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adults were feeling disillusioned with their leaders and their own lives—their forced places within systems that felt outdated and uninterested in them as anything more than pawns.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: 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: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

13573503by Stephen Chbosky
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – February 1999

This short, poignant novel is the quintessential American high school coming-of-age story.

Charlie is a shy freshman befriended by senior step-siblings Samantha and Patrick. We hear about his first year through a series of letters he writes to a “friend.” Charlie has good taste in music and books but has a hard time talking to people or making friends. Sam and Patrick pull him out of his isolation and introduce him to parties and surviving class while dealing with romantic relationships, eating at diners, family problems, and living up their last year before college. It seeps nostalgia for both high school and the 90’s at every turn, with beautifully written reflective lines from Charlie as he keeps his “friend” apprised of his adventures.

Throughout the letters Charlie becomes both more open about his feelings and more evasive about the events that caused him to spend the previous summer estranged from his friends and family, and his gradual reveal of the details and how he is healing is what gives this novel the depth and grit to set it apart from the average teenage drama.

Not that it’s all serious – Charlie’s wry sense of humor sneaks in at times, and there are enough light-hearted moments to make you wistful for the few good memories you might have from those four transformative years. The author wrote the screenplay and directed the film adaptation, which is also excellent.

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

Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – When Mim learns her mother is very sick, she runs away from her father and new stepmother to go see her. Along the way she confronts uncomfortable situations and the uncomfortable truths coming her way. See my review here.
  • Luna by Julie Ann Peters – Told from the point of view of Liam’s sister, Regan, we watch the difficult and personal transformation of Liam to Luna as she embraces her transgender identity. This isn’t a perfect representation of a trans character, as the plot and characters can feel a bit shallow, but it’s still worth a read.
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green – This is a boarding school story but it captures the same mood as Chbosky. Miles is trying to find himself when he meets the most interesting person he’s ever encountered – Alaska Young. We get a taste of the uncertainty and longing of being almost-adults as they spend a wild few months together. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: Graceling

3236307by Kristin Cashore
YA Fantasy
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – October 1, 2008

This has become a staple of my fantasy collection. Cashore’s style reminds me of Robin McKinley, it’s descriptive, almost lyrical, and the character development is subtle but intense. Katsa’s Grace (an enhanced ability, somewhat magical) is Killing, and she is forced to be the muscle behind her uncle’s throne. Secretly, she subverts his cruel and greedy orders, and tries to avoid killing at all costs. When a strange foreign prince encounters her on a mission, she becomes caught up in his quest to free his relatives from another king’s mysterious power – possibly a Grace that could doom them all.

Katsa ends up on a traditional quest in a world of strange powers, but Cashore makes this a fresh tale about a woman who fears her own power and refuses to settle for anything but finding her own place in the world. She doesn’t want marriage and children, she wants to be independent and choose her own destiny, away from her uncle and everyone else. It’s Po that makes her come to realize you can be independent and still care for someone else. Their slow-burn romance is beautifully told and only one arc in the web of adventure, politics, and saving a kingdom.

This is the first in a trilogy, with Fire being a prequel and Bitterblue a sequel to this one. Graceling is my favorite, but if you like this one check them all out.

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

Similar reads:

  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman –  A richly detailed story about a half-dragon girl enlisted to help the prince solve a royal murder and keep the peace between dragons and humans as the anniversary of the treaty approaches. See my review here, and my review of the sequel, Shadow Scale, here.
  • Sabriel by Garth Nix – Sabriel must use the limited magic she knows to save her father from being trapped in Death. But a necromancer is working to raise the most powerful Dead spirit against the kingdom, and she must accept her destiny as her father’s successor, or doom the world to destruction. See my review here.
  • Chalice by Robin McKinley – A slower, lyrical story about a girl thrust into one of the most powerful magical roles in governing the land as upheaval grips her kingdom. She is the only one who believes the new master of the land can save them, but as a priest of Fire, his return to life among normal humans is unprecedented. This has touches of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale and is one of my favorites. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: Howl’s Moving Castle

2294528by Diana Wynne Jones
YA Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

This author creates some of the most original and vivid fantasy worlds and characters that I’ve ever encountered. This is one of my favorites, but honestly when it comes to her work, it’s hard to choose! But this one has the wizard Howl, and he remains one of my favorite characters to this day.

We don’t start with Howl, though, we start with Sophie, the eldest of three sisters, and thus doomed to lead a boring life. Everyone knows the youngest of three is the prettiest, cleverest, and will live happily ever after. Sophie is resigned to her lot, running her family’s hat-making shop and trying to remain invisible. Unfortunately, she still manages to draw the jealous attention of the Witch of the Waste, who curses her with old age. Sophie, not one to take this lying down, sets off on a journey away from town, and stumbles across a strange castle wandering over the hills–the dreaded home of Howl, known to eat the hearts of young ladies. But she isn’t young anymore, and she goes inside to rest. And when Howl comes home to find her befriending the fire demon Calcifer, things really get interesting!

There’s so much whimsy and humor mixed in with the thoughtful examination of connections between people and meeting the expectations of others. Howl isn’t what everyone thinks, nor is the Witch of the Waste, or even the scarecrow following Sophie behind the castle. This a quick, fun read that any lover of fantasy will like! It’s very different from the movie, but the film is excellent too.

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

Similar reads:

  • The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones – A close second to Howl’s Moving Castle as a humorous take on people traversing a fantasy realm in search of adventure, and what happens when the Dark Lord is tired of participating.
  • The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones – Four different stories based around the Chrestomanci, the sorcerer who manages all the different worlds and their interactions. A bit darker than some of her other work but still has that touch of suspense and wit.
  • The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones – A travel guide book to Fantasyland that is essential for every reader hoping to have an Adventure. It details who will be in your party, the dangers you’ll encounter, the people and monsters to avoid, and the likely outcome of your route. A funny, sarcastic nod to all the tropes of the genre.
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman – A traditional fantasy story that follows Tristan as he tries to bring a fallen star to the girl he loves, and finds himself stuck on the other side of the Wall, where magic is very real and returning to his world won’t be easy.
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke – Meggie’s father brings characters out of their stories when he reads them aloud. Once he read from the book Inkheart, and brought the characters out as Meggie’s mother was sucked into the story. Now Meggie and her father must contend with the villains in the book who want his power as they try to save her mother. Highly original and a good read.

Backlist Bonus: The Bone Season

13636400by Samantha Shannon
Fantasy/Science Fiction
3 of 5 stars
Debut novel – August 20, 2013

This 2013 genre-mashing novel was hyped as a seven-book series by a 21-year-old author slated as the next J.K. Rowling. So you know, no pressure! Although I was hesitant to believe all the gushing reviews, I knew I had to check it out. The world combines Victorian-esque England with the magic of clairvoyant abilities and the paranormal existence of the Rephaim, all set in the year 2059. The Rephaites took over the government, called Scion, and systematically hunt voyants to use for their own purposes. Ordinary people hate and fear voyants, so the only refuge for them are underground organizations, much like the mafia.

Paige is a dreamwalker, able to break into other people’s minds and steal information, which is why her crime lord Jaxon Hall keeps her safe for his use. When Paige is captured by the Rephaim as part of Bone Season XX, she discovers the hidden world within her own. If she doesn’t escape she’ll die in the service of the beings who enslaved her people.

As you may have guessed, there is a lot of information to absorb from beginning to end! In addition to the political workings of the oppressive Scion government, there is the underground network of voyants, a long glossary of terms and slang, and a large cast of characters to keep straight. It’s extremely ambitious for a debut novel and for that reason I was intrigued enough to finish it. I wasn’t “wowed” at first, but about 250 pages in, it becomes much more impressive and engrossing. What I enjoyed most was the villainous Nashira, always two steps ahead of our heroine and not prone to excessive dialogue regarding her plans for world domination.

The sequel, The Mime Order, came out earlier this year, and it was far more enjoyable, so for that reason I definitely recommend checking out this series! It’s sure to get even better as it progresses.

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

Similar reads:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Samantha Shannon touts this as one of her favorite books, and there are similarities in style and narration here, as well as the idea of an all-seeing government. See my review here.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – This is similar in that ordinary people are controlled through pleasure and trust in the system, and questioning that existence or treatment of other humans is rebellion.
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – In 1899 New York City, the titular characters escape their masters and try to forge an existence in a land they don’t understand. It has similar pacing, with a touch more magic, a smaller cast, and no political layers. See my review here.

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