Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hey, YA!

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

Two books about hunger, poverty, and death. You know, for kids.

I Like Games

Unputdownable: ‘Tis a rare trait in books, and the older I get the rarer it becomes. It had been a year since my last encounter with an unputdownable book,1 and I was beginning to wonder whether another story would come along and grip me the way so many had in my childhood. I never suspected my next one might also come from the realm of YA.2 Yet, The Hunger Games pulled me in, and I simply (let me apologize ahead of time for the horrendous pun, though in my defense, no matter what the book was called I’d be using this very same wording) devoured it.

The circumstances for the story – a couple dozen teenagers battling to the death for their nation’s entertainment – may be reminiscent of a 10-year-old Japanese film, but Suzanne Collins does a better job of justifying her characters’ situation. In the remains of what was once the United States, the Capitol has set up the Hunger Games as punishment for a past rebellion. Every year, each of the twelve districts must send one girl and one boy to compete. For the poorer regions, such as District 12, this is akin to a death sentence.

As you might expect for this type of book, the main character is a sympathetic one, loath to hurt others except in self defense. And though Katniss Everdeen hails from District 12, we know from the very first page she’ll survive the Games.3 What keeps the pages turning, however, are all the unanswered questions: How does Katniss survive; does she win or escape? How are the Games structured? Will the kids gang together or go it alone? And would a baker without a sense of humor really name his son Peeta? Really?

The book is well-written, and its world and characters are engaging, but one of the things I enjoyed most was its treatment of love. Whereas many characters in modern YA lust after each other in a sparkly PG-13 manner, Katniss has a complete lack of interest in (and, indeed, understanding of) romantic love. Familial love she can get behind, but the idea of romance only appeals to her if it can facilitate her survival. Not only does this give great insight into Kat’s character and the world she grew up in, but I also found that not having love as a central theme was, at least for me, rather refreshing.

Of course, even an unputdownable book has its faults. It could have used more commas, for instance. I’m serious; some sentences would have flowed more naturally with that extra bit of punctuation inserted in the appropriate spot. Also, because the story is from Kat’s perspective, we miss out on actions that occur outside her purview. By itself, this is understandable, but when Katniss learns the details later on, we’re still left in the dark. Collins introduces some intriguing secondary and tertiary characters who (warning: not really a spoiler) die, and I wanted to know what happened. Yet we never get any clues as to what caused their demise.

And, despite numerous hints that Kat will fight back against the Capitol, none of it comes to fruition in this first book. Somehow, the ending manages to be both excellent (a skillful set-up for the second book) and unsatisfying (incomplete, with too much left for the later volumes). Nevertheless, The Hunger Games is an excellent read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone and everyone.

Oh, and you might like it, too.


1 Something about Deathly Hallows or some such nonsense.
2 That’s Young Adult, for the uninitiated. If you are initiated, please point me in the direction of the Kool-Aid. Thanks a bunch.
3 When a book is the first in a trilogy and told in the first person, the main character’s survival is patently obvious. (Patent pending.)

I Like Books

In contrast, I had a hard time getting into this one. It’s the narrator. I’ll get to why in a moment, but first I want to cover the good stuff. And most of it is good stuff.

Markus Zusak has written an exceptional story, filled with bits of vivid imagery and marvelous prose I can only hope to match someday in my own work. The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany during World War II, and yes, it involves a Jew hidden in a basement, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the poor struggling to survive under Hitler’s regime. It’s about family. And friendship. And weaving through it all, one young girl’s love affair with books.

The tale is masterfully written, and by the end I was bawling like a little schoolgirl.4 This is all the more impressive considering I knew what was going to happen ahead of time. How did I know? Zusak told me.

No, not personally. But throughout the book, rather than keep us in suspense, Death comes right out and tells us what’s about to transpire. He might not provide all the details, but he doesn’t have to. And yet, this peculiar technique in no way detracts from the story. Indeed, it gives Death a little more personality.

Speaking of which, let’s delve into the bad. Some consider Death a gimmicky choice for the narrator, but that description isn’t quite apt. For lack of a better word, I’d say Death as the narrator is “clunky.” In the prologue, Death goes into detail about how he sees the world in myriad shades of colors, but in the rest of the tale few but the most common hues are mentioned. Also, The Book Thief is supposedly his retelling of Liesel Meminger’s story from a book she has written. Yet, we occasionally learn other characters’ thoughts and emotions, and Death’s explanations for why he took such an interest in Liesel in the first place feel forced and somewhat awkward.

Sometimes, he inserts extra details
in centered and bold text.
Like this.
It bugged me.

But mostly, I found Death’s narration didn’t add much to the tale except distraction. For the majority of the book, he basically acts as an omniscient third-person narrator — and indeed, these are the smoothest parts of the novel — but every so often, he interjects his own perspective with “I” or “my,” and every time, it yanked me right out of the story. Zusak should have stuck with third-person omniscient.

If you can get past the narration, however, The Book Thief is a phenomenal tale. I suggest you check it out.


4 An extremely manly little schoolgirl.


  1. Barring the unexpected (and I'm not expecting anything unexpected) I will be going to Suzanne Collins' book signing in Millerton, NY, and getting a signed copy of "Mockingay", the 3rd Hunger Games book. I am ridiculously excited about this. "The Hunger Games" is one of those books that I've never had a hard time selling to kids, even the ones who "don't like" to read. Speaking of unputdownable trilogies, I recommend the Chaos Walking series ("The Knife of Never Letting Go" is the first book); I recommend reading that series during a time when you are not required to talk to do anything else, as you may get mad at anyone who pulls you away from them.

    "The Book Thief", on the other hand, I never got into. It may have been, in part, timing. I read it during my "I need to read and review 125+ books" semester, which does not jibe well with a book like "The Book Thief". I also read Zusak's "I Am the Messenger" during that semester, though, which I loved.

  2. yeah hunger games was completely unputdownable. It was one of those books that i stayed up late reading it, and i LOVE to sleep, so it has to be really unputdownable for me to sacrifice sleep.
    I'm looking forward to Mockingjay releasing this month

  3. Wonderful reviews...I love the way you described each of these and the way you reviewed them. Very nice.

    I love both of these books and have recommended each of them to many people. Great fun.