Recommended Reading For Late Summer


Book cover of Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games - [Paperback]
The Hunger Games - [Kindle Edition]
By Suzanne Collins
2008 – Scholastic Books, 384 pages
Grade 7 to Adult

For the past twenty years, books written for children and young adults have produced some of the best and most compelling writing around. Suzanne Collins’ wonderful novel
The Hunger Games now joins a storytelling pantheon that includes Harry Potter, Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and Jeanne DuPru’s Ember series.

Set in the not so distant future,
The Hunger Games unfolds in an America that has been rocked by famine, drought and revolts. What emerged from this apocalyptic time was a country divided into districts now ruthlessly ruled over by a central government known as the State of Panem. As punishment for the insurrections that citizens launched against the government years earlier, every district is forced to participate in the annual event known as The Hunger Games.

All children between the ages of twelve and eighteen must place their names in a lottery. Each of the twelve districts draws the name of one boy and one girl who become that year’s participants in the brutal Hunger Games where they will be forced to fight to the death until only one remains alive. The Games, which can last weeks, are televised 24/7 to an excited viewing audience.

The heroine of the story, Katniss Everdene, is a 16-year old girl from impoverished District 12, formerly known as Appalachia. Forced to take on the responsibility of keeping her mother and sister alive after her father is killed, Katniss has become one of the best hunters in the area. With her friend Gale, she illegally goes into the forests every day to bring back game for her starving family. Highly skilled with a bow and arrow, Katniss will not go completely unprepared when she becomes one of the contestants in that year’s Hunger Games. Yet even she will find herself desperately fighting for her life once the Gamemasters airlift all 24 contestants into an environment which can best be described as ‘Survivor: the Season in Hell’.

The premise of the book is obviously an exciting one, and Collins does not disappoint. The first half of the book is so fast paced that I literally got to the end of each chapter and HAD to keep reading. I haven’t seen a book make such great use of chapter cliffhangers since Michael Crichton’s
The Lost World. But what really holds the book together is the engaging character of Katniss who from first to last has the reader’s attention and sympathy. Sometimes she is calculating and tough, other times she is simply the bravest and most loyal 16-year old girl you’re ever going to meet. Luckily she is well matched in the character of Peeta, the boy from District 12 who is sent into the Games with her. As for Peeta, this baker’s son is one of the most likable fictional characters of the past twenty years.

Adults and children over 12 will thoroughly enjoy this first book in
The Hunger Games trilogy. The violence is not graphic, except for one death towards the end of the book. Obviously there is no sex to shield younger readers from, but there is a surprising and very touching romantic element to the plot.

Collins has said that the idea for the book came while she was watching TV and found herself switching between footage of the Iraq War and a reality show. That famous ‘What if?’ of writers kicked into gear, and Collins thought ‘What would happen if something as brutal as a war was being waged and broadcast as a game?’ Her book not only examines the cruel absurdity of such a premise, but peoples it with such memorable characters and scenes that you will be forever grateful Collins was channel surfing that day. Can’t wait to read the remaining two books in the trilogy.

(Sharon Pisacreta, August 2011)

Book cover of Allison Pearson - I Don't Know How She Does It
I Don't Know How She Does It - [Paperback]
I Don't Know How She Does It - [Kindle Edition]
By Allison Pearson
352 pages, Knopf, 2002

This book has been on my To Be Read pile for many years. Ironically I chose to finally read it during one of the busiest periods in my life. Since the heroine of
I Don’t Know How She Does It is multitasking herself into a complete meltdown, I found the book funny, moving and completely accurate.

Kate Reddy, a successful fund manager in London, narrates the story. On the surface, she seems to have it all: high-powered job in finance, loving architect husband, two young children, and supportive female friends who are as witty and stressed out as she is. She is also averaging about four hours of sleep a night (on a good night), is completely intimidated by her nanny, and seems to clock in at least 80 hours at work each week. Her male co-workers are patronizing and sexist, her husband is getting tired of her never being home, and her five year old daughter and one year old son are making guilt inducing pleas for more of her attention.

Told in a diary-like manner reminiscent of her singleton counterpart Bridget Jones,
I Don’t Know How She Does It is filled with very funny observations about the ridiculous measures women are invariably driven to in order to have both a successful professional and personal life. Or as Kate phrases it, “Daily existence was a constant assessment of who needed my attention most: the children, the office or my husband. You’ll notice I leave myself out of that list and that’s not because I’m a good and selfless person. Far from it. Selfishness just wasn’t an option: no time.”

Kate seems to always be in crisis mode, whether she’s flying to Frankfurt to meet with a client or trying to find her son’s favorite stuffed animal. Small wonder that she engages in a flirtation with an American colleague that threatens to become serious. (And who can blame Kate when his email messages to her are as erudite, bright and funny as she is?) Stay-at-home moms at school make occasional appearances, usually to regard Kate with barely veiled disapproval while saying the inevitable, “I don’t know how you do it.” But don’t think that Pearson is stacking the deck in favor of working moms over stay at home moms. The pleasures, pressures and travails of both choices are explored in the book.

What Pearson is really examining is how society is much more accommodating to working fathers than working mothers. Even worse, the pressure on women to handle everything both at home and at work comes mainly from women themselves. However the guys do not get a free pass. One of the most satisfying subplots in the book involves Kate engineering the downfall of an especially repellent male co-worker.

But at the center of the book is the enormous responsibility, joy and fear every woman feels at her role as a mother. Amid all the witty observations and asides, a lovely passage like this appears as Kate walks down the maternity floor hallway after visiting a friend who has just given birth:

“Place of pain and elation. Flesh and blood. The cries of the babies raw and astounded; their mothers’ faces salty with joy. When you are in here you think you know what’s important. And you are right. It’s not the pethidine talking, it’s God’s own truth. Before long, you have to go out into the world again and pretend you have forgotten, pretend there are better things to do. But there are no better things. Every mother knows what if felt like when that chamber of the heart opened and love flooded in. Everything else is just noise and men.”

Btw, I just learned that the film of this book will be released in September. To my great disappointment, the story has been shifted to the U.S. and stars Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate. I guess the filmmakers assumed American audiences won’t watch British actors in a British movie, thereby ignoring all eight record-breaking Harry Potter films. This is a great shame since Pearson’s dry British wit infuses every line in the book. And I cannot imagine the eternally girlish Parker playing the intelligent, ball busting and acerbic Reddy. Where is Cate Blanchett when you really need her?

Regardless of how the film version turns out, I recommend reading the highly entertaining book as soon as you can. And since this was Pearson’s first novel, I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, you are moved to say after you’ve finished it, “I don’t know how Pearson did it.”

(Sharon Pisacreta, August 2011)

Book cover of Barbara Cleverly - The Last Kashmiri Rose
The Last Kashmiri Rose (Joe Sandilands Murder Mystery) - [Paperback]
The Last Kashmiri Rose (Joe Sandilands Murder Mystery) - [Kindle Edition]
By Barbara Cleverly
2002 – Dell, 310 pages

I’m always looking for well-written mysteries featuring distinctive detectives and uncommon time periods and settings. As soon as I read the cover blurb of
The Last Kashmiri Rose nine years ago, I knew I’d found a series that would satisfy both requirements. Subtitled, ‘Murder and Mystery in the Final Days of the Raj’, British author Barbara Cleverly's first book in the Joe Sandilands series takes full advantage of its colorful 1922 Indian setting…even if it is a locale that Sandilands is heartily sick of.

When we first meet Joe Sandilands, he is just finishing a six-month assignment in Calcutta training the local police in modern methods of detection. Eager to return to England and his work at Scotland Yard, Cleverly introduces her likable protagonist with the following passage: “Commander Joseph Sandilands of the Metropolitan Police was delighted to be going home. Delighted that his six months’ secondment from the Met to the Bengal Police should, at last, be at an end. He’d had enough India. He’d had enough heat. He’d had enough smells.”

Leaving India won’t be easy however. Just before his departure, he is asked to investigate the apparent suicide of an army officer’s wife. He soon learns from Nancy Drummond, the dead woman’s friend, that there have been four other suspicious Army wife deaths in the past twelve years. Even more disturbing, the deaths all occurred in March.

Since Drummond has access to the privileged social class of the British population in India, Sandilands teams up with her. As they track down the serial killer who is targeting wives of Bengal Grey officers, more strange details about the deaths emerge. For example, each victim had a phobia or fear that ended up being the cause of death. As Sandilands and Drummond hunt for the killer, the reader is given fascinating glimpses into the lives of the British military elite as well as the native population who are just biding their time until the English occupiers finally leave.

This is the sort of plot and setting that one would expect to read in an Agatha Christie novel, but Cleverly carries it off masterfully. Even more remarkable when you consider that the award-winning
The Last Kashmiri Rose was Cleverly’s debut novel. This series has been so successful that seven Joe Sandiland mysteries have been published since. Although you don’t have to read the series in order to enjoy them, I do recommend starting with the first Sandilands book. If you love compelling plots, a detective hero who is neither tortured nor neurotic, exotic settings and dialog that perfectly captures the 1920s, then The Last Kashmiri Rose is the perfect introduction to a wonderful mystery series.

(Sharon Pisacreta, August 2011)

August - September '11