Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review Club: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

(This is the January 2012 edition of Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. For a complete list, click the icon at the bottom.)

I’m in a science fiction book club and there are pros and cons to that. The best part is that, in a group of four, I get to read three books I might not have normally have read. It’s a good thing that broadens my reading horizon. The most recent novel was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, a novel I would not have normally chosen. Each time my group meets, we give the current novel a grade and a few reasons behind it before delving into deeper discussions. My summary of The Hunger Games is this: while I didn’t think the plot too original, the character too new or different, or the entire scenario too memorable, I found myself enjoying this book every time I plugged in my headphones (audio version). I found myself wanting to return to this future world and devised chores around the house that required no thought but allowed me time to listen.

Set in some sort of futuristic, post-apocalyptic North America, The Hunger Games is a story told by Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in District 12, more or less the Appalachian region of West Virginia. In plain prose suitable for this young adult book, we watch as Katniss volunteers to be the female tribute from her district in the Hunger Games, a reality show in which 24 tributes—a boy and a girl, all teenagers—fight to the death in the faraway Capital (Rocky Mountain region). This forced death match is punishment meted out by the Capital on all the remaining 12 districts (used to be 13) that rebelled against the rulers. Katniss, a poor girl whose family ranks among those who mines coal, volunteers when her younger sister’s name is drawn from the large bowl (think Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” for an obvious example). Accompanying her, as the male tribute, is Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son from the town. No sooner are they selected than they are whisked away to “Colorado” and, after making a spectacle of the “opening ceremonies,” are charged with fighting the other 22 tributes.

Post-apocalyptic stories are rarely my thing. Whereas Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury, from the vantage point of mid-20th Century America, saw only promise in the future, more and more SF “sees” the future as something to dread. An earlier book selection in our group was The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book I didn’t finish on account of the constant depressing storyline. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I want to be entertained, something The Road failed to do and something The Hunger Games achieved. Having said that, however, there are few things “futuristic” about The Hunger Games. Yes, there are cameras that can see every aspect of the contestants’ movements, some timely supplies dropped from an unknown source, and some unique genetic mutations perpetrated by humans to animals, but, once the games begin in this large woodsy area, the story could be set in 2012, 1912, or 1812.

I have a love/hate relationship with world building. I hate it for the sake of itself. That is, if an author builds a world and writes pages and pages of description about the political and ecological nature of the world and it has no bearing on the story, leave it out, please. If that information is crucial to the plot, give it to me. In the Hunger Games, Collins has very little world building, largely as a result of her narrator being a teenager who, like most her age, does not care about the larger world other than her small sphere of life. That’s cool and I didn’t mind not knowing how stuff worked.

One of my fellows commented in our meeting last night that the violence inherent in a book about kids killing other kids was Disney-fied. That’s true, but, as another friend pointed out, that leaves your imagination free to fill in the blanks and make it as gruesome as you want. That’s a good thing, if you ask me. Death is death and writers don’t necessarily need to go on and on about how a death was made to get the point across.

Of the four men in our group, two have already read the second book in the trilogy and are on the third. As for me and the grade I gave it, it’s a solid B. I can’t really explain why I liked the story or why I kept coming back to it other than this: it entertained me. And there are times that that is all I ask of a book. If you need another thing to think about, here it is: I will likely read the next two books in the trilogy. I liked the story and the character just enough to want to know more. I just hope I’m as entertained as I was this time.

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