My Funny Valentine - 2/12/11

Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins - 2008,2009,2010

Wow, it is gonna be hard to talk about these three books without spoilers! 

The place: A dystopia built on the destroyed remains of North America, sometime in the future.  Panem
consists of a Capitol and 12 outlying districts.  Each district is a piece of Capitol Pie creating one major export ranging from agriculture to technology.  

The Hunger Games: Created with the birth of Panem, meant to maintain power in the Capitol and fear in the districts.  One Male and One Female between the ages of 12-18 are chosen in a lottery (called the Reaping) from each district to fight in a manufactured game arena - to the death.  The chosen are called tributes, the last one standing is the victor, set for a life of celebrity and luxury.

"The Hunger Games" is told from the first person perspective of District 12 tribute, Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year-old girl from the Seam, the poorest section of the already poor district.  She travels with and competes against the baker's son, Peeta Mellark.  The two tributes face the arena with the support of their mentor, an alcoholic named Haymitch who won the games 24 years before, and groups of stylists responsible for costuming the tributes at the Opening Ceremonies.  As a tribute in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss must leave behind her best friend and hunting partner, Gale, her mother and younger sister and the last struggling remnants of childhood.

Katniss's home district felt almost medieval to me - District 12 and Panem especially recalls the feeling of "The Handmaid's Tale" and also a bit of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" minus the elegant prose.  The world of Panem is part futuristic sci-fi, (hovercrafts)  part modern day (constant television) and part historic (the Hob - a black market for game and goods).  "The Hunger Games" opens the Trilogy, and part of me wishes it had stopped right there - because beyond the arena is rebellion and revolution with teens on the front lines and it's a murky path to "Mockingjay".  Collins style is more about shock and brute force and the romance reader in me wishes she would have handled the love triangle much differently.  

Seems you can't get away from the Twilight fans  - you're either Team Peeta or Team Gale - 
well, that's not true.  You can certainly be neither.  I had a difficult time deciding - wavering through most of the trilogy in fact - but I think I figured it just before Katniss did.  She was so back and forth,  I felt manipulated and frustrated as I  read.  Katniss was confused not only about those boys, but what romantic love was in general - she didn't let herself feel much of anything because she needed to focus on survival back home and in the arena, I get it.  But it's damn hard to like a heroine who repeatedly rejects or manipulates the love she's given - from either boy.  We don't get a good look at Gale before the Games, just that he's poor as well, takes care of his family too, has her back and hates the Capitol.  Peeta grew up slightly more affluently, he's an artist - the most sensitive character throughout - which is what makes his reaping so cruel.  He's too good for the lot of 'em.

I didn't always like Katniss, and I didn't really like Book 3 "Mockingjay," I thought it was slow to start and even when the action picked up the violence seemed especially gratuitous.   I won't spoil the third book, but I must say a romance author could have used the hijacking plot device brilliantly to show a couple fall in love all over again.  And don't even get me started on characters who truly deserved happy endings but died pointless deaths...

 Seems like I'm talking a lot of shit, but most, if not all my criticisms are directed at the third and final book.  I really enjoyed "The Hunger Games" and "Chasing Fire" despite the fact that I can identify a handful of influences without even getting into "Battle Royale"(Thanks, Justin).  Collins created a whole new popular culture world with merchandise, a movie on the way and thousands of fans eagerly rushing from one book to the next.  The trilogy certainly has its flaws (the ending of "Chasing Fire"), but one major plus (for me at least), these books and Katniss's skills are a sure way to fill the Buffy void (Katniss and Collins both have a lot to thank Joss Whedon for...) - like it's predecessor it doesn't talk down to kids or hide any brutality by the adults or the children themselves.  

Oh, and in case you're curious....

Team Peeta -  because I can't deny the power of a long-standing unrequited love.  

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" - Rachel Cohn & David Levithan - 2006

Two YA authors teamed up to write a he said/she said love story that happens over the course of one crazy NYC night.  Hollywood made it into a somewhat/kinda/not really entertaining movie. 

I saw the movie first, and had a heck of a time getting it out of my head while reading.  I now think casting of Michael Cera was pretty freaking terrible, yes, I'm just plain sick of him and his recent teen offerings - but, here's some proof,

p. 9 "...He's working the ironic punk boy-Johnny Cash angle too hard to be a 'mo."  

Sorry, George Michael, but I don't think so.  So, that threw me off a bit.  On the other hand the casting of Norah was spot-on.  Anyway this is about the book, not the film. 

A few nagging details that got under my skin:

p. 29 "...on another Green Day cover, "Time of Your Life."

That song is actually called, "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).  Now I once saw that mistake in a SEP romance - annoying, but kinda forgivable - she shouldn't be giving song shout outs anyways.  However, in a book about punk rock or a least people who love punk rock?  Unacceptable.

p. 40 Nick is talking to Norah's ex -  "Dude, nobody puts baby in a corner..."
Then later on p. 61 - "I have no idea who Johnny Castle is, but I definitely approve of the name."

Please don't reference/use a line from a movie you've never seen. Thanks.

and then the unforgivable line that killed the book for me and the line that sort-of saved it...

p. 176  - Norah to Nick - "I hate The Beatles," I state. "Except for that song 'Something....But The Beatles as a whole? Completely overrated." then later: 
"Did you really write a song for me?"
Nick to Norah: "Yeah.  But it's not finished.  And don't ever speak of The Beatles with such condescension again or I may never finish it."

This book sort-of grew on me, once they got out of the clubs and the sun started to come up, I started to like Nick and Norah.  Then Norah opened her big mouth and made that Beatles comment - and while I liked that Nick spoke up, it made me not like Norah anymore.  I would say I prefer the book to the movie, and I'm a tiny bit curious about this pair of YA authors' other offerings.  

"The Blue Castle" - L.M. Montgomery - 1926

Don't you just love how book covers change over the decades?  The bottom one is classic, still as elegant today as it was when published.  It would make a great screen print, wouldn't it?  Our library had that unfortunate copy which makes Valancy and Barney look like they're reenacting a scene from Dirty Dancing!  

First things first, I read "AoGG" as a kid, and I loved the movie adaptations, especially 'Anne of Avonlea" - I vividly remember renting double VHS sets, in fact, I think the library still has those copies...  
"The Blue Castle" is regarded as her most mature work, as in not specifically for young adults, but my copy says YA and I found it right in with the "Anne" books in our library.   

When we meet Valancy, she's a tragic spinster, age 29, brow-beaten into submission by her overbearing family.  The first section of the novel is painful to read.  Every member of her family ranks higher than her, widowed aunts, bombastic uncles, and especially her younger, prettier cousin.  Every day is the same, the same jokes, the same insults, and always directed at Valancy.  They don't even recognize her as an adult, insisting on calling her by her childhood nickname, "Doss." They consider themselves better than most citizens of their small town, while living in fear of their opinions.  She rebels in her heart and head - her rank may be lower, but her intelligence is higher than that whole family put together.  

Valancy decides to visit a non-family doctor to check on the heart palpitations she's been having, and this one act of rebellion sparks a chain of events in motion that leads her to the life she deserves.   

"Empress of the World" - Sara Ryan - 2001

Another summer book, this time at an institute for high school honor students.  The protagonist Nicola makes real friends for the time and falls in love for the first time.  She falls for a beautiful dancer named Battle and navigates the ups and downs of teenage relationships.  First love is always awkward and tough.  Nic and Battle are not only dealing with homophobic jerks, but the feelings and opinions of  their friends and each other.  Two such friends are the accepting teenage boy from San Francisco who has a crush on the flamboyant dresser/computer geek, Katrina.

A blog called "Bookshelves of Doom" posted this 2007 review saying, 

" I do think that this book is a good example of why to avoid detailed descriptions of clothing in anything other than genre fiction: 
Katrina has a white dress with pictures of buildings and people silk-screened onto it in black--it's like she's wearing a silent movie--neon green tights, and purple combat boots.  She has her hair up, clipped into several clothespins that she has spray-painted silver Heck, give her a crimping iron and some squiggly earrings and you'd have a Claudia Kishi original. " Yeah, that's probably true.  I hate when romance novelists describe clothing, and Claudia's outfits seem ridiculous now, but I loved them back in the day.  Which might explain why I also owned neon green tights, purple combat boots and did random things with my hair.  I guess that's why I don't mind the descriptions, I get a little nostalgic - and I would have loved tights with a pattern of the word fuck on them! Still would, in fact!

I enjoyed "Empress of the World" very much, so I was excited to find out Ryan published a sequel in 2007 focusing on Battle's life the summer before college called, The Rules for Hearts.  The description sounds fantastic, I can't wait to read about a co-op theater!

"Queen of Babble Gets Hitched" - Meg Cabot - 2008

This might be a trend -  remembering and reading the last books in trilogies well after their release date...

I admit I was a bit shocked to see 2008 for this one.  It didn't feel that long to me,  I remembered most of the previous books "Queen of Babble", and "Queen of Babble in the Big City, so I just dove in."  
Basically, "Queen of Babble" could have been an open/shut stand alone novel.  The heroine, Lizzie travels to a wedding at a French chateau, where she saves the gown and meets Luke, a real-life "prince." Happily Ever After, The End.  But this is a trilogy, so there's some shifting in Book Two.  

The couple returns to the United States, NYC in fact, and end up living together.  She works as a receptionist, and restores vintage wedding gowns for free.  She rescues another dress, expects Luke to pop the question, and leaves him when she receives not a diamond ring, but a sewing machine for Christmas.  She attends a society wedding with her best friend's ex-boyfriend, they have a great evening and end up making out in a taxi and waking up in her apartment.  The reader knows nothing happened, "the Spanx stayed on.." However "QoB in the Big City" ends with a big-time cliffhanger - the last line of the book is Luke's proposal.  

It's hard not to talk about "Queen of Babble Gets Hitched" without including spoilers.  The hero isn't always obvious, but that's okay, because Lizzie is really the focus.  She takes great steps on the road to maturity by learning to keep her mouth shut most of the time, and learning how to run a successful business.  

Plus, fate really does Lizzie some favors, and by fate, I mean plot devices.  Each novel has a character who Lizzie befriends or saves who in turn pushes her career to a new level.  I honestly don't remember the bride in the first novel, but I do remember Jill from "...Big City." I thought she and Lizzie would remain friends after the wedding, but she doesn't even make an appearance.  Instead we meet a Paris Hilton-esque heiress desperately in need of some etiquette lessons, which Lizzie firmly delivers, of course.  

Meg Cabot keeps a breezy style throughout, including more humorous wedding information and advice from Lizzie.  A paragraph, advice, and a quote start each chapter, but you can choose not to read them.  Lizzie's tunnel vision regarding marriage grated on my nerves, and some of her choices bothered me, but they didn't stop me from flying through the novel in one sitting.  

Readers rooting for a happy ending will not be disappointed - whether you read the whole trilogy or just the first installment.  I would suggest that if you did read Book Two, keep reading, but I wouldn't recommend waiting 2 years to do it.

"Story of a Girl" - Sara Zarr - 2007

I found the debut YA novel from Sara Zarr, the author of "Sweethearts" , incredibly depressing and sad -  not to say it's a terrible book; it's just very real and it never lets up.  The main character, Deanna made a mistake at the young and vulnerable age of 13.  Three years later, she pays for that mistake everyday in the form snide remarks and even cruel harassment from kids in school. Then she goes home to the heartbreak of her father's indifference and disappointment. 

"Story of a Girl" begins on the last day of Deanna's sophomore year and ends with the start of the new school year.  The summer job at the pizza shop provides some modicum of comfort - but this is no Sarah Dessen novel (I love Sarah Dessen, it's not a dig on her as an author).  Pacifica may be only 20 minutes from San Francisco, but it could be any small town in the United States.  Zarr, a native of the town, describes a world of constant damp fog and desolate strip malls,  much of the population seems to work at chain stores for minimum wage.  I know I found "Story of a Girl" more depressing due to the similarities of my own small town and smaller high school.   

Readers should not expect a childhood/teenage love story like "Sweethearts", it's not as pure as that.  All the relationships are complicated by Deanna's past or current actions (again, very true to life).  She feels like a constant fuck-up, and I think its fair to say the resolutions at the end won't be enough for some readers.  I would never consider "Story of a Girl" a comfort read in the standard sense of the term, but without a doubt reading Deanna's struggles could comfort girls who've ended up in similar positions.  

1/9/2011 Resolutions 1/17 Update

Everyone makes a few standard resolutions about their health and well-being, and let's just say I'm not doing too great with those 'secret' (i.e. non blog) resolutions.  However I have already crossed 3 items off my 10 item To-Do list for January.

3) Grids.  Time to start getting serious.
8) Do something with one item in closet. 
9) Use a new fabric.
10) Watch a 'classic' film.


"Before I Fall" - Lauren Oliver
"Hope Was Here" - Joan Bauer
"Impossible" - Nancy Werlin
"When Lightning Strikes" Meg Cabot (I've read her romances and chick lit, but not much of her YA work.)
"If I Stay" - Gayle Forman

Teaser for "My Funny Valentine" Live Music and Original Sketch Comedy

"The Playboy's Plain Jane" - Cara Colter - Feb 2008 #4005

First I should say I was hungover when I read this book.  You could make a very strong case that I would have enjoyed it more if I didn't have a fair amount of Sweet Tea Vodka sitting in my stomach.  Maybe you're right, or maybe this was a cheesy story regardless of alcohol content.

"The Playboy's Plain Jane" has that slightly out-of-touch, slightly lame aura about it, which deterred me more than anything.  The outfit descriptions, the meaning of flowers (20+ secret bouquet messages) and worst of all insane excitement over a local reading of a cat cartoonist?  I can handle quaint small towns, and inexperienced heroines and I don't really have anything against Victorian flower meanings.   But a  cat cartoonist whose name was Tac Revol (Cat Lover backwards)!  I draw the line at that level of cheese.  

I couldn't remember which book I was looking for - that's how I ended up with this one and a few others by Cara Colter.  The book I would like to find is:
1999's "A Bride Worth Waiting For" Silhouette #1388

I finally painted the kitchen.

I also put a fresh coat of bright white paint on the coffee table, but it's not as pretty to look at - so no pictures, plus I already spilled my iced tea on it...

"The Reckoning" - Kelley Armstrong - 2010

Book 3 of the "Darkest Powers" Trilogy

Armstrong or her publishers took a full year between "The Awakening" and "The Reckoning, but that final book has been out quite a while (since April '10)."  I, of course blanked on Book 3 until about 2 weeks ago...

However, I got that hell yeah! feeling you get when you've forgotten something cool exists and but is now available to you.  I didn't remember some details from the first two books, but it didn't really matter, I was swept up anyway by the romance.  

I've never read or seen a werewolf love story this freaking sweet.  On Buffy, Willow had to lock up Oz in the library cage 3 nights a month, except that time he broke out to have a werewolf affair... Not so with Derek - he's still himself in wolf form.  The result of his Change? Inter-species flirting that's not at all creepy, it's fucking adorable.  

It sure seems like there could be more books and adventures for Chloe.  I would certainly read more about these Darkest Powers kids, but even if there aren't anymore novels, I'm perfectly happy with the 'ending' of the trilogy.   

"Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor" - Lisa Kleypas - 2010

Last year I complained about Kleypas' "A Wallflower Christmas" which was short, forgettable and way overpriced.  Since I didn't buy it the library did, I can't bitch too much.  This holiday season, when I found a copy of this year's holiday hardcover  at the library, I knew what to expect and have no complaints.  

I knew this was a quick read, a novella that could easily fit in a holiday anthology with other authors.  I didn't mind, I really wanted to just burn through it in one sitting.  I also knew "Christmas Eve..." is just an introduction to the Friday Harbor Series, as much about the place and future characters as the love story inside.  I had reasonable expectations and enjoyed the simple story for what it was, and I look forward to reading the rest as they are published.  

"Sleepwalk with Me and other Painfully True Stories" - Mike Birbiglia - 2010

“A great way to kill three hours while
trapped in a service station waiting room.” 
                          –  LACI HESS, author of the blog “Keeper Shelf”

"Jellicoe Road" - Melina Marchetta - 2006

I fucking loved this book.  In fact, I had that “just finished an awesome book buzz” for at least an hour afterwards.  To me that buzz feels rather like the “Wheee!” Liesel makes after kissing Rolf the future Nazi in the gazebo, only I don’t really squeal - I just want to tell everyone I see about this really good book I just finished.  Sorry about that, still on a “Sound of Music” kick apparently. Done now, no more references.  But hey, thank goodness for Forever Young Adult’s Swoonworthy Couples list, for introducing me to classic YA novels I might have missed.   

Marchetta has crafted haunting, beautiful story that reads like a mystery but is in fact only a mystery to the protagonist.  You’re on the journey with Taylor Markham as she slowly puts the missing pieces of many shattered lives back together.  “Jellicoe Road” has the best elements of YA, the fine art of teenage group dynamics and language, personal growth and first love.  I enjoyed the romantic elements, of course.  Who doesn’t love a really solid hero winning over a gun-shy girl?   Jonah and Taylor forge a mature relationship that is simultaneously intense and surprisingly age-appropriate.  However, ‘Jellicoe Road” is more than a love story between two people; it’s a story of friendship – encompassing two interwoven generations and the power of bonds formed through tragedy.  

"A Song For Summer" - Eva Ibbotson -

I read a copy featuring the cover above, but I really like the one below.

Well, I did it.  I carried our current WWII movie phase over into my reading.  Eva Ibbotson's name appears on my list of recommended authors I've never read before; and this book takes place throughout Europe but primarily in Austria just before it falls to Hitler - fits in perfectly, doesn’t it?  Yes, I admit that while reading the dust jacket I did picture nuns who steal from Nazi vehicles and a family crossing the Alps on foot…  No, it’s not “The Sound of Music” but I’m going to keep the comparisons coming.  Instead of “A Captain with seven children” there are many more, the students of wealthy parents abandoned at a bohemian (in the modern sense of the word) school for the arts.  Instead of Maria we have Ellen, the daughter and niece of militant suffragists who grew up with a desire to emulate and learn from their traditional Austrian cook and never chained herself to anything or got arrested.  Her family does support her even though her ideals of womanhood conform to everything they’ve fought against.  Ellen travels to the school Hallendorf in Austria and quickly becomes its’ heart and soul.  Students and staff both depend on her as she cooks and comforts while bridging the distance between the school and the nearby village.  She also loses her heart in the process to a man who makes music and saves tortoises.

I thought maybe this would turn out to be one of those books I start but never finish, (books that never make it to this blog) I fell asleep every 3 pages or so, and even re-read highlights of Lisa Kleypas’s “Dreaming of You” instead of just finishing this book.   Luckily I was so impressed with myself when I finished Cara Colter’s “Chasing Dreams” in one day, I plugged through to the end of “A Song For Summer.”  But I almost gave up when I turned to “Part Two” at well past the halfway mark.  I couldn’t believe it; I thought there were only loose ends and a wrap up, and then bam, tragedy and war and England and marriage and rations and Canada.  It was a lot, and the whole time I’m like,

“Shit, who’s gonna die?  Because someone’s going to, right? I’m reading a wartime novel, will it be his plane that goes down or will she be crushed under a fallen building during the blitz?”

I truly believe the major difference between romance as a genre and literature with romantic elements boils down to a tragic ending or a happy ending.  “Cold Mountain” for example, very romantic and in the end very tragic.  Every piece of crap Nicholas Sparks novel with the hero dying at sea, or in a South American mudslide after repairing his troubled relationship with James Franco gets more cred than your typical paperback romance – all because someone dies and the lover is left alone and devastated! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all romances should focus on all things light and fluffy.  Tragedy has a place in romance – in the beginning and hopefully years before the story begins.  A tragic prologue, sure, I can certainly handle that – “Sunflower” by Jill Marie Landis features a heroine who was raped and impregnated while her family was murdered.  I can even handle the beloved first wife who died in childbirth scenario.  What I don’t want is tragedy at the end when I should be guaranteed a happy ending (I’m pretty sure it’s one of the RWA rules). “A Song For Summer” was a hardcover novel that doesn’t say “Romance” anywhere on the spine so I really did expect that ‘literature’ tragedy, and couldn’t quite believe that the H/H not only survive, but they get a happy ending.

There’s a double standard there somewhere, but  I’m not sure if I’m arguing for or against it.

"Chasing Dreams" - Cara Colter - 2006 Silhouette #1818

My local library does not catalog paperbacks.  I know I’ve bitched before, and I’m assuming they have their reasons.  Maybe it’s too much hassle with such a high turnover or perhaps they just don’t hold up to heavy usage?  Valid?  Sure – but annoying as hell when you are a) looking for a specific author or b) looking for the next book in a series. I’m 2 for 2 for Ms. Colter here.  I am currently looking for one of her titles, and just happened to catch a copy of “Chasing Dreams” before its return to the paperback abyss. 

I haven’t read any series romance in a while and forgot how freaking short they are. Not that I’m complaining, sometimes I look for that.  It’s the reason I’ll read a Christmas anthology in July, my attention span cannot be trusted. Mostly I can’t be trusted not to fall asleep regardless of how good the story or the time of day.  I finished “Chasing Dreams” in two sittings and without a nap!  It’s a perfectly nice rich girl/poor boy tale of sorts, except neither the H/H fit the stereotypes a romance reader would expect.

While it was an acceptable series romance and an entertaining read, I did have a few issues.  Due to the unfortunate library situation, I checked out Book Two in a trilogy, and some characters from the first story were not fully introduced or explained to new readers.  To make matters worse  “Chasing Dreams” ends with the first chapter of Book Three, the youngest sister’s story, masquerading as an epilogue.  Publishers do this to suck you in, and it usually works with me.  Colter wrote a nice story, but wouldn’t go online looking for the final installment of this series.  I would probably check it out of the library – but I have no way of knowing if it’s there.