Tag: young adult (page 1 of 2)

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There are a lot of sequels in this world that do not necessarily need to exist. From movies to games, stretching a creative idea into three or more parts has become the rule rather than the exception, and it doesn’t always yeild good results. If a narrative is planned from the beginning to have multiple parts, it can fare better, but each part must build on those that came before and expand in its own ways, instead of just treading old ground. At first glance, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire may seem to be a case of the latter – dystopia, arena combat, etc – but just a few minutes in, it’s clear that the movie is both a continuation of the tale and has its own story to tell.

Courtesy Lionsgate Films

At the end of Panem’s 74th Hunger Games, there were two victors instead of the usual one. Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark sold the media-saturated elite of the decadent Capital on their love story, but as they return to District 12’s dark and dusty squallor, it’s clear that the relationship is just for the cameras. Moreover, their act of defiance against President Cornelius Snow has sparked protests and uprisings in the other Districts. Snow asks Katniss politely to behave herself on her victory tour around Panem, but when that doesn’t go well, he pulls the young couple back into the arena, this time with other victors, all experienced killers, with the notion that this ‘Mockingjay’ problem will sort itself out.

In case you missed the clear parallel author Suzanne Collins was drawing between imperial Rome and her dystopian vision of the future, the visuals of Catching Fire is sure to hammer it home. But along with the Roman influence comes something closer to our modern age. Panem is a society saturated with and bombarded by media. The allure and spectacle of the Capital is meant to distract the people of the Districts from their hardships and toils, and the media with its fixation on celebrity and drama spread and reinforce that distraction. The thing about an exploitative system, though, is that smart people can exploit it right back.

Courtesy Lionsgate Films
The parallels to things like ‘American Idol’ definitely stand out.

What strikes me most about Catching Fire is the amount of emotional nuance present in the characters. Facial expressions can be difficult to communicate through prose, but on film, any character can have a moment where a look or a gesture can speak a thousand words. From our heroine suffering from clear signs of PTSD to minor characters literally giving their all for the sake of what they believe in, the character moments in the film move us from event to event, rather than relying entirely on the mechanisms of the plot. Jennifer Lawrence carries the movie, of course, but she doesn’t do it alone. I can’t think of a performance that strikes me as bad or even mediocre, and considering that we have these strong characters being observed and possibly emulated by young people, it’s a big mark in the movie’s favor.

If I have a problem with Catching Fire, it’s that the process of adaptation has left several scenes axed that inform later scenes. Without this foundation, some of the events leading up to the climax can feel contrived, working out for Katniss more through convenience than anything she directly does. Despite the time the movie takes to have its character moments and expansions on Panem’s nature, it feels at times like some of the story’s parts are missing. I can’t guarantee I’ll buy it, but I wonder if there will be a Director’s Cut of this film that fills in some of the missing pieces.

Courtesy Lionsgate Films
Plutarch is scheming. That’s his scheming face.

Catching Fire was the strongest of Suzanne Collins’ books set in Panem, and it makes for a strong movie. With characters to empathize with, clean shots, and well-framed visuals, it draws the audience in far more adeptly than a lot of other entertainment aimed at young adults. It’s smart, it makes no apologies for its characters being who they are even as we relate to them, and it defintely feels more like a true sequel to The Hunger Games than something tacked on to the franchise to make more money. While I feel like some of its bits are missing, the fact that I can’t come up with any other major criticisms means the odds are definitely in this film’s favor.

Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

I have a confession to make. I follow John Green around. I follow his Tumblr. I follow his Twitter. I subscribe to his YouTube channels CrashCourse, MentalFloss and Vlogbrothers. I do this because I believe him to be extremely intelligent and insightful. I deeply admire his goal to, as he puts it, “decrease worldsuck” through the efforts of various charities and the input of the Nerdfighters who also follow him. And he’s a New York Times bestselling author, a distinction he’s earned for the young adult tale of romance called The Fault in Our Stars.

Courtesy John Green

Hazel Grace Lancaster, sixteen years old, is living with cancer. A miracle in an ER and the advanced drug Phalaxifor left her with the necessity of an oxygen tank to help her failing lungs take in air. She’s trying to make the most of her time, attending college courses since she finished high school early, but her parents insist she also go to a local support group instead of just staying at home watching America’s Next Top Model. Reluctant as she is, Hazel tries to endure, making faces and sharing sighs with her friend Isaac, until the night Isaac arrives with a young man named Augustus Waters.

The first thing that impressed me about The Fault in Our Stars was the reality and intelligence in Hazel’s voice. She is not the kind of person to hide from or conceal her feelings or attitude, which is extremely admirable, especially in a teenager. Rather than put on airs or try to be something she’s not, Hazel owns her situation no matter what it might be, and is very much the sort of person who wishes to be the master of their own destiny. Her feelings for Augustus do mess with this inner dynamic somewhat, and reading about her difficulty in that regard is just as engrossing as Augustus himself. Charming and intelligent in his own right, it’s clear why these two fall in love, despite (or perhaps because of) their circumstances. They’re such rich, real characters that you can’t help but empathize with them, and it’s that empathy that keeps the pages turning.

The Fault in Our Stars presents some complex ideas and deep themes about life, death, identity and the contract between author and reader, but it is not itself a complex read. Green is not interested in any shadow plays or narrative slight of hand. He keeps the story moving and the points simple, yet still weaves an involving and emotional narrative. This is another case in which simplicity in storytelling does not necessarily mean the story suffers. In fact, the simplicity of the plot means there’s more room for us to get to know our characters, even minor ones, which makes The Fault in Our Stars come to life in a way that other epic tales might envy.

I cannot recommend The Fault in Our Stars highly enough. It is a rich, involving story of young love and true loss that strikes home with the power and ferocity of a bullet from a high-powered sniper rifle, and John Green has perfect narrative aim. The book will, in most cases, make the reader tear up or even weep openly at times. Every tear is worth it, though, and I hope that more young adult fiction aspires to emulate a story like this as opposed to some of the other stuff that’s out there. Young people deserve great stories, and The Fault in Our Stars is one of the best.

Book Review: Bait Dog

BAIT DOG: Potential Cover
Courtesy Terribleminds

Bait Dog is one of the hardest reads I’ve ever experienced. Not because any of the language was obtuse, mind you: Chuck Wendig, as always, writes smoothly and conversationally. It also wasn’t because there are any plot problems or discordant character moments. It was hard to read because it deals with the ugly and absolutely repulsive world of dog fighting.

Atlanta Burns is a girl who gets shit done. We established this in Shotgun Gravy. Word has gotten around, and now other people want her to get shit done for them. A rich girl hires her to find out why her dog crawled home missing her claws and teeth. Atlanta isn’t much of a dog person, but she needs the money so she takes the case. Her friend Shane seems to think this means she’s given up on finding who killed their gay friend Chris, while evidence suggests the young man committed suicide. The more Atlanta kicks over the rocks hiding this depraved world of dogs teaching other dogs to kill, the more she finds animals far worse behind them, the sort of animals who would stage a suicide just to murder a boy who likes other boys.

Gritty tales such as this are necessary in worlds where people would much rather invest in canned sequels and safe but mediocre remakes. People may think that sordid affairs and underhanded people of this nature only exist in certain places far from their homes. Stories like Bait Dog remind you that nothing could be further from the truth. Having lived near and moved through the areas of Pennsylvania described in the world of Atlanta Burns, the idea of dogs being tortured and murdered for profit so close to my home is absolutely chilling. And that’s only part of the story.

So many people say “it gets better” when it comes to bullying, to hatred, to racism and homophobia and every other type of evil, ignorant behavior that seethes in the hearts of human beings. But when you see a friend with an eye swollen shut because of bullies, or crying because of narrow-minded hate, or hanging from the end of a rope, it’s hard to believe that it will ever get better. Atlanta has her own way of making things better. It usually involves a squirrel gun, a collapsible baton, or a big can of bear mace.

It can be hard to remember that Atlanta’s a teenager. She goes about her business with what seems like certainty to the outside observer. But from inside our head, we see how much she flies by the seat of her pants. We keenly feel her lack of confidence in herself, her concerns for her mother and her friends, and her absolute intolerance for the intolerant. In a world where polite society would have her working out a compromise, learning to forgive and forget, where compassion is expected to be levied against hatred, Atlanta answers hatred with hatred, blood for blood. So all-consuming is her thirst for basic, natural justice that she will risk everything, anything, to see it done. She’s a pint-sized pubescent Punisher.

Atlanta’s stories, so far, work on very basic levels and play on raw nerves. This both makes it hard, at times, to read, but also worth the time and effort to read it all the way to the end. The story builds in a very organic and visceral way, pulling off plot twists and character revelations in a fantastic way. As difficult as some of the mental imagery can be to process, by the time you’re in a hard-to-read section the tale’s already got you by the balls, and you can’t not finish reading it.

If you like very human protagonists who kick ass, if you want to see true evil punished, if you love your pets, Bait Dog is for you. Know going in that it’s going to hurt. Remember that the hurt will be worth it. Take a deep breath, and dive in.

Rewrite Report: Elves & Dwarves

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

At time of writing, the rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds stands at 50,230 spanning 17 chapters.

I’m roughly more than halfway done.

In addition to completely reworking the opening so it doesn’t suck, I decided it would behoove me to move some of the folks in the story away from traditional interpretations of fantasy races. In earlier drafts, they were elves and dwarves. It made sense to go with what I knew, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was doing myself a disservice in trying to make my world something special but making these races no different than what’s come before.

Acradea is a living, breathing world all its own. Its native races should reflect that. So elves and dwarves became Yusarulim and Vulumae. The Yusarulim, or Children of the Grove, blend in with the foliage and greenery of their home in the forests and jungles, protecting what wildlife and resources they can from human intrusion. Events have left their people a bit scattered, with the biggest enclave being the titular Grove that rests at the heart of what Citizens call the Wilds.

At first, Asherian saw nothing. Then he detected movement, sliding down the vast trunks towards them. The coloration and texture of those approaching was nearly identical to the tree. Others emerged from the bushes and ferns, fronds wrapping around slender limbs that looked so delicate, Asherian feared they’d break with the slightest pressure. Their features and proportions, while vaguely humanoid, unnerved him, from their long digits to their slanted, almond-shaped eyes. The more they moved from the trees and plants, the more they appeared to be clothed in garments bearing motifs of leaves and sky, rather than those elements themselves. Their skin tones complimented these patterns, some with dark skin to match bark while others were the color of a clear summer sky. They were all armed, some with bows or spears, and others with wickedly curved daggers. And they were all staring at Asherian, not saying a word.

The Vulumae, while more numerous than the Yusarulim, are actually more secluded, living as they do far beneath Acradea’s surface in Holds of various description. With magic outlawed and lacking open air in which to travel, they have developed a rail system spanning the planet. Their society is highly regimented and vigilance is constant, as many believe that their proximity to the depths of the world brings them perilously close to what is referred to as ‘the Deep Darkness’.

Where the Yusarulim are slender and graceful, the Vulumae are massive, tending to move with deliberate purpose. They’re not quite as tall as the Children of the Grove, but the Stone-Folk easily have half again as much mass as a human of comparable size. Their skin tones range from soot to marble to obsidian and granite, slowly becoming more and more stiff and immovable as they age. They have large, dark eyes, well-suited for dark caverns and caves, and where humans have hair, they have either ridges of darker color than their skin that somewhat resemble cornrows or braids on a human, or strands or ringlets of what would appear to be spun metal, copper or gold or silver to name a few. They move in battle as one, with towering shields made to lock together and provide space for their spears, becoming mobile fortresses dangerous to approach and fearsome to behold when they charge.

So there they are. I didn’t want to just change the names of the races to sound different. My goal is to have them be functionally different from what we’ve seen before in “fantasy” settings. There’s a lot going on with Acradea and its origins, and these two races are a part of that. It’s my hope that readers will find them interesting and they add to the tapestry I’m weaving in Citizen in the Wilds.

And I managed to avoid spoilers! Not bad for my first rewrite update.

Book Review: Mockingjay

The Hunger Games have concluded, and the winner is…

Courtesy Scholastic Books

It can be difficult to limit yourself to a certain length for a narrative. If you can manage it, however, you allow yourself to do two things. Being limited in time pushes you to develop your world and characters as much as possible with as few words as possible. It also gives you the opportunity to go absolutely ape with the last installment in the story. Will the darkness of the second part of a trilogy give way to the light at the end, or does the story deliver on promises of doom and gloom? I won’t enter spoiler territory, but rest assured that Mockingjay delivers the goods.

Panem is in chaos. As the story opens, Districts are in open revolt against the decadent Capitol. The rebels are based in the underground stronghold of District 13, long thought eradicated by Capitol forces. As the story opens, however, the Districts are fractured and divided. They need something to unite them against their oppressor, a symbol of defiance and liberty – someone like Katniss Everdeen. All District 13 has to do is convince a traumatized, malnourished and battered young woman to be their Mockingjay. It’s something she has no interest in whatsoever.

One thing that has distinguished the Hunger Games trilogy is the evolution or, perhaps more accurately, breakdown of Katniss. Her motivations and drive for putting herself through hell never seem contrived or unwarranted, even if they are occasionally foolish or headstrong. She’s brave without being arrogant, brash without being annoying and vulnerable without being weak. She’s everything a protagonist in their late teens really should be. Her doubts, hopes, dreams and nightmares feel very authentic and adds a great layer of grounding to the entire narrative.

Mockingjay also gives us more information on the future nation of Panem. It’s made pretty clear on what basis the nation was founded. Panem is derived from the Latin term ‘panem et circenses’ – bread & circuses. With the bulk of the population working in misery, if not oppression, for the benefit of a tiny percentage of upper-class citizens who remain ignorant of the plight of the majority due to their decadence and the machinations of the leadership… well, I’m sure no parallels can be drawn to our current day and age whatsoever.

You may notice I’ve mentioned very little about the plot. I honestly don’t want to spoil anything for you. But trust me when I say that this is a far more shining example of poignant, powerful and timely young adult fiction than many of the entries currently available and popular. The entire trilogy has a very immediate feel to it, a compelling atmosphere that will have you eschewing other things and distractions because it means putting these books down.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are all highly recommended. It is my hope that, with this source material, the major motion picture captures the truth of the characters and setting and shows young women a true role model for their age. I plan on being there to find out.

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