The Ember Quartet Keeps Burning

A Reaper at the Gates

A Reaper at the Gates, the third book in Sabaa Tahir’s fantasy adventure quartet, was released last month. An Ember in the Ashes was the best book that I read in 2017, and A Torch Against the Night did not disappoint. I decided to reread the first two books before the third book’s release since I assumed that I had forgotten some details about the plot. (And indeed I had!) Besides, this is a young adult series, and rereading would have definitely been my move as a teen if I loved a series this much. Now I am fully prepared to evaluate the story arc.

My first post about An Ember in the Ashes mentioned some common pitfalls for authors continuing a series after a promising debut. It seems to me that Tahir took great care with her world-building at the start of the series. Across all three books, she displays a broad understanding of the Empire and its peoples, as well as specific knowledge about her characters’ histories and psychology. The series takes place in the Empire, a country ruled by the military-minded Martial class but also home to the oppressed Scholars. By drawing her characters from different groups and alternating perspectives, Tahir fills her fictional world with nuanced individuals, instead of a strict good-versus-evil dichotomy.

There’s an expectation that a fantasy series will broaden its scope and raise the stakes with each installment. In my opinion, this is where authors can sometimes lose sight of what made their story work in the first place. While An Ember in the Ashes switched between Elias and Laia’s perspectives, Tahir chose to add Helene’s perspective to the second book. Helene is Elias’s best friend from their childhood of elite military training, but the events of the first book place them at odds. On the practical side, her chapters keep the reader informed of what the Martials are up to, but she also represents another perspective on one of the series’ central themes: duty versus personal desire. By the third book, I was probably looking forward to her chapters more than any others.

A Reaper at the Gates is somewhat less focused on the characters’ personal struggles as they have become embroiled in larger conflicts. Or rather, the characters find it increasingly difficult to honor their personal desires while also serving the greater good. Although seemingly necessary for dramatic effect, this shift is probably where other series have lost me. Let’s be honest–I’m here for the feelings! Thankfully, Tahir intersperses the action with enough emotional upheaval to satisfy my inner adolescent. I wish that I could also escape the fantasy mainstays of prophecies and the undead, but as an infrequent visitor to this genre, perhaps I don’t have the right to complain.

Laia, Elias, and Helene were placed in extreme new circumstances at the end of A Torch Against the Night, and the same can be said for A Reaper at the Gates. Some of the changes are exciting and some are heartbreaking. The story strands have woven together in surprising ways, and I’m fascinated to see how they resolve. Now I can only hope it will be just a year’s wait for the final book.

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Two Funny, Flawed Broads

Broad City 1

Perhaps only when it comes to media, I love being proven wrong. I love when a thoughtful piece of pop culture analysis makes me look at something in a different way. The result is often finding enjoyment in an artist or show that I had previously dismissed. In this case, the show is Broad City, and the analysis is ScreenPrism’s video “What’s So Great About Broad City.”

I had watched a few Broad City clips on YouTube, but I wasn’t sure that I connected to these two women. Is it because of the limited number of female-centric stories that we desire to see ourselves reflected in the ones that do exist? Granted, the explosion of quality series across different media platforms (cable, streaming, etc.) has certainly produced a greater diversity of stories. And I may not relate to some aspects of the Broad City characters’ lives, like recreational drug use, but I find myself drawn to the heart of the show. ScreenPrism cited the deeply supportive friendship between Ilana and Abbi as a defining aspect of the show, and that description is what finally made me want to watch.

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The lack of boundaries in Ilana and Abbi’s friendship, and particularly Ilana’s obsessive love for Abbi, is played up for laughs. Yet the affirmations and lack of judgment between them reflect the best of what female friendships can be. It puts me in mind of another favorite comedy, Parks and Recreation, and the overzealous love that Leslie has for her best friend Ann. Appropriately, Parks and Rec‘s Amy Poehler was an executive producer on Broad City for the first three seasons. You know I love me some Amy Poehler, even if it’s just her executive producing essence. She’s all about women raising each other up, and by supporting these two female comics, she practiced what she preaches.

Broad City breaks other TV conventions in its treatment of the women’s romantic relationships, which are usually secondary to the plot and rarely romanticized. For instance, Abbi’s crush on her sophisticated neighbor is a running joke of the first two seasons. When she finally confesses her feelings, things go wrong almost immediately. It’s radically different from the model of many TV shows, keeping their endgame couple apart with “will they or won’t they” nonsense until final moments. However, it’s closer to what would likely happen in real life since Abbi and Jeremy are very different to begin with. In my experience, it’s a rare thing for long-time crushes to end in a relationship.

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ScreenPrism also points out that Ilana and Abbi experience frequent setbacks on their path to personal growth, which is not typical of a comedy series but certainly truer to life. This is probably a big part of why the show resonates with young viewers. I, for one, appreciate seeing twentysomething heroines without perfect wardrobes or a clear career path. So tell your friends how awesome they are and have a laugh with these funny, flawed broads.

 

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Craving Classic Hollywood: William Wyler

Last week I finished reading Mark Harris’s Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Naturally, I was left with the desire to watch some of the films discussed in the book. Director William Wyler is an interesting case because he made films about the war just before and after his own involvement. In Mrs. Miniver (1942), he tells the story of a British family’s struggles on the homefront, and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) takes an honest look at the experiences of returning American veterans.

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Returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives

Before the war, Wyler made mostly period dramas, including three films with Bette Davis. I had previously watched Jezebel (1938), one of the Davis collaborations, which fits my impression of his early films as emotionally engrossing but rather dreamy affairs. It seems clear that Wyler’s time as a war documentarian influenced him to strip some of the artifice from his films. Only four years elapsed between Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, but there is a maturation in Wyler’s conception of war’s cost. Thankfully, he retained his desire to find beauty in the small human moments of a larger story.

Mrs. Miniver follows an English family from the onset of war and their eldest son’s enlistment through bombings of their village. Filmed several months before Pearl Harbor, the film portrays the stoicism and good humor in the face of hardship that are often used to characterize the British war effort. The opening sequence shows Mrs. Miniver, played by Greer Garson, agonizing over whether to buy an expensive hat. Of course, she will soon be cured of this prewar frivolity! Although the Minivers are clearly well-off themselves, we also see some old-fashioned classism when Mrs. Miniver encounters Lady Beldon, the local aristocrat who doesn’t approve of middle class ladies buying expensive clothes. Perhaps the war will make you change your attitudes, Lady Beldon.

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Waiting for the bombs in Mrs. Miniver

After enlisting with the Air Force and traveling to London, Wyler felt that he got some of the details wrong in Mrs. Miniver. The film certainly has a Hollywood gloss, and most of the actors speak with the ambiguous Transatlantic accent that was common in films. However, Wyler’s focus on the human side of warfare make it an effective story all the same. Greer Garson is a plucky homefront matriarch, but she fears for her son’s safety as he becomes an RAF pilot. One of the most moving scenes takes place in the family’s bomb shelter, where Mr. and Mrs. Miniver attempt to have a normal conversation as the bombs draw closer.

Four years later, The Best Years of Our Lives follows three veterans returning to their hometown at the end of the war. Although the men come from different walks of life, they meet on the journey home and continue a friendship as they adjust to their new lives. That is, their old lives that can never be quite the same. Al struggles to become reacquainted with his wife and nearly grown children, while Fred returns to the woman he married just weeks before shipping out. The biggest adjustment is for Homer, played by an actual disabled veteran, who lost his hands in the Navy. Working closely with the screenwriter, Wyler wove his own experiences into each storyline.

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Fred and his disillusioned wife in The Best Years of Our Lives

Dana Andrews, also the star of my beloved Laura (1944), plays Fred Derry. Although he was a decorated bombardier during the war, Fred comes from a poor family and an unglamorous job at the soda fountain. His wife is practically a stranger, and she comments disapprovingly that she’s never seen him out of uniform before. Of course, the central struggle for these men is to adapt to a life that is not defined by their military service. One quiet scene shows Homer’s father helping him change into pajamas while he smokes a cigarette. His face is the picture of youthful manliness, but in that moment his helplessness is also revealed. The characters in The Best Years of Our Lives reach a level of vulnerability that is never seen in Mrs. Miniver.

William Wyler made movies for another two decades after the war. His work includes my favorite Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday (1953). Before and after the war, he knew how to find beauty in the world and in people. I could easily have written individual posts about these films, but pairing them felt like the ultimate crash course in Wyler. The man who showed the Minivers singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in a bomb-damaged church is certainly the same one who followed Fred Derry through a field of discarded fighter planes. Together these films portray bravery, sacrifice, and what comes after that.

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Five Came Back, Page and Screen

Five Came Back

Mark Harris’s first book, Pictures at a Revolution, captures the breakdown of the Hollywood studio system through the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967. In his second book, Five Came Back, he combines social and film history on a much grander scale. It follows five prominent Hollywood directors as they worked within various branches of the military to create propaganda and documentaries during World War II. The five directors are Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.

In 2017, Netflix released a three-part documentary version of the book. The script was adapted by Mark Harris himself with Steven Spielberg as one of the producers. Although a three-hour documentary can’t include every detail of a 400-plus page book, the series has the advantage of showing film and interview clips, rather than just describing them. The series uses an additional narrative device of five contemporary directors—huge names like Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro—who each focus on one of the original five. This gives the viewer a deeper understanding of how the work of these men has influenced film today. I particularly appreciate the involvement of Spielberg since he has made some of the most iconic movies about World War II.

Five Came Back Netflix

In both iterations, I find the stories of William Wyler and George Stevens to be the most compelling. Wyler was a Jewish immigrant from a town near the French-German border. His service involved filming bombing missions with the Air Force, repeatedly putting himself and other crew members in harm’s way. Stevens, who had been a respected comedy director before the war, was present at some of the most significant events in Europe: the D-Day invasion, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge. He and his unit were also at the liberation of Dachau. After that, Stevens turned his attention from documentary to evidence collection. He made two films about concentration camps and the Nazi plan that were used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

The final note of Five Came Back is how each man’s war experience affected the movies that he made thereafter. After witnessing the capacity of human cruelty, George Stevens never directed a comedy again, but he became a respected director of drama. Upon their return to civilian life, William Wyler made a film about the struggles of veterans, and Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life. Their personal journeys reflect how the world changed after World War II, a time that showed the best and worst of humanity. To me these connections signify a successful work of cultural history.

Both projects are epic and, in fact, complement each other. Through the inclusion of contemporary directors, who are also admirers of the five, the documentary takes a less critical stance about the men’s actions during and after the war. In his book, Mark Harris isn’t afraid to point out when the directors exaggerated or downright lied about their own contributions. I was left with mixed feelings toward Ford, Huston, and Capra, but am nonetheless interested in their films. Having already seen a few films by Stevens and Wyler, I hope to watch more with the context given by Mark Harris.

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Maureen and John for the Win!

As I discussed in a previous post, this fall and winter saw the release of long-awaited books from several of my favorite young adult authors. 2018 has already been an excellent reading year for me, kicking off with new work by Maureen Johnson and John Green. Both of these novels deserve to be shared.

Truly Devious

Because of my enduring love for Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, I approached Truly Devious as a consolation prize for the final Shades book. Not my favorite ghost detectives, but a detective story at the very least. Instead I found a fun and complex story in its own right. Johnson has used boarding school settings before, but none like the secluded Ellingham Academy, a school for extraordinary students with very specific interests.

Stevie Bell comes to Ellingham on the strength of her true crime obsession, and her goal is to solve the the infamous 1930s kidnapping that took place on the estate. Johnson uses flashbacks and police interview transcripts to dramatize the events surrounding the kidnapping, as well as giving the reader a window into Ellingham of the past. As Stevie begins her investigation, she must also cope with her eccentric new classmates. Johnson is a master of the quick character sketch, bringing personalities to life within a few paragraphs. The stakes are raised for Stevie when another suspicious death occurs at Ellingham. These two parallel mysteries will unfold throughout the Truly Devious trilogy.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down made me remember why I was obsessed with John Green for several years. He’s certainly an intellectual’s YA writer. With his frequent references to poetry and philosophy, he gives the reader explicit information about the themes he considers while writing his books. Personally I enjoy when an author has high expectations of me as a reader, and I like the idea that teenagers might explore other works as a result of reading this novel.

But lest you think this book is just a festival of philosophizing, Turtles All the Way Down has some visceral emotions at its core. John Green used his own experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder to inform the story. Asa Holmes wants to help her best friend find a fugitive billionaire—and maybe become reacquainted with his son—but her OCD is a near-constant obstacle. In his online content, Green often discusses how pain defies description, including the pain of mental illness. (See this wonderful video for more.) Much like The Bell Jar takes the reader inside depression, this book gives readers a clear picture of how OCD feels to those who live with it. And yes, it made me cry.

I came out of both of these reading experiences with an urge to look for author interviews and background knowledge on the books’ topics. As I’ve probably said before, I consider this one of the hallmarks of a great read. Now, of course, I must wait at least a year for the continuation of Truly Devious, but in the meantime I can get back to the Queen of the Tearling series.

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Reading Roundup 2017

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One of the biggest events of my reading year was discovering that Good Reads now has a way to record multiple reads of the same book. In other words, rereads can now be counted toward your yearly total in the reading challenge. As a lover of my reading data, this change presented a dilemma. Do I want to start recording rereads when the totals for my past years are only new books? Then again, this is a way to collect even more data, so of course I decided to do it.

My goal for 2017 was to read 20 books, and my final total was 23 books! This total includes the three Sarah Dessen novels that I reread this summer. In terms of new books, I reached my goal exactly. I also read some lengthy books this year, giving me my highest page total since 2013.

Acknowledging the fact that I can now count rereads, my goal for 2018 is to read 22 books. This year should be my busiest yet with grad school, but I think I can still reach that goal. There are many new books on my to-read list. In fact, I’ve already read the new John Green book and started the sequel to The Queen of the Tearling. Happy reading!

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Best of 2017: Book Edition, Part 2

It was a tough year for a lot of people, but I personally found comfort in the wit and wisdom of smart women like these five authors. If you want honest reflections of imperfect people, these books are a good place to start. Here are my favorite books for 2017!

5. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible

From conversations with friends, I know that readers had split opinions about this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The greatest challenge for any modernization is finding equivalents for the social and romantic obstacles that the characters face. I appreciate that Eligible makes bold choices to create situations that feel equally dramatic to the ones in the original story, given the less restrictive society of today. Although the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic, it’s a deliciously fitting send-up to see Mr. Bingley as a reality show star and Jane as a placid yoga teacher. All the points for creativity!

4. The Lake House by Kate Morton

The Lake House

My former coworker Angel placed this book on my desk with assurances that I would love it. Nearly a year later, I’ve read three books by Kate Morton, but The Lake House remains my favorite. I like to call Morton’s books “Anglophile porn” because they have everything you would want of a British story: world wars, ancestral homes, and family secrets. The Lake House is a prime example. While on leave from the London police, Sadie finds an abandoned country house and is determined to discover its history. This leads her to Alice Edevane, a mystery writer who grew up in the house. And the page-turning continues from there.

3. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Build A Girl

Caitlin Moran is a formidable feminist voice in the UK. Before also reading her memoir this year, I picked up her semi-autobiographical novel. Despite a strongly worded disclaimer from Moran that How to Build a Girl is completely fictional, she was also raised in a large family in Wolverhampton and became a music journalist while still in her teens. Like all her writing, Moran’s prose is frank and funny. The characters reach high levels of absurdity in their actions, but as the narrator strives to reinvent herself, her private admissions feel absolutely real. It’s a messy, affectionate coming-of-age tale.

2. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud

I fell in love with Anne Helen Petersen as a Classic Hollywood analyst, but these musings on modern celebrity culture blew me away. Each chapter is named after a female celebrity and one of her supposedly excessive qualities. Then Petersen examines how that woman’s celebrity image breaks from socially acceptable expressions of femininity. (Too strong, too fat, too old, etc.) As always, her writing illuminates how our culture’s often contradictory values are reflected in our celebrities. I was particularly impressed by how she made me reconsider women whose personas have never resonated with me in the past. This book should be a battle cry for unruly women everywhere.

1. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes

Let’s consider this the year that young adult came back into my life with a vengeance. At the top of the heap is An Ember in the Ashes, the first in a planned four-part series by Sabaa Tahir. She creates a vivid, dangerous world with slavery, oppression, and a ruling military class. At the beginning of the book, Laia must become a slave at the brutal military academy in order to help the Resistance and save her imprisoned brother. Tahir excels at showing a diversity of perspectives and setting high stakes for all of her characters. I can’t wait for the third book to come out in April! (You can read my full review here.)

Thanks for reading with me!

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