My five favourite books of 2020 (and honourable mentions)

Happy new year! When I started writing this blog I wasn’t sure what kind of stuff I’d write, if I’d keep going or lose motivation. I’ve found this to be such a fun place to really reflect on books I’ve read, read others posts and get to interact with those of you who comment- thank you so much for reading, following and commenting. Writing has particularly given a bit of structure and a sense of a community throughout the lonlier lockdown stages of 2020. As we head into another UK lockdown- a more positive one I feel, with a vaccine available- I’d like to say I hope you’re all doing as well as you can, and I hope to keep writing here 😊 I managed to read 100 books last year (thanks lockdown) and I wanted to round off the year/start the year with my favourite books of 2020. I will, however, be using my written thoughts for previous posts as I read some a long time ago and my memory is not the best haha. Hopefully you’ll find something that you might enjoy in this post 😊. Ps. I only include new reads here because I know that I’m going to love rereads.

Mr loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Barrington Jedidiah Walker is seventy-four and leads a double life. Born and bred in Antigua, he’s lived in Hackney since the sixties. A flamboyant, wise-cracking local character with a dapper taste in retro suits and a fondness for quoting Shakespeare, Barrington is a husband, father and grandfather – but he is also secretly homosexual, lovers with his great childhood friend, Morris. His deeply religious and disappointed wife, Carmel, thinks he sleeps with other women. When their marriage goes into meltdown, Barrington wants to divorce Carmel and live with Morris, but after a lifetime of fear and deception, will he manage to break away? Mr Loverman is a ground-breaking exploration of Britain’s older Caribbean community, which explodes cultural myths and fallacies and shows the extent of what can happen when people fear the consequences of being true to themselves.’ (Mr Loverman synopsis)

I love finding an author and liking every one of their books, I’m excited to read all of her books eventually. This book is emotional but equally funny, lighthearted and charming. There is a very British humour and sarcasm to it, which as I’ve mentioned before, I love. Barrington and Morris are very warm, likeable characters whilst feeling 3-dimensional. I enjoy the layers in Evaristo’s writing and I really liked the way that this book explored the fact that you be gay with internalised homophobia, and that being gay and LGBT friendly does not automatically make you a ‘PC’ person- Barrington is flawed and has some sexist characteristics that are explored throughout. I feel that this is more realistic than some stories, where characters in a minority group are automatically thought to support every minority group, even ones that they are not part of, and I find it interesting to read about characters who experience marginalisation and yet can marginalises others with their views. Barrington is a very layered, interesting character and I felt really warm whilst reading Mr Loverman. I think this is the exact balance required for a book with such heavy themes and I’d really recommend it, I loved it 🙂

Favourite/meaningful quote:

‘In that moment, I wanted to tell this stranger, this Merle, this girl from the tiny island of Montserrat, that I had commensurate preferences too, but I couldn’t be a brave warrior like her.

I wanted to tell her about Morris.

I wanted to sing his name out into the night.

His name is Morris. He is my Morris and he always been my Morris. He’s a good-hearted man, a special man, a sexy man, a history-loving man, a loyal man, a man who appreciates a good joke, a man of many moods, a drinking man, and a man with whom I can be myself completely.

Yes, I was in the throes of a Malibu-and-Coke-soaked madness, a madness that could lead to the demise of my life as I’d hitherto known it. But I was on the verge.’

The Crimson Petal and the White- Michel Faber

Welcome to Victorian London as you’ve never seen it before. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen and prostitutes, meet our heroine Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition and revenge.’ (The Crimson Petal and the White synopsis)

I read this last January and writing about it brings me back to a Wintery Christmassy feel with blustery, rainy nights- the perfect setting to read a about a Victorian time period (I’m so excited for Winter, I love it!). This is a long, long book with such intricate detail. Whilst they take a lot longer to read, I can’t resist long, character driven stories that really take the time to set the scene and envelop you in the world. Due to the subject matter, this is also quite a dark gothic novel that can be difficult to read at times. I heard about this book when both Jen Campbell and The Personal Philosophy Project talked about it on youtube- I love getting book recommendations on booktube, please recommend some of your favourite channels that discuss books! I often enjoy books that they recommend, and I was very interested in hearing that this book is loosely based on Jane Eyre. They also mentioned an abrupt ending that leaves you wanting more and I’m always very intrigued by endings like this. Jane Eyre references/parallels are apparent throughout, however, this does not ruin the story or make it easy to guess what’s going to happen, and the story and characters were very original- I loved the balance. There are characters that are definitely not likeable, and characters that I loved, particularly Sugar and Agnes. I love reading from the perspectives of the morally ambiguous characters and I found them all very interesting (although at times during the Rackham chapters I was excited to get back to other’s stories, which I think was intentional in the writing). I’d really recommend this book, although I wouldn’t recommend going into it if you are in a negative mental state, and I’d beware of themes of abuse. The narration within this story is also incredibly interesting as Faber breaks the fourth wall to talk to the reader- almost as though we are watching a Victorian play (the narration and themes remind me a little of Moulin Rouge, one of my favourite films). Whilst writing this I’ve been swept back into such a Wintery mood and it’s really made me remember how much I loved this book! I’ll definitely look into reading more of Faber’s books if they are written as intricately and beautifully as this one!

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.’ (Girl, woman, other synopsis)

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this book because whilst I love contemporaries, I tend not to like short stories, however, I very quickly got into the unusual writing style and I loved this book! I think the ways in which the characters were interconnected kept a flow and helped to make the book feel like a whole story rather than short stories. I loved the way that Evaristo raised discussions around feminism, gender and race through the perspectives of the characters- I began to think deeply about these issues and the discussions that the characters were having. The way in which these issues were interspersed felt very natural and I feel that the different opinions voiced through the characters multiple perspectives allow the reader to form their own opinions. Through this writing style the reader can be part of the discussions without the authors distinguishing a ‘right or wrong’ perspective- that said it is important to note that there are a number of issues raised within this story that are clearly wrong such as examples of racism and domestic abuse. I found the conversations about race between Amma, Dominique and Nzinga and Morgan’s feelings surrounding gender as a construct to be particularly interesting:

Amma thought she was accusing them of being too white or at best, in-authentically black, she’d come across it before, foreigners equating an English accent with whiteness, she always felt the need to speak up when it was implied that black Brits were inferior to African-Americans or Africans or West Indians’ (Amma)

women are designed to have babies, not to play with dolls, and why shouldn’t women sit with their legs wide open (if they’re wearing trousers obv) and what does mannish or manly mean anyway? walking with long strides? being assertive? taking charge? wearing ‘male’ clothes? not wearing makeup? unshaved legs? shaved head (lol), drinking pints instead of wine? preferring football to online makeup tutorials (yawn), and traditionally men wear makeup and skirts in parts of the world so why not in ours without being accused of being ‘effeminate’? what does effeminate actually mean when you break it down? (Morgan)

This book was engaging and fast paced; I would say by the last quarter I read it a little more slowly as there were so many new characters, but overall I felt that every character was interesting (although Amma and Yazz are maybe my favourites as the ones I got to know first). I would recommend this book- although I’m sure you’ve heard of it already haha- I loved it 😊

Favourite/meaningful quote (there were many):

… ageing is nothing to be ashamed of especially when the entire human race is in it together

white people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race

Song of Sacrifice by Janell Rhiannon

The heart of the Trojan War belongs to the women. Mothers and daughters; wives and war prizes all whisper to us across time… praying they be remembered alongside the mighty men of myth.

As the Age of Heroes wanes, the gods gamble more fiercely with mortals’ lives than ever before. Women must rely on their inner strength and cunning if they’re going to survive the wars men wage for gold and glory. They struggle for control of their own lives. Rise from the ashes of brutal assaults. Fight to survive… by any means necessary. In a world where love leads to war and duty leads to destruction, it is the iron hearts of these heroines that will conquer all.’ (Song of Sacrifice synopsis).

I hadn’t heard of this book until I listened to Rhiannon’s podcast on spotify Greek Mythology Retold (which I found in 2020 and love). This is a retelling of the events leading up to the Trojan War based upon the Iliad, with an emphasis on the different perspectives and experiences of the main characters throughout. This is a long book, but I really enjoyed it and the detail allowed the author time to think about how each character would have felt and dealt with their different fates throughout- in her podcast, Rhiannon emphasises her interest in the perspective of the women in the war and the relationship between humans, fate and the Gods. This book is easy to read with interesting characters and I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read the Iliad but would like to learn more about the Trojan War- I’ve read the Iliad but I built my way up by reading about 20 myth retellings first and without doing this I would have no clue what was happening hahaha. I think mythology is one of those things where it will always take a long time to get to grips with what’s going on, but I do think this could be an interesting starting point (with the help of Google or a map of the million characters haha). 😊 I think the author is planning for this to be a series known as the Homeric Chronicles with around four books, there are currently two out just now.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Meet Queenie. She just can’t cut a break. Well, apart from one from her long term boyfriend, Tom. That’s just a break though. Definitely not a break up. Stuck between a boss who doesn’t seem to see her, a family who don’t seem to listen (if it’s not Jesus or water rates, they’re not interested), and trying to fit in two worlds that don’t really understand her, it’s no wonder she’s struggling.’ (Queenie synopsis)

I knew nothing about this book going into it, but I instantly loved Queenie as a character and found this very quick and easy to read. This book emphasises the more ‘every-day’ elements of systemic racism and Candy-Williams highlighted the ignorance of white people in denying racism through the dismissive nature of the white characters; Queenie experiences lots of gaslighting from her relationship and there are several examples of her ex-boyfriend supporting the racist statements and assumptions made by his family. As a result of this gaslighting, Queenie often doubts herself and the racism or sexism that she faces throughout this book- I loved the nuanced way that this is addressed as the writer effectively emphasised the doubt that people can feel whilst standing up for what’s right, and the way that dominant assumptions and meritocratic discourse create an environment where racism and sexism can go unchallenged. Queenie will be a very relatable character for readers in her actions and inner monologues. I will note here that there is lots on consent, power and abuse which is extremely well written but may act as a trigger for some readers.

I also enjoyed the realistic and positive depictions of mental health and illness, and Queenies relationships with her family and friends. Themes of reliance on others and the need to work on yourself and learn to love yourself can be seen throughout. It was very interesting to read about the cultural elements of mental health discussions in this book; Queenie and her family reflect upon the often-dismissive reaction to mental illness within Jamaican culture, and reluctance or shame surrounding accepting help.

Important/meaningful quote:

It’s not putting black lives on a pedestal, I don’t even know what that means,” I said, my heart beating fast. “It’s saying that black lives, at this point, and historically, do not, and have not mattered, and that they should!”

I looked first at Gina, then around the room to see if anyone was going to back me up. Instead, I was met with what I’d been trying to pretend hadn’t always been a room full of white not-quite-liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited.

Honourable mentions

  • The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (this book and Queenie are even to me, it was hard to decide)- See ‘Books I read in October’
  • Six Tudor Queens: Katheryn Howard by Alison Weir- September books 1st to 15th
  • Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
  • The Hate u Give by Angie Thomas- see May books 22nd to 31st
  • The Iliad by Homer

Thank you so much for reading, please let me know your favourite books of 2020, I love these kind of lists! 😊

P.s. I don’t use Goodreads, but I do record books on List Challenges and I’ve made a list of all the books of 2020 if you want to see how many you’ve read:

https://www.listchallenges.com/books-carly-read-or-reread-in-2020

November books

The Aeneid- Virgil: Robert Fagles translation (physical book, new read)

‘’Robert Fagles’s latest achievement completes the magnificent triptych of Western epics. A sweeping story of arms and heroism, The Aeneid follows the adventures of Aeneas, who flees the ashes of Troy to embark upon a tortuous course that brings him to Italy and fulfills his destiny as founder of the Roman people. Retaining all of the gravitas and humanity of the original, this powerful blend of poetry and myth remains as relevant today as when it was first written.’’ (The Aeneid synopsis)

I’ve never studied literature or classics so I definitely don’t get as much from books like this as others, however, I’ve finally binge read enough mythology retellings to be able to read and keep up with The Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. I knew little about this book, but I found it interesting and fairly readable, although I did prefer the early chapters with Dido and the underworld, and I began to feel a bit restless by the end of the story as wars and battle scenes are not my favourite unless I’m extremely invested in characters. The most striking thing I did find was the parallels between ASOIAF, particularly Aeneas and Daenerys and to a lesser extent Jon (unsurprising as Dany/Jon’s stories parallel in themselves). I’m extremely interested in ASOIAF mythology parallels and already made a blog post about some Greek/Norse parallels if you’re interested 😊. I recently bought the illustrated Game of Thrones (I do enjoy wasting money hahaha) and I’d love to reread the series (maybe one character at a time?) analysing anything that interests me and looking for parallels. I think next year (woohoo goodbye 2020) I’ll definitely give this a go and incorporate it into some rambly blog posts in a way.

Important/meaningful quote:

“Do the gods light this fire in our hearts or does each man’s mad desire become his god?”

Pride and prejudice- Jane Austen (audiobook, reread)

‘’Pride and Prejudice is one of the most cherished love stories in English literature; Jane Austen’s 1813 masterpiece has a lasting effect on everyone who reads it. The pride of high-ranking Mr Darcy and the prejudice of middle-class Elizabeth Bennet conduct an absorbing dance through the rigid social hierarchies of early-nineteenth-century England, with the passion of the two unlikely lovers growing as their union seems ever more improbable.’’ (Pride and Prejudice synopsis)

I read this in a very strange format, because I listened to Jen Campbell reading the book aloud. For those who don’t know, Jen is a writer with a youtube channel focusing on books. Over lockdown, she read Pride and Prejudice aloud and turned it into a youtube audiobook. This was a really interesting way to read this book! I’ve always loved the film, but I didn’t really have strong thoughts towards the book the first time I read it, around 6 years ago- I read wee bits at a time over a few months which made if feel a bit disjointed. I loved it a lot more this time around, I think with classics, audiobook can be the way to go for me to really bring the characters to life 😊. I’m sure everyone knows what this is about or has read it, but if you haven’t, I’d recommend giving it a go 😊. I love Lizzie as a character and the feminist themes throughout, particularly interesting due to the time period of the story. Also, not relevant to the book, but I’d recommend listening to the films score, especially ‘Your hands are cold’, it’s so beautiful.

Important/meaningful quote:

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

Great Goddesses: Life lessons from myths and monsters- Nikita Gill (physical book, new read)

‘’Wonder at Medusa’s potent venom, Circe’s fierce sorcery and Athena rising up over Olympus, as Nikita Gill majestically explores the untold stories of the life bringers, warriors, creators, survivors and destroyers that shook the world – the great Greek Goddesses.
Vividly re-imagined and beautifully illustrated, step into an ancient world transformed by modern feminist magic.’’
(Great Goddesses synopsis)

I read this at the start of the month and my memory is fading haha, but I found it interesting 😊. The writing style is lovely and I’m glad that I found it enjoyable as I don’t always love poetry. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful, I’ve already stolen an idea to try and paint hahah. Again, it got me wanting to find more asoiaf parallels, such as Arya and Artemis, Stannis and Agamemnon. It’s a very engaging feminist retelling, however, there are trigger warnings for themes of rape and assault. The intention of these accounts is to shift the blame back to the men and Gods carrying out these horrific assaults, supporting woman to overcome trauma, however, it could nevertheless be triggering so it’s important to know going into the story. I would say, I enjoyed this book more before they started bringing the Goddesses into our modern world- apart from Percy Jackson, this seems to be a theme within my reading experiences of mythology, I don’t really enjoy reading about the Gods and Goddesses within the modern world.

Important/meaningful quote:

“Every woman is both match and spark, a light for each other from the dark.”

Athena’s Child- Hannah Lynn (physical book, new read)

‘’Gifted and burdened with beauty far beyond that of mere mortals, Medusa seeks sanctuary with the Goddess Athena. But when the lustful gaze of mighty Poseidon falls upon her, even the Temple of Athena cannot protect her. Young Perseus embarks on a seemingly impossible quest. Equipped with only bravado and determination, his only chance of success lays in the hands of his immortal siblings. Medusa and Perseus soon become pawns of spiteful and selfish gods. Faced with the repercussions of Athena’s wrath Medusa has no choice but to flee and hide. But can she do so without becoming the monster they say she is?’’ (Athena’s Child synopsis)

I can’t tell who this book was aimed for as it was interesting and fast paced but something about it felt young, it sometimes felt like YA but I’m not certain. Either way, it would be a good place to start in terms of myth retellings. This is a very glum story, but I enjoyed learning more about Perseus and his story (I knew quite a bit about Medusa already), particularly learning about his mother and I previously only knew what I’d read from Percy Jackson haha. I mentioned Jen Campbell earlier on, she has been discussing the use of disfigurement in characters as a negative trope being associated with ‘ugly’ or ‘evil’ characters, I’d recommend looking up her Instagram and reading her article. This is a very prevalent issue in stories and this book definitely equated disfigurement with ugliness and becoming evil or losing humanity in some way. This is not Lynn’s fault as this stems from early mythology itself, however, when retelling these stories, I think authors could be more conscious about this and use the opportunity to rewrite these tropes.

Troy: The Siege of Troy Retold- Stephen Fry (audiobook, new read)

‘’The story of Troy speaks to all of us – the kidnapping of Helen, a queen celebrated for her beauty, sees the Greeks launch a thousand ships against that great city, to which they will lay siege for ten whole and very bloody years. The stage is set for the oldest and greatest story ever told, where monstrous passions meet the highest ideals and the lowest cunning. In Troy you will find heroism and hatred, love and loss, revenge and regret, desire and despair. It is these human passions, written bloodily in the sands of a distant shore, that still speak to us today.’’ (Troy synopsis)

I loved listening to this, you can feel Fry’s interest in the subject and his enthusiasm makes it even better to listen to. This was my favourite listen of the trilogy as I’ve always been slightly more interested in the Trojan War and the people involved than the stories of the Gods alone (and I’ve never been particularly interested in the heroes, I can never seem to retain much info about Hercules/Heracles despite reading lots). This trilogy is definitely a great place to start with mythology and I enjoy the humour and input from Fry throughout. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading the story of the Trojan War, I enjoy the different perspectives of each writer and I was happy to see Achilles/Patroclus mentioned as lovers in this account as this is the version of their story that I prefer. I’ve mentioned this before, but I love that in every single myth retelling that I’ve read (including the Iliad), Patroclus is consistently a genuinely good compassionate person (there are few others that I can say the same about, except Briseis and some of the Trojan women).

Love lessons- Jacqueline Wilson (e-book, reread)

‘’Fourteen-year-old Prue and her sister Grace have been educated at home by their controlling, super-strict father all their lives. Forced to wear Mum’s odd hand-made garments and forbidden from reading teenage magazines, they know they’re very different to ‘normal’ girls – but when Dad has a stroke and ends up in hospital, unable to move or speak, Prue suddenly discovers what it’s like to have a little freedom.

Sent to a real school for the first time, Prue struggles to fit in. The only person she can talk to is her kindly, young – and handsome – art teacher, Rax. They quickly bond, and Prue feels more and more drawn to him. As her feelings grow stronger, she begins to realise that he might feel the same way about her. But nothing could ever happen between them – could it?’’ (Love Lessons synopsis)

I wanted to finish my nostalgic Wilson binge with another book that I loved as a child/teen. This is another of her older, darker books with themes of authoritative fathers (potentially verbally abusive) and heavily features a grooming type scenario between a 14 year old student and her art teacher. I’ve always found the tone of this book to feel far different from Wilson’s other books, you definitely get the sense of alienation Prue feels around others her age and the strain within her family and environments. Again, I appreciate Wilson’s approach to discussing heavy topics and would recommend this book if you enjoy her others.

Office Girl- Joe Meno (physical book, new read)

‘’Set in 1999 – just before the end of one world and the beginning of another – Office Girl is the story of two youths caught between the uncertainty of their futures and the all-too-brief moments of modern life. Odile is a lovely 23 year-old art-school dropout, a minor vandal, and a hopeless dreamer. Jack is a 25 year-old shirker who’s most happy capturing the endless noises of the city on his out-of-date tape recorder. Together they decide to start their own art movement in defiance of a contemporary culture made dull by both the tedious and the obvious.’’ (Office Girl synopsis)

I don’t want to spend much time on this as I found it incredibly pretentious and want to roll my eyes even thinking back now. I can barely remember how it ended, the characters were manic-pixie dream girls and boys and the themes were so dull and pretentious, I bought this from a charity shop not knowing anything about it and the only reason I finished it is because it’s a quick read and I have a compulsive need to finish books haha. I’m genuinely getting annoyed thinking about it. I also mentioned the representation of disfigurement earlier, I can’t remember the specific quote but there was a disgusting comment from a character that was very anti-disfigurement. I would not recommend this book; I will be trying to forget it.

I hope you’ve been reading lots of good books recently, please let me know if you’ve read any of these and liked them! 😊 I’m currently on 91 reads this year so I now feel a compulsive need to reach 100 before 2021. I’ll see what happens because I’m lazy haha, but December is usually filled with childhood rereads. Anyway, Merry Christmas month!

Rereading the Hunger Games trilogy (spoiler: one of my favourite book series’)

The Hunger games

I decided to reread the Hunger Games this month for a number of reasons- I reread my favourite book series’ around every two years (I love rereading, it’s a problem haha), The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is causing a lot of Hunger Games discussions which really made me want to reread, and I’ve found that there is something strangely entertaining about reading dystopian during a lockdown (in a very odd, dark way).  I first read this series when I was around 14 or 15, without any expectations as I hadn’t heard about the series until my friend recommended it (thank you)- it’s strange to think about the extent to which a film franchise can influence the popularity of a book. I definitely think reading this series before the film came out gave me an advantage; I was able to objectively form opinions and I was unprepared for the depth of emotion and the attachment I developed to these characters whilst reading. I’d just like to say that this is not an academic analysis or review or these books, more so a stream of consciousness so that I can ramble about my thoughts and the emotions I experienced whilst reading. I’ll also say here that I typically do not like YA books and a number of their tropes, however, I would class this series as a favourite, and I think it’s beautiful. P.s. sorry this is a long one, also there will be spoilers.

Relationships:

I think I should first address the love triangle: it’s a standard trope in YA that I usually hate, but I think it works in this story. The format of the story and the situations that drive the characters actions and decisions allow the ‘love triangle’ to feel natural and true. A large part of Katniss’ story arc is initially feeling like a pawn of the capital with the burden that is thrust upon her. Katniss’ relationship arcs with both Gale and Peeta make sense within the context of the story and are very interesting in understanding Katniss’ character and the influence of this dystopian society. When I read the Hunger Games for the first time, I was ‘team Gale’ due to the similarities between Gale and Katniss, their pre-hunger games connection and I just liked him more overall. However, I think this was just to get away from the popular opinion haha, and even on first read, the love triangle was definitely not the forefront of my mind; these books are about character and identity, with love and relationships developing as a natural outcome of these themes. I love that the ‘romance’ has been written in this way and I’ll talk more about this when I think about Mockingjay. I love the metaphors and illusions to hope, life and future that are associated with Peeta, creating a subtle (in comparison to a number of YA books) depiction of Katniss’ connection to Peeta before their relationship begins. Peeta personifies safety, warmth and assurance for Katniss who would have been open to these qualities had she not been forced into such a horrific situation.

No one has held me like this in such a long time. Since my father died and I stopped trusting my mother, no one else’s arms have made me feel this safe.’ (Hunger Games pg. 363)

Characterisation and themes of grief/loss:

I don’t know if I feel more sensitive or ‘connected’ to books during this time of lockdown, but I instantly felt a strange sense of emotion and nostalgia when I started reading this book. I’ve spent a lot of time in woods and forests, and whilst I’ve definitely not been hunting or sleeping in trees, I’ve felt more connected to nature (I’ve always loved nature but a benefit of this time is experiencing it more deeply). I love birdsongs and I’ve been thinking and the importance of birds and nature within this story. I recently read Jen Campbells Instagram story (she’s a writer and talks about books on youtube), where she filmed a beautiful 5am sunrise in an isolated forest with birdsong and wildlife. Jen heard a bird mimicking an ambulance siren in a haunting and sad moment. This contrast of beautiful untouched nature, and the difficult experiences of human life was very emotional and reminded me of The Hunger Games, where the environment creates a peaceful escape for Katniss even within the confines and struggles of her lifestyle. I think in character I’m closer to Peeta than Katniss, and even more so Prim (although I’m not as kind, I think it’d be hard to be), however, I identify with Katniss’ independence and almost closed off nature that has been heavily influenced by the loss of her father (in writing a collection of my thoughts, this may become a bit deep at times). My dad passed away when I was 11 and the portrayal of grief and loss throughout this series is one of the main reasons it resonates so closely with me; I find Collins depiction of grief to be incredibly realistic and allows me to identify with the very real characters, even in such a dramatic story. I relate to Katniss’ sense of independence and extremely close relationship to her family (as well as her drive to look after and protect them)- I think it is extremely realistic to assume that these qualities would drive Katniss after the death of her father. Katniss’ sense of identity is primarily focused on her adoption of her father’s role as a hunter and provider for the family. Collins often emphasises the similarities between Prim and her mother, whilst Katniss has her father’s traits and favours her father. I think this is important is understanding her actions and sense of identity. This is also very important in understand Katniss’ relationship with Gale. Gale’s own grief is expressed as anger and rooted in the past. I feel that Katniss ultimately could not find peace in the future if she was to be with Gale, his anger has become so that it makes a large part of who he is- evident in Mockingjay during the rebellion without the confines of the Capitol.

I glance over at Gales face, still smouldering underneath his stony expression. His rage seems pointless to me, although I never say so. It’s not that I don’t agree with him. I do. But what good is yelling about the Capitol in the middle of the woods? It doesn’t change anything.. I let him yell though. Better he does it in the woods that in the district.’ (Hunger Games pg. 17)

I feel that several books, particularly in the ‘chosen one’ genre have the loss of a parent or carer as an adverse experience driving the main character, however, this loss is never mentioned again. Similarly, the main character will often experience a loss in the middle of a series, to move the plot forward and create character development. I feel that The Hunger Games deals with grief more authentically and Katniss’ memories of her dad are interwoven into the story in a very natural way, influencing her sense of identity and relationships (Katniss’ somewhat unconscious struggle to feel safe and let people in is a very important aspect in her dynamic with Peeta throughout the trilogy). I’ll reflect more on the themes on loss and grief in Mockingjay (after I cry for several hours haha) but I truly admire Collins ability to create a perfect, authentic tone.

Writing style:

I really enjoy the simple writing style and structured format of these books. It can’t be described as calming due to the subject matter, however, I find the format almost satisfying: Katniss deals with the immediate problem, breaks it down and finds a solution. This format ensures that the book is fast paced, interesting and easy to read. I also feel that this approach to problem solving matches Katniss’ instincts as a hunter, and therefore feels like the narration is personalised; it feels like the writing structure is reflective of Katniss’ character and role specifically, rather than a generic narrator. This writing style also creates fast paced storytelling and gets across the message of the story quickly and powerfully.

Identity:

I noticed in rereading that identity appears to be the key theme and is driven by the element’s safety vs. rebellion and family/relationships. Another element of this series that makes it a favourite for me is the fact that these characters are real multi-dimensional people aiming to find a purpose and dealing with the emotions that life brings; the dystopian setting and plot of the games feels secondary to me, but this setting has been used as a device to reflect upon the influence of society, culture and safety on a person’s identity and happiness. I find this incredibly interesting, and coupled with the attachment to the characters, this story is one that really stays with the reader (for the most part any way, I’m sure some people don’t like these books). I think themes of identity are set up in the Hunger Games and are explored more deeply in the next two books.

For the first time, I allow myself to truly think about the possibility that I might make it home.. No fear of hunger. A new kind of freedom. But then…what? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food. Take that away and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.’ (Hunger Games pg. 378)

As I slowly, thoroughly wash the makeup from my face and put my hair in it’s braid, I begin transforming into myself.. I stare in the mirror as I try to remember who I am and who I am not. By the time I join the others, the pressure of Peeta’s arm around my shoulders feels alien. (Hunger Games pg. 450)

Catching Fire

After the games, Katniss (and all of the people in her life) is impacted by more loss and trauma. Katniss has lost the sense of identity she has worked hard to create with the money (and notoriety) she has gained, and I was very interested in the ways in which this perceived freedom and ironically increased restriction impacted Katniss’ sense of identity. Katniss begins to try and align her identity with one that can exist within a state of rebellion. For Katniss, rebellion represents a shift from survival instincts to fighting for Peeta’s life.

Now a new kind of confidence is lighting up inside of me, because I think I finally know who Haymitch is. And I’m beginning to know who I am. And surely, two people who have caused the Capitol so much trouble can think of a way to get Peeta home alive.’ (Catching Fire pg. 244)

Katniss is still treated as a ‘pawn’ in catching fire, passive in the events and rebellious opportunities that have been created. Gale and Peeta represent interest in the building rebellion more so that Katniss, and throughout this story the shift can be observed. I liked Katniss’ uncertainty and shifts in attitude that continued throughout Catching Fire and Mockingjay with regards to rebellion, I think this uncertainty matches Katniss’ identity and is more realistic than the enthusiastic ‘chosen one’ arc that several main characters in dystopian or YA books take on. Again, these shifts and Katniss’ part in the rebellion feel more nuanced and realistic than the sudden and bold character changes I’ve observed in some books.

The berries. I realise the answer to who I am lies in that handful of poisonous fruit. If I held them out to save Peeta because I knew I would be shunned if I came back without him, then I am despicable. If I held them out because I loved him, I am still self-centred but forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, I am someone of worth. The trouble is, I don’t know what exactly was going on inside me at that moment.’ (Catching Fire pg. 143)

Mockingjay

I should probably say that I’ve been writing this in chunks, and I’m writing this part directly after finishing Mockingjay- well, an hour after because I couldn’t see the keyboard through my tears (it’s 2am, I’m definitely a night owl). Thank you if you’ve made it this far, I’ve loved writing and reflecting in this way even though I know I’m going to post this and think of so many things I’ve forgotten to mention haha.

Haymitch:

The first thing it strikes me that I want to think about is Haymitch and his relationship with Katniss. Haymitch represents so many things: I see him as an equal to Katniss in a sense, they are very similar and mirror each other in personality, spirit and logic, however, he has a number of roles to play in Katniss’ life- almost a brother or an uncle and in some ways even a father figure (not in a traditional sense, but in the way that Katniss requires him to be and to the extent that she can accept). Relationships and character are the most important elements of a book for me, and I love Katniss’ relationship with Haymitch. At the end of Catching Fire, Katniss is left reflecting upon her own rage and the anger at Haymitch’s betrayal, the way that he has used her as she is consistently used. Katniss is continuously used by the rebellion, individuals, and the Capitol representing the war and politics around her. In this sense, Katniss is a pawn in the rebellion. I was, however, interested to note that Katniss’ instinctual actions in times of agency ‘spark’ the instances where she becomes- as she perceives herself- a pawn. The tribute for Rue, the berries, and Katniss decision to confide in- and therefore trust- Haymitch in her plan to rebel (during Catching Fire). As a side note, this quote represents important growth in Katniss’ transition from pawn:

It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the capitol. But I’m tired of being a piece in their games.’ Peeta. On the rooftop the night before out first Hunger Games. He understood it all before we’d even set foot in the arena.’ (Mockingjay, pg. 252)

 Katniss truly understands her connection to Haymitch and feels like she is observing in him the qualities her own qualities that she does not like. I believe that this is why Katniss is incredibly intolerant of his drinking and depression, she cannot abide by weakness and is exceptionally hard on herself when she feels weak. Haymitch potentially represents the reality of the future Katniss could face. In saying this, I love the subtle but essential character development throughout the books as Katniss’ perception of weakness, grief and loss changes to become far more accepting and less black and white. In seeing herself in Haymitch, he is the character Katniss ends up confiding in and displaying vulnerability towards; this results in so many of the cutting remarks that create frustration or a sense of betrayal when Katniss or Haymitch inevitably hurt each other and ‘put up their walls’ to mask their pain. I find their relationship very interesting and touching. I also appreciate their ending in Mockingjay and the way it reflects their relationship and personalities- they are quietly and steadily there for each other even in the times where grief and illness create a need for solitude. Their relationship is consistently steadied by Peeta.

He looks yellow and has lost a lot of weight, giving him a shrunken appearance. For a second, I’m afraid he’s dying. I have to remind myself that I don’t care.(Mockingjay, pg.87)

Several sets of arms would embrace me. But in the end, the only person I truly want to comfort me is Haymitch, because he loves Peeta too. I reach out for him and say something like his name and he’s there holding me and patting my back. (Mockingjay, pg. 191)

‘A furious Peeta hammers Haymitch with the atrocity he could become party to, but I can feel Haymitch watching me. This is the moment then. When we find out exactly how alike we are, and how much he understands me. ‘I’m with the Mockingjay’ he says. (Mockingjay pg. 432, deciding upon a final games)

I’d also like to mention that I love Katniss’ relationship with Finnick. Finnick’s death is always a strange one for me. I feel that it’s a good example of the point about narration that I rambled about earlier. Finnick’s death is exceptionally sad but I never really feel it and this is because it’s over quickly and I feel numb. In writing this way, the reader experiences the numbness that Katniss feels at this moment, the lethargy and horror of War (I also feel that the volume of events and horror happening in this relatively short story are written to represent the strange mixture of lethargy and adrenaline felt in War. That sounds very dramatic, but I just mean I think Collins may be trying to engage us in the setting and tone, as she does throughout the series through the writing style. Then again, I always somehow end up reading this book in almost one go, ending in the middle of the night haha, so that might contribute to this feeling). I feel Finnick’s death more in rereading Catching Fire and Mockingjay as we see the elements of his personality. Some of my favourite quotes:

Really, the combination of the scabs and the ointment looks hideous. I can’t help enjoying his distress. “Poor Finnick. Is this the first time in your life you haven’t looked pretty?” I say.
“It must be. The sensation’s completely new. How have you managed it all these years?” he asks
.’
(Catching Fire)

Finnick grasps my hand to give me an anchor, and I try to hang on. (Mockingjay pg. 155)

It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart. (Mockingjay pg. 183)

I was going to say that I also love hearing Finnick recall his story, however, I realised that I just love his character and entire storyline including his humour and persona in Catching Fire. I love his relationship with Mags, Annie and Joanna, I love his reaction after he saves Peeta’s life and contemplates Katniss’ reaction, I just love his character. I’d also like to spend time thinking about Prim but this is going to become an entire dissertation in a minute so I won’t haha.

Peeta:

There is just so much to say about Peeta that it’s almost making me not want to touch on his character in a way haha, because I wouldn’t do it justice. I didn’t appreciate Peeta’s character the first time I read this series, I think he needed to grow on me because on first read as a teenager he’s not the most ‘exciting’ in comparison to characters like Gale, however, now I appreciate that he’s exceptional. As I mentioned, I love the mirroring of this series and I appreciate that Peeta’s traits, values and qualities align with Prim. Peeta therefore has the ability to recall Prim’s memory and he can support Katniss to process her grief in a positive healthy way.

While I was reading today, I began to consider that Katniss became close to Gale due to the connection in the grief for their fathers, however, Katniss subconsciously associates Gale with her own supressed grief and his rage. Peeta’s memories of Katniss’ father are distanced from the loss and grief, and Peeta therefore brings life to her father in the way he recalls his singing. In having this ability, Peeta creates an opportunity for Katniss to think of a way forward through her grief and create a sense of peace in her memories for her father (and sister). This is almost a metaphor for Katniss’ entire relationship with both Gale and Peeta and represents the way Peeta helps Katniss to live and grow and overall represents life.

Rue, who when you ask her what she loves most in the world, replies, of all things ‘music’. ‘Music?’ I say. In our world, I rank music somewhere between hair ribbons and rainbows in terms of usefulness.’ (Hunger Games pg. 255)

This is the first time music is referenced in the story. Katniss is in character here with her roles driven by a need to survive and her hunter instincts not allowing time for anything that is not a necessity.

Because when he sings.. even the birds stop to listen.’.. It strikes me that my own reluctance to sing, my own dismissal of music might not really be that it’s a waste of time. It might be because it reminds me too much of my father.’ (Hunger Games pg. 366)

Even as Katniss and Peeta are just getting to know each other, and within such extreme life threatening circumstances, Peeta is the one to draw out memories of Katniss’ father and allow Katniss to process her grief in subtle ways.

‘A hush in the trees. Just the rustle of leaves in the breeze. But no birds, mockingjay or other. Peeta’s right. They do fall silent when I sing. Just as they did for my father.’ (Mockingjay pg. 145)

He couldn’t Haymitch. He never heard me sing that song.’ ‘Not you, your father. He heard him singing it one day when he came to trade at the bakery. Peeta was small, probably six or seven, but he remembered it because he was specially listening to see if the birds stopped singing.’ (Mockingjay pg. 246)

Peeta and Rue allow Katniss to think about singing again, representing a healthy outlet for grief and the time to remember her father as he lived. I find this incredibly poignant. I’ve always felt deeply connected to music and singing, and I remember my Dad through his favourite songs. This can be painful but it’s very healthy and allows me to feel connected and feel the emotions that are important to experience. I can also feel incredibly happy when I sing a song that reminds me of childhood, or a funny memory associated with my dad. The moment that I really start to cry whilst reading Mockingjay is without fail always this one:

something unexpected happens. I begin to sing.. Hour after hour of ballads, love songs, mountain airs. All the songs my father taught me before he died, for certainly there has been very little music in my life since.. a voice that would make the mockingjays fall silent and then tumble over themselves to join in.’ (Mockingjay pg. 439)

The ending:

I’d like to reflect upon the ending of the story now. Because I love character driven stories, I’m actually quite lazy with plot and while I find action scenes interesting, I prefer them to be short to I can get to the impact of these events. This may be the reason that I was very happy with the decision to stay with Katniss and her recovery and discover the conclusion of the war as Katniss does. For one, Katniss has a strong presence as a narrator, and I hate when books turn to a different narrator nearing the end of a story as I find it very jarring. This is a story about characters (particularly Katniss) and the impact of War and loss. This is not a story about a rebellion or War, rather those who are impacted by the War and politics they had no intention to be involved in or no power to avoid. At no point did I want the story to become one of action and rebellion, and at no point did I feel I missed anything by staying with Katniss. I wouldn’t have brought this up, but I made the mistake of reading a number of Mockingjay reviews after reading it for the first time and I was shocked to read so many angry reviews that felt cheated out of the action. This is just my opinion, but I feel that this is missing the point of the series and I don’t know what readers are getting out of this story if after three books they do not feel close to the main character. I interpret the purpose of Mockingjay as being a story to reflect upon the themes of meaning, choice and identity within a society that limits free will through it’s constructs that confine the lifestyle people can have.

This leads on to another point that I saw several readers make- reviewers expressed anger or confusion about the way the romance ends. Some people commented that they expected Katniss and Peeta to be together immediately after the War, to be more ‘passionately’ in love. Again, in my opinion, I feel that this distance and time is the only realistic portrayal of love in a setting where the characters are experiencing so much grief and PTSD. After overcoming the initial trauma, Katniss is finally free to build her life, rediscover who she is out with the confines of the capitol and think about the future she wants- or even just the future she can cope with. This is also true for Peeta. To have these characters gravitate towards each other through choice after a period of  time portrays (in my opinion)  the depth of their relationship and is the only realistic way to express that Katniss loves Peeta- she chooses him, he is not chosen for her, she does not have to be with Peeta or see him ever again, she chooses him freely (as does Peeta). I absolutely love the way this happens even though it is heart-breaking. I also love the writing decision to rebuild their relationship by supporting each other through grief, this is again realistic and emphasises the love they feel (I also love that Haymitch continues to be in their lives as the three resume their roles in their relationship dynamics).

Lastly in my seemingly endless ramble, the epilogue. In general, I hate book epilogues, I don’t even like Harry Potters, I tolerate it. I think it’s the time element that can feel a bit jarring and makes me feel distanced from characters I love. I do, however, think Mockingjay did it well by keeping it brief, sentimental but with purpose. I’ve read reviews where readers were unhappy that we did not read more detail such as the children’s names. I’m very happy these details were not included; they don’t need to be and would take away from the ending of the story in my opinion. I’ve also seen reviews where people express anger that Katniss has children. I understand these more, however, I think the point within the story is not that Katniss doesn’t want children, but instead that she is afraid to raise them in a society where they could be involved in the games. Katniss is incredibly nurturing towards Prim and Rue and I personally believe that her actions express that she would like to be a mother, she has just never allowed herself to think about this. 

As I drift off, I try to imagine that world, somewhere in the future, with no games, no Capitol. A place like the meadow in the song I sang to Rue as she died. Where Peeta’s child could be safe. (Catching Fire pg. 427)

I was going to go into grief a little bit more, but I’d rather leave it where it is in a somewhat happier note. I do, however, as I’ve mentioned appreciate the portrayal of grief in this series, I find it very realistic (and therefore very hard to read at the end of Mockingjay). I’m sure this is going to sound dramatic, but I feel like books can be an outlet for grief. I’m constantly brought back to the comfort and nostalgia of rereading my old favourites, but ironically a lot of my favourite books feature elements of grief, for example, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Time Travellers Wife. These book also feature friendship, love and characters that I feel connected to, and I think I’ve therefore come to associate these characters and consequently reading as a safe and comforting way to cope with grief and anxieties in life. That sounds very depressing and morbid, but I think it’s quite magical in a way. That someone can write a story, create a fictional character that can resonate with your personality, experiences, interests, emotions and even grief, and that this work of fiction can comfort and potentially heal. This is why I think writers are incredible and why I read.

Thank you for reading, I hope you’re well. Please let me know what you think about this series.