Backlist Bonus: Mockingjay

mockingjayby Suzanne Collins
YA Dystopian
2 of 5 stars

This is an interesting case where my star rating isn’t for flaws in the book itself. This was not an enjoyable book to read, but only because it was so good. The final chapter in this trilogy is so realistically bleak there is no way to enjoy reading it. It’s dark, depressing, and gray. While I think it’s admirable to show what all these drastic, revolution/post-apocalypse/political-manipulation-machine stories would actually be like, it was like reading 1984. It’s good to have it checked off your list but you never need to read it again. My current rating scale would give this 3 stars, but I feel weird changing my Goodreads rating after the fact. I know, I’m weird.

We’ve spent hundreds of pages reading about Katniss. Her goals, her struggle to survive, her place in a world that is clearly more complex than she first thought. I cared about Katniss–I did not want to see her utterly destroyed as a person. “The girl on fire” who was burnt to ashes. Unfortunately, she’s the Mockingjay, not a phoenix. The capable, clever, determined girl from the first two books is reduced to a shivering, irrational creature suffering from intense PTSD and essentially paralyzed. These are all reactions I’d expect in a person coming off of two rounds of the Hunger Games–but it doesn’t fit the tone of the previous books and it’s a sucker-punch to the reader. It’s as if you were watching a Disney movie and suddenly the princess is actually reacting to being locked up/asleep for years instead of smiling and riding off with the prince.

Political and physical battles span the length of the book, but unlike the film we don’t get much perspective on Panem since Katniss isn’t very involved. Lots of death, lots of trauma, lots of moralizing on how each government regime eventually becomes what it fought against. True, but unpleasant. So although it’s definitely interesting to read the trilogy and experience Katniss’ complete journey, in my opinion this doesn’t have the re-readability of the first two books.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Mockingjay is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Allegiant by Veronica Roth – Another depressing end to a dystopian trilogy, but that series was my favorite after this one. In my opinion, another instance of the first two books being better, but book three is polarizing.
  • The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan – This trilogy about the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse started strong, had a rough middle, and then ended on a slightly weird/uplifting note. Again, I felt this was the most realistic of the three (in terms of perspective) and your level of enjoyment will depend on whether that suits you.

Prince’s Gambit

gambitby C.S. Pacat
4 of 5 stars

*This trilogy is intended for mature readers*

I had to start this trilogy when all my writing friends were giving it 5 stars—it was sure to be amazing! And this sequel completely lives up to the first book. 

The political intrigue, smart banter, and slow-burn attractions are all here, as well as more wartime strategies and a bit more action. Damen has agreed to help and protect Laurent on his uncle’s mission to the borderlands, but he’s going to escape back to Akielos as soon as they arrive. Freedom is finally within his grasp, and he’s determined to return to his country and reclaim his throne. Laurent knows that his uncle has arranged everything to eliminate him from the line of succession, and must stay two steps ahead of every obstacle and threat that crosses his path.

The grudging respect between Damen and Laurent continues to solidify as they train their sub-par troops and travel to across the country. Although they don’t always agree, they have the same end-goals and find themselves compromising and using each other’s strengths to achieve victory. Honestly, my favorite part of this book was how these two strong-willed characters kept forcing themselves to give compliments to each other when due (despite residual annoyances) simply because their personal codes of honor demanded it. The tension of attraction between them keeps climbing in spite of themselves and it’s hard to put this book down—I had to see if they would ever tell each other the truth!

The writing and pacing are fantastic. And the dialogue is seriously to die for. I love the growing relationship between Damen and Laurent but I felt kept at arms-length most of the time, which is the only reason I’m not giving this five stars. Although there’s many pages spent on emotions and emotive moments, the narration is sparse enough that I couldn’t fully invest in the characters like I have in other books. I still can’t wait to read the final book—although I’m just as nervous as I am excited!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Prince’s Gambit is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski – A YA fantasy series of political cat and mouse. Kestrel and Arin are separated, on opposite sides of a war between their countries, unsure of what each other’s feelings truly are. See my review here.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik –  A dark, well-written fantasy about a young woman taken by a wizard to be his servant for ten years. But she might have her own powers to master. See my review here.
  • The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon – Paige has escaped captivity with the help of her master, Warden, and returns to Scion London’s underbelly to rally the clairvoyants together to face the government determined to kill them. See my review here.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

hatby Oliver Sacks
3 of 5 stars

My grandfather recommended this book to me in December, and since I’m trying to read more broadly this year (i.e. not solely YA fantasy!) I picked it for this month’s nonfiction read. It was both more interesting and more dull than I expected, but overall I am glad to have read it because the content is truly unique.

I think the best way I can describe this short but dense book is this: imagine a cold Sherlock telling you about uncommon brain disorders and their symptoms. He goes into anecdotal detail with a precision that sometimes coasts above your head, and with an enthusiasm that seems inappropriate at times given the patients’ often-horrific circumstances. (Although Sacks does occasionally express regret and concern over the emotional states of the victims).

These clinical reports are given some narrative structure and are organized into similar manifestations of brain dysfunction (losses, excesses, transports, the world of the simple) and each chapter isn’t very long. Each one provides details on the life and treatment of one patient’s disease, which at times has afflicted them since birth, and other times develops after an accident or very late in life. Some of them sound like something you’d make up for a sci-fi thriller or mystery: the inability to remember faces, or anything past a certain date; the inability to feel your own body; the inability to recognize common objects like gloves, shirts, or your own hands; continually hearing the same songs over and over in your mind—things that leave these people perpetually bewildered and confused in their own lives. Occasionally treatment can recover a fraction of what they’ve lost or struggle with, but overall this is a series of encounters with people who will never be cured.

It’s interesting, and you feel the utter fascination of the writer, but it’s difficult to read at times and leaves you chilled for the people experiencing the diseases. I’d recommend this if you want to feel better about your own life’s circumstances or if you’re curious about the different sections of the brain and how they interact.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova – Another analysis of the brain, in particular how our memories work and how we can organize our minds to prevent forgetfulness.
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller – A fascinating and moving look at the author’s childhood in Africa during civil unrest. She’s written several memoirs about her atypical life in different African countries and has a direct perspective that cuts to the heart of her experiences. I highly recommend her.
  • This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin – Although this book doesn’t actually answer the question of why we love the types of music we love, and why music is so emotional for humans, it does cover a lot of fascinating information regarding music and its integral relationship to our lives.
  • Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner – If Sacks made you a bit uncomfortable with his study of brain damaged patients, this will make you uncomfortable with its examination of societal issues. They also have a podcast which explores some of these issues. One of my favorite books for presenting alternate perspectives on the world (whether or not you end up agreeing with them).

Backlist Bonus: Catching Fire

fireby Suzanne Collins
YA Dystopian
3 of 5 stars

Although a very good second installment for a trilogy, much of this seemed like the first book re-done. We go back to the arena for the Quarter Quell – a special version of the Hunger Games pitting victors against each other in another fight to the death. When Katniss and Peeta are chosen again for District 12, Katniss knows it’s because of their rebellion in the previous games. But Katniss can’t convince President Snow it was an accident born out of true love—he believes she is part of a wider rebellion.

The quicker pacing and better side characters in this version broaden our understanding of Panem’s districts and the Capitol’s hold on them. Katniss is placed in the interesting position of becoming the face of a rebellion she doesn’t believe in—she tries to halt the unrest but continually stirs it up instead. She fears for Prim, Gale, and Peeta as President Snow assures her that if she doesn’t succeed, he will stop everything by force and kill everyone she loves.

This kept my attention but I almost wished the twists and plot were combined into the first book rather than made into their own. The film version becomes an fascinating extension of this series because we aren’t confined to Katniss’ point of view, which gives us a lot more information than I felt we got in the book. Definitely worth reading because it doesn’t suffer from too much middle-book build-up.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Catching Fire is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski – Kestrel’s stakes keep climbing as both sides in the war suspect her of being a double agent for the enemy. She struggles to stay one step ahead of her father, the emperor, and most of all Arin, whom she’s determined to help without his knowledge. See my review here.
  • Insurgent by Veronica Roth – Tris’ initiation to Dauntless ended in war between Erudite and the Abnegation. She’s determined to find a way to restore balance, but Erudite has plans bigger than she knows.
  • The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau – Lina, like the rest of Earth’s survivors, has lived in Ember all her life, the only safe city left, stocked with supplies for survival. But the supplies are running out, and the lights are failing too. Lina thinks it’s time to go beyond Ember’s walls for survival, before it’s too late. A short, fast-paced read that’s a touch lighter than typical dystopian fare.

What to read again:

Ever since Harry Potter I’ve enjoyed re-reading the previous books in a series before the next one comes out. You get to soak up all the nuances and speculate about what’s going to happen next—it just makes the whole experience richer and more fun! What am I going to start re-reading?

The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski

I have to admit, the cover of the first book made me put off reading this series for years because fainting girls aren’t really my thing. But Kestrel is most definitely NOT a fainting flower! She might not be the strongest fighter physically, but she will destroy you in any game of strategy you can devise. From the moment she accidentally wins the bidding war for the slave Arin, she becomes caught up in the struggle for power between their two nations. Her father leads their army, and Arin struggles to lead his country in the rebellion. I couldn’t put these down and I can’t wait for the final book in March!

The Winner's Kiss

Still not sure if it’s for you? You can read my reviews here!

The Winner’s Curse & The Winner’s Crime

What if you don’t have time? There’s an amazing site out there called Recaptains: readers who recap and sum up everything in previous books so you are fully prepped for the next one. A life-saver time-saver for sure!

Here is the recap of The Winner’s Curse, and The Winner’s Crime from their site. Beware, there are spoilers on purpose!

Wolf by Wolf

wbwby Ryan Graudin
YA Fantasy / Historical Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

This starting popping up on other blogs I follow and I was immediately intrigued! Alternate history is always fascinating, especially with the proper research, so I grabbed this from my library as soon as I could. This is one of those treats where the story reads like a cinematic adventure. Fast-paced yet emotional, beautifully written and doesn’t let you go until the last page. It was torturous reading this so slowly thanks to my work schedule!

Yael’s story takes place in an alternate timeline where Hitler and Emperor Hirohito won World War II. They control Europe and Asia with slow expansion into the rest of the world. Yael spent years in a death camp undergoing horrendous experiments intended to transform her “impure” appearance into that of an Aryan. Her mother and everyone she’s ever known don’t survive their imprisonment, but Yael walks free thanks to the unintended consequence of the experiments: skin-shifting. She can take on any appearance she sees and uses this to escape one night. The secret resistance finds her, and Yael becomes part of a plot to kill Hitler. She’ll impersonate the only female winner of the annual Axis Tour motorcycle race in hopes of getting close to Hitler at the celebratory ball and ending him. Who doesn’t want to follow Yael’s journey?! I already can’t wait for the next book!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Wolf by Wolf is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman – Kate’s father is killed for possessing the map to a gold mine. Kate goes after the gang for revenge, joined along the way by unlikely companions. This is an unbelievably good story that grabs you from the first chapter. See my review here.
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – This is similar in tone to me, and Ender’s burden to save humanity from killer aliens reminded me of Yael’s feelings about stopping Hitler to save the world. Both of them are children with incredible responsibility forced on them. See my review here.
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson – A shape-shifting girl apprenticing herself to the resident super villain has her own motives for causing mayhem. This satirical and entertaining graphic novel is set in an mashup world of technology and medieval elements – definitely worth reading. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: The Hunger Games

hungerby Suzanne Collins
YA Dystopian
4 of 5 stars

This stands the test of time as one of the best examples of YA dystopian novels. All discussion (and pros and cons) of “the strong female character” redirect here. This created a sub-genre that thrived for years and, for better or worse, a character measuring stick in the form of Katniss Everdeen. Seen as the antithesis to Twilight’s Bella Swan, Katniss captured everyone’s attention with her gritty personality, archery skills, and determined love for her sister, Prim (now a trope in her own right).

The story is well-known by now thanks to the films, but as the Capitol’s TV spin-team points out, the beats of the story are what make us love it. As underprivileged children from the poorest district, Katniss and Prim struggle to survive already. When Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her younger sister, she changes the mood and course of that year’s Hunger Games, unknowingly setting herself up as a model of hope for the rest of the districts. The underdog has more class than the richest patrons. The underdog might actually have the will and skill to win.

What I found most intriguing about Katniss was her sense of duty and honor. She didn’t care to survive the games for her own sake—only Prim’s request that she win drives her to play the game with any sort of effort. Her relationships with Gale and especially Peeta are all filtered through her goal of reuniting with her sister. It makes her cunning and unlikable at times, and it makes her unbeatable. When I first read it I remember being shocked by what Collins put her characters through—the horrors of the games and the political and social commentary she cleverly wove throughout the heart-pounding events. I was glued to the page and afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about Katniss and her world. Its unreality and similarity to ours.

Dystopian isn’t everyone’s favorite genre, but I think its popularity was an interesting cultural snapshot. It dominated the shelves when teens and young adults were feeling disillusioned with their leaders and their own lives—their forced places within systems that felt outdated and uninterested in them as anything more than pawns. I admit that if you’ve read a couple of dystopian novels it starts to feel like you’ve read them all, but this book should be one of them.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Hunger Games is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Divergent by Veronica Roth – In post-apocalyptic Chicago, Tris faces the same test as every other 16-year-old: choosing the faction where she will live. The five factions, Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), Candor (the honest), Amity (the peaceful), and Dauntless (the brave) each claim one virtue as superior to all others, and together they let their society function harmoniously. Tris has never fit in with Abnegation, but choosing Dauntless means rejecting her family forever. Her choice will steer the fate of the whole city as secrets come to light. See my review here.
  • The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski – Although it’s YA fantasy, Kestrel reminds me strongly of Katniss in that they are both clever when they can’t be the strongest. Kestrel doesn’t want to be a soldier and she also doesn’t want to get married. These are her only choices, until she wins a slave named Arin and finds herself entangled with the highest political powers during a war with his country as she continues to avoid the army and the altar. See my review here.
  • Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve – Cities are mobile and consume each other to sustain their economic growth. Thom gets caught up in the dark struggle for power within and outside the city’s walls in this vision of the future.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Zombies have destroyed America, and Mary knows the only way to stay safe is within the fences of her village, sheltered by the nuns. But she doesn’t love her betrothed and she wants to see if the ocean is real. For that, she must leave the safety of the fences. See my review here.
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – Pitched as YA fantasy but in actuality dystopian. Mare is a Red, and all Reds are slaves to the Silver-blooded elite. But then Mare exhibits powers previously only known to Silvers, and the ruling family must hide her as they try to find the best way to eliminate her. See my review here.

And now for the ones I skipped but that many people seemed to enjoy:

  • Delirium by Lauren Oliver and Matched by Ally Condie – The government controls every aspect of your life, especially your future mate.
  • Legend by Marie Lu – June (illustrious wealthy citizen) and Day (criminal) are brought together when June suspects him of her brother’s murder, but their cat and mouse game ends up uncovering sinister government secrets.
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner – Thomas wakes in a mysterious maze with several other boys, all of whom have no memories. They continually fail to find a way out of the deadly maze. Then the first girl comes with even worse news.
  • The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken – Children surviving a terrible illness find themselves with dangerous abilities they can’t control. Naturally, the government locks them up, until rebellion ensues.
  • Red Rising Pierce Brown – Haves vs. Have Nots on Mars.
  • Pure by Julianna Baggot – The apocalypse has left most people irreparably damaged, but the few unharmed “Pures” are kept safe in a dome from the outside world. Pressia and Partridge are from opposite sides of the Dome, and aren’t meant to meet, but they do.
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey – Aliens are invading and Cassie just wants to save her brother and stay alive.

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