness to utilize brutal violence: she has placed Katniss and company in the middle of a brutal war for control over Panem, and she does not shy away from the implications of this. The violence, however, almost always feels necessary to advance the plot or enhance character development, and though the book strangely drags despite its internal sense of urgency, nothing feels terribly misplaced within. The result, then, is a sometimes contemplative, sometimes high-octane conclusion that is ultimately satisfying, if a bit simplistic and, like its companions, predictable. The series is, as a whole, remarkably consistent, with no precipitous decline (or increase) in quality, though the same problems seem to surface within each book, as do their strengths. Mockingjay successfully resumes and concludes the Hunger Games trilogy, providing a satisfactory ending without straying too far from the first two books' best qualities or most frustrating faults.

Grade: A-

May 6, 2012

Book 18: Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins

So, how best to follow up a reasonably self-contained bestseller about such a dismal future that it requires children to fight to the death annually for the happy consumption of an unbelievably coddled ruling class? Readers of The Hunger Games or any of its cousins in the world of literary dystopias won't be particularly surprised at the twists Collins takes in Catching Fire, but the sequel is suitably grim and maintains a sufficient, if tenuous, grip on originality to make it enjoyable, if slightly un-challenging. We open, suitably enough, a while after the events of the first book have had a chance to create new tensions across Panem, and though this forces Collins to tell much of the intervening story through flashbacks, it allows heroine (and narrator) Katniss to jump directly into the thick of things, again employing the urgent present tense narration that drives the story along though it is prone to second-book stagnation. The story fits nicely alongside that of the first book, and the particular plot point that occupies much of the book's second half presents a finely pointed jab at the dystopian Capitol's rule that oh-so-carefully treads the line between surprisingly subtle and just a tad too obvious

Just like its predecessor, however, Catching Fire displays the author's frankly disturbing talent for cooking up sadistic twists and turns, again much appreciated in a young adult novel that does not shrink away from displaying the full, nasty range of human capabilities. The central conceits of the 75th Hunger Games, both the special quality shared by its participants and the arena itself, are captivating, even if the grand climax and, indeed, the general progress of the plot, leaves a bit to be desired. There are, of course, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching moments that fully captivate readers, and they may more make up for those that seem merely convenient. The teenage leads are predictably emotional, yet realistic enough to prevent any severe resentment by the reader. Katniss does succumb at times to the whiny, wishy-washy kind of teenage girl one expects, but Collins knows how to maintain dramatic tension and character development without allowing anything, or anyone, to get too carried away. And thus, the love story at the heart of much of Catching Fire rings true. Katniss is flawed, and a bit nearsighted, but she seems, above all, real. Whether this makes her likable or callous is another debate, but she is certainly complex and multi-dimensional, and she more than makes up for the occasional one-dimensionality of her supporting cast. And despite the occasional feeling that Panem is populated by stock characters, a few simply leap off of the page, with unexpected complexity developing from unexpected directions and stagnation, sadly, stalling in some quarters where development is sorely needed. Catching Fire is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, sacrificing a bit of nuance for screen-ready simplicity but satisfying nonetheless, despite the final pages' indications that the series is headed for groan-worthy predictability.

Grade: A-

May 3, 2012

Book 17: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

With a recent hit movie adaptation and its appearance as a mega-seller in the post-Harry Potter void, it's hard to miss The Hunger Games. I admit I approached the book with the degree of skepticism I often reserve for the extremely popular, but I needn't have worried: these books are popular for a reason, and damned addictive besides. Heroine Katniss proves an efficient, if not entirely likable or observant, narrator, and the choice of first-person present not only adds a hint of urgency to this battle for survival, but also underscores the constant threat of death (and doom) that looms over the book. This is especially appropriate as Collins thankfully pulls very few punches, and manages to weave those she does seamlessly into the narrative, using them as crucial plot points that will shape the remainder of the trilogy. That this is a young adult book does not doom it to back out of its startlingly brutal, violent premise. Indeed, the author's willingness to stick to the battle royale rules she initially established is fully appreciated, and gives the book far more emotional power than a love-fest might have possessed. Collins ensures that readers knows just how high the stakes are, and though the progression of events is somewhat predictable, it always fits the story, with enough original elements and compelling world-building to ensure that it stands apart. In fact, one of my biggest complaints about the book is the fact that Katniss is so stunningly blind, and occasionally inconsistently so, planting ideas about the dystopian Capitol's inherent flaws but then seeming to forget them at the author's convenience. Katniss is refreshingly competent and blunt, but though her teenage romantic fickleness is portrayed to precision, she is sometimes just a tad too thick for the story she's telling, at once aware of her place in the grand scheme of things and entirely ignorant of anything outside of herself. This is somewhat forgivable given her murder-or-be-murdered circumstances, but it occasionally yanks readers out of the otherwise engrossing book. Along with its effective characters and compelling, if unoriginal, plot, Collins has serious author's chops, seamlessly weaving expository passages into the story and effectively utilizing metaphor without pandering either to an exalted or dumbed-down audience. Add in a thrill-a-minute pace, and The Hunger Games is absolutely deserving of its accolades and success, a worthy and surprisingly well-written opener to the rampaging bestsellers.

Grade: A