WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS (including the ending!)
Okay, so I’m a little late to this. In my defense, I don’t like jumping on bandwagons. I DID buy this book almost two years ago, but it’s sat unread on my shelf… until now. (I did the same thing with The Da Vinci Code, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in there somewhere as well, as yet unread.)
With the movie adaptation of THG coming out next month (and in the wake of some amazing trailers), I decided I wanted to experience the story the way it was meant to be before queuing up to see it in theaters. Plus, I’d had several people urging me to read it for years, so I finally relented.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few years, here’s a synopsis of the book:
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
One of the main reasons I didn’t read this book right away is because of its similarities to another book called Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. To see what I’m talking about, here’s its synopsis as well:
As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one “winner” remains. The elimination contest becomes the ultimate in must-see reality television. A Japanese pulp classic available in English for the first time, Battle Royale is a potent allegory of what it means to be young and survive in today’s dog-eat-dog world.
It actually sounded like a blatant rip-off to me, and I’d thoroughly enjoyed Battle Royale, so why bother?
Well, honestly, if it hadn’t been for this movie trailer, I probably wouldn’t have—
It just seemed so full of emotion. Seeing Prim getting called at the reaping and Katniss, scared out of her wits for her sister, screaming to volunteer as tribute; the whole of District 12 saluting her; Katniss and Peeta talking about dying. Just watching this trailer made me feel something for these characters, and so I had to pick up the book.
The first 50 pages of the book were pretty well summed up in the beginning half of the above trailer, so it felt like I was reading the book for a second time. Yes, I got to see everything with more detail, but it felt like a repeat. Another thing that I got hung up on was the narration. 90+% of the book is told in the form of first person, internal monologue… meaning you’re in Katniss’ head the entire time. Yes, there is some dialogue, but it’s mostly her.
At the beginning, she kind of annoyed me. She seemed selfish, in a way, dismissing other people’s thoughts and feelings (Gale mentions them running away and she thinks, “Why even think it since we can’t do it? What’s the point?”—paraphrased—when he was clearly wistfully dreaming). And even as the reaping is proceeding and Prim’s name gets called, it’s like she’s just retelling someone else’s story. There was hardly any emotion as she gets pulled away and has to say goodbye to her family.
When she and Peeta, the other tribute from their District, finally get on the train and head to the Capitol, that’s when the story really changed for me. You understand the severity of the situation as they describe the competition they’ll have and how little their chances of survival are, as they’re primped and prettied and set before a crowd and forced to perform. The idea of this being a cause for celebration for those in the Capitol and the idea of people betting on champions and sponsoring them (in order to send them things they need while IN the games) was a clear departure from Battle Royale, so my interest was further piqued.
I’m also starting to like Katniss’ attitude. She’s in it to win it, but she’s also defiant at the same time. It starts with little things: her refusal to act happy with the proceedings, to her shooting an arrow at the Gamemakers during their talent exhibit, and finally, when she gets into the arena and decides to cover Rue’s body with flowers when she’s killed.
The Games themselves are brutal and full of tension. Lots of action and close calls. And the Gamemakers never let things get too dull for too long. Hellfire and deluges of rain…
And throughout all, you can tell how much in love Peeta is with Katniss. Everything he does is in an attempt to make her fare better, to give her a leg up in the Games, to save her… I’m completely on Team Peeta (she also clearly has a crush on her friend from home, Gale). However, where I start to get annoyed is that, while Peeta’s love for Katniss is genuine, her displays of affection are calculated. They were put into the Games as a pair, and she needs to keep up the act. While Peeta’s affections are a confession, hers are part of a show. In the end, he still believes she actually loves him, until she breaks his heart in the last moments of the books.
I couldn’t believe how selfish she was. As soon as I finished the book, I texted my friend, “Katniss is a bitch. Poor Peeta!” And that’s how I still feel several days after finishing. At the end of the Games they both win. Katniss has the idea that they appear to commit suicide rather than one having to kill the other, as the two finalists. While Peeta agrees to do it instantly, his love for her winning out over his will to live, she only does it as a ruse, never intending to swallow the poisoned berries they have. Completely selfish.
The other thing that pulled me out of the story happened towards the very end. It was established throughout the book that the government genetically enhanced/manipulated certain creatures. They have Mockingjays that can repeat words they overhear, and there are the Tracker Jackers, which are basically bees that have the ability to track down the person who disturbed their nests, and their stings have hallucinogenic properties before killing their victims. Fine, okay, I have a good suspension of disbelief, so I’ll go with it. But when there are three tributes left, they all get attacked by a pack of wolves… but upon closer inspection, doesn’t that one have the same eyes and fur color as the boy from District 1? And that one looks like Rue! OMG, they’re all of the dead tributes come back as mutant wolves to attack us! AAAHHH!!!
I thought it was completely over the top and took me out of the story. If it had just been a genetically engineered pack of wolves, fine, but this? Too much…
Overall I enjoyed the book, but those couple of things stop me from giving it a super high rating. I’m going to see the movie next month, and I’m definitely going to buy the remaining two books (I definitely want to see what happens!). And I would still recommend the book, even though I wasn’t super happy with the ending. So…
Kyle W. Kerr
It’s rare that you have an actual experience reading a book. I’ve read many, and while I’ve enjoyed a great number of them, few have transcended into the other category, that stack of books that have something more… the books I want to purchase at the bookstore every time I see them, even though I already own a copy. It’s happened to me with Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Now, I must say, Erin Morgenstern and her debut novel, The Night Circus, have been added to that very short list.
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
I first read about this book several months ago, before its publication, in an article about publishers looking for “The Next Harry Potter.” I was more intrigued by the blasphemy of this statement than anything else (you all know my obsessive love of all things HP), but once I started reading, I couldn’t help but feel, well, sorry for Erin. This was to be her debut novel, and already there was so much pressure on her and the book to succeed. The publisher and booksellers had spent countless dollars promoting the title and throwing extravagant, Le Cirque des Rêves themed release parties, and she was already scheduled for a whirlwind promotional tour. The concept of the novel heavily piqued my interest, but what of the reception it would receive from the rest of the world? People can be so… mean. I didn’t know anything about her, but I found myself rooting for her nonetheless. I really wanted everything to work out for her.
When the book was finally published, I immediately bought a copy. It was forced to sit on my shelf for a few months, however, as I was in the middle of reading an epically long book already (and I never read more than one book at a time, out of respect for the work and its author), though I noticed its shimmering cover out of the corner of my eye on many occasions. Finally the day came when I could take off the dust cover and stick my post-it bookmark between its pages. But I was nervous. I’d fallen into the trap of over-hyping something in my head so that the actual product couldn’t possibly live up to what I was expecting (the movie Hereafter is a perfect example of this). The book was beautiful to behold, from the sparkly cover, to the intricate silver inlay of the actual book’s cover, to the stripey endpaper that made me slightly dizzy. So, just as I was about to begin the book, I sent out a short tweet to the woman herself.
I didn’t expect anything in return. I follow several authors and other celebrities I occasionally tweet at and don’t get responses (SOME do, which is always lovely). But, very shortly after sending it, I received this:
@KyleWKerr Hurrah! I hope you enjoy it.— erin morgenstern (@erinmorgenstern) January 22, 2012
How could I be nervous after that? So, with a little less trepidation than before, I made the plunge.
I read the book in five days flat.
That might not SEEM impressive, but I rarely do that. I’m very open about the fact that I’m a slow reader, and it usually takes me a week or two to read a book, and sometimes a little longer depending on the length of the book and how into it I get. 400 pages in five days was something of a record for me. I still read at the same pace, but you can ask my roommate… I hardly did anything else. No TV, no movies, I just read for hours on end.
I can’t give the book any higher praise than that.
But I’m going to try.
The concept of the story drew me in, but three things kept me reading: 1) the depth of the characters, 2) the richness of the setting, and 3) the elegance of the writing.
The characters were introduced in such a way that I cared about them almost immediately. Poor Celia and her manipulative father, and lonely Marco with his indifferent teacher. We know they’re in competition with one another, but you want them both to win, or for neither to lose (I think that’s an important distinction). And it doesn’t stop there. My favorite characters, outside of the main two, were the twins Widget and Poppet, whose extraordinary powers make them a dangerous combination, though most don’t see it that way. The rest of the cast… you’ll just have to read it to see the wide variety of characters you meet. When I finished the book, I felt like I’d lost some friends, but take solace in the fact that I can visit them whenever I want.
It takes a little while for them to get to the circus, but it’s worth the build-up. Morgenstern clearly flexed her imaginative muscles in creating tent after tent of impossibly alluring “acts”. From a garden made of ice, to a labyrinth comprised of many different experiences, and a carousel that seems almost like… magic. Once you enter the circus, you’ll never want to leave.
And her writing was as smooth as silk. It flowed beautifully word-to-word, paragraph-to-paragraph, chapter-to-chapter, so that by the time I looked up from the page, hours would have passed in what only felt like the blink of an eye. It’s simple in its construction, and didn’t have me running for the dictionary every few words, which allowed me to just read. It’s pure, escapist writing.
I cannot recommend this book more. A wonderful yarn it is, but more importantly, it’s a vehicle to transport you into a beautiful world of mystery and mysticism.
*Image with rainbowy cover was taken from Erin’s website.
Kyle W. Kerr