Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘suspense


Why is imagination important? How difficult it is to recover if lost? Why should we even care? All these questions ran through my mind as I fell under the spell of Frank Beddor’s fractured Looking Glass Wars.

Based on reviews, I almost didn’t read this book. Critics were condemning Bendor for how he had turned our beloved Alice in Wonderland into a story frothing with battles and so I feared his book might prove too adult to me. After all, I had quit reading the popular Wicked only a few chapters in, because the maturity level of its content robbed me of any joy in reading a book about my beloved Oz series. In contrast, Beddor’s trilogy is now on my list of series to read. No, Looking Glass Wars is not the original Alice in Wonderland, but it is a clever fractured tale about imagination–and the crazy world on the other side of the looking glass.

During the first pages of Looking Glass Wars, my preconceptions were running high. Instead of ushering readers down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass, Beddor sends our betrayed heroine fleeing from an author and then delves into a rather lengthy description of the civic war plaguing Wonderland. Neither enticed me. I almost quit reading, but then Alyss bubbles onto the pages. This six-year-old used her imagination to cover court instruments with fur, fill her birthday cake with gwormmies, and transfer her mother’s crown to her head so Alyss can play Queen for a day. I smiled: Beddor has a sense of fun.

Nowadays conventional wisdom to writers is to entice readers with an opening action scene. Beddor includes two, neither of which worked for me. Rather, he hoked me with a whimsical style and then reeled me in with his characters.They are as preposterous as the originals, but Beddor somehow makes them not only believable but also causes me to care about them.

In the original book Alice follows a rabbit into Wonderland. In Looking Glass Wars, the female lead’s name is Alyss and is heir to the Wonderland throne. According to him, we only know about her in our world because she met Lewis Carroll (author of the original book) after fleeing her world to escape death and thereby accidentally splashing into our world. Then there’s Tutor Bibwit. The rabbit that Alice followed into Wonderland shows up in Beddor’s book as her tutor who, despite his smugness in considering himself the most learned, wins our admiration because of his intense loyalty to the Wonderland princess. On the opposing side is Redd, familiar to us as the red queen (and mind you really is a chess piece), along with some other surprising characters from Carroll’s book. Some are good, others are evil, but all would no doubt satisfy Carroll’s sense of the eccentric. Even the caterpillar makes a few appearances! What astounded me the most is how how real Beddor made his most preposterous characters: rabbits, cards, chess pieces, caterpillars, jabberwocky. They always felt as real as the human characters.

The one glaring flaw in Looking Glass Wars is how especially in the first half of the book, Beddor often defaults to non-descript depictions of clothes and buildings. For example, the fabric of the queenly clothes and the royal curtains are “more voluptuous than anything ever imagined”. Are they made of satin, silk, or another fabric? Are they a royal color such as purple or silver? He never tells us. Beddor also relies on logical and unimaginative names for places: Boarderland, Volcanic Plains, and Wondertropolis. Surely, wonderland deserved more care the depiction of its landscape! In the latter half of the book, Beddor does provide some vivid portrayals of a decripit world, telling us that a corner was crowded with “smoky grills and crystal smugglers” or that “long-stemmed, flesh-eating roses slithered”. Apparently, ugliness is easier to describe than beauty.

Since closing its pages, the book stuck in my mind. Not for its style, whimsical as it is. Not for its unique characters, captivating as they are. Not even for Beddor’s ability to gracefully intertwine the original story with his fractured tale, astonishing as this is. What still runs through my mind months after my original read is the theme: Do we outgrow imagination? How can we recover it? And does imagination even matter?

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

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I really wanted to love Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. After all, I had raced through the first two books in The Hunger Games trilogy both times that I read them. When news of the third book hit the web, I didn’t even wait for its arrival at my local library. Instead I bought the boxed trilogy at a local bookstore. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen in the newly-discovered District 13, with the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, and to the Capitol now that its districts were staging rebellions. Yet despite winning me over by the end, this book is the weakest link.

To start, there are large logic holes: For example, can anyone tell me how exactly did Gale pull off the rescue of District 12? If the electricity was disabled solely due to the district being bombed, how did its hundreds of citizens flee in time to the lake? And how did Gale know about the lake? Last I heard Katniss hadn’t shared its location with anyone because of its held memories of her dad. Perhaps she shared its whereabouts at some point in her discreet talks with Gale, was of course overheard by all the knowing Capitol, and I have simply forgotten this moment. Even given this, why didn’t the Capitol didn’t simply pursue everyone to the lake in their hovercrafts?

I do admire the careful attention Collins bestows to new readers. In both Catching Fire and Mockingjay, she spends the first few chapters deftly alluding to earlier events. In a new twist, in Mockingjay, she even portrays Katniss as mentally instable, being visited by doctors, and using their recommended technique of remembering the simplest things she knows to be true: “My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capital hates me. Peeta was taking prisoner. He is thought to be dead….” Personally, I thought this chant–repeated more than once in the first few chapters–to be overkill, but perhaps this is merely the arrogant reaction of a fan.

Collins also never really convinced me that former tribute and victor Finnick would have also succumbed to mental instability to the point that he rarely left his hospital bed. Yes, In Catching Fire, he did race after an imitation of his love’s voice. Yet afterwards he was the one who kept Katniss from chasing an imitation of her best friend’s voice. He also conspired with the allies to blow up the Hunger Games arena. Collins seemed to want to include him, without having any valid reason, and ultimately I dislike the role she gave him in the final section.

Which brings up another flaw. I tend to prefer character books. Collins’ masterful depiction of both major and minor characters is partially what drew me into her suspense books. In Mockingjay, I feel instead inundated with a dizzying array of bland characters from the newly-discovered District 13. Even when familar characters step into the scene such as Beeter, who was introduced in Catching Fire and instrumental to the escape of the allies from the death arena, very little new is revealed about them. And far too many favorite characters such as Effie and  Cinna and Madge are absent, dead, or conveniently resurrected when Collins needs them.

Then there’s the setting. I don’t need the places in my novels to be visceral. After all, they’re rather lacking in plenty of other books on my wish list. Yet Collins’ adept delination of detail is partially what drew me into her suspense trilogy. There is a glimmer of her style in a line in the chapter about the lockdown drills, where Katniss stays behind a pipe in the laundry room and watches a spider construct a web. But it is only a glimmer, in contrast to the plentitude I found in her first two books: “ugly urn filled with fake flowers” “watch a beetle crawl up the side of a honeysuckle bush” “green and silver moth on his wrist” “fine wool coat that always seems too tight in the shoulders” “scent of oranges that still lingered on his chin” “feeble flame that burns on one end of a charred log”. No doubt, her craft suffered here due to District 13 being uniform in buildings, rooms, schedules, food, and pretty much everything else you could imagine. Then again, Collins created this bland other district. Why, I am not sure.

There were other moments besides that of the spider that I liked. There is the chapter where Haymitch challenges everyone to identify the moments when Katniss shone as a hero. There are the moments with Boggs, one of the District 13 military leaders, that endear him to Katniss and therefore to me. And there are the surprise twists such as what happened to those allies who were captured by the Capitol, what happens in District 2 when the rebels attempt to take it over, and other events that I can’t mention. Actually, with those twists, the suspense and the emotional angst builds. So, with this last book, the page-turning thrills (with its fighting and killing) are sadly are mostly what engaged me. What a disappointing finale to an otherwise brillant trilogy.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

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What if the well-being of your family depended on how well you could fake feelings for a guy whom you barely knew? What if your friends and neighbors could be hurt everytime you rebelled against rules that you disliked? How would you choose to act? How easily could you make those choices and face the consequences?

A picture drawn of Peeta Mellark, a character ...

Image via Wikipedia

Katniss may have thought her life would return to normal after the Hunger Games, an annual fight-to-the-death event demanded by the Capital of its twelve districts. Yes, of course, there would be concessions: She would serve as mentor to the next tribute picked from District 12; She and her family would live in Victor Village; And the families of those children whom she killed during the battle enforced upon her by the Capitol would not likely forget or forgive her. But then again she would probably never meet them nor the families of the children whom she had saved except of course Peeta’s family. He would live in a house alongside her in the Victor Village but, now that they were done with the games, she would no longer need to feign love for him to save both their lives–or would she?

In Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is bombarded by more than the harshness of District 12. Her new victor life demands more of her than her pre-victor life of boiling water for baths, disobeying hunting laws to find game to sell for food, and living under a constant layer of coal dust. After the games, Katniss finds herself mourning the loss of her earlier life–for at least then she knew where she fit in. Now she has President Snow warning her she must convince him of her love for Peeta–her family’s life depends on it. One minute Katniss is wishing to gather up her family and run. The next minute she is encouraging rebellion. Only the latter results not only in the reinstitution of public whippings, but sees the beloved Hob burnt to the ground. Every action Katniss takes has a consequence, none of which are pleasant.

Even when Katniss acquisces and revives pretense of love for Peeta, her world is not righted. How could it be? Shouldn’t one marry only for love? Yet what if by marrying Peeta, she could protect her family and the man she actually loves? And who’s to say she doesn’t really love Peeta? Or that she truly loves Gale? She has never been allowed to explore her feelings for either without the intervention and manipulation of the Capitol. Or what if she didn’t feel any conflict about her true feelings? What if she did actually love Peeta? How could even this resolution help her find peace, when she is seen as the mockingjay? She is the symbol of rebellion and hope of a new life apart from the Capitol. All over people in districts are fighting and fleeing tyrany. Would Katniss really feel comfortable choosing the safety of seclusion in Victor Village, while around her others are risking execution to overthrow the Capital? She ignited a spark when she threatened for her and Peeta to swallow poisonous berries in the arena and therefore allow for no survivors. Could she accept just sitting back?

Catching Fire holds all the perfect qualities that Hunger Games did: suspense, characters we deeply care about, settings that are familar yet harsh and alien, and of course probing ethical questions. Actually, Collins reveals even deeper facets of the lives of her minor characters and even so-called district enemies. Catching Fire is a captivating sequel that will leave you breathless throughout and send you dashing at the end to the library for the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


What is it about Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins that enthralls me so much? My husband teases that it’s all the fighting and the killing. He is right that the book is driven by violence. It is also driven by suspense. Which means in either case, it’s not my typical book. I prefer character books; where there is more than action to the story. Hunger Games however is that special hybrid that offers mind-bending and heart-wracking thrills, while also offering up characters to love, settings to absorb, and enough emotional angst and moral probing to leave one slightly unsettled when the book covers are shut.

Collins reveals much of the depth of her main character Katniss through the memories she relives of family, friends, and neighbors while competing for her life against eleven other selected tributes in the Capitol’s arena of death. Even before being plunged into this nightmare, however, we first see Katniss seek the warm comfort of her sister, anticipate the comfortable presence of best friend Gale, swing by the Hob (a black market) which remains busy even on Reaping Day, and struggling to accept help from her mother. In other words, in just one chapter, Collins successfully presents Katniss as a vulnerable and flawed but likeable character. Then in the very next, her sister’s name is called as a tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and the countdown to the Hunger Games begins. Yet Collins continues to delve deeply into her characters, like a miner burrowing deeper and deeper into the earth, even as the action switches from District 12 to the Capitol and to the Hunger Games arena.

While I also do not particularly gravitate to books about other worlds, setting can enhance a book for me in the same way that large screens and high definition video can enhance the movie-viewing experience. Collins has delineated details so well that her hauntingly medieval but also starkly futuristic setting feels alarmingly real. Each district in her country of Panem lives by a trade, in District 12 children grow up to be coal miners, and suffers from the effects of war. All districts are separated from one another, surrounded by electric fences, and often guarded by Peacekeepers who punish law-breakers with whippings, gallows, or gunfire. Even worse, the Capitol annually requires each district to enter names of children into a drawing, from which one youth per district is picked to compete in the Hunger Games, from which there is allowed to only a single survivor. In ancient times maidens were sacrificed to appease monsters or gods; in Panem, children are thrown into an arena where environmental features such as manufactured wild birds and beasts are dreamt up by the Gamekeepers of the Capitol.

I could rave further about all the positives of Hunger Games. There is Collins’ style: “As I stride to the elevator, I fling my bow to one side and quiver to the other … brush past the Avoxes who guard the elevators and hit the number twelve….” Teachers would definitely praise Collins for her use of WOW words! There is also the thematic undertone: Consider Peeta’s declaration that in the arena: “I want to die as myself.” His stirring words causes a quarrel between him and Katniss that reminds of the varied reactions of contestants on reality shows. Truly Hunger Games holds so many qualities so perfectly blended together that it needs to be your next read.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Partway through GONE, the final book in Lisa McMann‘s dream trilogy, Janie’s boyfriend yells at her to, “Just shut about your stupid problems!” To which I nodded my head and voiced an inner, “I agree!” Indeed, my biggest criticism of this last book is Janie’s attitude. I do have other complaints too, such as the lack of background information provided for readers new to the series. There’s also the drawn-out suspense about a second choice Janie faces, as if we haven’t guessed it long before she reveals it to us. For awhile, I feared that McMann might fall into the trap that so many series writers do of failing to provide a satisfactory end with her last book. Thankfully, she didn’t. Having now read the whole trilogy, I can heartily recommend it to mature audiences.

If you haven’t guessed already, the first half of the book is the weakest. It rapidly dumps us into the middle of the Janie’s emotional reaction to events revealed in FADE. She is reeling from the publicity of being an undercover cop and from information revealed in a green book about some unpleasant consequences of being a dream-catcher. Throwing readers into the thick of her emotional meltdowns might work fine for readers familar with McMann’s earlier books. For newcomers, surely more explanation could be offered about Janie’s history as a dream-catcher or the trial in which she served as a witness.

Janie has also returned to her “woe is me” tune of the first book, except there I could accept it because it inspired her to seek out more information about her abilities whereas here it only pushes her deeper into a pity mode: There is no escape. There is never ever nothing for her. She is suffocating. She is breaking inside. I begin to lose sympathy for her, which doesn’t seem like the smartest move on McMann’s part. If readers stop caring for an author’s main character, and there isn’t any other crisis driving the story forward, why will they contnue to read?

After tolerating several chapters of her depression, I just want Janie to pull it together. Should this make me seem callous, keep in mind Janie has been dealing with her dream ability now for three books. That’s like three years in real life, isn’t it? Also, don’t you think her troubles seem rather removed from the real world? I mean, who actually has to deal with the ability to enter people’s dreams? Tell me, why should I care so much about this fantastical conflict that I am willing to read page-after-page of it?

Well, what keeps me reading is the new developments in her relationship with her parents. Her father is not only alive but in town and in the hospital–and perhaps on his death’s bed. Her mother also takes on a larger role, criticizing Janie for most everything she does. This attitude comes out of the blue, but at least McMann finally makes Janie deal with the impact that her parents had on her life and come to terms with them.

Initially, I am unsure even about the second half of the book. Janie’s second choice is revealed, didn’t really come as a great surprise, but she sure seems determined to stick with it. She also seems to view her father almost as a saint, in contrast to her mother whom she can’t stand. Or does she? And is there a third choice? McMann introduces some twists and turns, just as she did in the second book, that both surprise and delight me. Those new developments save the book and make me satisfied with her whole trilogy. So what are you waiting for? Go read the dream trilogy!

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

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