Tag Archives: young adult

Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Title: DivergentDivergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 487 pages
Genre: YA dystopian
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This book was super-entertaining.

I’m probably the last person on earth to read this, but I will nonetheless treat this review as though I’m not. I will also confess that it was the movie trailer that finally made me pick it up, though it’s vaguely been on my to-do list for a while — and I’m so glad I did. Divergent is an intriguing and exciting ride, high-octane and full-throttle.

16-year-old heroine Beatrice lives in a future-Chicago that has been isolated from the rest of the world. Its society is split into five factions, each of which espouses a different virtue: Erudite, which values learning; Dauntless, which values courage; Amity, which values friendship; Candor, which values honest; and the faction Beatrice was born to, Abnegation, which values selflessness. At the age of 16, each member of this society can choose to stay with their home faction or to join another — but they only get the chance once, and before they do, they take a psychological test which reveals their aptitude for one or another. When Beatrice takes the test, however, the results are “inconclusive”. She learns that she is something called “Divergent” — and that it is a dangerous thing to be, though no one will explain why, and she’s told to keep it a secret.

When her Choosing Day comes (and this is a spoiler, but I can’t really talk about the rest of the book without it, so, here goes), Beatrice somewhat impulsively decides to leave Abnegation and to join Dauntless. Her initiation process is fraught with peril and terrors. The Dauntless value the conquest of fear, generally through the confrontation of it — and this also includes the confrontation of pain. Beatrice takes on the new name Tris and has to prove herself worthy of inclusion in the faction, or face being tossed out to join the factionless — portrayed as tragic figures without homes, families, or purpose. She quickly earns both friends and rivals, though even her new friendships are far from certain, given the competitive nature of the initiation process. She also discovers a rift between Four, her trainer, and Eric, one of the Dauntless leaders, representing two different versions of the faction’s values — Four, interested more in truly conquering the fears within, and Eric, interested in brute force and the acquisition of power.

The story is interesting both psychologically and sociologically. I like what it has to say both about the human mind and about the nature of societal constructs. As the story progresses, Tris becomes more aware of the moving parts of the adult world that she’s been sheltered from most of her life, and she realizes that none of the five factions are quite what they were in the beginning, or what they claim to be, or what they perhaps wish they were. I also really like the idea that, over however many generations, these virtues have all degraded into vices. The story of the trilogy, I’m sure, is going to be about re-assimilating those disparate parts into a functioning whole — hinging, it would seem, on the Divergent, which is of course why those currently in power are so afraid of them and want to eradicate them. It’s an intriguing dynamic, and I look forward to seeing it play out.

There’s a lot about this book that feels derivative, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. The Choosing and the factions definitely have echoes of Hogwarts Sorting, and the overall tone of the book definitely feels a lot like The Hunger Games. Katniss and Tris could easily be living in the same universe, just a century or so apart. I was also thinking as I was reading that it had a lot of similarities with The Giver, and then Roth confirms in an interview at the back of the book that that is, in fact, one of her childhood faves. (You can feel that influence particularly in Abnegation and what little we see of Amity, I think). But Divergent doesn’t feel like a rip-off of any of these things — they just seem to be in conversation with each other, which I enjoy.

The romance in this book feels much more natural than in a lot of YA — it has a chance to develop over more time in-world, it’s confused and by turns both hesitant and impulsive, and Roth lets her teenage characters have both sexual desire and sexual reluctance. That’s only one element that makes Divergent rather a more mature YA book than others I’ve read. The violence is another — it’s unrelenting, even moreso, I think, than in The Hunger Games. That might come down to the use of guns — somehow that seems more real than a bow and arrow or a sword. It happens fast and casually at first, then with brutal severity, and Roth seems willing to describe injuries in more graphic detail than Collins.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it, like so much YA fiction, is written in first person present, which I personally just don’t care for. I think it forces authors into a lot of awkwardness, particularly when it comes to exposition — and I’m someone who would always like to see more sides of the story, rather than just one character’s experience. It also means that, since the reader gets spoon-fed certain information that totally gives away a “big reveal” right from the star, it makes Tris seem a little dim for not putting it together.

I’ve seen some other reviewers criticize the book’s pace, and I didn’t have a problem with that — while it does take a while to get to the “main plot”, the rest doesn’t move slowly at all, in my opinion. I was easily caught up in Tris’s dilemmas and her struggle to prove herself. Those challenges drive the first few hundred pages with enough force and energy that I didn’t mind how late the macro plot came in. Tris’s micro plot was plenty captivating. On the whole, Divergent is thoroughly entertaining, start-to-finish. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

A Coda: What, like I wasn’t going to take the chance to pontificate about what faction I’d be in?

Definitely not Abnegation or Candor. Selfless, I am not. Generous, but not selfless, and I choose the people I want to be generous towards very selectively (because I am, also, a Slytherin). While I am generally honest, I’m not necessarily open all of the time — I’m prone to sins of omission and white lies of a protective nature. So… Amity, Erudite, or Dauntless? What draws me to Amity is that they appear to be the only one of the five factions that still places any value on the arts — but otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not happy-go-lucky enough, nor of a pleasant enough disposition, to fit in there. Erudite? I am intellectual and curious, and I like learning, but I’m not always logical, and their intellect certainly seems to focus on maths and sciences, not on verbal or creative intelligence. My academic strengths and the things I like to explore aren’t the ones they value. The question, really, isn’t what I think now, but what I would’ve chosen at the age of 16, and I can say with certainty that it would’ve been Dauntless. The badass aesthetic certainly would have appealed to me, as would the idea of turning myself into a warrior. Those were things I yearned for. I wanted to be both tougher and more exciting than I was. And I think the ethos of facing fears and conquering them has great appeal — a lot of my life has been about clawing my way past one obstacle or another. My attitude has always been that if I want something, of the world or of myself, I’m going to have to tear it out with my teeth. I have a lot of fears, really, and mostly I avoid them, but I can grit my teeth and steel my way through them if necessary — and if I had to do that more often, I suspect I’d be a stronger and better person. No idea whether I would have survived the initiation process (I can imagine all too well what terrors would’ve been in my simulations), but I like to think I would’ve responded well to the challenge.

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Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

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Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 448 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I hoped for more out of this book.

I like the story. It’s an interesting premise and a great use of steampunk themes to build an alternate universe. Leviathan re-envisions the start of World War I as a conflict between two pathways of technological development. The Darwinists, in England, France, and Russia, have gone into biodevelopment, discovering things like DNA coding a bit ahead of time, and using that knowledge to create fantastical new creatures. Airships made out of floating air-whales with other creatures grafted on, balloons out of jellyfish/blowfish type things, lizards who can memorise and deliver messages, wolf-dog-tiger hybrids for security or searching. The Clankers, in Germany/the Holy Roman Empire (still hanging on, apparently) and most of Eastern Europe, have chosen traditional mechanical technology, viewing Darwinist creations as hellish abominations.

The trouble is that, well… there sort of just wasn’t enough there. I know it’s a YA book, but that’s really no excuse. Plenty of authors manage to write YA novels and still use sophisticated storytelling devices. The later Harry Potter books are probably the most famous example, but the honest-to-goodness best example is probably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Westerfeld’s style is a bit slapdash for my preferences. The vocabulary is basic, the sentence structure largely unvaried, the characterisation fairly flat. This disappointed me, and it’s not just because I’m an adult reading a YA book — it would have disappointed me just as much at age 11. You don’t have to write simply to tell a story on a level that young people will understand. (Quite the opposite, I’ve always thought — half the point of reading is to stretch your brainpan out a bit, to introduce new things rather than just dumping in what it’s already familiar with, and that goes for the language itself as much as for the story).

I found myself wishing that the book either had a lot more illustrations — I think it would’ve worked brilliantly as a graphic novel — or a lot fewer, with a lot more verbal description. It seemed in many places as if the illustrations were serving as a crutch for insufficient description in the text. This is particularly true of the Darwinist creations, which I found a little confusing to follow. I can tell there are good ideas there, that the dynamics of how these things operate has been thought out — I just sometimes had trouble following along with exactly what those dynamics were. It became clearer with illustration, but still not perfectly so.

I still haven’t said anything about the actual plot yet, have I? Prince Aleksandr, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is fleeing after his parents’ assassination (the event that, y’know, starts World War I). His path improbably collides with that of Deryn, a British common girl with aspirations of aviation, who has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the crew of one of the dirigible-creatures. And… that’s pretty much the plot. It doesn’t really get to going much of anywhere in this first book. We meet the characters, we learn about the world, the war starts, there are adventures on the ground and in the air. That’s not to say nothing happens. Quite a bit happens, in your typical adventure-story sort of way. But it’s all rather thin and entirely unfinished — this is clearly the first book in a series, and it doesn’t wrap up on its own in any significant way.

So, this was a sort of interesting read, but not a really gripping one. I imagine I’ll get the next book the series eventually, but I’m in no rush. And when it comes to YA steampunk, I’ll be anticipating Gail Carriger’s new series a lot more.

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Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

Title: Catherine, Called Birdy
Author: Karen Cushman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 224 pages
Genre: historical fiction – young adult
New or Re-Read?: many, many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and has been since I first read it at the age of 9. I return to it about once a year, just out of sheer joy.

Catherine, Called Birdy is the tale of a fourteen-year-old girl in England in the year 1290. To please her monk brother Edward, who thinks the exercise will make her more observant and thoughtful, she sets to writing down an account of her life. The reader follows Birdy through a transformative year. The major plot is her attempt to avoid marriage to one of many odious suitors, but there are dozens of smaller plot points as well, threaded in and out of the main story with a casual ease that very much gives the sense of day-to-day life. The best aspect of the novel, though, is Birdy herself. Quick-witted and short-tempered, she grumbles, fusses, and curses her way through her life with a delightful sort of unpolished charm. Sometimes pragmatic, and at other times incredibly soft-hearted, Birdy is above all strong-minded, aching for an independence her world cannot give her, beating her wings against the bars of her cage. She approaches her frustrations head-on, often acting first and thinking later, and her observations on her life, her family, and the villagers are often hilariously funny.

Cushman gives remarkable detail to the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and oddities of medieval life, particularly for a young adult novel. From holiday customs to the cycle of the year, from the tremendous lack of privacy to the mysteries of childbirth, Cushman draws the world out in a way that is educational without being didactic. I appreciate that she treats the period with a sensible perspective: neither doom-and-gloom nor idyllic. Yes, life could be hard, and yes, hygiene was still a few centuries off, and yes, death was a more constant companion than we typically think of it today — but people still celebrated triumphs, fell in love, reveled during holidays (and got hangovers), cherished their pets, and basked in the sunlight. Cushman blends the hardships with the joys magnificently. I also like the status she chose for her main character. Birdy is the daughter of a common country knight, a man with some land but no title, very much a large fish in a quite small pond. This position frees Birdy from the tedium of a serf’s life, but is not elevated enough to allow her true luxury — as she complains:

If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.

Like most teenage girls, Birdy sees almost everyone else in the world as possessing a position more favourable than her own. She envies the villagers for the freedom they have to marry where they will and to be outside in the sunshine rather than stuck indoors, but eventually recognises that their labour is harder than hers, and that their freedoms are few, tied as they are to the land and to their feudal obligations. She envies ladies wealthier than her, but comes to learn that higher rank only brings more responsibilities and entanglements, not fewer. She envies men that they can have adventures, go on Crusade, spit and swear, and generally make their lives what they want them — but later realises that’s really the case for only a few of them, and that adventures are mostly dangerous, Crusades bloody, and responsibilities generally far more numerous than freedoms. She hates her father and eldest brother, but by the end of the book, has seen different sides of each, causing her to at least rethink her assessment and consider them from someone else’s perspective, even if she still doesn’t like them any better herself. Birdy yearns to be someone else — anyone else — a puppeteer, a Crusader, a peddlar, a songmaker, a bird-trainer, an outlaw maid — her fantasy life is rich and vivid, and she shares her daydreams with us without hesitation, then shares her awareness of their impossibilities just as frankly. The major lesson for Birdy is that she has to learn to be happy with who and what she is. As a Jewish woman (on her way out of England, thanks to the purge of Edward I — another interesting inclusion of historical reality) tells her, “‘Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked “Why were you not George?” or “Why were you not Perkin?” but “Why were you not Catherine?”‘” It takes Birdy rather a while to grasp the meaning of that, but when she does, you can see her start to get more comfortable with herself.

There are some inaccuracies in the mix, but considering that this is a young adult novel, not a historical treatise, I really don’t mind. Yes, Birdy would have been an astonishingly unique character in 1290 England — but women like her did exist, even if they were few, far between, and rarely as successful in their rebellions. Cushman doesn’t cheat the typical experience of a thirteenth-century woman, and Birdy has to confront, again and again, what she cannot do. I think Cushman balances the historical reality nicely with the need to appeal to modern readers. Perhaps the greatest fiction is the premise of the novel itself — that anyone would have wasted paper and ink, expensive luxuries, on personal thoughts. But that’s not an anachronism that’s ever going to occur to the target audience, and the conceit allows the reader to enjoy Birdy’s fantastic voice all the way through.

I wish that, at some point, it had occurred to me to keep better track of my reactions to this book throughout my life. I know that from the start, I adored Birdy for being feisty, short-tempered, and impatient — all flaws I could easily relate to. As I said, I was 9 when I first read this (the year it came out), and then, fourteen seems so very far away. I remember re-reading it a year later, to the shock of one of the priggish girls in my class, who had taken great offence at Birdy’s realisation that she cannot run away and become a monk: “…with these apples on my chest, I would not fool even the most aged of abbots. Deus! Last year they were but walnuts and I might have gotten away of it.” Still far away from even walnut category, my prim classmate had been deeply uncomfortable with Birdy’s frank discussion of bodily changes. Well into apple territory already at age 10, early bloomer that I was, I appreciated Birdy’s honesty. Through the years of puberty, Birdy remained a friend, eminently relatable, someone who knew all about the awkwardness, emotional turmoil, and desperate confusion of that span of life. Her temper fits, her sulks, days of euphoric optimism contrasted with days of hopeless despair — What teenage girl doesn’t know precisely what that’s like?

I’m older now, and I look back on my early teenage years with no sentimental fondness whatsoever. Though I’m well past Birdy’s age (indeed, for someone who calls her mother old at thirty-odd, I would seem well and truly past my prime to her, I suspect), her struggles are still relatable, even if some are in hindsight now. Others, though, remain relevant. At 26, I’m still working out the question of how to be the version of myself I most want to be. How do I reconcile my dreams with my reality? How do I find joy in every day of my life? These are some of the questions Birdy tackles, and they’re ones I’m still exploring. And on this read, probably for the first time, I’ve started thinking about how I’ll someday share this book with my own daughters, and how I hope that they’ll find Birdy as true a friend as I always have.

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Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 390 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active for entire series

This book was not at all what I expected. And I sort of love it for that.

I knew right from the start that it wouldn’t be, that I wasn’t getting Return of the Jedi. District 13 is about as far from a utopian paradise as you can get. It’s a complete military state, to the extent that each citizen’s schedule for the day is temporary-tattooed on their arms when they wake up. Everyone has a place and a responsibility, cogs in a machine. Practical, but creepy — and it clearly rubs Katniss the wrong way. Fortunately, since she’s still classified as “mentally disoriented”, she can get away with not following orders all the time, but it doesn’t take her long to start finding out just how far she can push her new allies. They want to use her as the Mockingjay to unite all of the Districts in rebellion against the Capitol, but they’re having some trouble stabilising her moods, not to mention dredging her out of despair about Peeta. She’s pissed as hell that the rebel operatives chose to save her and leave him behind, and when she finds out he’s not dead but captured, controlled by Snow, she’s naturally pretty concerned for his safety.

So, a lot of the book is Katniss adjusting to life in 13, pushing her limits, and trying to come to terms with having to live up to the image the public has of her. What does it mean to be the Mockingjay? How can she be that and stay true to herself?

There’s something really beautifully subversive in this book, and I don’t just mean about that reversal of expectations. On the surface, this book seems to be so unlike the first two. The situations are entirely different. The characters have changed, some to be nigh-unrecognisable. But the mechanics are gruesomely similar. Katniss is still stuck in the Hunger Games. Only they’re playing for keeps now. The Games were, of course, always deadly serious to the 24 combatants, and to an extent to people in the Districts, but they were still so choreographed, so thoughtfully executed. War isn’t, even when you try. There’s no hope of begging aid from on high, of getting sponsors, just for being impressive. In war, reinforcements and supplies come only when you’ve planned for them, not dropped as if by magic out of the sky. Critical differences — but critical similarities, too. Collins, brilliantly, doesn’t harp on this theme much — but she lets it shine in tiny details (details that I’m wondering if they would be as apparent if I hadn’t devoured all three books in under 48 hours). Like when, during the mission in the Capitol, Katniss tries to reckon up who they’ve lost, repeats the list to herself, just as she did her list of opponents during the Games, to keep track — only now it’s not to keep track of who’s still a threat, but to remember who they’ve lost. Similarly, the Capitol broadcasts those suspected still alive (even when some are already dead), which echoes the projections of dead tributes during the Games. And then there’s how Katniss still has to play for the cameras, still has to put on a good show, not to win sponsors, but to keep up the spirits of the rebels in the Districts. She’s still styled, throughout the book, both in 13 and on the road, still putting on a show. Still accompanied by a camera crew (a rather morbid commentary, I feel, on our current 24/7 news cycles). Even down to those damn silver parachutes at the end, even down to what ultimately happens with Prim, so many details of this book echo the Games and the first book, but in such brutal, sadistic, horrifying ways.

I also enjoy how this book subverts so many expectations. Katniss doesn’t turn into a 100% badass warrior chick. The love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale does not consume the story. The rebels are not necessarily the good guys. The story is not one of glory and triumph. It’s dark, definitely edgy, and occasionally hard to read. It’s a lot of psychological trauma for a young adult book to deal with, but I think Collins handles it pretty deftly. The subversion of the romance angle is particularly nice. Gale turns out to be just a little too violently inclined, a little too gung-ho about playing just as rough and mercilessly as the Capitol does. Katniss isn’t sure what to do about that, and she clearly struggles with what these revelations about Gale’s character, about the man he’s grown into, mean for any potential future between them. Meanwhile, Peeta has been brainwashed by the Capitol via a form of psychological poison. By the time the rebels retrieve him, he thinks Katniss is a genetically engineered abomination trying to kill them all, and he nearly strangles her. It’s a far cry from the contrived images of the happy couple they had to create earlier. Getting him back is a long, slow process, and with both Peeta and Katniss suffering some pretty severe PTSD, Collins isn’t shy about stating that neither one of them will ever come back completely. Part of them will always live in this dark world, in these terrifying circumstances. They will never be what they were before or who they were before. But that doesn’t mean they can’t salvage something out of the ashes. (Salvage is, incidentally, a pretty big although subtle theme throughout all three books).

There were some flaws. A couple of times the action jerked around so fast that I got a little lost and had to back-track to figure out just what had happened. A significant character’s death got sandwiched in a way that I nearly missed it entirely. And Katniss possibly spends just a little too much of the book out of it — either literally or psychologically. In some ways it’s effective, to display the effects all of this is having on her, but in some ways it’s just really frustrating to have your heroine and narrator continually knocked out of either consciousness or sanity.

This paragraph has an extra spoiler warning on it because it really is the granddaddy spoiler, since it’s about the ultimate endgame. So. Be ye warned.

I knew Katniss was going to have to kill Coin even before she knew it. Coin proved, so thoroughly, that she wasn’t any better than her opponent. Rule by 13 would have been no better than rule by the Capitol — just restricted in different ways. While the Capitol celebrates excess and indulgence, flinging human life away for entertainment value, 13 buckles everything down until there’s no room left to breathe. Individual life and choice don’t have any meaning there, either, but for completely different reasons. There, it’s all about serving the cause, being the well-functioning machine you’re meant to be. Each civilisation represents one end of the Evil Empire spectrum, but they’re both pretty horrific to consider.

What we come to learn is that, for District 13, this war was never about liberation, never about freeing the Districts from the yoke. President Snow was right about that — 13 could’ve helped them in the first rebellion, but instead they cut and ran. No, for District 13 and for Coin, this was about revenge and domination. She wanted her own empire to rule, larger and more satisfying than subterranean 13, and she didn’t care who she had to throw under the bus to get that. Individual life meant as little to her as to Snow; she would sacrifice whoever and whatever in order to win. With her out of the picture and someone saner at the wheel, there’s hope that Panem might yet turn into a functioning republic, as the District rebels hoped.

So. Overall, it’s hard to say I enjoyed this book, because so much of it was so painful. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t exquisite. Collins crafts a fantastic story in a complex world (a world that I’m sort of annoyed I still don’t know enough about, but that’s my own private obsession with dystopian world-building, there). Katniss is a remarkable heroine, who defies expectations at every turn — both of her handlers, her friends, and of the reader. She won’t be what anyone else wants her to be, and that includes us. I appreciate that. Collins has done something different, which is quite an achievement. I want more heroines like Katniss in the literary world.

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Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 391 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4+ stars
Spoilers: Armed and active for both this and The Hunger Games; I don’t know how to talk about this book without them, unfortunately.

The last time I felt this way about a series was starting Harry Potter, back almost a decade ago. Nothing else in recent memory has matched the sheer irresistibility of this series. I’m a little floored, honestly, by how much I’m taken with this series and how desperately I need to move on to find out what happens. But I thought it important to pause and capture my thoughts now.

Catching Fire ups the ante in a big way. It continues more or less seamlessly on from the end of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta are expected to go on a Victory Tour around all of the Districts. The trouble is that unrest has been sizzling in some of them for a long time, and Katniss finds herself the inadvertent mascot of rebellion. No true uprisings have broken out yet, but you can feel them simmering, low-burning embers, all through this book. And that’s terrifying the living hell out of the Capitol. Enough so that the President himself feels compelled to visit Katniss and make a few well-placed threats against her family and friends.

This includes Gale, who was kind’a-sort’a Katniss’s boyfriend before she went to the Games, but who she’s had to treat as an amiable “cousin” ever since she got back, since her only thread of protection lies in being able to claim that love for Peeta made her act so defiantly. There’s a lot of emotional entanglement between the three of them, and I think it’s handled very well. It’s not overblown or made into the stuff of melodrama. Instead, all three act in the time-honoured manner of teenagers everwhere: with extreme awkwardness. They don’t know what to say to each other, how to act. And it doesn’t help that just as soon as poor Katniss is thinking she’s set her heart on one, the other will do something spectacular to sway her around again. And yet, all without turning her into just some pathetic chick.

Is it wrong of me to hope that Katniss will get to live polyamorously happy-ever-after with them both? Yes. Yes, it is. That would barely pass muster in fairly edgy adult fiction; it’s going to be another century or so before you could get away with that in young adult. What I then assume is that either Gale or Peeta has to die. So, then, is it wrong for me to hope that it’s Gale? Nothing against the guy at all, but he’s not the one we, the readers, have spent as much time with. My emotional investment lies far more in Peeta.

So. All of that’s going on, and then District Twelve has a really hard year. It’s partially to punish Katniss — law enforcement becomes really strict, the minor infractions (like hunting in the woods) that folk used to be able to get away with, they can’t anymore — and it’s partially just bad luck, from a really hard winter. Desperation’s sinking in, and even while Katniss feels the urge to rebel burning deep inside her… she can’t. Not with so many people relying on her. Not with so many innocent lives at stake.

And then the Capitol changes the rules on everyone again, and announces that for the 75th Hunger Games, they’ll be drawing only from a pool of prior victors — who are supposed to be exempt for life. The second half of the book deals with this. With no other female victor living, Katniss has to go for 12, and though their mentor Haymitch’s name is chosen, Peeta immediately volunteers to take his place. So they’re back, and have to quickly determine who among the other tribute-victors they might be able to trust at least long enough for a temporary alliance. The arena designed for the 75th Games is diabolical and utterly ingenious, and in some ways I wish they’d gotten to it earlier in the book in order to spend more time examining it.

Some other reviews I’ve seen charge that Catching Fire suffers from middle-of-trilogy syndrome and that it’s slow to get going, that too much time is spent on exposition in the beginning. I couldn’t disagree more. I think this book is superbly strong, and I don’t feel it has any of that lag. In fact, I sort of wish they’d spent more time on the Victory Tour, describing the various Districts — but that’s because I’m obsessed with world-building, especially in dystopias. I want to know everything. From what I can gather, District 4 is probably Gulf Coast (wherever the coastline actually is now), because their main industry is fishing. 3 seems like it might be Detroit-ish, as they focus on electronics and manufacturing. 7 seems like Wisconsin-Minnesota, timber country. 11 I can’t quite place, because it might be either the South or the Midwest. I’m guessing Midwest because the agriculture seems a bit more wheat-and-corn, though in Book 1 Rue does talk a lot about orchards — but also because, if part of the cataclysm leading to this world setup was rising waters, most of the agricultural south is probably under the Atlantic Ocean now. Anyway — I wish I knew more. I want to know about all the Districts, where they are, how many people, how they got to be the way they are. What we do learn along the way is that District 11 is much more strictly controlled than 12 has been, and that the people there seem to be getting sick of it.

So. This book is fabulous, the series is fabulous, I’m moving on to Mockingjay as fast as may be — and it looks like it’s going to have pretty much my favourite thing over. Not just a dystopia, but a dystopian rebellion. I am aquiver with excitement.

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