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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

Last year, for the first time ever, I hadn't read enough five-star books to fill my entire top ten list, and had to pick one from the fours.  This year, I ended up with only four five-star books (not counting a reread).  I'm not sure what to make of this, but it's resulted in an interesting list.  Because of this, I had to analyze all thirty-six of my four-star reads and pick the six best.  This forced me to really think about which books have stuck with me all year long.  Some four-star books are enjoyable, but don't linger.  Others keep proving their worth long after you've finished them.  Not only, then, is this a list of my favorite books of the year--it's also a list of the most enduring books of the year.

10. Charm & Strange by Stephanie Keuhn
If there's one thing I've learned about my reading tastes over the past year or so, it's that I love books that mess with my mind.  I want to think I know what's happening, and then for the author to pull the rug out from under me.  I want the good kind of "Wait...WHAT?"  Charm & Strange satisfied my need for this type of novel.  It's an odd little book, but it packs a huge punch.  It's a fascinating character study, taking its time to develop both sides of the main character (he has two "parts" of himself--Drew and Win).  The whole time, it builds to an ending that changes your perception of everything that happened previously.  It's the type of book that you want to reread as soon as you finish.

9. Sinner (The Wolves of Mercy Falls #4) by Maggie Stiefvater
How many times have any of us read a book, fallen in love with a certain character, and thought, "I really wish the author would give this character their own book."  This is what happened with Sinner.  Cole St. Clair was my favorite character from the original trilogy.  Lo and behold, Maggie Stiefvater gave him his own book.  It's exactly what you'd expect from a book about Cole St. Clair--it's an angsty mess.  But a good one.  The werewolf aspect is actually only a small part of the story.  The bigger focus is on Cole himself (and Isabel), and their character development. 

8. The Final Descent (The Monstrumologist #4) by Rick Yancey
Rick Yancey's Monstrumologist books are one of the best things I've discovered over the last two years.  The Final Descent wasn't quite as good as the rest of the series.  Still, that's like saying that twenty-five billion dollars isn't as much as thirty billion dollars.  Sure, it's not as much, but it's still an incredible amount of money.  The Final Descent is different from the first three in length, structure, and the personalities of the characters, and these things threw me off.  However, both this book and the series as a whole are still excellent.  It's a Frankenstein-esque look at humanity: there are monsters, yes, but humankind is the real monster.

7. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith 
What is Grasshopper Jungle?  That's a good question.  It's a neon green mess of teenage life, the apocalypse, and science gone wrong.  It's a love story, but it's also a friendship story, and a story about giant grasshoppers that bring the end of the world.  And it's even more chaotic than it sounds.  Grasshopper Jungle is hard to describe, since it's so strange.  The strangeness is awesome, though.  It keeps things interesting, keeps you guessing.  The more it tries to put you off, the more fascinating it becomes.  

6. Champion (Legend #3) by Marie Lu
Champion still hurts me.  That ending...*sniffle*  Okay, fine.  It was a good ending to a fantastic series.  It was fitting and satisfying, but painful.  Then again, I respect Marie Lu for this.  If she can make me feel, she's done an excellent job creating her characters.  I cared about Day, June, and the others. In my original review, I gave this book four stars.  The more I think about it, though, the more I realize I was holding back.  It deserves five stars.  Even almost a year after finishing this, I still love it like I did in January.  That's a sign of a good book, right there.

5. Coda (Coda #1) by Emma Trevayne 
Coda is another four-star book that probably should have gotten five.  It presents an interesting--and frighteningly believable--dystopian setting where the population is controlled by government-regulated addictive music.  I was skeptical of how this setting would work, and if it would make any sense, but Emma Trevayne exceeded my expectations.  It's a weird concept, but it works so well.  The rest of it is just as awesome: the characters, the plot, and so on.  As I said in my review, it's a dystopian novel for the true music lover.


4. The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3) by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Jaron, the main character of this series, still holds the title of one of my all-time favorite fictional people.  Some of this is his personality (and his incredible snarking ability), but most of it is the skillful way Jennifer A. Nielsen has written and developed him.  He feels so real, flawed yet lovable.  He's just plain fun to read about.  The whole series, in fact, is just plain fun.  It has its emotional moments and intensity, but it's also full of funny, witty lines.  It's the type of book that leaves you feeling incredibly happy when you finish, even though you're sad to see it end.

3. Ruin & Rising (The Grisha #3) by Leigh Bardugo
Like Champion, Ruin & Rising is another trilogy finale that hits hard in the feelings department.  Again, this is because I cared so much about the characters--Alina, Mal, David, NIKOLAI.  (I have a favorite.  Ahem.)  I'm still recovering from this one, as well.  While the characters may be my favorite part of this series, the setting is a close second.  It's a Russian-inspired fantasy setting, with its own unique flair.  I want to visit.  Apparently Leigh Bardugo is returning to this same world in her next book, so I get at least one more chance.  
2. I Hunt Killers (Jasper Dent #1) by Barry Lyga
What turns a person into a killer?  Is it nature, or nurture?  I Hunt Killers says, "Forget about that the either-or.  What if you had both?"  Enter Jasper Dent, a teenager trying to live as normally as possible considering his upbringing and parentage.  As I wrote in my review, he goes from likable and fascinating to RUN AWAY NOW.  He's at war with himself, which is the most compelling aspect of the book.  While he's trying to track down one criminal, he's fighting not to become one himself.  This book doesn't shy away from the darkness and weirdness of this internal conflict.  Instead, it explores this, making Jasper a lovable, believable character even when it forces you to question his motives.

1. Half A King (Shattered Sea #1) by Joe Abercrombie
Half A King is a slow burner.  I didn't close it with a feeling of "Wow, this was incredible!"  I certainly liked it--more than liked it, actually--but I didn't love it at the time.  The longer it sits in the back of my mind, though, the more I fall in love with it.  It's the story of an underdog prince, Yarvi, fighting to reclaim his kingdom with only one good hand.  Yarvi is what makes this book truly great.  His personality shines through Joe Abercrombie's writing.  It makes you feel for him, cheering him on even when it looks like he's doomed to fail.  It's a book full of nuance, betrayal, and depth.  The plotting is brilliant; the twists begin almost as soon as the book itself.  It's full of other characters besides Yarvi who are likable, real, and well-written.  What else can I say?  It's amazing.  Read it. 

Least Favorite Book of 2014: The Young World by Chris Weitz

2014 Reading Statistics (as of 12/27/14)
Books read: 72 (down 19 from last year)
Average rating: 3.5 (up 0.1)
Total pages read: 27,490 (down 7968)
Average pages per book: 381.8 (down 0.6)
Average pages read per day: 76.1 (down 21.1)
Average number of days to read one book: 5 (up 1.1)

Not surprisingly, I read far fewer books this year than I have the past few years.  College will do that to a person.  It didn't help that I hit a reading slump around August that kept going for a few months.  I attribute this to college, as well: pre-move-in nerves and distraction.  As August progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to focus on reading.  Combine this with a string of several books that didn't impress me, and it all adds up to a reading slump.

I've had to adjust my reading habits, but it seems to be working out.  I'm not sure when I'll be able to get back to reading 90+ books a year.  As much as I'd love to set that goal for next year, it's unlikely to happen.  Still, I was worried that I wouldn't have time to read at all in college, but so far, I've been making the time, even if it is just fifteen minutes a night.

Here's to next year's books!

What were your favorite books of 2014?  Least favorites?
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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Top Music of 2014

I love music almost as much as I love books.  Discovering awesome new songs is addicting to me, and I decided that this year, I wanted to share some of what I've found.  (Yes, there will still be the yearly top ten books list.)  There's always my song of the week, in the lower right corner, or in this Spotify playlist, but this year, I'm devoting an entire post to amazing songs.

This will be a long post.  You have been warned.

This year, I added more new songs to my iTunes library than ever before, both brand new songs, and older ones.  I'll break it down into a few categories:

Top 10 Songs Released in 2014
10. 'Raging Fire' by Phillip Phillips (Behind the Light)
Initially, I had the same reaction to this song as I did to Phillip Phillips' other songs: "meh".  The more I heard this one, though, the more it grew on me.  I'm particularly fond of the string section sound in this one.
9. 'Sleepsong' by Bastille (All This Bad Blood)
All This Bad Blood is even more of an oddity than Bad Blood.  It's a little bit more haunting, a little more ambiguous, and a little harder to pin down what, exactly, Bastille is up to, which is what I like about the band.  'Sleepsong' is a perfect example of this.  It's catchy, but there's something a little unsettling about it.
8. 'Flares' by The Script (No Sound Without Silence)
No Sound Without Silence is a shift from The Script's previous albums (and a bit of a letdown for me), but 'Flares' is my favorite moment of it.  It's sad yet hopeful, and suits Danny Donoghue's voice perfectly.
7. 'Wherever This Goes' by The Fray (Helios)
Helios also was disappointing for me, but it does have a few gems like this one.  It's a bit different from The Fray's previous work, but somehow seems like it would fit well onto their first album.
6. 'All Of The Stars' by Ed Sheeran (The Fault In Our Stars: Music From the Motion Picture) 
I'm normally not an Ed Sheeran fan (I don't dislike most of his songs, but I don't love them, either), but this song is the exception.  It's perfect for The Fault In Our Stars.  His voice is lovely, and it's slow but still catchy.
5. 'Cardiac Arrest' by Bad Suns (Language & Perspective)
Yes, I do, in fact, check the free "single of the week" on iTunes every Tuesday.  I've found some good things there, one of them being this song.  It's catchy, but also a bit nonsensical ("how much do I invest"?).
4. 'The Draw' by Bastille (All This Bad Blood)
'The Draw' is another of Bastille's ambiguous, slightly-odd additions to the original Bad Blood.  Whatever it's about, it has the same semi-haunting quality as 'Sleepsong,' but at the end, finds itself in an edgier place than Bastille has ever gone before.
3. 'Luck' by American Authors (Oh, What a Life)
I love the lyrics of this: "Please just listen/'Cause I don't ask for much/I am my own man/I make my own luck."  It tells an interesting story, but it's also upbeat enough to get stuck in my head all day long.  Plus, American Authors has a unique sound.  It's acoustic, but they've added an electronic quality to the singer's voice.
2. 'Lanterns' by Birds of Tokyo (March Fires)
This is one of those songs that was popular for about two weeks on the radio station I listen to, and then was never heard again.  Except that I bought it and didn't stop playing it all year long.  Like the rest of the album, it has an ethereal quality to it, but it's anthemic at the same time.
1. 'Alienation' by Morning Parade (Pure Adulterated Joy)
Where do I even begin with this song?  I got it in May; by July, it was in my Top 25 Most Played.  It's full of interesting wordplay.  It builds and builds, except when the delicate piano chords come in.  And even then, the lyrics don't let up--this song has a lot of lyrics.  And they're brilliant.

Top 10 Songs Discovered in 2014 (released before this year)
10. 'Learning to Love Again' by Mat Kearney (Young Love, 2011)
A few weeks after I first moved into my dorm, I made a "bedtime" playlist of songs to listen to while I'm reading or scrolling through Tumblr right before I go to sleep.  For whatever reason, this became the first song I always start with (after that, the playlist shuffles).  I find Mat Kearney's voice really calming, and it's a beautiful, slower song that fits perfectly on my playlist.
9. 'Vox Populi' by Thirty Seconds to Mars (This Is War, 2009)
This song is cool on its own, but it's so much better in context.  It's one of the brighter moments on the album--the lighter version of the song 'This Is War.'  I love its big sound.
8. 'Here We Go' by Mat Kearney (City Of Black & White, 2009)
I'm so glad I discovered Mat Kearney this year in general.  I'm not sure exactly what draws me to this song, but it's my favorite from this particular album.  (All of which, in fact, is awesome, though I wish he'd go back to the pseudo-rap/spoken word style of his previous album.)
7. 'Be Calm' by Fun. (Aim & Ignite, 2009)
This song took a long time for me to like.  It's odd, even compared to the rest of Aim & Ignite.  It's another of Fun.'s contradictions, since there's nothing calm about it.  I also love its odd structure and unusual instrumentation.
6. 'Welcome to the Black Parade' by My Chemical Romance (The Black Parade, 2006)
I first heard this song on a Pandora station over a year ago, but I didn't think much of it until this past November.  I don't know what made me return to it, but I'm glad I did.  I had previously dismissed My Chemical Romance as "not my thing," but I realize that they do, actually, have songs that are "my thing."  Whatever that means anymore.
5. 'Born Alone' by Morning Parade (Morning Parade, 2012)
I relate to this song a lot.  "In my silence/I am strong/When I'm quiet/I belong."  So many songs are about how great it is to party all night, but how often do we hear about introversion?  How often do rock songs actually acknowledge that silence can be a good thing?
4. 'Never Let Me Go' by Florence + the Machine (Ceremonials, 2011)
Florence Welch has an amazing voice.  This song is about drowning, but it's still beautiful, which makes it even more compelling.
3. 'Hurricane' by Thirty Seconds to Mars (This Is War, 2009)
We're back to This Is War again.  'Hurricane' is one of the darker moments on the album.  The minor piano intro, Jared Leto's voice, and the string backgrounds all create an intensity that truly reflects the lyrics.  Instead of burning with this intensity, like the others, this one simmers.
2. 'Before The Worst' by The Script (The Script, 2008)
I hadn't paid The Script's first album much attention until I heard some of it live last June.  This song reflects the best of their early music--piano, sort-of rap, Danny O'Donoghue's breakup lyrics.  This style suits the band best, in my opinion.
1. 'Young Blood' by The Naked and Famous (Passive Me, Aggressive You, 2010)
I heard this one live, as well.  In fact, I had never heard this song at all until The Naked and Famous opened for Imagine Dragons in March.  There's something about hearing certain songs played blastingly loud that makes them better.  This is one of those songs.  The synthesizer part is what makes the song, but I also love how quiet it gets in the third verse.

Honorable mentions from both categories: 'Fade' by Egyptian, 'Fire & Rain' by Mat Kearney, 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' by U2, 'Soldier' by Gavin DeGraw, S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W by My Chemical Romance, 'A Thousand Nights' by Trent Dabbs, 'Final Masquerade' by Linkin Park, 'Silhouettes' by Of Monsters and Men, 'It's Not Right For You' by The Script, 'City of Angels' by Thirty Seconds to Mars

Top 5 Albums Discovered/Released in 2014 
5. Aim & Ignite (2009) by Fun.
I spent a long time listening to Aim & Ignite before I could decide whether or not I liked it.  It's quirky and doesn't really have a uniform sound (Strings?  Electric guitars?  French horns?  Why not all of the above?).  It carries an odd dissonance, since so many songs sound bright and upbeat when the lyrics tell a much sadder, more serious story.  Favorite songs: 'Be Calm,' 'The Gambler,' 'Light A Roman Candle With Me'  
4. Morning Parade (2012) by Morning Parade
Despite my love for 'Alienation,' off Morning Parade's second album, their first is my favorite overall.  It reminds me of The Fray's second album, but less acoustic.  It shows off the entire range of what Morning Parade can do, from hard ('Blue Winter') to slow and quiet ('Half Litre Bottle'), to a more standard rock sound ('Headlights').  Favorite songs: 'Born Alone,' 'Close To Your Heart,' 'Under The Stars'
3. The Script (2008) by The Script
I've counted The Script as one of my favorite bands for a few years, but I had never become familiar with their first album until I saw them perform live.  Finally, though, I got this album, and wondered why I didn't download it sooner.  Like I mentioned earlier, it has the strongest pop/rock sound, with the semi-rapping that was mostly nonexistent on their second album, Science & Faith, and then returned as more of a pop sound on #3 and, to a lesser extent, No Sound Without Silence.  Personally, I think this style suits them better than anything else.  Favorite songs: 'Before The Worst,' 'The End Where I Begin,' 'The Man Who Can't Be Moved'
2. Nothing Left To Lose (2006) by Mat Kearney
Mat Kearney has a knack for writing lyrics that feel intensely personal, even if you can't relate to them.  Much like The Script, he often finds that thin line between singing and rapping, but it comes out closer to spoken word on this album.  His songs are honest, which makes them emotional.  Favorite songs: 'Renaissance,' 'Won't Back Down,' 'Can't Break Her Fall'
1. This Is War (2009) by Thirty Seconds to Mars
The title of this concept album says it all--this is war.  The sound is big, dark, and intense.  It goes from the sweeping choral sounds of 'Vox Populi' to quiet, acoustic songs like 'Alibi.'  It's a different sound than Thirty Seconds to Mars' previous album, but I like this new direction.  Each song is good on its own, but this is one of those albums that is better heard all together.  Favorite songs: 'Hurricane,' 'Vox Populi,' 'Stranger In A Strange Land'

Top 10 Most Played Songs Of All Time (as of now)
10. 'Sweet and Low' by Augustana (Can't Love, Can't Hurt, 2008)
9. 'Syndicate' by The Fray (The Fray, 2009)
8. 'Secrets' by OneRepublic (Waking Up, 2009)
7. 'Enough For Now' by The Fray (The Fray, 2009)
6. 'Tiptoe' by Imagine Dragons (Night Visions, 2012)
5. 'It's Time' by Imagine Dragons (Night Visions, 2012)
4. 'All Fall Down' by OneRepublic (Dreaming Out Loud, 2007)
3. 'Breath of Life' by Florence + the Machine (Breath of Life - Single, 2011)
2. 'Never Say Never' by The Fray (The Fray, 2009)
1. 'Say (All I Need) by OneRepublic (Dreaming Out Loud, 2007)

I also went to two concerts this year.  The first was the Imagine Dragons 'Into the Night' tour, with The Naked and Famous and Nico Vega.  It was the first concert I ever bought tickets for, and it was so much fun.  Their songs lend themselves well to dramatic lighting and effects--and they sound good live, too.  The second was the OneRepublic 'Native' tour (my brother won tickets), with The Script and American Authors.  I'm a big fan of both OneRepublic and The Script, so I was excited to see both in one concert.  And now I've been in the same "room" as Ryan Tedder, which will always be cool to me.
Not my concert, but here's a GIF of Imagine Dragons.  And a lot of lasers.
I wish I had a way of getting statistics about my music listening over this past year (for example--I'd love to know my most played song of 2014 overall, not just of all time).  Still, here is a glimpse into what I've been listening to.  I have accepted that my music taste no longer follows predictable patterns.  I used to be able to say, "I like female pop artists like Leona Lewis or Jordin Sparks."  Then it became, "I like ambiguous pop/rock bands like OneRepublic and The Fray."  Now it's "I just made a playlist that includes OneRepublic, Les Miserables, My Chemical Romance, the Thor soundtrack, and Queen."  This year, I started listening to stuff that's a bit more "edgy" than I'm used to, like Thirty Seconds to Mars.  But I'm also starting to enjoy more electronic-influenced artists like Bastille.  We'll see how my taste changes, if at all, in 2015.

What did you listen to in 2014?  What songs were your favorites?
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Friday, December 19, 2014

14 Thoughts and Reactions to Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of 2014, if not the most.  Since I'm still not 100% over Catching Fire, I had high expectations.  I was also wary, since, well...part one.  Unfortunately, this aspect drags it down.  Still, there are so many good things happening at the same time.  Here are 14 thoughts:

I'm assuming you've read Mockingjay already.  If not, there are spoilers in numbers 2, 8, and 9.
  1. Alternate titles: The Hunger Games: Fillerjay, The Hunger Games: The Musical, The Hunger Games: If I Close My Eyes Maybe I Can Pretend We Won't Have to Watch Everyone Die in Part 2
  2. SOMEONE SAVE FINNICK ODAIR.  Even at the very beginning, he looks dead inside.  I don't know how Sam Claflin pulled it off, but his eyes have an awful haunted look.  I'm already worried enough about how I'm going to get over his death in Part 2--I don't need to deal with these feelings already.  It's too soon.  JUST LET HIM BE OKAY. 
  3. Also Peeta, but that's been done.  Peeta also is in need of saving, but at least much of the movie's plot focuses on this.  Still, Peeta's appearance at the end of the movie is hard to watch. I commend the director for this.  It been so easy to gloss over certain difficult elements of Mockingjay: main characters being tortured, Finnick's past (more on this later), genocide, and so on.  They didn't shy away from it, though.  If anything, the movies embrace the darkness and grit of the novels.
  4. It's nice to have a movie that actually passes the Bechdel test.  The Bechdel test is by no means an indicator that a movie features realistic female characters, or that it represents both genders equally.  Still, it's a start.  I've started to pay close attention to the portrayal (or, in many cases, the lack thereof) of female characters in movies.  Sci-fi and fantasy movies are still male-dominated, and the more I see of this, the more frustrated I get.*  Women make up half the world's population, but nowhere near half the population of many movies.  "But people don't watch female-led action movies!" critics cry in the distance.  Excuse you.  Mockingjay's box office numbers beg to differ.  Mockingjay passes the Bechdel test in an unfussy way.  There are female characters of all types.  There are also male characters of all types.  It's 2014; why is this still noteworthy?
  5. I liked Natalie Dormer's performance more than I expected.  I haven't seen much of Natalie Dormer's work, but for some reason, I was skeptical of her role in this.  I shouln't have worried.  Natalie Dormer just keeps proving herself over and over.  Her portrayal of Cressida is intense, interesting, and fabulous.  She brings complexity to the character--I don't remember Cressida much from the books, but I'll definitely remember her from this movie.
  6. It shows how little Katniss cares about the revolution itself.  That's what I love about this series.  Katniss doesn't truly care about the noble ideas of the revolution.  She doesn't really care about taking down the system.  She just wants the people she loves to be safe, and she'll do whatever she must in order to make this happen.  She may be motivated by strong feelings of love, but she goes about it in a calculated way.  Mockingjay shows this well.  Every time Katniss is faced with a choice, she makes it not about her or the revolution, but about her family or Peeta.  It makes the story so much more personal.  
    You tell 'em, Katniss.
  7. It suffers from being part one of two.  In this regard, it's much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.  It's much slower than the previous movies.  People travel places and have significant conversations, but very little is actually happening.  The whole movie feels like it's building to something big, but you don't get the payoff until Part 2.  This is problematic.  Even if a movie is part of a series, it still should have its own complete story arc.  Mockingjay just doesn't have that.
  8. The bombing of District 13 has some brilliant moments.  At around the three-quarter mark of the movie, the Capitol bombs District 13's underground bunker.  Everyone has to move into the bomb shelters in a matter of minutes.  It's a chaotic mess, and it's a particularly intense scene.  It adds an element of fear to it along with the element of suspense much of the rest of the movie lacks.  The best part, though, is how well it showcases Katniss' personality.  As soon as she realizes Prim didn't make it into the shelter, there's absolutely no question what the big sister must do--make sure the little sister is safe--even if Katniss herself won't make it out alive.  She'd rather die trying to save Prim than live without her.
  9. I don't like how this movie shows Finnick's backstory.  It's shown on a screen, but other things happen simultaneously.  You can't devote your full attention to it.  This is one of the most important revelations in the entire series, and they lessened its impact.  No.  Don't just have his story of "I was forced into prostitution as a teenager" in the background.  The audience needs to be able to focus on this, since it exposes an even darker side of the Capitol culture surrounding the games.
  10. This movie portrays the media as scarily powerful.  It's true.  This series is known for its social commentary, and in this aspect, Mockingjay no different.  District 13 uses their video broadcasts strategically in order to prompt rebellion.  There's no direct contact--it's all media.  And it works.  It's important to remind viewers (especially right now) how much power media can have, whether that power is wielded for good or otherwise. 
  11. Can we stop the one book-two movies thing?  I keep writing about this in my movie reviews.  I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said, but it's important enough to deserve another mention.
  12. Can we also stop teasing the Gale relationship?  Why does Katniss kiss Gale in this movie?  By this point in the books, it's apparent that Katniss is romantically interested in Peeta, if anyone at all.  I understand that movies and books are different formats, and as such, the storylines have to differ.  But playing up hardly existent romance just for the sake of adding romance is unnecessary.
  13. The shaky camera is back.  I don't remember seeing as many shaky camera shots in Catching Fire as in The Hurnger Games, but Mockingjay has a few rough moments.  
  14. It didn't have the same emotional impact as Catching Fire.  I remember feeling emotionally drained after Catching Fire.  I felt a little of this from Mockingjay, but nowhere near as much.  It's probably due to the fact that this movie is part one.  Part 2 is going to hurt.  We should start preparing ourselves right now.

Is it good overall?  Yes.  Did it need to have two parts?  Absolutely not.  Going in, I thought this split made sense, but after actually seeing it, I realize that it just made the structure weaker.  Other aspects, though, still worked as well as they did in Catching Fire, especially with Jennifer Lawrence's talent to lead the way.  My feelings are still mixed about these movies, as a whole.  Hopefully Mockingjay Part 2 will change this.

Did you see Mockingjay Part 1?  What did you think?

*We also have to stop with this "strong female character" trope.  Why do we have to keep giving female characters traditionally "masculine" traits (fighting ability, dislikes dresses, hides emotions, etc.) in order to make them "strong"?  I don't want strong female characters--I want realistic female characters.  Some women are like this trope.  Some aren't.  Hollywood recognizes that males have this range, so why not females?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Young Elites (The Young Elites #1) by Marie Lu

I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside.

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.

Released: October 7th 2014    
Pages: 355
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Source: Library
 First Look: ***** I loved Marie Lu's Legend trilogy.  I didn't need any more prompting than that to pick up this book.  Even without that, though, it looked awesome.  Secret societies with magic, in a high fantasy setting?  YES.

Setting: ****
It's a high fantasy setting, with all the usual elements--a magic system, court intrigue, and so on.  On top of all that, though, it has an Italian,* Renaissance-y flair.  The names sound vaguely Italian, and the general culture and feel of it definitely has that influence.  This put a unique spin on the setting.  The fantasy elements are familiar, but the culture feels fresh and different.  (Marie Lu has a Pinterest inspiration board for this book, and it's super cool.)

The other aspect that makes this setting so compelling is its history.  The backstory of the disease that caused the malfettos and the magical powers is an integral part of the story, but woven throughout in a way that doesn't feel like an infodump.  The nation's present reflects its past beautifully.  It's an interesting look at how quickly a society can change, and the effect this has on its people.

Characters: *****
The character development here is fascinating.  The entire time, I found myself rooting for Adelina.  She's clever, strong, and has a deep capacity for caring about people.  She's also ruthless and deceptive, with a dark past.  As the book goes on, she only gets darker, even beyond antihero territory.  This is not a hero's story--it's almost a villain's.  This is what makes it brilliant.  For Adelina, all of her actions make sense.  They're justifiable.  Marie Lu does not portray them as evil or wrong; she simply presents them as Adelina's truth.  It's easy to want Adelina to win, which is the paradox of it.  I'm excited to see where Marie Lu takes this character development in the future.

Along with Adelina, we have another character with powers, scarred by the disease: Enzo.  He's a betrayed prince, looking to reclaim his throne.  He's no more heroic than Adelina, but his motives are still believable.  Then there's the courtesan Rafaelle, or the enemy of  the Young Elites, Teren.  Everyone, basically, is an antihero, which is the beauty of this book.   

Plot: ***** 
While it does get a bit slow in places, the plot is complex and dark like the characters.  It starts as Adelina's personal journey to overcome the persecution she has faced as a malfetto, on trial for murder as a result of her powers.  Then it's a struggle to gain acceptance from the rest of the Young Elites, who want to restore Enzo to power.  Adelina doesn't seem to care much about that, though--she just wants to protect her younger sister.  And she'll do anything in order to make that happen.  The plot is twisty, making you wonder where Adelina's loyalties should lie.  Or anyone else's, for that matter.  Nobody's path is the "right" one.  As the plot progresses, it gets darker, and Adelina's path becomes more morally ambiguous.  Also, there's a lot of cool magic.

Uniqueness: ***** 
It's a high fantasy, and has many familiar elements of the genre.  However, its unique setting makes it stand out, as does the fact that it follows the perspective someone other than the traditional hero.

Writing: ****
Marie Lu can do both action scenes and emotional scenes, and do them well.  The action is suspenseful and exciting.  The quieter scenes have the potential to make you feel for the characters, portraying them in an honest, raw light.  She creates a setting that you can fully immerse yourself in, both in the details she includes, and her overall sense of tone.  It's the kind of narration that flows so well that you hardly notice it's there.

I appreciate that the romance never becomes overwhelming compared to the rest of the plot.

Not-so-great: N/A

Overall: The Young Elites is a unique, exciting book with an equally awesome Rennaisance-inspired setting.  The main character, Adelina, is not so much a hero as an antihero, and later, possibly even in villain territory.  She's darkly complex, and her progression is believable, so much that you hardly realize it's happening.  That's what makes this book great--it presents a dark character, showing all her motives as honest without placing her as either "good" or "bad".  It also showcases Marie Lu's talent for writing compelling plots full of emotion.  It's more of a 4.5 than a 4, but I round 4.5s down, so 4 stars it is.

Similar Books: It features a cast of characters with varying, often contradictory motives, like Falling Kingdoms or The Demon King.  It has a female lead with magic powers, like The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Death Swornor Shadow and Bone

*Speaking of Italy...I'm going to be spending the entire month of January in Rome.  More on this later, probably.
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Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Infinite Sea (The 5th Wave #2) by Rick Yancey

How do you rid the Earth of seven billion humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.

Surviving the first four waves was nearly impossible. Now Cassie Sullivan finds herself in a new world, a world in which the fundamental trust that binds us together is gone. As the 5th Wave rolls across the landscape, Cassie, Ben, and Ringer are forced to confront the Others’ ultimate goal: the extermination of the human race.

Cassie and her friends haven’t seen the depths to which the Others will sink, nor have the Others seen the heights to which humanity will rise, in the ultimate battle between life and death, hope and despair, love and hate.

Released: September 16th 2014    Pages: 320
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile   Source: Library

The 5th Wave set the bar high for its sequel, The Infinite Sea.  The first book is gritty yet eloquent in the way Rick Yancey does best, with plenty of shock value, deep questions, and emotional impact.  I expected nothing less from The Infinite Sea, especially since I've read examples of Yancey's ability to write sequels that rise above the expectations set by the first book.

Even for all its merits, The Infinite Sea falls a bit short of its predecessor.  I could attribute this to mid-series sagging, or my own changing reading habits (since I've started college, my reading has been more spread out, which makes it harder for me to really invest in a book).  Or maybe this book simply isn't as good.

"Isn't as good" is a relative term, though.  The first book is phenomenal.  Even if this one isn't quite there, it's still fantastic.  It's exactly the type of dystopia I like--gritty, believable, and raw.  It doesn't shy away from difficult topics like war, death, or child soldiers.  There is a large amount of violence, but it's never gratuitous.  The line, “How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.” is prevalent throughout the series, and it's a main theme.  How do you destroy humankind?  By bringing out that which would cause humankind to destroy itself.  It's what gives this series its haunting edge.  It's dark--characters are driven to extreme, morally ambiguous actions and decisions.  But it's believable, and it feels real.

The characters, especially, have this element of realness.  It's an odd group of ordinary-kids-turned-soldiers.  They're likable, despite how hardened they have become.  Cassie, one of the main characters, has never been my favorite, but my respect for her keeps growing. She's a bit blinded by her love for Evan, but I respect her incredible devotion to protecting her younger brother.  Evan himself is a bit of an enigma, especially with...certain plot twists.  That's all I'm saying.  Then there's Ben/Zombie, who was my favorite from The 5th Wave.  He's a leader of sorts, but has just as many issues as the rest of them, psychological or otherwise.  The real star of this book, though, is Ringer.  She developed so much during the course of the story.  Rick Yancey uses her time with Razor, a new addition to this series, to really flesh out her character, and I'm eager to see where he takes her in the next book.  Razor himself deserves a mention, mostly for being incredibly awesome.  

Despite all these positives, though, the plot of this book isn't as compelling as the last.  It's still good, but it fell short of my expectations.  It's action-packed, but less so.  There is more time spent arguing within the group than actually doing anything.  It's slower than the first book, and the plot has less focus.  It doesn't always seem like there is a clear goal, which gives it a directionless feeling.  

In the grand scheme of things, though, these problems don't detract much from the book as a whole.  It's still fantastic.  It's still full of Rick Yancey's amazing writing and insight into human nature.  It's still an intense, thought-provoking read.  I'm excited for the finale, but also a bit nervous.  I know what Rick Yancey can do to my feelings.  Then again, if he can create this kind of emotional intensity, that's a wonderful accomplishment.

Similar Books: It deals with kids-turned-soldiers in a dystopian environment, like The Drowned Cities.  Its near-future setting reminds me of Ashes, or Life As We Knew It and its companion The Dead and the Gone.  

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