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The 74th Annual Hunger Games, sponsored by Uncrustables™

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.

And how can you not love these two:

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

©HarperTeen

The genre: Fantasy, dystopian, YA

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’ in HG is archery/hunting, Mare’s in RQ is pickpocketing), has a gentler and 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”). Finally, RQ features a love triangle in which the heroine struggles to choose between a sweet boy and more headstrong boy (coughcough Peeta and Gale…).

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 flawed but strong 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 dystopia genres have so many better books to offer.

The rating: 1.5/5

Review: the Merciless series by Danielle Vega

Review: the Merciless series by Danielle Vega

©Razorbill

The genre: Horror, YA

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 puts you a little on edge in the moment. (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: 3.5/5

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.

—Danielle Vega, The Merciless
Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Coraline

Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Coraline

©Dave McKean

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.

©Focus Features

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 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.

©Focus Features

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.

©Focus Features

Here’s to mysterious, fictional cats, who know all the answers but can’t always be 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.

—Neil Gaiman, Coraline
Video

Dear Stephenie Meyer,

Like a lot of girls circa 2005-2008, I read the Twilight series. I wasn’t quite part of the demographic of pre-teens to fifteen-year-olds the series was marketed to, as a late teen/twenty-year-old at the time, but I got aboard the hype train.

And eventually, the hate train.

With its sparkly vampires, do-nothing protagonist, and predictable plot lines, Twilight was and is an easy target for criticism.

But so are a lot of things. So, why did Twilight and its author Stephenie Meyer get SO. MUCH. HATE. (like, a lot of hate. Like, an unbelievable amount of hate) when other, equally mindless entertainment with equally problematic role models got a pass?

In short, society loves to hate on teen girls.

This video essay by YouTuber and author Lindsay Ellis (okay, I know I’ve posted frequently about Ellis but idc, great content is great content) exploring the topic and offering an apology to author Stephenie Meyer kind of blew my mind when I first watched it, and it opened my eyes to some of my own internalized misogyny.

Not that Twilight hate is super trendy anymore, but I can safely say I have jumped off that bandwagon, and I hope this helps me be more aware of jumping on any similar bandwagons in the future. (I mean, I’ll still enjoy a parody now and again, I’m not a saint.)

Let’s let teenage girls like things, without the heaps of shame.

TL;DW:After a while, the ‘it’s problematic’ argument starts to feel like a lazy excuse to hate on a popular thing teenage girls liked rather than good faith criticism. … Why was Stephanie Meyer so loathed? She didn’t do anything! She wrote a wish-fulfillment book. It’s not great, but it’s far from the worst of its genre.

Yes, Twilight is silly. A lot of pop culture is silly. Imagine the same level of vitriol being leveled at the equally silly Fast and the Furious franchise. Both are dumb cheese, but they are dumb cheese targeting different markets. So why is one dumb cheese the object of so much pearl-clutching over who’s a good role model, and the other [is just fine]?”

For similar content on why we should collectively ease up on teenage girls, check out my post on poet Olivia Gatwood’s piece “When I Say That We Are All Teen Girls.”

Literary cat shout-out: Buttercup

Literary cat shout-out: Buttercup

©Lionsgate Entertainment

This scrappy fuzzball from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins belongs to heroine Katniss Everdeen’ sister Prim. He appears in all three novels (and four films) as a comforting companion to Prim and an annoyance to Katniss, with whom he’s not on the friendliest of terms due to her (expositional) attempt to drown him in a bucket—bad Katniss! Eventually, though, she accepts Prim’s attachment to him.

Buttercup is said to be a good mouser and even catches the occasional rat. He’s described in the novels as looking a little worse-for-wear with a mashed-in nose and half of one ear missing—which tracks, considering his rough life in the impoverished District 12. His name comes from Prim insisting that his muddy yellow coat matches the bright buttercup flower.

In fact, the makers of the Hunger Games films tried to pull a fast one by casting a black-and-white cat as Buttercup in the first movie. Collins and fans (rightfully) demanded he be changed to a yellow-haired cat for the rest of the films to stay true to the novels and his namesake.

©Lionsgate Entertainment

When the Everdeen family moves into a new, much larger house in Catching Fire, Buttercup and Katniss slowly bond over their shared dislike of their new home. Katniss even starts sharing scraps from her hunting kills with him and deigns to give him the occasional behind-the-ear rub.

In Mockingjay, when the resistance moves into what’s essentially a massive underground bunker in District 13, Katniss finds Buttercup while on a venture to the now-destroyed District 12 and brings him back for her sister, even though pets aren’t allowed.

At one point when 13 is on lockdown during a bombing from the Capitol, Buttercup helps ease the tension by entertaining the troops, so to speak, chasing a flashlight beam and giving Katniss an epiphany about how her enemy is taunting her. And making everyone LOL. (Even in wartime, people can still laugh at cat antics—call it a testament to the human spirit.)

©Lionsgate Entertainment

We don’t get to see a ton of Buttercup, since he lives in District 12 (and eventually 13) and our POV character Katniss is usually off fighting for her life somewhere else, but he makes his few appearances count.

Case in point: this passage from Mockingjay, which I’ll let close. Now that I’ve typed it out, I need to go find whoever’s chopping onions around here…

©Lionsgate Entertainment

*SPOILER*

My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out, or maybe he couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.

“It was a waste of a trip. She’s not here,” I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. “She’s not here. You can hiss all you want. You won’t find Prim.” At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. “Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s never ever coming back here again!” Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I clutch my middle to dull the pain. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.” A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving new voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious.

But he must understand. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.

—Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
Video

“We will not be categoried!”

This fake trailer for YA phenomenon The Group Hopper from SNL drags some of my favorite (Hunger Games) and least favorite (Maze Runner) dystopian YA novels/films, and I am. Here. For. It.

Also, Bill Hader’s in it.

From the director of Maze Runner, the producer of Divergent, and a casual fan of The Giver, adapted from a YA novel written entirely in the comments section of a Hunger Games trailer, meet: The Group Hopper. Put him in a group, and he’ll hop his ass right out.