The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

This prequel to the super popular Hunger Games Trilogy reveals the diabolical origins of Panem president Coriolanus Snow, and how he evolves into the tyrannical despot we love to hate. (Note: this post assumes pre-knowledge of the Hunger Games books and/or movies. If you have no clue what those are, click here) Coriolanus Snow was once just an eighteen year old boy, desperate to keep his genteel poverty a secret. The Snows were a powerful family before the war. But now with both his parents dead, and the unpaid taxes on the family’s penthouse building up, he needs a miracle to keep himself, his cousin and grandmother alive. Enter Lucy Gray, a sly and talented tribute from District 12. The government has decided to assign promising Academy students as mentors to the tributes of the 10th Hunger Games, and Coriolanus is tasked with guiding Lucy. Since she is small and young, he doesn’t have high hopes for her at first. But as the two of them start to strategize, he begins to admire, and then fall for her beautiful singing voice and strong will to live. He even convinces the powers that be to add betting privileges, along with food and water pledges to the bare-bones Game structure in order to help Lucy survive longer. Is it possible for Coriolanus to win the Games and Lucy too? Perhaps, but devotees of the series know it won’t be easy. There is no room for love or mercy in the brutal Capitol of Panem, where the snakes don’t just come in reptile form! While this tome was a bit too bleak for me during our current crisis, fans will likely be gratified by the grimly satisfying ending.

Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

What do you do when you find out that your mom and best friend is dying of cancer? Weep with sadness? Rage at the unfairness of it all? Yes, and sometimes even write a stunningly good graphic memoir about it. Now ten years after Tyler Feder‘s mom died during her sophomore year of college, she has written a frank, poignant and even funny road map of how to navigate being in the “dead mom club.” Tyler Feder’s mom Rhonda was awesome. She had a signature pixie hair cut, made amazing Halloween costumes and birthday decorations, and loved perfumed hand lotion and scary carnival rides. Feder’s choice to render her sad family history in a soft pastel pink palette helps soften the blow of seeing effervescent Rhonda lose her dark mop of hair and descend into sickness. With the benefit of healing time, Feder is even able to seed her story of grieving with gentle humor. There’s tips on “how to make a good cry a great cry,” “Dead Mom: The App,” and a “My mom died young reaction Bingo board.” The section on the family sitting shiva after Rhonda’s death is my favorite, where Feder lovingly details the strangeness of her terrible new state of motherlessness, but how friends and family helped her through. Good for both a cry and a laugh, Dancing at the Pity Party is perfect for anyone who’s ever lost a loved one, or loves someone who has.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

It happens quickly. One spring day, everything in Anaya’s hometown of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, is fine. The next, jagged, coarse black grasses start growing everywhere, choking out the all the local vegetation and emitting a poisonous pollen that makes people sneeze and cough. Anaya’s father, a botanist with the Ministry of Agriculture, suspects the terrible plants may be biologically engineered weapons. But if so, who unleashed them? Because it’s not just Salt Spring Island that’s infected, it’s the entire globe. All across the world the black grass is growing and morphing, turning into killer lilies that shoot bullet-like seeds, and buried flesh-eating pods that lurk beneath the soil, ready to open and swallow down unsuspecting souls in a single gulp. Anaya’s dad believes he knows a way to destroy the killer grass. But he has to travel to a remote island in order to create the antidote. Meanwhile, Anaya and her friends Petra and Seth have discovered that the bizarre plants don’t seem to make them sick the way they make everyone else. In fact, they seem impervious to the grasses’ deadly pollen and acid sap. And suddenly the Canadian military is very interested in their surprise immunity. What does it all mean? Where did the killer grass come from? Why are three random Canadian teenagers immune to this global terror? And can Anaya’s dad find the cure before being eaten alive? While some of these questions are answered, many more are raised in this jaw-dropping, bio-horror series opener by master of suspense Kenneth Oppel. For those of you who prefer to immerse yourself in books that reflect our current situation instead of escape it, this page-turning, fast-paced pandemic thriller is for you. I flew through it, gasped at the cliff-hanging ending, and then rejoiced when I saw that I only had to wait until this fall to see what happens next. Run, don’t walk to your nearest e-reader or local library website to give this Bloom a sniff (just don’t get too close!)

The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith

It is 1945, and Japan is struggling to sustain their military might in the face of advancing American troops. Taro, a young Japanese pilot, has just joined a unit of kamikaze, pilots who volunteer to fatally “body-crash” their planes into American warships. Hana, a school girl and seamstress, is a member of the Nadeshiko unit, young women who are assigned to wait on and tend to the kamikaze pilots at the local military base until the day they are assigned to take their last flights. Hana has sadly become used to seeing the doomed young men come and go, and tries not to become attached. But when Taro arrives at the barracks with his violin case, Hana finds herself smitten with the young musician and his music. Every day that bad weather keeps Taro’s plane grounded is another chance for their love to bloom. Each of them has sworn to do their duty for their families, their country and their people. Can true love flourish even in the face of certain death? This utterly compelling and richly detailed historical fiction is the inspired work of Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl, one of my all time favs. While her research wowed me as librarian, it’s Smith’s beautifully imagined forbidden love story that really made me swoon. By showcasing a culture where the deepest of feelings can be conveyed by a look, a song, or a weighted silence, Smith has inadvertently crafted the perfect social distance romance for our quarantined times.