Review: Maggot Moon

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Standish Treadwell, fifteen, is dyslexic. He has different colored eyes, one blue, one brown. He lives with his grandfather; his parents are gone. He had one friend, Hector, and Hector is also gone.

Standish’s world is one of fear and lies, of hiding and barely surviving. The red and black flag of the Motherland hangs on the classroom wall. People who are different, people who question, people who have something wrong with them, disappear, either to be maggot meat or to be reeducated.

The Motherland is about to prove its world superiority by putting a man on the moon.

Hector discovered a secret behind the wall of Zone Seven. A secret that may place Standish in danger. Should he run? Or is it possible to fight back?

The Good: While I had heard of Maggot Moon before it got a Printz Honor, I hadn’t paid much attention to what it was about. Which means that when I began reading, I had no idea. “What the heck is going on?” is pretty close to what I was thinking in the first twenty-odd pages.

What is going on? It’s a bit of a puzzle for the reader to put together. There is the Motherland, it’s red and black flag. A war lost. A wall topped with glass. Mothers for Purity. Rewards for large families. And, finally, a date is given: Thursday, 19th July 1956.

Maggot Moon is set in an alternate universe, in an alternate history, a timeline a wee bit different from our own. Standish’s country lost a war years and years ago; and now Standish lives in dystopian world. Standish is telling the story, in his own way, which means that it’s simply his story. There is little explanation or exposition. Instead, the reader can fill in the pieces, try to connect the dots, attempt to understand. Just from that, from how the story is told, is enough to see why this got a Printz nod.

And the language, Standish’s turn of phrase! “The what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which describes not just life but also the chain of history that creates Standish’s world. Later, he describes “my heart an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.

The setting and Standish’s world is another element. His school is harsh and demanding, with bullies among both students and teachers. A brutal death half way through illustrates just how precarious and dangerous Standish’s world is. It also shows some surprising sides of people Standish knows. It’s not a simple place or time.

In some ways, Standish seems young. He dreams of escape, of the land of Croca-Cola and Cadillacs. Since the Motherland will soon land on the moon, he dreams of a better planet, Juniper, to escape to, He builds a small spaceship out of odds and ends, half believing it will work. What he describes is far from young: the circumstances surrounding his parents disappearances. People becoming maggot meat. A brutal death. And the end . . . what Standish ends up doing, and the results, are quite serious. This is a perfect example of how a book can be about serious, dark things, yet does so in a way that it takes a while to realize just how dark it is.

I wonder at what age the readers will fully appreciate the clues as to what Standish’s world is, and isn’t. While “Nazis” and “Soviets” are never terms that are used, it seems that his world is one where a country such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia conquered England and controls most of Europe.  (Personally, I only considered a Nazi occupied England; reading other reviews is what made me also think it could be the Soviets, or any dictatorship.) Croca-Cola reminds one of another, very American beverage, as does the references to Cadillacs and a TV show starring a woman having a ball. (If you get that last one, that’s exactly what I mean by what is needed to fully understand the time and place and alternate history of Standish’s world.)

What, you may be asking, did Hector discover? It’s a stunning secret, and it not only brings about Hector and his family disappearing but also forces Standish to take a stand.

Other reviews: Someday My Printz Will Come; CrossReferencing (Mark and Sarah); Pretty Books.

 

 

 

Review: After the Snow

After the Snow by S. D. Crockett. Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YASLA Morris Award.

The Plot: Willo is watching and listening and waiting.

Willo was born after the weather changed, after the seas dried up and the snow kept coming and coming, and people got mean. Willo’s father, Robin, and others left the cities and went into the mountains, struggling to live but knowing it’s better than being in the settlements and cities. Willo doesn’t know anything about that; he just knows that this life, of hunting and cold and wild dogs and nature, is all he’s ever known.

All Willo has known is this life, with his father and family.

And now his father and family is gone. Willo is alone. He may have spent hours alone, observing animals, hunting, but now that he is alone he has only one goal: find his father. Find his family. No matter what.

The Good: “I’m gonna sit here in my place on the hill beyond the house. Waiting. And watching. Ain’t nothing moving down there. The valley look pretty bare in the snow. Just the house, gray and lonely down by the river all frozen. I got to think what I’m gonna do now that everyone gone. But I got my dog head on.”

This is Willo’s story, and his unique voice shines through the entire book. His voice alone is reason enough to have After the Snow on the finalist list. It’s the voice of a teenage boy who is the first generation born after the weather changed and a new ice age began. Willo is not a boy for books and contemplation. He is all about action and survival,  hunting hares and wild dogs for their meat and fur. Willo lives close to the world as he knows it: observing and being one with it, respectful of the animals he hunts, wearing the skull of one dog and half-believing the dog gives him guidance.

Willo’s voice is the one of someone who doesn’t know about the time before, the time of hotbaths, and doesn’t really care. It’s about the here and now. The here and now is what matters: and the here and now is that his father is missing and Willo will do what he can to track him down.

The journey to find his family takes Willo outside his comfort zone, the mountains and forests he knows. After the Snow is almost a fairy tale, as Willo encounters abandoned children, cannibals, settlements and cities, brutality and kindness. He  learns about who he can trust, and who he cannot. At times he is the wild boy encountering civilization at times, wondering at the world he discovers. He is a puzzle with pieces missing, because of the isolation he was raised in.

One observation: Willo’s voice and cadence and observation is a strength of After the Snow. For some readers, it may be overwhelming. Also, what we know we learn from Willo, which at times is narrow both because of his knowledge and of his interests. I guessed at some thing well before Willo, but, to be honest, while I was reading books that made me good at guessing plot twists Willo was busy hunting animals to keep his family alive.

A prequel is coming out in 2013, One Crow Alone.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Someday My Printz Will Come; Stacked Books.

Review: Safekeeping

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse, with her photographs. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Radley, seventeen, is volunteering in Haiti when she hears the news: the president has been assassinated, the news reports are scary, and all Radley wants is to be home, safe, with her parents. She can’t get through to them, so she boards a plane hoping they’ll get the message she’s coming home.

“Home” has changed. Planes are rerouted, customs take hours, she is looked at with suspicion; the TV news shows vigilante groups and looters; new laws enforce curfews and travel restrictions.

When Radley’s parents don’t show up at the airport in New Hampshire, she’s scared. Her cell phone is dead, she doesn’t have the charger, she has no cash, her credit cards are worthless. Radley does the only thing she can think of: she starts walking home.

The Good: “Dystopia” tends to be a word used for any futuristic world where bad things happen. In April, The Horn Book defined it as follows: “Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often key, as is a consistent emphasis that this is not a place where you’d want to live,” adding that “while shambling, brain-eating zombies; nuclear holocausts; electromagnetic space pulses that knock out most of the population; or alien invasions all make for compelling reading, they do not necessarily fall into the category of dystopia. Now, if the survivors of those various tragedies form a messed-up society where freedoms are curtailed in order to protect its citizens from imagined future terrible events, then we’re talking dystopia.”

Safekeeping doesn’t start with zombies or nuclear holocausts or aliens. The backstory is simple: the American People’s Party was voted in, the president was assassinated, and the APP has used that as an excuse to seize control using laws, restrictions, arrests, and fear. The details of how this all happened are few, both because Radley was in Haiti while some of this was happening, and because now that she has returned she doesn’t have access to news (assuming that such coverage would be accurate). Is it a place I’d want to live? No; like Radley eventually does, I’d be looking for a way out. This makes Safekeeping a  unique addition to the current dystopia genre: a world very much like our own, only one election away, with no supernatural or paranormal occurrences.

Before all this, Radley was a typical teen. Perhaps a bit spoiled; or, rather, she is a child of privilege who doesn’t realize her privilege. It’s the privilege of leaving clothes behind in Haiti because the orphans could use them, and “Mom will buy new stuff for me when I get home.” When she realizes her cell phone charger is also still in Haiti, she thinks, “my parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I’m  used to them just fixing it for me.” She’s also a teen who took time to go to Haiti, to volunteer, so “spoiled” is the wrong word. A better word is “easy”. She has had things easy. Even her time in Haiti was with the safety net of knowing comfort and her parents were just a flight away.

Radley’s return home puts her in a dire position: someone suddenly “without.” Someone who has fallen through the safety net. In Haiti, she had gotten used to less but was aware it was temporary. Now, it’s different — with no food, no money, and no one she can trust, Radley sleeps in the woods, begs for food, and searches through dumpsters. Because society is still standing, even if it’s over regulated, Radley can still go into a public washroom to get water. This isn’t a case of total fending for oneself; it’s a case of having to take care of oneself because society cannot be trusted. When Radley cannot find her parents, she cannot go to the police or to neighbors or friends because she fears the consequences. She doesn’t want to be arrested, to disappear into prison — and she sees just enough on the news, observes just enough on the streets, to realize her fears are well founded.

Safekeeping isn’t about changing the world; it’s about surviving the world. It’s about one teenager. All Radley cares about is making it through another day, lasting long enough to find her parents. As someone who is now on the fringes, she stays on the fringes — she doesn’t meet up with any resistance group, or looters, or even any APP members. She doesn’t quite trust any of them. In some ways, she is lucky; where she lives and where she travels are places where she can be alone, can disappear, can leave space between herself and the others who also are wandering the roads either looking for safety or fleeing from danger.

Radley is alone: and at first, it was almost painful, how alone Radley was. As pages went by, I realized just how few times she spoke to others, interacted with them. Even though external things were happening, Safekeeping is mostly about what is happening in Radley’s head as tries to adjust to this new reality. Sometimes, what Radley was going through almost seemed dreamlike, in a nightmarish sort of way but also in how it was equally about what she was feeling as what she was doing. In other words, this isn’t a book that will help you survive an apocalypse; in terms of surviving a dystopia, the tips are more “keep to yourself, get to Canada.” (Yes, Canada is the promised land of freedom). It is a book that will help in terms of emotional and mental survival, as Radley tries to figure out what she needs to do, how to take care of herself when others have always taken care of her, and, how, eventually, to take care of others.

Review: The Way We Fall

The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe. Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2012. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It begins with a cough. A sneeze. An itch. A fever. Then, strange behaviour. Finally, death.

Of course, when it begins, when the first handful of people get sick on the island, sixteen year old Kaelyn doesn’t realize what is going on. Neither, really, does anyone else. Not until it’s too late: the island is quarantined, food and medicine are scarce, the doctors and nurses are trying to help people with dwindling supplies and few resources and no idea how to stop it, how to save people. People are dying, people are trapped, people are desperate.

Some people loot stores; others make sure neighbors get enough food. Kaelyn can do little but watch, as her friends and family fall sick.

The Good: The Way We Fall is a dystopian novel that is not set in some strange future, or alternate universe. It’s the here and now. A virus, a quarantine, panic, create a dystopian world in a typical, normal island community.

Kaelyn is a shy sixteen year old, more comfortable around animals than her fellow students. This year, she tells herself, this year she will be friendlier, she will make friends, she will say “hi” and not retreat to her books and nature studies. Of course, as luck would have it, this is the year when the virus hits. Kaelyn is both pushed and pulled. Pushed to go out into the world, to connect with a handful of others who are trying to help on an individual level. Gav, organizing food deliveries. Tessa, scavenging for medicine in empty summer homes. Pulled back into the safety of her home that is no longer safe. Her father, a microbiologist, trying to help contain the contagion. Her mother, struggling to keep some type of normalcy. Her brother Drew and Uncle Emmett, both thinking the only answer is to leave the island.

This is a look at the world while it collapses: the little moments. The day when it’s no longer safe to go to school, the day when there is no work to go to. The moment of realization that it’s no longer safe to walk the streets. Kaelyn has a seven year old niece, and she tries to help maintain some semblance of normalcy for the little girl. It’s a goal that gradually becomes impossible. It’s not just that people are getting sick. It’s also the quarantine, and the isolation, and the violence that takes place. It’s the looters and the gangs that spring up, once any other semblance of law and order disappears.

This is Kaelyn’s story, told in a series of journal like letters to a friend, Leo, who is away at school. Because Kaelyn is just sixteen, we see what she sees, knows what she knows. The bigger details of how her country and the world are handling the virus, what has really happened with the quarantine, and whether it’s escaped to the mainland aren’t told because Kaelyn doesn’t know. She, and apparently her parents, believe that the Internet and phone lines are down because of an accident; I suspect something darker. Kaelyn has some knowledge others don’t; her father is a microbiologist, working at an ocean research center. The politics of the island are vague, but that’s believable because Kaelyn doesn’t know the mayor or others in local government. The military and national initiatives are all screened either through what her father knows (and early on, it’s clear he’s not telling all he knows or suspects) or what the television shows.

Not everyone gets sick, but once someone does get sick, there is very little chance of recovery. Is a cough just a cough? An itch just an itch? I’m hesitant to say too much, but people die. Sometimes from getting sick, but also from the violence that erupts when fear takes over. I’ll say this: it makes me wonder, what would I do.

Kaelyn has returned to the island after living on the mainland for several years. It makes her both and insider and outsider, knowing things but also a stranger. Interestingly, Kaelyn’s father is the mainlander; her mother is the islander; and her father is white and her mother is black. She is the “weird girl whose mom and dad were different colors.” Leo, the friend who she writes to in her journal, is also an islander who doesn’t look like the others: he was adopted from Korea.

I didn’t realize until after I read The Way We Fall,  until I went to the website for the book, that this was first in a series. There is no cliffhanger ending; but it is also not a tidy ending. I look forward to the next book, but I’m also afraid of what the next book will bring. Is it about a community rebuilding? Or has the virus escaped beyond the island borders? Before you eye roll at oh, no, another trilogy, check out the author’s blog post explaining the genesis of the series. Crewe had an idea for a story, and it turns out it was a story that demanded three books to tell it.

Review: Wither

Wither by Lauren DeStefano. First book in The Chemical Garden Trilogy. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Review from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Scientific advancements and genetic engineering created a perfect generation of children. As they grew and aged, they continued to be perfect.

The problem? Every generation after appears healthy, at first. Until the virus makes itself known. Then, they get sick and die. The death age for males is 25, for females is 20.

The result? A world full of older “first generation” adults, orphaned children, and young adults who know death is coming. It’s created a culture with extremes of poverty and wealth, with whispers of experiments being done to try to find a way to cure the virus, a world of polygamous marriages for the benefit of wealthy men anxious to see their family lines continue and to maximize their number of children before they die.

One way to meet the need for brides? Taking them. Kidnapping them. Stealing them.

For some, kidnapping is a rescue, a move from the cold, overcrowded, under-supplied orphanages.

For others, it means being torn from their families.

Rhine Ellery, 16, is one of the kidnapped brides. Rhine resolves to do whatever it takes to survive. To escape. To be reunited with her her twin brother, Rowan. She learns there may be worse things than being kidnapped.

The Good: I am fascinated by the world DeStefano has created. Imagine a world where, for fifty years, no child born has lived past 25 or 20. Rhine and Rowan were born to “first generation” parents (so, obviously, the genetic engineering also extended fertility); their parents were killed in an explosion and the twins have taken care of themselves, and each other, in the years since. Any child born to subsequent generations will see their parents die. What does that do to people? To a culture? For Rhine and Rowan, it creates a tight bond between the siblings.

Linden Ashby, Rhine’s 21 year old husband, is wealthy, and that wealth has isolated him from the harshness of the world. He lives in a mansion, with his rich first generation father and tons of servants. Rhine and two other girls are selected from a van full of kidnapped, traumatized girls. Linden not only doesn’t see the trauma; he also thinks they are there voluntarily and has no idea that the girls he rejects are shot and left on the side of the road. Part of me doesn’t believe that Linden could be so ignorant; part of me sadly realizes that happens with privileged people. They don’t see the poverty, the abuse, the truth. Some of Linden’s servants are children, orphans bought and sold. How can Linden not know? Because he’s been raised his whole life not to see what is in front of him and to believe he’s entitled to all he has.

Linden’s childhood sweetheart, and first wife, Rose, is 20 and dying. Linden’s rich and powerful father buys him three new brides. Rhine, who misses her brother. Jenna, 18, who is just as involuntarily a bride as Rhine. At 13, Cecily is an orphan who believes she is now living the fairy tale: a room of her own, clothes, good food, servants. Linden’s brides are on a locked floor, locked away from the world, birds in a cage. As I watched the Royal Wedding, I kept on thinking of how Wither was a twisted, nightmare version of the happily ever after fairy tale: here is your prince, your castle, your life of luxury. The price paid to be a princess is high.

Vaughn, Linden’s father, is not just rich and powerful; he’s also a doctor. He has lots of secrets, not all good. He’s trying to find a cure so his son Linden doesn’t die at 25. He’s willing to do anything. Including buying women for his son. To continue the fairy tale-ness of Wither, Vaughn has locked rooms in his basement. All the servants, all the brides, fear him. Linden, the spoiled, protected, indulged son, is the only one who doesn’t.

To “wither” is to become dry, to lose freshness. Rhine’s world is withering away as the young die; but it is also Rhine herself who risks withering away. She is kidnapped and locked away, with freedom to leave the floor, and then the house, earned slowly and over time.

Wither is the first in a trilogy. The main plot of Wither is wrapped up in such a way that I’m not quite sure what the next books will bring. Will it be more about Rhine? Will it be Rowan’s story? Or someone else’s?

I look forward to the other books in part because I have so many questions about this odd world. One of the servants at the Ashby house, on the bride floor, that plays a role in the story is Gabriel, a young man about Rhine’s age. Really, I thought, really? A floor of teen girls, locked up, and a hot young man is one of their attendants? Really? Maybe this society hasn’t quite sorted out how to do captured brides, and don’t realize that this is a bad idea of epic proportions. Or … maybe Vaughn knows exactly what he is doing and we’ll learn more in book two.

What else I’m eager to learn more about: what Vaughn knows, what he doesn’t know, what the reader knows about Vaughn. Vaughn is trying to get a cure. Only a little of what he does in the basement is shown, but it’s not good. By coincidence, Rhine’s dead parents? Geneticists. I’m putting two and two together and getting four and thinking this (along with Rhine’s having two different colored eyes) Means Something. The death-ages of 25, of 20 — why? What are they linked to? What, exactly, is the virus?

Review: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In a future Chicago, a person is born into one of five factions. Each faction lives according to an overall guiding belief system. Abnegation: being selfless. Amity: peace and love. Candor: honesty. Dauntless: courage. Erudite: knowledge. Each faction pursues different professions, wears different clothes, has different lifestyles and culture and ethics. Abnegation runs everything, with the belief that selfless people aren’t corrupted by power. Dauntless protects the borders of the city.

Beatrice Prior was born into Abnegation. She dresses in gray; the most affection she sees her parents show each other is hand holding; she only sees herself in a mirror on the days her mother cuts her hair. She is sixteen and the day is fast approaching when she will need to decide which faction to chose to live in for the rest of her life. Once that decision is made, it will be “faction before blood.” All ties, to Abnegation and everyone in it (her parents, her older brother Caleb) will be cut forever. A test is given, to assist teens in making their decision.

Beatrice knows she doesn’t belong in Abnegation; she knows she is not selfless. She wants something different but she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents and leave her family. Her test results are unexpected, opening up choices she didn’t know she had.

The Good: Ha ha, some may say, how unbelievable, a test at 16 that decides your future! Unbelievable? Have you heard of the SAT? While we don’t live in a world that requires “faction before blood” and abandoning the past when one makes a choice about the future, the decision made by teens at that time do shape their future. Selecting a university can impact career, friendships, family, partner, where one ends up living, just as deciding not to go to university, to join the military, to go to work right away, also influences living choices.

Why factions? “It is not ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality — of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.” Believe that aggression causes the world’s problems? Join Amity, to use peace to overcome that quality. And so on.

It is impossible to read Divergent and not think, “what faction would I be in?” I’m too selfish for Abnegation, too cynical for Amity, not blunt enough for Candor, not brave enough for Dauntless, and not clever enough for Erudite. But I like working with others to achieve things, like Abnegation, or keeping the peace, like Amity; I value honesty, like Candor, can stand up for myself and others, like Dauntless, and value knowledge like Erudite.

When I first heard about Divergent, I thought, “who would pick Abnegation?” Roth paints a warm picture of people who get along because they think of others; the type of world where, when the dinner party is over, everyone gets up to help. I also found it fascinating how a faction controlled every aspect of a person’s life. Not just “faction before blood,” but also clothes (Abnegation wears gray, Candor black and white, Dauntless black); where they live; their houses; even the food they eat. Self-selection into factions, “like” people living and interacting only with “like” people creates some uniformity of characters (all the Dauntless love piercings and tattoos!), but there is also diversity and individuality.

All these factions work together, like a perfect puzzle, to create a perfect society. Well, the intent was to create a perfect society, but can people really be so divided and a society remain whole? Does “faction before blood” really mean “faction instead of blood”? Beatrice — now called Tris — makes her choice and struggles to succeed. Divergent is about more, though, than factions. Tris discovers truths about her society; she is forced to make even more choices, ones that will not just impact herself but impact all in her world. Divergent is about more than exploring a structured world; it’s also action packed, as Tris moves from child to full member of her chosen faction, undergoing initiations and discovering who she really is.

What else? Yes, there is a romance for Tris! It is a romance between two strong individuals, a romance that has both flirtation and respect.

For terrific, nuanced world building; for an amazingly mature romance; for a strong main character that is just the perfect mix of confidence and doubt; for leaving some conclusions for the reader to make; and for being a book I just gobbled up; Divergent is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Presenting Lenore knows her dystopia young adult novels; her review of Divergent calls it “a high-stakes, clever, compelling novel.” (Warning: slight spoiler there about what faction Tris selects. So don’t click if you don’t want to know; on the other hand, Tris makes her choice by page 47).

Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. 2010. Personal copy.

If you haven’t read any of The Hunger Games trilogy… stop reading now. This review assumes you have read the first two books. This is the type of trilogy where one story (how one person can change the world and the toll that takes) is told out over three books. And yes…. there will be spoilers.

The Plot: In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen survived the brutal Arena and won the hearts of a nation. In Catching Fire, Katniss was thrown back into the Arena. In Mockingjay, Katniss wonders if she can ever truly be free of the Arena and the Games.

The Good: Mockingjay starts in District 13. Katniss is recovering physically from her battle scars and emotionally from the new-found knowledge that an active rebellion, working with District 13, manipulated her in Catching Fire. Katniss then has to figure out what her role is in the rebellion; yes, the Capitol is corrupt and power hungry and evil in the lengths it will go to maintain its power, but are the rebels and District 13 any better?

When it comes to violence and murder, whether it’s in the Arena or in a rebellion or in a government, is causing injury and death ever acceptable? This, ultimately, is the question Katniss struggles with, over and over, as well as dealing with the consequences of her actions (and inactions). She has caused the deaths of others. What does that make her? Does motivation change what you do? Does it matter if it’s self-defense, survival, war, revenge, or preventing something worse?

At the start of the trilogy, Katniss is a nobody. A poor, powerless teenager from the poorest, least important District, with no powerful connections or family ties. What she has going for her is a strong sense of survival, good instincts, and hunting skills. Because she is so marginalized, it makes sense that she doesn’t have knowledge of national politics. As Katniss learns more of Panem and the Districts, so, too, does the reader. It’s an excellent framing device, and is one used often by authors to give readers backstory and world building without dumping information. It also allows Collins to not address those issues that are beyond Katniss’s knowledge or interest. Yes, politics play a role, as does war strategy, but both are only lightly touched on. This is a good thing, because, frankly, I don’t want to read hundreds of pages on the political parties of Panem or the war rooms of District 13.* I’m content with viewing her world as Katniss does. Gradually, Katniss gains knowledge and works her way into the inner circles of the rebellion. All she learns during her journey, as well as all she was before, combine to create the most important scene in the book: Katniss, a bow and arrow, a choice.

The Hunger Games trilogy is also about media, reality television, and how 24/7 reporting impacts what is being reported. Basically, there is Real Katniss and the Public Katniss, with the later being who the public thinks she is. Public Katniss is a created creature, one dressed up for the spotlight (whether it’s by her prep team for the Arena or for war) but who has a foundation in the real Katniss. Katniss doesn’t act so the public version of her is still her, but it’s the her that is aware of the cameras and public, it’s a her that may be costumed and made up, it’s a partial her that the audience thinks is the complete her. While this is a stunning examination of reality TV (and anyone who thinks they “know” Bethenny or The Situation or Lauren Conrad would be best to think twice about that), the reader shouldn’t simply dismiss it with a “but I don’t watch reality shows” attitude.

 In Mockingjay, Collins shows that it’s not just reality shows that manipulate the truth they show, it’s also other shows including news shows and documentaries. Take it a step further and it’s not just what the camera shows, it’s what the viewer wants. Public Katniss is equally a creation of the citizens of Panem and what they want and need: a hero. As I read reviews of Mockingjay that were disappointed in Katniss and the resolution to her story, I wondered which Katniss the reader had in mind, Real Katniss or Public Katniss? For me, the resolution fit perfect with Real Katniss. But Public Katniss, or, rather, the hero the public wanted? The resolution disappoints.

Team Peeta, Team Gale. The Hunger Games is so much more than the two men in Katniss’s life. For the first two books I preferred Peeta, mainly because Peeta was the smartest of the bunch, including Katniss. In Mockingjay, I grow to like and respect Gale more. He becomes a more nuanced person. If before he was Katniss’s best friend, in Mockingjay he becomes the person whose views of war strategy differ from Katniss because Katniss survived the Arena and he didn’t. It’s not that Gale is removed from the horror of death and violence; it’s that he has a much different relationship with it than a victor like Katniss. Peeta not being around for many of the Gale scenes allows for a balance in this perspective. It also allows for someone other than Peeta to be the smart one. Truthfully, at times in the first two books it was a bit annoying how Peeta was not only two steps ahead, but Katniss was two steps behind in terms of what was going on. Without Peeta around, Katniss is forced to grow and become more aware of politics; to become more of a strategist.

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were about survival – ultimately, Mockingjay is also about survival. Surviving not just an event (the Arena, a war) but living with choices made, actions, consequences. This is not some happy go lucky war or caper movie, where the enemy is faceless and the dead bodies that pile up are meaningless. Living with oneself “after” is not something simple, and neither is Katniss’s recovery. I imagine the epilogue will be as controversial as the final chapter of Harry Potter. Like Rowling, Collins uses it to shut down any hope for a sequel for these particular characters. Is it necessary? I think, too often, in books like The Hunger Games, the long term affects of violence and terror aren’t portrayed. Short time frames are used, the books end with characters still teens, and, frankly, it’s not enough time to say, for sure, whether someone is broken or not from their experiences. So, yes, an epilogue is necessary, not to show a “happy ever after” but to show whether or not the main characters truly survive.

Because Mockingjay delivers by completing Katniss’s story, because it takes seriously the impact of violence, and because Peeta may be one of my all time favorite characters, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

*If you do want to read that type of story, read Megan Whalen  Turner’s books and Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock.