The gist: A high schooler who loves to rap ultimately tries to make it as a rapper to help save her family.
The tea: I love Angie Thomas’s writing.
So far, I’ve only read The Hate U Give and this one, but Concrete Rose is up next, and I’m excited to read anything else she puts out.
Her characters and dialogue are so real that you feel like you’re popping in on actual conversations. Not only that, but her stories show an American experience that not everyone shares, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her books.
In On the Come Up, high schooler Bri loves to rap. She deals with racism at school, family drama, and eventually the threat of extreme poverty that causes her to try to make it as a rapper to help her family. On top of that, she’s got normal teenager stuff going on, like crushes on boys and the pressure of getting into college.
Something I really liked was getting to see the thought process behind Bri’s freestyles, seeing her quickly transform her scattered thoughts into the sick burns she throws at her opponent.
The wrap-up: Great author, great book. Read all her stuff.
The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 /5
I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll still be whatever people think I am.
I just finished re-reading this trilogy for the first time in like five years, for the first time post-Trump presidency, for the first time since Covid, for the first time in my thirties. And some of the themes hit harder now.
Like the struggle to choose between fighting to change the status quo or fleeing/hiding for your own safety and sanity.
Like how there’s so much gray area in the good vs. evil debate, when each side truly believes they’re fighting for something noble.
Like how it’s easy to stop seeing individuals and merely see a “side” you’re against.
Like how people on both sides of a war (and the tactics and justifications they use) are far more similar than they think.
This series holds up so, so well, especially compared to a lot of other dystopian YA books that came out around the same time. It might even pack more punch in 2021 than it did when it came out in 2008—which is kind of scary. Dystopia, like satire, is getting more and more indistinguishable from reality.
The gist: Prequel to the Hunger Games series focusing on President Snow’s formative years and the nascent days of the Hunger Games competition.
The background:The Hunger Games trilogy are some of my favorite books to read again and again—I love Suzanne Collins’s writing, worldbuilding, and characters. So I don’t know why I let this prequel sit on my shelf for months before finally diving in. I think it had to do with the mixed reviews I’d heard, and I was postponing being disappointed. I shouldn’t have been worried; reviews are nothing compared to your actual reading experience, and this was a great one.
The tea: I’m just going to come out and say I loved this book.
As a big Hunger Games fan, I thought this was a satisfying tale that did three things very well: It expanded on the history of Panem and the Games, it gave background and nuance to the eventually villainous Coriolanus Snow, and it made thought-provoking connections to the original trilogy.
The only complaint I could have about this book is the lack of action until about halfway through, and maybe some uneven pacing, but I don’t really care that it’s not action-packed.
It reads as more of a character study on Snow, and Collins spends a lot of time showing how he thinks, how he calibrates and adapts, how he works to keep up appearances, how he meticulously measures the consequences of his words and actions, the risk and the reward. We get to see that he’s naturally calculating and ambitious, but he was raised in the Capitol among the calculating, ambitious, and even ruthless. So, was he always destined to become an evil tyrant, or did the Capitol create a monster? It’s a classic nature versus nurture question, and it’s kind of fun to think about.
Beyond painting a clear picture of a young Snow, the book gives more info on the war that started the Hunger Games tradition and hints at how the Games grew from a bleak event that nobody even in the Capitol wanted to watch (the novel is set during the 10th Annual Hunger Games) to the sparkly, reality show phenomenon it became by Katniss’s time. Plus, it elaborates on a few other things from the trilogy that I won’t spoil here.
While I would read anything Collins wrote set in the HG world, she couldn’t have picked a better character to explore. It’s a twist on the typical villain origin story, giving the bad guy a dose of humanity, but ultimately showing that some villains might be just that.
The wrap-up: I’d suggest those who haven’t read The Hunger Games start with the trilogy first, but The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a must-read for HG fans. I know some have been disappointed, but I think if you go into it ready to soak up knowledge of the dystopian world rather than be hit with a cliffhanger every other page, you’ll have a good time reading.
In any case, it got me excited enough to read through the trilogy yet again, this time with a new lens—and a prequel that enriches its source material is a success in my book.
The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5
“People aren’t so bad, really,” she said. “It’s what the world does to them.”
Learn how the Young Adult genre came to be in another of my favorite installments from PBS’s “It’s Lit!” series.
While we see the YA label everywhere now, it wasn’t put into use until the mid-twentieth century, partially because it wasn’t until around World War II that teenagers were even considered their own marketing demographic; before that, everything had been divided into two categories, Child or Adult.
“Books for Young Adults” was a term coined by librarians in 1944 as they gathered and made lists of books from both the Child and Adult categories that would appeal to adolescents—and “Young Adult” has stuck as a genre ever since.
TL;DW: “It’s a bit reductive to be dismissive of Young Adult [fiction]. First of all, it’s not just a niche genre. YA is remarkable for its wide appeal: 55% of YA books purchased in 2012 were bought by adults between 18 and 44 years old... Not only does YA shape younger audiences as readers, it is a genre that helps give its audience a lexicon for understanding that there is a complex world between childhood and adulthood.”
A hundred years ago in 2012 when The Hunger Games franchise was at the height of its popularity, SNL came out with this ridiculous sketch that I just remembered existed the other day because I spotted Uncrustables at the grocery store and laughed under my mask at the thought of Sofía Vergara plugging the sandwich sponsor and yelling that she’s “HUNGRY FOR MORE HUNGER GAAAAAMES!!!”
Vergara gives 100% as an overly enthusiastic Capitol reporter getting the scoop from inside the arena as kids drop dead around her, which is probably a fairly accurate representation of how Capitol people would’ve acted watching the Hunger Games at home.
The gist: A teen girl copes with her unexpected role in a world where people are divided into classes by the color of their blood, red or silver.
The background: I saw this pop up on Goodreads about a year ago and was taken in by the bold, minimal cover, high rating, and dystopian/fantasy setting. I love detailed worldbuilding, and the premise of this one—where people have either red or silver blood and the Silvers have supernatural powers—sounded cool. I was ready to jump into this four-book series.
The tea: This book read like an extremely watered-down Hunger Games. It’s Diet Hunger Games. Or, as one Goodreads reviewer put it, the Walmart version of Hunger Games. I know tropes and formulas in genre fiction exist for a reason—because they’re tried and true and they work—but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes every time I came across yet another structural element or plot point of HG in Red Queen, without Aveyard having done the work of infusing the heart and soul.
Like HG, Red Queen is set in a dystopian-like (albeit fantasy, which HG is not) world with a tyrannical government, and each opens with a fear-mongering, government-held event meant to scare the masses into submission (the Reaping in HG, First Friday in Red Queen). Also like HG, Red Queen is narrated by a sixteen-year-old heroine with a special skill that makes her resourceful and scrappy (Katniss’s in HG is archery/hunting, Mare’s in RQ is pickpocketing), who has a gentler, younger sister she worries about, lives an impoverished life in an impoverished region, becomes an unwilling mascot for the revolution, and gets a catchy nickname (Katniss is the girl on fire, Mare is the little lightning girl). Not to mention the love triangle in which the heroine struggles to choose between a sweet boy and more headstrong boy.
I think I’m accidentally making this book sound better than it is.
Because the fact is, the best elements of The Hunger Games—a fleshed-out world, a strong, flawed heroine who has solid motives you can empathize with—weren’t there. Maybe I’m being unfair; HG is exceptionally good. But even without comparing the two, Red Queen falls flat. It’s light and inconsequential. I didn’t feel anything when reading it. I couldn’t buy into it.
That said, I do give Aveyard some credit for the somewhat unique world she created with the Silver superpowers and blood color determining one’s station in life. But it’s almost like she didn’t know her own creation enough to dig deeper and, disappointingly, barely scratched the surface.
The wrap-up: Don’t waste your time. The YA, fantasy, and dystopian genres have so many better books to offer.
The gist: Four-book series. Various high school girls deal with a demon possession.
The background: If it’s not clear already, I’m a horror fan. So the first book in this series, with its simple, bold cover design of a pentagram on a hot pink background, caught my eye on Goodreads in 2017. And after I read the description—that Vega’s story is Stephen King meets Mean Girls—I was instantly on board.
The tea: These books are like candy: what they lack in substance they make up for in fun.
Vega doles out sharply written, suspenseful, and scary scenes straight out of a horror film, even if she might not fully deliver on the backstory for the evil present in her series’ world. And if a book merely describing a character suddenly standing in a doorway makes me compulsively flick my eyes to my own doorway—just to make sure—I know picked the right book. That’s what I signed up for.
Deeper, psychological horror, this series is not. And while, at the end of the day, I prefer the kind of horror that sticks with me when I go to bed at night, I also appreciate a good, truly creepy moment, one that might be forgotten hours later but makes your heart beat a little faster as you read it. (Though a grotesque scene from the series with a spoon comes to mind that I actually wish I could forget.) And the Merciless books deliver in spades on that front.
Another thing I like about this series is that it places horror in a contemporary, suburban world. Vega is far from the first to do this, but I love stories that plop the extraordinary right into the middle of the ordinary. In the Merciless series, it’s a demon hiding in Anytown, USA—in the local high school, the local church group, even in an empty model suburban tract home.
I devoured this series pretty quickly and didn’t end up much wiser for it, but I had a damn good time. Like I said: horror candy.
The wrap-up: Does what it says on the tin; no more, no less. If you’re a horror fan and go into it without too many expectations, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the series as much as I did.
The rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5 / 5
I’m allowed to be afraid, I remind myself, taking a deep breath of the hot, stale hallway air. I’m just not allowed to run away.
Mysterious, clever, and a bit magical, the unnamed cat from Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy (and awesomely creepy) children’s book Coraline is a paragon for black cats everywhere. Throughout the book, he serves as an aloof guide for eleven-year-old heroine Coraline—he’s kind of like the Cheshire Cat if the Cheshire Cat were actually helpful.
He appears in the 2002 novella by Gaiman (both in Gaiman’s text and in illustrations by Dave McKean) and in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption. While the book is wonderfully creepy, no matter your age, the movie is really great too, with its gorgeous animation and perfectly cast voice acting, including Keith David, the enigmatic and dark voice of the cat.
When Coraline Jones and her parents move into a new apartment, she explores the grounds and occasionally sees a black cat around who she describes as haughty and avoidant of her attempts to interact with it. But when she discovers and enters a secret portal in her house to another world through a small door in the parlor, she encounters the black cat again, and this time, he sticks around for a chat.
It seems that whatever space Coraline enters through her parlor door lends some magic to cats, or at least this one. When she spots him on the grounds in the other world, he greets her with a casual “Good afternoon.” Coraline thinks the cat’s voice sounds like the voice at the back of her head, “the voice she thought words in, but a man’s voice, not a girl’s.”
They have a conversation about names, and he insists that cats do not need them (T. S. Eliot has left the chat) while proceeding to disappear and magically reappear behind various things in the garden, demonstrating his comfort and familiarity with this mysterious place.
Despite his occasional sassiness, he’s pretty reasonable, as far as magical cats go, and he helps Coraline multiple times, giving her information about the world she’s walked into, the evil entity—the other mother, who looks like Coraline’s mother with buttons for eyes—she must defeat, and dropping clues on how, exactly to defeat it.
It’s even thanks to him, in the end, that the two are able to escape the other mother’s clutches and get back to the real world.
Once safely home, Coraline explores the garden with newfound fervor for real life, giving her new friend belly rubs when she runs into him, and even without his being able to talk in this world, they manage to converse.
Here’s to mysterious, fictional cats, who know all the answers but can’t always be bothered to share them.
“You must be the other cat.”
The cat shook its head. “No,” it said. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.” It tipped its head to one side; green eyes glinted. “You people are spread all over the place. Cats, on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
“I suppose. But if you’re the same cat I saw at home, how can you talk?”
Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”
“Cats don’t talk at home.”
“No?” said the cat.
“No,” said Coraline.
The cat leapt smoothly from the wall to the grass near Coraline’s feet. It stared up at her.
“Well, you’re the expert on these things,” said the cat dryly. “After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.”
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.