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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

For almost a year now, feminocentric blog Jezebel (tagline: "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion. Without Airbrushing."), part of the Gawker Media stable, has been running a weekly column called Fine Lines, helmed for the most part by writer/blogger/book critic Lizzie Skurnick, "in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth." It makes sense that I, lover of books and nearly all things book related, am a devotee of this feature, but the thing that often surprises me is that I have read less than half of them (I counted: fourteen out of thirty-six).

I can come up with an explanation of sorts for this. Like many young women my age, I stopped reading "kids' books" fairly early, because I was reading at an adult level way before hitting puberty. The transition was so seamless, and so long ago, that I can't even really remember the first adult book I read (although it might have been Gone with the Wind, or any of my mother's Agatha Christie mysteries, or perhaps a Stephen King or Robert Heinlein novel I plucked from my father's bookshelf). I think this is because, back when I was growing up in the early nineties, there was a pretty clear divide between books for children and books for adults. This isn't to say that there wasn't any good kid lit back in the day, because a cursory glance at the Fine Lines books will immediately refute that notion. But kids and teens have more discretionary funds than ever before, and because you can't keep a good nerd down at least some of those kids would rather spend Dad's twenty dollars at a bookstore than Claire's, the YA market has exploded in the last ten or fifteen years.

It has grown in other ways, too. For instance, instead of "kids" books as an entirely separate entity from "adult" books, YA is sometimes a crossover market. Yes, some of this can be attributed to YA juggernaut writers like J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and (blurgh) Christopher Paolini, but it also has a lot to do with how innovative and edgy YA literature has become. No longer content with the suburban travails of the racially diverse but ultimately boring girls of The Baby-Sitters Club, or the romantic quandaries of the milquetoast Wakefield twins in the Sweet Valley series, teens are clamoring for the same thrilling, racy, emotionally devastating, hilariously funny content that can be found on the adult shelves--except written in a voice that they recognize, in a way that doesn't condescend to them--and the publishing industry, every obliging, has hastened to fill the order, with varying degrees of success. The pleasant surprise in all this is that as YA readers start to age, they stay loyal to the writers that carried them through adolescence, and adult readers seem quite eager to avail themselves of the YA shelves as well.

It is with all this in mind that I started reintegrating YA literature into my reading repertoire. I keep an eye on the YA review and author blogs, on the lookout for the best, buzziest YA I can possibly find, and last week I hit upon something that I couldn't wait to read. Several YA authors have been pimping The Hunger Games by YA fantasy author Suzanne Collins recently, and eventually I caved and bought a copy in hardcover.

The Hunger Games has a brilliant high concept, which is everything in the publishing biz: In a future dystopia, where most of North America, poverty-stricken and miserable, is under the thumb of the rich and powerful Capitol, once a year twenty-four children ages 12 to 18 are chosen to fight to the death in a reality TV competition reminiscent of Survivor as punishment for a long-ago rebellion. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen is a survivor, the sole provider for her small family after her father's death, smart and determined to protect her mother and sister at all costs. So when her twelve-year-old sister, Prim, is chosen via lottery as a competitor in the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to go in Prim's place, sure of only one thing: that she will die in a matter of weeks at the hand of another child.

Try making that into a PG-13 film, Hollywood, I dare ya!

Isn't that the best premise you've ever heard? (Teenreads.com ran an excellent interview with Collins where she explains how the events of the novel were inspired by Roman mythology, the war in Iraq, and our own culture's raging reality TV addiction.) But what's really gratifying is that Collins' novel delivers on almost every count. The premise sets us up for what I would call a dystopian thriller, and Collins delivers a lean, sleek narrative that never falters. She avoids a common fantasy pitfall by not being overly descriptive under the banner of "world building," thereby letting the story sell us itself. I feel as though I understand all I need to know, at this point, about Panem's government, its social structure, and the more immediate world of the main characters. Too much information would spoil the lightning pace of the narrative, but Collins explains things in a completely unforced, organic way. This, along with Collins' no-nonsense, uncluttered prose, lightens the load the concept must bear and lets it fly like something launched from a slingshot.

When I was first reading the book, there was only one thing that stood out to me as a somewhat unforgivable authorial sin: the smart but clueless narrator. Katniss is not completely disadvantaged in the game because of the hunting and medicinal skills she used to provide and survive back home, but she is smaller than many of the so-called "tributes" and from an undesirable part of the country, which makes her unpopular for betting purposes (and as we know well, popularity equals ratings, and ratings equal perks). The strategy cooked up by her mentor is that she and the male competitor from her district, Peeta (I KNOW), will pretend to like each other, even to love each other, in order to manipulate the game and make it possible (if not probable) that one of them will be able to win. It is PAINFULLY OBVIOUS from the minute he is introduced that Peeta is head over heels in love with Katniss and has been forever, and Katniss cannot see this, despite all the hints and the fact that eventually he downright tells her. For a smart girl, Katniss is willfully dense about Peeta's feelings for her, and her own feelings for him. DUH CITY. I find it so infuriating when a smart character is completely stupid with regards to her love life, and I nearly always feel in those situations that the author is purposefully doing this to manufacture romantic angst.

However, boys are really confusing, so after further reflection I'm going to give both Katniss and Collins a pass on this one. You can't really expect even the most brilliant girl to adequately sort out her love life when she's fighting for survival, especially since I can't do it and all I have to worry about is whether or not to get my iPod professional fixed or replace the headphone jack myself.

Speaking of which, anybody got any advice? About my iPod, I mean. Not my love life.

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  1. Blogger Sean | 10:44 PM |  

    that book sounds like battle royale.

  2. Anonymous Anna | 1:43 PM |  

    Yeah, I've never read Battle Royale but it's got a lot in common with Stephen King's Running Man and The Walk.

  3. Blogger DoktorPeace | 1:47 PM |  

    Hmm... Did OHD just reveal her secret identity?

    And if so, are we expected to be New Yorkers a la Spiderman 2 and not profit from this info?

  4. Blogger Mr. Polley | 3:16 PM |  

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Blogger chris | 3:17 PM |  

    My students love the Battle Royale movie, but scoff when I tell them to read the 400-page novel. I should let them know about this book, thanks OHD!

    It's especially interesting that the protagonist is female in one of these plots. It also reminds me of the movie Series 7: The Contenders, which is not very good, but worth watching because it was the first of these kinds of movies to come out amongst the reality show phenomenon of the early 00s, and was filmed as such.

  6. Blogger Sean | 3:20 PM |  

    closer to 600 pages. you must have read the abridged version for n00bs.

  7. Blogger qualler | 3:47 PM |  

    Oh man, I loves me some Stephen King writing-under-a-pseudonymn stuff like The Running Man and The Long Walk. I wish he would write books like that again.

  8. Blogger OHD | 9:36 AM |  

    Nope, no secret identity revealing here, Doktor Peace. It is possible for two people to read the same book, you know. I agree with Anna, though--The Hunger Games does draw off the tradition of King's dystopian Bachmann books, which King himself pointed out in his EW review of the book.

    Oh, some day, a post all about how much I adore Stephen King, I guarantee it.

  9. Blogger DoktorPeace | 10:07 AM |  

    Hmm... I'm still suspicious.

    Maybe if you had said, "It is possible for two people to read a book I would be more inclined to believe...

    I want to believe...

  10. Blogger DoktorPeace | 10:08 AM |  

    As in any book at all, because people don't read and stuff. Which is what your entries are trying to disprove, but I still made the joke.

    I'm part of the problem...

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