The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Another great one that threatened to keep me up all night long. Keep ’em coming.

The Sun Is Also a Star is a YA novel of romance, fate, science, race, and more; 98% of it takes place in a single day in New York City. It stars two delightful and very different teenagers. Natasha is a serious science geek and impassioned fan of 90s grunge music, who firmly believes in provable facts and none of that gooey bubblegum stuff about love. She came to the United States when she was eight as an undocumented immigrant, like both her parents; only her little brother was born in the country, and now – thanks to her father’s unbelievable idiocy – the family is just hours away from deportation to Jamaica, a country that definitely does not feel like Natasha’s home.

Daniel is the younger son of Korean immigrants. His high-achieving older brother is their parents’ darling (of course), and a bully, and objectively a serious asshole; he’s just been kicked out of Harvard (Best School), though, so that’s something. Daniel has his Yale interview today (Second Best School), because he’s trying to follow the intended path and become a doctor, but what Daniel really wants to be is a poet. He is all dreams.

You can already see the drama setting up: Natasha and Daniel run into each other on this momentous day, as she attempts a last-minute legal defense against deportation and he approaches the Yale alum he’s meant to impress. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re drawn together nonetheless. Daniel intends that they will fall in love. Natasha, naturally, is having none of it. There are only hours to spare. Chapters shift between the points of view of Natasha and Daniel as well as a handful of others: side characters we’ll see for just glimpses, or a more omniscient view, including ‘future histories’ and etymologies (‘irie’), a ‘history of naming,’ a ‘history of decay.’ The effect is kaleidoscopic, and transcendent. The cumulative tone is frequently hilarious – both teens’ voices are darling, and Daniel especially is a riot; it is poignant in the ways of teenaged love; and, as established by a Carl Sagan-infused prologue, there is an all-encompassing, cosmic-scale sense of gravity and wonder.

This is a pitch-perfect story, lightning-paced as Natasha’s last day in the States and frenzied as young love, but serious as death, too. It’s absorbing, a world to get lost in. On one level it’s very much about race, racism, immigration and culture. Daniel’s father owns a Black beauty shop, like so many Korean-Americans do, and the book pauses to discuss the global forces that have set up this odd truth. Natasha wears her hair natural – which for some is a political statement, but (again the novel pauses to note, in one of those neat asides) it can also be simpler than that. “In the future, she may make it straight again. She does it because she wants to try something new. She does it simply because it looks beautiful.” I love this narrative voice: here is “an African American history” of hair; here is some of the weighty meaning that accrues; and also, here is a young woman who just wears her hair like she likes it. All of these at once.

The romance story that is the heart of this novel is very sweet and engaging. The topical content is well done and not preachy. The conversation between hyperrationality (Natasha) and dreaminess (Daniel) could have been cutesy and pat, but it’s not: it’s thought-provoking, expansive, and smart. I am, again, impressed with what YA can be. And I am therefore now interested in Yoon’s previous novel, Everything, Everything. I really think there’s something in this book for everyone. I am completely charmed. What a beautiful, book-filled world.


Rating: 8 little notebooks.

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

I had not thought of Gary Paulsen in years, until I saw the Shelf Awareness review of this new book. (Hat tip to my colleague Jen Forbus for that review.) Paulsen might have been the first author I really fixated on; I remember setting out to own all his books, and while I didn’t get very far (maybe six or eight of them), I’m pretty sure I wrote “Julie’s Gary Paulsen library” or some such inside the cover of each one, and had them set up on their own little shelf. Early signs of something, there. My favorite was Hatchet, of course, and its sequel; and I vividly remember a scene from the beginning of another book where the narrator watches a… chipmunk? eating another creature, blood down its front… what book was that?

Anyway – when I saw that he’s returned with a memoir of his own childhood, I was sold. And let me tell you. This book had me entranced from the opening lines. I wept.

Gone to the Woods has an innocence and a simplicity built into its writing style and the value system, I think, of its narrator. This makes it accessible to younger readers, but not at all to them alone. I think this is a memoir for everyone. Paulsen tells his story in the third person, calling his protagonist only ‘the boy,’ although the name ‘Gary’ is used once or twice by other characters. This helps to give the boy an elemental quality, like he’s sort of an archetypal boy, although his story is very specific. When the book opens, he is five years old, living in Chicago with his mother in 1944. She has a factory job, and coming from a small farm in northern Minnesota, is “not even remotely prepared to resist the temptations of the big city.” She lives in the bars and does not parent her small son, who she’s trained to perform for the men who try to win her favor. Grandmother hears of this lifestyle and is “critical, then concerned, and finally… past horrified and well into scandalized.” Her solution colors the boy’s method of problem-solving for life: “If it doesn’t work Here, go over There.”

The first adventure of the book, then, is the five-year-old boy’s solo journey by train from Chicago to International Falls, Minnesota. This takes several days and involves a train absolutely jam-packed with severely injured soldiers, smelling of and oozing pain and death, so that the boy is physically ill from it all – because didn’t I say, his father, who he’s never met, is a soldier off in the war. The boy becomes stuck in a train toilet, among other things, and observes out the train window the woods that will become his sanctuary. By the time he arrives at his aunt and uncle’s farm he is wrung out with exhaustion, trauma, and confusion. But the farm will be a perfect place for him, the first place he feels he belongs, is valued, is taught. He’s given his own room and bed. It’s lovely. Then it’s taken away from him.

I’ll stop summarizing here. The boy’s upbringing is one trauma after another, including a few years on the streets of American-occupied Manila, and a continuing absence of parental concern. I appreciate that the narrator is slow to judge his parents, and I think it would have been easy (narratively speaking) to be ugly about the mother’s drinking and many boyfriends, for example, but neither the young boy nor the adult man who writes these lines takes that easy road. (At least until the teenager’s perspective, at which point he thinks of both parents as vipers. But this is about the damage they do to him, rather than some puritanical judgment of mom’s moral choices.) He is an unjudgmental creature in general. Paulsen is wonderfully good at the innocent child’s perspective, elements of which are present in the teenager too.

Trauma after trauma, but with a few bright points, like the aunt and uncle in the Minnesota woods, and a saintly librarian when he is thirteen years old who makes him a gift of notebook and pencil, for whom this book might be considered a gift in return. And the woods and rivers and streams, which are always a bright point. From age five, the boy learns that the woods will allow him to take care of himself, even when he lives in a city again, keeping to the alleys and nights to avoid bullies, and escaping to the stream where he can fish for food or shoot squirrels and rabbits when his parents fail to provide for him. Even in Manila, a city of a certain sort of trauma (truly, the violence and death this child witnesses by his sixth birthday is unfathomable), he finds beauty and human kindness.

At times the events were hard for me to take in, and I wondered if younger readers were really the right audience for this. But on reflection, I think Paulsen offers just enough. I think children might take away what they need from this book – I’m no proponent of censoring life’s pains from kids – and it’s the adult mind and perspective that makes it even harder to read, if that makes sense.

The story is harrowing but also lovely, always riveting, and an important testimonial from a generation that we will eventually lose access to. It is excruciatingly beautiful in how it’s told. The immediacy of traveling with the boy is heart-rending and direct. I can’t imagine how this book could be improved upon.


Rating: 10 willow branches.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX by Karen Blumenthal

My Comp II classes got their library instruction early in the semester from our library director, who ran some searches on the big screen for them, including a number using Title IX as the sample topic. So I several times saw this title go across the screen, as a print, hard-copy book in the library on the topic. It’s a “juvenile” book, recommended for ages 8-12. I was curious, so I checked it out. (Why is this juvenile book in our college library? Who knows, but it got here by donation. I’m only the second person to check it out. I suspect our print collection doesn’t see much movement, even outside the juvenile shelves.)

Ages 8-12, sure; there were some points that were a little remedial for me, like the definition of a filibuster and how the legislature works, although I daresay many of us could use a review even there. And one of the points the book makes very well is that establishing federal law is wildly arduous, often a process that takes years, and much negotiation and compromise and heartache. The quest for near-consensus is admirable in theory, but in practice often means very slow or no progress.

Aside from a few issues that I didn’t need explained quite so well, though, even this ‘juvenile’ book was an excellent narrative. What the heck is Title IX? How did we get here? How far have we come? I have to say that I’ve never actually sat down to learn the story in such chronological fashion, and this book for 8-to-12-year-olds was engrossing.

When I started teaching college, I thought of Title IX as being the legislation that said girls could play sports too. When I was a little girl, that’s how I heard about it. I had some direct experience of the law, like when my middle school established a soccer team in my 8th grade year and because there was just the one team, it was necessarily coed. A few girlfriends and I got to play with the boys, and it was both a point of pride and at the same time no big deal. And I knew Title IX was the reason. But then I got to teach college, and Title IX had whole new dimensions. Nobody cares if the English professor knows the rules about equal sports opportunities, but it was very much a part of my training to know that I’m a mandatory reporter of disclosures of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. That’s all Title IX, too: how little I knew. In its simplest form, this is legislation meant to address sex discrimination in educational settings. It’s been applied to equal pay and employment opportunities for teachers, admissions opportunities for students, access to fields of study, and more. But sports, it seems, remains the most visible and well-known area affected by Title IX, as evidenced by Blumenthal’s title.

(My classrooms are full of female athletes. I wonder if they realize how new a thing this still is.)

Let Me Play is a well-produced book. Chapters explain the context for Title IX, including the struggles for civil rights in the wider world, not only for women but for Black people and other people of color. It begins with women’s suffrage and situates events against two world wars. The text is written for a younger audience but is unafraid to use proper terminology (like filibuster!); I wonder if the finer points of government aren’t a bit complex for the stated age group, but what do I know. There are a good number of images, mostly photographs, and quick biographies of important figures along the way: mainly female athletes and legislators. Key events in history, sports, and politics flesh out the world in which Title IX was situated. I’m a fan of this model.

I also like the chapter titles, which are cute and help track progress over time.

There were a few moments I thought Blumenthal could have expanded the generally forward-thinking, inclusive nature of her book. References to “both genders” are out of date with our understanding of more than just the binary possibilities. In a sidebar she honors the dads who support their daughters, when I think the moms could probably have used a mention of their own. The author joins certain legislators in laughing at the ridiculousness of outlawing father-son and mother-daughter events, but I think that humor is misplaced, if we think about the experiences of sons with single mothers, daughters with single fathers, and all sorts of other family models (including nonbinary folks). This book was published in 2005, and times change quickly.

These instances aside, it’s a generally feel-good story about a long, fraught, painful process that has awarded girls and women options we didn’t used to enjoy. Importantly, too, Blumenthal does not stop at the feel-good story of success, but emphasizes that all is not now perfect (boys are still encouraged far more than girls are to pursue STEM subjects, for examples) and that these rights can always be stripped away. I have a lot of respect for her project here, and I find Let Me Play to be an awfully informative, moving, and important book for readers of all ages. (Also, I have never seen such copious endnotes, bibliography, research notes, further reading, and index in a book for children.) The clear storytelling and careful explanations that make it work for younger readers will benefit some older ones, too. I learned some history, and I was riveted at every moment. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 7 athletic bras.

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in.”

What a delightful story. Props to my colleague at Shelf Awareness, Lana Barnes, whose review sold me this book. As I’ve done once before (and with another YA novel!), I’m reposting Barnes’s words here for you.

This dark fairy tale weaves together magic, romance and nature with lyrical words and imagery.

Into the Heartless Wood is an intense and haunting fairy tale tinged with horror, romance and magic, and filled with beautiful imagery of nature and love.

The Gwydden’s Wood is ruled by a witch who uses her eight tree-siren daughters as weapons, “commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them.” Seventeen-year-old Owen and his sister stumble to the precipice of this fate, but are saved by the Gwydden’s youngest daughter, Seren. After his rescue, Owen–intrigued by the “monster” who defies her purpose of being–visits Seren in the forest every night. Their forbidden friendship blossoms into romance, and Seren’s desire to “be more than the monster [her] mother created” grows. When secrets and an ancient curse drive Owen and Seren apart, they find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries-old feud and must find a way to break the curse to free themselves.

This fourth YA novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer (Echo North) is gorgeously written, deeply intense and emotionally fulfilling. Owen’s and Seren’s story is portrayed vividly through a series of moments of euphoria and heartbreak. Whether it’s a scene of them dancing on a hilltop until dawn or a tree-siren-caused train derailment, Meyer uses poetic language and imagery to ratchet up the intensity. Meyer also uses a blend of prose (Owen) and verse (Seren) to parallel Seren’s transformation. As Seren becomes more humanlike, her short lines and simple sentences become more complex. This all creates an atmospheric fairy tale that is bewitching and unforgettable.

Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

I would add that Seren doesn’t have a name – because monsters don’t – until Owen offers her one. He is the son of a musician (his mother) and an astronomer (his father), both loves he has inherited, but it is astronomy that he excels at and dreams of; the name he offers to his new friend means ‘star.’ Seren’s adoption of that name, offered by her first friend, is meaningful, because names have great power; to name something or someone is to exercise power over it, and imagine the power to name yourself when no one ever has.

The setting is Welsh, or at least Welsh-adjacent: it is just a minor frame, but Owen’s cooking is Welsh, and the character’s names often look it as well. I found this charming, and it added a little bit to the otherworldly feeling of the novel.

I loved the dreaminess of this book, especially in Seren’s sections. I loved the difference in writing (speaking?) style between the two protagonists, as Barnes notes, and how that changed the tone I heard the story told in, and characterized each of them. And I love trees – or leaves – and stars as reference points for worldviews, as symbols. The romance in this book is sweet, innocent, muted – definitely YA – but moving. There really is something about young love, or in this case such youth that it doesn’t even recognize that it is love. The classic narrative trick is to put two people (or beings!) in an attraction but then throw something in their way; the conflict here is across worlds, and with the added challenge of a shared history, Owen and Seren on two sides of an old strife. (I shan’t spoil it, but they are not only opposed in the world-scale struggle between powers but also share a personal connection to certain events.) The obstacles they face are great. But out of great conflicts come great stories. This is a great story: emotionally impactful, heart-wrenching, sweet, beautifully told (with extra points for style, in the two very different voices). I’m charmed. Also bonus points for trees.


Rating: 8 slices of bara brith.

movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I took a few days off, but that was all I could stand before returning to book 3 of this compelling series. As I wrote the other day, this review will contain spoilers for the first two books but not for this one.

Following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss learns that District 12 was burned by the Capitol, and the surviving residents – including Katniss’s mother and sister, Gale and his family – were taken in by 13. We thought 13 no longer existed, after the way-back-then uprising, but it was all a hoax; in fact, 13 moved (literally) underground, where Katniss and her family now dwell as well, following her airlift rescue from the most recent Games. She’s having trouble adjusting to the highly regimented, militarized society and the claustrophobic setting. She’s been reunited with Gale, but separated from Peeta – he was captured by the Capitol, and we can just imagine the terrible torture he’s undergoing. As the book opens, Katniss is still trying to recover from a concussion and also to decide whether she will agree to serve as Mockingjay, sort of a figurehead symbol of rebellion, in propaganda videos. Thirteen’s social order is ill suited to this surly teenager’s disposition, and being a figurehead does not necessarily come naturally, but she gives it a try.

Of course, it does not suit the series for Katniss to serve as mere symbol, and she’ll end up back in some real action soon enough. The love triangle continues with a fascinating new twist.

This book included some satisfying combat sequences, and some engaging new characters, as well as the development of (for instance) Finnick Odair. I am intrigued by the questions about what the next version of this world could look like: if the uprising is successful in tearing down the social structures we know, what will we put in their place? It’s much easier to criticize existing worlds than to build decent new ones from scratch. When I encounter dystopian stories, this is always the part that fascinates me the most, I think. So in this way, I appreciated that the series continues with the zoomed-out perspective I mentioned when reviewing Catching Fire.

But on the other hand, I yearned for a little more of Katniss’s love triangle – feelings, discussions of feelings, and, well, action… I guess a young adult novel can only take romance so far! I’m pretty satisfied with how things turned out, but I think I could have used more of Katniss’s internal workings throughout this story. She’s pretty bound up inside, and it’s probably realistic that she’d have been so unclear on her own feelings, but I wish we could have felt a little more of her emotional life.

The theme throughout the series of the blurred line between reality and reality television is brought forward a touch in this story, where a central character gets extra-confused and must ask repeatedly, “Real or not real?” This feels like the literalization of larger concerns throughout, and while it could have been heavy-handed, it’s not. It’s poignant, and serves as reminder that this is the real problem with so much of this world (and of our own).

My opinion of Collins’s prose remains: mostly it’s serviceable and effective enough, but there are just occasional hilarious flubs. I chuckled at “Boggs does emergency first aid on people to hold them until we get back.” He “does first aid”? What does that look like? On “people”? That’s some lazy writing, y’all. But of course this line is just a placeholder meant to move us on to what we care about, which is what Katniss does next. I picture the author sort of waving her hand – “people do things, and then Katniss…” But these moments do crack me up.

Looking back on the series, I don’t think there’s much question that book one, The Hunger Games, is the best one, where we meet and learn to care about the key characters, and are introduced to the enthralling world of the Games. You need all three to see the story through, though. And my mild criticisms aside, the series is a feat. I rarely feel compelled to read all day and into the night without looking up, and Collins had me riveted, so hat’s off. This is a hell of an imaginative, gripping story, whose details will I think continue to haunt me. I believe I’ll try and see the movies. Worth every minute spent, and highly recommended – especially for younger readers.


Rating: 7 bowls of mushy beets.

As I write this review, a prequel by Suzanne Collins titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is forthcoming; it will be available when this post goes live. Head’s up, Hunger Games fans!

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I didn’t even pause between The Hunger Games and this book 2 in the series. Hmm… I don’t guess I can do this without spoilers from book 1, but I’ll keep them general. (No spoilers for book 2.) Stop here if you want to read these books blind (which you should, if you’ve avoided them this long).

Katniss and Peeta have returned home from the Games to find what every big-time lottery winner knows: fame and fortune do not, in fact, solve everything. And they have their decidedly unclear relationship to navigate. Katniss, unsurprisingly, just opts out of that complicated task and avoids Peeta entirely; she’d like to patch things up with Gale somehow but hasn’t the first clue where to begin. Meantime, the districts are likewise grumbling and unsettled; it seems that without meaning to, Katniss stirred up some tendencies toward rebellion with the way she finished the Games. Now she’s got some bigwigs out to get her if she can’t figure out how to put things back together. As a hero, Katniss is both impressive and frustrating; she’s a badass, but not very self-aware, and she’s a typical teen in that she can’t begin to see herself as others see her, let alone boys. Her bluster and bumbling can be trying, but we love her, and we clearly have no choice but to root for her. Because, yes, the Games are back – she and Peeta end up back in a new arena with other past victors in an unprecedented all-star-game event. Strange to say, because they’re always a fight to the death, but somehow the stakes are even higher this time.

I noted, again, the importance of appearances, of playing to the camera, and therefore (especially for someone like Katniss, for whom motives and desires were already muddied by adolescence), it’s really difficult to tell what anyone really thinks or feels, to figure out their truest emotions and motivations. What is truth and what is a lie? Which of several versions is the true one? For me, the most important metaphor of these books is the idea of duplicity and deception and performance for an invisible but all-important audience. It’s quite disturbing – which is a compliment to these novels.

This installment did feel like a sequel, and in fact like the middle book in a trilogy: it relies heavily on what came before and leads directly into whatever it is that comes after. I appreciated a little bit of character development (particularly with Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s drunken mentor and former Games victor), and the details and complexity of the arena were cool. But this book had nothing amazing to contribute that wasn’t there in book 1; it’s really just a continuation.

That said, I do appreciate the zooming-out of focus. Where The Hunger Games centered on Katniss, her own survival, and her budding romance(s) and love triangle, Catching Fire widens the lens angle to take in the plight of all 12 districts (or are there 13?) in relation to the Capitol. Katniss has more to worry about than her boyfriends now. As we head into book 3, I’m looking forward to more of this wider world and the idea of revolution.


Rating: 7 o’clock.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My 8th-grade book-talks buddy had me read chapter 3 for one of our weekly discussions, and that was that. Two days later I read this whole book and most of book 2 in the series in a single lazy day.

A few qualifications first and then I’ll just rave: Collins’s writing can occasionally be a bit awkward, syntactically speaking. A handful of times I noticed her phoning in some of the details so as to move on with the action. The writing style overall ran toward the simple (which I suspect is just a feature of YA, keeping it easy for younger readers), which I guess I noticed coming from often more convoluted styles; but there’s nothing wrong with simple when it’s clean and effective, which this writing almost always is.

And there’s no question that this is a compelling plot. I was quickly absorbed in the world of District 12, the last of the twelve districts of Panem that serve the Capitol, a city of riches and leisure built on suffering and privation. Panem was formed from the former United States, and District 12 was once Appalachia; its main contribution to Panem’s wealth is coal mining, which has gone on here for many hundreds of years, “which is why our miners have to dig so deep.” The main action is the Hunger Games themselves, an annual fight-to-the-death, survivalist, reality-show-entertainment, punishment-for-rebellion event the Capitol inflicts upon the districts. Each district provides two tributes each year, a boy and a girl, ages 12-18. These 24 teens are thrown into an arena (designed by the Gamekeepers) until only one emerges. The whole thing is televised in fine detail; when things get dull, the Gamekeepers spice them up with extra challenges, manufactured “wild” animals, “natural” disasters, and the like.

Note the conflation of “reality television” with the battle royale. Violence as entertainment (for the Capitol) and violence-as-entertainment as cautionary tale (for the districts, a repeat of whose long-ago uprising these Games are meant to deter). There is some level of metaphor and real-world commentary available here for those looking out. I think most pointedly, the reader is never allowed to forget that these are games, and that there is an audience to play for. Tributes can be supported during the Games by gifts from sponsors, dropped by parachute; they’re motivated to play for the cameras, appeal to prospective sponsors and be likeable for the Gamekeepers, who have the power to skew things toward life or death.

If Collins’s sentence-level writing is not the finest I’ve read lately, her imagination and execution are excellent. The world of Panem and the Games, the drama and spectacle, and her characters are completely engaging. Our first-person narrator and hero is Katniss, who’s been supporting her mother and younger sister since she was 12 years old. Her fellow tribute in these Games is local baker’s son Peeta, with whom her relationship will be complicated. She must leave behind not only the beloved younger sister but her hunting buddy and possible budding romantic interest Gale. Some of the staffers who make up the workings of the Games will become personalities of interest, as well. The worldbuilding is solid, as are both plot and character development. Pacing and suspense are expert; again, I raced through this book in part of a day and then rolled straight into book 2.

I’m very impressed, frankly, and reminded that we shouldn’t undersell YA. I love being absorbed into a new world – even a dystopian one. And I can’t wait to find out what comes next.


Rating: 8 grooslings.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

The heavy questions about death and dead bodies are answered with honesty and hilarity by the creator of the webseries “Ask a Mortician,” for children and adults.

Caitlin Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, with adult readers. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death is a delightful follow-up and expansion on that project, aimed at younger readers but absolutely for adults as well. Doughty’s continuing experience in the business (from crematory operator to mortuary owner, with a degree in mortuary science) means her expertise has grown. Her sense of humor and fun when approaching topics often considered morbid, however, is her most valuable contribution.

“Every question in this book is 100 percent ethically sourced (free range organic) from a real live child.” And children do ask “the most distinctive, delightful questions”: We eat dead chickens, why not dead people? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you died on a plane?

Doughty’s answers are as delightful and distinctive as the questions. She blends humor with respect for the dead, joking around but repeatedly reminding her readers that it’s never okay to do something with a person’s remains that they wouldn’t have liked. (“Did Grandma want a Viking funeral?”) Her investigations of ritual, custom, law and science are thorough, and she doesn’t shy from naming the parts of Grandma’s body that might leak after she is gone. She uses big words sometimes, but explains what they mean; she keeps her explanations simple enough for younger readers, but there are asides for grown-ups, too, including references to Justin Timberlake and vinyl records that she winkingly tells the kids to ignore.

Can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect? First of all, Doughty is on to us: she knows this is really a question about being brought back to life, √† la Jurassic Park, and she informs the reader that a second species will be required to graft that DNA onto. “Hybrid panther humans of the future! (This is made up, it’s not going to happen–don’t listen to me, I’m just a mortician.)” As for the title question, Doughty begins: “No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.” (Spoiler alert: “Snickers is more likely to go for the tongue,” but only out of necessity, or maybe because he’s trying to wake you up.) Will I poop when I die? “You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” This irreverent voice is winning, and pitch-perfect for her younger audience, but, honestly, adults need a little humor as well when considering “postmortem poo.”

Diann√© Ruz’s accompanying images keep the same tone of playful but plainspoken discussion. “Don’t let anyone tell you your curiosity about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird,’ ” Doughty reminds readers. If they try to say so, “it’s likely they’re scared of the topic themselves.” This informative, forthright, comical guide to bodies after death is just the antidote–and surprisingly great fun as well.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 gallons of unpopped popcorn.
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