Catching Fire: Hunger Games (Book 2)- Suzanne Collins (Narrator: Carolyn McCormick)

Cover of "Catching Fire (The Second Book ...
Cover via Amazon

This is a difficult review to write, simply because I don’t know how to talk about Catching Fire: Hunger Games (Book 2) by Suzanne Collins without giving away what happens in the first book The Hunger Games. So, if you have NOT read The Hunger Games I urge you to look away now. (A review of The Hunger Games  is posted below.) …..

Okay, now that they have all left, we can talk about Catching Fire. I would just like to say “Oh My God!” If you thought the first book was awesome, this second installment in the series goes to a whole new level.

We start out with Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark who are trying to settle back into life after winning the Hunger Games. Katniss, her family, and Peeta have all moved to the ‘victors’ village’ in District 12, and are using their new wealth to try to improve the living conditions of the rest of District 12. Also, Katniss has to deal with the complication of her ‘romance’ with Peeta that contributed to their victory in the game and how that will affect her relationship with Gale, her long time friend and hunting partner.

At the end of the first book, we saw that Katniss’ defiance  in the incident with the berries did not make her any friends amongst the powers-that-be in The Capital. Now, in Catching Fire,  Katniss is made aware that her actions in The Games have stirred up rebellion in a number of the districts. She, and Peeta, have become a dangerous symbol for those opposed to the oppressive regime overseen by The Capital.  How will The Capital respond?

As I said before this book is actually even better than the first. It is action packed and fast paced. If you liked The Hunger Games even a little bit, you MUST read this book.

 

 

 

 

Lovesong- Alex Miller

Courtesy of Allen and Unwin.

I started reading Lovesong by Alex Miller because I had tickets to see him speak at The Wheeler Centre. I must confess that prior to the event I had never heard of him. But, I am always keen to find new authors whose work I will love so I jumped at the opportunity. It turns out that Alex Miller is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. It could be argued that to win the prize once is a fluke, but to win it twice suggests some that can write. While not being one of the book that won that prestigious accolade, Lovesong has not been entirely missed by the various literary awards about the place. It was the winner of several prestigious awards including The Age 2010 Book of the Year and the 2011 NSW Premiers Literary Awards- People’s Choice Award.  Clearly this is a ‘great’ book.

Ken is a ‘retired’ writer living in Carlton with his grown up daughter. He has just returned from Venice when he discovers that one of the old shops in the local shopping strip has been turned into a pastry shop run by an Australian man and his exotic North African wife, and their five-year old daughter. His story teller’s antennae is up releasing that these people must have a great story to tell. He befriends John and begins to draw out their incredible story, and so we get the story of Sabiha, and John, and their life in the industrial arrondissement of Paris.

Miller’s is a talented and skillful writer. The tone of the story changes between the slow, almost dreamlike pace of the Paris story and the plain-spoken story of life in Carlton. The story of John and Sabiha is one about love, hopes, dreams and the pain that is caused by dreams going unfulfilled. In this case, Sabiha’s dream is to be a mother of a daughter. When, after sixteen years of marriage she is still without her child, she takes drastic action to remedy the situation, with consequences for all concerned.

This is a beautiful book. Miller has drawn all his characters, including the minor characters, with empathy. There were times when I didn’t like or approve of Sabiha or her actions. But, I remained committed to following her story to the end, and I was well rewarded when I got there. This book is excellent, admittedly not ‘high action’, just a good story about two people trying to make a life together.

 

Lab Rat One- Andrea K Höst

Lab Rat One by Andrea K Höst is the second installment in the Touchstone trilogy. Followers of my blog will know how

Image courtesy of http://www.andreakhost.com

much I loved the first book, Stray. Well, this is BETTER. I think that because the first book dealt so much with Cassandra getting lost, and then finding her way on the alien world, this book was able to focus more on the day-to-day of her new life as the ‘useful stray’. It is a bit like how Star Wars was an awesome film, and then along came Empire Strikes Back. However, I would NOT advise reading this without having read the first book. Höst has created such a complete and detailed world with its own language, customs and idiosyncrasies, most of which were introduced and explained in the first book, and unlike many authors of series she DOES NOT explain things over and over from one book to the next. She assumes you know.

This book carries on from where the first book broke off. The Tarens with the aid of Cassandra have discovered their lost world of Muina and are in the process of settling the new city of ‘Pandora’ (a name chosen by our heroine). They have begun exploring with teams of scientists studying flora and fauna, while their archeologists  search for evidence of their ancestors and answers about the Pillars so that they might aid their own planet.

While this is happening Cass is settling into life with the black nanosuit wearing Setari (the flying ninjas) and developing strange new ‘talents’ . She is making friends, and falling in love. She has to deal with bullies and paparazzi as her existence becomes known outside the confides of KOTIS. Her special role in helping the Tarens find their old home make her of particular interest and curiosity.

As I said this book is FANTASTIC!!!! I found that when I got to the end I was devastated, because I wanted to know what would happen next, but I have to wait until the third and final installment is released. This series is great and I can’t wait to see how it ends.

How I Became A Famous Novelist- Steve Hely

Cover of "How I Became a Famous Novelist&...
Cover of How I Became a Famous Novelist

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely is another book I picked up as a result of a session at the 2011 Melbourne Writer’s Festival. For those who are not aware, Steve Hely is part of the writing team on such hit television series as 30 Rock, The Office (the US version) and American Dad. So my expectations for this book were that this would be a funny book. What I got was not so much a laugh a minute side-splitting comedy, and more of a satirical examination of the world of contemporary literature, publishing and what it means to be a successful writer.

When Peter Tarslaw receives an invitation to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, who unceremoniously dumped him, leaving him a broken shell of a man, he decides that the only way he can tolerably attend the event is if he is a success at something. At this time he sees an interview with one of his ex-girlfriend’s favourite authors, Preston Brooks. He is a frequent fixture on the New York Times Bestseller list. Tarslaw is not a fan of his work. However, in watching the interview Tarslaw decides that Brooks is in fact a genius having made a name for himself by writing what people want, and living up to people’s idea of what a novelist should be. He decides that if Preston Brooks can do it, then so can he. He then sets about writing a book that will make him famous.

As I said this book is a satire, and while funny at times, there are moments that are so close to how things actually are, that it is more scary than funny. He makes some uncomfortable observations about the publishing business, and the idea that books and reading have become commodities that are publicised and sold in the same way that other firms sell soft drink or hamburgers. That giving the masses what they want, and creating a ‘sensation’ are more important the creating a great piece of literature.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was especially meaningful for me since I have become a participant, through this very blog, in the ‘book industry’ that he describes. ( I can only hope that my contribution is for the good of books and reading, and not part of the greater problem.) I recommend this to anyone with an interest in books, reading or publishing.

The Sense of an Ending- Julian Barnes

I read the other day that the Man Booker Prize  for 2011 had been awarded to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It occurred to me that I had the book in ‘My Tower of Shame’, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was about. The only thing that stopped me reading this in one sitting was that I had to go to sleep to get up for work the next morning. Unlike some books that win various prizes, that when read leave you wondering what the judges were thinking, this book is excellent.

It is in a sense a memoir, but not. It is about history, the personal kind, and the fallibility of memory for the reliable retelling of our stories. It is the story of Tony Webster, now in his sixties. He is remembering the key moments in his youth. His friendship with boys he met at school, and most notably that of Adrian, the boy who came to the group late, and whose high opinion the other sought. He remembers the first woman he loved, and the lasting effect that his own interpretation of the memories of that time have had on him. It is also about suicide, and divorce and being a father, and of life continuing on and on to its inevitable conclusion. He talks about how when we are young, we are ‘still waiting for life to start, not realising that it has in fact already begun’. Then in our middle age we realise that the opportunities to effect any real change in our lives has gone, and that this is probably ‘it’.

I just finished reading this morning, and I confess that a lot of it has probably gone over my head, and I won’t get it until after, when I’ve had a chance to ruminate and mull over it. But, that in itself is a measure of how superb this book is. So many books are fine, and a good way to pass the time and escape from reality for a while. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it can be a pleasure in and of itself. But, great literature is the kind that stays with you for months, if not years later, while you try to figure out the enigma of it.

A great book and a worthy winner, and at no more than 150 pages a quick and satisfying read. Well worth picking up.

The Hunger Games (Unabridged)- Suzanne Collins [Narrator: Carolyn McCormick]

Cover of "The Hunger Games"
Cover of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, is the first of the Hunger Games Trilogy. It is a Young Adult, Sci-Fi thriller that keeps moving from beginning to end. I listened to this as an audio book, the first that I’ve listened to. I don’t think I could have found a better choice to try the medium. This book is awesome.

In a post-apocalyptic world, twelve districts are governed by The Capital. Some time ago the districts rose up in rebellion, against The Capital. The Capital ruthlessly crushed their rebellion, and ever since they have used every means at their disposal to keep the districts subjugated and cowered. (There were originally thirteen districts, but District 13 were completely annihilated.)Their most ingenious, and diabolical means of controlling the districts are through ‘The Hunger Games’.

Each year one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, from each of the twelve districts are selected by way of a ballot to enter ‘The Games’ which is a Survivor style game, televised for the titillation of the people of the Capital. The winner of ‘The Games’, is the last competitor still alive.

The story is told by Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl, living with her mother and younger sister in ‘The Seem’, the most impoverished area of District 12. She has taken on the role of ‘bread-winner’ since her father died in the mines, doing all she can to keep her family fed. When her twelve-year-old  sister, Prim, is pulled out during ‘The Reaping’, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

As I said, this is fantastic. Apparently, the series is in the process of becoming the next big movie franchise, in the tradition of the Harry Potter and Twilight series. I can see that this (and I am assuming the two subsequent novels) will make terrific movies. I most definitely look forward to seeing them.

There is an enormous amount of hype around this book, and that is likely to increase prior to the film’s release. Sometime that can be off-putting, and suggestive of a less than satisfactory read. DO NOT be put off by the  hype. For once, the accolades and excitement around this book are thoroughly deserved.

Inga the Viking Girl- Jacqueline Grant Kent

Inga the Viking Girl by Jacqueline Grant Kent is about Inga Swensdotter, an eleven year old Viking girl, living with her family in Greenland. It is written with an intended audience of 8-12 year olds. It is split into two stories.

The first, Inga Goes A-Viking, tells of how young Inga has no time for the traditional tasks of the ‘women folk’ of her village, such as weaving, embroidery and cooking.  She is far more interested in the men’s activities of hunting, farming and A-Viking. After a particularly harsh winter, when it becomes clear that the merchant ships from Iceland aren’t likely to make an appearance, the village organises a party to go A-Viking to bring back the things they need. Inga contrives to defy  tradition and her parents to join the expedition.

Th second story, Inga Plans a Wedding, is about Inga’s sister Anna (14) who has had a marriage arranged to the worst boy in the village. Inga and her sister devised strategies and plans to prevent the marriage from taking place, and enabling Anne to marry the boy of her choosing.

These stories are reminiscent of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Especially the relationship between Inga and her father. I should imagine that this would be enjoyed by girls, in particular, in the target audience, and their parents who read it to them. I recommend this book to anyone with kids, and if you don’t borrow someone else’s.

The Coffee Story- Peter Salmon

  The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon is a death-bed confessional of Teddy Everett, the last of a dynasty of coffee barons. It recounts his coffee story, or rather a number of significant moments in his life with and around coffee.  It is story about the bitterness of regret and the feeling of being a traitor. Over the course of the novel, we learn that Teddy has had two wives, was raised in Ethiopia, just before the Italians came and lived in Cuba, just before the revolution. Over the course of his life he has been an important man, linked with the likes of Howard Hughes and William Hearst.  But now, he is dying of lung cancer in a prison hospital, and making his final confession, to no one in particular. This is his coffee story.

I came across this book at the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival when I attended a couple of sessions when the author read from his book. (He was good enough to sign my copy afterward too.) I was intrigued by the interesting writing style employed by Salmon. It is a rambling, conversational style of writing. During the Q & A, Salmon said that he quite deliberately set out to tell the story in the voice of someone who is not a writer, and so not conforming to ‘accepted’ narrative norms. The story is non-linear for a start. Moving from thought to thought in a haphazard way, often sliding off into tangents, regularly repeating some sections of the story (especially parts which turn out to be of vital importance to him), sometimes stopping abruptly to bring us back to the present and his current set of circumstances.

The book is also full of sex, but without any sentiment behind it. The frequent sex scene are very direct and use quite strong, yet dispassionate language to convey. Sex does not equal joy, or love, or affection to Teddy. In fact he is far more eloquent and sensual when in talks about coffee, and the pleasures that a good cup of coffee can bring.

I liked this book. Although to be honest, I didn’t loooove it like I wanted to. I think that on a certain level I liked the idea of the book and was excited by the attempt to try something new in terms of writing style, more than the actual book itself. I admit there are times when the chopping and changing of the story is a little annoying. But, it is worth persevering, because I think that the point of this book is that it is meant to be read/viewed as a whole, something that you can’t do until you actually finish it. It is good, and like a good strong cup of coffee, although bitter, and if you’re like me a drink it without sugar, it can be a little rough sometimes. But the feeling you have afterward is worth every word.

Stray (Touchstone: Part 1)- Andrea Höst

  Stray (Touchstone: Part 1) by Andrea Höst is the first of a three-part Sci- Fi/YA series. It is written  in the form of a journal, and we follow the adventure of Cassandra, Cass to her friends, by never Cassie. Cass is a normal teenager in from Sydney, walking home from her HSC exams only to be suddenly, and inexplicably transported to a new world, Muina. She is in a strange world with only the contents of her school bag to keep her alive.  She manages to scratch together a meagre existence finding plants that she can eat, and even find ‘sheep’ she can shear with the help of her trusty scissors to make ‘blankets’.  But, then she is ‘rescued’ by people from a strange and technologically advanced planet, Tare. The Tarens her back with them, and she is designated as a ‘Stray’. Now, instead of basic ‘survival’ Cass must learn a whole new language and way of life, not knowing if she will ever make it home. Added to this is the fact that the Tarens soon discover that she is useful to them, so there is a question as to how much they are interested in helping her get home.

This book is excellent. One of the best Sci-Fi novels I’ve read in ages. Cassandra has a very dry sense of humour, that doesn’t leave her throughout her ordeal, but at the same time she experiences frustration, anger, fear and grief caused by her situation. The world that Höst has created is vivid and detailed. The fantastic creatures and the other worlds of ‘near-space’ are exciting and varied.

I have already started reading the second book in the series, and I’m looking forward to the third coming out soon.  For lovers of good quality Sci-Fi, or if you just like a good story this is for you.

Bossypants- Tina Fey

Bossypants
Image by Michelle Wright via Flickr

This is another book that I picked up thanks to recommendations on both Library Thing and Amazon. Of course, I knew Tina Fey from Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock,  and thought it would be good for a laugh, and it was. Bossypants by Tina Fey is less a memoir and more a series of essays, mainly dealing with her experiences as a writer and comedienne.  There’s stuff about Sarah Palin too.

Fey is funny, intelligent and inspirational. She is not afraid to use the “f” word, by which I mean “feminism’. She provides insights into ‘making it’ in a male-dominated industry. For example, in the introduction she gives these words of advice, “No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say “never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, the cry. It terrifies everyone.)”.

She also provides advice on how to “raise an achievement-orientated, drug-free,adult virgin.” She openly discusses the pressures placed on women, often by other women over issues such as breast-feeding versus formula; working mums versus stay-at-home; having kids early/late/not at all. Plus, she has very definite views on matters to do with body image.

But, don’t think this is all a rant from her soapbox, pushing a particular barrow. Through it all she maintains her trademark wit that fans of her work on SNL and 30 Rock will be familiar with. This book is so easy to read, it took me less than a day to read it. When I was finished I ended up dragging out my 30 Rock DVD’s just so I could have some more.

If you’re looking for a funny, yet insightful autobiography, this is it. I highly recommend this book.