Sunday, September 4, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

I've seen a lot of facebook posts lately asking for good book recommendations and have repeatedly recommended The Hunger Games triology. I want to back up my recommendations with a little more detail about these "can't-put-them-down" books that kept me up at night even when I was thoroughly sleep deprived. THAT'S HOW GOOD THEY ARE!...if you like this type of book.

So what type of books are they? The three books, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are billed as young adult science fiction. I didn't know this going into the books and after reading them, I'm not sure they are really geared toward young adults. Young adults may like them, the main characters are in their teens, but the themes these books deal with are pretty dark and intense and there are some pretty gory scenes. The Twilight series is for young adults. The Hunger Games is so much more....

The books take place in a dystopian future in which there are multiple poor districts all oppressed by the rich, technologically advanced "Capitol". To help remind the districts of their (low ranking) place in the world, the Capitol holds yearly "Hunger Games" in which 2 children from each of the 12 districts are randomly chosen to enter a man-made arena chock full of obstacles, mutant animals and other miscellaneous horrors. Only 1 child comes out alive. The only way to exit the arena is to be the last one alive, which means a whole lot of child-on-child killing goes on.

Obviously, parts of the story are not particularly uplifting. But the goings-on in the arena, the way the children qualify for the games, and the way the victors are treated afterwards are all commentaries on the social injustices of their society, and of our society. And, believe it or not, there are some incredibly wonderful things that happen in the arena as well- it brings out both the best and the worst in these (mostly) innocent kids.

The inspirational tale that carries through all 3 books is the story of the main character, 16 year old Katniss Everdeen. She is a troubled, though fiercely independent and likeable girl who ends up in the arena when she offers to take the place of her younger sister whose name was called at the "Reaping", i.e. the ceremony at which kids are chosen for the yearly Hunger Games. The other kid chosen from her district is an equally likeable- maybe even more likeable- boy named Peeta Mallarck and the two of them form a complex relationship that involves mutual respect and not-always-mutual infatuation, all in the sub-text of knowing that only one of them can leave the arena alive.

Much of the first book is the story of Katniss, Peeta and the other kids fighting to survive in the arena. The activities in the arena are broadcast throughout the country and folks stayed glued to the television to see who will survive. Essentially the arena becomes a nationally broadcast reality show and the "producers" of the arena try to make things "interesting" for the viewers with the natural disasters, huge poisonous insects and the like that they send after the kids. Katniss learns early on that the best way to stay alive is to be interesting to the audience as they have the power to buy her gifts that may help her in the arena. Thus her strategy is half survival, half entertainment, which is disturbing yet very pragmatic. The whole thing is surreal. You can see the comparisons b/t contemporary reality shows and the arena and the absurdities in both.

I don't want to give you a play by play of the 3 books. There's not need for that. If you like the first one- and you will if you like sci-fi, survival skills, political maneuvering, or love stories-I'm quite sure you'll enjoy the 2nd and 3rd. If you don't like the first, don't go on to the others. While the plot in the subsequent books have lots of unexpected but delightful twists and turns, the underlying themes are the same throughout. Over the three books Katniss grows up quite a bit and becomes an adept political maneuverer, essentially starting a revolution in her country. She outsmarts the game-makers, the president and all the major governmental leaders as well as winning the hearts of the commoners in the districts. An impressive feat for a 16 year old girl. But I guess you grow up quickly after being thrown into the arena.

If you like the Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) series, I think you'll like this. Even if you don't usually like sci-fi, you probably will still like this. It's more dystopian than true sci-fi. Kind of 'Brave New World'-esque.

If anyone out there has read and enjoyed The Hunger Games and would like to recommend to me a similar book or author, I'm all ears! I'm always looking for the next great read:)