Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book 15: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I love a good dystopian novel. Love, love, love. I remember the first I ever read - "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley. That was the first time I remember thinking, What if it's NOT gonna be all sunshine & ponies when I grow up? (I was 11.)

"The Hunger Games" is an excellent recent dystopian novel that I couldn't put down. Seriously, I found myself actually being sad when I had to stop reading to go to bed or go to work. The United States is now Panem, a collection of Districts controlled by the Capitol, a remote, wealthy city nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Once, the Districts rebelled and fought the Capitol, which struck back and completely obliterated the 13th District. Now, in remembrance of the battle, and to remind the Districts who's in control, there is an annual competition held called the Hunger Games. Every District has a lottery to choose two "tributes," or competitors, to send to an arena for a battle to the death (a la "Battle Royale"); the winner's District receives gifts of necessities such as oil and grain - things most Districts sorely lack. These tributes, by the way, are ages 12-18. The Hunger Games are broadcast nationwide, and the tributes get sponsors to help them by gifting them with things like food and medicine during the games. But in the end, only one Tribute can win.

Katniss Everdeen is a resident of District 12, a mining district located in Appalachia. She's a huntress; she's learned to hunt, trap, and kill in order to keep her mother and younger sister, Primrose, from starving to death. Theirs is a poor district, where most die young of hunger, and a winner in the Hunger Games would mean life for all. On the eve of the latest Hunger Games lottery, Katniss is hoping that her name won't be drawn, so that she can remain with her family and continue to provide for them. She gets her wish; unfortunately, she is safe because the name drawn for the girl tribute is Primrose.

Without any hesitation or thought, Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place. The boy tribute selected is Peeta Mellark, a baker's son who is in Katniss's year at school. Peeta and Katniss are not close but share a small connection: once, when Katniss was on the verge of death from starvation, Peeta saved her by throwing her two burnt loaves that he intentionally dropped in the fire, resulting in a beating from his mother. Despite her gratitude for the gesture, Katniss is wary of growing close to Peeta - after all, only one Tribute will survive the Games.

Katniss and Peeta are whisked off to the Capitol, where an old winning tribute from their district, Haymitch, will be their mentor as they prepare for the games. Katniss is highly skilled with a bow and arrow, and her time spent in the woods learning different plants and how to string up traps and stalk prey could help her, depending on what arena they end up in. With the help of her mentor and a stylist team chosen to give her an image that will pull in sponsors during the games, Katniss becomes a favored tribute. Meanwhile, Peeta plays up the angle of a lovelorn tribute, stating his feelings for Katniss, but she is unsure of whether he's being honest or if it's a plan he and Haymitch drew up to make him more sympathetic to viewers.

The Games begin, and Katniss quickly finds herself on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of those who would kill her. And then, at a critical point in the Games, an announcement is made that changes the rules, and Katniss discovers that her feelings for Peeta aren't as clear as she thought.

I could say so much about this book, and just in recapping I almost did. But honestly, if you want to know what happens, I recommend you read the book yourself. The story doesn't telegraph what's coming next; and as it unfolds from the lottery drawing to the training to the Games, you catch glimpses of Panem and descriptions of what life is like in the Districts. I can't wait to read the second book, which I'm hoping has more backstory on what happened to create Panem.

Book 14: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

The more I get into this series, the more I see its shortcomings. Obviously you could argue that it's a YA series and therefore one shouldn't expect much from it; but one could also argue that the Harry Potter series was YA and rose above that status.

Riordan's world is still richly imagined, but the stories zip along so quickly that there's little time for the characters to show any sort of development. And things are glossed over so quickly without much emotional involvement that it's rather surprising. For example, in this book, the third in the series, Annabeth, one of the main characters, goes missing and is presumed dead by some. And there's no real mourning or anything - she's just gone and the only one who seems to care is Percy. Then there's a new character who is introduced, quickly becomes part of the crew and then just as quickly disappears.

In this book, Kronos's comeback is furthered by his minion Luke and a new player, "the General," who was Kronos's right hand man back when the Titans clashed with the Gods. Percy, Annabeth, Thalia and Grover find a new set of Half-Bloods and bring them back to camp, only to run into trouble and end up rescued by Artemis and her Hunters (immortal girls who have sworn off boys and pledged their lives to the Goddess). Artemis finds out that Kronos plans on unleashing some ancient monster and takes off in pursuit, while her Hunters head to Camp Half-Blood. Soon, they discover that the Goddess has been captured by the General, and our heroes set out to save her and defeat the General.

I'm not sure if the faults of the story lie with the fact that it's a teenage boy narrating or with Riordan's writing skill. Again (and I know I keep doing this), if you think about the Potter series, that was all about a teenage boy and yet there was real development and emotional content to the story. Regardless of how I feel the series has dropped in quality, I'll be sticking with it to see how things turn out.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book 13: Next by Michael Crichton

Sigh. I'm starting to fall behind in my reading. I'm gonna make excuses - working two jobs, planning a wedding, trying to get a third job, blah blah blah.


"Next" isn't a straightforward biotechno thriller like most of Crichton's work. Instead, it's a series of interweaving plotlines that almost reminds one of a Robert Altman movie. The overarching theme of the novel would be genetic experimentation/discoveries and all the moral/ethical/financial issues that they raise.

There are a ton of characters in the book, but a few major plotlines involve most of them. Rick Diehl is the founder of BioGen, a biotech research lab that has its hands in a few major developments such as patenting a "maturity" gene that causes drug addicts to straighten up & fly right and maintaining a line of cells that could potentially help to cure cancer. Those cells, however, came from a former leukemia patient named Frank Burnet, who did not know that his cells were being sold by his physician to BioGen. Burnet sues the company and loses; the judge rules that BioGen rightfully owns his cells. Meanwhile, Jack Watson, an investor with ties to BioGen, arranges for his ne'er do well nephew to sabotage the cell line at the lab in order to help Burnet... and also to help Watson be able to buy BioGen at a cheap price once their prize project goes belly up. However, this sabotage leads to Burnet's daughter Alex and grandson Jamie being chased by a bounty hunter. You see, they have the same cells as Frank, and since those cells were owned by BioGen, they were considered stolen property and the bounty hunter was called in to "reclaim" them.

There's also a story about Henry Kendall, a hapless scientist whose tinkering with genetic sequence insertion comes back to haunt him... in the form of a half-human, half-chimp son named Dave. Kendall's family takes Dave in, but his integration into human society comes with its own set of problems. Then there's Gerard, a smart but also smartass talking parrot given to quoting movies and songs. Gerard is another transgenic animal; human genes were inserted into his own as a baby bird and as a result, he thinks he's human and acts that way to his owner. Gerard's journey takes him from his home in France all the way to California, where the Burnet and Kendall storylines combine in a showdown with the bounty hunter.

There are a lot of other story lines that I'm leaving out, but those are the overarching plot lines. This book was very different from Crichton's usual fare. What stood out most to me was his attempts at humor and parody in the novel. Some of the characters were little more than stereotypes, and some were clearly meant just for entertainment, and not to move anything along. For example, there's a bit about a talking orangutan whose vocabulary is limited to French curse words. And a lot of Gerard's story is played for laughs. I'm not saying Crichton's other works are very dry and technical; it was just apparent here that he was going for laughs.

Woven between chapters were fake articles from magazines and newspapers talking about current events in science: evolutionary theories, discussions on gene patenting, a very sly commentary piece about artists jumping on the genetics bandwagon by using gene manipulation as artwork (like a dog that had the spines of a porcupine, if I recall correctly... shouldn't have taken my book back to the library so soon!).

I think Crichton meant not only to entertain with this book but to point out the dangers inherent in a new frontier of science. Plunging into a new field of exploration means making the rules up as we go, and Crichton asks, are we headed in the right direction? Should universities patent genes - can you own the right to something that is found in 100% of the population? Who really owns your cells once they leave your body - are they still yours, or are they "waste" and up for grabs? What about funding - what's more important to investors, safe products that garner effective results or the bottom line? According to Wikipedia, Crichton felt so strongly about these issues that he even gave a speech to Congressional staff members about the need to revise the laws that affect genetic research.

The book is supposedly being adapted into a movie. It'll be interesting to see how many stories get cut completely. Hopefully, it will be more "Nashville" than "Crash."