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Read This: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

All good things must come to an end.

Finished Mockingjay last night around 2 a.m. because the last 75 pages grabbed me tight and wouldn’t let go until it had its way with me. In this third and final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and company wage war against the Capitol, revenge for 75 years of games and death for the working class of Panem. But Katniss is most interested is putting an arrow through President Snow’s cold heart.

Like Catching Fire, this third story meanders for a bit at the beginning and readers are left wondering about the goals of the narrative. Again, many deaths happen off-stage. I actually growled when Katniss (and the reader) were left behind for a “high stakes” Capitol raid. But then something wonderful happens. Collins, like many of her YA saga-writing peers, could have played it safe and written a pat ending where everything is sweet and wrapped in a pretty bow. J.K. Rowling committed a literary travesty by not actually sacrificing Harry and others at the end of her series. Heroes, after all, can only be as good as the bad guys are bad and how bad can they really be if everyone is still alive at the end? Anyway, Collins is a risky writer. She put all her chips on the table for the final third of this book and she kicked some ass. She more than makes up for the off-stage deaths that happened before. By the end, the stage is soaked in blood. There is a death in here that is so shocking and meaningful that the very act of daring to write it elevated the series to the level of Ray Bradbury or perhaps Joseph Heller.

Speaking of Bradbury, did you catch the homage in Katniss’s troop number? Fahrenheit 451 is certainly an influence on Collins. Panem is a world glued to the television and preoccupied with war games, too.

There are many parallels here to Hamlet, as well. Especially the whole business with Katniss constantly wondering just what the hell she should do. There was this production of Hamlet at Kent State many years ago. At the end of the play, when the king is lying dead, Fortinbras enters with his troops and takes the thrown. And he’s dressed like a Nazi. If all we’re really doing is replacing one tyrant with another, why are we even fighting?

This book is required reading for any author daring to end a saga. Collins gets it right.

Read This: Who Killed Betsy?

Long before Jerry Sandusky, Penn State learned well how to cover up the darkest aspects of human nature. During the Thanksgiving break, in 1969, a young student named Betsy Aardsma was murdered in the creepy stacks inside the Pattee Library. Stabbed once, through the heart. Her killer was never found. These days, reporters can’t even request the old student newspaper articles on the case. They’ve been scrubbed from the web and “misplaced” by the university.

That didn’t deter Derek Sherwood, who works as a credit card processor during the day and a reporter at night. In his book, Sherwood takes the existing articles and rumors about the case and uses the documents to tease out new leads. The first half is a detailed account of the days surrounding the murder, in 1969, an introduction to the real Betsy and the men who may have killed her. The second half becomes a kind of character study, in the creepiest sense, of the main suspect, associate professor of geology Richard Haefner. Sherwood takes us deep into the man’s mind and systematically lays out the circumstantial evidence suggesting Haefner’s guilt. Let’s just say Haefner had a lot in common with Sandusky.

I read this book in a day and had terrifying dreams about Haefner last night. The writing is stark and simple but Sherwood shines whenever he allows himself to explore tangential characters who are as weird as Haefner, himself. Fans of true crime need this book.

Read This: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Okay, so I’m officially caught up in the Hunger Games trilogy, now. Can’t wait to pick up the third book tonight!

The first book is a masterpiece. And there is much that I love about this second story, Catching Fire. It is, after all, the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy. Katniss, fresh off her victory in the Hunger Games, finds herself unwittingly the symbol of rebellion in this post-apocalyptic world where the Capitol rules over 12 separated Districts. The stakes are raised when President Snow announces that the 75th Games will be a special “quarter quell” in which previous Hunger Games winners will face off against each other. Really, though, its a clever ploy to publicly kill Katniss and squash the rebellion. And when we get to the games (finally) the book becomes impossible to put down.

Collins is an expert at foreshadowing and misdirection. She’s a magician of a writer, able to surprise even the most cynical readers. And, make no mistake, surprising a reader is a VERY hard and daring thing to pull off. If you fuck it up, your reader ends up hating you because it seems condescending.

So, yes, I like this book. However, it takes its time getting to the action. The first hundred and fifty pages is a lot of meandering. In some ways it reminded me of the first half of the last Harry Potter book. We don’t have a feel for where the narration is taking us and that feels disconcerting. The only reason, I think, that we hang in there is because we trust Collins as an author. We know she’ll get take us somewhere nice soon. And that seems just a bit like cheating.

My hunch is that the meandering beginning of Catching Fire is actually an attempt by Collins to foreshadow aspects of the final volume. In some ways, Empire did this, too. All second parts do this when the author knows it will be a trilogy, I guess. We’ll see.

There was really only one place in the novel that seemed like a missed opportunity, though. (SPOILER COMING). When Peeta’s heart stops beating, I wanted the cannon to sound. That would have been cool.

Read This: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I really don’t need to tell you to read this. Most likely, you already have. I’m coming to the games a bit late, myself.

What the hell took you so long, Renner? Well, I was afraid it might be another Twilight. I recognized a similar fervor from my younger sisters centered around this series of novels and avoided it like the plaque for a bit. But then adults I knew started talking about it. The same ones who trashed Twilight (for good reason) were singing four-note praises for The Hunger Games. Still, it wasn’t until I watched the trailer for the movie, featuring Jennifer Lawrence (who I’ve been in love with since Winter’s Bone), that I finally jumped in.

The book is like butter. Smooth writing all the way through. Tight without being condescending. Epic without being self-important. There are simply no narrative mistakes. It’s a master work.

The story, itself, seems both familiar and new: in a post-apocalyptic world, children fight to the death in a televised game to win food and fame. We see the world through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from District 12, who volunteers to participate in the games in place of her younger sister. It’s a stark distopian tale, in the vein of Logan’s Run and The Running Man. But it’s also a love story (natch) and a commentary on our reality-TV and social networking-obsessed culture. It’s told in the present tense, which I normally hate with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns, but it works well, here, as if Katniss has invited us along for the journey and is simply narrating the action for us.

If I have one critique, it’s that too many of the deaths occur off stage. This is, after all, a violent game and by constantly averting our eyes, the thematic punch is pulled a bit. But the book is marketed toward teens, so I guess that’s forgivable.

Whatever. I loved it. And I can’t wait to finish the series!

Read This: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

I read It when I was in the 4th grade. I toted that gargantuan book–the one with the monster claw coming out of the sewer–around with me from class to class. Eventually my father was called and I had to finish it at home. I didn’t understand half of what I read but I knew right away that there was something magical about the man who wrote that book. He was a master storyteller and it was a pleasure to work towards understanding his stories better.

I still get butterflies in my stomach when I buy a new hardback of his, usually the day it’s published (or, in the case of the Dark Tower, advanced ARCs sold illegally on eBay–hey, I can’t wait). I’m also a sucker for time travel stories (check out my Tumblr!). So, I was especially excited to pick up 11/22/63. And he does not disappoint. In my opinion, it’s his best work since The Green Mile.

You know the gist by now: an everyman discovers a portal into 1958 at the back of a diner in present-day Maine. Decides he’s going to stop the assassination of JFK. Mayhem ensues.

Ah, but it’s more… and less. More, in that it’s also a moving love story, a rumination on a violent world of men, and sympathy for the devils that live around us; less, in that, well… that ending. That heart wrenching and wonderful ending I’m not going to ruin, other than to say this (SPOILER SPOILER): like Catcher in the Rye, I’m not sure the main character actually accomplished anything. If you’ve read it, think about it. In the end, what did Jake Epping really do? Damn it if that’s not the point, huh?

King doesn’t play it safe. Thank God.

Read This: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Charles Yu has blown my mind. Moments ago I finished his strange novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I was told it was a story about time travel. And it is. In a way. But at the same time it has nothing to do with time travel. In fact, I’d argue there is no time travel in the book.

The narrative is the tale of Charles Yu, a Charles Yu who supposedly lives in an alternate universe in which “science” has been substituted with “science fiction.” Everything that can exist in science fiction, exists in this world: emotive computer programs, time machines, futuristic sidekick dogs. And one day, thanks to a time machine, Charles Yu meets Charles Yu and becomes stuck inside a time loop. Inside this time loop, Yu writes a book titled, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

The book is meta on a new scale.

But Yu’s idea of time travel is even more trippy when you get down to it, because in this universe, time travel does not require a DeLorean. Here, all you need is your mind. To travel through time is to alter your perception of time. With Déjà vu, we seem to be able to remember the present. Yu poses: if we can remember the present, why can’t we re-experience the past?

And that’s what we do everyday. We re-experience, that is we travel to, the past in our minds, replaying our most heart-wrenching memories over and over again. And sometimes we get stuck in a loop of our own making, reliving our mistakes when we should be embracing the anxiety and the unknown of our futures.

It is a tone poem. It is an exploration of the almost cosmic bond between the destinies of fathers and sons. But it’s also a fun riff on science fiction stories.

In the end, what the book is to me, I think, is a close representation of how our consciousness lives somehow outside the flow of time and only understands its passage when it tries to describe it.

“It collapses onto itself, like the present,” writes Yu, “which only appears when you think about it, like the text of a book.”

Read This: Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

A John Irving novel is a different sort of animal. His books usually delve more deeply into a character than I’m used to. Most times the narrative is simply about the life of a particular character, some times from conception to death (Garp). His books take time to read, at least for me. And the stories don’t seem much like strict narratives as they do a series of experiences. But I love every minute of it, even if it’s heavy lifting.

Irving always teaches you something. You can guess that, in life, he’s a curious type of guy and loves to share the insights that he’s gleaned from close study. In Last Night in Twisted River, he teaches about such seemingly detached subjects as logging, fine cooking, and, of course, the mechanics (and importance of) writing. Like in many Irving tales, there is much loss here but always grace, too.

This novel, to me, seemed like a return to the themes of Garp (my favorite Irving story), like an older artist coming back to an early style to show us what he’s learned in the years since. On the surface, it is the story of a man and his son on the run from a murderous North Country cop. But, like Garp, it’s also about how to navigate a life full of accidents. It’s truly wonderful and I already miss spending time with Danny and Ketchum and the cook.

I ear-marked a passage that I really love and wanted to share. It’s from near the end, but doesn’t give anything away. Here it is:

“We’ve been an empire in decline since I can remember,” Ketchum said bluntly; he wasn’t kidding. “We are a lost nation, Danny. Stop farting around.”