The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Hunger GamesThe struggle of right against wrong is probably the oldest theme in entertainment.  When Suzanne Collins wrote her novel, The Hunger Games, it was foremost in her thinking.  However,  society itself molds what is considered right and wrong according to the times, rewriting history and ideals to conform to current thinking.

The Hunger Games, like many excellent novels, moves that conflict to another time and place so that we can clearly see right and wrong for what it is and react accordingly, without prejudice.  This iconic Young Adult dystopian novel, written in First Person Present, certainly brought the entire genre a gigantic step forward, pitching it into the general public as a phenomenon.  Although wildly popular among teens, it has also been a crossover hit with adults, partly because it explores the parameters of right and wrong without prejudice.

In District 12 of the country of Panem, a nation formed from the ruins of the old United States, Katniss Everdeen struggles to feed her family.  Since the death of her father, a coal miner, her mother has become distant and Katniss takes care of her younger sister, Primrose.  Every year, two young people are selected from each district to participate in a fight to the death in a special arena created for them by a game master.  Called the Hunger Games, this event is televised throughout Panem, using special cameras that are hidden all over the arena.  When Prim’s name is unexpectedly chosen, by a representative of the Capitol named Effie Trinket, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She travels to the Capitol with the male tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark, the son of their local baker.  She remembers that he once threw her a burned loaf of bread when her family was starving.  Accompanied by drunken Haymitch Abernathy, the lone District 12 winner in the history of the games, she learns more about getting sponsors by being likable.

A sytlist named Cinna gives her an appealing appearance and the tributes are all interviewed by television personality Caesar Flickerman.  During his interview, Peeta reveals that he has always had a crush on her, but Katniss suspects he is only saying it to gain sponsors.  Half of the tributes are killed during the first few minutes of the Hunger Games as they try to gain the weapons held in a Cornucopia.  Katniss, Peeta, and a few others run away and the remaining tributes, mostly those from the wealthiest districts who have been professionally trained, join forces to kill them off.  Their leader is a bully named Cato.  While hiding in the woods, she discovers that Peeta has joined forces with them.  She forms an alliance with a young girl, Rue, from District 11, but that is cut short when Rue is killed.  Katniss kills her assassin, then mourns Rue by singing to her and surrounding her body with flowers, an action that elicits much sympathy among the viewers of the event.  Styled as “the star-crossed lovers,” the game master takes advantage of viewer support to change the rules so they can both win if they survive.

Katniss goes looking for Peeta and finds him badly wounded, hiding covered with mud near the river.  She cleans him up and nurses him as best she can, cleaning out a deep wound, and creates a makeshift shelter.  Finally, she kisses him to enhance the story line of “star-crossed lovers” and is rewarded with some broth for Peeta.  Determined to put on a good show and perhaps get some salve for Peeta’s leg, Katniss kisses him again.

Only six tributes remain alive at this point, but they are killed off until only Cato remains.  Forced to the Cornucopia by wild dogs, a struggle ensues until Cato is dead, but the game master changes the rules again, stating that only one of them can be victor.  Katniss brings out deadly berries and they decide to suicide together, but then the game is stopped and they are declared mutual winners.

Haymitch warns Katniss that her act of defiance may have severe repercussions from the government.  At the end, Peeta realizes that she’s been playing a game with his affections to get sponsors and they return to District 12, but Katniss is herself unsure of her feelings.

The book is very economically written, nearly perfect in its concentration on the action, yet through Katniss’ thoughts, we gain all kinds of inside into who she is and we see her arc from someone who just wants to survive into someone who is beginning to understand that a revolution will be necessary.

It moves so quickly that it is tempting to finish the book in one read and then return to it with leisure to savor all of the good writing that makes it a potent novel.

The ideas are not necessarily new, but the style makes it very special.  One of the most difficult things for a writer to create is naming characters and Collins has done a masterful job in giving us names that are unique and resonate.  That carried over so well into the movie where the actors were able to develop their characters based on a name and a very little deep information.

Another triumph of this novel is how well Collins uses the First Person Present perspective.  It is not easy to write, yet in Collins’ hand, it seems effortless.  Moving so quickly, it seems amazingly natural.

An iconic book, The Hunger Games seems destined to be a Young Adult novel that will have many, many years of shelf life, partly because it can be read again and again with deepening enjoyment.

I highly recommend this novel not just for teens, but for all readers.


Hunger Games 03Please read my review of the movie The Hunger Games!

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All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

All the Weyrs of PernIn what many thought might be the last of the Pern 9th Pass novels, the computer AIVAS (Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System) serves as a major character in the fight to end Thread forever.  At the end of the previous novel, The Renegades of Pern, AIVAS came to life in the old Landing Administration Building after Piemer, Jancis, Jaxom, and his white dragon, Ruth, had unearthed the solar panels that had been intermittently covered by ash and dust over the last 2,500 years since the explosion of the volcano that sent the original colonists scurrying north to take Hold there.

The following review is written with the understanding that readers are already familiar with the novel, so if you haven’t read it yet, beware of plot spoilers!

With technology long lost to the people of Pern, AIVAS recites the history of the founding of the colony as told in Dragonsdawn, complete with movies and stills showing Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and all of the other colorful figures, including the exploits of Sallah Telgar in thwarting the evil intentions of Avril Bitra.  In a sonorous male voice, AIVAS explains that his last assignment was to find a way to permanently remove Thread from the skies of Pern.  Now–with the help of darned near the whole planet–he’s found a way to do it.  This delights F’lar no end and they set about reconstructing Landing, teaching Jaxom, Piemer, Jancis, and anyone else who is interested how to assemble and use a computer.  Teaching remedial math, physics, medicine, and so on, he gradually elevates the level of education to the point where they can understand sophisticated concepts and manage complicated machinery, bringing them back to the level they were at when the original colonial ships arrived in orbit some 2,500 Turns ago.

This effort is not without the pernicious attempts of villains to thwart it.  Chief among them are Master Norist, head of the Glass Smith Crafthall and Lords Sigomal of Bitra and Begamon of Nerat.  Norist gives AIVAS the nickname of “The Abomination” and blames it for destroying the traditions of Pern.  He refuses to have anything to do with AIVAS and thus one of his subordinates, Master Morilton takes over working with Landing, his work benefiting from a greater knowledge that Norist.  In addition, Toric’s brother, Hamian, who had been sent to receive his Mastery from Fandarel in the Smithcrafthall, decides to take up the production of plastic, leaving Toric to commit himself to Landing.

AIVAS takes on the education of Master Oldive, Sharra, Mirrim, and others to not only study medicine more deeply, but to take apart frozen Thread ovoids and find ways to change parasitical bacteria into predators.  As time passes, Sharra gradually becomes aware that AIVAS has selected Jaxom to lead the dangerous mission.  Gradually, the craftsmen and dragonriders take each step along the road to prepare them for AIVAS’s Master plan, which he will not actually discuss with them: there are trips between to the Yokahama to prepare the ship for human occupation (and to remove Sallah Telgar’s body from the bridge), repairs and maintenance on the old ship, and extra-vehicular activity to familiarize dragons and riders with space.  Hamian is trying to develop enough space suits for the dragonriders.  Eventually, Jaxom, F’lar and Lessa take a trip to the Red Star to familiarize themselves with the landmarks so they can have reference points for the other dragons.

In spite of the best efforts of D’ram, Lytol, Jaxom, and the others, the Abominators hire devious people to drug and kidnap Master Robinton with the notion that they can force the dragonriders to destroy AIVAS to get him back.  They take this action boldly at the Ruatha Gather with Lord Jaxom and Lady Sharra presiding.  Of course, the dragonriders, with the help of fire lizards, locate Robinton and round up all the villains, who are condemned to exile for all their days.

Using a massive number of bronze dragons, the engines of the three space ships that were used to bring the original colonists to Pern are shifted between to the Red Star, where HNO3 canisters administer leaks that will eat through the metal surrounding the antimatter engines and eventually cause an explosion that will move the Red Star enough out of orbit that it will no longer drop Thread on Pern.  In addition, a number of green riders seed the bacteria that will eventually kill all Thread where it exists in the Oort Cloud, thus eliminating the threat of Thread forever.  What the other dragonriders don’t know is that Jaxom and Ruth lead two of the three groups far back in time to create explosions that nudge the Red Star toward its eventual orbit change–thus the two periods of long Intervals.

The book ends with Master Robinton expiring in the AIVAS chamber as the computer himself, his job done, shuts down to leave the Pernese to solve their future problems themselves.  “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” is his final message to everyone.

Dragonsdawn and All the Weyrs of Pern are the only genuinely science fiction novels in the Pern series.  Of course, the entire premise is based on a science fiction concept, but that is difficult to tell early in the series.  Indeed, just hearing the title “Dragonriders of Pern” makes most people automatically assume that the series is Fantasy.  Not so and these two books provide the groundwork.  And they are both very fun reads.

This book moves along quickly and it invests serious time in all of the major characters that readers have come to know and love: F’lar and Lessa, Jaxom and Sharra, Piemer and Jancis, Sebell and Menolly.  There is Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol, as well as the sympathetic Lord Holders, most notably Groghe, Larad, and Asgenar.  As the book takes place over four years–and the entire chronicle takes place over thirty Turns–we see the characters aging.  The Weyrleaders are over fifty years old now and we are seeing the decline and eventual surrender of Robinton, moved along by the actions of their enemies.

The villains are, as usual, shallow and one dimensional, while the major, positive characters are much more well-rounded.  And again, I can make the arguments that the villains are nearly unnecessary, given the difficulty of the overall problems to be overcome.  One thing that struck me in the last reading is the great depth of stupidity of McCaffrey’s bad people.  It is almost as if she’s making a point that there will always be shallow, stupid people.  On one level, that seems painfully obvious, but on another level, it seems to run counter to her ideal that most people are good and strive to improve themselves.  Humans are basically generous, fun-loving, inquisitive souls that strive to improve the world around them and also to enjoy the wonders of sexual fulfillment and of having and raising children.  These things are basic to Anne McCaffrey’s view of humanity, yet nearly every book contains a few people that are just stupid and shallow, with no inkling of what living is all about.  I guess the good thing here is that these characters are minor, as opposed Thella in The Renegades of Pern or Avril Bitra in Dragonsdawn.

Overall, this is one of the best books in the series.  If you are a fan of Pern and read the books in order, this is one of the most fun and quick to read.  If there is some sadness that the series is coming to an end, there is also much to delight in here: all of your favorites characters, plus the addition of AIVAS, the great, heroic deeds to be accomplished, the funeral of Sallah Telgar, which is something really special, and, of course, the moving of the Red Star.

It is truly a fun and well-written Dragonriders of Pern novel!

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful by Deborah Kay Davies

Grace Tamar and LaszloGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, the 2009 Wales Book of the Year, is officially listed as a book of short stories by the acclaimed Welsh author Deborah Kay Davies, but it is much, much more than that.  In fact, I struggle to use the term “book of short stories” because the connection of the stories featuring the sisters Grace and Tamar is so tight and integrated that I am inclined to call it a novel.  This is a mature and powerful work of art intended for adult readers.

The first story, “Stirrups,” actually begins with their mother on the event of Tamar’s birth, showing how the woman’s fragile mind tries to deal with the baby girl who is Grace’s younger sister by two years.  She struggles to give her love to more than one person at a time, missing Grace and wondering if she can ever relate to this new child.  The next story, “Point,” finds Grace at the age of six already somewhat ethereal and hating her four year old sister, Tamar, for being so feral.  It is a relationship newly formed, but one that will be a part of their lives until they are adults.

From one story to the next, told in chronological order, the relationship between the two sisters dominates the book as the point of view weaves back and forth.  As a child, Tamar spends most of her time alone, creating strange games for herself, becoming fascinated with the weird neighbors, pushing her sister Grace to exasperation.  Grace lives in a world where she was the only child.  She can barely stand Tamar, yet there is a bond between them that is extremely tight.  Grace pushes Tamar from a tree, Tamar beats on Grace, they push each other back and forth and stand united in only two things: first, their amusement that their mother seems to be going insane (“Radio Baby” is a powerful reminder that their mother’s hold on reality is tenuous at best) and second, the great common dream that they share of being together as adults with their own baby.

As they grow up, Tamar’s perversity is intensified by an incident with a brutal pedophile in “Whinberries” that turns out much different than one would expect in the follow-up story “Stones.”  That perversity comes back out in her childish sexual display to her bedridden grandfather in “Fun and Games.”  Grace’s reaction is to pull back away, growing more and more distant.  In her adolescence, she seems to have difficulty understanding the banal, meaningless action of the boys around her, especially so in “Laszlo the Beautiful,” a story about her first crush.  Tamar also has difficulty relating to boys, but she is far more open sexually.  Grace acts out her sexuality in “Kissing Nina,” “Thong,” “Negligee,” and “Grace and the Basset Hound” while maintaining a strange distance from it.  She becomes engaged, gets married and divorced and seems untouched by the whole cycle.  Tamar reaches out for life in “Thong,” “Whatever,” and “Wood.” 

There is a stark parallel to Grace’s retreat from the world and Tamar’s reach to embrace it.  The importance of Tamar’s dream of the baby comes full circle in the final story, “Cords,” a taut, emotional reach between the two adult sister.

The writing throughout is beautiful, a real pleasure to read.  Lean and well-constructed, the stories are each absolutely compelling portraits of two sisters adrift in the world.  The sentences are spare, concerned only with what is most important.  Sometimes they drift, like the sisters, but they drift with a singular intensity that always reaches back to the heart of the book.

And that’s really what makes me think of this is a novel.

In a novel, one looks to see a compelling story arc, from one place to another from the beginning to the end, with an integrated theme throughout the book.  Even though Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful jerks from one story to another, I see a very powerful, overarching story arc that binds the stories together into one, long cohesive tale that stands up to the highest scrutiny.

The jacket contains the following epithet:  “moving, hilarious and terrifying.”  I found the book to be less hilarious and more moving, but, yes, at times it is also terrifying.  I found it to be one of the more emotionally disturbing and satisfying books that I’ve read over the last twenty years.  The combination of such beautiful, powerful writing with such original, distinctive characters is quite unusual.  In fact, after I finished reading the book, I found myself drawn back to one story or another just to lose myself in the prose.  I haven’t had that feeling since I first read Salman Rushdie.

This is a great book that I highly recommend to all adult readers.

Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey

 

dragonquestThe sequel to Dragonflight and the second book in the Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy, Dragonquest substantially expands the range of featured characters.  Where the first book concentrated almost exclusively on F’lar and Lessa, the second novel spreads its point of view far and wide.  Masterharper Robinton, Menolly, F’nor, queen rider Brekke, and the boy who is to inherit Ruatha Hold, Lord Jaxom, all take center stage at one point or another, while the Weyrleader and Weyrwoman continue to expand their leadership roles.

It begins nearly seven years after the initial events of Dragonflight with Master Robinton writing a ballad for the upcoming wedding of Lord Asgenar of Lemos Hold to Lady Famira, a half-sister to Lord Larad of Telgar Hold.  (Larad’s half-sisters are complete contrasts, as Lady Thella in The Renegades of Pern proves to be quite a formidable villain.)  He wants to include as many of the changes to Pern as possible, but he is bothered at the way the Oldtimers have failed to integrate into the new culture.  Coming from 400 turns back and skipping the entire last Interval, they expect privileges that Benden and Southern Weyrs do not and they object to the forestation of the planet that requires them to work harder.  This new world view that has blossomed during the last Interval–and championed by F’lar and Less–has disaffected them greatly.  They are more clearly out of time and Robinton laments that F’lar did not take over leadership at the time they came forward.  The old rule that each weyr be independent and separate is not really appropriate in this new time.  As he write, Robinton hears a drum message notifying Fort Weyr that Thread is falling out of pattern.

F’lar’s half brother F’nor, on a visit to the Smithcraft Hall, interrupts two Fort Hold dragonriders who are attempting to pilfer a knife from Fandarel’s assistant, Terry–a knife that was made on commission as Lord Larad’s wedding gift to Lord Asgenar.  One of the men, T’reb, upset because his green dragon is ready to mate, assaults F’nor, stabbing him with his belt knife.  F’nor is sent to the Southern Weyr to recover and F’lar confronts the Oldtimer weyrleaders with this crime, but T’ron cites the independence of the weyrs and frustrates F’lar.  When they discover that Thread has been falling out of pattern and that the Oldtimers failed to inform them, their frustration grows as the Lord Holders worry about possible damage to their property.

Recovering in the Southern Weyr, F’nor gets to know Brekke, who is the secondary weyrwoman there, rider of queen Wirenth, subordinate to Weyrwoman Kylara, whose queen dragon is Prideth.  However, Kylara is vain and wanton.  She has delegated almost all of her duties to Brekke, who also serves as the chief nurse at Southern and is fostering a teenage girl, Mirrim.  Gradually, F’nor falls in love with Brekke and worries about the prudishness of her Farmcraft upbringing, just as she worries that she will inhibit Wirenth when her queen rises to mate.  F’nor begins to wonder if Canth might possibly fly Wirenth.  Even though he is only a brown dragon, he is as big as many bronzes.  Sleeping on the beach one day, Canth informs him that a newly hatched queen fire lizard is hovering about seeking food.  He speaks softly to her and gives her a meat roll from his pouch, Impressing Grall.  He has Canth call back to Southern Weyr for other riders to come Impress the other hatching fire lizards who are turning cannibal with the lack of food on the beach.  Brekke impresses a bronze, Berd, and Mirrim Impresses two greens, Reppa and Lok, and a brown, Tolly.  Kylara was absent during the Impressions, as she was bedding the evil Lord Maron of Nabol, and she is furious that she doesn’t have one.  She decides to haunt the Southern beaches and find her own clutch.

When F’lar is visiting F’nor, Thread falls and he and Mnementh join the fighting.  Afterward, he discovers that there is no sign of Thread infestation and investigates.  He discovers that Southern has a kind of grub that eats Thread.

Four major events occur in Dragonquest that alter the future of the planet.

The first event occurs when Lord Warder Lytol and young Jaxom come to visit Benden Weyr.  Felessen, the son of F’lar and Lessa, takes Jaxom back into the long abandoned caves of the weyr to a secret place where boys go to view Ramoth’s eggs.  Finding a small one all by itself, Jaxom touches the egg.  Fearing discovery, they head back, but their glows wink out and they are lost in the darkness.  Jaxom accidentally pushes a button that opens a door.  The trapped gas knocks the two boys out, but the adults are all extremely excited by the stuff that the original colonists left behind in the room.  They find a microscope and begin to wonder if there might be a way to alter it so that one could see the Red Star close up.  Later, T’ron discovers a telescope at Fort Weyr.

The second major event happens at the wedding of Asgenar and Famira.  F’lar and Lessa arrive with fire lizard eggs to give to the happy couple as gifts.  They arrive just before Meron and Kylara who now both have their own fire lizards.  Fandarel has developed a “distance writer,” a kind of primitive telegraph and it reports the news that Thread is falling, so F’lar decides to join the other Oldtimers in fighting it.  When T’ron learns this, he grows angry at F’lar for interfering in another weyr’s affairs and they duel.  F’lar severely injures T’ron and gives a passionate speech asking for the weyrleaders, lords, and craftmasters to swear their allegiance to him and they do wholeheartedly.  He banishes the Oldtimers to Southern where they can do little damage and decides to move the current dragon folk from Southern to High Reaches Weyr.  Even though he is injured, he goes to fight Thread anyway.

In High Reaches Weyr, Wirenth rises to mate, but Kylara’s Prideth is at Nabol while she is bedding Meron.  In high heat, Prideth challenges Wirenth’s mating flight and the two dragons fight in mid-air.  Both severely injured, Wirenth takes Prideth into between and they both die.  Brekke goes into a deep depression and Kylara goes mad.

The third major event occurs at the hatching of Ramoth’s new clutch of eggs.  Lessa has put Brekke into the pool of girls hoping that she will Impress the new queen and recover from her severe shock and depression.  This is the point at which Dragonsong, the first novel in the Harper Hall Trilogy interconnects with the main trilogy.  There are two accounts of the hatching, one primarily from Jaxom’s point of view in Dragonquest and one from Menolly’s point of view in Dragonsong.  Although Brekke does not re-Impress, her little fire lizard, Berd, challenges Ramoth by entering the hatching grounds chittering at Brekke.  This breaks her out of her depression and she does not Impress the new queen.  However, once the hatching is over, Jaxom watches the little egg he had touched earlier rocking and shaking as if the dragon was trying to break out.  When no one responds, he jumps into the hatching ground and breaks the shell, cutting the sac with his belt knife.  A little white dragon falls out and Jaxom impresses Ruth.

The fourth major even of the novel happens because the lords are all anxious for the dragonriders to go to the Red Star and eradicate Thread at its source.  Not understanding the breadth of space or how big the Red Star actually is, they continue to press for this venture.  F’lar himself would like to go if he could only see it well enough in the telescope at Fort Weyr to be able to jump between.  Lord Meron is at the viewer night after night trying to give coordinates to his little bronze fire lizard, but the creature is so scared it just jumps between.  Watching, F’nor discovers a could formation on the Red Star that is easy to visualize.  He gives the coordinates to Canth and they jump.  The atmosphere of the Red Star is hot and poisonous.  Canth broadcasts their distress back to Pern and every fire lizard in the world picks it up.  Through Ramoth, the word is broadcast to all of the dragons who come to Benden Weyr to form a living bridge to ease the battered bodies of F’nor and Canth back to earth.  At the Harper Hall, in Dragonsinger, Menolly’s nine fire lizards all go berserk and wake everyone up.

The book ends with F’lar conducting a successful experiment with relocating grubs from the southern continent into the Lord Asgenar’s forests at Lemos.  When the lords express discomfort that dragons may be no longer needed, F’lar intimates that dragonriders may use their time exploring the southern continent or even the other planets in their system.

Obviously, from the above brief plot summary, a great deal happens in the novel.  The simplicity of F’lar and Lessa’s relationship in Dragonflight has been replaced by a much deeper and broader story line.  The introduction of Masterharper Robinton and Mastersmith Fandarel in the first book is expanded out to include many other craftsmen and the push toward innovation dominates the society.  There is an obvious need to have not just the weyrs, but the rest of the planet under one leadership and F’lar and Lessa, with their farsightedness and liberality are clearly the ones to do it.  Although F’lar respects the Oldtimers for their contribution to saving Pern, they are clearly out of step with a society that is moving forward.  The economy is now thriving, especially with the additional forestation, and Fandarel is moving technology ahead with both his own inventions and by using the discovery of material the original colonists had carefully packed away for future use.

Both the discovery and seeding of the Thread-eating grubs and F’nor’s trip to the Red Star move the plot along in the direction of ending the menace of Thread forever.

Most important of all, the book moves the story from borderline fantasy firmly into the realm of science fiction.  A planet was colonized by humans, dragons were genetically engineered from the fire lizards, and, following the collapse of the society into a medieval technological state, the humans are beginning to discover their roots and the level of technology that their ancestors brought to Pern.

The broadening of the characters to include Robinton, Fandarel, Menolly, Jaxom, F’nor, Brekke, Mirrim, as well as the Lord Holders Larad, Asgenar, Groghe, Corman, and the personalities of the dragons and fire lizards gives the book–the whole saga–a depth that sets it apart from most other science fiction franchises.  The third book of the trilogy, The White Dragon, dovetailing with the third book of the Harper Hall Trilogy, Dragondrums, expands the story to such a level that it begins to reach a nearly mythological level.

I find it utterly confounding that no high level film or animation has–to this point, at least–been shot and released.  I think that the story would have great appeal and not just to the Young Adult market.  In addition, there would be a whole market for products based on the Pern dragons, fire lizards, and the deeply appealing characters.

Hopefully, something good in the cinema will eventually come from this terrific saga!

Divergent

shailene_woodley_divergent-wideAdapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad.  See my review of the novel.

At an unspecified time in a dystopian future, the city of Chicago has been walled in to protect its citizens from the chaos outside.  Their society has been divided into five sects, supposedly to emulate traits that are desirable in this new society, Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (wise), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honest), and Amity (friendly).  Teenagers Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), must be tested before they make their declaration of which faction they will choose for life.  Their mother, Natalie (Ashley Judd), and father, Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), who serves on the ruling council, are both Abnegation and want them to choose their own faction.  Beatrice, however, shows a strong regard for Dauntless and looks ready to take risks.

During the test, which consists of the administration of a hallucinogenic drug that simulates a series of choices, Beatrice tests out positive for more than one faction (Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite).  The woman administering the test, Dauntless Tori (Maggie Q) tells her that she is Divergent, but that she must keep this a secret, claiming only that she tested out as Abnegation.  The next day, Caleb declares himself Erudite.  Caught in a dilemma as to which faction to choose, Beatrice takes Dauntless and is immediately thrown into a new life of daring exploits.  Jumping off the train at Dauntless headquarters, she volunteers to be the first to make a three story leap into a gaping hole in a roof and she does so effortlessly.  Although she is obviously quite brave, her physical training falls short and she is near the bottom of her class.  Putting in extra hours, her training leader, Four (Theo James), gives her extra instruction and she quickly rises in the ranks.  During a field exercise, she demonstrates that she can use her mind to help overcome obstacles, then, when she is again administered a hallucinogenic in order to face her worst fears, she finishes in record time.  Four grows close to her and protects her.

The Erudite are in the process of planning the overthrow of Abnegation and have developed a serum that will place all of the Dauntless soldiers under their mind control, but Four and Beatrice (who goes by the Dauntless name Tris) are immune to the serum and must find a way to defeat the evil Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s because it is quite unbelievable.  The book has the same problem in that the factions with their self-important purposes just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.  Although it’s true that Americans are definitely prone to conformity, I find the concept of their adherence, especially among the young, to a single faction to be pretty ludicrous.  The very idea that dividing your society in such a way will lead to peace and prosperity is laughable.

That being said, once a reader or a viewing audience buys into the concept and becomes willing to suspend their disbelief, the story becomes quite compelling, especially the first half where Tris is fighting to be accepted into the Dauntless faction.  We love to see an underdog growing and changing, developing, and showing the big bad bullies that she can hold her own.  We also delight in her ability to be divergent and to live more than one faction.  The direction by Neil Burger is really tight and the movie is smartly edited, but the movie owes most of its success to the two performances by Shailene Woodley and Theo James.  Each of them, in their own way, possess a kind of offbeat beauty that is terrifically attractive, but their acting talents are undoubtedly very strong and they carry the film through its absurd premise.

It’s beautiful to watch.  The cinematography, art direction, and music are all superb and the editing carries the viewer along at a fantastic clip.  Although it runs an astounding two hours and 19 minutes, no time is wasted.  It might have been a better movie if 30 minutes had been cut, but it is fine at its current length.

A very entertaining film, quite well done, if based on a patently absurd premise.

An Introduction to the World of Pern

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern Saga

Pern 01

At first glance, one might assume that the Dragonriders of Pern story is fantasy, not science fiction, but Anne McCaffrey has moved the fantastic concept of fire-breathing dragons onto a firm scientific basis.  Granted, it is far from hard science fiction, but even such devices as faster than light travel and telepathy have some science fiction traction.  There is no magic in the series, nor mythical creatures come to life.  It must be considered science fiction. 

The planet Pern exists somewhere in the Sagittarius arm of our spiral galaxy.  It was originally colonized by members of the Federation who were looking to establish a society based on agrarian ideals.  Pern, devoid of the rich metals that were much sought after by the Federation was deemed a perfect spot for such a colony.  The survey team noted that the system of the star named Rukbat had one wandering planet (the “Red Star”) that didn’t follow a normal orbit, but it was not deemed a threat.  However, the early colonists discovered that when it passed too close to Pern, some kind of ovoid life form was cast off from the planet and traveled the distance between the two bodies, turning from hard spheres into vibrant, life eating “threads” when they entered Pern’s atmosphere.

To fight thread, the colonists genetically altered a unique indigenous life form, the “fire lizard” (a small, winged, telepathic creature who chews firestone to breath flames) into a much larger creature: a dragon.  When these creatures hatch from eggs, they bond telepathically with a human who is destined to be their rider.  These dragons and their riders fly high and fast to char thread from the sky and keep it from devouring all of the biological life on Pern.  The fire they belch comes from eating firestone, which ignites when the gasses come into contact with the air.  Dragons can also teleport, traveling into a realm called between, a cold, dark, airless, and sensationless place between one location and another.

McCaffrey has written a number of prequels, including Dragonsdawn, which tells the story of Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and the other valiant colonists who had to fight thread, Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and The Masterharper of Pern, but the Saga officially begins with the first novel of the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, Dragonflight.

The dragonriders and their beasts are normally housed in gigantic structures of caves, called “weyrs.”  There are six weyrs (Fort, High Reaches, Ista, Igen, Telgar, and Benden) placed at various distances around the northern continent of Pern, but for some unknown reason five are vacant when Dragonflight begins and only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains to protect the planet.  Later on, a Southern Weyr is established on the Southern continent.

There are five colors of dragons.  From the largest to the smallest, they are:

Gold (queens, female, always bonded with a human female, a weyrwoman)

Bronze (male, always bonded to male riders, they are the only dragons who can mate with the queens)

Brown (male, always bonded to male riders, they mate with greens)

Green (female, always bonded to a male rider, they mate with all male dragons)

Blue (male, always bonded to male riders, they mate with greens).

When a queen dragon mates with a bronze, she first bloods her kill then flies high as the bronze dragons chase her.  The bronze riders assemble around the queen’s rider and when a bronze dragon finally “flies the queen,” mating with her, the bronze rider also mates with the queen’s rider.  The leaders of a weyr are determined by senior queen, whose rider is the Weyrwoman, and the bronze who flies her, whose rider becomes the Weyr Leader.

Although these heterosexual relationships are the norm, the level of homosexuality or bisexuality among riders is extremely high, due to the fact that female green dragons are bonded with male riders and when they mate with a male dragon, the riders also mate.  This loose sexuality makes the weyr a  social unit distinct from the rest of Pern.

Over 2,500 years have passed since the original colonization and humans have lost their memories and records of the past.  They have descended into a feudal state, residing exclusively on the northern continent, where individual political units are called Holds, each governed by a Lord Holder, and most of the skilled occupations are called the Crafts, each governed by a Master.


Major Holds, governed by a Lord Holder.

Far West:

            Tillek, High Reaches

Mountainous Area West:

            Crom, Nabol, Ruatha, Fort, Southern Boll

Moutainous Area East:

            Telgar, Lemos, Igen

 

the_northern_continent_of_pern__labeled__by_oracle_the-d5jkkk9

Map of Pern

Island:

            Ista

Far East:

            Bitra, Benden, Keroon, Nerat

The Major Crafts, governed by a Craft Master

Harper, Smith, Miner, Weaver, Tanner, Herds, Farmer, Forest, Healer

Other crafts are created as needed, including study of the Stars, Printing, and Wood crafts.

Normally, the planet goes through a 250 year cycle with the Red Star; the threads appear every two hundred years, then the pass lasts fifty years, but at the beginning of Dragonflight, the erratic orbit of the Red Star has missed one pass so four hundred years have passed since the last thread incursion.  This has led the people to believe that there will be no more threads.  Many of them have stopped giving their tithes to the weyrs and dragonriders have fallen into disrepute.

The normal rule is one hold to one holder, but a greedy warrior, Lord Fax of the High Reaches, has taken over a number of holds when the saga begins, including the historically rich Ruatha Hold.  In a surprise attack, he killed every member of the Ruathan bloodline, except for one, a girl named Lessa.  When F’lar, a virile young dragonrider from Benden comes in search of a rider for the new queen about to be hatched, he must confront Fax in order to get to Lessa.

CHRONILOGICAL ORDER OF STORIES

The following chronological order of the story only lists the books in the main series as written by Anne McCaffrey.  A second series of books, written by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey cover the period of time after the first Thread incursion.

MAIN STORIES

“Survey: PERN” a short story included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.  This story details the original Federation survey of the planet.


dragonsdawnDragonsdawn, the story of the original colonization of Pern.


“The Dolphin’s Bell,” a short story about the evacuation of the Southern Continent, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“The Ford of Red Hanrahan,” a short story about the creation of Ruatha Hold, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“The Second Weyr,” a short story about the founding of Benden Weyr, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“Rescue Run,” a short story about a Federation ship that responded to the call for help issued by rebellious colonists, included in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall.


“Ever the Twain,” a short story from A Gift of Dragons.


Moreta, Dragonlady of Pern, the story of “Moreta’s Ride,” the ballad that is frequently cited by harpers and plays a major role in Dragonsinger.


Nerilka’s Story, a novella that occurs sometime during the Moreta tale.


The Masterharper of Pern, the story of Petiron and his son Robinton, both Masterharpers of Pern.


“Runner of Pern,” a short story from A Gift of Dragons.


THE DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN TRILOGY

DragonflightDragonflight, the story of how Lessa and F’lar came together to unite Pern and bring the five lost weyrs forward in time to fight Thread after the four hundred year interval before the 9th Pass of the Red Star.


Pern 01Dragonquest, the story of how F’lar and Lessa united the weyrs, how F’nor went between to investigate the Red Star, and how they opened the Southern Continent.


White DragonThe White Dragon, the story of how Jaxom became both a dragonrider and the Lord of Ruatha Hold and how he courted and won Sharra.  It also tells the story of how the Oldtimers were ultimately defeated and the Southern Continent retaken.  Jaxom discovers the site of the original colonial landing.


THE HARPER HALL OF PERN TRILOGY


The first two novels of this trilogy occur during Dragonquest, the second novel of the first trilogy.  The third novel begins before and then overlaps The White Dragon.

McCaffrey DragonsongDragonsong, the story of how Menolly escaped her abusive father and mother at Half Circle Sea Hold, how she impressed her nine fire lizards, and ended up at the Harper Hall.


DragonsingerDragonsinger, the story of how Menolly became a Journeywoman of the Harper Hall.


dragon-drums-det_0Dragondrums, the story of how Piemer got himself a gold fire lizard and permanent became a part of the Southern Continent.


OTHER STORIES IN THE TIMELINE


 

“The Smallest Dragonboy,” a short story included in A Gift of Dragons.


 

“The Girl Who Heard Dragons,” a short story included in A Gift of Dragons.


 

Another novel overlaps the entire time period of the two trilogies:

Renegades of PernRenegades of Pern, the story of Holdless Thella and her attempts to kill the girl who heard dragons.  This novel also dovetails with the end of The White Dragon and contains important information about the relationship of Piemer and Jancis. 


All the Weyrs of PernAll the Weyrs of Pern tells the story of the intelligent computer, AIVAS, who helps the people of Pern finally defeat the Red Star.


The Dolphins of Pern.


Skies of Pern Les EdwardsThe Skies of Pern, the story of F’lessan, son of F’lar and Lessa and his love for Tai, the Green Rider, this book also explains what the dragonriders will do now that there will no longer be Thread for them to fight.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Worst Hard Time DusterThe Worst Hard Time is terrific look at the dust-bowl days from the perspective of the people who lived through it. The epicenter, Boise City, Oklahoma is covered extensively, as is Dalhart, Texas, in the panhandle of that state.

In 1934, the panhandle was in its second year of drought. Wheat prices had fallen to the point where a farmer getting 25 cents a bushel was actually better off not planting any.  The Great Depression was already nearing five years deep and showing little improvement.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1933, he immediately implemented plans to feed the starving, give conservation jobs to those where were down and out, stabilize stock prices by buying–and in many cases, killing–cattle that were starving, and eventually buying up land to fallow, replanting the grass that held it together once upon a time.  But by 1934, the unrestricted plowing of the Great Plains had created millions of acres of loose topsoil.  With no moisture to help hold it down, the relentless prairie winds picked it up, circulated it in the sky and then dumped it back down on the sodbusters, sometimes for days on end.  The dust was often finer than sifted flour, just constantly coming down, inhaled by cattle and people until it filled their lungs and stomachs and killed them.  When farmers were actually able to get a little something growing, it would be eaten by rabbits or grasshoppers who grew abundantly in the absence of their natural predators: birds, snakes, and coyotes.  Rabbit drives were organized to kill the rabbits, which provided at least one source of food outside government rations.  Seed sacks were saved and used to make clothing and some ranchers were so desperate that they harvested Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) to feed their cattle.  But the dust and sand storms were the true menace, piling up dunes of sand and soil that made it almost impossible to farm, to drive from town to town, to walk to school.  They filled the air with deadly particles and came relentlessly, sometimes for many days in a row, blackening the sky and creating midnight at noon

Author Timothy Egan does a masterful job of incorporating the stories of John McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan, cowboys Bam and Melt White, homesteaders Fred Folkers and Ike Osteen, Hazel Lucas, the undertaker’s wife, who struggled to have children in the land she loved, and a Nebraska farmer named Don Hartwell, who kept a diary of the decline and fall of the Great Plains.

The book also makes evident the government’s culpability in bringing about this catastrophe by encouraging settlers to farm on the arid high plains, an area that had previously been kept stable by Buffalo grass, bison, and Native Americans. By plowing under the grass, farmers invited the wind to pick up the soil, carry it high into the air, turn over in the atmosphere, and then dump it back down on them.  Not only was it the largest, shortest ecological disaster in American history, it was a medical nightmare with thousands dying from dust inhalation and children and elderly suffering from dust pneumonia.

Seeing this through the eyes of the settlers elevates the story far beyond a dry history recitation, into a powerful work of non-fiction.

The last 100 pages are full of a terrible irony, as hope for recovery from the drought is compounded by Black Sunday (a solid black cloud of dirt that rolled over the plains dumping tons of soil on the farmers until breathing was almost impossible) and those who had pledged to stay were driven from the land.

This is very powerful book, which I highly recommend.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust billie jo cover picOut of the Dust, by Karen Hesse (1997, Scholastic Press) is billed as a Young Adult novel. Although it certainly contains the structure of a novel, it sure doesn’t feel like one.  The reason for that is obvious and up-front: it is a collection of short, free verse poems in chronological order that collectively tell a coherent story.  Presented in the current Young Adult standard of first person present, the poems carry an immediacy that most poetry doesn’t and that immediacy is in the story itself.

Set in the Oklahoma panhandle near a small town, Joyce City, it comes at you in the voice of twelve year old Billie Jo Kelby, the only child in a family that struggles to survive the great Dust Bowl in 1934 and 1935.

The voice is clear and each small poem reveals more of her to us as we move forward. Some of the poems are only a few lines and some of them go on for two or three pages, but every single one is focussed in the girl’s heart.

Part of that heart is rooted in the land. In 1934, the Panhandle was in its second year of drought.  Wheat prices had fallen to the point where a farmer getting 25 cents a bushel was actually better off not planting any.  The Great Depression was already nearing five years deep and showing little improvement.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1933, he immediately implemented plans to feed the starving, give conservation jobs to those where were down and out, stabilize stock prices by buying–and in many cases, killing–cattle that were starving, and eventually buying up land to fallow, replanting the grass that held it together once upon a time.  But by 1934, the unrestricted plowing of the Great Plains had created millions of acres of loose topsoil.  With no moisture to help hold it down, the relentless prairie winds picked it up, circulated it in the sky and then dumped it back down on the sodbusters, sometimes for days on end.  The dust was often finer than sifted flour, just constantly coming down, inhaled by cattle and people until it filled their lungs and stomachs and killed them.  When farmers were actually able to get a little something growing, it would be eaten by rabbits or grasshoppers who grew abundantly in the absence of their natural preditors: birds, snakes, and coyotes.  Rabbit drives were organized to kill the rabbits, which provided at least one source of food outside government rations.  Seed sacks were saved and used to make clothing and some ranchers were so desperate that they harvested Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) to feed their cattle.  But the dust and sand storms were the true menace, piling up dunes of sand and soil that made it almost impossible to farm, to drive from town to town, to walk to school.  They filled the air with deadly particles and came relentlessly, sometimes for many days in a row, blackening the sky and creating midnight at noon.

Hesse does an excellent job of creating her story in the midst of this environmental catastrophe. Billie Jo struggles to understand her father, who doesn’t talk much, but loves her mother desperately.  Her mother seems cold and hard, her few praises grudgingly given, probably because she envisioned more for herself than a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere.  Billie Jo learned to play piano from her mother and she remarks more than once that her mother has a beautiful, lilting voice.  Local musician Arley Wanderdale encourages Billie Jo to sit in with his band, the Black Mesa Boys at the Palace Hotel.  She has a serious crush on their singer, Mad Dog Craddock, who is a few years older, but she always has to approach her mother carefully to get her permission.  She plays with them whenever she can and picks up a few dimes that her mother sets aside for her.

Early in the book, her mother becomes pregnant and they all live in anticipation of a child in their household, but several compounded mistakes change their lives forever. Her father leaves a bucket of kerosene sitting near the stove and her mother, thinking it is water, begins to pour it into a pot to make coffee.  The heat of the stove ignites it and her mother runs outside to call her father.  Thinking it will burn the house down, Billie Jo grabs it and throws it out the door–just as her mother is turning to go back inside.  The effect is devastating.  Her mother suffers burns over most of her body and Billie Jo herself suffers terrible burns on her hands.  Her mother dies giving birth to her baby brother, who dies shortly afterward.

It seems to Billie Jo that she receives most of the blame, for throwing the pain, even though it was her father who should never have the kerosene anywhere near the stove. Blame is almost inconsequential.  Her father retreats into silence and Billie Jo suffers with her burned hands, unable to play the piano anymore.

To see how they cope with these trials, you will need to read the book, because I’m not going to give away any more information.

It is a novel. The way the poems are structured, the way the story unfolds, the arc of the characters, and the internal growth of Billie Jo–all this tells me that this is not only a novel, but a very good novel.

If the purpose of a novel is bring forth emotion in the reader, Out of the Dust is extremely successful.  Karen Hesse pulls us resolutely into Billie Jo’s world, brings us to deeply care about her character, and develops a coherent, beautifully written story.  The world feels real, but that world is only a backdrop for a landscape that exists inside a human being, coping with her own issues, trying to find herself in a moonscape that refuses to bring forth anything green.  That Hesse is able to find that wellspring inside the girl, to tap it, and bring it forth as if it were a gentle, soaking rain, is an admirable feat of writing!

A beautiful book. I highly recommend it, not only for Young Adult readers, but for everyone.

A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year

A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

A Booklist Editor’s Choice

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

nick and norah book cover

This novel comes rumbling out of some torn up Manhattan tunnel like a queercore punk nightmare, full of profanity, revolt, degradation, and the sweetest young love you’ve ever tasted on some strange Jack Kerouac night full of piss and vinegar.

Much the way On the Road roared at the right side of the highway from America’s kick back against conformity in the 1950’s, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist assaults the reader from the first page and doesn’t stop jumping until literally the last word of the book, which is, appropriately: “Jump.”  Young adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan trade chapters in this novel, with her writing as Norah and him writing as Nick.  That accounts for the distinctive voice of each character (written in the ever present YA Biblical tense of FIRST PERSON PRESENT).

The book begins with Nick on stage at some Manhattan club playing bass with his queercore punk band, The Fuck Offs. He’s the only straight guy in the group, comprised of high school seniors.  The drummer, Thom (with an H), is less than talented and waits for a solo that never comes in the two minute screaming slashes that they burn, and the lead singer, Dev, is a beautiful slut, ever on the make for his next guy.  Nick nearly loses it when his ex-girlfriend Tris comes smoking into the club with her newest guy because she is truly, eternally hot and he is still desperate for her.  After the set, he goes to the bar and when Tris approaches him, he turns to the girl next to him, who wears of all things, a flannel shirt in this den of trendy commercially run Ramones tee shirts, and says, “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?” Norah answers his question by giving a deep, eye-opening kiss that begins a six hour trip for these two angst ridden teens that doesn’t stop until, well, like, you know, the end.

Alternately attracted and repulsed, Nick tries to deal with Tris strutting around with her new guy, while Norah, who is Jewish, tries to deal with her ex-boyfriend who has just returned from a kibbutz in Israel.  They are both POSITIVELY unhip and yet at the same time are the two COOLEST people in the novel.  Norah, it turns out, is the daughter of a lifelong A&R man and she grew up traveling the country, going to concerts, and listening to every kind of music there is and digging it all.  Right now, she is deeply, wholly, into punk and so, of course, is Nick, who himself is into all different kinds of music, even though right now he’s really into punk.  Although he doesn’t know who Norah is, she knows all about him because she’s an old friend of Tris and has listened to and admired the mixes he’s made and the songs he’s written.  They are both trying really hard to be people that they’re really not because they love this kind of music and nothing exhilarates either of them more than jumping into the mosh pit when Where’s Fluffy? plays their trashed out rejection of The Man.  As Norah sagely remarks: “The mosh pit never lies.”

Although there are things in book that made me seriously pause, look out the window, and wonder how it was possible to write something that sounded so trite and yet rang so true, I raced through the 183 pages in less than a day. The prose carries you forward as if you were just a passenger on their crazy train or a thrashing punk song, and after a while, you don’t really want to get off or see the song end.  Long sentences that riff like one of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness poems run into even longer paragraphs that run into pages that occur inside one brain or the other and at the end you realize that only a few seconds have passed in the story and it only felt like a few seconds as these pages devoured you!

Most of the book is just laugh-out-loud funny, although there are some pages where you might develop a permanent little chuckle. Cohn and Levithan have such a grip on their writing, however, that this humor can change to heart-rending angst or unexpectedly profound observation within a few words.

The push and pull back and forth between Nick and Norah is a kind of song in itself as they feel their way through their anxieties, work out their past failures, and grope toward a relationship. They are, in some ways, metaphors for our fractured world and if they can work it out, maybe we can work it out.  This must be considered a break-through novel in the YA genre, not just for the language, but for the compression of time, the driving style, and the unique young voices that push it forward.

This is a compelling book that should be LOUD on YA radar.

Like it or not.

My review of the movie is located at Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.