Happy birthday, Jess! ~ Review roundup in honour of my sister

My sister Jessica is celebrating her birthday today. She’s introduced me to some of my favourite books and writers ever, including:

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • The Rebus series by Ian Rankin
  • The Spenser series by Robert B. Parker
  • The Guido Brunetti series by Donna Leon

… and lots, lots more. So, I figured, what better way to celebrate her birthday on my blog than by writing about some books and genres she loves?

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

I don’t have to tell you how awesome this series is, do I? It’s one of the most brilliant YA series I’ve read, possibly second in my mind only to Harry Potter. It took me months to convince Jess to read it, and she’s now an even bigger fan than I am. It just has everything: an inspiring heroine, self-sacrifice, politics, reality TV, family, kick ass action scenes, and yes, a love story.

If you’re one of a handful who hasn’t read the book yet, check out the website here to find out more about it. Better yet, read the books already. Trust me on this one.

Even better, there’s a movie out in 2012.

Love The Hunger Games and looking for your next read? May I suggest Moira Young’s Blood Red Road or Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

And, if you’re a nerd like me, check out The Girl Who Was on Fire, full of essays about the books.

View my review of The Girl Who Was on Fire 

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

One of Jess’ favourite books ever, and I’m sure a lot of you already agree about how awesome this book is.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird still feels as relevant today as it did when it was first published. Despite all the tense race relations Lee depicts in her story, Lee also offers us some of the most inspiring characters in literature. How often do we watch the news and wish we had lawyers or politicians with as much integrity and passion for justice as Atticus Finch? How much do we wish we had the same staunch beliefs in right and wrong that Scout has? In Lee’s tale of a white lawyer defending a black man in a racist town, we simply fall in love with her characters, and cheer them on, whole-heartedly, in their battle, which is a battle for justice, but more importantly, a battle against hate.

The Sigma Force series, by James Rollins

Actually, any book by James Rollins is guaranteed to have two things: insane thrills and science that seems too weird to be true, but is actually based on extensive research. The Sigma Force series, which Jess introduced me to and we both love, has the added bonus of starring a team of kick-ass nerds. Seriously, imagine Sheldon Cooper with a black belt in karate and Iron Man type gadgets.

Reading Rollins is always like watching a good movie: you’re riveted by the action, and freaked out by the knowledge that there’s a kernel of truth in the story. His latest, Devil Colony, isn’t my favourite of his books, but it’s still pretty damn good.

View my review of Devil Colony

For Rollins fans: he’s a very active tweeter, and chats often with fans.

Follow James Rollins on Twitter

Spycatcher by Matthew Dunn

Jess is a huge fan of spy novels, especially those that feel “close to the ground.” John Le Carre, Alan Furst and Len Deighton, rather than Ian Fleming. Matthew Dunn’s Spycatcher caught my eye as something she’d enjoy. To my delight, I absolutely fell in love with this book myself, and I’m not even much of a spy fiction fan.

Dunn is a former MI6 agent, and like Le Carre, his field experience is almost palpable in his writing. (Unlike Le Carre, Dunn doesn’t use a pseudonym, which I find interesting.) Spycatcher follows Will Cochrane as he tries to stop an Iranian terrorist. It’s a thrilling story, and while Cochrane and his team appear almost superhuman at times in their strategies, Spycatcher works so well because we see Cochrane’s vulnerability, his humanity. We feel his pain at not having seen his sister in eight years, and we long as much as he does for him to be able to settle down with the woman he loves. Incredible book, and I can only hope Dunn writes even more.

View my review of Spycatcher

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Jess loves books about Russia, especially books written bySolzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. I haven’t blogged about any of their books (I’ve also never read Solzhenitsyn, though Jess assures me he’s really good), so here’s the next best thing: Kalotay’s Russian Winter is about Nina Revskaya, a former ballet dancer now living in Boston and auctioning off her jewelry. A mysterious link between her and a man who appears to own a necklace that belongs to one of her sets leads Nina to remember her past in Russia under Stalin. The present-day scenes were okay, but I just love the scenes in Russia. The descriptions of ballet are just beautiful, and Kalotay makes us feel both the fear of Stalin and the characters’ desire to escape this fear through art.

View my review of Russian Winter

The Girl Who Was on Fire, Leah Wilson (ed) #50BookPledge

Couple things about me:

  • I love Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I think it’s one of, if not the most intelligent, relevant YA series I’ve ever read.
  • I am a major nerd. I actually enjoy English classes where we dissect novels and discuss the significance of the character deciding to wear a red hat.

So Smart Pop BooksThe Girl Who Was on Fire, a collection of essays on the Hunger Games trilogy, definitely caught my eye. Most of the topics covered — reality TV, politics, Katniss’ character — may come as no surprise, but I found the essays all fascinating. Recommended reading for Hunger Games fans who enjoy debating with friends questions like: Team Gale or Team Peeta? Can jabberjays really exist? How can one teenage girl bring down a government?

Personal highlights:

(NOTE: Just to let you know, both the book and this blog post contain spoilers. If you haven’t read Hunger Games yet, I suggest you stop reading now, and read Hunger Games instead. 🙂 )

  • “Team Katniss” by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

When I read Hunger Games, I was always baffled by the Team Peeta/Team Gale debate. I really couldn’t see the romance in Hunger Games — for me, the trilogy was all about Katniss trying to take care of her younger sister. That probably says a lot more about me than about the trilogy, as will your view on what is important in Hunger Games. (For the record, I was firmly on Team Gale until Mockingjay, where I was torn between vulnerable Peeta and BFF Gale right up till Gale’s big confession at the end. Like Katniss, I wouldn’t have been able to get past that. For that, and many other reasons, I think Katniss made the right choice in the end.)

Barnes takes a similar position, that Katniss’ choice between Peeta and Gale is more about the kind of person she is than about the kind of guy she likes: “…sometimes, in books and in life, it’s not about the romance. Sometimes, it’s about the girl.” Two thumbs up, Ms. Barnes.

  • “Crime of Fashion” by Terry Clark

I love fashion, and Cinna is probably my favourite secondary character in Hunger Games. So I’m thrilled that Clark gives Cinna the props he deserves. Katniss “might be the flame,” Clark says, “but Cinna is the torch.” Using celebrities like Li’l Kim and political figures like Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin as examples, Clark discusses the power of clothing for either enhancing or debilitating a desired public image. The arts, and creativity in general, have always been powerful tools for social change, and Cinna performs this role in Hunger Games. His designs shape the public’s perceptions of Katniss, from the girl on fire to the blushing girl in love, and of course, to that magnificent bridal gown that transforms Katniss into the Mockingjay.

  • “The Politics of Mockingjay” by Sarah Darer Littman

A political columnist, Littman examines the parallels between Panem under President Snow and America under the Bush administration. This essay shows how relevant Hunger Games is, not just to our world in general, but to specific events in recent history. Littman turns the spotlight on us, the general public, who, disturbingly like the residents in the Capitol, spend more time discussing the latest elimination in Dancing with the Stars than the countless examples of human suffering around the world. It’s a very thought-provoking essay.

  • “Your Heart is a Weapon the Size of Your Fist” by Mary Borsellino

Borsellino argues, “Love when there isn’t supposed to be love is a hugely subversive political act. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be protest marches in countries all over the world demanding same sex marriage.” Borsellino compares Hunger Games to George Orwell’s 1984 and shows how love is defeated in 1984 but is triumphant in Hunger Games.

Other topics include surveillance, genetic engineering, the illusion of authenticity in media, PTSD, and the power of community building. This book shows just how much Hunger Games can make us think about the world around us.