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Ginie Reviews Books: The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA/ Dystopian
Rating:  4.5/5

Like many internet denizens, it has not escaped my notice that a certain YA novel seems to be making lots of waves in the world wide web (no, not Twilight). I mean of course, The Hunger Games – a novel I’ll be honest, I’ve actually been trying to ignore for awhile now. Perhaps I should explain – as a teenager I practically overdosed on dystopian novels, and now that I’m slightly older and I guess with more things to worry about, reading dystopian novels has held considerably less appeal. When looking for leisure reading I’ll tend towards escapist fluff, especially when it comes to my YA. But what with the trailer out and all, there has been a flurry of excitement over at Tumblr and I’ve felt compelled to pick it up. And boy am I glad I did. To give you an idea of how much of a page-turner this book is, I bought the book yesterday morning at 11am and finished it the same day by 5pm. I did this when I should have been writing a 2,000 word essay.

So for those of you not in the know, The Hunger Games is set in a not-so-distant future where North America has largely been destroyed and is now called Panem. Panem is made up of 12 districts, all ruled by the oppressive Capitol who forces the other districts to give up a boy and girl each year as tribute to The Hunger Games, a gladiatorial event that is broadcast for the entertainment of those in the Capitol.

Initially I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how I felt about the narration – especially in the first couple of pages. I felt like the narrative voice was  bit over-dramatic considering Katniss has only just gotten out of bed. I think you’re meant to get the feeling that this is a character who has been through a lot (and indeed she has), but instead of the kind of world-weariness that I guess I would expect from such a character, it all just feels a bit trite, i.e. “Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we’ll come to love”. That said I suppose the doom and gloom of the narration could be justified considering it’s not just any old miserable day in District 12, but the day of the Reaping. So maybe this is an issue that’s really just down to personal preference.

Once the plot starts moving along though, these concerns are thrown completely out the window. When Katniss’ sister Prim gets chosen for The Hunger Games there’s no more time for mere exposition – it all becomes about Katniss and her will to survive and make it out of the games for the sake of her family.

I have to say that I definitely find Katniss quite a refreshing female main character – not because she’s a warrior (which isn’t an uncommon representation of female characters to be honest), but because of all the YA novels I’ve ever read, she definitely seems to have her priorities set in the way I imagine someone in her position would. I imagine in the hands of another author the relationship with Peeta would have definitely turned romantic, whereas I felt that in this case while you feel that there’s the possibility for romantic development between the two, in the context of their situation there is no way it would have realistically come to bloom. Katniss wasn’t interested in romance, not because she didn’t have the capacity to be romantically involved with someone, but because why the fuck would you if you’re busy trying to fight everyone else in the Hunger Games to the death? Her relationship with Peeta, like her relationship with Rue, developed out of a need for basic human affection and trust; a universal need and one that takes precedence over romantic love when your situation is one of constant danger and the need to make it out alive. And I really appreciated that. I really appreciated that there is a strong relationship between two characters where the basis for the relationship is so much more complex then just attraction; it’s friendship, gratitude, relief, comradeship and very occasionally, self-interest (certainly on Katniss’s part anyway).

Which is the other thing I find refreshing about Katniss. I like that while she does genuinely care for Peeta she’s not above faking a romance if it will get her sponsors and increase their chances of making it out alive. Considering how the media usually portrays women, it’s nice to have the female character be more worldly-wise than the male one for a change (i.e. the way she understands Haymitch will only send sponsor gifts if she plays up the romance, while Peeta is happily oblivious to the strings attached to the gifts) all of this without either character presented as being any less smart or less capable than the other.

As many others have pointed out, the satire on our fixation with reality TV and the way it makes sport of human misery has basically been taken to it’s logical conclusion, with competitors actually having to kill each other to ‘win’. Just like in reality TV there’s a carefully crafted image and appearance each competitor portrays, tactical moves to win favour with sponsors, etc. which is a really interesting take. I also found the examination of class issues fascinating, especially with policies such as the tesserae: where those who are eligible for the Hunger Games get their name put in the Hunger Games lottery an extra time for each tesserae they take out in exchange for basic necessities, such as cooking oil and grain. I’m sure there are plenty of policies in real life we can think up that reflect exactly this sort of mentality, the one where certain people are expendable.

Basically there’s plenty of food for thought, and the plot is very well-paced. I’d definitely reccommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read The Hunger Games. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a trailer (the white-washing discussion will have to have it’s own post, after I’ve actually seen the movie):

Ginie

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Ginie Reviews Books: Shanghai Girls


Title: Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical
Rating: 3/5

So who’s a sucker for 1930’s Shanghai? I am not going to lie, I do find this period of history very fascinating, (although actually I find most of 20th century China fascinating) I think I find Shanghai fascinating in particular because it was this city that was just a world apart from the rest of China, a city that existed in its own little cosmopolitan bubble until of course, the inevitable happens and everything collapses in a drastic way.

But this book isn’t merely about Shanghai in the 30’s – it actually covers a good fifty years with the last couple of decades spent in the States. Shanghai Girls tells the story of two sisters who lead privileged lives in Shanghai modelling as “beautiful girls” for calendars and adverts when their father forces them into arranged marriages in order to pay off his gambling debts. This happens at about the same time that the Japanese have started invading Shanghai, and their lives are changed forever. The novel follows the girls through their attempts to escape China via Hong Kong and how they end up at Angel Island, the prison/immigration centre set-up to deal with the sudden influx of immigrants that arrived thanks to the outbreak of the war; as well as how they attempt to make a life for themselves in the US amidst all the racism and political tension brought on by Mao’s Communist victory in China.

I did enjoy this book, but I do also have quite a few mixed feelings about it. I feel like sometimes there is sometimes quite a sudden jolt in narrative – for instance the very beginning of the book starts with the narrator explaining about how bookish and ‘ugly’ she is and how her parents love her sister best, and yet within the same chapter she’ll describe at length how beautiful her and her sister are as they prepare to go model for the artist Z.G.

So I guess my biggest problem with the novel is that I don’t always feel like the narration is very well-done or particularly strong. It is still a page-turner though, and the characters do get a lot of development so don’t let any of these things put you off (I get quite pedantic about narrative voice, so probably no one else will notice). As one might expect from a novel that deals with war, class and racism it does get quite depressing in parts – but none of this bothered me until the very end. I think how the sisters’ relationship pans out in the very last scenes is really harsh, and this did leave me feeling pretty down – so I guess if you’re likely to get upset by betrayal amongst close siblings and best-friends then just be aware of that.

All of this said, the amount of historical detail in this book is very impressive and definitely one of its strengths – especially the descriptions of life in Chinatown during the mid-20th century for Chinese people in L.A.; and especially how this played out both in the media with stereotypical portrayals of Chinese villains in Hollywood movies and how it played out in real life, with Chinese people being refused work or rent outside of Chinatown. One thing in particular that really caught my attention was when a wealthy American lady attempts to develop Chinatown by making it more tourist-friendly. She doesn’t this by contractually obliging those who worked in Chinatown to wear “traditional” Chinese clothing and speak broken English – in other words, as long as they conformed to what a Westerner would expect Chinese people to look and act like, they could continue living and working there. If anyone needed to know why Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls give me lots of uncomfortable mixed feelings, this would be why. Because contractually obliging people to act as stereotypes of their race isn’t cute – it’s a practice that is as old as time and very, very ugly.

So if you’re at all interesting in Chinese culture or history do pick up this book – the history seems very well-researched and very realistically conveyed.

Ginie

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Ginie reviews Books: The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

Title: The Hollow Kingdom (Book I)
Author: Clare B. Dunkle
Genre: Fantasy/folklore
Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Warning: Possible spoilers ahead and also Trigger Warning for mentions of abusive relationships

So while I was trawling through Amazon looking for my creepy Gothic fantasy fix, I stumbled upon this little gem that had loads of rave reviews and sounded like something that would be right up my alley.

The Hollow Kingdom tells the tale of Kate and Emily, two orphaned sisters who find themselves sent off to the Hallow Hill estate to live with their aunts and guardian – the really quite detestable Hugh Roberts. While there, they discover that the lake and surrounding wilderness has a tragic history linked to their own family and that Hallow Hill is actually part of Marak the goblin king’s kingdom – and that Marak has sinister plans of his own concerning the eldest sister, Kate. Namely abduction, a forced marriage and baby-making to ensure the survival of his own kingdom underground.

My summary isn’t very good, but basically I can’t recommend this book enough. If you like Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy for creepiness or Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tale for both creepiness and the level of research done into faerie-lore then you’ll love The Hollow Kingdom. I think this might be hands-down one of the creepiest YA Fantasy book I’ve ever read and I loved it.

But back to the review. So tell me, what do you think of when you hear the words “Goblin King”? Is it…

This?

Or perhaps even…

 This?

To be completely honest with you all, when I read the description of the Marak (Goblin for “Goblin King” – all the Goblin kings are called Marak) all I could see in my mind’s eye was…

 This. (Which probably just means I’m wayy too excited about Skyward Sword and absolutely gutted I don’t own a Nintendo Wii of my own). Only instead of being kind of hot and swish, he’s more grotesque and assymetrical – which is exactly as a goblin should be:

What Marak was, Kate didn’t know, but he couldn’t be a human, not with the big, bony head and tough, wiry body. The slightly bowed legs and large, knotted hands conveyed the idea of strength without grace…His face and hands were a ghastly pale gray, and his lips and fingernails were a dark tan – the colours, Kate thought, shuddering, of a corpse pulled out of water. His dull, straight hair fell, all one length, to his twisted shoulders. Most of it was a very light beige, but over one eye a coal-black patch grew back from his forehead, the long black wisps overlaying the pale hair like a spider’s legs. His ears rose to a sharp point that flopped over and stuck out through that rough hair like the ears of a terrier dog.

Most striking of all were Marak’s  deept-set eyes.The left-eye was black; the right, emerald green and they gleamed at her as if lit from within.

Also he has six fingers. Now if that’s not a goblin I don’t know what is. It’s quite refreshing in a way, to see that in a YA Fantasy book that does feature a romance-of-sorts the goblin Marak is still very much portrayed as a goblin and not in the least bit beautiful, which I think is a problem a lot of YA Fantasy has sometimes – in that it can’t accept monsters looking like monsters if they’re meant to be a main character and have some romantic entaglements (hullo Twilight vampires, I’m looking at you).

Though I admit I’m only referring to Marak as a love-interest for lack of a better word and it’s not a word I’m particularly comfortable with in this case as The Hollow Kingdom does suffer a bit from Beauty-and-the-Beast syndrome. i.e. hideous monster abducts/forcefully holds beautiful girl against her will, she eventually discovers he’s not as bad as she first thought and they end up in love – and while I’m happy to believe that a girl (or anyone really) might end up trying to make the most of their situation as a captive (hullo Stockholm Syndrome) I can’t really accept that this can be considered love in any sort of traditional sense.

So it’s a good thing then, that The Hollow Kingdom isn’t a Beauty-and-the-Best story – it is very much more. While the premise sounds as unfeminist as I think such a story could get, I would certainly consider Kate and Emily to be very strong and capable heroines. For a good three-quarters of the book Kate spends her time out-smarting Marak and attempting to clever-her-way out of becoming a Goblin King’s bride – because understandably, the thought of being abducted and held captive for the sole purposes of propagating the Royal Goblin line – to put it quite mildly – irks her no end. She does this all the while trying to keep both her and her little sister safe, and she does this on her own as soon as it becomes clear that none of the human adults believe her – indeed they intentionally put her in harm’s way in an attempt to make her “face he fears” and persistently question her sanity.

When she does finally giver herself over to the Goblin King it is in order to save her sister – and when she becomes the Goblin King’s wife she is placed under a charm (in the shape of a snake tattoo) that will strike and paralyse anyone – including the wife herself – who attempts to harm the Goblin King’s wife. The Goblin King then has the option to do with this person as he sees fit. The device is made to control the wife and ensure that she cannot escape – and yet despite this Kate discovers a way to make the charm work for her. The charm was originally placed on her in order to remove her of her agency, and yet she eventually learns to manipulate the charm and use it as a tool to give her back control over her own life, which I love. Also she befriends the snake who has some of the funnier lines in the story:

“Charm, has this happened before?”

“Yes,” hissed the snake softly. “Two other King’s Wives have been outside without the King’s permission. One no longer had a king. He was dead, and she was awaiting the birth of the heir. The other was in danger when the Kingdom Spells gave way and her king was far from home. And one King’s Wife travelled by closed wagon with a loud, fat woman during the migration. But it is true,” it whispered,”that you are the first King’s Wife to travel by closed wagon with a loud, fat woman and without the King’s permission.”

As with Beauty and the Beast, Kate eventually discovers she quite likes living amongst the Goblins and that she has become quite fond of Marak over time – but thankfully unlike Beauty and the Best it isn’t Kate’s gentle womanly ways that softens Marak and convinces him to love her and free her – it’s the fact that she saves his entire damn kingdom while he is incapacitated and this leads to him realising he has no right to hold someone captive who had braved such dangers to save his kingdom.

Despite how strong Kate is as a heroine, there are quite a lot of problematic aspects of her relationship with Marak. Mainly that while he may treat her with respect in the end, at least for a good three-quarters of the novel he is nothing but abusive and controlling and that seems rather too easily forgotten and forgiven. Furthermore, while Marak does respect his new wife’s strength and intelligence even towards the end you get the sense that it is Kate’s baby-making potential that he admires the most and that is pretty problematic in itself, especially considering this.

This is why I can’t really accept Kate and Marak’s relationship as a love story – because I really don’t think it is. Kate makes the best of her time in the Goblin kingdom and grows to respect and admire Marak’s craftiness and magic skills, but the revelation that she has grown to love him feels pretty forced. Not to mention the hints that suggest she accepts goblin life almost because she’s come to fear humanity and how monstrous they can be – for while the Goblins are monstrous at least they cannot lie, whereas humans lie all the time, hiding their monstrousness. This is hardly the kind of ending that I would call happy and hardly the kind of situation that would lend itself towards a truly loving relationship.

As for Marak, I feel that he is very true to his character and makes a very convincing fey. Clare Dunkle has successfully presented him as a Goblin rather than try to shoe-horn in any human expectations or human notions of morality, and this is very refreshing. Faerie-type are meant to be largely amoral, which Marak is – but unable to lie, which Marak can’t – and he has his own set of principles that revolve mainly around honesty and ensuring he does right by his people, which he does – even if it is at the expense of his bride’s well-being.

That said, I am very much looking forward to reading the next book – which will focus on Emily who I felt throughout the novel might have always been the more interesting sister.

Ginie

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