Category: Adventure


Why is it so hard for writers to give satisfying endings to series? On TV, I can only think of a handful of truly stellar series finales (Lost, M*A*S*H, Six Feet Under) while I can name a litany of programs that either had miserable finales (The Sopranos, Seinfeld) or should have ended long before their final season (cough cough Dexter cough cough). Books don’t get off any easier. I love the Dark Tower series, and I don’t have the same spiteful reaction that many fans have to its controversial ending, but I recognize that Stephen King could have probably delivered something slightly more satisfying. I also love Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but there’s still no logical explanation for why Harry didn’t die in those woods (I don’t think the series should have ended with Harry’s death but J.K. Rowling shouldn’t have written herself into that corner). With Suzanne Collins history of writing rushed and hackneyed endings for The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, it should be no surprise that the series itself comes to an artificially forced conclusion in Mockingjay.

Spoilers beware for anyone who hasn’t finished Catching Fire (obviously, I’ll try not to spoil any major plot of points of Mockingjay). After destroying the force field surrounding the Quarter Quell’s arena in the last book, Katniss, Finnick, and Beetee have been rescued by the rebel factions opposing the tyrannical Capitol. The rebels are led by the long thought to be destroyed District 13 which ekes out a livable by strict life underground as they prepare to go to war against the Capitol. However, Peeta (and fellow former victor Johanna) was captured by the Capitol and is being used as a propaganda tool by the evil President Snow. District 13 wants Katniss to become the symbol of the rebellion, and although Katniss initially has questions about their motives and methods, she eventually agrees as she helps to rally the fight to rescue Peeta, take back the 11 Districts (since 12 was destroyed at the end of Catching Fire), and overthrow the government of Panem.

While I felt that Mockingjay stumbled in many respects (especially the ending but more on that later), one of the surprising areas where it succeeded was setting up such a morally ambiguous and brutal tale of war. The main powers that are standing up to the Capitol (District 13) are nearly as totalitarian as Panem. If you replaced the rampant greed of the Capitol and its use of the serfdom of the Districts with an essentially Marxist sense of egalitarian communalism, you’d get District 13. Either way, the power in both governments is centered in a very small group of people. Katniss (in her never-ending and often unnecessary inner monologue) constantly reflects on the morally questionable things that District 13 asks her to do for the war effort, but then Suzanne Collins always helps cement the ambiguity by presenting the moral necessity of removing the cruel and brutal Capitol. How far do you go before you become as bad as the despots you overthrow? It’s a question all revolutions face and its at the core of a young adult novel of all things.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Collins does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the horrors of war considering all that she put her characters through in the previous two books. Yet, I still can’t think of a single young adult book that dealt with war in as serious and brutal a manner as Mockingjay. Katniss becomes a soldier in this book, and if Suzanne Collins tried to have Katniss only kill when absolutely necessary in The Hunger Games, she is forced to kill a ton of enemy soldiers (and even a civilian in a truly shocking moment) to keep herself and her loved ones alive. Actually, by the end of the novel, Katniss has become such a cold-blooded killer that I couldn’t tell if Collins was advocating those actions are making a comment on how war changes people. In fact, the brutality of the novel almost becomes one of its flaws because at times it almost seems like Collins is going on a Heinlein-esque ode to militarism.

If you thought the ending to Catching Fire was abrupt, it has nothing on Mockingjay. For two straight books now, it’s almost like Suzanne Collins has another 200 pages or so planned out in her head but then she has to rush to the finish line because the book’s due date was coming up. This is what happens when you stick to a one book a year release schedule. I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending because it contains a handful of truly shocking moments, but it was painfully obvious that there was a lot more to this story. There were a million dangling plot threads, but Collins must have realized she was running out of time because she made a massive author’s saving throw to bring it all to a close. Whether the ending is remotely satisfying will be up to each individual reader, but for me, it was a mess that managed to rush the climax and then drag the ending out more than it should.

Well, the series is finally over. I’m not sure what I’m going to read next. Neil Gaiman (who responded to me on Twitter!!!!!!!!!) just announced that he’s writing a prequel to the Sandman series so maybe I’ll do my semi-annual re-reading of my favorite book series ever. I used to read it like once a year but it’s been two now. I feel it’s high time to get back in the swing of that awesome book series. Although at the same time, I sort of want to read something more serious. I have On the Road which I’ve never read and I’d like to read it before I see the movie. Anyways, I don’t regret the time I spent with The Hunger Games trilogy. As I’ve said before, Suzanne Collins is a mostly excellent storyteller who just happens to be a terrible writer (her prose is abysmal but I’ve beat that dead horse enough in the reviews of the first two books). However, by the end of Mockingjay I came to a conclusion. She isn’t writing children’s books. She just happens to be writing semi-mature themed books that are enjoyed by children because she’s only capable of writing at their level.

Final Score: B-

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My feelings about Suzanne Collins’ breakthrough novel (and worldwide sensation) The Hunger Games are complicated. I think that Suzanne Collins is an accomplished storyteller and her sense of pacing and suspense are superb. However, she is the clumsiest “writer” (in the literal sense of the word) that I can think of in modern, popular fiction. Her vocabulary is more limited than the audience she writes to and her prose is amateurish at best. She writes the way that I imagine an especially talented middle schooler would write. And the fact that she writes young adult novels isn’t a good enough excuse. I used this analogue in my The Hunger Games review but it bears repeating. C.S. Lewis also wrote for children but there was more deft poetry and inspired imagination in his wordsmith than Collins could ever hope to imagine (thankfully her books are devoid of Lewis’ overbearing proselytizing and Biblical imagery). I read The Hunger Games back in the beginning of January before I left for New York City, and I figured I’d wait til I got home to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Friday, when the electricity was out, I read nearly the entirety of Catching Fire by candlelight. While Suzanne Collins has yet to improve her atrocious prose, her storytelling is on even better display in Catching Fire as the characters seem more sharply realized and the universe of Panem finally began to take a clearer shape.

After Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark foil the plans of the evil Capitol of the dystopian nation of Panem by both surviving the annual Hunger Games, Katniss knows that she has officially become an enemy of the state. After a visit from the despot known as President Snow (something tells me no one actually elected him), Katniss is informed that her act of rebellion by threatening to kill herself and Peeta (to rob the Capitol of a winner) has become a symbol of anti-Capitol resentment throughout the 12 districts of Panem. As bluntly as possible, President Snow informs her that she has til the end of her Victory Tour with Peeta (where they have to continue their charade of being star-crossed lovers) to convince the districts that she’s truly the smitten lover he knows she was pretending to be or he’ll kill her and every one she cares about. It doesn’t take long for Katniss to realize that the decks are stacked against her. The sparks of revolution are simmering across all of the districts and even the most innocent acts by Peeta and Katniss as they tour Panem have become enough to sweep the oppressed masses into rebellion. When the Victory Tour is over and President Snow makes it clear that she failed in her duty, Katniss prepares to flee into the wilderness with her family and friends but the arrival of the Quarter Quell, the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, and the devious machinations of President Snow means that Katniss’ fight is only just beginning.

I’ll try to keep this review short because I still need to review Sunday’s True Blood as well as my surprise movie reveal (here’s a hint. my female readers are the most likely to be interested in my review of this summer movie). I’ve said enough about Suzanne Collins’ inability to string a beautiful sentence together so I’ll skip to the ways she’s improved on her storytelling in this novel. Other than District 12 and the Capitol, the details surrounding the rest of Panem were very vague in The Hunger Games. In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins takes the opportunity (roughly the first 200 or so pages of the book) to finally paint the scene of what her universe is like. It’s a two part morality tale. On one level it’s a child’s introduction to fascism (with hints of Battle Royale to maintain their attention) as well as a subtle commentary about the moral wasteland of massive wealth inequity (i.e. the ludicrous wealth in the Capitol compared to the squalor in the Districts). And as much as her world and themes become clearer, the characters become significantly more defined. Katniss goes from being a boring, nondescript blank slate for young readers to project themselves on to a hardened veteran going through obvious levels of post-traumatic stress disorder who has to make tough choices between saving herself and saving those she cares about. Peeta is still a conventional hero but Collins continues to make him so charming and sympathetic that you can forgive him for being relatively flawless (except for perhaps being so secretive). However, I can’t really comment on the biggest improvement in the novel without spoiling one of the major twists but let me simply say that my complaints about the nameless, characterless Tributes from the first novel is a thing of the past.

(Yeah. I know that picture is from The Hunger Games movie. Sue me.) Anyways, I told you it was going to be a short review. It’s a young adult novel. I don’t need to write a grand discourse on its multi-layered themes and the less I think about Catching Fire at an intellectual level, the better. I’ll leave on one final note. There’s a new character introduced in Catching Fire named Finnick Odair who manages to come even with Haymitch as the most interesting character in the franchise. His name is Finnick Odair, and ever since I finished the novel, my sister and I have spent hours debating about who should play him in the movie. I’m leaning towards either Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum. Alexander Skaarsgard (Eric on True Blood) is my preferred casting choice there but he’s a little too old for the part (the character is 24). Do any of my readers have an opinion about who would make a good Finnick that have read the book? I’m curious to hear other people’s opinion.

Final Score: B

There is an inherent difference between a good writer and a good storyteller. Anyone that doubts Stephen King’s ability to craft a mesmerizing story and construct almost mythic universes has obviously never picked up The Dark Tower franchise; it is his accessible, every man’s prose that fuels the flames of his detractors (along with his absurdly prolific writing schedule which guarantees not every book will be a winner). At the other end of that spectrum, you have a man like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce who agonize over every word in every sentence of their novels for maximum poetic and intellectual value but whose ability to craft an engaging story is less apparent. I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for his masterful deconstruction of the structure of the novel and his ingenious prose, not for the nearly incomprehensible plot involving potentially non-existent German rocket. Some authors can do both, and they tend to be my favorites like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin (and of course there are those who can do neither like Stephenie Meyer). I just finished the young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (which is about to be adapted into a film starring Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence), and she is assuredly more storyteller than writer. Her prose is almost criminally deficient (though I feel guilty judging her for what is a young adult’s novel), but her pacing and plotting are spot on even if the book bears some remarkable resemblances to the Japanese manga Battle Royale.

Set an indeterminate number of years in America’s future, The Hunger Games is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel of one girl’s will to survive. After a vague cataclysmic event nearly destroyed the nation, an autocratic government formed the nation of Panem in the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the nation has been divided into 12 separate districts. As punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol’s overlords, each district is required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year to the Capitol to compete in a bloody battle to the death until there is only one “tribute” left standing. The story is told through the eyes of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, a young hunter living in District 12 (Appalachia) who has been forced to take care of her young sister and helpless mother in the many years since her father’s death when she was five. When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is chosen to participate in the titular Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to be the tribute in her place along side the boy that was chosen, a resourecful young man named Peeta Mallark who has always shared an unspoken connection with Katniss since childhood. Katniss and Peeta are forced to travel to the futuristic capitol (as opposed to the crushing poverty of their home town) to do live, televised battle against the other district’s tributes and see how far each is willing to go to live.

Let me be upfront. Suzanne Collins has an even less impressive mastery of the English language than Stephenie Meyer, and I’m not sure if I can think of a more unfortunate thing to say about someone. Something tells me that I’m judging this book far too harshly as it is primarily intended for middle-schoolers and high schoolers but as a grown up reading it and trying to figure out what all the fuss has been about this last year or so, it’s really unfortunate. The book is told through very bland first person perspective in an almost constant mono-syllabic drone of cut and dry descriptions. There’s no poetry to the way she arranges her sentences, and there isn’t even some of the wit or self-effacing humor that makes less prosaically impressive authors like Stephen King more acceptable. Had her storytelling not been so impressive (at least until the novel’s last 100 pages or so which are over-reliant on some questionable deus ex machina), her writing style would have been completely unacceptable and I would have simply been unable to explain the book’s success. However, I feel like being a young adult novel isn’t enough of an excuse to forgive the amateur writing as J. R. R. Tolkien considered The Hobbit a children’s story as did C. S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia and they are still engaging reads (though Narnia‘s overt religious undertones make me more uncomfortable now then they did as a child).

Fortunately, for Collins, she is an exciting and action-packed storyteller. The novel comes off as a cross between Battle Royale and the film adaptation of The Running Man but with a modern and youthful slant. The novel isn’t afraid to display occasionally shocking incidents of gruesome violence, and Collins’ decision to include such subject matter as the violent deaths of children makes her childish writing more of a problem. Supporting character Peeta Mellark is a fun and engaging hero, and the increasingly deep layers of his character consistently make him more interesting than the more conventional action girl that is Katniss. By no means is she boring (she runs circles around Bella Swan or Sookie Stackhouse) but she experiences very little in the way of growth over the course of the novel, even when the situation she’s been thrust into would cause anyone to undergo horrific transformations. Also, the novel isn’t afraid to deal with some morally ambiguous grey areas and forces its heroes to do some awful things in order to survive. It presents several different ethical conundrums and while they aren’t necessarily the deepest issues on the planet, their presence at least shows that Collins wishes her book to be a little bit more than a violent science fiction adventure story.

There are very few opportunities where I will say I am more excited for a movie than I am about the book, but the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games will be one of those moments. Free from Suzanne Collins stilted prose, her wonderfully evocative world should translate to a colorful and distinctly visual film experience. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence is starring as Katniss and if that wasn’t an inspired casting decision, I don’t know what is. Ever since she completely stunned me with her break through performance in Winter’s Bone, I have pegged her as one of the most talented and promising young actresses today. If she continues to make smart career decisions, the sky is truly the limit for someone with as much talent as her. She seems like a perfect fit for a tough role like Katniss, and I’m very excited to see a version of this story that isn’t held back by weak writing in the technical sense of the word (Woody Harrelson should be a treat as the loutish Haymitch, the drunk mentor of Katniss and Peeta). All in all, if you enjoy young adult fiction, you may appreciate this tale. I know I’m going to end up reading the two other books in the trilogy. However, for everyone else, you should wait for the movie because I would willing to bet a not insignificant sum of money that it will be a more entertaining product and I almost never like the movie more than the book.

Final Score: B-