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Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

8 Jan

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: Book CoverRating:  4 out of 5 stars

Wow.  The concept for this book was very unique and I thought it was really well executed.  

Here’s the gist:  Samantha Kingston is a popular senior in high school.  She goes to a party on a cold, rainy Friday night and it turns out to be her last – she gets into a car accident on they way home.  Then she wakes up to  her alarm and it’s the same day all over again.  And again and again. 

This book is young adult – in some ways it was a teensy bit predictable for a reader like me (so old, so wise).  Samantha is 18 and in high school and she has what my mom calls the “insulation of youth”.   But at the same time, while I knew what to expect, reading about Samantha experiencing being given a second chance to relive her last day was still very emotional and interesting to me.  I see reviews for this book that say things like “This book changed my life” and “A whole new outlook” and I don’t think I’d go that far, but it did make me do a gut check on how I’m living my life, treating people and myself.   And I found myself surprised at how many things can be altered in one short day just by what seems to be an innocuous change in a timeline or circumstance.

I think what I admire most about this novel though is that the author is around my age, yet she captured the essence of the high school girl spirit to a tee.  The importance of silly things, the selfishness, the shallow relationships – these are all vaguely familiar to me, yet so far removed from my personality at this point that I would never be able to develop a character like she did.  I may have to pull this book out again when my daughter’s  a teenager to refresh my memory about what it’s like to be a teenage girl.  Which in the case of this book includes drinking, smoking and sex.  Greeeeaaattt.    

Read it.  It’s an easy read and you won’t be bored.  And you might smile a little more or look harder for opportunities to be a good human being which makes it worth it.

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Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins

13 Aug

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2)My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Properly prepares readers for the final installment of this series!

Who will like it best: Women and men ages 13+ who have already read the Hunger Games

Words to describe it: Fast-Paced, Action, Sets Stage

Will I add it to my personal library: Yes

Will I read it again: Yes, with my kids who I hope will read it too!

Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games series. I couldn’t wait to read this to continue the story of Katniss and Peeta (and Gale) after she survives the Hunger Games.

The middle book of a trilogy always gets a bad wrap because it’s never as exciting and glamorous as the books that come before and after it. But while it seems like the 2nd book is ‘forgettable’, it is absolutely critical to making a trilogy work. In the first book, the novelty draws readers in and they want to read on and in the last book, everything is concluded, which is also exciting for readers. This leaves the middle book to provide enough interest, information, character development and storyline to basically move the story from point A to point B. But that is so important, even if it isn’t as impactful. Without that middle book ‘gearing up’ the readers, they won’t be appropriately anticipating the third installment. And without that anticipation, they will be disappointed in the last book and the whole series will get a bad reputation. A roller coaster ride would not be good if it didn’t have some calm between hills. Catching Fire filled its role better than I expected. It contained its own surprises and held its own action-wise while still properly preparing us for the grand finale, Mockingjay. The only criticism I have is that the pace of the story was a little  more choppy than I remembered Hunger Games being. It was a little harder to follow. I also felt Katniss’s thoughts and actions were a little choppier too. She seemed to be more conflicted in this book and changed her mind more often. She was a little harder to keep up with as well. Well, let’s not forget she is a teenage girl!

This series is completely entertaining and worth everyone’s time. I recommend it to just about anyone from ages 13 on. This book by itself isn’t that strong, but it doesn’t need to be because it serves its purpose and properly prepares the reader for the final Hunger Games installment.

Book Review: The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1) by Suzanne Collins

28 Jul

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 Stars

Who will like it best: Women and Men 13+

Words to describe it: Satisfying, Exhilarating, Action

Will I add it to my personal library? Yes

Will I read it again someday? Yes!

The Hunger Games has been on my ‘To Be Read’ list for a very long time.  This science-fiction book came out in September 2008 and has been a NY Times bestseller since, for the past 97 weeks.  It is the first book in a three-part trilogy, the second book of which is called Catching Fire and has also been on the best seller list for a whopping 46 weeks.  The third book, Mockingjay, will be released on August 24.  Never heard of these books?  It might be because they are on the Children’s Chapter Book best seller list which is for readers 12 years and up.   I’ll admit that was one reason I was hesitant to read this book – I was afraid it would be totally dumb and boring. I learned my lesson about tween books the hard way with Twilight (grrr…believe me, I wanted to like them!).  That combined with the fact that it’s science fiction made reading this novel pretty unappealing to me all the way around.  But because of the hype, I felt I had to at least try and see what it was all about.  And guess what…it was a really good book!

I’ve read that Lionsgate has purchased the rights to make this trilogy into a movie and the author, Suzanne Collins, will write the screenplay.  The most I can find on that now is at IMDB (www.imdb.com) has this movie listed as ‘in development’.  If it does make it to the big screen I’m anxious to see how this is done – I think this book would make a great movie.  What I hope doesn’t happen is that it comes out looking like a made-for-tv-movie on the SciFi network, which will completely undermine the work of art the book is.

Synopsis

This story takes place in a post-war North America called Panem.  The land has been reorganized into 12 districts and a Capitol.  The members of the Capitol rule over the districts and to remind them of this, every year they force each district to send 1 girl and 1 boy to compete to the death against each other in what is called the ‘Hunger Games.’  These games are televised and are required to be watched by everyone across Panem.  Katness Everdeen is the girl sent to represent District 12.  She is 16, but is tough and self-sufficient and has been taking care of her mother and little sister since her father died. The book follows her through her experience competing in the Games.  I won’t tell you how it ends explicitly, but you can probably guess since it is the first of three books.  Don’t worry – knowing that doesn’t ruin the reading experience at all.

Here’s an excerpt – I like how much this short paragraph tells you about the world of Panem.

The train finally begins to slow and suddenly bright light floods the compartment. We can’t help it.  Both Peeta and I run to the window to see what we’ve only see on television, the Capitol, the ruling city of Panem.   The cameras haven’t lied about its grandeur.  If anything, they have not quite captured the magnificence of the glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air, the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets, the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces who have never missed a meal.  All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright, the yellows painful to the eyes, like the flat round disks of hard candy we can never afford to by at the tiny sweet shop in District 12.

My Review

As I mentioned, I was concerned with the teen-ness of this novel but in the end I actually liked that it was more ‘PG’ than not.  The relationships lacked any adult point of view as I expected, but that was okay because the relationships weren’t the only focus.  And it was definitely a less complex overall but I was fine with that too because it made it easy for me to adjust to the science-fiction aspect.  And honestly, the sci-fi wasn’t overwhelming at all.  You do have to adjust to a society beyond what we know, but it’s pretty simplistic actually and not distracting when following the story. This book has a (much less detailed and headache-causing) George Orwell1984-vibe with the big brother and government control themes.  I also really liked Katness.  I believed in her and her abilities.  This made me excited to watch her compete and see what ultimately happened to her.  Lastly, this book is extremely well paced.  It moves quickly which enables the reader to easily keep up interest through to the end.

The one question that kept coming back to me as I was reading this book was, “How did North America get like this?”  There is no year given, but it says that Panem “rose out of the ashes” and this is the 74th year of the Hunger Games, so I can only imagine how far into the future this book is set.  What was at work and for how long to leave the entire continent reconfigured?  Perhaps some of that will be revealed in the next 2 books.

I had a couple of minor issues with the way this novel ended.  First, I cannot believe this situation is coming up for the first time in seventy-four years of the Hunger Games.  It seems like 2 other contestants could have worked out what Katness did at some point before.  Secondly, I don’t understand why the Capitol is so angry about it.

I would recommend this book for sure and for many categories of readers:  Male and female readers both young and old.  I don’t recommend it to those who are heavily into adult science-fiction – I suspect that they would find it a little too ‘light’ compared to what they are used to.  The story is unique, the characters distinctive and likeable.  It’s well paced, not too heavy on the science-fiction but enough so to transport you to a somewhat unfathomable but believable society.

Book Review: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

23 Jul

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

I’m getting this right out of the way: this novel is one of my favorites of all time.  I’ve read it twice of the past 3 years and I plan to read it again soon.  My primary reason for feeling so strongly about this book is because I truly identified with the main character Lee.  I cannot say if everyone will feel that connection but if you 1) are a girl and 2) went to high school and 3) felt mental as a teenager trying to figure out how to act in certain situations (and possibly still do) then there’s a good chance you will!

From the outside looking in, this book might not seem like it would be anything special.   Girl gets scholarship, girl goes to preppy boarding school, girl doesn’t feel like she fits in.   But girl is sort of weird and seems to overthink everything to the point of paralysis.  And then she criticizes herself.  And then she says something awkward, and it’s hilarious.  It’s this perspective that makes this novel so special . 

Lee Fiora is from a middle-class family in Indiana and she goes to a private boarding school on the East Coast on a scholarship.  She feels very out of place and awkward and is working hard in her own way to deal with the pressures of being all alone and not fitting in with her classmates.  She observes her classmates behavior and uses that to try and bridge the gap between her and them – this does not always go well.  Over the course of her 4 years at Ault, Lee does get to a comfortable place within the social ranks, but nearly destroys it at the end of her tenure there.  Along the way she has issues with teachers, she has trouble with girlfriends, she has her heart broken, she has fights with her parents.  Humiliation, happiness, tears, love – all of it wrapped up in this one character’s high school career.  We are given full access to her innermost thoughts and feelings and we follow along as she makes sense of the world, which is a hilarious, heartbreaking journey.   Evidence of Lee evolving as each year passes is written realistically and it is funny, sad, totally normal and downright familiar.  

I recommend this book everyone – girls and women in particular.  This is a perfect read if you are looking to feel  warm, touching and slightly nostalgic way.  There’s a little Lee in all of us.