Category Archives: Fiction

Furst’s “Spies like us”

Alan Furst, Midnight in Europe, 2014.

Alan Furst’s latest period spy novel, Midnight in Europe, caught my eye quite by accident while I was at my local library in early October.  I had not remembered that Furst had published a new book in his long-lived World War Two era “series” last June, so when I saw the cover I thought “well, that looks like a Furst,” and sure enough, it was.

As I’ve mentioned before, a colleague introduced me to Furst and I immediately was taken in by the characters, environs, and the era.  As a student and instructor of history, I’ve long been fascinated by compelling and successful novels that help illustrate a period in time.  Alan Furst creates, not unlike John le Carre, vivid worlds of espionage, secrets, failed trust, and lovers.

Midnight in Europe is no exception as we meet Catalan refugee Cristian Ferrar, international attorney and Parisian resident, along with former arms dealer Max de Lyon, and a host of other characters, some new, some familiar.  Furst populates his novels with people and locations who “overlap” one another, so in Midnight we re-visit Brasserie Heininger and spend time with Count Polanyi, a Hungarian diplomat.  It’s rather like re-visiting a comfortable neighborhood, even in cases when Furst is laying the base for some very tense story-telling.

While Midnight did not impress me the same way in which earlier novels like Night Soldiers or The World at Night did it still allows one to envision pre-World War Two Europe in all its romanticism and tension.  Ferrar’s trips into Nazi Germany, his planning for the future as his homeland (Spain) falls to the fascist Francisco Franco (who is these days, is still dead), and the introduction of the United States more fully into the story line are all intriguing.

Part of what Furst has done successfully over the years is give readers insight into the lives of those at the fringes of the “typical” World War Two narrative. So in Midnight we meet a Catalan, Spanish citizens fighting off fascism, a Russian Jew who has lived all over the continent, Greeks, Hungarians, and more.  These individuals are all facing the coming changes in mid 1930s Europe and, in some instances saying their farewells – it can be touching how Furst portrays these tough men (laborers, criminals, dockyard workers, etc.) acknowledging that their homes are about to explode and many may never see one another again.  One could do worse when trying to unravel interwar politics than to pick up books such as Midnight.

postscript – I’ve also been reminded that the BBC produced a version of Furst’s Spies of Warsaw starring David Tennant as the lead.  Seems as though I need to check out Hulu+ and give the series a whirl.

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Philip Kerr takes up Prayer

Philip Kerr, Prayer. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.

I have written on Kerr in the past, chiefly focused on his Bernie Gunther character, though I’ve read a few of his other works as well.  Prayer is unlike any other text I’ve read of his writings, and I’m uncertain still as to whether this is a good thing or not.  As I worked my way through the novel, I commented to a friend that I found the book creepy and more than a little frightening at times.  In the end, I lean more on the idea that the story is a bit messy, the main character thoroughly unlikeable, and some of the resolutions left me wondering – is it over? Was it real?  What was real?

FBI agent Gil Martins is a Scottish immigrant who spent formative teenaged years in Boston, MA, worked as a lawyer, and quit in the post 9-11 malaise to become an agent for the Federal Bureau.  He’s on the backside of a failing marriage, drinks too much, and has lost his faith in God, if not also humanity.  When the story opens up, we learn that Martins, raised Catholic in divided Glasgow, has converted to evangelical Christian but is really more of a burgeoning, if not fully committed, atheist.  The personal religious struggles of Martins are somewhat interesting, but as other reviewers have noted, Kerr has not created the most sympathetic protagonist.  Martins, as written, simply cannot pull off the sardonic, self-aware witticisms that come so easily to Kerr’s Bernie Gunther.

Perhaps this is unfair – making comparisons between the creations of an author, but arguably it is also the fate of a writer who largely works in the serial of the Gunther cosmology (or at least as done so for roughly ten years).  Despite what I perceive as a misstep in character design, there are elements of the story that certainly worked to keep me intrigued.

Ultimately however, I ended up disappointed in the novel.  I am still unclear, five days or so removed from finishing, exactly how the string of murders that were under investigation by Martins are resolved, or perhaps they aren’t?  I wrote earlier that the book was both creepy and frightening.  I will stand by that judgement and it is in this particular element that I see success in Kerr’s writing.  He effectively creates an unsure, unsafe, and bizarre environment with a touch of the paranormal.  My personal problem was, I did not care what happened to Martins, I was not certain I cared about the main antagonists, and I found the seeming abandonment of some characters, like Martins’ FBI partner, odd.

Does Martins, and Kerr by proxy, ask some interesting questions about the nature of God and prayer in general?  Perhaps, but I still found that in spots, the story was “flabby.”  Prayer is worth investigating, but if you leave off halfway through the novena? I won’t judge.

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Habits and comparative mysteries…

Åsa Larsson, The Blood Spilt. 2004, English translation 2007. (originally Det Blod Som Spillts).

Robert B. Parker, Sixkill. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011.

Habits can be bad, they can be good, they can be made, and of course they can be broken. Beginning this writing project, I developed good habits – disciplined reading and writing on a daily basis – BUT, as has been obvious for some weeks, I abandoned these habits as quickly. No excuses – I simply got out of the habit. I have still been reading – different types of books off the shelf – but the writing became non-existent.

Today I completed Robert Parker’s last Spenser novel (Parker died in 2010), and I am a bit in mourning all over again for a character and the author. As it happens, there have been two books published that also include Spenser, Wonderland and Lullaby, but I am uncertain as to whether I can read them.
The other day I finished Larsson’s The Blood Spilt and I am uncertain as to whether I would read other books by her, so it seemed like a good bet to combine these texts in a review.

People either love or hate the imagined Boston tough guy detective with a penchant for literature and a long-standing love affair with psychologist Susan Silverman. I am firmly settled in the former camp and have been since my dad pressed a copy of Early Autumn into my hands some 28 or 29 years ago. My dad had been an admirer of Raymond Chandler and some other detective fiction writers, but Parker was something else. Like my father, Parker and Spenser shared an interest in the Braves, being smart, and Boston in general.

When the book series was made into a television show for ABC, my dad and I were anxious but excited. The heavy use of Boston locations was one part of the show that made it enjoyable – the casting of Avery Brooks as Spenser’s sometime comrade Hawk made it intriguing. My friend Stu and I ran into Avery Brooks at Quincy Market in December 1986 (twice) – he was in character the first time and himself the second, but in both instances somewhat intimidating and full of flash if you will. We watched carefully for the episode that featured Quincy Market – it was all of a minute, but still…

Sixkill does not feature Hawk at all, other than to mention his existence and indicate that he is in Central Asia. Hawk’s lack of appearance in the book makes Susan nervous. I was sad to not see him as he is one of my favorite characters, but Parker could not have known he would die before writing another novel. What is interesting about Sixkill is that Parker appears to be setting up a new character, Zebulon Sixkill, to add another dimension to the stable of assistants and friends of Spenser. I have enjoyed Bobby Horse, Chollo, and others – Z would have been an interesting addition to see grow and connect with Hawk and the rest of the Spenser universe.

All these observations aside, this is not the best Parker novel by any means. It is, however, enjoyable enough, even if some of the storyline, dialogue, etc is a bit predictable. Parker has created a thoroughly unlikable creature in Jumbo Nelson – is he the guilty murderer or a victim or something in between? We are less than clear for much of the novel – we are clear that Nelson is reprehensible and that Spenser is doing what Spenser does. The detective works a case he has been asked to quit, rehabilitates Sixkill, and, as always, impresses with a mix of smarts, physical prowess, and loving affection for Susan.

Are Parker novels formulaic? Sure. In comparison to Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Parker’s Sixkill is a mapped out story that you can figure out elements and conclusions for a long while in advance. Larsson has created an incredibly bleak world for her protagonist Rebecka Martinssson and yet I hear from my wife and other readers that this story is not as dark and despairing as other crime novels from Scandinavia. Yikes.

The Blood Spilt won an award for the best crime writing in Sweden when originally published – the book I “read” (in this case, listened to which is unusual for me) was translated into English in 2007. As a side note, the translation must have been done with British English in mind, (perhaps Larsson had British English training?), because the text is filled with phrases like “bloody well” and “she looked smart.” At any rate, I will give Larsson a lot of credit for creating some very complex characters and a true mystery in a setting she knows well (the author lives in the region portrayed).

What I struggled with the most is Larsson’s narrative style which jumps all over the place. Characters narrate their own points of view and at times they are in the present, the past, and in solely their own minds – sometimes all at once! Dead characters haunt the living, the landscape is of vital importance, you probably need to know something about small town Swedish life and Lutheranism to understand every twist, and once in awhile a female wolf interjects herself into the story. Perhaps Larsson enjoyed The Seventh Seal enough to make her story equally enigmatic? Regardless, it is vivid and good writing and characterizations – I simply did not enjoy it as much as I do crime novels by Parker or Dennis Lehane. This is not to suggest I can’t like Swedish crime writing – I found Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman and other Martin Beck novels fascinating.

No, there is simply something I did not fully embrace in Larsson’s story – in the end, it may have been the jumpy narrative, it may have been the bleak resolution of the initial crime, and it may have been the fear I hold for Martinsson. I remain curious though – can Rebecka recover again? Perhaps I will give Larsson another chance.

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The home stomping grounds in fiction…

Dennis Lehane, Moonlight Mile. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

About ten years ago I picked up a book at my branch of the Los Angeles public library entitled Shutter Island and was introduced to Dennis Lehane. The book impressed me because it was an unusual sort of mystery and appealed to me due to its Boston locale. I didn’t know much about the author though that same year the first major film based on a Lehane novel was released. Mystic River, which I watched with a very strange audience at the Los Feliz 3, and Shutter Island inspired me to dig into Lehane more deeply and I believe I picked up Prayers for Rain next, introducing me to Patrick Kenzie and, in that novel, his estranged lover Angie Gennaro. For readers familiar with Lehane’s novels you’ll recognize that this was an “ass end to” way to approach the characters, who had been introduced in his award winning 1994 novel A Drink Before the War.

I liked the characters, I liked Lehane’s style, and, as someone who had been away from my home state of Massachusetts for nearly ten years at that point, the scenes gave me a nostalgic thrill as well. I had always enjoyed Robert Parker as well, whose Spenser mysteries had been a staple to me since the mid 1980s, but there was another personal connection with Lehane’s chosen environment.

My parents on both sides grew up in Dorchester, one near Uphams Corner, the other in a couple of different houses closer to Neponset Circle. These names, if you are not connected to the area, are meaningless, yet the neighborhoods and the parishes shaped my parents’ lives immensely along with six aunts and uncles and a variety of grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. Dorchester itself is the largest “subdivision” of Boston and home to about 1/6 of that city’s population. It has long been a home to shifting groups of immigrants – indeed Lehane’s parents were Irish immigrants.

I spent a lot of time in Dorchester as a child, chiefly at the paternal ancestral home on 8 Barry Park near Uphams Corner. The Aietas owned that house from about 1905 or so until 1987 – there’s a photograph hanging downstairs in my house now portraying my great-great grandfather, his wife, and various sons and daughters sitting on the porch. My mother would (and still does!) talk about her girlhood in Dorchester and walking from parish to parish on Holy Thursday to make the stations of the cross. My mother and father both knew the family who lived at 6 Percival Street at one time, a house made famous as being the first “This Old House.” I have heard the specific version of the Boston accent unique to Dorchester so much in my life that at times, it is easy to figure out that someone is not just Bostonian, but from a specific neighborhood within Dorchester.

This latter point can be amusing and, in the case of Hollywood movies, can be annoying. One of the most amusing examples was on day one of a long term substitute teacher job, sitting in the faculty room listening to an English teacher tell a tale. When completed, I introduced myself and said, I’m sorry, but which parish in Dorchester did you grow up near – I think St. Peter’s but…he laughed and affirmed my guess but pressed me on how I could have known. Or the woman I sat next to randomly at a history conference whom I quizzed as to how close to Neponset circle she must have lived – pretty close as it was perhaps two streets from my mom’s place on Westglow.

My point is that good authors make their environment as much a character of their books as the people they create. Lehane is a master on this front though sometimes in subtle ways (eg, discussing the cross streets, which T stops run where, etc). Equally important of course, is that while I care about the neighborhoods, perhaps more than typical readers, I also deeply care about Patrick and Angie. They are, as is often the case in tough mystery novels, principled people but who also make some interesting choices and whose decisions and use of violence is often something that makes some readers a bit squeamish. It is one of these decisions, made by Patrick in Gone, Baby, Gone that is probably the most infamous and debated both by those who read the novel and/or saw the film. Indeed, that decision creates serious repercussions for Patrick and Angie’s relationship, and ultimately the crux of the story expressed in Moonlight Mile.

I can’t say much about this story without giving away important details about the mystery, but Amanda McCready, disappeared and rescued by Patrick some 12 years earlier in Gone, Baby, Gone is once again missing. Central to Moonlight is Patrick’s struggle with whether he did the right thing by returning Amanda to her addicted and checked out mother, a debate that is augmented by his mixed feelings about his current main employer, and of course, Amanda’s new disappearing act.

There is much to commend in the novel, including Lehane’s caricatured portrayal of a fitness guru’s offensive mind processes, a wonderful quick nod to television’s Arrested Development, of which Patrick is assuredly a fan, and the presence of minor sociopath Bubba Rogowski. One of Lehane’s strengths is typically dialogue which is why an important scene in which Patrick is talking with a number of prep school girls falls a bit flat. Maybe it is because I taught at the west coast version of a school like the one Lehane is portraying, but the rhythm and word choices there didn’t quite ring true. I think of M. T. Anderson’s masterful Feed and how he captured that late adolescent patter so well and wish this scene in Moonlight had read as smoothly.

In the end, that point is quite a minor complaint – the mystery is solid, the moral dilemmas are intriguing, and the twists in storyline are believable which can be a challenge in private detective fiction. If Lehane can pardon the pun, on any given day, I enjoy his work whether it is the mystery novels or the rich historical fiction. I’ll be investigating Live By Night shortly and I urge others to do likewise!

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Of baseball, barnstormers, and golems…

A promoter tries to convince Noah to take action for a "guaranteed" profit.

A promoter tries to convince Noah to take action for a “guaranteed” profit.

James Sturm, The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2001.

As a long time comic book enthusiast, and this week, all around busy person, it’s high time I review a graphic novel here on the blog.  I hasten to add, the fact that the book is a graphic novel is no slight, and, truth be told, I’ve read it before, but re-reading it was a great pleasure.  Sturm, a talented storyteller and cartoonist, has created some of my favorite graphic novels including The Golem’s Mighty Swing.  Sturm takes the time to paint a picture of the time period he is portraying (in this case the 1920s), invests in character development, and often has an important piece of social commentary to offer.

Basing his tale on the barnstorming days of semi-professional baseball and very loosely on the House of David baseball team, Sturm tells the story of a Jewish barnstorming team called the Stars of David (note – House of David was NOT a Jewish team, but rather the product of Christian sect; their story is interesting and the real similarity here with Sturm is the long hair and beards).  At any rate, Sturm’s Stars of David are led by Noah Strauss, a fictional former professional player for the Boston Red Sox.  The team is filled with talented Jewish players including alcoholic “Buttercup” Lev, Noah’s sixteen-year old brother Moishe (Mo), and the fantastic Henry Bell (Hershl Bloom for appearance sake, but Mr. Bloom was  crossing the color line as a Negro player on this barnstorming team).

In courses ranging from Twentieth Century American Popular Culture, to United States history surveys, to Native American history, I have utilized graphic novels in an effort to engage students.  Works like Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, George O’Connor’s Journey into Mohawk Country, Sturm’s Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crowand even Neil Gaiman’s fanciful 1602 all have value in teaching American history.  The Golem’s Mighty Swing, like Satchel Paige, exposes readers to the absolute bigotry of the United States in the early twentieth century.  Referred to as “Sheens,” studied for horns on their heads, ogled at by fans, physically assaulted, and more, the Stars of David under Noah Strauss’ leadership are trying to make a go of it – and they’re not bad, winning 136 of 160 games in 1921.

It is promotional man Victor Paige who approaches Noah with the idea of increasing their “gate take” by creating a golem – they mythical man-made creature of Jewish legend that can be a servant and protector, but, not being made by God, has no soul.  The golem would play for the Stars of David and, in Paige’s mind, would help the team earn as much as $700 per game.  Noah initially is put off by the suggestion, especially as Paige suggests it will be Henry Bell to take the role of the golem.

As wonderful a character as Noah Strauss is, it is Henry Bell who has the most to teach readers and history students.  Bell, quietly dignified, points out that if putting a costume on earns more money so be it – even more important is Bell’s role as the conscience of the team, and its protector, both in the lineup for baseball games, and otherwise.  Students of history will recognize many of Bell’s decisions as important steps to take by oppressed people in the face of prejudice.  It’s fiction, but Sturm gives readers of American history much to discuss – give it a try in either its singular form (now out of print) or as part of Sturm’s wonderful America: God, Gold, and Golems  trilogy.

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Crossing over…

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Students in my classrooms quickly learn that I enjoy working historical fiction and other non-traditional sources into my courses. There are any number of reasons for this strategy, but chief among them is to give students a different type of experience with history story-telling. Yes, some students get this type of story from watching history films, but my point is I would like students to get this type of narrative through reading.

Geraldine Brooks gives readers ample opportunity to explore story telling of the type that I believe can resonate with students of many ages. Not only is her narrative clear, but on several occasions, the visuals are so brilliantly crafted that you can “see” and sense the kind of colonial community she is attempting to bring to life. A fine example of this skill appears early in the text:

The labor was such that father trembled all over afterward….So it is, out here on this island, where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness. Like Adam’s family before the fall, we have all things to do. We must be fettler, baker, apothecary, grave digger. Whatever the task, we must do it, or else do without (5).

There are some who might not enjoy certain stylistic choices made by Brooks. Written in first person narrative, Caleb’s Crossing also makes an attempt at capturing the rhythms and alternative word choices of 1600s era New England. Not unlike watching a film in which English is the language, but the dialect or accents is quite foreign at first, the words and patterns become steadily more familiar. Still, this style seems a big stilted in some sections.

The last is but a minor complaint however. I found the book equally effective for creating a picture of the time period portrayed as M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and stronger than Caroline Cooney’s The Ransom of Mercy Carter, both of which I have used in the classroom. For younger students, some of Caleb’s Crossing
may explore themes that are difficult (eg, miscarriage, implied accusation of rape etc), yet the book’s value far outweighs any potential controversy.

Brooks provides the reader with a helpful afterward discussing the actual historical figures who inspired her writing, as well as commenting on a variety of sources and research. The inclusion of strong female and native characters are welcome as both Bethia and Caleb reflect more truly than most interpretations, the varieties of people extant in New England. We meet real historical figures along the way and indeed Caleb himself is based on a real person.

In addition to exploring the daily life of English settlers and native people, Caleb’s Crossing effectively reveals thoughts on the spiritual world of these “accidental” neighbors. Brooks lets readers better understand this particular past through descriptive narrative, creating characters we want to know more about, and by making language and words an important part of the story. Brooks clearly grasps that culture is embedded within language, and we can see that as Bethia and Caleb come to know each other and through the important use of Wampanoag words. It is a novel well worth reading, and should be considered a useful source to give students a readable and accurate portrayal of the time period.

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To Kill a Mockingjay?

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010.

In late May I wrote on a piece of fiction from one of my favorite “noir” type writers, Philip Kerr.  In reviewing Bernie Gunther’s latest adventure, I pointed out that there were  extant book series I enjoyed, particularly when the author was still alive.  Mockingjay is the last in Collins’ Hunger Games series.  Last summer, I read the first two books from this popular vision of a dystopian future North America.  Aimed at a young adult audience, Collins caught as much fire as her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, particularly after the 2012 release of a film based on the first text.  The cinematic part two in the tale will be released in November 2013.

First, I like young adult literature, though I confess to being uncertain as to why this moniker became attached to certain kinds of books.  I suppose it was a marketing ploy of some type eventually, even if we can agree that there were novels aimed at younger readers published in the early 19th century.  At any rate, young adult or YA, has been a go to source for me in searching out historical fiction and other pieces to use in my classrooms.  Prominent examples include Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (and its follow up The Kingdom on the Waves), Laurie Halse Anderson Speak (among others), M. T. Anderson’s Feed, Gene Yang’s American-Born Chinese, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, S. E. Hinton’s The OutsidersJudy Blume’s Forever, and Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius.  This list is, of course, by no means complete, so no complaining that I forgot this author or that one.  Some of the books I have listed I have used in various courses or grant work, others are simply favorites.

So, where does Collins sit?  Well, I don’t rightly know yet.  This is hedging of course, and perhaps I will go back over this blog entry and edit it to make some changes to my opinions, but I honestly can’t say immediately that what I think now will be the same even a week from now.  Some explanation is clearly in order here.  I mentioned I read the first two Hunger Games books last summer.  As is often the case, my wife and I end up reading books together so she finished volume one on a plane flight to North Dakota, I picked it up when I arrived and finished it, she went on to buy volumes two and three, etc.  I raced through the first two volumes with some growing “meh” feelings about Katniss, and when I began volume three last August, I reached page 66 (roughly) before setting it aside because I couldn’t stand to hear Katniss whine anymore about her situation, Peeta, how Haymitch sucks, etc.  Ugh.

Collins chose to write the entire series as a first person narrative which can be risky.  There are other dystopian tales that have used this method – Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland for instance.  Orwell’s 1984 is third person, but clearly Winston Smith’s point of view dominates.  M. T. Anderson’s Feed uses first person.  The utopian/dystopian Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy does too.  The problem, as gentle readers will recall, is if you write in first person, and the person you choose to narrate becomes unlikeable, the book can become unbearable.  This is what happened to me sometime towards the end of Catching Fire and certainly in the beginning of Mockingjay – I wanted Katniss Everdeen to be obliterated so we could hear from someone else.

I traveled back from AP US History grading yesterday and reviewed a couple of books I completed over the week, read an article or two in a history magazine, and took the day off from writing to spend time with the family.  This morning, not desiring to go to my office bookshelf, I had a choice of an academic piece on English language learners, a book about wireless communication by Erik Larson, and Mockingjay.  I picked up the latter, noted where I had left off last summer, skimmed the previously read sections and then set about reading the rest of the tale.

Writing this evening, I believe I merely needed a vacation from Katniss and her attitude.  This dystopian novel is not Fahrenheit 451, it is not 1984 or Lord of the Flies.  The book does not horrify in the same way that M. T. Anderson’s Feed  does, because even in all its humor, the world of Feed is horrifyingly believable as a not so distant future.  Mockingjay is not the CW’s Arrow series for that matter, despite a shared interest in archery.  However, Collins has given readers a powerful female protagonist in Katniss, who, despite her perhaps too pitch-perfect adolescent self-centeredness, is someone young men and women can admire.

As for the book or series as a whole I believe there are some interesting elements in Mockingjay that explore moral dilemmas similar to those humans face in day to day existence in the twenty-first century.  For example, despite her clear feelings of being a fighter and disdain for the Capitol, Katniss has a problem with Beetee and Gale’s use of trapping techniques to create attacks.  The two men are designing devices that mirror guerilla warfare and terrorist techniques – initial bombing draws attention, aid, creates victims, and a larger secondary bomb explodes “trapping” more victims.  Katniss drops anger at the world for a moment wondering “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be acceptable to do to another human being” (186).  She raises an interesting question, one to which people who use violence in order to make social change or “fight for freedom” don’t always have a good response.  I am not convinced that Collins is consistent with these types of moral dilemmas throughout the series, although certainly Mockingjay has more than a few.

In the end, I believe this book  disappoints in the same way as the others.  Is Katniss, or any other character deeply conceived and developed?  I see both the characters and the storyline as a bit like theater scenery – there’s a perception of depth, but in the end, it’s an illusion and we are left with a largely one dimensional series of objects.

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