Category Archives: Books

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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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

Winter 2018 003

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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Best of 2017: Book Edition, Part 1

Thanks to some quality recommendations, 2017 was a great year for exploring new authors and series. You’ll find some of those books here, along with two familiar names. Here are the illustrious numbers 10 through 6!

10. Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

Once and for All

Still crazy about Sarah Dessen after all these years. Once and for All is one of her classic summer novels, this one following cynical Louna as she works for her mother’s wedding planning company. Although it won’t go down as one of my all-time favorites by Sarah, the story was entertaining. I especially liked the feeling of the makeshift family created by Louna, her single mother, and her mother’s business partner. Ambrose provides a lovably goofy romantic lead, and one scene of his buffoonery had me laughing hysterically.

9. Outcasts United by Warren St. John

Outcasts United

This summer I took a class about immigrant fiction, and Outcasts United was one of our assigned readings. The book is a wonderful example of journalism written in an accessible mode. Warren St. John follows one season in the life of a refugee soccer team in a Georgia town with a quickly changing population. Additionally, he intersperses the team’s challenges and triumphs with the personal stories of its coach and members, who come from many different countries. Even if you struggle with nonfiction, give this book a try.

8. The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls

The Girls is an introspective story based on the Manson Family in 1969. The narrator Evie is a lonely fourteen-year-old who is drawn to life on the dilapidated ranch after meeting three free-spirited girls who live there. Although the charismatic male leader is on the periphery, Evie’s true motivation is her friendship with impulsive Suzanne. Over the course of a hypnotic summer, Emma Cline investigates how the yearning for human connection can lead people into dangerous places and circumstances can change lives.

7. Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier

Den of Wolves

I was somewhat disappointed by the second Blackthorn & Grim novel, but this third installment was more satisfactory. Instead of traveling to another part of the country, Blackthorn spends most of the novel at court with familiar characters. Grim travels to the forboding house of Wolf Glen, where there are secrets to be unraveled. Along with an intriguing mystery, Den of Wolves sees pleasing developments in the lives of the two main characters. This could be the final book in the series, but the door is open for more. I would welcome it!

6. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Queen of the Tearling

This is the first of two books on my top 10 to be recommended by my friend Emmie. The girl knows where to find good fantasy! The first of a trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling is a classic fantasy story that avoids overused tropes. When Kelsea turns nineteen, she must come out of hiding and take her place as queen. However, she must contend with her uncle, who has served as Regent in her absence, and the sadistic queen of a neighboring country. It’s a fast-paced political story about finding out who you can trust and learning to trust yourself.

This is an exciting list, but the top 5 are even better!

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Sarah Dessen, Revisited

Whenever I finish reading a new Sarah Dessen book, I want to reread some of her earlier work. Usually I resist because I want to keep up with my reading goals. Not to mention, with thirteen books published, there are almost too many choices. However, this summer saw me with more free time than usual, which meant more reading. In a time of transition I once again turned to a favorite book. And then another. And another. It was all Sarah Dessen, all the time.

The Truth about Forever

I reread The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, and Saint Anything. The Truth about Forever is a fan favorite, one that I loved at the age of 15 and had certainly read more than once in the past. Just Listen is one of the few Dessen novels that I had mediocre feelings about, only to hear multiple coworkers and friends list it among their favorites. Saint Anything is her second-to-last book, released in 2015. I really liked it at the time but had only read it once. It was an interesting cross-section of her work, which I’ve been wanting to revisit for years.

Back in 2004, I remember being nervous about The Truth about Forever. I had loved This Lullaby with such a passion, and I didn’t want my favorite author to disappoint me. Then she published a novel that was equal to, if not better than the previous book. As an adult reader, the premise is still appealing. The crew at Wish Catering is one of Sarah’s best supporting casts, and who wouldn’t want to be whisked away into a quirky new social group. Wes is also one of her most swoon-worthy love interests: the thoughtful, artistic boy with a checkered past. It’s still a humorous and touching book with amazing character details.

Just Listen

Just Listen was her very next novel, and in my mind the stakes finally got too high. It may have been the similarities of Annabel’s problems to those of the previous narrator, or I may have been bothered by the made-up musicians and band names. Quite possibly I was just a jaded seventeen-year-old who was a bit of a music snob and transitioning to adult fiction. For whatever reason, Just Listen flopped for me in 2006, and I hadn’t read it since. In 2017 I’m still a music lover but significantly less snobby about it. I also have an easier time accepting a fictional reality in a realistic fiction book. More than ten years later, I could finally see why so many other readers connected with this story.

I wasn’t planning to move on to Saint Anything, especially since I noticed during my first two rereads that all three of these books cover themes of holding in emotions and feeling unheard. I also remembered drawing comparisons between Mac and Wes when I first read Saint Anything, along with some of the other supporting characters. Of course, there’s a limit to the varieties of floppy-haired teenage dreamboats, and authors tend to touch on similar themes throughout their work. Despite having just read the other two books, the similarities in Saint Anything didn’t really bother me. And not just because I’m completely biased! Isn’t the struggle to feel understood and to be seen the way we want to be seen a central part of the adolescent experience? Nobody ever got mad at Hemingway for writing about the psychological aftermath of the First World War.

Saint Anything

I was curious, and admittedly somewhat afraid, to see how my tastes had changed over the years. And while there were moments that affected me differently, I found myself more open to enjoy plotlines and characters that had once disinterested me. As a teenager, I also considered The Truth about Forever to be quite profound. The philosophizing didn’t seem as mind-blowing now, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story. Finally rereading Just Listen reminded me that I probably wasn’t very attracted to Owen as Annabel’s love interest. But tastes change—thank God—and it’s easier to see the appeal of a boy with a penchant for honesty and a beyond-obscure public radio show.

Rereading these books was a way to get back in touch with myself, to see how I’ve changed and how I’ve stayed the same. It always helps to feel grounded in yourself when your life is going through changes. I’m so glad that sixth-grade Courtney picked up her first Sarah Dessen book and found an author whose work would be with her sixteen years later.

 

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