Sunday, June 21, 2009

Teen/YA Review: The Hunger Games

We’re on vacation, and I finally had the chance to read the book that both my husband and 14-year old son said was one of the best books they’d ever read: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Wow, they were right. Our whole family loved Collins’ The Underland Chronicles series, so we’d been anticipating her latest release for a while.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives with her mother and younger sister in District 12, one of twelve outlying districts controlled by The Capitol, in the remains of what was once North America, now called Panem. The Capitol keeps control of the districts in part through the annual Hunger Games:

The rules of the Huger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we can take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen.

To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food. All year, the Capitol will show the winning district gifts of grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest of us battle starvation.

“It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks,” intones the mayor.

As you can see, Panem is a place often ruled by cruelty and a struggle to survive. Families in most of the districts live on the edge of starvation, fighting to get by with limited rations and hard work with low pay. Katniss’ father was killed in a mining accident (mining is the designated industry for District 12), but he taught her how to hunt before he died. Although hunting is illegal, Katniss helps her family survive with the meat she brings home and the trades she’s able to make in the black market.

Katniss and her family are devastated when Katniss must compete in this year’s Hunger Games. As one of the poorer districts, District Twelve rarely wins, and it seems like a death sentence as Katniss is whisked away to the Capitol amid the false festivities. Most of the novel deals with Katniss’ efforts to survive the Hunger Games and the tough choices she faces in the arena.

As my husband and son had told me, this is an amazing book. Collins’ writing talents shine, with in-depth characters that you come to care about and fascinating details of a world different than our own, yet eerily similar in some ways. The suspense and action keep you turning the pages. I even broke my own rule about reading in the car and chanced getting carsick because I just couldn’t wait until evening to read more! We’re all counting the days until the sequel, Catching Fire, comes out, on September 1, 2009.

NOTE: Because of the deadly nature of the Hunger Games, these books are best for teens and older and so well-written that they'll appeal to adults as well.

384 pages, Scholastic Press

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Top Ten Books We Want To Read This Summer

It's Tuesday and time for a Top Ten list! We had a wonderful time on Sunday at Barnes & Noble spending some gift cards and getting excited about all the great books we want to read this summer. The list below is mostly Jamie's list (my fourteen-year old son), but I plan to read some of these. too. It includes the books he bought on Sunday, as well as some new releases we'll be receiving for review. And I notice that every single book is part of a series! I think that says something about the way books for kids and teens are published now. Anyway, here's our list:

Top Ten Books We Want To Read This Summer:

  • The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell – one of Jamie’s favorite fantasy series
  • The Night of the Soul Stealer and Attack of the Fiend by Joseph Delaney (Books 3 and 4 of The Last Apprentice)
  • The Wave Walkers series by Kai Meyer
  • Maximum Ride – School’s Out Forever by James Patterson
  • Evil Star by Anthony Horowitz (Book 2 of The Gatekeepers series; Book 4 was released in April)
  • The Immortal Fire by Anne Ursu (Book 3 in the Chronus Chronicles)
  • Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey (sequel to Skin Hunger , The Resurrection of Magic series)
  • Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix (sequel to Found in The Missing series)
  • Last Battle of the Icemark by Stuart Hill (book 3) – another of Jamie’s favorite series of all time!
  • The Pilgrims of Rayne by D.J. MacHale (Book 8 in the Pendragon series) – this series is so good, I bought book 8 for myself! Book 10 was recently released.
What are YOU looking forward to reading this summer?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Teen/YA Review: 20 Boy Summer

Sarah Ockler’s debut novel, 20 Boy Summer, is far more than a typical teen romance. I was a bit put off by the title at first, expecting a shallow summer romp, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of emotion of the novel and the honest way it handles the wrenching experience of losing someone you care about.

Anna and Frankie have been next-door neighbors and best friends since they were babies. Their families are close, and Anna, Frankie, and Frankie’s older brother, Matt, are inseparable. Things begin to change, though, when Anna realizes she likes Matt as more than just a best friend. On her fifteenth birthday, she finds out that he likes her more, too, and they share their first kiss. Matt pleads with Anna not to say anything to Frankie yet. He wants to tell his sister himself, during their vacation next month, so he and Anna carry on their secret love affair for several blissful weeks.

Then, the unthinkable happens: Matt dies unexpectedly, and Anna is left holding their secret. Everyone copes – or doesn’t cope – in his or her own way, and Anna is concerned to see Frankie suddenly becoming obsessed with clothes, make-up, and boys.

A year after Matt’s death, Frankie’s family decides to return to their favorite beach house in California for a vacation, and they invite Anna to come along. Frankie convinces Anna to join her in a contest – to try to meet 20 boys in 20 days during their vacation. The trip is a rollercoaster of emotions, bringing up memories of Matt while the girls try to meet their boy quota. Here, shortly after they arrive, Anna sees the ocean for the first time:

“Isn’t it amazing, Anna?” She looks out across the water. “It makes you feel kind of small, huh?”

“Yeah.” I don’t want to say too much; to break the thin glass bubble spell, my head resting on her shoulder, my oldest friend reflective and serious and still capable of being amazed.

“You know what the best part of California is?” She puts her arm around me, her Matt-bracelet cool against my shoulder. “No one knows me here. No one knows that they’re supposed to feel sorry for me.”

I think about the faces at school as we passed through the halls – eyes looking away, mouths whispering. There goes Matt’s sister. Hey, isn’t that the best friend?

“Except for you,” she says. “You’re the only one who knows the big black secret. And you’re a locked vault when it comes to keeping secrets.” She laughs, kicking at the sand with her toes.

20 Boy Summer is an engaging story that pulls you into the world of summer vacation at the beach, with beautiful settings and well-drawn characters. The novel is about grief and loss but also about friendship, love, and getting on with life.

Overall, I loved this novel, although I was a little bothered by the girls’ emphasis on losing their virginity. I was certainly no angel myself in high school, but I don’t remember anyone thinking of virginity as such a burden. Have things changed that much? In any case, that’s a small complaint in what is otherwise an honest, meaningful portrayal of teen girls dealing with life and loss.

290 pages
Little, Brown and Company
Recommended for older teens and young adults because of content related to sex (though the sex scenes are not explicit) and underage drinking.