Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Katniss, the Girl Who Was on Fire

Well, I may very well be the last person to have finally gotten ahold of this book. Sure I've seen it on the shelves, heard the hype, and read glowing reviews, but it took me quite a while to finally get this. I think I was mostly spurred by the fact that the third and final book was released this fall. Being able to read all the books in a series, without the threat of year-long cliffhangers, is so much more appealing to me than starting a series right off the bat (not that that prevents me from reading a majority of my books...).

So, last October I placed a hold at my library for all three books. And I finally got them in December.

Not only will I be reading this one for myself, but it was also chosen for Diffindo's Bi-Monthly Book Club. And boy, am I looking forward to discussing this one...but more on that later. This will also count for Bewitched Bookworms' Whisper Stories In My Ear Challenge, since I listened to the audiobook as well.

The Hunger Games
~The Hunger Games~
The Hunger Games
Book 1
By Suzanne Collins
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

At 16 years old, Katniss Everdeen has to admit that the odds have never been in her favor. With her father dead and her mother in a near-catatonic state, it's been up to her to keep the family alive these past five years. Sure, it's been tough caring for her sister and mother, but between hunting, foraging, and making sacrifices she's managed it alright so far.

But in the span of one breath everything changes.

The Hunger Games are an annual competition waged between the 12 Districts of Panem. Part retribution for their failed rebellion, part entertainment spectacle, the Capitol forces each District to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to compete on live TV. The winner gains wealth and glory, not only for themselves but for their entire district. The rest are killed in the process.

In District 12, the poorest district, tributes are chosen primarily by lottery. But when her sister's name is called, Katniss steps up as a volunteer.

Now the odds are truly stacking against her. Her handler for the competition is an idiot and her mentor is a drunk. One of those she is pitted against is strikingly similar to her sister, while another was her one-time savior. As her life is pitted against other youths with more resources and more training, she doubts that her meager hunting skills will prove useful.

Still, one's luck has got to turn sometime, and who knows, Katniss may prove to be more of a contender than she thinks.

Going into this, you know it's going to be a tough book. I mean, the main premise is kids, as young as twelve, being picked out in a lottery (called "the reaping") and set to kill each other for the country's enjoyment. It's not even a scenario where it's an accident that erodes the kids' psyches over time. No, it's a government running the show and using this gory spectacle to keep their subjects in line.

Now, I've definitely not led a pampered life, but I won't say I haven't been sheltered as well. Comparing it to the 12 Districts of Panem, I'd probably say I lived in the mid-to-poor sections of Districts 1 or 2. Not bathing in the lap of luxury, but definitely not dealing with the black market or digging in trash. I'm not street savvy, and I've not had much, if any, experience with sickness or death.

Suffice it to say, this book was a very brutal read for me.

That you get to know these characters, even though some were only introduced a few pages ago, and build a relationship with them...only to have them killed, in some cases violently, wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Add to that the fact these horrific killings and deaths are being done by kids...only a few years younger than myself...and I'm not sure how to recommend this book.

That's not to say I didn't (gosh I feel horrible saying this) enjoy parts of it. Katniss herself was a superbly crafted character. Here you have a heroine who, though everything's thrown at her, excels in an impossible situation, holds onto her personality, and maintains a rebellious mentality, and yet does it believably. Though you don't know exactly how she'll react to situations, her actions ring true; her backstory and upbringing support them. And this believability only aides the realism, the punch that the book delivers as a whole.

The other characters acted similarly real, from the prim and prissy Effie (pampered and raised in the Capitol), to the subtly intelligent Haymitch (District 12's past winner of The Hunger Games), to the scheming Gamekeepers (Capitol-loyal "Dungeon Masters" of the Games' arena), to the other kids in the competition. Each of them acted true-to-character, no matter how easy it might have been to twist them for plot's sake. Even down to the Capitol/government itself, this story is 100% character-driven.

Building off of that, I'm not completely certain how to handle the romance. If you've heard anything of this book, you've no doubt seen or heard the Team Peeta vs Team Gale debate. Personally, I didn't care for it at all. To me, it's simply another weapon of rebellion against the government. Unfortunately, this blade seems to be double-edged and I can already see the complications that it has, and is going to cause. I'd have preferred things stayed at friend-levels, instead of having a romance brought on or influenced by traumatic situations. But it's a Young Adult novel, and so hormones will rage. I'm not saying I'm completely unsympathetic to the emotions, just that they're not my preference. Then again, you need something to lighten the tone...

Or do you? Frankly, I don't mean to be disrespectful or anything, but I found the events and themes in this book eerily similar to tales of the holocaust. Yes, it's a book featuring and aimed at Young Adults, but if not for the romantic sequences, I feel this could sit comfortably beside Eli Wiesel's Night or William Golding's Lord of the Flies in attitude and emotions.

For interested younger teens, this might make a better book for discussion with a group (or at least a parent) than an independent read. And I think it makes a great discussion book for older teens/readers as well. I know I'm looking forward to discussing it with my group and other venues as well.

Bottom line is this is a serious and deceptively deep book that may hit you hard and resonate for some time. While it has become somewhat masked in the "What Boy Will She Pick?!" debate (no doubt in hopes of drawing in Twilight-obsessed teens), don't mistake this as a fluffy YA read. The strong characters, intriguing setting, and masterful pacing will draw you in and make it nearly impossible to put this down. However, I can't promise you'll feel content at the end, nor that you will like where it takes you.

Approximate Reading Time: 6 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Carolyn McCormick
Length: 11.1 Hours
Listened at 1.85x Speed

I enjoyed the voice and the pacing she gave the story—one of the reasons it was so hard to stop. Though she didn't have a huge range in voices, the majority of the characters were unique and easy to pick out. The voices also evolved over the course of the story, to reflect the hardship (sickness/dehydration) that the characters experienced.

Because of this, I would have liked a bit more editing on the script's part. The "I say", "He says" bits that followed nearly every line of dialog could have been removed to some extent. While they make sense when you have the book in front of you (and you're able to skim over those to some degree), having them read aloud grew superfluous and jarring as the book carried on.

There was one point where Katniss sings a rather haunting lullaby, and I made sure to slow down the audio to normal speed for that section. I thought the tune was perfect, fitting the words and its backstory, and the emotion brought across during the song sent chills down my spine. Definitely a highlight you'll want to listen for.

On the whole, McCormick brought a crisp and clear enunciation and a personality that I thought fit Katniss (as the book's narrator) perfectly throughout the book.