Book reviews: Legend series by Marie Lu

This year I’m trying to catch up on my YA genre trilogies, specifically the dystopias.  I read The Hunger Games several years ago, but never followed up on any of the books that came in its wake.  I did Divergent back in spring, and The Maze Runner is up next.  Right now, we’re talking about Legend.

legendLike Hunger Games, Legend (Marie Lu) takes place in a future North America, apparently post-climate change and at war with itself.  June Iparis has been training to be a military officer for the Republic of America since she entered university at the young age of twelve.  Now at fifteen, the murder of her older brother sets her on the hunt for his killer, leading to discoveries that will make her question her loyalty to the totalitarian government.

Although it has its faults, I very much enjoyed reading this series, which consists of Legend, Prodigy, and Champion, plus two short stories in Life Before Legend.

The biggest strength of the series is the two main characters, June and Day.  June is my absolute favorite female YA protagonist of all the current popular series.  I really related to the way she thinks and perceives the world, kind of soberly calculating.  Day, in contrast, wears his heart on his sleeve and never hesitates to act with his feelings.  (Plus the way he throws around the term “sweetheart” gives him a young Han Solo vibe.) They make such a great team: equals intellectually and physically, with different but complementary personalities.  And they have way more chemistry than just about any other YA couple I can think of!

I actually enjoyed the switches in perspective between June and Day; both feel very much alive and have wonderfully distinct voices in the chapters they narrate.  The use of different fonts/colors for each was actually totally unnecessary and a little distracting.

The template for the trilogy was pretty standard YA dystopia: beginning in tightly controlled totalitarian state, with the fight for freedom there spilling out into the larger world, which is no paradise either, having problems of its own.  I liked all three books about equally: Legend was a great beginning, Prodigy upped the complexity nicely (and that last chapter killed me!!!), and Champion had a fairly satisfying ending that fit the tone of the series: grounded (and maybe slightly melodramatic), but overall hopeful.

It was clear to me from reading these books that author Marie Lu is a gamer, so I think nerds especially will enjoy them.  Just the way she describes Day’s Running escapades reminds me of the kind of video game parkour seen in games like Assassin’s Creed (mentioned in her bio!), Prince of Persia, Mirror’s Edge, Infamous, etc.  And her conceptualization of Antarctica is a gamer’s dream country!

I was, however, a little disappointed with some of the sci-fi elements of the trilogy.  Specifically, the science involving the mutant virus in Champion is a mess; I’ll try to break this down in another post.  I wish some of the popular dystopias would take their science more seriously; I’d love to see more teens reading real sci-fi, as it’s one thing that inspired me to go into biology.

Tl;drAn engaging YA dystopian trilogy with plenty of action/romance and great characterization (and a bit of sketchy science) 4/5 stars

“I fouetted in a wig!”

So, I’ve kept watching “Bunheads,” and it’s been pretty entertaining so far.  But this week’s episode felt like it was dragging up until the end.  Michelle and Fanny snarking at each other is witty and entertaining in small doses, but when that is the bulk of the episode it makes me want to smack them into adulthood.  The show is in serious need of a sane character to ground it–preferably someone with testosterone, or even better a love interest (remind me again why they got rid of Hubbell so soon??).  If they aren’t going to add new characters, then they need a better balance of Fanny/Michelle and the high school girls.  I was glad I watched until the end to see the auditions and hear adorable Boo say excitedly, “I fouetted in a wig!”  I bet all the other dancers watching laughed out loud at that, too.

In other news, the movie adaptation of Catching Fire will be out in November 2013.  Mockingjay will be split into two movies, coming out in November 2014 and 2015.  Honestly, I can’t imagine why they felt the need to split it.  Except to drag it out and make more money.  Mockingjay is 400 pages long, only 16 pages longer than The Hunger Games’ 384.  (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in contrast, is 784 pages.)

Also, where will they split it?  The first movie will be Katniss doing something dramatic and waking up in a hospital on repeat about 20 times, and the second movie will be the fake arena bit in the Capitol with tons of blood and guts everywhere.  Don’t get me wrong, I did like the book (albeit not as much as the first two).  I just don’t think they can get 5 hours of content/2 worthwhile movies out of it .  But I’d love to see them prove me wrong…

Also, I am really looking forward to the Olympics coming up in a few weeks!  The US athletes, however, may not be looking forward to being dressed as Polo flight attendants for the opening ceremonies.  Best part: the uniforms were actually made in China.

If you like the Hunger Games, you’ll love Battle Royale

One more great thing to come from the Hunger Games hoopla: lots of press for a little-known but much-loved Japanese movie called Battle Royale, which also features a government-organized teenage death match…and it came out over a decade ago.  I’m not here to argue about which is better, because it has its own merits and does its own take on the concept.  And no, Hunger Games is not a “rip off.”  But the comparisons are inevitable, and I, for one, am willing to buy into the Hunger Games connection if it brings more attention to a seriously awesome movie.

BR the movie is based on a book of the same name by Koushun Takami, published in 1999.  I recently bought the 2009 translation of the novel but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.  There is also a manga series, but I have not found that readily available here in the States either.  The movie, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, came out in Japan in 2000, but never made the jump to American cinema, probably because producers felt hesitant about so much graphic teen violence in the wake of  Columbine and then Sept 11.  (The unfortunate sequel, BRII, is even less likely to be accepted by the American public, with its blatant themes about terrorism.)

But luckily, we Americans can all now get to experience Battle Royale: it is now available for purchase on Blu-ray!  The Complete Collection includes both the Director’s and Theatrical cuts, as well as the sequel, and bonus content, including commentary and documentaries.  The best part about this?  New and improved subtitles.  My current DVD copy of BR, the Hong Kong Special Edition version, has awful translations in the added scenes, including such wonderful gems of dialogue as “Anyone see this must be scribble.”  HUH?  Maybe now I can actually understand that last scene with Noriko and Kitano.

I first saw BR when I was in high school, about 10 years ago now (yikes!).  It is definitely one of those movies that has a major impact on your worldview.  In a dystopian Japan, the government is trying to subdue the rebelling youth by creating the BR Act: every year, one class is selected to fight to the death, until only one is remaining.  If there is no winner after three days, all the students die (a contrast to Hunger Games, where a winner is necessary, and Katniss relies on it).  One of the most interesting concepts is watching how people who have known each other for years react when they are suddenly placed in competition for survival.  The BR class brings to the island all the drama, bullying, secret crushes, and cliques that all high school classes have, and that influences how the game plays out.  My two high school friends who introduced me to the movie were mildly obsessed with scenarios involving our own class on the island.  It makes you think.  If your best friend came at you with a knife, would you shoot him?  Would you be willing to die for your friends, like Kawada’s girlfriend Keiko? And these kids did not get weeks for training, or time to plan strategies; they made split second decisions that showed their true essence.  What would yours show about you?

My favorite characters are the two transfer students (you can recognize them because they are not wearing the same school uniform).  Kiriyama, the volunteer, is just totally psycho-bad-ass, and I wish his showdown with Mitsuko had been more dramatic because I had been looking forward to it the whole movie.  Kawada, a returning champ, is the most “real” character of the students; great acting allows for complex motives and emotions to come through.  He also has one of the best motifs in the movie, explaining away his talents by saying his dad was a doctor, or a fisherman, or whatever.  Another great character is Kitano, the teacher running the game, masterfully played by “Beat” Takeshi.  I still laugh at the scene when he gets up off the ground to answer the phone, then ends the conversation by shooting it with a real gun, and slumps back over.  With such a large cast, and so many young actors, there is bound to be some bad acting, but overall, it’s really pretty good.

The movie does contain lots of graphic violence; think Tarantino (who is a BR fan himself).  All the players are given different weapons at random, from poison to a pot lid to a shotgun.  This naturally leads to some interesting and bloody methods of death.  The students also wear tracking collars, which will explode at the end of three days if more than one person is alive.  The blood-and-guts aspects are not overly realistic, but that doesn’t lessen the psychological impact of the violence.  And what could get you more excited for graphic violence than perky government PR people?  Effie Trinket and her oblivious fashion and catchphrases find a direction counterpart in the energetic girl with facial piercings in the BR introductory video that is played to the class to explain the rules of the game.  Gambatte, ne!  Let’s all do our best.

Because it’s just a game, right?


Happy Hunger Games!

Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard that the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games is coming out this weekend.  Having read and loved the trilogy, I’ve been following the (extensive) press coverage leading up to the opening.

One aspect I am particularly excited about is the movie soundtrack.  There are two different discs being released, a score by James Newton Howard, and a compilation of songs entitled “The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond.”  I haven’t heard the score at all, but I listened to the samples of the compilation, and I’m very intrigued.  The concept was basically to imaging what Appalachian music, the music of District 12, Katniss’s home, might sound like in the future.  I am especially excited for The Decemberists’ “One Engine,” the Taylor Swift/Civil Wars ballad “Safe & Sound,” and the opening track from Arcade Fire “Abraham’s Daughter.” (Here’s a review of the compilation.)  I am unclear, however, exactly what role these songs from the compilation will play in the actual movie, whether they will be featured at all.

Music plays a key role in several parts of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Katniss inherited her father’s vocal talents, but since his death she rarely sings.  Her singing is significant at three different times in the books: her lullaby for Rue after covering her in flowers (I believe this song may be in the score), Peeta’s memory of her singing on the first day of school and realizing he loved her, and later on in Mockingjay when she sings a sad song (“The Hanging Tree”) for the camera, both evoking her state of mind and helping the people of Panem see a softer side of her.

There are two things I was hoping for on the Hunger Games soundtrack that are missing: Lenny Kravitz and Muse.  I think Lenny Kravitz is the absolute perfect Cinna, exactly how I pictured him in my head, and the image in the trailer of him putting the mockingjay pin on Katniss before she goes up to the arena gives me goosebumps.  It would have been cool for him to add his musical talents to the movie as well, and I think it would have worked thematically.  And I guess we are all sick of Muse after Twilight, but honestly I think their songs fit Hunger Games even better than Twilight.  The lyrics and mood of “Uprising” and “Resistance” always make me think of Katniss and Peeta.

On a side note: I am really disappointed at one of the stills that they have chosen to use to promote the movie.  I keep seeing it here and here and here.  I have never shot a bow in my life and even I can see that Katniss’s hand position is WRONG.  She looks like she is about to take her hand off.  If you want people to have confidence in your production, why would you release a photo where Katniss looks incompetent at what is supposed to be her best skill? Edit (3/23/12): This photo came up today on of all places (link).  Someone who has seen the movie mentions that this is her “tracking” pose; note that the string is not yet pulled back all the way, so she is not quite ready to shoot.  Fair enough.  And apparently, Jennifer Lawrence is a convincing archer as Katniss.  But I still think it was a poor choice for publicity picture.