Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia

Publishing Info: May 2020 by Scholastic

Pages: 517

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Back Cover Summary:

AMBITION WILL FUEL HIM.
COMPETITION WILL DRIVE HIM.
BUT POWER HAS ITS PRICE.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.

It’s been days since I finished reading this book and I’m only just now sitting down to write this review because I just couldn’t decide how to rate and review it. The Hunger Games is one of my all-time favourite series so I was incredibly excited when it was announced there would be a prequel. I was a little bit less excited when they announced it would be about a young President Snow as his origin story didn’t particularly appeal to me. But even so I pre-ordered The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and read it as soon as my copy arrived. The weird title does make more sense once you’ve read the book.

While The Hunger Games is set during the 74th games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is set during the 10th games. So the events take place a long time before the trilogy. My favourite part of this book was the world and seeing what Panem was like 10 years after the war. The Capitol is a very different place. Coriolanus Snow was a child during the war and saw poverty, starvation and death. In the year of the 10th Hunger Games, the Capitol is still recovering from the war.

The Hunger Games themselves are very different from the games we know from the trilogy. At this point, hardly anyone watches them, in the Capitol or the districts, because who would want to watch kids murder each other, right? There are no stylists. This is the first year they’ve had mentors. The first year they do interviews. The arena is just an old sports stadium in the Capitol. I found discovering more about the years after the war and the beginnings of the Hunger Games absolutely fascinating.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. It’s very different from the original trilogy, which is a good thing as it doesn’t just feel like a recycled The Hunger Games. The book is split into three parts. The first part was definitely my favourite. There were some shocking moments in the build up to the games and I was hooked. Then in part two, we see the games themselves. I liked this part, but not as much as the first part. It could have been more exciting and suspenseful. It was interesting seeing the games from the perspective of a mentor, rather than someone in the games like we see in The Hunger Games, but that did mean I felt a little removed from the action. The games would have been more exciting if this part of the novel had quicker pacing. Part Three goes off in a direction I was not expecting, which was good from the perspective that it wasn’t predictable, but I did find this part a bit slow until right at the end. The third part could have been cut down a bit to improve the pacing and increase the tension. I wasn’t as gripped while reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes as I was when I read the original books.

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Let’s Talk Bookish: How Do You Feel About ‘Strong Female Characters’?

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion. Today’s topic is ‘How do you feel about strong female characters?’ and I think there’s a lot to say about this subject! But what do we mean when we say ‘strong female characters’? The phrase has come to mean female characters who are basically badass at fighting, smart etc. These characters are great, but that’s not what the phrase ‘strong female characters’ should be about. The ‘strong female character’ has become as much as a cliché as the damsel in distress.    

To have a strong character, you don’t have to have female characters who are epic at fighting or who are tough. They don’t have to be physically strong to be a well-developed character. A strong woman doesn’t have to be a woman with all the attributes typically given to male characters. What we actually want when we talk about strong female characters is female characters who are developed as much as male characters. We want complex heroines as much as we want complex heroes.

So I’m not keen on the phrase ‘strong female character’ because it doesn’t really convey what I actually want from my characters as the word ‘strong’ is so loaded and misleading. I want to see realistic, well developed characters. I don’t want to see female characters who are ‘strong’ but lack depth. I want to see a variety of personalities in the female characters I read in books and see in TV/film.

A strong female character should have depth and development, strengths and flaws, and have a role in the story which is important for the plot.

One measure for the portrayal of female characters is the ‘Bechdel test’ which is not a perfect measure but I will mention it for the purposes of this discussion. In order for a book or film to pass the Bechdel test there have to be at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and who talk about something other than a man. When you look at books and films it’s shocking how many fail on something so simple.

I want all characters to have depth and development. Unfortunately, in books and film it’s most often male characters who have depth and development and female characters are just two-dimensional. This has been changing in the book world. I’m reading so many great books with good female characters, particularly in YA. But there is still a way to go with how female characters are represented in books. Then there is the problem with films. Why are there so few female-led films? We need more movies with developed female characters!

Do you have any thoughts on strong female characters? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

2020 Releases by Black Authors

It’s just heart-breaking watching what is happening in the US right now and what has been happening there for so so so many years. It’s also important to remember that there is racism all over the world as well, including here in the UK. As a white woman I am not in a position to understand what black people are going through right now. And I don’t want to take away from black voices, but I can’t remain silent either. All I can say is that I stand against racism and I stand with you. No one should live in fear because of the colour of their skin. You can find information, resources and links to places to donate and petitions to sign on the Black Lives Matter website. If you’re a white person, educate yourself on racism and consider what you can do to be an ally.    

One thing we can do is to support black authors and creatives. I have to acknowledge that in the past I didn’t take enough consideration into to what books I was reading. The problem is that it’s always books by white authors that get pushed to the front by publishers etc (which is definitely something that needs to change). Looking at my bookshelf, I realised I haven’t read many books by black authors. This is something I want to rectify so going forward I’ll be paying more attention to what books I’m reading. We need to support black authors and creatives ALL THE TIME, not just now.

So today on my blog I’m going to be sharing some 2020 releases by black authors.


Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash. Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

In a dual narrative novel in verse that brims with both grief and love, award-winning and bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo writes about the devastation of loss, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the bittersweet bonds that shape our lives.


A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction-from debut author Roseanne A. Brown. Perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Renee Ahdieh, and Sabaa Tahir.

For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts his younger sister, Nadia, as payment to enter the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal-kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a heart-pounding course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?


A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

Legacies meets Nic Stone’s Dear Martin in Bethany C. Morrow’s debut YA, A Song Below Water, about two best friends discovering their magical identities against the challenges of today’s racism and sexism.

Tavia is already at odds with the world, forced to keep her siren identity under wraps in a society that wants to keep her kind under lock and key. Nevermind she’s also stuck in Portland, Oregon, a city with only a handful of black folk and even fewer of those with magical powers. At least she has her bestie Effie by her side as they tackle high school drama, family secrets, and unrequited crushes.

But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation; the girls’ favorite Internet fashion icon reveals she’s also a siren, and the news rips through their community. Tensions escalate when Effie starts being haunted by demons from her past, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice during a police stop. No secret seems safe anymore—soon Portland won’t be either.


A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell

Evoking Beyonce’s Lemonade for a YA audience, these authors have woven worlds to create stunning narratives that centre Black women and gender nonconforming individuals. With fantasy, science fiction and magic at their core, the stories are sharp, atmospheric and visual explorations of histories, relationships and alternate universes that you can’t help but to get lost in. It will take you on a journey from folktales retold to futuristic societies and everything in between. Filled with stories of love and betrayal, strength and resistance, trauma and heroism, this collection contains an array of complex and true-to-life characters in which you cannot help but see yourself reflected. Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels: the heroines of A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN are unforgettable and shine brightly.

Authors include Elizabeth Acevedo, Amerie, Dhonielle Clayton, Jalissa Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Davis, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Justina Ireland, Danny Lore, L.L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi.


Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

From Stonewall and Lambda Award-winning author Kacen Callender comes a revelatory YA novel about a transgender teen grappling with identity and self-discovery while falling in love for the first time.

Felix Love has never been in love—and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after.

When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages—after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned—Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi–love triangle….

But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.

Felix Ever After is an honest and layered story about identity, falling in love, and recognizing the love you deserve.


Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown

Echo Brown is a wizard from the East Side, where apartments are small and parents suffer addictions to the white rocks. Yet there is magic . . . everywhere. New portals begin to open when Echo transfers to the rich school on the West Side, and an insightful teacher becomes a pivotal mentor. Each day, Echo travels between two worlds, leaving her brothers, her friends, and a piece of herself behind on the East Side. There are dangers to leaving behind the place that made you. Echo soon realizes there is pain flowing through everyone around her, and a black veil of depression threatens to undo everything she’s worked for.

Heavily autobiographical and infused with magical realism, Black Girl Unlimited fearlessly explores the intersections of poverty, sexual violence, depression, racism, and sexism—all through the arc of a transcendent coming-of-age.


Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

In his first contemporary teen novel, critically acclaimed author and two-time Edgar Award finalist Lamar Giles spotlights the consequences of societal pressure, confronts toxic masculinity, and explores the complexity of what it means to be a “real man.”

Del has had a crush on Kiera Westing since kindergarten. And now, during their junior year, she’s finally available. So when Kiera volunteers for an opportunity at their church, Del’s right behind her. Though he quickly realizes he’s inadvertently signed up for a Purity Pledge.

His dad thinks his wires are crossed, and his best friend, Qwan, doesn’t believe any girl is worth the long game. But Del’s not about to lose his dream girl, and that’s where fellow pledger Jameer comes in. He can put in the good word. In exchange, Del just has to get answers to the Pledgers’ questions…about sex ed.

With other boys circling Kiera like sharks, Del needs to make his move fast. But as he plots and plans, he neglects to ask the most important question: What does Kiera want? He can’t think about that too much, though, because once he gets the girl, it’ll all sort itself out. Right?


Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

It’s 200 years since Cinderella found her prince, but the fairytale is over. Sophia knows the story though, off by heart. Because every girl has to recite it daily, from when she’s tiny until the night she’s sent to the royal ball for choosing. And every girl knows that she has only one chance. For the lives of those not chosen by a man at the ball … are forfeit. But Sophia doesn’t want to be chosen – she’s in love with her best friend, Erin, and hates the idea of being traded like cattle. And when Sophia’s night at the ball goes horribly wrong, she must run for her life. Alone and terrified, she finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s tomb. And there she meets someone who will show her that she has the power to remake her world … An electrifying twist on the classic fairytale that will inspire girls to break out of limiting stereotypes and follow their dreams!


Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Filled with mystery and an intriguingly rich magic system, Tracy Deonn’s YA contemporary fantasy Legendborn offers the dark allure of City of Bones with a modern-day twist on a classic legend and a lot of Southern Black Girl Magic.

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her previous life, family memories, or her childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at a local university seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.

A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.

And a teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure reveals Bree’s own, unique magic and unlocks a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that she knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, Bree will do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn by becoming one of their initiates. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur and his knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.


Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Nothing is more important than loyalty.

But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself? With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.


If there are any other 2020 releases by black authors you want to shout out about, share them in the comments. Or if you have any book recommendations please share those too!

Book Box Club May 2020 Unboxing

Last week I received my first Book Box Club box! I decided to subscribe because their May theme was just right up my street. Dragons are my favourite magical creatures so I just couldn’t resist a box themed around them.

Book Box Club is a UK-based subscription box. If you subscribe you get a book along with 4-6 bookish items. They offer monthly, 3 month or 6 month pre-paid options and they also do a book-only option. Also included is an invite to their exclusive online book group where you get a chance to ask the author questions which sounds pretty cool.

The theme for May was Dangers and Dragons! Without further ado, here’s what was inside.

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May 2020 Wrap Up

This month has been really warm here in the UK. It’s felt like summer not spring! I’m still working from home full time which provides some structure to my days. I’m happy with the amount of reading and writing I have managed to do this month during my down time.

Reading

My first read of the month was The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This book was okay but I didn’t love it. I don’t think it was for me. A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas was such a good conclusion to the original ACOTAR trilogy and I’m excited to read more books in this series. I took part in the readalong for Fairyloot’s delayed March box which was for Bone Crier’s Moon by Kathryn Purdie. It’s a really imaginative YA fantasy but I didn’t love it as much as some other YA fantasy I have read. 

I’m currently reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins which I had pre-ordered! The Hunger Games is one of my favourite series so I couldn’t wait to return to that world. I won’t say more until I’ve finished reading it, expect a review in the next few days!

Book Haul

My copy of Illumicrate’s special edition of Aurora Burning arrived and it’s gorgeous. The original cover is orange but their edition has a blue cover and edges and it looks amazing. The other exclusive edition I received was Bone Crier’s Moon in Fairyloot’s March box. Burn is one of my anticipated books of the year. I’m really curious to see what Patrick Ness does with dragons! I also got A Darker Shade of Magic on my Kindle because I’ve been meaning to try a V. E. Schwab book for ages so now I’ll hopefully actually get round to reading it.

Writing

I’ve been doing more research and planning for my King Arthur retelling. It’s going well so I will be continuing planning in June with the idea of hopefully taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but more on that nearer the time.

What books did you enjoy reading this month? What have you been getting up to? Let me know in the comments!  

Let’s Talk Bookish: Subscription Boxes

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion. This week’s topic is ‘Subscription Boxes’.

I only discovered bookish subscription boxes last year but they’ve been around for a little while now. The basic idea is that once a month you get a box in the post that includes a new release book and a few bookish items. Some companies also offer book only or item only options. Sounds appealing right? That’s exactly what I thought when I discovered book boxes existed. It’s super exciting waiting for the box to arrive and then the surprise of opening it since you don’t know what’s going to be inside! Plus, they often do special edition boxes for big new releases in which all the items are themed around that book/series e.g. Chain of Gold, Queen of Nothing.

So far, I have tried Fairyloot, Illumicrate and Book Box Club which are all UK based. I haven’t tried any US based ones yet as shipping is really expensive. I’ve only had one box from Illumicrate so far and while I liked it, I didn’t feel there was as much included as the Fairyloot boxes I’ve had. Literally just this week I had my first Book Box Club box. The May theme was around dragons which I absolutely adore so this theme was just perfect for me. However, it didn’t feel like there was much in the box, there were only a few small items. Unlike Illumicrate and Fairyloot who offer exclusive editions (usually with sprayed edges, exclusive cover design etc), the books included in Book Box Club appear to be just the standard editions. What Book Box Club does offer though is a member-exclusive book group with the author of the featured book which sounds really cool, though I haven’t tried it out yet since I only just got my first box from them.

In comparison, the three monthly Fairyloot boxes I’ve had so far (October, February and March) seem to offer better value for money than the Illumicrate and Book Box Club ones I’ve had. They were full to the brim with a mixture of great small and larger items. So out of the three, Fairyloot stands out to me as the best in terms of their monthly boxes.

I recently received the special edition boxes for Chain of Gold from Illumicrate and Fairyloot. In this case, I think it was the Illumicrate box that was the best. All the items worked really well together and were unique and interesting. I was blown away by how amazing their box was. From looking at their past special edition boxes, Illumicrate seem to be really good at these.

I don’t think I will become a regular subscriber to a book subscription box as much as I would love to.  They are quite expensive. By the time VAT and shipping is added the monthly boxes come to roughly £32. The other problem is that the kinds of items included do seem to be a bit repetitive, so I can imagine ending up with lots of similar items that I don’t know what to do with. I would be more likely to subscribe if there was less repetition and more unique items in each box. Also, as the contents are a surprise (which to be fair is part of what makes receiving them exciting) there is the potential to be disappointed so it can be a bit hit and miss.

As I have a lot more time for reading at the moment due to not being able to go anywhere, I will probably get a few more boxes this year. Plus, I need something to look forward to right now. I’m in the at risk group so I can’t go anywhere, not even to the supermarket! Receiving book boxes will provide some much-needed bright spots in what is quite a difficult time right now. When things get back to normal though I will probably go back to just getting the occasional box as a treat.  

How do you feel about subscription boxes? Are you subscribed to any? Which would you recommend? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!   

Top 5 Tuesday: Summer Reads

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Bionic Book Worm! Today’s theme is Summer Reads. I’m not generally a seasonal reader i.e. I don’t read summery books in summer, spooky books in October etc. So my Top 5 will be 5 books I really want to read this summer.

Burn by Patrick Ness – The only Patrick Ness book I have read is More Than This which I really enjoyed, so I’ve been wanting to read more of his work. When I saw the synopsis for Burn I was instantly intrigued. Plus it has dragons, so…

A Heart so Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer – I was surprised by how much I enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely so the sequel is high on my TBR list. I’m excited to return to the world of Emberfall and see what Grey is up to!

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim – I’ve had this book on my shelf for a year now but just haven’t got round to reading it. With the sequel coming out this summer, I really want to read Spin the Dawn soon.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein – I haven’t read this book since I was a kid and I’ve been wanting to re-read it for ages. So I’m hoping to finally get round to it this summer.

Lord of Shadows by Cassandra ClareLady Midnight was just so good and I’m super excited to return to the world of the Shadowhunters for the sequel. 

Are you a seasonal reader? Are there any summery books you’re looking forward to? What books are you excited to read this summer? Let me know in the comments! Feel free to drop a link to your Top 5 Tuesday post!