The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Let the games begin!  It’s some time in the (not so distant?) future and what was once America is now Panem, a glittering Capitol in the Rockies, surrounded by twelve miserably oppressed districts.  As a yearly reminder of their helplessness, the Capitol requires each district to conduct “Reapings” where one boy and one girl are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen (cool name for a cool girl!) lives in District 12, what was once Appalachia, with her mother and little sister Prim.  When Prim’s name is drawn at the Reaping, Katniss volunteers herself to take Prim’s place.  Soon Katniss and Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, are off to the Capitol for the Hunger Games, a deadly reality show televised to all of Panem where the 24 kids, or Tributes, from the districts must compete in a kill or be killed survival game with no rules except that you can’t eat your opponents.

One of the fun things about writing these book reviews is how it has made me realize that I’m always drawn to certain types of books.  Dystopian futuristic themes (The Road by Cormac McCarthy or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood) always pull me in and this one is no different.  Though there are similar ideas out there, Collins does a first rate job of building the suspense,  making it next to impossible to read to the end of a chapter and stop.  Will Katniss become the first Tribute from District 12 to win the Hunger Games in years?  Does Peeta genuinely care about Katniss, or is he weaving a “star crossed lovers” story to garner sympathy from the viewers?  And what about Rue, the young slip of a girl from District 11 who reminds Katniss so much of her sister Prim?  There can only be one winner of the Hunger Games.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

To read a Shirley Jackson novel is to enter a world where the ordinary is entwined with evil and the mundane is tangled up with madness.  Sisters Constance and Mary Catherine (Merricat) Blackwood live in a beautiful house, surrounded by beautiful things brought there by generations of Blackwood women before them.  Constance tends the garden and puts up preserves, while Merricat explores the woods with her black cat, Jonas.  We soon find out that the rest of the Blackwood family have been poisoned — brought down by a dinner capped off with a dessert of blackberries and a sugar bowl full of arsenic.  Gone are the girls’ mother, father, brother and aunt.  The only survivor is old Uncle Julian, but he is now an invalid since partaking of the macabre meal.

The village near the Blackwood estate is a gray and dreary place filled with villagers who are hostile and suspicious of Constance, even though she was acquitted of murder.  Children and adults alike taunt the girls with the rhyme, “Merricat”, said Connie, “Would you like a cup of tea?”  “Oh no,” said Merricat, “You’ll poison me!”  The fact that she took her time calling for help and washed the sugar bowl before it arrived has condemned her in the eyes of the villagers.  As Merricat says, “the people of the village have always hated us.”  Now it’s just Constance and Merricat and poor old Uncle Julian, alone in the big house.  As with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s other gothic horror novel, the house itself is a major character in this tale.  The village is a dark scary place for Constance and Merricat, while the house is their “castle”, bright and peaceful and safe.  When long lost Cousin Charles arrives one day intent on ensconcing himself in the house and partaking of the family fortune, Merricat, obsessed with keeping their self-imposed isolation intact, fights back with disastrous consequences.

This was Jackson’s last complete novel, published in 1962.  She was ill at the time she was writing it and her journals from that time spoke of her desire for control and refuge.  She suffered what was then called “a nervous breakdown” shortly after it’s publication, and passed away at age 45 of heart failure in 1965.  Her gothic fiction, including classic short story The Lottery,  highlights the chilling effect of evil underlying the ordinary in everyday life.

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