The Selection

ImageSomeone described Kiera Cass’ novel The Selection to me as The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games, and that description is not too far off. The Selection takes place in a dystopian future where the country that used to be America, essentially, is ruled by a king. Society is organized into caste systems, numbered one through eight, with ‘ones’ being the royal family, ‘twos’ being rich families, and each caste working down the social ladder from musicians to teachers to construction workers until you get to the ‘eights’, or the lowest members of societies. As you might expect in a dystopian world, you can’t marry, or really even associate, with members of different castes and so society is left with this rigid system that leaves many people poor, hungry, and dissatisfied with their lot in life.

The monarchy is hereditary, so the king’s son Maxon will inherit the throne, but the process for finding Maxon’s wife the future princess and queen is another matter entirely. This process is called “the selection”, and girls are chosen from different castes and are sent to live at the palace. The prince spends time with each of them, and based on his own feelings plus the opinions of society, his parents, and the benefits each girl brings to the relationship, he sends girls home until only one is left and he marries her. Like on The Bachelor.

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Keira Cass

The Hunger Games part of the story comes from the dystopian setting. There are two rebel groups seeking to change society’s structure. The northern rebels want Maxon to remain prince as long as he abolishes the caste system. The southern rebels want to destroy the caste system and the monarchy and essentially bring anarchy and death to the entire country. But despite the political and social unrest that Cass sets up in her series—The Selection, The Elite, and The One—in the end it really ends up reading like The Bachelor without The Hunger Games.

The story centers heavily around a love triangle, much like other popular YA fiction such as Twilight or The Hunger Games. America, a girl from the fifth caste and a musician, is in love with Aspen, someone from a lower caste than she is. They plan to get married, but when America has the chance to join the selection, Aspen dumps her and America goes to the palace to compete for the heart of the prince. As you might expect from a typical YA heroine, America has no interest in the frivolous spectacle of the selection or in winning the prince’s heart. She really just wants to go home, but her blunt matters and honest speech catch the prince’s attention. But then Aspen is drafted into the army and becomes a guard at the palace. Let the love triangle between the prince, the guard, and the girl ensue for three more books.

Like most love triangles—cough, Twilight and The Hunger Games—it is quite obvious whom America is going to choose at the end. Like many television shows—cough, Bones—by the third book it feels like Cass is dragging out the “who will she choose” storyline when she really should have ended the love triangle by now. Three books is too long to drag out the love triangle without developing it into anything more. Though I will say, she ends it much better than other love triangles—cough, The Hunger Games.

ImageAnd while she’s busy dragging out the drama of the love triangle, Cass misses the opportunity to build up the political drama of the rebellions going on. Throughout the series, rebels attack the palace, but that’s all that happens. There’s no showdown, no decisive victory one way or the other. In the end, there’s really no rising action, climax, or resolution for that side of the novel. Cass leaves it undeveloped when it had a lot of potential and would have strengthened the book immensely.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed all three books in the series. Call me shallow but I do enjoy a book about relationship drama, and the characters are endearing. But the books would have been much stronger and more meaningful if Cass had spent less time on the love triangle and more time on the political drama. Still, if you enjoyed books like Twilight and The Hunger Games, or if you are an avid viewer of The Bachelor, you will enjoy this book.

For books with dramatic relationships AND political intrigue, check out:

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

and

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

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A Thousand Hearts

ImageYears ago when I was a little girl (okay, not that long ago but still years and years ago), my dad (who feels his Irish blood very deeply) took me to a concert at the Lobero Theater here in Santa Barbara. It was called “A Woman’s Heart” and it was a concert celebrating female Irish singers and musicians. There were several headliners, women who had dominated the folk scene in Ireland for many years. But there was a newbie too, a young singer who was just starting out. She was much younger than the other women in the concert, and she sang with a certain reserve knowing that she was new and yet to prove herself while the women beside her had spent years establishing themselves as some of Ireland’s most loved voices. But now, years later, that reserved singer is one of Ireland (and the UK’s) most beloved voices. She is the established folk singer and she dominates the music scene. Her name is Cara Dillon.

That name means basically nothing in America, which breaks my heart. Her name should be shouted from rooftops. She has an angelic voice, the purest and loveliest voice you can ever here. Her music—written and arranged with her pianist/producer/husband/father of her three children—is the perfect balance of traditional Irish folk singing with a modern appeal. Her album always features covers of some of the most treasured Irish folk songs, like “She Moved Through the Fair” and “Black Is The Color” but she also writes new songs with her husband and producer Sam Lakeman.

At the concert oh-so many years ago, my dad bought me her first album, and ever since then I have bought all of her albums—now ffive total. Her music is the only music I still buy in CD form. Mostly because I order it straight from the UK so I don’t have to wait for iTunes to release her latest album in the US. (Don’t you hate the lag time between releases in the UK and releases in the US? *cough* BBC Sherlock…) And now, for her latest album released May 16, I am waiting for the precious CD to cross the Atlantic Ocean and most of the lower 48 to make its way to me and I am SO excited.

ImageEarlier this year Emily wrote about Nickel Creek, her favorite band that reunited this year to tour and release its own new album. She talked about how Nickel Creek is the music of her childhood, the music of her soul. It’s a band that’s part of her. Well, Cara Dillon is my Nickel Creek, so to speak. (Rhyme unintended.) She is the music of my childhood, the music of my relationship with my father, my most favorite singer ever, the best singer in my opinion, and a part of me that I can never lose. I am so excited to listen to her new album A Thousand Hearts, and I desperately wish she would tour in the US so I could see her in concert again. *cough, cough, wink, wink*

“Shotgun Down the Avalanche” from Cara Dillon’s new album A Thousand Hearts

The Winner’s Curse

16069030When I was younger, I created a rule for myself: I will finish every single book that I read. And for years, it was a very simple rule to follow. I devoured books and was always insatiable for more stories and worlds to explore. But as I’ve grown older, I no longer have those long, golden hours in the afternoon to curl up and read. Because, you know, I have a job. Not that I’m bitter about this fact. At all.

My reading hours are more precious now because I don’t have as many of them, much to my chagrin. This means that I have had to become more selective about what I read, and, sadly, to break the rule that I made for myself when I was in elementary school. I can still remember the first time that I put a book down without finishing it. I was in high school, and boy, did I ever struggle to get to the finish line with that book. I grappled with it for days, and then started skirting it and avoiding it, and avoiding reading altogether. Which, simply, was very silly. So I broke my rule. And I still feel a twinge of remorse when I think about it. It has become much easier to put a book down since then, which may or may not be a good thing. I may or may not have even thrown a book down in disgust this winter.

Perhaps I’m more selective, or perhaps I’m just more impatient and just, well, crankier now that I’m in my twenties. But I’ve found that it now takes a very special book to keep me reading. The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is one of those books. In fact, I got so sucked into the book that I read it all in one sitting and had a book hangover for a week.

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Marie Rutkoski

The premise is simple: Kestrel is a seventeen-year-old girl who has a very famous father. In Valorian culture this doesn’t mean that he is an actor or politician. It means that he is the highest-ranking general in the Valorian army, a man who has helped to defeat neighboring nations and bend them into submission and slavery. The Valorians’ society is bent towards conquest above all else. Which means that its citizens have two options in life: either join the army, or get married and procreate so that we can have more soldiers in our army someday.

Kestrel, however, is more suited to games of wit than displays of strength on the battlefield. And she isn’t interested at the moment in starting a family. While the time is approaching when she will need to make a decision, Kestrel has other things on her mind after she purchases a Herrani slave. His name is Arin, and the more that Kestrel gets to know him, the more moral complexities arise about owning another human and the way that her culture works.

Kestrel has to face the flaws in Valorian culture as she gets to know Arin and begins to understand her own prejudices. And Arin, who seeks nothing more than to be free of Valorian rule, sees his plots and plans complicated when he begins to see Kestrel as more than a Valorian thug. They begin a game of wits and are drawn to each other, but their duty to their own peoples and families threaten to keep them on opposite sides of the game. And once their decisions are made, nothing will ever be the same again in their worlds.

So here’s the thing. The summary above doesn’t sound very different from the summaries of plenty of other books that have already been published. Could the plot and pacing be better? Yes. Could the world-building have been developed and explored more? Yes. Could the Roman and Greek-inspired cultures have been fleshed out more? Yes.

But I still read the book in one sitting. And here’s why: Kestrel and Arin’s relationship.

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Kestrel and Arin remind me a little of Gen and Irene in Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series– they are one step ahead of the reader and it’s fun to read.

Now, before you gag and close your laptop, let me explain. While yes, there are hints of romance in this book, the real reason that I kept reading was this: If Kestrel gets what she wants, it hurts Arin. If Arin gets what he wants, it hurts Kestrel. In a way, it reminded me of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races in that only one character can win the race. And if Sean Kendrick won the race, Kate Connolly would lose. And if Kate won, Sean would lose. I was so curious to see how Marie Rutkoski would juggle the complexities of Kestrel and Arin’s decisions in the book. And I was not disappointed. Kestrel and Arin do not live in a bubble– every decision that either of them makes affects the people around them. They have the power to hurt others and each other, and sometimes they do just that. I’m very curious to see how things resolve later in the series.

The game of wits that Kestrel and Arin play reminds me a lot of the way that Gen and Irene interact in Megan Whalen Turner’s superb Attolia series. Rutkoski employs a strategy similar to Turner’s in that she withholds a lot of information about a character– Arin– from the reader until everything is revealed. And the ride getting to that moment is intriguing. Both Kestrel and Arin are one step ahead of the reader, and it makes it fun to read and guess.

Like I said, there are some weaknesses to this book. But if you’re looking for an emotional ride that will suck you in and leave you in a daze for a few days? Look no further. Arin and Kestrel are engaging characters and the complexities of their world and relationship will keep you on your toes.

 

 

The Amazing Spiderman is Amazing!

There were a lot of good things about the Spiderman reboot, The Amazing Spiderman. The actors were younger and more age appropriate. Andrew Garfield was adorable, funny, and emotionally provocative as Peter Parker, and Emma Stone was a much-needed relief from Mary Jane as she played Peter’s first (and intelligent and funny) girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. The movie overall was funnier and quirkier with a stellar cast including Sally Field, Martin Sheen, and Denis Leary, but it maintained the emotional compelling storyline from the original comics.

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Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 continues the funny, adorable, yet emotional feel of the first movie. Real-life couple Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone absolutely sparkle as on screen couple Peter and Gwen. Their chemistry could not be better. They are funny individually and even funnier together. Fred and Ginger wish they had that kind of chemistry.

Amazing Spiderman 2 does better than its predecessor in terms of villains. While the lizard thing in the first movie was not a terrible plot line, this movie hits closer to home with two emotionally compelling villains. Jamie Foxx is Electro, an electrical engineer at Oscorp who lives a lonely life. Overlooked by everyone, he just wants to be noticed. Peter notices him, when he saves his life as Spiderman, and Max Dillon (Electro’s real name) forms a psychological attachment to Spiderman. He turns into a villain after he believes Spiderman betrayed him.

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Jamie Foxx as Electro.

Dane DeHaan plays Harry Osbourne, of Oscorp. Harry and Peter, whose father worked at Oscorp, were friends years ago before Harry’s father sent him to boarding school. Now Harry is back, but he is dying. He becomes convinced that Spiderman’s blood can save him, but Peter is afraid that giving him his blood—though Harry doesn’t know Peter is Spiderman—could kill Harry, or turn him into something else. But at the same time, he doesn’t want his friend to die.

Amazing Spiderman 2 deals with both of these emotional storylines, but it doesn’t end there. The movie packs another emotional punch with the mystery surrounding Peter’s parents, who disappeared and then died when he was just a boy. Peter struggles to find the answers to questions he’s harbored for years, all while struggling with the promise he made to Gwen’s father that he would stay away from her to keep her safe. But how can he stay away from the girl that he loves?

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Dane DeHaan as Harry Osbourne.

Emotions run high in The Amazing Spiderman 2. I saw it with my brother and there were times where we both were crying. But there were also many times when we both were laughing. The movie expertly balances the comic with the serious and emotion, and the result is a very enjoyable and very meaningful movie. If you like superhero movies or just enjoy good movies, I highly recommend this one. There is also a quite humorous cameo appearance by Stan Lee that comic nerds will appreciate.

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Book Hangovers

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One of my past book hangovers was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races.

I am currently experiencing a book hangover.

You may be asking yourself, what is a “book hangover”? Though you may not be familiar with the term, dear reader, I can almost guarantee that you have experienced at least one of these in the past. Here are the symptoms:

  • Finishing the last page of a book and wiping away tears and/or sighing heavily.
  • Staring listlessly out the window.
  • Staring listlessly at your book shelves, knowing that you are not in the mood to read any of the books on them.
  • Staring listlessly at the shelves in your local bookstore or at amazon.com, knowing that the only book that you want to read is the sequel of the book you just read. You know, the sequel that comes out in a year.

I am sad to say that the only cure, like with any heartbreak, is time. Time and that darn sequel that the author is working so hard to finish.

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Please don’t let the stereotypical YA pretty-white-girl-in-frilly-dress book cover fool you: this book packs a serious emotional punch.

But you will move on with life, dear reader. I promise you that. Though right now it feels like part of you is in another world, and you are in a bit of a bleary-eyed daze from staying up all night to get to that last page, in a few days you will feel better. Refreshed. Willing to consider other book options. Willing to fall in love with other worlds and characters. It may not feel like it now, but that day will come, I promise.

But for me, it is not that day. Please excuse me while I stare with longing at my computer screen, waiting for news about when the sequel to Marie Rutkoski’s brilliant book The Winner’s Curse comes out. And maybe, once I’ve regained a bit of consciousness, and my ability to “even”, I will try to write a review. But that is not this day.

 

The Harry Potter Generation Goes To College

ImageKirkus Reviews described Rainbow Rowell’s first novel Attachments as a “Spring break kind of book”, a charming and enjoyable read. Then wrote that Rowell’s second book Eleanor and Park—which was a Printz Honor book—as “funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, sexy and tear-jerking, this winning romance will captivate teen and adult readers alike.” Now, when it comes to Rowell’s third book, Kirkus has one thing to say: absolutely captivating.

Fangirl is a book for a whole new generation—the Harry Potter generation, the nerd generation, the fangirl generation. The book is about college freshman Cather Avery, or, as the fan fiction internet community knows her, magicath. Cather is an avid Simon Snow fan, Simon Snow being the rights and royalties-free version of Harry Potter. She has posters, collectibles, wands, T-shirts, and an undying loyalty to the fantasy children’s series. The most important thing in her life is her fan fiction story about Simon and his evil roommate/love interest Baz, a fan fiction that has earned Cather thousands of fans.

On top of this, Cather is a twin, her sister Wren also a huge Simon Snow fan. Both Cather and Wren enter their first year of college together, though Wren has decided that they should not be roommates so they can branch out and meet new people. Cather is not a fan of this idea. She doesn’t like new places or new people, and as any college student can attest, that is the definition of freshman year. So Cather finds herself having to deal with all the stress of her first year at college, including a brusque roommate, a boy who always seems to be hanging around her room, a writing class whose professor fails to appreciate the appeal of fan fiction, a writing partner who fails to appreciate the collaborative process, a sister who more than delves into the partying scene, and a dad whose empty nest is proving too much to handle. And then there is “Carry On”, Cather’s fan fiction that she is determined to finish before the release of the last Simon Snow book. And then there’s the boy who’s always hanging out in her room, and the fact that she might like him.

That’s a lot to deal with for an eighteen-year-old girl, and at some points it proves to be almost too much for Cather. And while not every college freshman deals with all those issues thrown together, boys and girls experience some of what Cather goes through. And almost everyone in our generation—the Harry Potter generation—has experienced Cather’s relationship with the Simon Snow story, which I think is the biggest appeal and insight in the book.

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Rainbow Rowell

Students who are about college age right now are the kids who were relatively young when the first Harry Potter book came out. They’re the ones who grew up with the series—dressing up for the midnight premieres of the movies, reading the new books the night they came out, making Halloween costumes, dreaming about attending Hogwarts, writing fan fiction. Fangirl is “absolutely captivating” because it captures the college freshman experience for the Harry Potter generation, for the nerds and Potterheads who wrote their own Hogwarts acceptance letters, know how to play Quidditch, and believe in “always”.