Book Review: Red Rising, Pierce Brown (2014)

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Love love love LOVED it!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

The first time I spotted a copy of Red Rising up for grabs on Library Thing, I dismissed it as yet another YA romance set against a gritty-yet-generic dystopian backdrop. The second time, I rolled my eyes at the seemingly endless comparisons to The Hunger Games – nowadays every young adult dystopia featuring a spunky heroine is THE NEXT THE HUNGER GAMES, it seems – but threw my hat in the ring anyway. (What can I say, my interest was piqued!) And when it arrived on my doorstep, I became convinced that no book could possibly live up to the hype generated in the press materials that came sandwiched in between the pages of the ARC.

I owe Pierce Brown a huge apology. I bloodydamn loved it, just as he promised I would!

In the distant future (we’re talking 700 years+, though Brown is light on the specifics), humanity has been divided into color-coded castes, each purposefully created to fulfill a different role in society: Yellows study medicine and science; Greens develop technology; Blues navigate the stars; Silvers count and manipulate currency; Coppers maintain the bureaucracy; Whites pass legislation and mete out justice; and Gray soldiers uphold the hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid stands the ruling class, the Golds. In the early days of space exploration, the wealthy Golds colonized Luna and, when it became the hub of space travel, they waged a war for independence against the countries and corporations of Earth (in a futuristic version of the American Rebellion). Luna triumphed over Earth in what became known as the Conquering, thus consolidating the Golds’ military and economic power.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Panem Companion, V. Arrow (2012)

Monday, January 28th, 2013

V. Arrow is the Fangirl on Fire!

five out of five stars

Witty, insightful, passionate, engaging, highly readable and with keen attention to detail: V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion is all of this and more. I usually enjoy the stuff that Smart Pop puts out, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time! Arrow approaches The Hunger Games trilogy with the unabashed enthusiasm of a true fan and the critical eye of an academic, resulting in a guide that’s everything I wanted – and more.

In fifteen chapters, Arrow covers a wide range of topics – from gender roles to race and class to culpability for war crimes, not to mention all sorts of wacky fan theories:

1 – Mapping Panem – Drawing on canon, textual clues, and scientific predictions about the effects of climate change, Arrow (with a little help from “geek friend” Meg) posits a likely map of Panem. The maps are printed on glossy, full-color paper, which I appreciate – but owing to the small size of the paperback, it’s also a bit difficult to make out the details. This was the only chapter that didn’t fully hold my attention, but I suspect that’s because I’m not a very visual thinker and had trouble picturing the geographic changes. Still, the map is integral to some of the later discussions (such as race, class, and immigration), so don’t skip it!

2 – How Panem Came to Be – Using modern history as a guide, Arrow considers how the dystopian society of Panem might have risen from the post-apocalyptic ashes of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

3 – Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem – This is the discussion that THG fans – rightfully upset over the whitewashing of the film(s) – have been waiting for! Arrow presents a cohesive, convincing argument that Katniss (and her fellow Seam residents) are, if not persons of color as we understand the term, then most definitely “not white”; “other” – at least on Panem’s terms. Taking care to distinguish between race and ethnicity, Arrow examines how race and class intersect to create a society divided into multiple levels of “haves” and “have nots.” She also addresses the fan theory that Katniss has Native American or Melungeon roots.

4 – The Socioeconomics of Tesserae – In a chapter that can be seen as an extension of “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem,” Arrow examines the ways in which the tesserae system – which disproportionately affects the poorest of Panem’s citizens – deepens race, class, and culture divisions. In addition to providing an awesome show of the Capitol’s power and brutality, The Hunger Games also help to quash rebellious leanings by pitting members of the working class against the merchants.

5 – The Curious Case of Primrose “Everdeen” – Is Prim really Mr. Mellark’s daughter? Probably not, but Arrow has fun entertaining this fan theory anyway!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

The Cliffs Notes to Symbolism in THG

four out of five stars

“As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.”

Names carry great significance in The Hunger Games trilogy. Residents of the Capitol and its favored districts are commonly given Roman names (Cato, Cinna, Plutarch, Enobaria), establishing a parallel with the rise and fall of a brutal empire, while those living in the districts are named after food (Katniss, Peeta), plants (Rue, Prim, Posy), and other natural forces (Gale, Annie Cresta), as well as their work – their district’s specialty (Thrush, Chaff, Wiress). Even the name of the country evokes images of ancient Rome: “Panem” comes from the Latin phrase “Panem et Circenses” – bread and circuses to entertain and distract the masses.

When one considers the cultural and historical context of each given and/or surname – particularly in relation to the character’s story arc in The Hunger Games – it becomes obvious that author Suzanne Collins chose many of these names with great care and attention to detail. (In this vein, I can’t help but laugh at those reviewers who complain that Frankel is reading “too much into” the names and symbols found in The Hunger Games. That’s kind of the point! Plus, it’s just plain fun.)

In Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel – whose other 2012 release, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, I recently had the pleasure of reviewing through Library Thing – provides a kind of “Cliffs Notes” guide to the numerous names and symbols found in The Hunger Games. The book is divided into two sections: The Names of Panem (roughly 49 pages in length) and Symbols/Allusions to Literature and Life (21 pages). Frankel draws on a number of subjects to give greater context to the names and symbols of THG: history (especially military and Roman), literature (with Shakespeare receiving the lion’s share of attention), botany, linguistics, and religion and mythology, to name a few.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark, eds. (2012)

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

A must read for academics and fans alike!

four out of five stars

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

In anticipation of the 2012 release of the film, a number of books about The Hunger Games trilogy hit the market – much to my geeky joy. As far as academic volumes go, Smart Pop’s most excellent The Girl Who Was on Fire was one of the early releases (later updated to include several chapters on the film), followed by The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason from The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series; Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (part of the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series); Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy by Tom Henthorne; and finally The Panem Companion, written by fan/academic V. Arrow. I was lucky enough to win a copy each of Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games and Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy from Library Thing (and still hope to snag a copy of The Panem Companion on its blog tour!).

Though written by academics – not a few of whom use papers previously presented at academic conferences as jumping off points – Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy can be enjoyed by everyday fans and serious scholars alike. Whereas academic pop culture anthologies run the risk of coming across as dry and even a bit tedious, Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games is neither. With few exceptions, the authors are engaging and insightful. Where jargon appears, it’s thankfully kept to a minimum.

In contrast to many similarly-sized academic anthologies – which usually feature twelve or so essays – Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games contains a whopping twenty-one essays! As a result, each piece weighs in at just eight to ten pages. Though I was often left wanting more, this is far better than the alternative – namely, nodding off in the last few pages of the piece, even as you wish for the author to get to the point and wrap it up already! Perhaps the individual essays’ short lengths is what helps to keep Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games feeling so fresh, concise, and to the point.

The twenty-one essays in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games cover a range of topics, from crisis economics to food as a cultural metaphor and the shifting boundaries of human and “other.” Reality television rears its oft-ugly head, and art, fashion, and propaganda also make for common topics of discussion.

While an existing knowledge of The Hunger Games trilogy is assumed, when the texts are discussed in relation to other works – The Running Man, the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Battle Royale, Ender’s Game, and William Shakespeare’s Henriad all make appearances – the authors do a good job of explaining the pertinent details (that is, at least given the space allotted).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of my favorite pieces examine gender in the trilogy. In her contribution, “Of Queer Necessity: Panem’s Hunger Games as Gender Games,” Jennifer Mitchell makes the argument that Katniss – who is able to transition between masculine and feminine gender roles with relative ease, sometimes exhibiting “male” and “female” characteristics simultaneously – is at her core a genderqueer protagonist. Likewise, Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel (“‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover Boy’ Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading”) see the trilogy’s blended genres (romance vs. war story) as a way to “bridge the gap” between young adult literature that, traditionally, has been stratified along gender lines. Peeta, the gentle, caring, and peaceful baker, exists opposite the “male-identified” Katniss, holding her morally accountable for actions. This mixing and flipping of gender roles provides a much-needed contrast to traditional YA fiction (the history of which Lem and Hassel summarize neatly for the reader, in a highly enjoyable and informative intro).

(More below the fold…)