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.
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.
THE SIMILARS Written by Rebecca Hanover (Sourcebooks Fire; $17.99, Ages 14+)
In Rebecca Hanover’s suspenseful young adult novel, The Similars, readers go inside Darkwood Academy, a forward-thinking, elite boarding school. It’s there that Headmaster Ransom gives six clones (teens called the Similars) a chance to attend alongside the student body. This is the first time the Similars will leave their amazing, isolated man-made island where they grew up strictly controlled by their guardian. The Similars are clones of current Darkwood students who had their DNA stolen and only recently met their doppelgängers. The controversial decision to allow the Similars to transfer in ignites the campus as a new school year begins. Only Emmaline “Emma” Chance, a junior, isn’t very interested; she’s still suffering from her best friend Oliver’s recent death. When the Similars are introduced, Emma’s shocked to learn Oliver has a clone named Levi.
The clones are the focus of DAAM (the Darkwood Academy Anti-Cloning Movement) headed by campus celebrity, Madison Huxley. Much to Madison and her family’s dismay, Madison’s been cloned and has to live with that fact daily at school. Though Emma continues to support clone rights, relating with Levi is difficult and confusing as she tries to figure out how he compares with Oliver. When Emma’s roommate and close friend, Pru, is attacked on campus, Emma breaks rules to get behind what’s really going on.
Set in the near-future, The Similarshas cool tech toys, such as the plum devices that kids wear on their wrists; Emma’s is named Dash and interacts with her on a human level. The fast-moving story line leaves you guessing. It also connects on an emotional level, inviting thought about clone rights, and sharing the turmoil of dealing with the death of someone close.
In yet another riveting tale that falls somewhere in-between the Dystopian and Fantasy genres, we see The Hunger Games, The Selection, and Divergent collectively mirrored in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen, particularly in the unbalanced caste system, a displaced protagonist, an alluring romance, widespread uprising, and unbridled betrayal.
Mare Barrow is a young girl working to survive in a society with two castes, the silver-blooded elite and the red bloods who serve them. The Silvers are the upper echelons of society with superhuman powers, but perhaps the most important ability they have is to keep the Reds in their place. Mare gets mistakenly drawn into the walls of palace life where she discovers that she, too, has powers of her own. What she really wants, however, is the power to take down the Royals who keep her family and the rest of the Reds nearly starving and struggling to survive. While one of the most difficult things to endure is leaving her family and worrying about their safety, Mare finds that what’s even harder is discovering who she is and whom she can trust.
While some parts were a bit predictable, others had surprising little twists that kept me quickly turning pages to see what would happen next. I found myself rooting for Mare Barrow and the Reds, and I’m looking forward to Aveyard’s next installment of this colorful saga.
(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
The Meme Plague, (Skyscape/Amazon Children’s Publishing, $16.99, Ages 13 and up) the third book in the Memento Nora series, by Angie Smibert, is reviewed by Ronna Mandel.
Here’s what the jacket flap says: In THE MEME PLAGUE, the final book of the Memento Nora series, Micah and his friends have each lost something—a parent, a relationship, a home, maybe even their own identities as they remembered them to be. But together, they can make sure some things are never forgotten. Election Day is coming, and Mayor Mignon is certain to be elected to Congress. It’s time to build a new electronic frontier (MemeNet), one that’s not controlled by the mayor and his cronies. It’s time to get out the vote and shake up the system. Will they succeed before it’s too late?
I decided to take my first dive into a dystopian world, one I usually don’t visit, and found it easy to lose myself in the futuristic east coast town of Hamilton where the main characters Nora, Micah, Winter, Velvet and Aiden live. Considering the controversy surrounding the NSA’s invasion of privacy, Smibert’s trilogy including her most recent, The Meme Plague, could not be more relevant.
It’s important to note that, to get my head around the dystopian society where most of the action occurs, I needed to read books one and two before I could attempt to follow book three. Smibert’s created a detailed world with wonderfully realized characters and a complex back story that would make it difficult for most readers to just pick up The Meme Plague without first finishing the others. Memento Nora (Book One) and The Forgetting Curve (Book Two) introduced and developed a time period not so far in the future in which government and business conspire to suppress free thought in individuals through mind controlling chips implanted in them. TFCs (Therapeutic Forgetting Clinics) are cropping up everywhere and savvy teens Nora and Micah, along with their friends, figure out that not only are their actual memories being whitewashed, but new, more government and corporation serving ones are replacing them! This concept intrigued me and hooked me in, especially the idea of technology’s role in implementing such an oppressive plan and how hacking can have its pros and its cons.
A MemeCast, a pirate broadcast to citizens who have avoided getting chipped or have been chipped but refuse to submit, serves to disperse details about where legitimate information can be found. This underground movement has grown by the time The Meme Plague take place, and efforts to brainwash Micah about his father’s past (did he really betray his country as everyone’s been led to believe) only make Micah and his friends more determined than ever to fight back and expose the wrongdoing.