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It’s been nine months into 2009 and I’ve been hard-pressed to find a book to really wow me this year, and I must say that I did not expect it to be a book I would not normally go for.

I’ve been seeing Scholastic’s The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (book #140 for 2009) at the book stores for some time now, but I’m not a big fan of dystopian themes because they’re often depressing, so I didn’t feel compelled to pick it up.

When I was given a chance to review the book, I was apprehensive, especially after learning it came highly recommended by Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris, two authors I don’t particularly care for, as I abhorred the Twilight series (no secret there) and have no intentions of reading the Sookie Stackhouse series.

So I finished The Hunger Games in three hours flat this afternoon — and even Ateneo (my university) winning the basketball game (for top seed) against FEU this afternoon couldn’t tear me away from the book except for quick glances at the screen for the score — and I still can’t get over how much this book has affected me, so here I am, writing this rough cut review (am writing another for Manila Bulletin later on when I get my thoughts organized) to pour out some raw emotion after reading the book, before I read what anyone else has to say about it, and before I forget the roller coaster experience I just went through.

Deep breath. Here goes.

Let the Games Begin

Hungergames_resizedWhile I’m not generally into dystopia, I read the first three pages of The Hunger Games a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to find that the few pages I read made me want to read on. And then came the hospital debacle, where in anything remotely violent got scrapped out of my TBR, on account of the double (and sometimes triple) vials of blood extracted from me daily for my blood tests.

So anyway, when I finally settled down to read it today, I opened the book, read the first chapter, and  literally could not put it down!

I realize I haven’t given a summary yet, so here goes, and I’m careful not to give anything away:

It’s a strange world that is the result of some sort of meltdown — a series of disasters has wiped out  North America and it is now a nation called Panem, where resources are limited and hunger ensues.

Panem is ruled by a powerful Capitol (where the Appalachians used to stand) surrounded by thirteen districts, which according to this nation’s history, led  an uprising against the Capitol during the “Dark Days.” Twelve of the districts were defeated, and the thirteenth was wiped out.

Because of this retaliation, the Capitol instituted the Treaty of Treason, which guarantees peace in the nation, but punishes the districts with the annual Hunger Games, a cross between a gladiator event and a reality show (televised across the nation), which requires each district to provide two kids (12 years and above), a girl and a boy, called “tributes,” to participate.

It may be a game for the Capitol, but to the tributes, it’s a fight to the death, as the kids kill each other one by one in a manufactured arena that can mimic anything from a frozen tundra to an arid desert, until the last kid standing is proclaimed the victor.

16-year old Katniss Everdeen lives on the Seam, the outskirts of District 12, the poorest district in all of Panem. Following her father’s death in a coal mine at age 11, Katniss has had to fend for her weakened mother and younger sister Prim, and has fought tooth and nail to keep her family alive by poaching animals and gathering herbs and fruits in the forest with her best friend Gale to trade in the black market.

When the annual “reaping” for the Hunger Games rolls around, and Prim’s name gets drawn, Katniss cannot bear to let her sister die in the Games and volunteers to take her place. Representing District 12 with her is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son.

At the Games, the skills that Katniss has acquired to keep her family alive for the past five years prove to be valuable as she becomes a real contender for the prize. But as the Games progress, Katniss faces crucial decisions that pit principle against survival, and life against love.

If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry, it’s just a complicated premise to explain, but I haven’t given away anything of consequence, and I’m being careful not to for the remainder of the post.


Unique and compelling

There are a number of things in this book that I can rave about, and I know this post is lengthy enough already, but I really can’t get over how much I liked this book, and I want to share it with the readers of this blog.

While set in an alternate world, I liked how The Hunger Games lays the setting out simply and gradually,  without plunging the reader into an unfamiliar world and expecting him/her to automatically take to the concept. I like how the book seamlessly you to Panem and how it works, and the concept of Hunger Games, which reminds me of a deliberately deadlier version of the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter.

As a bunch of book blogging friends and I discussed over a bookish dinner with Scholastic this week, (thanks Ms. Joyce and Ms. Roselle! And thanks for the recap, Peter!), the book revolves around the Roman concept of panem et circenses (I don’t want to peek into The Hunger Games material I have on hand because I don’t want it to influence my review), literally translated as bread and circuses, which pertains to providing sustenance and costly entertainment as a means of establishing political power over the population.

The game, while it deals with life and death situations and may perhaps be more suitable for more mature younger readers or at least readers who have proper guidance from grown-ups, was not as violent as I expected it would be, and I was pleased that it was tastefully handled. I liked that the book focused on survival, and not senseless violence, and that against the mechanics of the game, positive values and heroism surfaced without sacrificing the thrill of adventure or the heart-pounding action that are expected from the premise.

Katniss Everdeen stands out as a character, and is one of the best female protagonists I’ve read in a young adult novel in a long time. Reading The Hunger Games has made me realized the dearth of good female protagonists (in starring roles, not as supporting characters) in young adult literature of late (and I obviously don’t count Bella Swann among them), and top of mind I can only name (in recent releases) Liesl Meminger from The Book Thief and  Meggie Folchart from the Inkheart series.

I like Katniss Everdeen because she is spunky, smart, and strong, even as she battles with her emotions. From the first few chapters, I liked her instantly — a young girl who has learned to be tough because she can’t afford not to be for her family; a daughter still grieving for the father she lost so young (I was about the same age when I lost my dad) and resenting (but still loving) the mother who could not deal with her husband’s death while her two daughters practically starved to death; a sister who would do anything to spare Prim from danger and even stark reality; a seasoned hunter who knows her way around the forest and loves the thrill of the chase; and a loyal friend concerned over her friend Gale’s (and his family’s) welfare as much as her own.

Later on, deeper into the games, I liked Katniss’ unflagging spirit and fortitude, her integrity, her refusal to be consumed by the Capitol system, her loyalty to her allies, and her valiant rally to survive, despite the  physical challenges, traumatic experiences, and moral dilemmas she faces along the way. While Katniss has her strengths, she is no superpower, and the manufactured challenges  shrewdly placed by the Gamemakers as well the stiff, almost mercenary competition (the tributes from the richer districts are trained specifically for the Hunger Games even though it’s illegal) underscore just how vulnerable — and mortal– she is, and it makes the plot more thrilling and more real, while making you root for Katniss more.

I also like how Katniss can kick serious butt. While her allies save her from some close shaves, she is no damsel in distress, and is able to think fast and act quickly. While she internally nurtures the emotions of a sixteen year old girl torn between what she feels for two very different guys –  her  charming, genteel,  and dependable partner Peeta who is growing more attractive by the minute (not to mention he lifts weights and is handy with a knife); or the boy she left at home, her swift, strong, and rough-around-the-edges best friend Gale who has been there for her all these years.

Katniss is far from perfect, but she makes a good model for the book’s young audience, and I especially love that about her, as it is so hard to find a book that sends a good message to young girls these days, what with all the spoiled brat, sex-crazed YA that’s on bookstore shelves these days.

Speaking of the boys, I like how they are characterized too. Very subtle, but very effective on me. Physically, they’re described a fair amount when you first encounter them, but not in the coverboy  (and repeatedly emphasized) way you know is designed to make you swoon outright (coughsparklingEdwardCullencough), and you fall for them mostly because of their interaction with Katniss.

Quite honestly, when the Twilight fad broke out and I couldn’t get on board with it, I was seriously worried that I was getting too old for YA romance, but I was thrilled to find myself enjoying the romance in The Hunger Games, and even I am a bit torn on whether I should be on Team Peeta or Team Gale. As of the first book, Peeta is the guy of the moment, but I have a feeling Gale will get his time to shine in Catching Fire. And they both seem so… yummy (haha!) so I think I’ll wait for Catching Fire before I cast my vote.

Haha,  in my book, The Hunger Games trumps Twilight big-time! Finally, some quality YA reading that’s rightfully on the bestseller lists!

Suzanne Collins (photo credit: Cap Pryor)

Suzanne Collins (photo credit: Cap Pryor)

Much of this raving, I suspect, is due to Suzanne Collins’ writing, which flows fluidly in a well-developed plot and shows her skill as a writer. I also get a sense of sincerity in the writing that instantly made a connection with me, and the book had an impact on me that I did not expect — I was moved.

I cried as Katniss said goodbye to her mother and sister, Gale, Peeta’s father, and even the mayor’s daughter, as she went off to the Games. I felt pride as Katniss, despite her surliness, charmed the crowds before the games, and became the most watched tribute for the Games. I clutched at the book, the bedspread, my sister’s arm, my dog’s paw, as Katniss and Peeta were released into the arena and the action began.

As the Ateneo Blue Eagles won by a hairline (1 point after a 15-point deficit that they caught up to in the 4th quarter of the game), my sister was screaming fanatically and I usually joined her in that, except that today, I was in tears because of a certain incident in the book.

Oh, and I also enjoyed the foodie aspect of it (surprisingly, there is!)– to half-starved humans, food always tastes good, and a lot of the descriptions of food in the book, while plain, were mouth-watering because of the characters’ hunger for good food, whether it’s a handful of berries foraged from the forest, or a grand feast at the Capitol.

And then I was tickled pink with the budding romance between Katniss and Peeta, and it was back to the sheet-clutching again as the plot built up to an awesome climax, and then I reached the end of the book – and in a long time, I have never wanted to read a sequel so badly than I do now with Catching Fire, which has just been released recently.

And then I spent the last three and a half hours composing this entry, which now runs four pages, single-spaced because I wanted to pour out how I felt about the book, which my newspaper review will not have all the space for.

I have never been so glad to read a book that came so highly recommended (which I usually have an aversion to), and spending the last nine months worrying that I still haven’t found my best book for 2009 was well worth it, as I think I may very well have found it in The Hunger Games.

***

My copy: hardcover, with dust jacket, review copy (thank you, Scholastic!)

My rating: 5/5 stars

Oh, and a special bonus: read the first chapter of The Hunger Games here!

And P.S. Suzanne Collins is penning the screenplay for the movie adaptation. I’m glad she’s doing it herself, and I look forward to seeing it on the big screen!

P.P.S. To my local readers: Hunger Games/ Catching Fire promo currently running at National Book Store!

From September 8 to October 30, buy The Hunger Games or Catching Fire at any National Book Store branch, and get a chance to win one of the following prizes: a trip for 2 to Palawan, books 1 to 5 of The Underland Chronicles (the first series from Suzanne Collins), a shirt of The Hunger Games, or a Laking National mug!

*photos courtesy of Scholastic