Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

So I don't want to accidentally give away too much, which limits what I can talk about. I'd love to get into whether or not Snow is inherently the Snow we meet later on, or if it's someone he becomes through trauma. I have a distinct opinion after finishing the book -- sharing it will spoil everything though. Suffice it to say, he's nothing if not complex and highly intelligent.

This prequel to The Hunger Games Series takes place during the 10th Hunger Games. The games are still coming into their own, so this event is missing all the showmanship and flash we see when Katniss enters the arena. High school students have been tasked to act as mentors for the tributes for the first time, Snow among the chosen.

The Capitol is a different place too. Still reeling from the war, the district is in a state of reconstruction. As a result, poverty appears in unlikely places, namely Snow's apartment. A once prominent family, their money troubles are about to get the best of them. Reputation is all they have, and it's also on the line when Snow is assigned the female tribute from District 12 to mentor. He needs a win, but the odds aren't good. Fortunately, there's more than meets the eye when it comes to his tribute, Lucy Gray. She's highly intuitive and resourceful both inside and outside the arena. You can't help but root for her.

The Hunger Games themselves are narrated through Snow's perspective. You don't know everything that goes on in the arena, or among the tributes. In fact, the actual event plays a small role in the story. What goes on outside the arena is more important. It's what makes this Hunger Games unique. Before, during, and after, events occur that allow Snow to really solidify how he feels about it all. How he feels about people, Panem, family, duty, and love. You could even say that this single year in Snow's life is his character-defining year, and he's still just a teenager.

This self-discovery does turn him into the terror we meet through Katniss, but how far off is he here from who he becomes later?

This prequel is an exciting story that felt very different from the original trilogy. You get insight into the vile character we'd already seen, but as his origin story. I wish I could say more, but I really enjoyed this book and recommend it. Just read the original trilogy first.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

This is How it Always is by Laurie Frankel

Book club book #12

This is a wonderfully written, lyrical story. It's full of smart sentences and carefully chosen words. From a writer's perspective, it reads beautifully, and I really enjoyed that.

This is How it Always is is also a well-rounded story, that tries to hit a big issue from all angles. The book follows a rather large family -- two parents, five children -- as they navigate raising a transgender child. Claude, the youngest, born the fifth boy, ultimately decides his name is Poppy, and he is a she. Each member of the family must deal with this news, as they all learn the right way to behave. It's about how a family faces change, comes together, breaks apart, and goes off in multiple directions, all to come back together around the family table.

The critical error is keeping Poppy's difference a secret. This idea of secret-keeping weighing on a family is just as significant of a theme in the book as raising a transgender child in today's world. It helps broaden the struggles in this book beyond Poppy's. It's more than just how to find identity when your body parts don't necessarily match the gender of your soul. The complexity of this book adds power to the story, makes it more real, and makes it better.

The only issue I had was toward the end. Without spoiling anything, because you do get invested in how this family will figure it all out, the end starts to feel a little rushed. It also gets a tiny bit preachy. I almost felt like the author was coming up on her page limit, so had to wrap up the story quickly. It was especially awkward to feel rushed as you're reading about how this is a story that never ends, that the journey of a trans individual is like any other life journey; it keeps moving forward. As long and thought-out the rest of the book is, this last section moved like dominoes falling rather than an individually-paced race. 

Regardless, this book is a beautiful, emotional story with insight into a family so unlike my own. It's a special journey for a family full of personalities and experiences that drive home the common theme that life is hard, but hiding doesn't always make it better. I would highly recommend this read.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

I'm a Jennifer Weiner fan. I may even still have my copy of Good in Bed. Either way, it's always fun to get to read another one of her books. I would recommend checking out her entire library of novels to find the one(s) that look most interesting to you.

This book was not the rom-com I'd expected. I appreciate that. What began as a best friend-turned-bully story, complete with a lot of emotional scars, becomes something so much more complex. It's not the typical, "love is going to help me heal" scenario. There's mystery and money and....SPOILER ALERT....murder.

Daphne Berg is a social media influencer capitalizing on plus-sized hashtags. She's found her niche to speak to people, and most of the time that helps her appreciate her own body. Like any insecurity though, it gives Daphne moments of doubt, where her confidence diminishes. This isn't helped by her "best" friend, Drue. Wealthy and oblivious, Drue makes the cardinal mistake of outwardly pitying Daphne for her weight. It destroys their friendship until one day Drue pops back up to ask Daphne to be in her wedding. As the reader, you want Daphne to yell out a strong, "NO!," but she lets herself get lured back into the friendship. Daphne meets a hot stranger the night before the wedding at a lavish party. That's where you think you know the direction this book will take. You're wrong. Instead of focusing on the hotness, Daphne gets distracted having to solve a murder.

There's a lot to this book, which is always so much better than a simple love and confidence story. Falling in love isn't what's going to uplift Daphne; being happy with who she is will. Each character in this book is dealing with something -- a secret, regrets, parts of their past that hurt -- but being right in your own mind about you now is the lesson to learn. Allowing your past to be a part of you that maybe influences you to change counts. At one point in the book Daphne talks about how everyone needs justice, even nasty people. She's specifically talking about solving a crime, but this sentiment goes further. You don't need to hide. You can be you.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It's surprising and fun and a great summer read that gives you something to think about once you've finished the book.

Other Jennifer Weiner books I've reviewed:
Mrs. Everything

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Female Persuasion: A Novel by Meg Wolitzer

I'm not really sure what this book is about.Initially, the impression was it would be a feminist journey of a shy, slightly withdrawn girl coming into her own while surrounded by inspirational women. It's kind of that, but then also not. The trajectory Greer -- our lead -- starts on really becomes where she ends up. The "major" event that might have sent her on a tangent really just helps her get to where you expect her to be all along. It's strange. She does learn how to speak up and speak out, but it's not cliche in that she's suddenly empowered. Also, I think she would have gotten to where she ended up regardless of what happened in the story.

The book revolves around six characters, three men and three women. The women have a much more dominant role in the book, but the men are present in one way or another. The females have a common thread of purpose, the males are a bit more listless,. Even the most successful man, Emmett, has a significant inability to listen. Cory, Greer's boyfriend, suffers a great family tragedy and withdraws from the world. His own grief becomes the central need he must attend to, leaving Greer out in the cold. The third guy, Darren simply serves as a catalyst to get Greer angry about how men get away with improper behavior. The guys get to tell a little of their stories, but only one is really "good." They're all flawed at varying degrees.

The women include Greer, her friend Zee, and Faith. Zee encourages Greer to think and act like an activist. Faith, much older than the other two, has already created a successful career around speaking out for women. She gives Greer her first job out of college, working for a foundation that puts on events and does special projects to aid those in need. The foundation is funded by Emmett's company. Emmett is in love with Faith. He's doing this to be close to her. Allowing the men to also exhibit the stereotypical gender roles often found in literature is a subtle piece to this book. It's not a full role reversal though. 

I didn't love this book, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate how the author decided to flaw her characters. It's not a hyper-realized version of men and women, it's not a declaration of one being better than the other. It's the mediocre reality that we all mess up to varying degrees. Sometimes we overcome those mess ups, sometimes we hide them and hope they stay hidden, and sometimes we never acknowledge we did wrong. It's telling who people are by how they handle their flaws, regardless of whether they're a man or woman. I like that the author is willing to admit that sometimes your flaws tarnish all the good you're putting out into the world.

I picked up this book because The Interestings is a favorite of mine. This isn't as good. It's not bad though. Maybe you'd like it.