Thursday, August 26, 2010


Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (NY: Scholastic, 2010).

The somber tone that begins this novel, the conclusion to The Hunger Games trilogy, resonates throughout as the characters grapple with just what it means to rebel and reform society. While there are moments of exaltation, the times of fear, despair, and grim determination dominate. The fire that started in book two has to run its course.

Katniss is recovering from a severe concussion at District 13, wandering the compound with her bracelet declaring her mentally disoriented in a world where regimentation and schedules predominate. District 13 depends on strict rules to maintain itself, and Katniss chafes at following the daily schedule that's imprinted on her forearm every morning. So she ignores it, wanders, and worries about Peeta, who is still in enemy hands, undoubtedly suffering unimaginable torture. As far as Katniss is concerned, the strategy of the Quarter Quell game is still on--save Peeta. Her handlers have other ideas, of course, ones that involve Katniss stepping into her role as the Mockingjay, the symbol of rebellion for the people.

Collins masterfully orchestrates the suspense here, with plenty of twists and turns that keep readers guessing. Politics predominate and the reader, like Katniss, has to attempt to penetrate the intrigue. Gamers will enjoy the first-person shooter elements as the war progresses in various terrains and landscapes with booby traps (called pods) galore. The novel ends satisfyingly, yet realistically. Katniss's confusion about her future--including her relationships--slowly moves toward a natural conclusion.

Extraordinary YA read, highly recommended for grades 6 & up. Violence, mild sexual situations, no language.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hunger Games & Catching Fire

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (NY: Scholastic, 2008).

I wasn't sure I'd like this one--despite all the rave reviews, awards, and prizes. It sounded so brutal--a game that has kids killing kids? On TV? I do not like reality TV, especially the survival shows, but with Hunger Games Collins adds enough dystopic and critical elements--not to mention romance!--that I could abide it. This is a great story, very well told, with characters who are worth caring about.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic United States renamed Panem with twelve districts and a Capitol. Some kind of evil dictatorship oversees a brutal regime that has wiped out a thirteenth district at some point and demands "tributes" to its authority in the form of two children from each of the remaining twelve districts who must fight to the death in an annual event called the eponymous Hunger Games--broadcast live on national television and required viewing for all citizens. The districts and their residents have regimented lives dominated by work and survival. The government controls everyone and limits access to food and other necessities. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, illegally hunts in the woods outside the boundaries of district 12. After her father's death in a mining accident, she has needed her skills to keep her mother and little sister alive. When her little sister's name is drawn to compete in the Hunger Games, Katniss naturally volunteers to go in her place and while assuming she will die, fights to survive. Her relationship with the other competitor from her district, a boy named Peeta who has been kind to her in the past, develops in ways she never anticipated, and the Hunger Games takes on a new twist with Katniss as a competitor.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (NY: Scholastic, 2009).

Catching Fire takes the survival elements of The Hunger Games to the next level in an excellent sequel that will have fans agonizing to know what will happen in the final installment, Mockingjay.

Katniss and Peeta are in a difficult position, unlike any other victors in previous Hunger Games. They've manipulated the system so that two have survived instead of the customary one. And the government is not happy about it. Katniss tries to think of a way to escape but in the end has to go along to the next event, a special Hunger Game for the 75th anniversary that involves two past victors from every district competing in a spectacularly brutal game. The President himself is threatening Katniss and all those she loves, and the intrigues and alliances are so intricate it's hard to tell what is happening. Events in the real world merge with the game in the end, and while Katniss survives it's not clear whether any part of her world will in the end.

Violence, mild sexual content, no language. Grades 7 & up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Intelligence by Susan Hasler (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

Maddie James weathered the 9/11 debacle and remained in her analyst position at the CIA--with the help of drugs for the physical and mental ailments that resulted from the stress of helplessly watching something happen that she felt she could have--and should have--prevented. The signs were there. She even had portentious dreams. And now, she's having them again. And again she's meeting endless resistance and can see how the almost inevitable failure to stop the next attack will simply result in another unnecessary military involvement. But she tries. She manages to get a special team together and nearly succeeds in stopping the attack.

Hasler plots her novel well and casts it with a fascinating array of characters from whose varying perspectives the story evolves. Maddie is hysterically funny in the way of middle-aged women who have been overlooked and ignored yet remain persistently intelligent, realistic, confident, and defiant.

This novel recalls all those tired jokes about "military intelligence" and magnifies their kernel of truthiness to an alarming magnitude. As an ex-CIA analyst, Hasler has the inside knowledge to indict the so-called intelligence gathering mechanisms that are supposed to protect the U.S. and instead get used to promote political agendas. And she does an awesome job, with such flair, verve, and humor that this novel goes down smoothly despite its fearsome message. Progressive readers will undoubtedly nod their heads in agreement, whispering "I knew it, I knew it," over and over. Fox news fans should just avoid this one.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Evermore, vol. 1 of The Immortals, by Alyson Noel (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

Evermore introduces sixteen-year-old Ever Bloom, an intriguing heroine who has recently lost her family in a terrible car accident. She is now living in California with her aunt and struggling with psychic powers that developed after her accident. She can see people's auras, hear their thoughts, intuit their lives with a simple touch. The noise is almost unbearable for Ever, who tries to block it out by hiding beneath a hooded sweatshirt with her iPod ear buds firmly in place and blasting. The highlight of her days: frequent visits from her dead little sister. While she was popular at her old school in Washington, she purposely seeks the outcasts in her new one. She knows that most of her classmates consider her a loser freak--she can hear what they're thinking after all--, but then a new boy transfers in and Ever's world shifts again. She can't read his thoughts and when he's around, the noise stops. Not only is Damen Auguste gorgeous by everyone's standards, but he seems drawn to Ever. She tries to resist, but .....

Super new paranormal romance series for fans of Twilight.


Insatiable by Meg Cabot (NY: William Morrow, 2010).

Meena Harper writes dialogue for a soap opera, and she is not at all pleased when not only does a slacker co-worker get promoted to head writer instead of her, but the story line will become dominated by vampires! Too trendy! Besides writing, Meena has special talents--she can see how people she meets are going to die, which has wreaked havoc on many of her interpersonal relations and definitely put the kibosh on her last romance. Meena's nosy neighbor is constantly trying to set her up with new men, but Meena is taking a break after her most recent love calamity. An odd encounter with bats and a mysterious stranger while she's out walking her dog one night and then a chance reacquaintance with the same stranger--who turns out to be a princely relative of her neighbor no less--nudge Meena back into the relationship game. And then things get really strange!

This is supposed to be an anti-vampire novel, right? And there are lots of digs at the Twilight series, but it's a romance, so it shares many of the same conventions, including the addle-brained heroine and the fabulously good-looking and conflicted hero who are immediately attracted to one another but must resist their attraction, etc. Then there's the other guy, a vampire killer associated with the Vatican, with the same attributes, plus he carries a sword that he has nicknamed Senor Sticky. Who will win the heroine? See what I mean about romance conventions? Cabot is a great story teller and spins an excellent plot, so this is a good read, but it is not anti-vampire! There's a lot of silliness as well with coveted handbags and vintage dresses. The climactic battle scene riffs on Twilight to highly comedic effect.

Although this novel aims for an adult audience, YAs will also enjoy it. High school & up.

So Cold the River

So Cold the River by Michael Koryta (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

Eric Shaw is down on his luck. He failed as a cinematographer in LA so he moved to Chicago and started creating family videos. His speciality is funeral memorials. He uses his intuition to select photographs and clips that represent the lives of the deceased, sometimes drawing gasps for spectators. That's why Alyssa Bradford came to him with a special request: create a biography of her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, who is about to die. She wants Shaw to travel to French Lick, Indiana, home of the famous mineral water spas that had their glory days before the Great Depression, but had recently been renovated. Bradford's mysterious roots are there--and she gives him an old bottle of the water--Bradford's only memento of his childhood.

It seems like an interesting assignment--maybe even the start of something big, so Shaw accepts the task and the generous payment. Almost immediately the work gets complicated, drawing Shaw into a complicated family mystery with supernatural elements that explode when past and present collide!

This is a super thrilling, excellent read, and it's nearly impossible to put down, so be sure to block out time for reading. Koryta creates wonderful characters and a creepy, suspenseful atmosphere that just keeps building up. Since I live in Indiana and have visited the area described, I found the novel that much more enjoyable, especially the small town establishments and people. If you haven't been to French Lick, you'll probably want to go after you read this book, just to see the beautiful West Baden resort. Koryta lovingly describes the wondrous splendor of the dome and grounds of the resort and weaves the details to marvelous effect into his story.