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Monthly Archives: August 2010

“Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Suzanne Collins wrapped up her "Hunger Games" trilogy when "Mockingjay" was finally released this past Tuesday. This event ended a VERY long wait for lucky folks like me who scored an advanced copy of "Catching Fire" all the way back at Book Expo in June of 2009. I'm stoked to review the book here, but, really, there is simply no way to provide any comments without revealing key details. In other words, you've been warned.

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Ok, that should do it. "Mockingjay" is a fantastic depiction of the unending cruelty of war, graphically showing how violence — even for a "good" cause — not only kills bodies but crushes spirits, breaks hope, and destroys minds, over and over again. If that sounds gloomy, it is. While "Mockingjay" bounds along at the same breakneck pace as the previous books, making one frantically race to the next chapter to discover what happens, it's completely draining on an emotional level. I felt exhausted after nearly 400 pages filled with vivid images of death, violence, cruelty, gore, insanity, and pain. I know, fun, right!

Still, despite that statement, I'd recommend "Mockingjay" in a heartbeat. To understand why, let me dive into some plot description. We open shortly after the stunning end of the Quarter Quell, which closed "Catching Fire." Katniss, alive but gravely injured in mind and body, is being cared for in District 13, the home of the rebel forces. Her beloved District 12 was destroyed by the Capitol, although her mom, little sister Prim, and best friend / hunting partner / potential love interest Gale were all spared. The survivors from the various districts now reside deep in the underground fortress world of 13. We even get to see former victor Finnick, the dashing Neptune-like character from "Catching Fire," who is shattered even worse than Katniss. Heh, this is saying something, since Katniss must periodically remind herself of a few basic facts ("My name is Katniss Everdeen …") lest she become overwhelmed by panic and disorientation.

The rebel army is led by the calculating Coin, with former chief Games Maker Plutarch directing the propaganda campaign. The eccentric victor Beetee and Gale are working in a secret cavern developing technical gadgets and war plans. When Katniss becomes functional, she and Finnick are used by the rebels in a series of promotional spots designed to convey to the districts how strong the Mockingjay — and thus the rebellion itself — is. Much like the arena battles in the first two books, these scenes perfectly show how the public embraces easily digestible packaged messages over real facts and analysis. Brilliant.

As the war wages on, we discover what happened to Peeta, Katniss' fellow District 12 victor, who was taken by the Capitol after the Quarter Quell debacle. President Snow — he of the creepy rose petal breath — and his minions have "hijacked" Peeta, using trackerjacker venom to replace Peeta's memories of Katniss with grotesque, evil distortions. In other words, Peeta's a violent basket case, a mere shell of the gentle boy with the bread, and he wants to kill Katniss. This makes it hard for us readers to relate well to Peeta, since the character we see here is so foreign to us, so distant.

Eventually, a marginally saner Peeta (he has to be handcuffed for everyone's safety!) joins Katniss, Gale, and a few chosen rebels on what's supposed to be nothing more than a promotional appearance in the Capitol. It instead turns into a chaotic chase scene through a Hunger Games-like series of pods leading to gruesome foes, sacrifice, and the deaths of main characters, rebels, Capitol forces, innocent children, and muttations. It's brutal stuff. Unfortunately, much of the action in this book — the fall of districts and the Capitol, the capture of President Snow, etc. — takes place "off camera," so, much like Peeta, these events feel distant and unreal. There is literally no point to Katniss' mad dash through the Capitol, no reason for so much death and horror. Unless that's precisely Collins' point here?

The ending felt quite rushed — we're only told about Katniss' treason trial after the rebels assume control — and Katniss' relationship with Gale, a friendship that spanned years, is reduced to ruins in mere paragraphs. Talk about an anti-climax.

But, honestly, so what? Even fractured, Katniss' voice is as stirring as ever, and Collins creates scores of rich, dynamic worlds here (you can positively FEEL the oppressiveness of District 13's subterranean existence). Yes, it can be unyielding in the brutality of its depictions, but, again, maybe that is the point. This book brought to mind the dystopian, war-savaged England of Meg Rosoff's "How I Live Now," although "Mockingjay" goes even further. It shows us how cycles of war, power, and oppression are constantly revisited upon children, that no one ever seems to learn from the past. In this truth, the book is especially devastating and, for me, like no YA book I've read before. Yet, in its final, emotion-packed pages, it provides the briefest glimmer of hope — maybe for all of us? — in Katniss and Peeta's relationship, in how they rebuild their lives and move forward, broken but alive.

"You love me. Real or not?" I think most readers will read "Mockingjay" and answer, "Real."

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Posted by on August 26, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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“The DUFF” by Kody Keplinger

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Kody Keplinger is a first-time teen author with a new book, "The DUFF," coming out in a few weeks. Little, Brown's Poppy imprint is doing a big publicity push for this novel, and I can definitely see why. "The DUFF" — it stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend — is a quick read with an interesting hook, a compelling main character in Bianca, and, let's be honest, an awful lot of sex appeal for a teen novel.

Bianca is the Duff of the title. Although she's smart, feisty, and acerbic (yup, she's the typical YA heroine), Bianca often plays second fiddle to her model-beautiful best friends, Casey and Jessica. At a local teen dance club, Bianca erupts at the gorgeous, cocky player Wesley when he teasingly calls her Duffy. Bianca despises Wesley for his sense of privilege and the casual way he uses and discards girls. Still, while Bianca says she finds Wesley repugnant and argues with him constantly, she abruptly kisses him during a fight. She then realizes that kissing Wesley is like a drug; it can make all her other problems — her parents' divorce and later her dad's alcoholism — disappear, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

The kissing escalates, and from there, Bianca and Wesley begin secretly sleeping together on a regular basis, mostly at his mansion, where he lives alone while his sister stays with a grandmother and his parents travel. Bianca avoids Wesley at school and keeps her involvement with him secret from everyone, which leads to a rift with her friends and accusations of abandonment. After a violent encounter with her drunk father, Bianca realizes that things with Wesley may have inadvertently become serious and that they each may have developed feelings for each other. A real connection — to Wesley of all people! — freaks Bianca out, so she literally bolts, turning to polite, boring classmate Toby.

What works here? The quick pace, which allowed me to burn through this book in one sitting. I loved Bianca's authentic first-person narrative, which nicely expresses her inner conflicts, her weaknesses, and why she's acting so impulsively. I was pleasantly surprised by the character of Wesley, who is so much deeper than Bianca first imagines, yet still remains a realistic, flawed high school boy. There's also a good deal of discrete passion here and, ultimately, a showing of genuine emotion that feels well earned. Lastly, I liked the easy manner in which the book's message, that everyone feels as if they're the Duff at one time or another, was conveyed. Well done.

All these positives far outweigh the flat characterizations of the secondary characters (Toby, Jessica, Casey, a slutty girl at school) and the unbelievably fast and smooth manner in which Bianca's dad recovers from a relapse into alcoholism. But these are minor criticisms and will be easily overlooked by teen girls, who seem the most obvious target audience for this fun, engaging read. Please note that Little, Brown is recommending a target age of 15 and up, based largely on the sexual content here, which is not scandalous by any means by which is prominently featured. Just a heads up. Look for "The DUFF" in the next few weeks. Enjoy!

PS – The cover of my advanced copy of "The DUFF," generously provided by the folks at Little, Brown, features a close-up shot of a different girl than the one depicted in the finalized edition, shown below. What's up with that?

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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