Ally Condie

Reached – Ally Condie

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Reached Matched TrilogyIn the conclusion to Matched and Crossed, Cassia thinks she will finally get everything she wants, but first she and Ky must do their part for the Rising.  While she lives in the Capital and waits for news, Ky works on the outskirts.  Xander, also in the Rising, helps the rebels usher in the one thing that will make those in the Society trust them.  With narration shifting between the three main characters, will the Rising accomplish its goals and will Ky and Cassia find each other again?

One of the things that I found most intriguing about the Matched trilogy was Condie’s narrative style.  In Matched, our only narrator is Cassia.  In Crossed, the narration is shared between Cassia and Ky.  And with Reached, Xander joins the other two in the story-telling.  It’s quite poetic, the 1, 2, 3, narrators in books 1, 2, and 3.  And while I was a bit hesitant about the narration, I found it easy to tell each three apart; they all had their own unique voice.  While Cassia’s voice remains poetic and involves more thinking and less action, Ky’s is antsy, almost pessimistic.  When Xander joined in I figured he would sound a lot like Ky, but instead he is grounded, easily led, and more matter-of-fact in his telling.  It’s tricky enough to balance one voice in a novel, especially across three books, and yet Condie is able to make it with three.

In the dystopian fiction trend, you often see Hunger Games style rebellions, with those same types of consequences and fallout.  I was expecting something similar from Reached, but was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected direction of the story.  It was honest about the implications of a rebellion, and so they went with a route that provided little violence and no grand overtures – just choices.  Considering Condie’s Matched trilogy is about the importance of choice, this rebellion that provides with the people a chance to choose it or not fits right in with the theme.  I also appreciated the theme of love as a choice; Cassia chose who she fell for, who she gave her all to.  She could have easily been happy with either Xander or Ky, but she makes the choice to be happy with one of them.  This mature approach also means there’s a lack of teen love-triangle melodrama.  That is really refreshing in any Young Adult novel, and with one as popular as Matched others might follow.

Over all, Reached was not what I expected, and I loved that.  Condie managed to draw me in within sentences (I picked up the book intending to read only the first chapter and ended up reading several).  It is an engrossing conclusion to a mature trilogy.  With great technical writing and different approaches to a similar problem, Condie and Cassia manage to make you believe in the human race and their ability to choose good when they have the option.

Rating: 8/10

Crossed – Ally Condie

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Crossed coverCrossed opens with Ky, a change in the narration style of Matched.  We move through the story as Cassia does what she promised to do – find Ky.  The narration switches between the two characters’ minds, letting the reader get to know Ky better than we have known him yet.  Ky goes out to “fight” for the Society – with dummy weapons, no support, and no chance of survival.  Cassia works at a camp, moving from location to location, but soon headed back to Central.  She must decide what she will do to really find Ky, and Ky must decide what he would do to survive.

It took me two weeks to read the book, partly because I have had no time.  But also because Crossed suffers from middle-book lag.  I wanted to love it, believe me.  Ky’s narration was good, but at times felt too similar to Cassia’s.  Some of the events in the book were gripping and moving, the language still grabbed me.  And yet, it wasn’t enough to keep me reading late into the night.

One thing about Crossed is that Cassia has literally crossed a line – she has chosen to leave the Society in order to find Ky.  This means leaving Xander, leaving her family, and leaving her once-comfortable life for the complete unknown.  Instead of the gentle movement towards something as in Matched, Cassia basically runs towards her decisions.  She does not wait to hop on an air ship that might take her closer to Ky.  She does not flinch in wanting to join the Rising, despite Ky’s reservations.  While it might seem odd that there was a big character shift in Cassia, this merely reflects the changes she made during Matched.

We are still getting to know Ky, so I find that it’s hard to judge just how much he has grown from book to book.  He certainly has to make some hard decisions in this one, but I am still not sure how I feel about him.  I suppose Condie would want the reader to waffle about the boys much like Cassia does, but I wanted more foundation to their story.  His true background, however, was heartbreaking.  And I can see that Cassia, coming from a world where no one creates anything, loves Ky because all he does is create.

Overall, the book was a good companion, but lacking in zest.  I also felt that there were too many similarities to The Hunger Games, especially Catching Fire.  While none of these kids are the “face” of the  Rising, Ky’s hesitance resembles Katniss’s.  The small picture we get of the Rising also appears far too close to District 13.  It’s hard to make these dystopian novels different from each other, and I understand that we’re always going to compare to something that came first.  Matched had done a good job of being different, but Crossed follows too closely to already-tread territory.

I liked the book and felt that it built upon its story and its own mythology.  The real problem lies in the fact that it’s a middle of the trilogy, and so things are being set up for the final “showdown”, if you will.  I hope that the as-yet-untitled third chapter will prove to be better and a fitting conclusion.

Rating: 7/10

Oh the Joy of Reading

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Joy of ReadingA few days ago, I was frustrated.  I was frustrated that I was so busy that I barely had time to write for NaNoWriMo.  I was frustrated that I had so little time to read.  I was worried that neglecting my reading, and in turn, this blog, would cause me to be apathetic towards reading.  If I only were to push myself, I would read and learn and grow.  Somewhere in that thought, I realized that I could never become disillusioned to reading.

I might not be able to spend every spare hour of my day with a nose in my book, but I have always found time.  For instance, Ally Condie’s Crossed was released ten days ago.  Ten days.  How ridiculous that I am not yet finished, and I even started it the day it was delivered to my Kindle.  But I have only had time to read during my lunch hours at work, and even those are not always available to me.  Sometimes I have lunch with my mother, other times with coworkers, friends, or I must run errands in that hour.  And so my reading gets neglected.

As I opened my Kindle and began to read Crossed the other day (edging towards 60% finished), I realized that I do not care how fast I read.  I do not care how many books I am reading in a month, or if I sometimes take longer to finish one.  I care only that I am reading.  Every day I drive to work, I listen to an audiobook.  A story that will make that 25 minutes in the car to work a little less dull.  When I am not lucky enough to socialize during my lunch, I can sit at my desk and be whisked away to another world where worries cannot touch me.

Have you ever noticed that?  That with a good book you suddenly forget all about the stresses in your life?  For me, books have led me on countless adventures, allowing my imagination to take control, if only for that hour a day.  How sad is life without a book to fill those empty gaps that nothing else could satisfy.

I probably thought more of this because of Crossed.  The sequel to Matched, we are now outside of the Society and its control, but Cassia still marvels in others’ ability to create something beautiful.  The freedom to create has given us the freedom of imagination.  We will not all be best-selling authors.  While some of us may want to be an author some day, we can all delight in the written word.  We can all be affected, moved, and changed because of words someone had the courage to record.

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.  ~Charles de Secondat

A Few Musings . . . .

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  • Did you know that with a full-time, regular hours job that it is hard to read a whole lot of books?  Don’t get me wrong, I actually really like my job, I like being challenged and I like stretching my talents.  But if someone were to come up to me and offer me enough to live on to read and critique books all day, I would be a very happy camper.
  • A lot of people are talking about eBooks and whether or not they are “killing” the publishing industry.  I feel my Twitter feed is usually crammed with this debate, blog post after blog post.  I have to say, I’m not really sure what I think.  I’m a traditionalist, I will always want to own hard copies of books, but I love the portability of eBooks.  It is also easier to hide those “guilty pleasure” books you’re ashamed you’ve read but still enjoy if you can hide them on your Kindle, instead of a book shelf for all to see.  (That was a clumsy sentence, but I am too tired to figure out how to fix it.  Fake gold star if you can do better in the comments!)  I will ruminate on the eBook vs. hard copy and probably post about it here soon.  The post will contain no statistical analysis, as I am allergic to numbers.
  • I like “Castle” and it always improves my Monday nights.  I would also like to follow cops around, but feel no desire to examine the dead bodies.
  • I would also like to get back into academic writing.  As I type this, I realize that I have weird hobbies.
  • The National Book Award nominees were announced last week.  If you are a book nerd, you’ve heard about the Shine debacle.  I have not read Shine, or any books by its author Lauren Myracle.  The short version is the judges and NBA press officials had a phone miscommunication.  The judges said Chime (by Franny Billingsley) but the press officials heard Shine.  Why there wasn’t an emailed, faxed, and typed version of the list sent to the press officials is completely unknown and was a stupid mistake to make.  Shine was announced as a nominee, then Chime was added as a sixth nominee (in the Young Person’s Literature category), and then Myracle was asked to withdraw Shine from the competition.  How completely rude, misguided, hurtful, insulting, and childish on the part of the judges.  Author Libba Bray sounds off(warning: contains strong language)
  • NaNoWriMo is approaching.  I am undecided whether or not I will be trying to read and write 50,000 words during November and spending Thanksgiving with the Scottish fiance.  Obviously, Scottish fiance comes first (though both Crossed and The Impossible Dead come out during November . . . .).
  • Speaking of The Impossible Dead, I am highly annoyed that I have to wait a month to read it when the UK can already get their hands on a copy.  I am unsure whether or not if I purchased a Kindle edition via amazon.co.uk if they would deliver said book to my Kindle in the US.  I am tempted to try, but it would be a waste of pounds if it did not go through.  The other possibility is have the Scottish fiance bring a copy with him when he visits next month, at which point I would get the book a few days early at least.  I also prefer UK editions of UK books, simply because the Britishisms and Scottishisms are not edited out.  This American at least can understand them.

    Slains Castle
    A side view of Slains Castle
  • Halloween is coming, so I am planning on reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time.  This is also inspired by my visiting Slains Castle in Aberdeen last year.  This was supposedly the location that inspired the work.

Characters Make the Story

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This entire post originally was conceived a few weeks ago, when I was talking with friends.  And then I started to think about it some more as I’ve read a few books (Night Circus and the soon-to-be-reviewed The Borrower especially).  I began to think about why characters are so important in the making of a good novel, and why some novels fail to stick the landing when their characters fail.

Perhaps one of the most important things is that the character changes.  Let’s create a fictional character (kind of ironic since all characters are fictional) and call her Sally.  If Sally were to sit back and let all of the action happen to her, and not react at all, it would make for a very boring novel.  She could be assailed with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters calling at her door, but if she sits and lets everything happen with no change, that’s boring.  She does not grow and consequently neither does her story.  Without change, we read a straight line.  But with some sort of change, small or not, we are given the tiniest bit of visual interest.  With more change and reactions, Sally begins to become real.

Scottish philosopher David Hume best described a human’s unwitting need to change:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.  Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying their perceptions.  Our thoughts are still more variable.  And all our other senses and powers contribute to this change.

Basically, Hume is saying that with each moment that passes, we change who we are.  These changes may not be drastic, and most will pass without our even recognizing the change.  But if we as humans change with every passing second, then those characters who do not seem more aloof and unrealistic.  They are not only unexciting, but also without the grounding realism that modern readers look for, even if they are reading fantasy.

This is one reason I liked books such as The Hunger Games, Matched, and The Chosen One.  Our three protagonists (Katniss, Cassia, and Kyra [the choosing of three protagonists with hard K sound-names was just noticed and unintentional]) have to deal with three very different worlds.  Each girl was raised knowing that their lives would turn out one way, and each found a way to strive for more, but mostly to change their circumstances.  Katniss begins the series hard and closed to anything save for her sister.  By the end, she has let herself feel more than she ever imagined.  Cassia dutifully followed in the steps of the Society, but begins to question her freedoms.  She takes small steps throughout the novel to get to the end, but they are vital to the large leap she will inevitably take.  Kyra opens the novel knowing that her world needs to change, but too afraid to take the necessary steps.  But her awareness leads her to the goal of escape, no matter how bittersweet.  Each girl began the novel in one place, and ended it somewhere else.  Katniss perhaps changed the least, but her changes felt deeper and resonated just as strongly with the reader.

I would say another important aspect for Sally is that she must feel real.  Sally cannot be perfect, in other words.  No one would want to read her story because no one would relate to her.  It is ok to have an aspirational character, but even Gandalf and Aragorn had their flaws.  Flaws ground the character much like their progression does.  No human is perfect, even if we feel that we are at times.  And if we are writing and reading stories about humans (or elves or vampires or fae or shape shifters), then we as humans want to see a bit of ourselves in them.  I mentioned in my review of Night Circus that the story would have been far stronger with stronger characters.  I did not feel much sympathy for Celia or for Marco simply because they were hard for me to relate to (dangling preposition!).  After all their trials, they still felt distant and rather the same as they started.  This was also the problem with The Iron Witch.  Donna never felt like she got it, whatever lesson she was supposed to learn.  And even after all the things she saw, I wasn’t sure she had made any change to herself.

The only passive character that ever worked (of the books I’ve read) was Shadow in American Gods.  He might be passive for about 80% of the novel, but he makes a lot of waves after he has shaken himself awake.  It only works because Shadow has just lost his wife and been released from prison.  His passivity fits with a man who is grieving and relearning how to choose for himself.  And yet, even Shadow changes in the end.

If you have a villain in your story, it is also good practice to have him be not wholly bad.  Wholly bad villains simply feel like a caricature.  After all, even the mean, nastly old lady down the street probably gives old clothes to the homeless or bakes for her grandkids.  Just as Sally can’t be all good, neither can Jafar (I know, I know) be all bad.  Heck, even Voldemort wasn’t completely evil.  After all, he agreed to save Lily Potter because Snape was in love with her.  Sure, Voldy killed her in the end, but he was willing to spare the life if it had been more convenient. (This was the only redeeming quality I could come up with, however.  And Jo Rowling is about the only author I know who can get away with this evil of a villain and still have it feel real.  Comment if you can think of other good qualities for poor Voldy.)

To recap:  Sally needs to learn something or to change in some little way;  Sally also needs to have flaws;  Sally cannot be passive in her own story; Jafar cannot be totally evil.  If the protagonist is flat, there is not much there to see or read.

 

Matched – Ally Condie

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I wish that there was a way to really express how perfect this book was.  In the bare bones of style, Condie’s writing has a beautiful, musical quality to it.  She is the master of the small shift, bringing our protagonist to her character change bit-by-bit, utterly real and even more touching for it.

Before I go on and on about the wonders of the book, I should tell you a bit about it.  Cassia Reyes is seventeen, and when we meet her, about to be Matched.  In her (dystopian) Society, young people are matched to their spouses by data and numbers.  When you are seventeen, you are told whom you will marry at age twenty-one.  It is usually someone in another area of the Society, someone you will not have known until you are promised to marry them.  But for Cassia, the night proves to be far more interesting because she is matched to her best friend Xander.  However happy she feels with Xander, in the days that follow she begins to fall instead for another boy, Ky.  Though she knows that they can never be together, Cassia persists, wanting to know about his tragic past so that someone can know him.  Right after her Match, Cassia also gets a strange gift from her dying grandfather:  a poem.  When the Society was created, they saved only 100 poems, songs, paintings, and other works of art.  Those deemed the “best” are appreciated, but never really studied.  Cassia’s poem is not on the list of 100, but she memorizes it, and feels connected to its words.  As she discovers more about Ky, more about herself, and more about her world, she begins to doubt its supposed perfection.

I will try to discuss the novel without a lot of spoilers, but it will be difficult to really delve into its perfection without a few.  So, be warned beyond this point.

The first thing I love is that Cassia’s eyes are opened because of words.  Because of a poem.  Though written by a writer which makes it a bit biased, Matched does show the power of the written word.  The Society saved the 100 poems, but none of them were like Cassia’s.  Hers taught her to fight, and constantly throughout the book she tells herself to not go gentle (the Dylan Thomas poem found here).  Her poem told her to rage, to take what should be hers.  She easily sees why it would have been left off the list of saved poems.

Cassia herself makes a wonderful transformation during the course of the novel.  In the beginning, she cannot wait to see who the Society thinks is best for her.  She believes in their doctrines, in the luck that gave her Xander, and in the policies that dictate her life.  Cassia has known nothing else, so the change takes longer than the average reader might like.  Some of us would scream at the pages, wondering why Cassia can’t see how she has no real freedoms.  But we are outside, and we have not been raised told that the Society knows what is best for us.  When she reads her poem, it awakens something within her.  Getting to know Ky pushes her out of the dark.  Cassia finally begins to understand why her grandfather saved that poem.  Like awaking from a dream, we see Cassia transform before we even fully realize that it has happened.  It does not feel rushed or forced, but natural, almost organic.  And as Cassia changes, the reader is privy to other characters who have perhaps realized their injustices before she did.

It would be impossible not to compare Matched to Hunger Games.  After all, they are both dystopian novels, focusing on young girls who have to overcome their oppressors.  But the difference is in the overtness of the injustices.  Katniss has always hated her government because she watches children go to their deaths every year.  It is easy for her to speak out, to feel rebellious.  But  Cassia has never really been endangered by the Society, never really forced to do things she did not want to do.  Cassia always felt that she had some sort of choice, before she realized that she had no choice at all.  Her rebellion, for me, is more deep than Katniss’s.  It takes more courage to fight against something your friends and family still thinks keep them safe.  It would be easier to enjoy a life with Xander, to work in the career that the Society wants for her.  Cassia’s own mother has made the same choice.  But Cassia can no longer go gentle.  She wants to choose for herself.

It is Cassia’s quiet desires that really make this novel (which will eventually be part of a trilogy).  There are no “action-packed” sequences, but the plot does not suffer for their lack.  Matched focuses instead on the human desire and right to guide our own lives.  And it does so more beautifully then any Young Adult novel has the right to do so. (You can now argue with that statement in the comments.  Heck, I’ll probably argue with it later.)

Ode to the Imaginations of Children

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While I will mostly use this blog and the forum it provides with the opportunity to discuss fiction, I do plan on a slightly altered course from time to time.  And sometimes, I will begin these derivations with really wordy beginning statements.

Matched (by Ally Condie) has had me thinking a lot about creating and not just consuming lately.  (I have not even finished the book, and already it has me thinking.  You can fully expect a glowing review in the next couple of days.)  It is perhaps the perfect week to read this book, because I am spending a week with my 2 year-old nephew.  O likes to move.  A lot.  He likes to play, run, yammer to himself, and just get into lots of trouble.  But the thing that really inspires me as I spend time with him is the depth of his imagination.

He is 2, so of course everything is a game to him.  I miss having that freedom in my life, to not have to live with one foot on the ground while the rest of me is in the clouds.  O gets to make his life what he wants because it all exists in his mind.  This week, I bought him a new stuffed dog when we were at Ikea.  He held onto it the entire time we were in the store, and then back in the car, he was making it bark at me, and you could practically see the wheels turning in his little head.  He also got a new set of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head toys.  We knew that he would like them, but we had no idea how much he would love them.  He takes them apart and puts them back together in all kinds of configurations.  He piles all the pieces into his current base (an Amazon box that held his trike), and plays with them and makes them talk to each other.  Miss and Miss (he hasn’t grasped the -ter part of the second potato head) have to watch him eat dinner, they have to be on his dresser when he sleeps, and tonight they needed forks at dinner.  He has turned these toys into his friends, even scolding Miss for taking his fork at dinner.

My mom often tells me and others how imaginative I was myself as a child.  I apparently could not be trusted to set the table quickly, because the forks and knives needed to have conversations before being set in their place.  I would often make my food talk to each other before I ate it.  And I remember the “stories” I wrote as a child before I could even really write.  That is perhaps one of my earliest memories.  Squiggles on a page I meant to be a novel, and showing it to my mom and then “reading” the story to her.  I have always loved to create, to write, to invent.  My nephew is no different from most toddlers, but there is something in watching this process that reminds me of my own childhood musings, of my own dreams to always be creating new worlds for my imaginary friends to live.

I wish that as an adult, we could have those same carefree days of play.  That we could sit and imagine a world into existence without a care to stop us.  I know that some people are that lucky, but we are always hindered by bills and responsibilities, families and friends who keep us grounded just enough that we cannot truly get lost in our own creations.

I may not be able to live it anymore, but I love to watch my nephew experience it.  How grateful I am that he can be so lucky.