Friday, June 26, 2009
Review: The Hunger Games
The Hunger GamesSuzanne Collins. ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1. That rare book that you can't tear through fast enough even as you dread it being finished, Suzanne Collins's distopian future is easily the best young adult storytelling to come along since Harry Potter finished. What the two worlds share is an unusual ability to celebrate the best of humanity without neglecting its worst. Set in a future North America transformed by global warming and ravaged by nuclear war, the descendents of the survivors are concentrated atop the Rockies in the West and the Appalachian range in the East. Collins introduces us to the world through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen, an undersized and undernourished sixteen-year-old protagonist and narrator that embodies Jean Craighead George's practical and self-sufficient ideal. The early chapters feel ripped from 'My Side of the Mountain', if the Catskills had been occupied by a brutal foreign power. Before her father died, he taught her the basics of hunting. Her mother, a skilled apothecary before she sank into a debilitating depression, educated Katniss on the plants all around them. These skills, combined with ample ingenuity, allow her to keep her mother and little sister fed.

The one thing she cannot control is the Hunger Games. After the disasters, the Western population restored its high standard of livng by dividing the far more ravaged Eastern range into thirteen districts which were forced to pay tribute. A littl over seven decades prior to the start of the novel, the Eastern districts mounted a failed rebellion that was brutally crushed by the Western Capitol. The thirteenth district was completely obliterated to make a statement and an annual gladiatorial fight to the death broadcast live as reality TV called the the Hunger Games was imposed on the surviving twelve districts as punishment. Every year, a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are drafted through a lottery to compete. When Katniss's little sister is drafted, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

What transpires from there is full of human feeling and astute observation of the human condition. Collins restricts herself to a middle school vocabulary for her target audience, but the result feels authentic given Katniss's age and background. Her portrayal of death is matter-of-fact, unflinching, and heartbreakingly personal. Her portrayal of life in the face of death is achingly beautiful. In spite of severely limited options that have left them literally and figuratively boxed in, the children competitors demonstrate the full spectrum of human expression. The Hunger Games are designed to break the spirit of the oppressed by force the most vulnerable among them to carry out inhuman acts in order to survive. Katniss's most rebellious act, then, is to express love and fellowship and gratitude in spite of what she must do. Collins presents a vision of the future on the opposite pole from Huxley's A Brave New World in a book that grapples with the unanswerable questions of our uncompromising world in a manner accessible to all ages. I felt that little pang of grief upon finishing this book that only the best stories can stir. The good news for me is that the follow-up arrives this September.

Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3John Godey. ISBN 978-0-425-22879-1. Republished in anticipation of the 2009 film adaptation, this 1973 best seller wears its age extremely well. While the style of the narration, the speech patterns of the dialog, and the chosen character archetypes mark the time period, the language is both crisper and less pretentious than we would expect from a thriller today. All but one of the main characters are male, and they address each other with the vibrant, vulgar and politically incorrect vernacular that imbalance implies. Morton Freedgood (writing as John Godey)'s cast of characters is multi-racial and evenly handled in a New York City when the racial divide still played out on the surface and in the open. From the opening setup to the final punchline, Godey's thriller operates with clockwork precision. The ingenuity and research that went into the subway hijacking itself is sufficient enough to makes its initial success feel inevitable rather than contrived. As events play out, Godey shakes the proceedings up with both predictable speed bumps arising from evident character flaws and the sort of random, unpredictable incidents that naturally arise from such a complex, high-stress situation. The Rashômon-esque device of telling the story through rotating perspectives is tremendously effective at painting a vibrant tapestry of New York City life. The omniscient narrator's wry gallows humor pleasantly adds to the dated quality of the novel. But the IRT Pelham Line still runs from Pelham Bay Park to South Ferry via the No. 6 train, preserving the relevance and potency of the core scenario.

Saturday, April 11, 2009
Review: Patterns of the Force (Star Wars: Coruscant Nights)
Street of Shadows Book CoverBy Michael Reaves. ISBN 978-0-345-47758-3. The Coruscant Nights cycle of books promised an intense literary noir set in one of the least explored time periods of the Star Wars universe. Instead, readers have been stuck with uninteresting plots crippled by a lackluster cast of characters. Michael Reaves improves on the formula a bit with Street of Shadows, which refocuses on the game of cat and mouse between Jedi-in-hiding Jax Pavan and Darth Vader. The beginning of the book seems as dull and directionless as its predecessor, but the story picks up steam toward a genuinely engaging finale. A couple problematic characters are fleshed out with surprising depth, while a few of the most irritating check out of the story altogether. As the showdown between Jax and Vader draws nearer, the novel finally begins to explore the new questions faced by a Jedi no longer tied to the strict orthodoxy of the Jedi institution. The overall result is a fun bit of filler that leaves the door open for a far more interesting fourth act down the road.

Monday, January 26, 2009
Review: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor (Star Wars)
Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor CoverBy Matthew Stover. ISBN 978-0-345-47744-6. One of the most acclaimed authors to stoop to Star Wars tie-in fiction finally tackles the classic heroes of the series and the result is… decidedly mixed. The prose is as sharp and vibrant as ever, if a little self-satisfied. He does not waste the opportunity that Luke Skywalker presents as a protagonist, offering his most nuanced exploration of good and evil yet. Luke's perspective forces him to adopt a sunnier outlook than he's known for, which made for a nice change of pace. unfortunately, his characterizations otherwise fail to line up with what we've previously been presented for these iconic characters. Much of the humor that comes naturally to other, less ambitious authors feels strained here and often falls flat. The dynamic between Han and Leia, while compelling, was a very vague approximation of what we got in the movies and other tie-in fiction. His attempt to spice up the storytelling with frequent profanity is undermined by the cringe worthy lexicon of vulgarity that has sprung up since the movies, when "hell", "damn" and other earthly swearing was sufficient. Because the novel uses the framing device of an intelligence report, it's hard decipher whether the defects are intentional or not. Either way, they detract from a great if overly complicated story shoehorned into the immediate aftermath of Return of the Jedi.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Review: Imperial Life in the Emerald City
Imperial Life in the Emerald City CoverBy Rajiv Chandrasekaran. ISBN 1-4000-4487-1. The author's depiction of post-war Iraq is definitely colored by a strongly-held point of view. His descriptions of what he encountered are at times absolutely merciless. Yet the facts, which Chandrasekaran lays out with careful and deliberate precision, seem to merit his scorn. The first half of the book recounts the lack of planning following the invasion and the extraordinary hubris that followed. One week before the United States pulled down Saddam's statue, the section of the "Unified Mission Plan for Post Hostilities Iraq" pertaining to civil administration had yet to include a mission statement, a concept of operations, or any timelines. The retired U.S. Ambassador assigned to manage Iraq's Foreign Ministry, left in the dark by the government, turned to an internet message board for guidance. As massive looting and riots ravaged Baghdad after the invasion, the Americans assigned to manage the provisional government tried to match the buildings being pillaged on CNN with their assigned ministries. "It was like, 'There goes your ministry!' 'There goes mine!'" Chandrasekaren quotes the interim minister recalling. The list of sites that needed security never made it to the military, leading to Secretary Rumsfeld's infamous explanation that "freedom's untidy." Decision-making before and after the invasion Secretary Powell at the State Department against Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney at the Pentagon. The intelligence and advice coming out of State conflicted with the Pentagon's vision of a democratic, Western-friendly Iraq. When L. Paul Bremer was appointed to lead the provisional authority, he came to Iraq with the desire "to make some bold decisions." His boldest decisions came right out of the gate, with the first two Coalition Provisional Authority Orders. Order Number 1 called for the "De-Ba`athifcation of Iraqi Society", banned anyone from the top four tiers of Sadaam's party from future employment in the public sector. This resulted in the firing of just about everyone with specialized knowledge needed to run the country, along with nearly all of the teachers. Order Number 2 disbanded the Iraqi military, putting 250,000 - 300,000 military-trained personnel out on the street, with a grudge against the people who did it. They would come to form the backbone of the Sunni insurgency. Example after example follows.

The second half of the book, in which the CPA (nicknamed "Can't Produce Anything" by the U.S. military forces within the Green Zone) eats humble pie time and time again, is bookended by violence. It opens with the October 26, 2003 rocket attacks against the Al-Rasheed hotel, which shattered the illusion of peace and safety from within the fortified Green Zone, and more or less ends with two crucial military engagements: the March 19, 2004 ambush of three Army humvees in Sadr City that followed Bremer's decision to silence al-Sadr's Al-Hawza newspaper and the all-out assault on the city of Fallujah in April 2004 launched in retaliation for the brutal deaths of four defense contractors. Chandrasekaren does find a few positive forces in the mix. Jim Otwell, the outspoken and pragmatic fight fighter from Buffalo, separated the fight directorate from the corrupt police force and got funding to replace the equipment damaged in the initial looting. Because of his work with the firefighter's union in upstate New York gave him the most experience with labor relations in the CPA, he is tasked to be the interim minister of labor and social affairs. In this role, he fought to stop food subsidies from being monetized: the women handled the food rations, he noticed, and there would be no guarantee that the men would spend the equivalent money as efficiently. Steve Browning, a specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, was put in charge of four ministries in the immediate aftermath of the war. As head of the health ministry, he got generators for all the Iraqi hospitals. Despite not being an electricity expert, he was tasked with restoring electrical output to pre-war levels, and accomplished it in just over two months. But for the most part, the second half of the book chronicles the idealistic but unqualified and unrealistic CPA staffers butting up against the entrenched Iraqi status quo and the consequences of their own incompetence. Browning's plan for future development of the electrical grid, for instance, envisioned small power plants close to communities, so the locals would have an incentive not to sabotage them. Instead, the CPA decided on massive power plants that became targets for insurgent attacks and were still uncompleted when sovereignty was handed back to the Iraqis. His replacement at the Health Ministry envisioned a system of local clinics and unsubsidized medicine while the hospitals lacked sterile conditions and basic equipment. In the epilogue, nonpartisan diplomats and technocrats from the State Department with local expertise and fluency in Arabic take over as the Republican Palace becomes America's largest embassy, but in Chandrasekaren's view it's too little, too late. "If this place succeeds," one CPA employee told the author amid departure preparations, "it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it."

Friday, June 13, 2008
Review: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Book CoverBy Agatha Christie. ISBN 0-425-20047-7. One of the author's most acclaimed mysteries, it proves if anything to be a victim of its own success. The less aware readers are of the hype, the more likely they will be surprised. Though Murder on the Orient Express is more famous, it was the solution to this mystery that most brazenly defied the rules of the genre. Those who go into this story with an intimate knowledge of Christie's writing style and this fact in mind will be able to piece together the solution. Unfortunately, that fact is the novel's biggest selling point. Still, it is a marvel to read. Right from the introduction of the unlikable narrator and his domineering sister, Christie pulls off a hell of a juggling act. I tested my (correct) hypothesis at every turn, and I never once caught her cheating. Novelty aside, this stands apart as one of the great Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Review: Invincible (Star Wars: Legacy of the Force)
Invincible Book CoverBy Troy Denning. ISBN 978-0-345-47746-0. A mediocre end to a mediocre series that began with a promising start. Overall, the "Legacy of the Force" experiment should reiterate the central lesson of the "New Jedi Order" arc: Lucas Licensing should avoid long, multi-author series with the blistering schedule that tie-in fiction demands. The idea of the Skywalker legacy birthing another Sith Lord is potent, but the execution was flawed; instead of simply retreading the mistakes of Anakin Skywalker, the authors should have explored the differences. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Jacen Solo knew he was a parent. Because each author interpreted they dynamic between father and daughter differently, the relationship was robbed of its potency. She was still the most interesting thing about this series, but thanks to the events of this final novel she's pretty much guaranteed to be screwed up her whole life. The climactic moment is antithetical to the themes of redemption that have made Star Wars so enduring: the problem with Invincible is that it's darkness but without depth.