Tag Archive: Books


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

I love Stephen King. Anyone who read my review of Under the Dome (his best novel in nearly twenty years) knows just how much I’m willing to defend Stephen King’s legacy as one of America’s most prolific and (yes) talented authors. His Dark Tower saga is one of my three favorite book series of all time (the other two are A Song of Ice and Fire and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels). So, when Stephen King announced a while back that he was working on another Dark Tower novel, I was filled with a layer of excitement and trepidation. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be a sequel but instead it was going to fit in between Wizard and Glass (my favorite of the Dark Tower novels) and Wolves of the Calla which was good because there was no way that a sequel to the final book’s controversial ending was going to please anyone. However, it’s been so long since Stephen King had written any Dark Tower material that I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get back into the flow of the novels. Since the vast majority of The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn’t even feature everyone’s favorite ka-tet of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and (of course) Oy, it was a moot concern. The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to the world that has moved on  known as Mid-World, but it functions more as an opportunity for Stephen King to craft an excellent modern fairy tale (in a way only he could accomplish) than as a chance to see more of our favorite heroes. So, if you’re expecting more gunslinger adventures, you’ll be disappointed but if you allow yourself to be taken on Stephen King’s fairy tale journey, you’ll find it to be a highly enjoyable and fun read.

After escaping the machinations of Randall Flagg in Emerald City at the end of Wizard and Glass (which marked the formal beginning of the invasion of modern pop culture into Roland’s world that became the driving force of Wolves of the Calla), Roland and his ka-tet make their journey to Call Bryn Sturges along the Path of the Beam on their ultimate quest to find the Dark Tower. However, the bumbler Oy begins to suffer from strange symptoms and while Roland at first thinks it means they’re being followed, he quickly remembers (with the help of a ferryman) that Oy is trying to warn the ka-tet that a massive (and fatal) snow storm/tornado called a “starkblast” is making a beeline in their general direction. The ka-tet takes up shelter in a church in an abandoned ghost town to survive the storm and Roland decides to pass the time by telling his companions a story from his youth after he had murdered his mother thanks to the sorcery of Marten Broadcloak (also known as Randall Flagg also known as Walter o’Din). He is sent by his father to the town of Debaria to investigate reports of a “skin-changer” (a werebeast variant) who is massacring farmers. Roland arrives (with his fellow gunslinger Jamie) to find a farm with nearly 30 people slaughtered and the only survivor is a young boy. As Roland waits with the young boy in a jail house to protect the child, he tells the boy a fairy tale from his youth of a young lad named Tim Stoutheart who goes on a fantastic quest to find the wizard Maerlyn to save his mother’s sight and to avenge the murder of his father by his newly adopted stepfather.

The last book I reviewed for this blog was V. by Thomas Pynchon. Going from the post-modern insanity of Pynchon’s masterful prose to the relative simplicity of King’s every man language was a surreal and at first confusing switch. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to not have to guess what the hell an author was talking about (seriously Pynchon’s V. bordered on being incomprehensible at times. actually it played hopscotch with the incomprehensibility line). It was pretty refreshing although at the same time, I have to admit that King is not the best prose man out there. There isn’t a lot of poetry to his writing. That’s okay though because his storytelling skills are second to none (and he doesn’t have half the prose problems that say Suzanne Collins has). He can occasionally imbue a very dark sense of humor into his writing that won’t come through unless you’re really paying attention. However, credit must be given to King for being able to write a novel in three distinct styles. You have the traditional “King” style when he’s telling the story from the point of view of the entire ka-tet. Then, he writes a story the way that Roland would speak when Roland is telling his story to the ka-tet. And then he switches it up one more time (for the style that the majority of the book is told in) when he writes the way that a Mid-World fairy tale would be written. Since Wizard and Glass is my favorite entry in the series, it should be no shock that my favorite passages from the novel are the ones where we see young Roland. I like the combination of science fiction, westerns, and high fantasy that is melded so perfectly there.

The novel is only around 300 pages long, so unlike The Stand or Under the Dome this isn’t some sprawling epic. There isn’t a huge ensemble cast of characters and there isn’t a grand social message hinted at in the novel through extensive use of allegory. No, it’s simply a (disturbing) fairy tale which Stephen King uses as a chance to show the important of storytelling and the blurring between fiction and reality in the Dark Tower universe. So, this can be a pretty short review. For Stephen King fans and especially for Dark Tower fans, it’s a must read. You don’t see much of the ka-tet but it expands on the Dark Tower universe and I’ll never pass up an opportunity like that (I’m also a fan [though not as much as the real novels] of the Marvel graphic novel series that expands on Roland’s backstory). Also, for fans of writers like Neil Gaiman (especially Stardust), you’ll likely appreciate the grown-up fairy tale that King crafts with the story of Tim Stoutheart. All in all though, it’s not one of King’s best novels, but it’s far from one of his worst, and I enjoyed all of the time I spent returning to Mid-World.

Final Score: B

V.

I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m not being cocky. That’s just how it is. Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass more than it’s a blessing. Try finding people to discuss movies and books with when you’d rather watch the latest Terrence Malick film or some old Italian neo-realist pictures than sit through the latest summer blockbuster. It doesn’t lend itself to watercooler conversations. That’s for sure. Still, I prefer to be challenged. Life’s too short to go around reading the book equivalent of comfort food (although sometimes the easier stuff is nice and gives my brain a rest, hence why I’m reading the newest Stephen King novel right now). You need to find material that pushes you every now and then. Otherwise, you’re never going to experience any intellectual growth. So, if you’re ever looking for an author that is going to push you to your limits, can I go ahead and recommend Thomas Pynchon? I’ve already reviewed the indescribably dense and complex (and border-line incomprehensible at moments) Gravity’s Rainbow many moons ago. It has a reputation as being one of the most “difficult” novels in the English language, and it totally is. However, after a semester where all I really read was manga because I didn’t have any of my real books with me in NYC, I decided to read Pynchon’s first novel, V. . I’m not going to lie. I actually think its far more amorphous and obscure than even Gravity’s Rainbow. While Gravity’s Rainbow had moments that left me completely baffled and confused, I felt like I understood the novel. I think I get what Pynchon was going for. V. has the same brilliant prose and construction that I associate with Pynchon but at the end of the day, I’m at a complete loss as to what the point of the novel was.

It’s not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the novel. I can recount the events that occurred. It’s tying them all together into any sort of meaningful thematic statement that is difficult (though knowing Pynchon that was obviously his intention). In the 1950s (though the story flashes back as far back as the turn of the 20th century), Benny Profane is a schlemihl (read: loser/bum/layabout) who gets involved with a group of pseudo-bohemians known as the Whole Sick Crew and gets into all sorts of misadventures in New York City including alligator hunting, gang violence, drug use, and escaping the military police that are after him and his friend Pig Bodine (who makes an appearance in Gravity’s Rainbow). At the same time, a man known as Stencil is on a quest to find the truth surrounding a mysterious woman known only as “V.” Stencil’s father may or may not have known V in the years surrounding World War I, and with the help of his father’s journals, Stencil, has devoted his life to solving this mystery. Along the way, in typical Pynchon fashion, we are given a history lesson in post-World War I Maltese politics, turn of the century Florentine conspiracies, and regular spiels on other, even more diverse subjects because this is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about. Digressive novels is the name of his game (as well as being transgressive but this one was surprisingly tame compared to the parade of depravity in Gravity’s Rainbow).

Honestly, this is the kind of novel that you need to be in a discussion group while reading. Perhaps it’s just me, but any solitary reading of this novel is going to be surface-level at best. I even took my sweet time with the book (it took me a little less than a month to get through and to me that is reading at a snail’s pace), and I still felt mentally exhausted every time I put it down. No doubt, Thomas Pynchon is a genius. His prose is uncanny, and a friend of mine once said (and I totally agree) that reading his novels is like watching a David Lynch film. You’re not sure what you just read, but you know it’s brilliant. Although, I generally actually understand David Lynch films. Inland Empire is the only one I really have any actual confusion about. At the end of the day, with a Thomas Pynchon novel, you just pray that the parts that stuck were the parts that were important to the overall themes of the novel (although the way he deconstructs the whole concept of plot and theme and structure and the notion of things needing to mean anything is often far more important than his actual subtextual “thematic” statements). If you were to quiz me right now on the individual moments of the novel, I could probably recount them fairly well (I finished reading the book about four days ago) although I’d likely screw up the names of the legion of characters (once again, small in comparison to Gravity’s Rainbow). But if you were to ask me right now to say exactly what Thomas Pynchon was trying to accomplish with V., I’d have to throw my hands up in defeat and say I don’t know. I need more time to ponder on it.

I would love to write more about Thomas Pynchon’s novel. I know that it’s great (even if I don’t totally grasp it yet), but I just don’t know how much more I have to say. His insights into the life and outlook of a schlemihl like Benny Profane are fairly profound and tapped into much of the Beat Generation angst and disconnect that defined a generation of authors like Jack Kerouac. Similarly, if Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow was the definition of (justified) paranoia, then Stencil is one of the best literary representations of obsession that I’ve ever seen. However, I think the novel is meant to be more than just a sprawling character study of these two individuals. There’s (I believe) some commentary about the mechanisms of our ancestors and the turning of history that affect our lives in ways we can never comprehend because we never witnessed these tiny moments in history that would force our hands decades and decades later. See, it’s that kind of fucking novel. As I write about it, I come to new realizations about its meanings. Perhaps I should just free-thought respond to the novel but no one wants to read that. If you have any interest in post-modern literature and the school of hysterical realism, Thomas Pynchon is the undisputed master (along with David Foster Wallace). If the idea of using every single cell in your brain and still possibly coming up disappointed though doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you should probably leave Thomas Pynchon alone. I know I relish the challenge though.

Final Score: A-