Saturday, December 31, 2011

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is a 2010 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Here, Katniss has become the face of the rebellion’s propaganda campaign.

Mockingjay is often grimmer than the previous books, and Collins makes a couple of somewhat bold plot decisions (for the YA genre). However, while Collins knows how to keep the reader turning the pages, the story itself often lacks focus. Much of the book features Katniss involved in events of only peripheral importance, and a number of important story elements are not well developed, even if they are resolved satisfactorily.

In Mockingjay, Collins attempts to draw a contrast between Gale’s embrace of no-holds-barred warfare and Katniss’s reservations. Yet her attitude is inconsistent with her actions in all three books, and it rings distinctly false.

In the context of street warfare, the Capitol’s Games-style booby traps feel silly and impractical. And the book’s ending, in addition to fizzling abruptly, feels somewhat contrived and arbitrary. A very deliberate suspension of belief is required in a number of places.

Collins finally gives Katniss some substantial emotional reflection and explores just how damaged she is. However, this self-examination is focused on what Katniss has lost and almost completely ignores what she has done, which may make the reader feel that Katniss has not learned anything (especially the messages Collins seems to be trying to present to the reader) nor evolved substantially as a character. But Collins lowered the bar for herself in this regard in the previous books, and it’s better than nothing.

In the end, Mockingjay is an under-developed but reasonably entertaining and generally satisfying conclusion to the series, held back by the telling rather than the story.


Saturday, December 10, 2011


Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green (2011) collects Marvel Comics’ Green Goblin #1-13 as well as Amazing Scarlet Spider #2 and large portions of Web of Spider-Man #125 and Spectacular Spider-Man #225, all of which were published in 1995 and 1996. The majority of this material was written by Tom DeFalco and penciled by Scott McDaniel. Taking place in the midst of Spider-Man’s notorious Clone Saga, this collection contains all Phil Urich’s appearances as the Green Goblin.

Here, Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich’s teenage nephew Phil stumbles upon a cache of Harry Osborn’s old Green Goblin equipment, accidentally gets covered in Goblin Serum, and decides to take the gear and become a superhero (sort of). He runs into some standard Marvel villains, including the Rhino, the Hobgoblin, and a Sentinel, as well as some original villains who aren’t particularly memorable; he also has encounters with the Scarlet Spider, the Thing, Daredevil, and Spider-Man.

DeFalco’s writing here is good, if unspectacular. Phil is something of a slacker, and the prominent theme running through the work is personal responsibility. It’s kind of an interesting counterpoint to Spider-Man’s massive guilt-driven responsibility, although Phil is prone to vacillation, which leads a little more farting around than benefits the story, since slackers, by nature, don’t tend to do a whole lot, and Phil may be slower to come around than some readers will like.

Green Goblin bears something of a debt to The Mask, which DeFalco readily acknowledges. There’s plenty of dated dialogue here, written by a middle-aged person clearly only guessing at what was hip and edgy (or maybe basing it on what he’d seen on TV), as well as a load of even more dated pop culture references. This is jarring in part because of the writing, but also because of how far technology has come in fifteen years. In any case, DeFalco would go on to far greater teen-centered superhero works with Spider-Girl.

The Spider-Man comics included here don’t really relate to the rest of the work – the Green Goblin doesn’t do a whole lot in them – and they don’t add much to Phil’s story. But for the completionists, this volume contains every appearance of Phil as the Green Goblin.

Scott McDaniel draws most of the issues, and his art is good, although there’s a general lack of detail. The muddy colors don’t help matters either. But McDaniel’s style fits the Green Goblin perfectly.

This is a self-contained story arc, and it ends at a good place to leave Phil before, under the direction of other writers, he goes on to crazier, more villainous things (this collection was put together in 2011 after Phil became a new evil Hobgoblin – nothing in this volume even hints at that).

On the whole, Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green is a solid read, and will be accessible to those with a basic familiarity with 1990s Spider-Man.


Monday, December 5, 2011

MIRACLE ON SOUTHWEST BOULEVARD by Cindi Hemm with Katie Hemm Kinder

Miracle on Southwest Boulevard is a 2011 book by Cindi Hemm (with her daughter, Katie Hemm Kinder), about high-poverty, urban Eugene Field Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

When Cindi Hemm took over as principal of Eugene Field in 2003, it was in atrocious condition and had the worst test scores in the state. Within a few years, test scores were in the top ten percent for the state, enrollment increased, problems decreased, and the school became a service-oriented community hub. It’s an amazing story. It’s the sort of thing Hollywood makes feel-good movies about.

These changes occurred because of reforms Hemm instituted within the school (requiring uniforms, teaching to the test, and so forth), but much more because of Hemm’s active recruitment of outside help. While some volunteered, Hemm enlisted the help of churches, businesses, and individuals to invest time and money in the school and in its children. This is the inspiring part of the story: how the greater Tulsa community turned Eugene Field into a place that could, in turn, serve its community.

Hemm’s leadership, resourcefulness, and dedication are impressive. She credits faith in God for much of what takes place, yet at the same time she celebrates how she frequently circumvents school administration to do what she wants – she calls this “positive deviance” – and recommends this practice to other educators. Whether the reader agrees with this or not, Hemm certainly seems like an interesting person. (As an aside, the reader may feel that in this book, Hemm is tooting her own horn; that’s fair, but it really doesn’t feel intentional.)  

Hemm’s writing is highly informal; it’s beyond conversational, somewhere on the level of a personal email. It reads almost like a novel, although it’s often stilted and sometimes doesn’t flow well. Also, Hemm. Emphasizes. Points. Like. This. She tells her story anecdotally and thematically rather than chronologically, and in any given chapter, it can frequently be difficult to determine at what point in the process a particular thing occurred. The book (which was self-published through Thomas Nelson) is horrifically mispunctuated and filled with typos (even on the back cover). It looks like it received zero copy-editing. Yet for all its flaws, the book never fails to be interesting, although you definitely expect a better-written book from a professional educator.

Eugene Field Elementary School’s turnaround is a great story, and as such, Miracle on Southwest Boulevard is worth a read. But the school’s story deserves a better book than this.


Friday, December 2, 2011

CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is a 2009 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Here, the events of the first novel have stirred up unrest in the Districts, and the totalitarian Capitol threatens nearly everyone Katniss knows with death.

The Hunger Games was a page-turning affair; Catching Fire is too, mostly. Collins has a lot of creative ideas here, many of which work well, especially in the middle third of the book. It’s notably impressive that she can keep a second Hunger Games event reasonably fresh, although its abbreviated length certainly helps.

And yet here also Katniss spends page after page mentally whining, absorbed in her own problems, feeling sorry about her situation (that she’s moping about her loved ones’ fates rather than her own doesn’t make it less tiresome). Katniss is also painfully slow on the uptake throughout the book, and is often a hindrance to other people who are trying to get things accomplished. For numerous reasons, she just isn’t as sympathetic here as she was in the first book.

The real star of Catching Fire is the supporting cast. Whereas Katniss is usually content to take a blunt-instrument approach to her plight, many of the other characters are crafty, creative, and noble, and the reader roots for them. It’s too bad the first-person narrative restricts the book to Katniss’s perspective, because a great deal of what they’re up to is quite a bit more interesting than much of what Katniss has going on.

Collins’ writing feels somewhat less solid here than in the first book. The story itself is fine, but Collins at times seems more interested in setting up the third book than telling this book’s story. Much of the key action in the book is given in summary. The ending is a particularly glaring example, where the reader is given a glossed-over page of twists and revelations without even a proper scene. Additionally, the love triangle featuring two upstanding, devoted young men who don’t care how annoying the girl can be is boilerplate for female-fronted young-adult fiction.

For all the setup of the first book, Collins still doesn’t have anything interesting to say on any of her issues. She still hammers the totalitarian-government-is-bad point, but that government and its leader are never more than one-dimensional villains. Collins again ignores the moral issues of the Hunger Games; indeed, Katniss, who hopes that somebody else kills the people she likes so she won’t have to, is nearly all hardened killer here. (The seeds are here to make a point about fighting evil with evil, but Collins doesn’t seem the slightest bit inclined in that direction.)

Catching Fire is a page-turner. But because of its flaws, it feels shallow, and a page-turner is about all it is. Ultimately, that’s just enough to make it worthwhile.