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.

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.

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.

Backlist Bonus: The Memoirs of Cleopatra

20764393by Margaret George
Fiction / Historical Fiction
4 of 5 stars

I’ve read this twice now and each time took me a couple of months, but I reveled in the rich experience of it. This book is a brick, it’s true (I usually had to put it on a table to read it) but the writing is superb. George has a lyrical style that is filled with detail, so even in the midst of events you have time to absorb everything. This style isn’t for everyone, but if you want a historical novel that makes it feel like you took a physical trip to the past, you can’t beat this. You come away from this feeling as if you just spent months in Cleopatra’s Egypt.

Cleopatra ascends the throne after many political plots and threats from her siblings, only to inherit an Egypt crippled politically and economically by debt and the threat of Rome’s empire. She must use all of her wits and considerable knowledge to protect her country and safeguard it for generations to come. The incredible lengths she goes to in order to achieve this are what makes up the bulk of the novel, though it does cover her entire life from her childhood to her death.

The author’s note in the back (aside from detailing her years of research) points out what I agree to be a common opinion about Cleopatra. We simultaneously know nothing and everything about her. We know the caricature of her in great detail thanks to writers of the time and Shakespeare (perfumes, oils, death by snake, famous lovers), but we don’t know who her mother is. It’s both easy and hard to believe that this novel could be so long. Historical fiction isn’t normally my genre of choice, but someone recommended this to me and I’m so glad I read it. It reminded me of my intense fascination with ancient Egyptian culture when I was in junior high.

For history sticklers, George provides clarification as to which events and relationships are well-documented, which could be surmised, and which ones were the author’s creative license. It’s a commitment to read, but in my opinion it’s well worth the effort.

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

Similar reads:

  • Helen of Troy by Margaret George – Although not a historical figure, this is a reasonably absorbing account of the legend of the most beautiful woman in the world. See my review here.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – A fascinating and detailed account of a fictional geisha, largely set during World War II. The story is both heart-wrenching and hopeful as Sayuri struggles to find love and acceptance within the tight bonds and restrictions of Japanese society. Beautifully told and the film is excellent as well.
  • Death Comes As the End by Agatha Christie – A unique mystery set in ancient Egypt. This is one of my favorite Christie novels. As usual, the plot is impossibly intricate and the characters are well-drawn.

Backlist Bonus: Twilight

41865by Stephenie Meyer
YA Paranormal Fantasy
3 of 5 stars
Debut novel – October 5, 2005

Yes, you read that right, the Twilight saga and fanbase began ten years ago! You can go ponder this for a moment. All right, let’s move on. This book has become a symbol for so much more than teen paranormal romance (which now has its own section in bookstores and libraries). It expanded a genre, but it also became a touchstone for “rabid fanbase” and “Team Fill-in-your-preferred-love-interest” discussions for any YA book. It’s hugely influential and polarizing, which is part of what made it such an enduring series. I’m assuming we all know the general story (plain Jane falls for gorgeous vampire boy pretending to be human in biology class) so I won’t really go into that. It’s worth pointing out that if you consider this book an example of “current YA literature”…it’s not. It’s getting old in general terms, and in YA it’s ancient!

I first read this in 2005 and thought it was different and funny. I didn’t normally go for such openly melodramatic YA fare, but I enjoyed this book and recommended it to most of my friends. After a few months it faded away and I forgot about it. Until suddenly it was everywhere. Then it started to become annoying.

But taken on its own, this book is fine, and although I don’t find it as amusing now (the gender roles alone are enough to frustrate me, leaving out the weird/creepy boyfriend behavior, lack of plot, and endless cheesy dialogue) I don’t hate it either. But whether you’re reading or writing critically, it provides a lot of material for discussion, which is part of what makes a “good” book, isn’t it?

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself on this special 10th Anniversary Day, Twilight is available on Goodreads and a special edition with bonus content is available on Barnes & Noble’s website, here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Written in Red by Anne Bishop – This is the perfect series for Twilight graduates that want something with a little more bite. The tone and themes are similar and there are currently 5 books scheduled with 3 already out. See my review here.
  • Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George – This YA series follows two young cousins as they learn family secrets that appall and excite them as they learn their roles. The cover is pretty indicative about those secrets. See my review here.
  • Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick – A quartet that debuted right after Twilight wrapped up, Nora finds herself drawn to Patch, a fallen angel with questionable motives.
  • Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater – Still on my TBR list, but I think it’s a good fit here. Grace falls for the werewolf boy Sam, and is determined to find a way to be with him.

Backlist Bonus: Divergent

8306857by Veronica Roth
YA Dystopian
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – April 25, 2011

Right after The Hunger Games, the YA shelf needed a dystopian series to catch readers, and the Divergent series won that battle. This trilogy follows 16-year-old Tris, who faces the momentous choice of which faction (and virtue) to dedicate her life to: will she remain in Abnegation (the selfless) with her family, or follow her heart to the Dauntless (the brave)? And what consequences will she face as a result?

I heard about this book from my best friend, who happened to attend the same university as Roth and wanted to share the excitement that somebody our age could sign a 3-book + movie rights deal. This was my first exposure to peers writing best-selling material for teens and I was thrilled that this was becoming more commonplace–honestly, I still am!

This was a fun story to read, and several key scenes were so cinematic and beautifully written through Tris’ sparse, direct voice that I couldn’t wait for the next installment.  As it turns out, I feel the first book is the strongest of the trilogy, but it was worth following Tris to the end, and this is still one of the better dystopian options out there, in my opinion. As an added bonus in this genre, there is no love triangle. Tris is a complicated heroine and her world has plenty of mysteries to unlock, but which boy she’ll choose isn’t one of them. I also enjoyed her constantly evolving relationship with her brother Caleb; he challenges her commitments in the best way. Jeanine is an excellent antagonist, with her own complexity and motivations. This small core cast of characters is what pulls you through the wreck of Chicago and its faction systems as Tris struggles to solve her identity and why the Erudite faction believes it should eradicate the Abnegation. Although the series didn’t go where I expected, I appreciated the author’s creative freedom and choices, and I’m curious to see what she does next.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Divergent is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The most obvious comparison, but it is very similar. Twelve districts must send two tributes to the capital to fight to the death on live TV as a reminder of the brutality the totalitarian state saved the people from decades earlier. Katniss volunteers to save her sister, but she quickly learns half of the game is mastering the politics and alliances surrounding her. See my review here.
  • Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve – As a literal interpretation of municipal darwinism, the largest cities are mobile and sweep across the world consuming and absorbing each other for resources and labor. Tom finds himself stranded on solid ground and must find a way to survive in this stark post-apocalyptic world.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Mary spent her life in the fenced village deep in a forest, and she knows what happens if she leaves its protection – death by zombies – but she can’t stop dreaming about the ocean, and whether the Sisterhood is telling the truth when they say no one else survived. See my review here.
  • Delirium by Lauren Oliver – I haven’t read this yet, but Roth recomends it as an engaging dystopian trilogy that explores a world devoid of all love, and the consequences that brings to the very fabric of society.

Backlist Bonus: Eleanor & Park

15795357by Rainbow Rowell
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
YA debut – 2012

This is her first YA novel, and readers immediately agreed she captured something so special it hurts. I read this book in one six-hour spurt and I loved every page! It’s everything wonderful and terrible about high school, and it completely lived up to the hype.

It’s Omaha in 1986 – Eleanor is a redhead from the trailer park, always told she’s too heavy and not good enough. Park is half Korean in the Midwest, outcast for other reasons. When he lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus, a tentative alliance forms that leads to friendship, and begins to dip into love. They know high school love doesn’t last, but they also know this is the first good thing to happen to each of them, and they aren’t going to let it go.

The best YA captures all the feelings of teenagers without selling them short, and Rowell is superb with her details and her emotions. Everything is earnest and given the weight that it has at that time – before anyone is hardened or sure of themselves. Rowell also has a way of using universal “Is this just me, or does everyone…?” details that snap you into the moment and adds an extra layer of connection.

This is one of the best high school coming of age novels I’ve read and I can’t recommend it enough! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Eleanor & Park is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – High school freshman Charlie just wants the next four years to not suck. When seniors Sam and Patrick befriend him, he’s forced to start participating in life instead of watching from the sidelines. This is 90s and high school nostalgia at its finest, with a similar tone and subject matter. See my review here.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – If you liked Eleanor & Park but wished for an older protagonist, twin sisters Cath and Wren are college freshmen going through a bit of a rough patch in their relationship. Cath is on her own for the first time, and her charming discomfort with this will bring back every memory you’ve ever had about trying to find yourself and fit in.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – A clandestine friendship-turned-romance between cancer survivor Augustus Waters and terminal patient Hazel Lancaster is one for the ages. John Green’s quirky, gut-punching style is at its best – bring tissues! See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim isn’t handling her family’s move to the south well, especially since her stepmother revealed her mother is still in Ohio, and very sick. She embarks on a spontaneous (and emotional) road trip to visit her mother. See my review here.
  • P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han – The second in a duology (though it could stand alone), this is a sweet story of 16-year-old Lara Jean’s first romance. The romantic moments might be full of sugary thrills but there’s enough substance beneath them to make this a solid YA novel. See my review here.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This classic novel contains one of the best-known and loved romances in literature. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy can’t imagine a single thing they have in common–unless it’s their dislike. But circumstances change, and Elizabeth learns the danger of relying on first impressions. See my review here.

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