Lauren Gwyther

Library Assistant at Royston Library
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Last year, Suzanne Collins announced her intention to write a prequel to her immensely popular young-adult series, The Hunger Games, of which the last instalment was published way back in 2010. News of this new foray into the world of Panem was swiftly followed by hordes of grown adults scouring their bookshelves in search of their old Hunger Games novels, needing to refresh their collective memories. The original trilogy followed Katniss, a young woman living in a nightmarish dystopia of what had once been the US. Split into twelve districts and a ruling Capitol, each of the districts must send two children, once a year, to be put into an arena and fight to the death. However, what makes the prequel novel different is that it focuses not on Katniss and her friends, but the tyrannical President Snow – the villain of the original series.
Like many people I was rather unsure when I first found out who the main character was going to be – after all, as villains go, President Snow is particularly vile – but I was pleasantly surprised. The story was much longer than the original Hunger Games books, but it didn’t feel like it repeated itself at all, and it was an interesting look at the series’ villain. It also posed the interesting question – are people truly evil and if so, how? Are they born that way, or do life’s circumstances make them that way? In addition, the novel is written in the third-person, which I personally enjoyed, as the original series was in the first-person, something I found somewhat limiting. There were twists and turns and many chapters ended on cliffhangers. I simply couldn’t put it down, and I would definitely recommend this book. Whether you’re returning to the series (like me) or are just getting started, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a welcome addition to the intensely interesting, yet horrifying world of Panem. Even better, it’s currently available on BorrowBox, so why not give it a try!

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa focuses on the titular Vanessa Wye, a hotel receptionist in a sleepy area of the United States. As a teenager, Vanessa was part of a “relationship” with her English teacher, something that she sees – even as an adult – as meaningful and loving. To everybody else, though – reader included – it’s obvious that the relationship between Vanessa and her teacher is something much more sinister. This book came at a very telling time, right in the middle of the #MeToo movement. All at once horrifying and tragic, this book is a necessary read, if a disturbing one. Parts of the story are so vivid that I had to look away, and yet I could not stop reading. Seeing Vanessa’s character develop as she begins to question the truth behind her relationship with her teacher was nice to see, and it made her interactions with the other characters feel very real. The novel is chock-full of literary references (including, most notably, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), which can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated, but they are all references that make sense in context, and the novel can be enjoyed even without having done the background reading. The prose is sharp and well-formed, and every sentence feels necessary – there is not a word out of place. Although hard to read at points due to the subject matter, My Dark Vanessa is a deep foray into trauma, abuse and, ultimately, healing. It is available on BorrowBox as an eBook.

The Binding by Bridget Collins

In a world vaguely reminiscent of 18th-century England, Emmett – a young farmer – receives a strange letter, telling him that he has been selected to be the next apprentice of a local bookbinder, a vocation that inspires fear and prejudice. Books are not the papery bundles of fun and joy as we know them; in this universe, binders seal away people’s memories, making them forget what has happened but putting it down, forever, in print. With no choice, Emmett goes along to work for the binder and quickly settles into his new life, but he is horrified to discover that one of the books has his name on it. The story of The Binding is very original. The setting – a vaguely Western society on the brink of industrialisation – is nothing new, but the plot device that drives the story forward is nothing I have seen before. In addition, the relationship between the two main characters felt very tender and genuine, and was rather refreshing, considering the way such relationships are often portrayed in fantasy works. The world of the story was gripping, and I was so thoroughly absorbed in the universe of The Binding that I read it again a couple of months after finishing it the first time (just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything!). Overall, The Binding is a beautiful story about love, memory, and – most importantly – books. It is available as an eBook on BorrowBox – why not give it a try? I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is many things, one of them being a slow burn. Told from the perspective of Kathy, a ‘carer’, the narrative jumps back and forth in time quite a bit to show Kathy’s childhood at the idyllic boarding school, Hailsham, and the lives of her close friends Tommy and Ruth. At first the story is reminiscent of a traditional British boarding school tale á la Malory Towers (if a bit more grown-up), but it soon becomes very clear that something much more sinister is going on.
One of the best things about this book is the way it portrays the relationships between the main characters. Their friendship has its ups and downs, but overall it is very clear that the three friends mean a great deal to each other. As the story goes on and layers of the rather complex plot are peeled away, the friendship of the main three is still at the heart of the story, and each twist and turn will leave you wondering how the newly-changed situation will affect Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. The novel is not long and is rather concisely written. The style offsets some of the horror rampant in the plot, meaning that by the time you realise what is going on, it’s too late – you’re already invested, and you can’t look away (but why would you want to?). Never Let Me Go is gripping and emotionally resonant, and I would definitely recommend it to any fans of writers like Cormac McCarthy and Emma Donaghue. It is available on BorrowBox, as an eBook.