Sunday, 30 October 2011

Sunday Book Club - The Hunger Games

I can often measure how much I enjoy a book by how quickly I read it.  Sometimes I start to read a book and I’ll pick it up every now and again when I have some free time.  I enjoy the story, I’ll probably even share a few of the book’s highlights with my husband, but it’s probably not going to be a repeat read.  Other times I pick up a book and I reach the end only after months of grudgingly returning to it just so I can console myself by saying I finished it.  Definitely not a repeat read.  And then there are the other books, the ones I don’t read but devour.

I started reading The Hunger Games, the first in a trilogy, last Sunday evening.  In the early hours of this morning I finished the third.  I dare say had it not been for that eternal inconvenience of having to go to work I would have read all three without pause. 

The eponymous Games provide a premise that is reasonably familiar, particularly to science fiction fans.  The citizens of the twelve districts of Panem, a country formed in the ruined remains of North America after its ambiguous demise, must pay an annual price to the ruling Capitol for their ancestors’ failed uprising – a sacrifice of two children from each district to compete in the televised Hunger Games.  The children, labelled as “tributes”, are sent to the Capitol and turned into hauntingly familiar spectacles, dressed up in grand costumes and paraded in front of cheering crowds, before being sent into the deadly arena where they will slaughter each other until only one remains. 

The story unfolds in present tense, told in first person perspective by teenager Katniss Everdeen, who has already endured such hardships that the Games at first seem hardly much worse.  It lends a sense of urgency to the story right from the start, as well as leaving the reader with a worrying sense that even our heroine may not survive.  Immediately we are drawn into to Katniss’ world and are invested in her battle to survive the brutality and cruelty of the Capitol’s never ending Games.

The story balances precariously between the grim realism of Katniss’ District Twelve, a starving coal-mining community, and the fantastical world of the glitzy Capitol with its cosmetically enhanced citizens and frivolous affairs.  Both have recognisable elements of our own world, and in the first book in particular the reader is left with an uneasy question of how much of a leap they are actually taking.  In a world where both science and entertainment are continuously breaking new boundaries and hitting new highs- and lows – you could be forgiven for wondering how easily we could slip into the same kind of madness. 

I have heard The Hunger Games – and its follow ups Catching Fire and Mockingjay – compared to a certain other series of books aimed at young adults.  As much as I find the melodramatic romance of the Twilight series mildly diverting, to compare the broken, frightening world of The Hunger Games to the wish fulfilment and wistful looks of Twilight does a disservice to Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, as well as to her resourceful heroine.  Yes, Katniss has two young men vying for her affection, but this is secondary to her battle for survival, not only for her but for the people she cares about.  She is brave and selfless and ultimately flawed by a lack of judgement and awareness that reminds the reader that in spite of everything she has done, she is still a child. 

It seems odd to me that The Hunger Games trilogy can be found in the children’s fiction section.  Books in which children endure starvation, disease and torture at the hands of so-called Peacekeepers before being sacrificed in bloody, brutal battles while Capitol citizens bet on their survival are overlooked and dismissed by some as “children’s fiction.”  As is often the case with books aimed at Young Adults, the label does it something of a disservice, because The Hunger Games is just as compelling, haunting, rewarding and moving as any book I have read in recent memory.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: a Muggle’s View

Orlando, Florida, 2009.  Tarps and scaffolding mar the skyline of the Islands of Adventure theme park.  Proclamations from something called the Ministry of Magic tell revellers to be patient as the giant edifice that will become Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry rises from the ground.  Cue rolling eyes and witless barbs about stupid children’s books from this intrepid theme park goer.

Fast forward to October 2011, and that same cynical, stubborn naysayer is racing through the gates of Islands of Adventure, surging through the early morning crowds with a steely gaze of unwavering determination and only one destination in mind – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

What changed?  As with any life altering event of this magnitude, it was something of grave importance – a dramatic, almost spiritual occurrence of epic substance and consequence.  I, er, watched the movies.  And read one of the books. 

Life altering might be a bit of a stretch.

It only took two movies before I was completely immersed in JK Rowling’s magical world, and though we’d planned on skipping Universal completely on this trip, a few months later it seemed unthinkable that we would miss out on the chance to visit the famous school and the quaint, magical stores of Hogsmeade village.  Plus, Butterbeer!

This park within a park is burdened with massive expectations.  The weight of fan hype and overwhelmingly positive reviews leaves it with a lot to live up to.  I’m happy to report that for the most part, it succeeds.

We entered Hogsmeade through a massive archway, complete with instructions to “respect the spell limits”, and were immediately transported into the world of Harry Potter and his friends.  The ‘village’ is really a row of snow-covered buildings sprawled out in the shadow of Hogwarts itself.  The initial impact is stunning, but the real treat is in the detail all around you.  Every window has something magical to behold, filled with touches from the books and movies, from Hermione’s Yule Ball gown to a shrieking mandrake.  At Honeydukes, visitors can shop for some of the more famous sweet treats from the series, or pick up some familiar joke items at Zonkos.  Best of all, you can spend the whole day drinking Butterbeer!

All this before we’ve even been inside the castle!

Inside Hogwarts, the route taken to the Forbidden Journey ride, the immersion steps up a gear.   It was a genuinely jaw dropping moment to watch the Sorting Hat come to life and speak to visitors as they weave through the cleverly disguised queue that leads deeper inside the castle.  Every twist and turn takes you into another familiar scene, truly creating the feeling that you are actually inside Hogwarts.

The Forbidden Journey ride is like nothing I have ever experienced.  I struggled to fully describe it to friends and family, as no conventional theme park terms seemed to do it justice.  What I can say is that is genuinely thrilling and utterly convincing.  After riding it five times it was still completely seamless, and as close to the world of Harry Potter as you can possibly get.

That’s not to say that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is completely flawless.  The area is very small, and breathing room inside the most popular stores is non-existent, leaving very little space for browsing through the merchandise.  Ollivanders in particular suffers from a distinct lack of space.   

The theme, while eye-popping, is not all-encompassing.  More could be done to disguise the ‘ride’ element of Hogwarts (the giant white warehouse structure detracting a little from the effect), and some of the people working in the stores and at the rides, while perfectly pleasant and helpful, could learn something from Disney’s Cast Members and their ability to fully immerse themselves in a role.  Being something a purist about these types of things, I would also like to see my purchases handed to me in themed or store specific bags.  Handing me a wand in a plastic bag with Shrek on it somewhat shatters the illusion!

These are minor complaints, however, in a place where you can ride on an enchanted flying bench and visit Hagrid’s hut, where the wand really does choose the wizard and where Butterbeer is real.  A definite must-do for wizards and muggles alike.

Monday, 17 October 2011

What is Normal?

Today was my first Monday back at work after almost three weeks away – the beginning of my first full week of work after two weeks of fun and sun at Walt Disney World and a third week to recover. 

Imagine my joy.

I seem to be talking a lot about getting back into my routine.  Or rather people seem to be talking to me about it.  The jet lag from this particular trip has been vicious, largely due to the fact that I’ve made almost no effort to overcome it (note to self: all-night marathons of One Tree Hill DVDs are not the way to beat post-park exhaustion), and I’ve been offered lots of helpful advice about how to ‘get back to normal’.

And here’s the problem.  I don’t want to get back to normal.  I don’t want to return to a routine that I didn't care for in the first place.

It’s not that I’m still pining for the kind of routine that revolves around rope drops, FastPass return times and Strategic Parade Position Planning.  Sure, I miss the carefree days of stroller wars and epic ride lines, but that’s not it exactly.  The thing about a trip to Walt Disney World is that it’s not a place where you go and switch off your brain for two weeks, or at least it isn’t for me.  When I’m there I’m surrounded by things that make me look long and hard at the way I live my life, and there’s a lot I want to change.

I want to learn more about history.  I want to read more than I already do.  I want to learn how to draw.  I want to grow my own vegetables.  I want to recycle more.  I want to do more for the environment.  I want to spend more time with my family and friends. 

More than anything I want to follow my dreams and feel the kind of inspiration that I see all around me. 

Clich├ęd?  Probably.  Sentimental?  Definitely.  It’s no less true. 

For me, getting back to normal means a routine of battling the demonic morning alarm and wringing out every last drop of sleep before starting my day; reading only half as much as I want to and watching television twice as much as I should; counting down the minutes till the end of every work day, rejoicing on a Friday and dreading a Monday.  It’s a routine that is always waiting for what comes next.

I don’t want to get back to normal.

I need to make a change. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Life AFTER Disney

It was a trip 18 months in the making. 

18 months of planning, and dreaming, and planning some more.  Hours and hours were dedicated to examining and re-examining every small detail of this trip, discussing everything we wanted to do and see, all the experiences we wanted to have.

The trip we waited so long for is over.  Two weeks of Walt Disney World have come and gone and I am…tired!

I’ve spent much of the last three days sleeping, entire days lost to the black hole of jet lag and post-park exhaustion.  A trip to Walt Disney World really does require extensive training and conditioning.  Of course I did not undertake any kind of remotely useful exercise before leaving, which might explain why my legs still hurt three days later!

So did a trip 18 months in the making live up to expectation?  Could it possibly endure the weight of 18 months of anticipation?  Of course it could.  This is Walt Disney World after all.

Of course the plan went awry.  Of course we couldn’t possibly do everything we wanted.  And of course after a few days the lines, the crowds and the people using strollers as battering rams begin to grate as the magic struggles to prevent patience from wearing thin.  

That’s the thing about Walt Disney World though.  It doesn’t matter if the plan doesn’t work or if it rains or if you can barely walk by the end of a long day running around a park.  There’s always something that makes it all worthwhile. 

I won’t use the blog to recall every last detail of our trip – a day by day account can be found on my Disboards trip report here.  As the dust settles on our trip there will be elements I’ll want to revisit, and certain reviews of places and people I might want to share. 

As for right now, it’s time to readjust to life in the real world where it’s no longer socially acceptable to wear mouse ears every day.  Shouldn’t be a problem right?  I’ll start with a trip to the cinema.  Now, where’s the Fast Pass line?