Coriolanus Snow: Anyone who has read or seen The Hunger Games knows this man. Yet, who was he before becoming the evil overload of Panem? In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we meet Snow at age eighteen. His cousin, Tigris—yes, that Tigris—and his Grandma’am are all he’s got. They haven’t had enough food in ages and aren’t far from losing their once-luxurious housing. Facing an uncertain future upon graduation, Snow must achieve personal recognition at school, in hopes of being awarded funds toward University tuition.
It’s reaping day again and this year the kids from Snow’s class are assigned tributes to mentor as their final project. His District 12 girl is quite a letdown at first. Yet, once she’s in the spotlight, Lucy Gray proves to be a charmer and that may get her through for a while. Snow, at first, sees Gray’s performance in the Games merely as an assignment to score highly on but, soon, a complex relationship builds.
Suzanne Collinsreveals the surprising origin of the Games. The book, as expected, is fast-paced with many plot twists. Snow and his classmates who are also assigned tributes are drilled by Dr. Gaul, the wonderfully creepy Head Gamemaker (who may just lock you in a cage in her lab for fun). She prods kids with questions such as what the Capitol’s strategy should be now that the war is over but may never truly never be won. When questioned whether there is a point to the neon colors of her snakes, she answers, “There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview.” These moments with Gaul reveal the book’s deeper messages about power, whether wielded with a weapon or a rose.
I’m a fan of the trilogy and very much enjoyed this glimpse into what happened decades before the girl on fire burst onto the scene and the screen. I would be happy to continue along with Snow, filling the gap, until the day he sees Katniss Everdeen become District 12’s first volunteer for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The folk tune, “The Hanging Tree,” reaches across the years, uniting the stories.
Kate Pentecost’s YA novel has the wonderfully ironic title, Elysium Girls. There’s nothing paradisal about Elysium, Oklahoma, during the 1930s Dust Bowl. One moment it’s a regular town, the next, the goddesses Life and Death use it to play a decade-long game: from next to nothing, the citizens must build a city and a society which is good and responsible, setting aside one-third of all crops as a Sacrifice. If the Elysiums do this, at the end of ten years, their society will continue; if not, everyone perishes. Dust Sickness soon begins to claim lives.
Seventeen-year-old Sal Wilkerson loses her mother and doesn’t fit in, overcome by unfulfilled predictions. As the game’s conclusion draws near, the town’s self-declared witchy leader, Mother Morevna, chooses Sal as the Successor. Finally, it seems Sal’s time has come, but an outsider named Asa arrives and unintentionally upsets things. For me, Asa stole the show as much for his charming personality as for the fact that, even though a nonhuman character, he’s so very relatable. Over the course of the book, his life changes dramatically as he deals with one unknown after another.
Outside the Elysium walls, a band of kick-butt girls survives fire coyotes and other wicked things by using their ingenuity. The different realities are fascinating: inside the walls, outside, above, and blips from the real Depression-era world. In addition, there are many appealing character elements including friendship, girl power, and family. Romance isn’t limited to boy and girl, or human and human. Put it all together and you’ll see why Elysium Girls is as hard to shake as a dusty Oklahoma day.
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In the dystopian YA novel,How We Became Wickedby Alexander Yates, an insect-borne plague called the Wickedness has swept the planet. The people who remain are either wicked (infected), true (untouched), or vexed (immune). Three sixteen-year-olds survive the devastation.
Astrid and Hank reside in Goldsport, an enclosed community of elderly inhabitants; their world exists within its walls, a sanctuary founded by Astrid’s Grandpa Gold (now dead for twenty years). When the lighthouse on Puffin Island inexplicably turns on again, Astrid’s unanswered questions push her to find out all she can from the wealthy investors who built this safe place and now spend their days sporting their finery, comfortable with their stockpiled supplies.
On Puffin Island, Natalie’s life seems as barren and rocky as the island itself. Her mischievous and malicious grandfather remains locked away for safety’s sake. When Natalie and her pregnant mother have to deal with his shenanigans, their days ahead take an alarming turn.
I liked How We Became Wicked’s dual-perspective story from the insinuating title to the thoughtful story line. The wicked are an interesting lot, seemingly normal and almost childlike until their murderous intentions arise, reminding me a bit of zombies (when zombies are depicted with comical elements yet remaining relentlessly lethal). This book kept me hooked through its fast-paced chapters. My favorite part was the clever conclusion.
★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews NYPL Best Books for Teens
New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman’s YA novel Dry follows the perilous adventure of 16-year-old Alyssa in Southern California during a major drought that turns deadly. The drought or “The Tap-Out” has resulted in a cutoff of water from reaching any homes, sending Alyssa’s parents in search of other water sources. Unfortunately, her parents do not return. This turn of events results in an unexpected and dangerous journey for Alyssa, her younger brother, Garrett and their survivalist neighbor Kelton. Companions they meet along the way include rebellious Jacqui and barterer, Henry.
This suspenseful story is told through the eyes of each teen, switching between them and snapshots of outside characters whom the teens encounter in their harrowing journey through California in a desperate search for water. Dry is a fantastic dystopian novel yet its closeness to reality, due to California’s already barren lands, makes the story even more gripping as we could easily be Alyssa or Garrett and so look to see how all the characters deal with crisis. The writing appealed to me because the authors were able to create compelling and distinct individual personalities for the characters, allowing me to identify with certain actions or people within the story. I was fascinated by how the characters reacted in each situation the authors’ depicted because it made me question if I would react in the same way.
This novel is guaranteed to keep readers on their toes. If you’re unsure as to whether to read Dry, I’d say definitely give it the benefit of the drought!
Review by Rachel Kaufman
Rachel Kaufman is a current sophomore studying communications at the University of Southern California. She’s passionate about books and hiking with her dog, Scout. Rachel enjoys how books reshape her imagination of the world around her. Rachel knows firsthand how important books are in aiding children’s futures, working with a reading program, Reach Out and Read, by reading, organizing, and donating over 200 children’s books. In her free time you can find her either reading or thinking about what she might read next.
THE CROWN (THE SELECTION SERIES #5) by Kiera Cass (HarperTeen; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)
Since Kiera Cass’ The Heir left off on a heart-wrenching cliffhanger, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the next and final installment of The Selection series, The Crown. Princess Eadlyn faces the fear of possibly losing her mother, while having to step into very large and heavy shoes in the absence of her parents. As Maxon stays glued by his ailing wife’s side, Eadlyn must fill the role of both King and Queen while also continuing her Selection for the sake of her parents and her country. Eadlyn must also provide comfort for her younger brothers all on her own, as they are all still mourning the departure of Eadlyn’s twin brother, Ahren, after his surprise elopement to France. While the situation is extremely daunting, Eadlyn takes on these challenges, following in the strength of her mother, and blossoms into the woman she was always meant to be. She still struggles with whether love is actually possible for her, ever comparing it to the truest and deepest love her parents share, but she must find a way to do what’s right for herself, her family, and her people.
I recommend rereading the last few chapters of The Heir before reading The Crown to remember all the Selection candidates and Eadlyn’s feelings for each one. It reintegrated me back into the palace and Eadlyn’s life, allowing me to be wholly invested in her once again. I waited an entire year to read this book, and Kiera Cass did not disappoint. She gave me everything I wanted in an ending and allowed me, as a devoted reader, to lovingly say goodbye to these characters. I’m sad it’s over and will likely read the entire series again, just to experience it one more time.
Reviewed by Krista Jefferies
Click here to get more info about Kiera Cass. Read Krista’s review of The Heirhere.
Kiera Cass has captured the hearts of readers worldwide with her #1 New York Times bestselling Selectionseries, and she continues to keep us captivated with her fourth book in the series, The Heir. The collection itself has become widely known as The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games with a bit of Cinderella mixed in.
Books 1-3 center around Prince Maxon and his endeavor to find a wife, who will be his queen once he becomes King of Illéa (essentially the United States post war). One of the 35 contestants is America Singer, a young lady of a lower caste than most of the other girls. While the others are vying for a place in the palace as well as in Maxon’s heart, America resists because, while a life with Maxon would mean raising her family’s status, it would also mean denying her true love whom she must leave behind. America soon discovers, however, that a life with Maxon is exactly what she wants and more than she could have dreamed of, and she must fight to the end to attain it.
Book 4, The Heir, is set twenty years later and tells a similar tale through Princess Eadlyn, daughter of King Maxon and his bride, Queen America. Though Eadlyn is also resistant to the Selection from the start, like her mother had been, she begins to learn that perhaps love is possible in the most unlikely of circumstances, and maybe happily ever after is meant for her after all. Much like her parents did in the past, Eadlyn faces much political and personal turmoil during the selection process.
Cass leaves us on the edge of our seats at the cliffhanger ending of this book as we await the fifth and final volume of the series, which is due to be released in the spring of 2016. These books will draw in readers of all ages. In fact, they were recommended to me by my 14-year-old niece, an avid reader who said these were her favorites of any books she’s ever read. Though there are more than 20 years between us, I too was enchanted by this ongoing saga, so much so that I read all four novels in just three days! Though I am disappointed that I have to wait months to read its conclusion, I will be much more disappointed when it’s over.
(St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99, Ages 12 and up) Review and Interview by Ronna Mandel
Avie Reveare is an average teen in a not so average world. Like most teens, she loves music, hanging out with her friends, and is especially close with her best friend Dayla, and a childhood pal, Yates, whom she may or may not be falling for (also typical of a teen).
The time is now and Avie is living a well-off life in Pasadena, California. However, this being dystopian fiction, author Linka has had to create a believable America unlike our present one. This one is still reeling from the aftermath of Scarpanol, a synthetic hormone that was used in beef and ended up killing fifty million women ten years earlier. The end result – young girls are a protected commodity, contracted for marriage often by the highest bidder.
Females have been losing their rights since the Scarpanol tragedy and the Paternalist movement, which threatens to control them entirely, is causing many teenaged girls to flee to Canada. When Avie’s father accepts a marriage contract offer for his daughter from Jes Hawkins, a massively rich Paternalist running for governor and one of the sleaziest characters I’ve seen in print recently, she realizes she too must make a run for the border. Readers soon learn that escaping the clutches of a wealthy, well-connected wannabe politician, is a lot easier in theory than in reality. Avie, with the help of Yates, is forced to go underground, but in doing will she rise to the occasion, get involved in a cause she’s tried to avoid or succumb to the emotional and physical consequences of escaping her forthcoming marriage?
With A Girl Called Fearless, Linka’s created a page turner for teens that will pull them into her world immediately and keep them reading because they’ll care about Avie and what happens to her; the urgency of her situation tenable. Teen vernacular is captured perfectly, and Linka’s use of song lyrics and the anger behind them is also employed successfully in the storyline.
“Better Learn My Name” By Survival Instincts … I’ve got a hundred names, But it all comes out the same I’m someone’s prize possession Not a person. An obsession
Is it the end of the world as Avie knows it or can something good come from all the malice boiling just below the surface of everyday dystopian life? I recommend getting this YA novel as a gift this holiday season for that teen who might otherwise be attached to a cell phone for the next two weeks.
Q & A With Catherine Linka:
What is your book about?
A Girl Called Fearless and its sequel, A Girl Undone, are about Avie, a junior at a girl’s school in Pasadena who comes home from school one day and finds that her dad has “Contracted” her to marry a man twice her age who she’s never met. The book is set in Los Angeles today, but assumes that ten years ago, synthetic hormones in beef killed most adult women in the US, so teenage girls have become the most valuable and protected commodity in the country. Avie must choose whether to get married or run for freedom in Canada.
We’ve seen a lot of strong girl characters like Katniss from Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent. How does Avie compare?
I wanted to write about a girl who’s not a superhero style character. Avie’s a typical teenage girl suddenly thrust into a situation that tests her to the max. She doesn’t think of herself as “Fearless” even though her friend Yates likes to call her that. I felt it was important to show young readers that many of us don’t know what we’re capable of until we are pushed to our absolute limits. At the end of book one, Avie says, “I am fearless,” because she has survived.
Authors tend to put themselves into their characters. How are you and Avie related?
Well, I’m obviously not a sixteen-year-old girl, but Avie and I share a strong sense of what is fair and just. Avie’s been insulated from what is happening in the world around her, until she is Contracted to marry a man who is running for Governor of California. As she starts to see how the Paternalist politicians are manipulating men’s and women’s lives, she feels she has to act somehow. She can’t sit back and do nothing. I couldn’t sit back and do nothing, either.
What has surprised you about the reaction to A Girl Called Fearless?
One thing I never anticipated was getting emails from readers as young as eleven and as old as eighty-five. Younger readers seem to enjoy the story’s action and adventure, while older readers see the historic and political parallels between Avie’s America and the real world. And I never expected guys to read the book or enjoy it. Never! I’ve also been surprised that both grandmas and teens have thanked me for showing Avie choosing to wait instead of having sex.
We heard there’s a possible TV series?
Yes, the books have been optioned and a series is in development. It’s fascinating–and a tiny bit scary– to see how a book is taken from the page to the screen, because the author has very little control. But the lead screenwriters are geniuses, so my fingers are crossed things will come out well.
What was your biggest challenge when writing the first novel- was it creating a believable epidemic, believable characters or something else altogether?
The biggest challenge was initially the book felt like two books–before Avie leaves Los Angeles and after. I united the halves by making the businessman that Avie is Contracted to marry into a candidate for Governor of California from the Paternalist Party. This strengthened the political theme and heightened the stakes.
You sure seemed to have had fun writing the role of Avie’s skeevy intended, Jes Hawkins – was he one of the easiest to write?
I adore writing villains. They can have big, bold personalities, and it’s much easier to create a villain who possesses positive character traits than it is to write a hero and give him enough flaws to make him believable.
In addition to Avie and Yates, there are so many interesting characters in your novel – her teacher, Ms. A, a priest, Father Gabe, her gynecologist, Mrs. Prandip and her underground connection Maggie. For me though, my particular favorites were those living in the rebel enclave of Salvation. Were you inspired by anyone or anything in real life when you conceived of this community?
When I wrote Salvation, I wanted to give voice to a part of America that values self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, religion, and freedom from government control. I was inspired by stories of frontier settlers, but I also read books and blogs written by survivalists who wanted to be off the grid.
Without a plot spoiler, can you give us a tease about what we can expect in the sequel,A Girl Undone?
Avie faces some tough decisions. At the end of A Girl Called Fearless, she makes a promise, but keeping that promise puts her life at risk. The first book was about Avie discovering her inner strength. A Girl Undone is about choosing between what is best for her and what’s best for the country.
Despite the publishing industry saying that they’ve moved on to other genres, dystopian themed stories remain extremely popular with teens. To what to you attribute this? What’s the appeal?
I think the publishing industry gets bored with genres faster than readers do, but that said, I believe “dystopian” stories are popular because they are high stakes action/adventure stories. In many ways, they are monster stories where the monster is government or technology out of control.
How do you differentiate sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian fiction for parents who want to know what types of books their kids are reading?
When people think of fantasy, they often think of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings where magic inhabits an Earth-like world. The conflict is often between those who practice good magic and those who use magic for evil.
Sci-fi differentiates itself from fantasy by offering a world transformed by advanced scientific technology, and the action often takes place away from planet Earth. Dystopian is usually set on Earth in the future, and involves a catastrophic event or technology fail that dramatically changed the society or government. The themes of both usually involve survival, or freedom from totalitarian control.
What is your current WIP?
Right now I’m reviewing the typeset pages of A Girl Undone that are due next week. I am also working with my publisher on how to make available a novella I wrote about Sparrow, a character from A Girl Called Fearless. We are considering putting it on Wattpad where readers could try it out for free.
Disclosure: I happen to know Catherine Linka who has reviewed many books for GRWR, however this did not influence my opinion about her novel.
Meet Catherine Linka on her Thank You Sciba Book Tour. In appreciation for the support of indie booksellers this year, she can be found signing her debut novel, A Girl Called Fearless, and hand selling children’s and YA books at the following stores. She’s the best at helping you find the perfect gift! Be sure to pick up several copies of her book.
12/18 Once Upon a Time, Montrose, CA
12/19 Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse, La Canada, CA