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.
The much-awaited fourth Ransom Riggs YA novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series, A Map of Days, picks up where book three ended, in current-time Florida. Immediately we are reintroduced to Jacob Portman, Miss Peregrine, and her wards. Yet, for those of us who read the trilogy, then saw Tim Burton’s 2016 feature film adaptation, we need to reorient ourselves. In the film, Grandfather Abe ends up alive and the two main female characters’ powers are reversed. Remember, it’s Emma who can make fire with her hands and Olive who’s lighter than air. The clan arrives to stop Jacob’s family from committing him to a mental-health institution.
I like that A Map of Days explores the confusing romance between teen-aged Jacob and Emma (who was Jacob’s grandfather’s time-arrested ex-girlfriend). What a bizarre love triangle with Emma trapped in a loop for fifty years, pining after Abe as he traveled the globe, aged, and had a family of his own. Will Jacob—even with powers similar to Abe’s—ever fill his grandfather’s hollowgast monster-hunting shoes?
The book’s title refers to the temporal atlas that pinpoints the location of time loops in the peculiar (supernormal) world. In the US, these loops are largely unmapped and unknown. Finding or creating an American Map of Days is a priority for Miss Peregrine and the other ymbryines (shape-shifting matriarchs of peculiardom) because the country is fractured by feuding clans and lacks centralized peculiar authority. Jacob, after his prior successes, feels ready to take on an important role, not fully understanding the awaiting dangers—and that’s where this adventure leads.
Fans will enjoy the array of vintage photos scattered throughout the novel and should find the addition of full-color photos appealing as well. With over ten million copies in print of the first three novels, the popularity of this series cannot be overstated. Collectively, the books have spent 100 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Here’sa link to A Map of Days Book Tour. Start reading A Map of Dayshere. See a trailer here.
THREE SIDES OF A HEART: STORIES ABOUT LOVE TRIANGLES Edited by Natalie C. Parker (Harper Teen; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
★Starred Review – School Library Journal
Christine Van Zandt recommends Three Sides of a Heart, a short story anthology featuring sixteen authors and an introduction by Natalie C. Parker who is also the editor.
This YA short story anthology, Three Sides of a Heart, gives us glimpses into love triangles from historical zombie featuring the Southern belle, her handsome betrothed, and her fierce female Negro Attendant (“Dread South” by Ireland) to futuristic (“Omega Ship” by Carson—with a let’s-talk-about-it ending) to a modern-day girl-on-girl kissing romance (“Lessons for Beginners” by Murphy). The common thread in this collection is its unique perspective of this theme referred to in the introduction as “reimaginings.” Settings as near as your backyard to far-off inhabitable planets will delight readers.
If the proverb “variety is the spice of life” is true, then Three Sides of a Heart is zesty indeed—and quite steamy in places. Of course, there are girls torn between good boys and bad boys (“Hurdles” by Colbert and “Waiting” by Tahir), and, more unexpected, the undead falling in love with the dying (“Unus, Duo, Tres” by Hagen). In “Vega” (Yovanoff), the city is a character. “Triangle Solo” (Nix), set on Mars, uses the boy/boy/girl triangle and a triangle, the instrument.
The sixteen authors in this well-crafted collection include Renée Ahdieh, Rae Carson, Brandy Colbert, Katie Cotugno, Lamar Giles, Tessa Gratton, Bethany Hagen, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, E. K. Johnston, Julie Murphy, Garth Nix, Natalie C. Parker (who also writes the introduction and is the editor), Veronica Roth, Sabaa Tahir, and Brenna Yovanoff. Each author delivers a memorable bite-sized tale.
REBEL OF THE SANDS Written by Alwyn Hamilton (Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)
Join the rebellion!
Rebel of the Sands is an amazing journey through a fantastical world that YA author Alwyn Hamilton has so vividly created. On the cover the main character, Amani, is described as “…more gunpowder than girl.” Well, that was just enough to get me interested, and I’m so glad that my curiosity paid off big time. This is a terrific book!
Amani is living in a town she is dying to get out of. Every day spent in Dustwalk is a day further from her dream of leaving. Amani is amazingly quick and precise with a gun though, and after meeting a handsome stranger at a shooting contest, her life quickly takes a turn towards adventure. Amani’s idea of a better life consists of reaching the town that her deceased mother’s sister lives in, but this girl of the desert has a much bigger life ahead of her. She has a role to play that only she can take on.
In the world that Hamilton has created, the dreams are big, the stakes are high and first beings called immortals are rumored to still roam the earth. There are stories that maybe even djinn are still working magic in the desert. Amani has heard some wild stories in her time, but I don’t think that any of the stories she has heard will ever quite measure up to the one that she gets to live. This adventure tale had me so hooked that I was determined to read it in one day. It’s true, I simply couldn’t put it down. Rebel of the Sands has so much to offer: romance, handsome strangers, girl power, gun powder, shooting contests, secrets, magic, fairy tales, politics. I’d call it a mix of the Wild West meets the Middle East, show downs meet genies in a wonderful, exciting re-imagining of two different worlds united by a desert life. It definitely lives up to the hype it is receiving, and a sequel is in the works! Yay! If you are a fan of Rae Carson’s books or frankly any book where a downtrodden girl finally gets to live her dreams, then this is a great book for you.
Alwyn Hamilton is an amazing author. Awesome just rode into town and I think she’s not going anywhere! What a debut book! Rebel of the Sands is such a gripping read that I think if you start reading it, someone you love will try to get you to take a break. Don’t listen. While you know you love them, it’s okay to love this book a lot, too. Make plans for sandwiches and snacks before diving into this novel because it’s truly one book you won’t be able to put down!
INHERIT THE STARS by Tessa Elwood (Running Press Teens; $9.95 Trade Paperback, Ages 13+)
In her debut novel, Inherit the Stars, book one in a duology, Tessa Elwood creates her own little universe that consists of several inhabited planets, feuding families, an economic crisis, and a political hierarchy all wrapped up in both a tale of adventure and a classic love story. The protagonist, Asa, lives on Urnath, a planet that becomes contaminated. Forced to ration both food and fuel, the inhabitants revolt against those who govern including The House of Fane, which happens to be Asa’s family. When Asa’s oldest sister Wren is caught in the crossfire, Asa tries to save her sister, but struggles. In fact Asa finds she struggles to succeed in most things. Asa’s father and sisters have very little faith in Asa’s abilities and maturity. However, in order to save her family and her people, Asa forces her way into the most difficult role of her life, marrying into the House of Weslet and trapping herself in a “blood bond” filled with insufferable expectations. Once the merger is complete with the marriage of Asa and Eagle, the two have to find a way to coexist with each other and to trust each other, which ultimately leads them to depend on each other.
Although it took a while to get absorbed into Elwood’s Sci-fi world, once I did there was no turning back. I became engrossed in the love story between Asa and Eagle and couldn’t put it down. While I felt the ending was a bit abrupt and, perhaps, unnecessarily rushed, I was merely disappointed that such an enjoyable story was over. I look forward to reading the sequel and hope to see the bond between Asa and Eagle grow. I can only begin to imagine what other trials they will overcome together and am certain Elwood will deliver a most satisfying conclusion to this engaging read.
If you’re a YA reader and haven’t read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith yet (in trade paperback as of February 2015, Speak; $10.99) — in spite of all the buzz, like a 2015 Michael L. Printz honor and news of an Edgar Wright movie adaptation — get to it! Maybe you don’t like science fiction. No problem; the six-foot tall man-eating praying mantises come off as campy rather than horrific. Maybe you don’t like troubled narrators who use expletives every other word. Well, if Holden Caulfield didn’t help you get over that, maybe Austin Szerba will do it for you. Austin’s horny all the time, smokes most of the time, and often breaks rules just for the heck of it. But in spite of the trouble he gets into and the bad decisions he makes, he’s likable and sincere, and his adolescent mistakes provide a thought-provoking contrast to the nightmares the full-grown adults in his world engender — in their personal lives, in politics, and in ethics-impaired science.
Austin’s story takes place in small-town Ealing, Iowa in the early twenty-first century U.S. His brother is fighting in Afghanistan, and the economy is failing. The Ealing Mall, along with the neighboring field that Austin and his best friend Robby named Grasshopper Jungle when they played there as younger kids, has turned mostly into a junkyard. When Austin and Robby sneak into a locked office in one of the few remaining stores, they discover specimens from a 1960’s era Department of Defense research project. The specimens, accidentally unleashed by Austin (or, one could argue, by the bullies who steal the specimens after Austin finds them), develop into Unstoppable Soldiers, the aforementioned monstrous bugs that do indeed look more like praying mantises than grasshoppers, in spite of their provenance in Grasshopper Jungle.
Keeping notebooks with drawings and text about everything he experiences, Austin defines himself as a historian. His voice is fresh and humorous but also full of pain and sadness for his own hurts and those of generations past. Although he frequently uses an Anglo-Saxon term for “excrement” and drops a few f-bombs, Austin enjoys speaking eruditely and notices when anyone else uses even slightly elevated language, too. “She used words like moment,” he says about his girlfriend Shann. “The way she talked made me horny.”
That’s Austin in a nutshell. Almost everything makes him horny, but the way he reports this feels natural, not uncomfortable. Austin doesn’t consciously focus on sex. It’s just there, all the time, whether it’s convenient for him to be thinking about it or not. And he’s dealing with the fact that he’s overflowing with sexual feelings not just for Shann, but also for Robby, who is gay. Austin is confused, “…wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl…. There had to be something wrong with me. I envied Shann and Robby both so much for being confident in who they were and what they felt.”
Readers who identify with Austin’s confusion — whether over sexuality or one of the many other dilemmas he deals with — will enjoy this book. Readers who love the outrageous visuals of low-budget sci-fi horror will relish the scenes with huge bugs hatching out of human beings and feasting on what’s left of them, alongside destroyed cop cars and exploding bridges; there’s also a really cool underground bunker. Readers looking for a philosophical take-away will think about science, and responsibility, and history.
Author Andrew Smith is a social studies teacher, and for me the biggest growth in Austin and the biggest takeaway from Grasshopper Jungle is a developing understanding about the purpose of recording history. Austin tells us history has “to be an abbreviation. Even those first men…who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down. We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.” The novel circles back to this idea again and again, asking the questions: which details are the important ones? And what should we do about them if we ever figure that out? These are important questions, and Smith’s book is a satisfying way to explore them.