The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #1)The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen has been getting major press. Author Johansen received a tremendous cash advance for the series, numerous reviewers have acclaimed it (and some have criticized it) and Emma Watson is set to star in and executive produce the film version…who can turn down a book that gets Hermione Granger’s seal of approval?

Nine Queen’s Guard swoop down on an out-of-the-way cottage in the woods to escort away protagonist Kelsea Raleigh from her childhood home to the royal palace. Sent away by her mother Queen Elyssa, Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday marks her ascendance to the throne – assuming she can make it to the coronation without being killed. Just on her way to the capital, she’s chased by assassins hired by her power-hungry uncle, who reigns as regent and means to keep it that way, and captured by wanted thief the Fetch and his band of merry men. Even once she makes it to New London, she must constantly be on her guard, both from the court and the mysterious Red Queen, ruler of neighboring Mortmesne, as she attempts to save her crumbling kingdom (or should I say queendom?) and win the respect of her people.

Johansen herself and others have heralded Kelsea as a non-stereotypical YA heroine, which is true – to an extant. Certainly Johansen makes much of the fact that Kelsea isn’t attractive and is slightly plump. However, she strongly wishes to be, resenting the more beautiful ladies of her court even after finding out how vain her own mother was. She does have numerous positive qualities though – she’s well-educated, she’s determined, she knows her own mind. I also liked that while she was rash at times, she did realize that her actions had consequences. For someone with very little knowledge of current affairs in her country, she did as best as she could while hewing closely to her personal moral code.

Additionally, she is feminist enough to not let men either sway her opinion or distract her too much from her responsibilities. Her guard, her uncle, and the various other men in her life all underestimate her but she’s very firm that she is queen and she is in command. Lazarus the Mace in particular bumbles a few times, and she’s strict enough to berate him for not trusting her while savvy enough to know that she needs his assistance. She is attracted to the Fetch, but the romance in this book is very minimal, unlike most young adult tales these days that are all about the many swoon-worthy men vying for a girl’s affections; however, I imagine that will change in the future if she needs to continue her family line and there are several built-in candidates for her potential affections.

In relation to the plot, most other trilogies tend to produce strong first and third books, with the middle being filler. In comparison, this book seems to largely be set-up for the action of the subsequent books in that it was slowly paced. It covers a snippet in time, in which many things happen but many questions go unanswered. I’m curious to know more about Kelsea’s family, the Fetch, the Mace’s backstory, the jewels, the Red Queen and her magic, and the mysterious Crossing that destroyed all technological advances. The story is told from Kelsea’s point of view, so I guess her ignorance is ours. But the fact that I don’t know much about anything except Kelsea herself is a source of frustration since the external details were often the most fascinating.

For example, one unique element of the novel was that although it takes place in a dystopia, it also takes place in the future. Johansen doesn’t give enough information to discern what happened to the old world or where it is exactly that the Tearling’s ancestors fled to from the US and the UK (is it a different planet or just a new continent on Earth?) but I’ve certainly never read anything with this premise.

As a result, characters speak of innovations from printing presses to medicine as if they’re dinosaurs – they existed once but have faded to legend. A few books remain from the “olden” days, which Kelsea and others hoard like a dragon’s treasure  – ironic because these books include The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (maybe that’s why Emma Watson loved it?). Unfortunately, while amusing, blatantly bringing up these fantasy novels serves to highlight how unoriginal parts of the plot are as they’re drawn from other fantasies: the evil queen (named just like Alice in Wonderland), the mischievous thief (Robin Hood), the magical jewel (The Girl of Fire and Thorns) and the despotic uncle (Prince Caspian‘s Miraz from The Chronicles of Narnia) among other examples.

That is not to say that this story was ill-told. Indeed, I devoured it in one sitting as it was an easy enough read that kept my attention. It wasn’t perfect and, by the conclusion, Kelsea still has a lot to learn about being both a just and capable queen, especially with the Tearling being on the brink of war. Nevertheless, as a result of her growth potential and the snippets of future that Johansen intersperses throughout the book, I believe that the sequels will only get stronger and recommend this book as a springboard into a fascinating new saga.

One note of warning: I didn’t realize this at the outset, but it contains enough mature discussions of sensitive topics and sexually explicit scenarios that I would be wary of exposing it to younger audiences. Meaning, if it’s marketed to “young adults”, they should be fairly mature “young” adults.

3.5 Stars

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Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

MeditationsConfession time: I’m a huge Latin nerd. I studied the language for 6 years in middle and high school, have worn a toga on multiple occasion (and not even for frat parties!) often while quoting from The Aeneid or Catullus, and wrote a 25 page capstone paper in college on “Roman Women’s Economic Rights under the Empire.”

So it’s really about time I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) ruled during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire and exemplified the Greek ideal of a philosopher-king. He served as emperor from AD 161 until his death, leaving behind an impressive legacy even with the lack of clarity of his biographies. His most unwise choice perhaps was the appointment of son Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator, as his successor, which most historians point to as the start of the decline of the Roman empire.

Before reading, I thought that he had compiled this work for publication in his lifetime. The kind folks at Penguin disabused me of that notion in their foreword – apparently, these were his personal meditations to himself so that he could improve as a person and as a ruler. He wrestles with both spiritual and material issues, and his words proved to be inspiring and impactful to me as they have been to countless other intellectuals throughout history.

He’s an ancient and eloquent Emperor, so rather than paraphrasing his wisdom for y’all, I’ll just let him speak for himself:

“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.” (Book 3, #4)

“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.” (Book 4, #3i)

“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. – Then where is hard to be found? In your capacity to see it.” (Book 4, #39)

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work-as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for- the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” (Book 5, #1)

“Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone-those that are now, and those to come…Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinitiy of past and future gapes before us- a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.” (Book 5, #23)

“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” (Book 7, #71)

“‘And your profession?’ “Goodness.'” (Book 11, #5)

“Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: Not to do or say anything despicable.” (Book 11, #13)

“Throw out your misperceptions and you’ll be fine.” (Book 12, #25)

5 Stars

Great by Sara Benincasa

GreatSara Benincasa’s Great is a modern reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Set in the Hamptons, it chronicles the lifestyles of the young, rich, and semi-famous amidst both frivolity and tragedy. In some ways, reading this book was like watching a car crash – I knew what would happen but I was absorbed in it anyway.

The narrative hews fairly closely to the original. In this version, protagonist Naomi Rye comes to spend the summer with her famous culinary-goddess mother as mandated by the court post-divorce. She much prefers being in Chicago with her laid-back dad and out-and-proud lesbian best friend but this summer quickly becomes more tolerable when she begins a relationship with rich but relatable Jeff.

Jeff is best friends with Teddy Barrington, a pretentious jerk and oil heir, who has been dating flightly but friendly model Delilah Fairweather. Although their families have known each other for years, this is the first time Naomi is deeply included in the group – and from within, she sees Teddy’s and Delilah’s relationship struggle under Teddy’s obvious affair with trashy townie Misti. Meanwhile, she also becomes friends with her mysterious neighbor Jacinta, founder of fashion and society blog “The Wanted,” who has a perplexing obsession with Delilah.

As you can tell, the parallels are obvious. Delilah (Daisy) and Jacinta (Gatsby) grow closer but their relationship inevitably reaches a tragic conclusion as does Naomi (Nick) and Jeff ‘s (Jordan) and Teddy (Tom) and Misti’s (Myrtle). Misti’s fate is not quite as horrific as poor Myrtle’s and Jacinta’s ending differs slightly from Jay’s, but the result of Naomi’s mother’s schemes show that these are careless, immoral people. To paraphrase Fitzgerald, the rich smash up things and people before moving on with a trail of rubbish in their wake.

I’m a fan of Gatsby but the parties are one of the highlights of Great in which Benincasa outdoes the original depiction. From an all-white party to a carnival with Ferris wheel, Jacinta goes big but believable compared to today’s celebrity bashes. The descriptions make you want to be there, to be included in such a fantastically outrageous good time. Yet, in the proliferation of drugs/alcohol, selfies, and snobbery at these events, Benincasa, even more so than Fitzgerald did, is highlighting the dark side of fortune.

Another strong point of the book is it’s usage of social media. Jacinta basically is a cyber-stalker, yet all these people want to be her friend so they can be showcased on her website. Her status and the status of these young socialites spring from her blog, which defines the who’s who of East Hampton/NYC social circles. The Internet largely serves as a platform for social climbers at the top of the pyramid, but the ending demonstrates how it can actually serve as a powerful tool for the underdog.

I also appreciated the alteration of the traditional heterosexual relationship and it’s repercussions on the plot, since LGBTQ rights are such a hot-button issue in today’s world. Delilah’s father is a staunchly conservative Republican senator, adding stress to her relationship with Jacinta as they face derision, dismay, and disgusting comments from the few people who know they’re sexually involved. In contrast to Delilah, who may be actually gay or simply experimenting, we have Naomi’s best friend Skags, who is up-front about her sexual orientation and is a fun, powerful supporting character.

The issues of sexuality are tied in with the notions of appearance present among both the male and female characters on the Hamptons. Both genders invest a lot into their sex appeal both in their body and wardrobe. Symbolically, instead of the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg on the billboard, there is a plastic surgeon holding fat. Both Naomi and Jacinta alter their style and manner to fit in, but only maintain their status while they’re able to keep up appearances. Of course, in the end, none of them can be but who they are.

To conclude, I enjoyed reading Great, since it’s a perfect summery beach read, but as with many retellings, it lacks some of the depth of the original. However, the shared spirit, symbolism, and moral spine make both books Great.

4 Stars

Weekend Update: Billy Joel!

Billy Joel: The BiographyI’m not even exaggerating when I say that I’ve been waiting for this weekend all summer. Back in dark and winter-stormy January, when all I could do was dream about sunshine and baseball and outdoor concerts, my friend and I bought tickets to see Billy Joel at Nationals Park. He has been my favorite musician since at least middle school, and seeing him live is the best All-American nostalgic summer dream I could imagine.

A year or two ago, I read “Billy Joel: The Biography” by Mark Bego. From a literary standpoint, it didn’t rank among the best written biographies I’ve read, but from a fan’s standpoint, it was a fascinating  read that allowed me to learn more about the man behind the music and how he drew inspiration for his songs from his life.

In The News: “A Shot And A Book”

Juan Vidal, a book critic at NPR, recently published a piece on “A Shot And A Book: How to Read in Bars.” Now the average bookworm may be appalled, but he does have a good point. Personally I’m always seeking the perfect place that’s quiet enough to lose myself in a book while lacking the pretentiousness of coffee shops and the infinite distractions of libraries or bookstores.

When the weather cooperates, I tend to prefer outdoor spaces, like a nook outside the 16th Street Masonic Temple or a tiny memorial park in Georgetown. If pushed indoors, there’s nothing better than my bed or a fluffy armchair with a cup of tea. I’ve dabbled in cafes, usually when I’m eating alone, but I’ve never thought about reading at a bar.

Bars scream to me, crowded and noisy and the inability to hear yourself think. But if you go at off-peak hours as Vidal suggests, I can see how, in Vidal’s own words, “They’re warm and brooding, and if you go early enough, it can be just you, a bartender, and enough open space to react to plot twists without judgment.” Read more here and give it a shot!

Kate Elliott’s Cold Fire (Spiritwalker #2)

Cold Fire (Spiritwalker, #2)Cold Fire is the second book in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series, following Cold Magic. The action picks up right where Cold Magic left off, and actually even overlaps a bit. Cat and Bee continue to be hunted by the mages, political groups, and the Master of the Wild Hunt. Having escaped from their enemies’ grasp in the previous work, they are still essentially homeless and friendless.

Due to botched magic, Cat and Bee are separated, first in the spirit world and then in the real world. After a terrifying interaction with the Master of the Wild Hunt, Cat is dumped on the zombie-infested island of Taino before making her way to the city of Expedition, where she serendipitiously encounters Vai. The pacing of the plot slows to a crawl as if it was swimming its way through a vat of sexual tension jelly. The plot picks up speed again as all the other main characters coincidentally arrive on Expedition, a deus ex machina which is ridiculous even for a world of magic.

For me, this entry was not nearly as strong as the first book in the trilogy in a few ways. The world building should have been intriguing as we expanded to the “Amerikes”, this world’s version of America, which has definite parallels to the Creole/Caribbean of our world yet remains unstereotypical. Both Camjiata and the mages are trying to woo these nations into an alliance, and the radical social movement has spread overseas. Unfortunately, as the reader faces an infodump of the political and historical background of Expedition and the Free Cities, the overall story arch remains murky. Possibly because there’s so many questions still unanswered about the situation in Europe, I wasn’t thrilled to need to learn and understand the goings on of an entirely separate region.

As to the characters, Cat and Bee both seemed extra naive and frustrating in this book, like they’d reversed their growth from the end of the previous book. One would think that with their repeated claims of having mastered the Hassi Barahal spy-training that they would be less trusting (which they are, but of the wrong people) and more sneakily subtle. They also were rarely together, which weakened the book for me because a highlight of the first book was their protective sisterly relationship. Additionally, Cat seemed to forget that her cousin was going to be sacrificed, instead wallowing in self-centeredness because of Vai.

The majority of the book revolves around the ongoing romantic drama between Cat and Vai as they adjust to being together in the married sense. Despite finding a way to annul the union, they clearly want each other. However, Cat continues to resist her feelings and Vai doesn’t help himself out, acting like an arrogant jerk, shaming and shunning her when his friends think she’s a slut. Eventually they make up and I respect that they actually have a conversation about their problems, but I like Vai much less now. Also, neither acts in a significant way with regards to the rest of the plot until the end, converting them into typical YA protagonists whose lives revolve only around each other rather than being actors in their own right.

Camjiata is still rather an unexplained, ill-defined antagonist – I’m not really sure what he wants or why he’s so powerful but hopefully that will be fully examined in the final book. His introduction was so strong at the end of the last book that I presumed he’d be more of a presence in this book. Instead he remained obscure offscreen. I don’t want to spoil much, but the inclusion of Drake and his role as a fire mage definitely intrigued me more than Camjiata and the other political maneuvering. The trolls continue to be awesome, but the majority of supporting characters are bland and annoying, particularly Kayleigh, Kofi, and assorted radicals of which are plenty and unmemorable.

Though it didn’t meet my high expectations after the first book, Cold Fire was still a entertaining segment of a unique saga and I look forward to what the next book will bring. Hopefully Vai’s character will be redeemed and the results of Camjiata’s plots will be revealed in an epic way.

3 Stars

The Heiresses by Sara Shepard

The HeiressesY’all might recognize the name Sara Shepard as the evil genius behind the show “Pretty Little Liars”, one of my guiltiest pleasures. I had read that book series back when I was an actual teen and loved the first few, but the seemingly endless mystery slowly lost my interest.

Still I couldn’t help picking up this new book of hers – there’s something so much more sordidly appealing when (fictional) murder mysteries occur amongst the rich and famous!

The Heiresses is obviously about a group of heiresses who belong to the fictional Saybrook diamond dynasty. For the most part, the 5 of them are close-knit and seemingly down to earth. Poppy, the oldest, is president of the family company. Rowan works as a corporate lawyer for the Saybrook Company and has a seemingly unrequited crush on Poppy’s husband James. Twins Corrine, the uptight one, and Aster, the party girl, are at odds and Natasha has disowned herself. All the ingredients for a soapy drama are here, including a supposed family curse that plagues them and is brought into the public spotlight after perfect Poppy commits suicide.

An Internet threat suggesting that her death was a murder and the other girls will soon follow brings the FBI in, but meanwhile the girls do a little of their own sleuthing and uncover the dirty secrets their family members, friends, and colleagues are hiding. They themselves have their own murky pasts and struggle to keep their misdeeds from the media as they hunt for a murderer.

This novel was a cross between 90210, a show I never watched, and Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, which I read last year and loved. While it featured the beautiful and rich found in the former, it had the similar themes of responsibility to the family, social expectations, and wealth dynamics of the latter. Of course, this was very tabloid in tone and lacked certain depth since it was self-contained within a few hundred pages (with room for a sequel left open). The secondary characters were fairly stereotypical, but the heiresses all had unique, if one-note, personalities. And in the end, the conclusion proved surprising.

The Heiresses would be perfect for readers who’ve run out of celebrity-featured magazines and are looking for a light summer mystery.

3 Stars