The Crown of Embers

crownembersThese days, romance in YA fiction is the thing of soap operas. Vampire boys watching girls sleep at night. Dramatic life and death situations in arenas. Romeo and Juliet vibes left and right. YA romances also come in two strains. The first is love at first sight. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. The first minute of their relationship they know it’s destiny and they will be together for eternity. The other strain of YA romance is the Darcy/Elizabeth hate at first sight that develops into true love. That’s it. There is no middle ground. Or realistic ground.

That is what is so refreshing about the romance in Rae Carson’s YA fantasy novel The Crown of Embers. The sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which had its own original elements, The Crown of Embers portrays a realistic romance that is neither Romeo and Juliet nor Darcy and Elizabeth. Carson’s protagonist Elisa spent the first book in the series as the secret wife to the king of Joya, the leader of a rebellion against the enemy country of Invierne, and ended up queen and sole monarch of the kingdom. Where The Crown of Embers picks up, Elisa is the newly crowned queen and enjoying her status as a war hero. But while she thought she had successfully defeated Invierne, trouble begins to brew abroad and in her own court. She’s pressured by her council to marry and solidify her position as queen. She’s also desperately trying to figure out how to harness the magic of her Godstone. All in all, she’s trying to rule a country at 17, and it isn’t going that smoothly.

Rae Carson

Rae Carson

But as she navigates the politics of court, seeks out God in prayer and study, and tries to find a way to protect her people from a rising enemy, one person is always by Elisa’s side—Hector, the captain of her guard. Hector protected her in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but now that she is queen he becomes her personal guard. Her safety is his concern at all time, and Hector and Elisa are friends at first sight. That’s it. Just friends. No insta-love, no hate filled with sexual tension. In the first book, Elisa befriends her husband and falls for a boy she meets in the dessert (spoilers: who dies in book 1). Even for most of this book, Elisa and Hector are just friends. But over time and through many dangers, they become closer and closer until they do fall in love. And as they progressed in their relationship, I found myself becoming more and more invested as a reader. (And now I am DYING to read book 3, The Bitter Kingdom!)

I think it’s important for girls reading YA fiction to know that love often works through a more natural course of events than love at first sight or antagonistic affection. Friendship is the best foundation for romance. As Hector himself points out when describing his parents’ marriage, true love is built on friendship, built on an equal partnership between two people. And it’s the only kind of romance worth having. Not suicidal vampire romance. Not let’s go hunt demons together romance. True love is friendship, honesty, trust, and putting another person before yourself. The Crown of Embers does a much better job of presenting that kind of relationship than any of YA book I’ve read this year.

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.

ofmiceandmenOf Mice and Men was the first “required reading” novel that I truly loved. I read it my freshman year of high school, and it’s not that I thought that all books I had to read for school were boring. It’s just that they didn’t usually turn out to be my new favorite book. But John Steinbeck changed all that.

I’m sure every is familiar with the plot in Of Mice and Men. Most of you probably had to read this for high school. Like most Steinbeck novels, it’s about transient farm workers in California during the Great Depression, in this case George and Lennie. Lennie is developmentally stunted and George takes care of him. They travel from ranch to ranch, working and saving money so that one day they can buy their own bit of land. They come to work on a ranch where the boss’ son Curley and Curley’s wife both prove troublesome. Curley, out of a rather large inferiority complex, despises Lennie, and Curley’s wife, because she is lonely, flirts with Lennie. All goes awry when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife. To save his friend from the wrath of Curley, George takes Lennie away and shoots him himself.

johnsteinbeckIt’s a tragic story in the end, but the theme of friendship runs strong throughout the book. George takes care of Lennie, but Steinbeck also constantly harps on the idea that men (and women) need someone they can talk to. Everyone needs a friend, and not everyone has one. Many people, like Crooks (the black stable buck) and Curley’s wife, are alone in the world. George and Lennie are lucky to have each other, even if it’s only for a while.

Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, was known for his representations of workers in California during the Great Depression. His writing may seem plain compared that of Shakespeare or Dickens, but it’s honest and blue-collar, much like his characters. His themes are complex and deep, however. Of Mice and Men represents both the lofty aspirations of dreams and the bitter reality of life. It is not a long book, but it speaks effectively to the heart of the reader. Even it wasn’t required reading in high school, everyone should have to read this book.

October Sky

octoberskyNow that it’s October, I feel like it’s appropriate to talk about one of my favorite movies ever: October Sky. It’s not full of action-packed car races, sympathetic villains, sexy British actors, or whatever draws people to the movies these days. It’s a quiet movie, but one of the most compelling I’ve ever seen, for several reasons.

First of all, it’s based on a true story. It’s about four boys living in the coalmining town Coalwood, West Virginia. It’s the kind of small town where everyone works in the mine, unless you can get out on a football scholarship. Despite his best efforts, Homer Hickam is not going to play football, but he refuses to accept a life in the mine even though his father runs it. Instead, the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite in 1957 inspires him to pursue rocket science. He enlists the help of two of his friends and the school geek to study the science of rockets and maybe—just maybe—win a way out Coalwood through the science fair.

The rocket boys.

The rocket boys.

It’s not a smooth road. Their rockets fail, the town mocks them, they even get arrested, but with the help of a supportive teacher, the boys succeed in launching a miniature rocket and win the state science fair, as well as the accolades of their town.

There are a lot of reasons I love this movie. The fact that it’s a true story makes the movie even more triumphant. These boys actually accomplished this, and Homer Hickam went on to become an engineer at NASA. The relationship between Homer and his father is also a great story. Homer’s father doesn’t understand his interest in science and his loathing for the mine. He wants Homer to be like him, but over the course of the story Homer and his father both come to realize that they are similar, and they can respect each other. October Sky is also the story of the impact one good teacher can have on the lives of her students. It’s a story of friendship, working hard, and overcoming obstacles to achieve your dream. The movie is uplifting, and the music is one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. (Mark Isham is the composer and there is a lot of violin.)

Everything about this movie is solid—the acting, the story, the themes, the music, the cinematography, everything. It may not have women in tight leather pants, superheroes in capes, or Tom Hiddleston in a suit, but it is a wholesome, compelling, beautiful movie. And now that it’s finally October, it’s time to break it out again.

Chris Cooper (left) as John Hickam and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) as Homer Hickam.

Chris Cooper (left) as John Hickam and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) as Homer Hickam.

A Taste of Italy

IMG_2919Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that carbs is my favorite food group. It’s the German part of me. Carbs, carbs, carbs. So, of course, one of my favorite kinds of food ever is Italian food. I love the bread, the pasta, the meatballs. One day, I will go to Italy and do nothing but eat, eat, eat all the delicious Italian food. But until then, I search eagerly for authentic Italian restaurants outside of the mother land. I found one in Santa Barbara, Max’s Restaurant and Cucina. My family likes to go there for breakfast on Sundays, but at night their Italian food is to die for. And served by a waitress with a thick Italian accent.

IMG_2922So naturally, when Emily and I went to Boston and we learned that they have quite the Italian food scene, we decided we had to eat in Little Italy. Luckily, the Freedom Trail goes right through Little Italy, and we actually got breakfast and a delicious pastry shop called Modern Pastry, but we were sure to return for lunch. We found a restaurant right on the Freedom Trail called Limoncello, and it was some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had.

IMG_0793Homemade pasta, fresh bread, and a cute waiter who barely spoke English. The place was wonderful. It was adorable, with paintings of Italy on the walls, bottles of wine lined up around the room, and cute flowers by the windows. We were one of the only parties in the restaurant at the time, so it was a relaxing environment. We sat by the window and watched people walk by on the Freedom Trail and observed people going about their business in Little Italy. It was a great experience, and even as I write this I’m craving the food.

Someday I’ll go to Italy for real and eat so much food I’ll come back twice the size I was when I left. But until then, I’m grateful to find places with such authentic Italian food. They’re gems, and if you’re ever in Boston and looking for a good place to eat, I wholeheartedly recommend Limoncello.

Emily and I in Little Italy, Boston, right outside Limoncello on the Freedom Trail.

Emily and I in Little Italy, Boston, right outside Limoncello on the Freedom Trail.

Trilogies

ruinrisingukWhat do all recent or current young adult books have in common? Maybe you’re thinking a strong female protagonist, a love triangle, or even vampires. But while these things are running rampant in YA literature at the moment, the one thing that all genres of YA have in common is that they are trilogies.

Think about it. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Selection, Graceling, Grave Mercy, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Legend, The Maze Runner, and almost any other popular YA novel. They come in threes. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. After all, my favorite book in the entire world—Lord of the Rings—is a trilogy. Though Tolkien did write it as one book. My real problem with YA trilogies is that books two and three are completely, wholly, and entirely unnecessary.

Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo

I recently finished Ruin and Rising, the third and final book of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. While it was nice to have closure for the characters and the plot, to see the story come to an end, it lit the flame of my annoyance at YA trilogies. Why? Because absolutely nothing new happened in this book. The exact same things that happened in book 1 AND 2 happened in book 3. Alina struggled with her feelings for more than one guy. The bad guy caught her and one of these guys. They escaped to live and fight another day. This same plot progression happened in ALL THREE BOOKS. The entire trilogy could have happened in one book if Bardugo had the right editor.

Most YA trilogies could be boiled down to one book if editors actually bothered about tightening up a story. I don’t know if it’s a problem with the decline of technical writing in America, a money thing, or just a trend, but so many trilogies just seem unnecessary. If you can write a stellar story in one book, do it. Don’t use ten words when one will do. Don’t draw out the plot until it’s so thin the reader can’t even see it anymore.

In the end, it’s probably a loss of technical writing, a money thing, and a trend, but I wish it would stop. I can’t read any more third books with that much plot and character repetition. If you’re making me read a second or a third or even a fourth book, you better have something new to throw at me. Otherwise hone your editing skills and get your manuscript down to one book.

Finding Neverland

findingneverlandWhen Emily and I were in Boston, we had the amazing opportunity to see the musical Finding Neverland, a musical based off of the 2004 movie starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. I was so excited to see this musical because Finding Neverland is one of my all-time favorite movies.

There are lots of reasons why I love Finding Neverland. It is a great story well told. It’s the tale of James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, only he hasn’t written it yet. On the other hand, he is struggling with writer’s block. He can’t find the inspiration he needs until he meets widowed Sylvia Lewelyn Davies and her four boys. With them he finds the inspiration he needs to write one of the greatest stories ever told: Peter Pan.

This movie is one of Johnny Depp’s few serious movies where he does not play some ridiculous, extravagant character, and he’s absolutely marvelous as the Scottish playwright. It’s an emotional, complex performance, and one of the best in Depp’s career. Kate Winslet, as always, is marvelous, as is a very young Freddie Highmore.

I’m also partial to stories about stories, or stories about writing. (Other good ones are Antonia Michaelis’ Tiger Moon and Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women.) Finding Neverland does a wonderful job of weaving elements of Peter Pan into the story about J.M. Barrie, showing the parallels between the author and his character in a fantastic way. (The musical also does a great job of this.)

Depp and Highmore as Barrie and Peter Lewelyn Davies

Depp and Highmore as Barrie and Peter Lewelyn Davies

I think artists of all sorts will love this movie. It’s a deep, emotional, but ultimately uplifting story about creating art. But everyone can enjoy the universal story about the human spirit. Over coming grief, finding joy, rediscovering the child within all of us. These are all important themes for everyone in every part of life.

Sometimes you watch a movie that’s a good story, but poorly made. Other times you sit through one that’s a bad story but well made. It’s a true treasure when you find a movie that is both an excellent story and well told. Finding Neverland is one of those movies. The story is eternal, much like the boy who would never grow old.

Girl of Fire and Thorns

Girl-of-Fire-and-Thorns-USOnce every generation, God chooses a child that is destined for service. This time around, it’s Princess Elisa. But unlike her perfect older sister, Elisa doesn’t seem to be exactly “chosen” material. She’s the second daughter, not very confident or adept at politics, and overweight. But despite her shortcomings, God chose her, as evidenced by the Godstone in her bellybutton—a gemlike thing that gets hot and cold based on how good or bad her situation is. And Alejandro, the king of the neighboring country also chose her, to be his wife and queen. So Elisa is whisked off to her new husband’s kingdom, but she isn’t there very long before she is kidnapped by a small group of rebels focused on fighting off an evil country attempting to invade Elisa’s old and new country. Now, Elisa must learn to stand up against the powers that be, learn to understand her role as God’s chosen, and find herself in the process.

While Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns is not my favorite fantasy book, I enjoyed it for one main reason. It is different than the typical strain of young adult novels in many ways. It’s set in a more Arab-inspired culture, as opposed to the Anglophile European leanings of most novels. The heroine is self-admittedly fat, even though that changes a little throughout the book. And she’s interested in studying religious texts than running a kingdom.

Rae Carson

Rae Carson

The romance relationships are also very different. In most YA today, the romantic relationship is the center of the book. In Girl of Fire and Thorns, the central relationship is actually Elisa and herself, as she works to discover her own identity and purpose. In modern YA, the romantic relationship is also very intense and obvious. The reader knows which character the protagonist should end up with. Sorry, Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, it was never a mystery. But in Cason’s book, it’s never clear cut. After marrying (but not consummating the marriage) Alejandro, Elisa wants to develop feelings for her new husband. But then when she’s kidnaps, she meets a very different boy and develops feelings for him. And based on how the plot plays out—don’t worry, no spoilers here—I don’t think that either of those two characters is Elisa’s true love interest. The point is that the romance is not clear cut, even though Elisa cares for both characters. And that’s a little closer to real life than the burning passions of many YA novels.

I liked The Girl of Fire and Thorns because it ventured to be different than other books in its genre. That being said, it’s not perfect. I always appreciate more world building. I would much prefer to read 50 pages of exposition (like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) and understand the world completely than have exposition woven “artfully” throughout the entire book and not truly understand the world even after getting 100 pages into the story. For the record, I am all for exposition dumping, even though I know writer’s are not supposed to do that. But I enjoyed Carson’s novel, and I look forward to reading the next book, The Crown of Embers, to see how Elisa continues to develop as a character.