Who doesn’t love a good dystopian tale—other than people who like to be happy and imagine that the world is all butterflies and roses and whiskers on kittens? I personally love to be freaked out by horrible futures that could befall us. So today, I present two dystopian offerings for your consideration. Though I suspect I’m one of the few left who hasn’t already read and reviewed The Hunger Games books!
This is a young adult series (and I think it shows!) about a dystopic world where the United States is now known as Panem. Divided into twelve distinct districts that each have their own industrial focus, Panem is ruled from the Capitol with an iron fist. To help keep the people in line—which is very necessary considering everyone is kept on the brink of starvation—the Capitol requires each district to send two tributes (a boy and girl) to The Hunger Games each year. A country-wide televised event, The Hunger Games changes each year, with a special arena being constructed for each game. What doesn’t change is the basic rule: all tributes must either kill or be killed, and only one tribute can be left standing at the end.
The concept of having young people being thrown together in an arena and being forced to fight to the death sounds horrible—and it is, but it also makes for exciting reading. The story is told from the point-of-view of Katniss—a 16-year-old girl from District 12 (the coal mining district in what used to be Appalachia). Katniss is not your average girl by today’s standards. She’s a rule-breaker (leaving the fenced district to hunt for food in the woods) and a skilled hunter, especially with bows and arrows. When her beloved younger sister Prim is selected as a tribute for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. As she enters the flamboyant, anything goes world of the Capitol, we learn more about the Games and her fellow tribute—Peeta, a good-looking son of a baker who showed kindness to Katniss years ago. When they are thrust into the arena, all bets are off as Katniss struggles to survive and be the last tribute standing. But Peeta throws a wrench into the mix and changes Katniss’s game plan, leading to an ending that is sure to cause problems for everyone involved.
In Catching Fire (and I doubt if you read the first book you won’t continue on with the series), we get to find out what happens after the Hunger Games described in the first book. Once again, Collins sets up a cliffhanger ending that will probably ensure that the third installment will shoot straight to the top of the best-seller lists.
I’m not going to talk too much about these books as they’ve probably been discussed to death already. My guess is if the concept of the books appeals to you, you’re going to read this series and will be pretty satisfied with them. I didn’t think the writing was stellar and I had some issues with Katniss being unaware of what is going on around her (especially in the second book), but these books are meant to be fast exciting reads and they don’t disappoint. Frankly, I felt Collins could have dropped the whole “love triangle” subplot and had a better book, but perhaps that is just me. And how many of you who read this book wish Collins had provided a map so you could see what district you lived in?
The Bottom Line: 4 stars for concept and 3.5 stars for execution. Perfect for young adults and anyone seeking a fast-moving dystopian tale that doesn’t make you think too much. I read both books in a day. These books are the equivalent of eating a candy bar—a candy bar with spikes in it—but a candy bar nonetheless.
The Whys and Wheres: I read these books because I was so sick of hearing everyone rave about them. I read The Hunger Games on my Kindle and borrowed Catching Fire from the library.
In A Perfect World
Harper Perennial, 2009
Genre: Fiction, Dystopia
While some dystopian books take place in an imagined future where things are very different from our own world (like The Hunger Games series), In A Perfect World takes place right in our here and now. There are no fantasy elements to this book at all—everything seems utterly believable and possible, which made it a more effective and scarier book for me.
Our glimpse into a world that encompasses nothing less than a complete breakdown of our society is Jiselle, a flight attendant who has “landed” the handsome and charismatic pilot Mark Dorn. In her 30s and tired of always being the bridesmaid and never the bride, Jiselle is ready to settle down and imagines a perfect little world with her ready-made family. (Mark has three children whose mother died a few years before.) Jiselle leaves her job and moves into the idyllic little town where Mark has a picture-perfect home. Anxious and excited to be the stepmother, Jiselle is eager to meet her new family. What she finds is three children who are less than thrilled—with the exception of the young boy (gotta love those boys!)—with their new stepmother. With Mark away for a good portion of time, Jiselle struggles to make the transition into her new life.
In the background of Jiselle’s life, there are rumblings of another kind—a mysterious Phoenix Flu is causing troubles through the country. Even celebrities seems to be getting it and dying. (OK…a little editorial note here: I just loved that Kasischke killed off Britney Spears with the flu! Take that, Ms. I’m A Terrible Singer Yet Have Achieved Huge Success!)
As the story progresses, Mark is away more and more often, and Jiselle finds out some disturbing information about her new husband. And as the Phoenix Flu begins to become more and more of a problem, Jiselle’s focus begins to shift from getting adjusted to family life to surviving—a skill she finds herself to be more adept at than she ever imagined.
As conditions worsen and society begins to fall apart, Jiselle is thrust into a nightmarish world where isolation, survival, sickness and death become a part of everyday life. Yet the worse things get, the more Jiselle’s world actually becomes “a perfect world.” With an ending that will leave readers who need things tied up at loose ends, this book surprised me in how it shifted and turned and twisted and changed into something that I can’t quite describe. Consider it an uplifting story about the end of society as we know it.
Reading this right after The Hunger Games, I think this book came out on top for me. Where The Hunger Games is flashy and showy with its tantalizing premise, this book is more subtle and slow and deep. Written in an almost distant, chilly type of prose, Kasischke has created a dystopian book that truly scared and disturbed me yet also made me feel good about the world at the same time. As I said, this isn’t a book that ties things up in a nice little package for you, but I thought it suited the story well. If you’re looking for an adult book on the opposite side of the dystopian spectrum, then this book is for you.
The Bottom Line: I’m giving the book 4 stars. I was drawn into Jiselle’s world in an almost hypnotic way. Each page brought me closer to horror but also to goodness. This is a book that I could envision happening in our lifetime, and I think Kasischke did a wonderful job of keeping it from falling into a run-of-the-mill “Oh No…There’s An Epidemic” type thriller. This book has a vibrant beating heart if you take the time to look for it.