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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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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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My utopia is dystopia (part 2)

My most recent delve into dystopia fiction was Possession by Elana Johnson.

In the book, Vi, short for Violet, is whisked off to Lock Up after being caught walking with a boy at night.  Such things are forbidden in her world.  She is thrown into a cell with Jag, a boy with dyed hair and tan skin – an obvious rebel.  Soon and with some effort, Vi and Jag escape Lock Up and flee toward a “freer” land, miles away.

Since Vi can feel “tech buzz” and Thinkers always use tech, she can sense danger.  It doesn’t always work though and she and Jag keep ending up having to fight for their lives.

Later, Vi finds out that she can control things and people with just her mind.  She also finds out Jag can control people with his voice.  Still, they hae to fight Thane, the one who controls everything.

***Here begin the spoilers***

When the book opens, Vi is walking with Zenn, her Match.  She loves him deeply, as she reiterates time and again.  But less than 50 pages later, after Vi makes Jag, she falls in love with him.  She knows little about him, yet knows that she loves him.  And, amazingly enough, he loves her back!  Did I mention that these characters are only 15?  Yeah, Vi, that’s just the hormones talking.

As previously mentioned, Vi and Jag are forced to share the same cell when in Lock Up, yet no other cells on their floor are being used.  As I read, I found this hard to believe.  I can stretch my imagination pretty far, but that was too far-reaching.  Vi lives in a society where you can’t walk with a boy yet will force occupancy with one?  Sorry.  Not buying it.  Johnson explains this away later in the book when Vi realizes that Thane wanted her and Jag together to see if they would use their powers.

Ah, yes, the powers.  Once Vi finds out she can control people and things with her mind, there are no more obstacles to overcome.  She can escape any imprisonment, win any fight without so much as breaking a sweat.  Creative Writing 101: take away conflict and you take away any reason to read.  Now, Vi hates being controlled so Johnson could have used this in Vi to have inner conflict.  Instead, Vi whines about it for a few sentences and then continues on.  Some rebel.  She hates what is not useful to her.

Then there’s all the coincidental stuff that happens in the back half of the book.  Vi’s dad had gone missing years before, but then she sees Jag with a book with her dad’s picture on it.  Only, she doesn’t recognize him and only knows it’s him because of the name underneath.  It’s a rebel book about how people can use tech to fight those in power.  Later, as she mentally yells at Thane, the one voice that can enter her mind and someone who has great power, she realizes that it is actually her dad.  Confused?  I’d be surprised if you weren’t.  Oh, and Vi’s older sister died after a year working for the Society.  But lo and behold, she’s alive and working with rebel forces.  She’s using a pseudonym so that no one can find her, especially Thane.  Now, let’s not forget about Zenn, Vi’s Match that she’s totally in love with, even though she’s in love with Jag, too.  It turns out that Zenn and Jag know each other and have for quite some time.  They’ve been working together to get a rebel (Zenn) on the inside.  He passes information along to the rebels to help the fight.  However, at the beginning of the book, he is the one who betrays Vi so that she is arrested, tags her with a homing device, and leads Thane to her.  So is he a rebel or not?  It’s hard to say and when it’s all over, it’s still unclear.

About half-way through the 400 plus page book, I started to get discouraged.  I kept going, though, because I’d gotten so far, I might as well have finished.  Really, the only saving grace in the last half of the book was the end.  Johnson could have made it a happy ending, one that would calm the reader and let her know everything would be okay.  But she ended the book with Thane conquering Vi’s mind, erasing her memory of Jag and forcing her to live a “happy” life with Zenn.  Though she has the feeling that she’s forgotten something important, Vi is content.  The end reminded me of the end of 1984 by George Orwell.

Still, overall, the book was a waste of time.  My theory (as well as a few other people who’ve noted online) is that this book got published because anything dystopian will sell right now.  It’s a shame because I love giving suggestions to teens and parents alike when it comes to books, but I sure as hell don’t recommend this one.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Literature, Rants

 

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My utopia is dystopia (part 1)

One of my favorite genres to read is dystopian fiction. Ever since my eighth grade English teacher recommended The Giver by Lois Lowry, I’ve been hooked.

You’ve probably heard of utopian fiction (ie: Brave New World by Aldus Huxley, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, etc.). Dictionary.com defines dystopia as “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” So, if a book takes place in this type of setting, it can be considered dystopian fiction. However, there’s a second type of dystopian fiction where a person or persons fight against the utopian society, against control and gentrified society. This is the kind that I like. I think the reason I’m so attracted to these books is that I see myself as the heroine in these stories, that I would be among the first to fight back should an elite group decide what’s best for society (in the most extreme case, that is).

There’s been a plethora of dystopian fiction put out the past few years, at least for teens (although I’ve sold plenty of them to adults). Currently, one of the more popular titles, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, is being made into a movie. While I have a copy of the ebook, I have yet to read it. Instead, I’ll review three other dystopian fiction books, all of which have been published within the past year, over a series of posts. There will be spoilers so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Matched by Ally Condie (book one of a trilogy)

Cassia does everything the Society tells her, from what music to listen to, to who she’ll marry. But a mistake with her match makes her question if the Society really has her best interests in mind. She starts seeing Ky, a guy from the outside now living in society. He knows and has seen things that Cassia hasn’t even heard of. As they continue to see each other (not in private – nothing is private with the Officials always looking on), her feelings for him grow deeper. Her feelings toward the Society also changes. While on the outside Cassia continues to do as she is told, inside she rages. Once Ky is sent away, though, Cassia decides it’s time to fight harder.

There are many parts in the book that are my favorite. One is where Ky teaches Cassia to write her name. Within the Society, people use electronics for communication so handwriting is not known. Ky, who’s from the outside, learned how to use his hands, not only with handwriting but also with drawing. This especially piqued my interest for two reasons. First, when I write, the process begins with me handwriting a rough draft. The act of physically writing down the words, pen to paper, helps my creative juices flow. I also prefer it to a first draft on a computer because once you erase something on the screen, you can’t get it back again. Sometimes I have the perfect word or phrases and then I decide to cross them out. Later, I can look back on these “deletions” and see if I can use it again in a better place, or something close to it. I can’t do this on a computer. Second, beginning next school year, Indiana will stop teaching cursive writing in its schools. While children will still learn handwriting, they will no longer be required to know cursive. While some may say, “So what?” to me it’s just one step closer to the world turning into one of these gentrified societies.

Another great part of the book is the little bit of interaction between Cassia and her grandfather. Near the beginning of the book, Cassia’s grandfather is about to have his 80th birthday. It’s bittersweet to reach 80 in the Society because while you get to have a party with any food you choose (rather than the regulation food), that is the last time you will see anyone. You are killed off quietly with pills. As Cassia is saying goodbye to her grandfather, he gives her a gift. It is an old compact, or an artifact, as they call it. He shows her a hidden chamber where Cassia’s grandmother had hidden a piece of paper. The paper contains two poems, but not ones that Cassia knows. The are not one of the Hundred Poems the Society kept. Cassia soon memorizes the poems and gets rid of the evidence before getting in trouble.

One of the poems is by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked to lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Later, she has an epiphany that the reason this poem had not been kept by the Society was because it told the reader to fight. I must admit that when I read this part, I cheered, and hoped that Cassia would indeed fight.

The book ends with Cassia serving out a punishment for disobeying the Society. But as she works the land on the outside, she plots how to break free and find Ky.

The next book, Crossed, comes out in November.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Literature

 

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