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.

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Book Review: The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2013)

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Team Katniss

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

If you’re a voracious reader of THG criticism, you might already be familiar with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to The Hunger Games (Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (“Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”). I had the pleasure of reviewing each of these, as well as a study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey (Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One).

In this latest book, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of the Hunger Games, Frankel revisits and expands upon many of the ideas introduced in her previous guides and essays. In particular, Chapters 4 (“Katniss Lives the Roman Histories”), 5 (“Katniss the Hungry: Food in the Hunger Games”), and 8 (“Katniss the Mockingjay: The Power of Story and Song”) are an extension of Katniss the cattail: a more in-depth look at the names (Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, Claudius Templesmith, Plutarch Heavensbee, Presidents Snow and Coin, etc.) and symbols (bread, arrows, primroses, etc.) found in The Hunger Games trilogy. Likewise, Chapter 1 (“Katniss the Reality TV Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”) is reprinted from Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games.

But far from a rehashing of old ideas, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen is a fresh and insightful discussion of the major themes of the trilogy, from its criticism of our current obsession with reality television (which, coupled with our war fatigue, is especially insidious – we enjoy watching the suffering of others, but turn our backs when it happens en mass) to the execution of the film adaptation:

1 – “Katniss the Reality Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror” – No less enjoyable the second time around, the opening essay in this collection compares Panem to the modern-day US; the Hunger Games are an exaggerated version of our own reality television – our own bread and circuses, if you will. In this way, The Hunger Games isn’t just a future dystopia – but a present one, as well.

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Book Review: Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis, Tom Henthorne (2012)

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Fresh Insights into THE HUNGER GAMES Trilogy

fiveout of five stars

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

An enthusiastic fan of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, I was super-excited to win a copy of Tom Henthorne’s Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. When it finally arrived some three months later (seriously, McFarland, why so slow? it’s almost like you’re trying to tease us!), I didn’t waste any time digging in, and devoured it in all of two sittings.

Henthorne prides himself on producing an academic volume that’s accessible to scholars and lay fans alike. Take, for example, this blurb from the back cover: “Analytical rather than evaluative, this work dispenses with extended theoretical discussions, academic jargon and even footnotes.” In this he’s most certainly succeeded: engaging and informative, Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy provides fresh, original insights into The Hunger Games, particularly when it comes to issues of gender, war, reality television, and the series’ literary standing – no small feat when you consider the number of books already written on the topic.

In fact, this is the fifth THG guide I’ve read in about as many months, the others being the Girl Who Was on Fire, edited by Leah Wilson; Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, edited by Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark; Katniss the Cattail by Valerie Estelle Frankel; and V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion – not to mention the many articles I’ve poured over online – and yet I still found myself surprised by many of Henthorne’s observations. (Gotta love those aha! moments.)

The book is indeed light on jargon, and the author is careful to provide brief, 101-style introductions to the various academic approaches he employs in his analyses. For example, the chapter on gender begins with a short background on the difference between sex and gender, including the social construction of gender and its political implications.

Depending on the topic of discussion, Henthorne – a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Pace University – “draws from literary studies, gender studies, history, psychology, and cultural studies as well as social sciences.”

– Chapter One considers whether The Hunger Games qualifies as a literary text, taking into account the series’ genre (a delightfully messy blend of science fiction, dystopia, war stories, YA romance, survivor stories, and Bildungsroman); the structure of the novels (three acts, each with an unresolved ending); the first-person narrative mode (as difficult as it is to maintain consistently); Collins’ use of deictic markers to create a feeling of immediacy; and her use of verbal patterning to augment major ideas and themes. This chapter in particular gave me a greater appreciation of the series’ complexity and sophistication.

– Chapter Two – the charmingly titled “The Importance of Being Katniss” – examines issues of sexuality, gender, and identity. Henthorne argues that the Capitol is a patriarchy, and uses gender (among other things) to create divisions between its citizens. This sexism is evident in the Hunger Games: the Career Tributes excepted, the boys usually arrive at the Games better-prepared than their female counterparts due to their gendered socialization. (Peeta, for instance, was afforded the opportunity to practice wrestling in school.) Likewise, the Tributes are all but forced to perform their genders during the pre-Game spectacles; whereas the boys put on an aggressive show, the girls are styled as objects of desire. It’s only by operating outside the law that Katniss has acquired the skills needed to survive and triumph. In many cases, Katniss provides a foil to the Capitol’s sexism and heteronormatovity: with her masculine dress and behavior, she subverts gender stereotypes, and in her refusal to choose between Peeta and Gale as romantic partners she rejects the idea that women must subvert themselves to men through marriage.

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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!

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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.

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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).

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Team Buttercup

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

2011-04-28 - O-Ren - 0011 [black and white and red]

When the love you feel is against the laws of those in control, then love is a political act.

– Mary Borsellino, “Your Heart is a Weapon the Size of Your Fist”

This essay appears in the Smart Pop anthology The Girl Who Was On Fire: Your favorite authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy (2011), and is titled after this piece of graffiti, which is stenciled on a wall in Palestine.