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Quick read

The Last Girlfriend on EarthI just finished a short story collection titled The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich. It was a quick read; 24 hours didn’t even pass between the time I picked it up and the time I put it down. The stories were quirky and most were hilarious. The first one got me right laughing out loud on the airplane while I was sandwiched in between two older men. Once you figure out who the narrator is for that one, you won’t stop laughing (I’m not going to spoil it for you here). The next few stories that followed were okay, but the ones that got me were a little further in. There’s one where Seth meets his ex’s new boyfriend, Adolf Hitler, one where God’s girlfriend demands attention while he’s trying to create the universe on schedule, and one where a priest is asked to exorcise the ghost of an ex-girlfriend from an apartment, just to name a few. There are 31 stories in all, most of them funny, though one of them was sad (thankfully the collection didn’t end on this story or my feelings might have turned out differently). It’s difficult to put into words exactly why this collection was so good; I think the best thing I can say about it is that Rich has a way of thinking of situations, turning them on their heads, and making the best out of said situation. This collection is a must-read for anyone who’s ever been in a relationship.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2013 in Literature

 

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I just have to know!

**This posts contains spoilers for the book The Selection by Kiera Cass**

Last March I started reading an advanced copy of The Selection by Kiera Cass. At the time, I had just read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. I needed a break before reading Mockingjay and decided to give The Selection a shot. The cover is what caught my eye and the synopses sounded intriguing. In a post-American world, 35 girls compete to win the prince’s hand in marriage. As many reviewers later put it, it was The Hunger Games meets The Bachelor.  Granted, just coming off reading The Hunger Games, I found that the books had several similarities, but nothing that could be considered plagiarism. I actually didn’t get very far into reading the book. The tone of it irked me, though I couldn’t really put my finger on why exactly. So I put the book down with no intention of picking it back up again.

Now, a year later I’ve started listening to audio books to help check books off my “to read” list a little quicker. When browsing online for downloadable audio books from my library, I came across The Selection. Sure, I remembered my dislike of the little bit that I read, but I was also curious. What happened after I’d stopped reading? My curiosity was too much and I decided to go ahead and listen to it.

The SelectionIn the futuristic world of The Selection, there’s a caste system in 35 different provinces and moving between castes is extremely difficult but not impossible. The royal family is the ones, twos and threes are still fairly well off, fives are artists, and eights are essentially the homeless for they are the bottom rung. There are strict rules and horrible consequences (pregnancy out-of-wedlock is grounds for jail and there are public beatings for stealing). The narrator of the story is America Singer, a five whose family does okay for themselves but could always use just a little more. Upon the urging of her mother and her secret boyfriend Aspen (a six), America enters the Selection. Not surprisingly – she is the narrator, after all – she is chosen as one of the lucky girls to be whisked off to the palace and try to win over Prince Maxon’s heart. Aspen takes himself out of the picture, but America cannot stop loving him just because he breaks up with her.

America quickly alliances herself with Maxon, promising friendship and help in making his decision for future wife. In exchange, he will keep America in the contest for as long as possible; each of the girls’ families are compensated monetarily each week she remains at the palace. Being a five, America’s family can use the extra money. Through the days, Maxon and America come to know each other and start confiding in each other. Maxon dismisses girls as he learns that some are not his type, but he keeps his promise and America stays. There is, of course, one fiercely competitive girl, Celeste, who is awful to the girls when the cameras aren’t around and sickeningly sweet when the Prince is around. There are also rebel forces (two different ones, in fact), who attack the palace, which throws a political twist and physical threat into the plot.

The reviews on Good Reads are mixed. Those who didn’t like it hated it and those who like it loved it. I’m one of the few that is split down the middle. I both loved and hated it. The things that I didn’t like were the ambiguous nature of the monarchy. How did the United States go from a democracy to monarchy? Early on in the book, America* alludes to a fourth world war but it isn’t until much, much later in the book that more history facts come into light. While I was glad to eventually have an explanation, it wasn’t a clear one. Too early on in the book, the reader is asked to take faith that the United States has suddenly become a monarchy and not ask why. Writers should avoid this tactic, unless the writer is an established one that the reader can trust has a reason for delaying important information. To suspend the believability for so long was a bad choice on Cass’ part. I think that she should have given more history at the beginning, through the homeschooling that is frequently mentioned but never seen, or action, like America reading the slightly singed history book, then more people would have been drawn in.

Let’s go back to that history book for a minute. It was quite an intriguing bit, once Cass got around to writing that scene. It was late in the novel, when America has been at the palace for at least a week and she describes a memory of finding the book in her parents’ bedroom. Not only are there burn marks on the book, but pages have been ripped from it. Through America’s thoughts, the reader learns that this is the only history book she’s ever seen, and her father says not to tell anyone about it. Curiouser and curiouser. Yet I feel Cass did two things wrong with this scene. First, she didn’t put it in the beginning of the book. If I were to read a book that has the United States as a monarchy and then immediately learn that history books are obsolete, possibly even forbidden, then I would sense a deeper theme coursing through the pages rather than a simplistic plot of down-on-her-luck girl becoming a princess. Many reviewers on Good Reads didn’t finish reading the book or skimmed much of it after reading the first part, much like I did my first time around. They probably didn’t even know that something’s up with how people learn and remember history. What if they had read this scene at the beginning of the book? Would they have stuck it out longer? I think so, or at least most of them would have. Second, Cass didn’t go anywhere with the scene. It was just there, thrown in with no follow-up. What were the things that America read? Did she ever ask her dad why they had the book if she wasn’t allowed to say anything about it? Why was it missing pages and singed? Maybe Cass is setting a foundation for the second book with this scene, but even if she is, the scene is out of place and I think loses a lot of its intrigue by not being mentioned again.

When the history lesson finally shows up, the book is two-thirds done**. This is way too late in the novel and I’m still a bit hazy on the details of it all, how the democracy crumbled and a monarchy was put in place. Having listened to the book, it’s hard for me to say whether or not the author skimmed over the details or I wasn’t paying good enough attention. It’s harder to go back through an audio book and pinpoint certain sections to listen to again.

Another hazy area was the reason for the rebellions. Cass establishes that there are two main rebel groups, but, again, this information comes later in the book and seems to be only something that concerns the royal family and not any of the provinces. It’s also not quite clear why the people are rebelling. Again, this could be because I didn’t pay close enough attention; I cannot say for sure. The rebels are mentioned only a handful of times, two of which were when they attacked the palace. But nothing ever resulted from the attacks. They were just another story element floating by itsself. Again, this could be foundation for the second book, but as an unknown author, Cass is asking her readers to have a lot of faith and patience that it will all come together eventually.

There were many other things that I can nitpick on that I wish Cass had done, but I want to move on to the good parts. First, the cover. Whoever designed that cover should get an award. I drew me in and many other reviewers as well. I want a dress like that! The basic plot and underlining political connotations (not much but some) were intriguing. Any writer could tell you it’s hard to come up with an original story, but Cass was definitely successful in that department (the execution was another matter). The best part of the book, I felt, was America’s emotions. Anger that the higher castes had no idea what life was like for the lower ones. Love and hurt from Aspen’s break-up. Jealousy of Maxon kissing other girls. And so on. I’d once read a dystopian novel where the main character/narrator quickly forgot about the love of her life when she met another dude just a short while later. America does start to develop feelings for Maxon, but she’s still hurt from Aspen and still loves him. That’s true to life. One doesn’t simply forget about a love – especially a first love – as soon as the break-up happens. The heart keeps on loving. The hurt keeps on hurting. Cass pinpointed those emotions perfectly.

The EliteSo, I’m torn. The book was entertaining, but I wanted more of it, more explanations, more detail. The second book, The Elite, is set to come out at the end of April. Of course, I have to know what happens. Does Cass explain the lack of history books? Does America’s feelings for Maxon grow deeper? Why are the rebels attacking? I just have to know!

(Also, what a great cover! I want that dress, too!)

*To avoid confusion, I’ll use America to mean the narrator and the United States to mean the country.

**This is an estimation; I don’t actually know because I listened to the novel and didn’t have a page count.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Entertainment, Literature

 

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Those who don’t learn from history are stupid

Note: I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) through my workplace. The book is scheduled to be released in March 2013.

The publisher Shadow Mountain has yet to fail me. When it comes to young adult fantasy and adventure, they know their stuff. Back in early 2009, they sent copies of teaser chapters from a new series by an up-and-coming author. Not one to read adult fantasy (save for the Quantum Leap books and a few others), I picked up the book sample and read it on my break. Instantly I was blown away. I wanted to continue reading beyond the two teaser chapters but the book wasn’t due to be published for another two months! Instantly, I ordered it and the day it arrived, I was eager to get home from work and start in on it. The book was The 13th Reality: The Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner. He’d published a series before, but wasn’t widely known – yet. Within a year he published another book, The Maze Runner, through another publisher. It was through this new series (four books in total) that earned him the title New York Times Bestselling Author. I have every single one of his books and it is because Shadow Mountain first introduced him to me.

Then in late summer of 2011, my Community Relations Manager handed me an ARC of a book titled The Janitors by Tyler Whitesides. The publisher was Shadow Mountain so I thought I would give it a try. Once again, I was blown away by the clever and well written fantasy book!

Inventors SecretSo when my CRM told me he had an ARC from Shadow Mountain, I didn’t even ask who or what it was; I just said I wanted it. It was The Inventor’s Secret by Chad Morris. Not surprisingly, I loved the book.

It’s the year 2074 and twins Abby and Derick have been admitted to the world-renown school Cragbridge, a school for gifted and talented students. Abby doesn’t believe she belongs there. It’s Derick who gets the perfect grades and programs video games. She struggles with math and has done nothing extraordinary with her life. So why is she even admitted into the school? Because her grandfather founded it.

This makes life for the socially shy Abby even more difficult. She gets ostracized by her roommate, who then tells the other girls that Abby’s at school while someone who should be there isn’t. At this point in the story, I was already emotionally attached to this young girl and my heart went out to her when people started being mean to her. But eventually Abby makes a friend, Carol, who thinks that being ordinary in a school full of extraordinary kids makes Abby special.

Like most of its students, Cragbridge is no ordinary school. Animals are studied through avatars and historic events come alive in the classroom. Thanks to the wonderful inventions from Abby and Derick’s grandfather, learning has become so much more than just reading books.

Because of his inventions, though, Oscar Cragbridge fears he is in danger. Indeed he is right; a man the reader only knows as Charles seeks to learn all of Oscar’s secrets and to get them, he traps Abby and Derick’s parents aboard Titanic three days before its doomed demise. All Abby and Derick know, though, is that their family is missing and it’s up to them to follow their grandfather’s clues to rescue them. The clues rest in various places, including books, quotes, and historic events. I won’t say how it ends but lessons are learned and there is an opening for more to come.

The book is also a clever history lesson. Morris does a great job of describing the historic events as Abby and Derick review them, making it feel as if the reader is right beside them as they watch history. One event they review is Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance being stranded in Antarctica. As I read this part of the book, I remembered my own fascination with the story when I first learned about it a few years ago (22 men stranded in Antarctica for two years and they all survived). It made me want to read even more about the event; perhaps other readers will feel the same and pick up history books after reading this one.

Fans of fantasy and adventure are sure to love this book just as much as I did. Download or buy a copy (preferably from a brick-and-mortar store) in March – you won’t regret it!

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2013 in Literature

 

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A million reasons to love Beth Revis

Okay, I don’t really have a million reasons, but I do have very two big ones: Across the Universe and A Million Suns.

Across the UniverseHonestly, I didn’t think I would ever read the first book. The title actually dissuaded me a little because I thought, “Well, here’s someone else trying to capitalize off  the Beatles.” But the day of its release, I read a synopsis of it on my nook and it sounded right up my alley. So I downloaded it and started reading in bed. I was so enthralled with it that I was pissed when my eyes betrayed me and decided to close up shop for 8 hours.

The worst part about any first book in a series is waiting for the next installment to come out. I’ve had friends who’ve purposefully put off reading the Harry Potter series until all 7 books were released, just so that there was no waiting. Sure, I like instant gratification, but I also kind of like all that anticipation, even though it can backfire (see yesterday’s post).

A Million SunsAfter 51 weeks of waiting, I finally got A Million Suns, the second book in the Across the Universe trilogy. Just like its predecessor, it drew me in and didn’t let go until the very end.

The book picked up a few months later from when the last book left off. Everyone on board the ship has been taken off Phydus. Complacency is no longer a norm. The Recorder Hall is filled with people every day who want to learn more about life on Earth and other topics like history and science. But with this curiosity for knowledge comes rebellion and the questioning of authority. Bartie, once a friend of Elder’s, calls for him to step down, to let a real leader emerge. Bartie doesn’t get much following at first, but once people start getting murdered, more join the ranks. Elder tries to balance between giving people freedom and controlling them so they don’t descend into complete chaos and he still plans on getting to Centari-Earth, no matter what.

Amy, meanwhile, starts exploring Godspeed more closely than before, even though things are far from safe. Luthe (now Luthor) still roams free and Amy fears he will attack her again. But Amy’s stubbornness to learn the truth will not let her stay safely locked up in the hospital. Soon she discovers secret stairwells and containment chambers, as well as clues left behind by Orion. The clue lead her and Elder to Godspeed’s biggest secret. But there’s someone on board the ship who will do anything to make sure it stays a secret. Anything.

There’s not much more that I can say about what happens in the book without spoiling it all. What I can say is this: it far exceeded my expectations. Once again, descriptions of the ship were so well written that I was able to clearly picture in my mind the new sections that were introduced. As more and more secrets of Godspeed were uncovered, the more I wanted to keep reading.

The third and final installment, Shades of Earth, is due out January 2013. It cannot come soon enough.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Literature

 

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Disappointment and aggravation

I finished two books this year that were both second installments of trilogies: Crossed by Ally Condie and A Million Suns by Beth Revis*. The first books in each series (Matched and Across the Universe, respectively) had the same effect on me. I didn’t want to put either down and I was excited and anxious as the release dates for the sequels drew nearer. Crossed came out first, in November of 2011. I asked for the day off work so I could download and read it without interruption. Like most books, I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it in a single day, but I figured I would get a good chunk read.

How wrong I was.

Matched was told entirely by Cassia’s point of view but Crossed took on a different format. Chapters alternated between Cassia and Ky’s points of view. Each chapter was marked by who was speaking, as books with alternating storytellers often do, but other than that, there was nothing to distinguish who was speaking. I found myself often flipping back several pages to find whose chapter it was that I was reading. The characters didn’t have their own voices. It all sounded like Cassia’s from Matched.

Then there was the action – or lack thereof. The mystery and intrigue that Matched had (who put Ky’s name in the system? Why did Grandpa have forbidden poetry? etc.) were missing largely for Crossed. Cassia and Ky are in search of each other, far from the Society where they first met. About half the book is taken up by this search, which is a lot of walking in deserts and hiding from Society spy planes. Once they find each other, the search continues for the Rising. It wasn’t until about 75 pages from the end that I started to feel that grip of intrigue pull me into the story. Something interesting was finally happening.

Despite taking the release day off to read it, I didn’t finish the book for three months. I didn’t feel the pull to not put it down. Instead, I felt the dredge of picking it up again. I had very little interest in it to keep me going. What would have taken me about a week to read took me months instead and that says a lot about the content.

But there’s still one more book in the trilogy, set to come out this November. And even though I was disappointed in Crossed, I am still curious to see what happens to Ky and Cassia and, therefore, will still download a copy of Reached. I just won’t bother taking a day off work so I can read it.

*Stay tuned for a review of A Million Suns.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2012 in Literature, Rants

 

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My utopia is dystopia (part 3)

The third and final book in my dystopian review is Across the Universe by Beth Revis.

The book opens as Amy prepares to be cryogenically frozen, along with her parents and many others.  They are set aboard a spaceship (aptly named Godspeed) bound for a planet that humans will inhabit.  Amy and the others are expected to be thawed 300 years in the future when the ship reaches the planet.

Elder is aboard the ship, years after Amy and her parents have been put aboard.  He is second-in-command, learning from Eldest how to one day run the ship.  However, Eldest has been holding back information because of a rogue Elder from the previous generation.  This doesn’t stop Elder, though, as he sneaks around the ship trying to find out as much information as possible.  For the first time in his young life, he comes across the part of the ship where the frozen bodies are stored.  He comes across Amy, though he doesn’t know her name, and he is instantly fascinated by her bright red hair (after generations aboard the ship, people have become ethnically monotonous).

Amy’s mind continues to be active as she sleeps, bringing up memories of life on Earth.  She is unaware of how much time has passed, yet is conscious that her brain is being active when it shouldn’t be.  At one point she starts hearing voices talking about the thawing process, right before she feels warmth.  Someone is thawing her!  Though complications arise, she makes it out alive, but only to find out that the reason she was thawed was to be killed.

Soon Amy and Elder meet and Amy tries to understand why society on the ship operates as it does.  It’s vastly different from life on Earth.  Not only are the people of one ethnicity (brown eyes, tan skin), they have limited knowledge of history, have sex in the fields during the Season (purely for procreation, though), and lock up the crazy (aka creative) people.  Elder and the people aboard the ship know no different, but to Amy, it is a nightmare.  She is anxious to get to the new planet and see her parents again, but as she and Elder later find out, the ship is still 100 years from its destination.  Amy will long be dead before her parents are woken up.

That’s not all that Amy has to worry about, though.  After all, someone tried to kill her.  She needs to find out who and why.  Elder continues to search out knowledge about the ship and he finds out secret after secret about how the society upon the ship is run and controlled.

The book was well-written, told from Amy and Elder’s points of view in alternating chapters.  Each chapter was titled with the narrator’s name so it wasn’t confusing.  The descriptions of the ship were so detailed that I had little trouble picturing something I’ve never seen.  It wasn’t until I was done reading the e-book version of it that I looked at a hardcover copy at the bookstore.  Apparently the cover’s reverse was a map of Godspeed.*  I was delighted (after my initial reaction of frustration).  Much of what I’d pictured about the ship’s layout was accurate.  To me, that marks the sign of a talented writer.

Overall, the book had a great amount of conflict, both inner and physical.  There was action, yet not so much that it was tiring and there was enough mystery and intrigue to keep me reading without ever feeling like I was working to get through it.

*I do no know yet if the paperback version will include a map of the ship (the paperback comes out in November).  However, if you read the book and need or are curious about the map, visit the book’s official website here.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in Literature

 

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