The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (Rumination Warning)

I’m behind on my reviews. It’s obvious when I look at my pile of already-read books on the corner of my desk. I pick up the oldest—when I suddenly realize that I read The Hunger Games before this one.

The Hunger Games couldn’t be in this pile because it was the first e-book I got for my Nook. Barnes & Noble offered it, free, when buying their e-reader. For the sake of expedience and my frazzled memory, here’s a list of (somewhat) unrelated points I’ve learned as a result of reading this book:

1. It’s really easy to put down (and forget) an e-Book

The Nook isn’t my first e-Reader. We also have a Sony, which is used by hubby when he travels. Up until Hunger Games, however, I hadn’t finished a novel on either e-Reader… Why?

First, there’s no nagging book cover sitting on my bedside stand at bedtime (I do my reading in the 15-30 minutes before I go to sleep). Sometimes the e-Reader itself is missing: hubby helpfully moves e-Readers back to the charging station in the other room and, apparently, nothing but a real page-turner will remind me to go pick it up.

So The Hunger Games was the first novel I finished on an e-Reader because it is a page-turner. But I don’t remember it that well–its story seemed more ephemeral than others I’ve recently read. E-ink and other e-reader display technologies were supposed to solve the “comprehension and retention problems” with “electronic screen” reading (look it up), but maybe they’re not solved yet?

2. It’s about the pacing conflict tension

I wanted to nail down the reason(s) why I couldn’t put this book down. At first, I thought it was due to good pacing (how much action is in each chapter, the use of short chapters, cliff-hangers at chapter endings). But no, action and chapter structure aren’t enough of an inducement to read.

Then I thought it might be due to internal and external character conflict. But no, there’s hardly any internal conflict. The protagonist accepts her situation (rather easily) and runs on automatic, letting her survival skills drive her decisions. Also, I didn’t consider her that likable, which works directly against the page-turning urge. The external conflict is artificial and a product of the “Hunger Games”—themselves the result of a very contrived world—which the heroine acknowledges and accepts.

Then I remembered Donald Maass’s emphasis on tension and micro-tension. “Micro-tension” is using tension on a line-by-line basis. I figured that “good pacing” was really the judicious use of tension on a macro scale, such as in the novel’s chapter breaks, climax, 3-act plot, etc. Collins makes good use of both.

3. First-person present-tense is (still) uncomfortable

Using the present tense (verb forms) still jerks me out of the story, and in odd places where I think the author would rather not have that happen. I have to ask: why this mania for using present-tense in first-person narration? It’s particularly prevalent in recently-published Young Adult (YA) and Urban Fantasy.

Unfortunately, this excessive use of present tense feels like a manipulative device or crutch for increasing immediacy (and thereby, the writer thinks, increasing tension). But for Collins, who made great use of tension, it wasn’t necessary. And, for those of us who were taught that present tense isn’t appropriate for written storytelling, it can be unnerving.

4. What sort of SF 4th-graders read, and what they thought of The Hunger Games

Now taking a ninety-degree turn: I was invited to speak to 4th-graders at the Ricks Center for Gifted Children at the University of Denver near the end of April. This was to support their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) day celebration.

Aside: I’ll cover how much fun I had with the students at the Ricks Center in another post. But when I was putting together my slides, hubby came in and kibitzed. He looked at the top row, which had books from Jules Verne to Brian Herbert (approximately the 1860s to the 1960s). “You know that none of them will have read those books,” he said. “I was reading stuff like that in the 4th grade,” I replied. “So I’m not going to underestimate them.” And it’s a good thing I didn’t.

In the first class, when I showed the first row of covers and asked if any of them had read those authors—nearly every hand shot up. One boy could only be described as a super-reader; he’d read every Jules Verne book and was working his way through every Edgar Rice Burroughs book, plus he’d read Dune and one of Asimov’s robot books. The second row contained more recent authors (McCaffrey, Cherryh, LeGuin, Brin, Le’Engle, etc.) Only L’Engle had been read. The third line had a few YA titles, but only The Hunger Games had been read by about half of the first class (and very few of the second class). Of those who had read it, about half had also seen the movie.

Which book on my slides was the most read? It was a tie between Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Did any of them have a book that really affected them, one that they’d always remember? (I wasn’t asking strictly about SF—just any type). It turned out that L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the first of the Percy Jackson series by Riordan, and The Hobbit were top of the list. Did they like The Hunger Games (those that read it)? Oh, yes! If they saw the movie, was it as good as the book? No, definitely not.

That’s when I turned to the half who hadn’t read the book and asked if they were going to read it. No, because their parents thought it was too violent—this was a universal answer. “Well, it certainly is extreme,” I answered. I told them that I spoke with a Barnes & Noble employee when choosing the book, and that employee confided she wasn’t able to finish it due to its darkness/violence. The teacher (I assumed) who accompanied the class agreed to having the same problems. Many of the 4th graders nodded.

“I watched an interview with the author,” began one boy. He told us that Ms. Collins got the idea for the book after watching some reality TV shows. Then she built upon that and made a “ridiculous and extreme” reality show where kids fought to the death. He talked about what Ms. Collins had exaggerated to make the book work. “Do you think that Katniss’s world is realistic? Could it ever happen?” I asked. No, came the chorus.

The overriding conclusion was that the book wasn’t realistic, but the story was fun and exciting. So there went my talk about the distortions, prognostications, and “what ifs” of Science Fiction… The kids are already able to judge the potential for different kinds of futures.

My Take On The Book?

The world-building wasn’t good: hence the contrived world the kids mentioned. When Collins tried to show an all-powerful Capital City, I saw a vulnerable population that depended upon the other districts for everything: weapon systems, labor (including military), computers/gadgets, energy, all supplies and food had to be transported into Capital City. When the mountains that supposedly “protected” Capital City during the rebellion were described—I just saw an incredible tactical advantage (i.e., rebels could easily bombard from the high ground, as well as easily cut off their vulnerable supply routes). Another point: violent rebellion never goes away for that long. Apparently there has been about 75 years of slavery, serfdom (both!?), and oppressive hunger since the last rebellion. But if you look at human history, you’ll see that hungry people won’t wait that long before they riot…

Yet it was a page-turner and an exciting read. Unfortunately, the protagonist didn’t seem to change much, when all was said and done. Highly recommended, as long as you don’t expect much world-building and you can buy into the basic premise.

Any opinions?

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