Monday, December 20, 2010

Misery loves an audience

After finishing Mockingjay last week, the final book of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, I can see why a lot of readers weren't too sure if they liked the ending or not. For those who don't know, The Hunger Games takes place in a future where the United States has devolved into a nation called "Panem" with 12 tributary states surrounding a Capitol. The states (originally there were 13) had rebelled, but have since been pacified and as a result are required each year to offer two of their young people, ages 12 to 18, as "tributes" to compete in "the Hunger Games," a televised gladiator-style fight to the death with only one victor. Katniss, a 16 year old girl from District 12, volunteers when her younger sister is chosen. The other tribute from her district is a slightly older boy named Peeta who once saved her and her family from starving.

It's a plot-line that's been used many times, from Greek mythology to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. I was initially put off by the first-person present-tense narration and a fairly sappy romantic sub-plot, but sympathetic characters and a rather unnerving reality-TV aspect make it a hard story to leave unfinished. But it's also a story with a good deal of misery and violence (although the violence is somewhat muted), and this misery creates a tension that pulls readers in, especially as the story progresses toward themes of rebellion and redemption.

But it's not the only popular series with a storyline heavy on misery. Those of us who love books and reading them can relate to the Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke. Sometimes characters in stories are so well-written that they seem to come alive and you wish you could join them in their world, or bring them out into yours. And some people seem to have a gift for reading aloud and bringing a story to life, and that's what happens in Inkheart. Meggie lives with her father, Mo (short for Mortimer), who repairs old books. But Mo doesn't read aloud to Meggie like he did when she was a child, years ago before her mother left. He doesn't because when he reads aloud sometimes things and even people from the story come out, and things and even people around him vanish into the world of the story. Maybe that's part of the puzzle why Meggie's mother left, and why strangers named Dustfinger and Capricorn are looking for Mo.

It's a compelling and intense story that doesn't let go until you've finished. But it feels a bit too intense as the trouble Meggie and her father find themselves in never seems to let up. It doesn't help that the bad guys in the story are some really mean characters. And the books are long for them to be in danger throughout with so little respite or peace, leaving you feeling wrung out by the time you're finished. In the end, I was glad to be done, although it would be unfair if I did not acknowledge how well-written I find the books to be - it certainly can weave a sort of spell around you and draw you into its world.

I've seen advice for would-be writers to constantly plunge their characters back into trouble, and these series certainly seem to have taken that advice to heart. Likeable characters keep you interested in their fate, but I kind of wonder how books filled with such misery and unrelenting tension become so popular. Do readers really like that anguished "can't put it down" tension for such a sustained length? And maybe the bigger question: Would I recommend these books? Probably not Inkheart even though I found it to be very cleverly-written; it was just too dark and seemed to have a lot of profanity for a "YA book."  I would probably recommend The Hunger Games though.  After I've had some time to think about the ending to Mockingjay - and gotten past the shock of it - and listened to parts again, I find the ending to have been very appropriate. Although I'm questioning the wisdom of having let my daughter Kate read both these series (and she's not even 12 yet).

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)The Hunger Games: Book 1Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (Hardcover)Inkdeath (Inkheart Trilogy)Inkspell

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