The Queen of the Tearling Series | Book Review

Titles: The Queen of the Tearling, The Invasion of the Tearling, The Fate of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Fantasy
Is it worth reading? Definitely. If you love fantasy, action, politics, and magic sapphires, this is the series for you. It’s central plot conflict stretches across three books, making the resolution exciting and (mostly) satisfying.

 

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS AHEAD. DON’T WORRY—I’LL GIVE YOU PLENTY OF WARNING.

Great, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get started.

I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy kick lately. After the Tearling series, I read Uprooted by Naomi Novik (oh my word. so. good.), and I’m currently reading Six of Crows.

Although I love the genre, I’m realizing that I’m very picky when it comes to fantasy. (Kind of like choosing a Netflix show, if I’m going to commit to 6 seasons, it has to be good).

It’s so easy for fantasy to become cheesy and silly (especially in YA—sorry YA lovers!). And one of my top requirements for good fantasy is a fully fleshed out world. Without good world-building, fantasy flops for me.

This series is not nearly as detailed or lush as The Name of the Wind or Game of Thrones, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Tearling series relies largely on intrigue and action to keep the story moving, and I found it to be a nice change of pace.

A quick glance at Goodreads will tell you that there are a lot of mixed feelings about this series. Some loved it, some hated it, some were extremely offended by it (still trying to figure out why). Some of my favorite reviewers were split down the middle. Just another reminder to try things for yourself sometimes before writing them off!

This book had a lot of the quick-read, can’t-put-it-down elements I like about YA books, without all the annoying things I hate about YA books (hormones, unrealistic love, hormones, drama, hormones).

Let’s dive in.

The Good

Kelsea

First of all, I have never read a book with a main character like Queen Kelsea. I’m sure there are many similar characters out there, but for me, this was a first.

I love that Kelsea is scared and strong and fiercely loves her kingdom. I even like that anger seems to be her greatest vice (uncommon in female characters, in my reading experience).

In the second and third books, I liked how she struggled with her own growing internal darkness…a power that was starting to spiral out of control and into evil. To me, a hero or heroine who doesn’t face some sort of darkness and learn to overcome it is a rather flat, unrealistic sort of hero.

I like that Kelsea isn’t perfect. She has a tendency to use people (especially Pen), gives in to indecision and despair at times, and struggles to see the big picture when she’s trying to do the right thing. She’s complex, and that makes her interesting.

What I found interesting was that this story was so good without having any kind of strong romantic angle. Kelsea is more concerned with the work of rebuilding and improving her kingdom than allowing a romance—even a good romance—to interfere with her work.

The Villains

The Tearling series has a LOT of villains. You have pedophiles, child zombies, dark queens, immortal villains-turned-good-guys, traffickers, and more. The evil does a good job of highlighting the light—the good that Kelsea is striving for. And many of the bad guys are wonderfully three-dimensional. This further highlights the fact that the most believable characters are usually not completely good or completely evil. Our childhood experiences and our pasts radically impact our present—just ask the Queen of Mortmesne.

The World Building

Although I thought the world was fleshed out enough, I don’t think the series would have suffered from a few more chapters that gave us more detail. I wanted to know more! For example, on one side of the spectrum, I think of 11/22/64 by Stephen King, in which the world was so fully fleshed that I almost got bored because the action seemed secondary to the world. On the other side are works like The Selection by Kiera Cass, in which the world is barely explained—leaving huge plot holes and frustration for the reader. The Tearling series falls somewhere in the middle.

The Bad

This was by no means a perfect series. For me, the good mostly outweighed the bad, except in a few points.

Subplot vs. Plot

I’m not sure if this is a negative or not, but sometimes I found the subplot of Lily’s and Katie’s stories (in books two and three) more interesting than Kelsea’s story. Granted, it all mingles together the closer you get to the end, but I found myself flying through the Lily/Katie passages and slowing down in the Kelsea ones. Especially in book two, it felt like the non-Lily portions of the book mostly involved Kelsea stumbling around, stressing herself out, and trying to figure out how she was going to stop the approaching Mortmesne army (aka, nothing really happened and the lack of action edged on boring).

Unanswered Questions

At the end of the series, all of the mysteries are not explained or solved. I’ve read a few places that Johansen may be working on more books about Tearling, so maybe more will be revealed. I wanted more explanation. How did William Tear get the sapphire in the first place? Does the Tearling exist in another dimension, or in a different time? Does it exist during the same time as the old world, but is impossible to find without a sapphire? What happens if you sail away in God’s Ocean? Again, this comes back to the world building. A few more chapters would have made me happy.

For the most part, I was left intrigued rather than irritated. Hopefully we will learn more soon.

Touchy Subjects

Just as a warning to sensitive readers, this series does tackle some heavy issues. An entire family has been physically and sexually abused. Human subjects are experimented on in the Queen of Mortmesne’s laboratory. A general has a sexual taste for children, and expects them as part of his plunder. An entire underground network of child fighters, prostitutes, and more exists in New London. Humans are trafficked and sent to Mortmesne in payment. There is the violence of war, and from Kelsea herself. There is some sex, but only a few short scenes. One character experiments with the occult and raises an army of dead children.

Treatment of Religion

Oddly enough, I found this series quite spiritual in unexpected ways.

If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, the version of Christianity in the Tearling series will seem familiar. “God’s Church” is exploitative, greedy, and hypocritical. It’s religion twisted to suit man’s lusts, a weapon of control, and a comfort for the weak-minded and fearful.

Basically, it’s what Christianity would be without Jesus.

I didn’t find it offensive, because it’s clearly a caricature of what following Christ actually looks like. That’s not to say there aren’t church leaders exploiting followers both today and throughout history, but in reading Christ’s words, I’m comforted that Christ never advocates or condones such corruption.

In the midst of all the “Christian” corruption, I was pleased to find a grain of truth central motivation of all the “good” characters in the book—the longing for a better world. I believe we all share this central longing.

One of the core reasons I believe Christianity is true is because it’s the only thing that makes the world make sense to me. When I see the despair, the suffering, and the hurt in our world today and throughout history (similar to the corruption of the Tearling), I can’t help but long for a better world. I’m so thankful to have hope and confidence that one day Christ will set all things to rights—He alone will bring about the better world.

Although the Tearling books touch on our universal longing for a world without evil, the solution—establishing a utopia—is one that I don’t believe will ever be fully realized. We all have the capacity for good and evil inside us, but without Christ, we have no hope of establishing anything fully good and perfect.

But that also doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing until Christ returns. We have a responsibility to fight against injustice, speak the truth, stand up for what is good and true, love relentlessly, and say no to evil at every turn. We have work to do. It won’t be a utopia, but it can be good.

That Ending

>>SPOILERS AHEAD<<

I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

Although I didn’t see the ending coming, it was an interesting twist on the whole series. On the other hand, it felt like a bit of a cop-out…like Johansen couldn’t figure out a good way to wrap up the series, so she just went with the “change-the-course-of-the-future” route instead of figuring out a way to preserve the characters, setting, and struggle we’ve come to care about.

Here are the two main problems with the ending:

One: As mentioned, I don’t really believe true utopias are possible. Somehow we’re supposed to believe that after Kelsea kills Row Finn, the fallen son determined to destroy his father’s work (an intentional or unintentional analogy to Satan, Christ, and God?), it sets off a chain of events that leads to Utopia finally being realized in the Tearling.

As much as it makes for a happy ending, I just have a hard time believing that not one greedy, power-hungry, or selfish individual wouldn’t rise up against the common good. I just can’t suspend disbelief enough to think that all a utopia needs is the right conditions, and suddenly everyone will care about the common good and stop being selfish.

Two: The ending also felt odd because Kelsea is such a powerful and dynamic character that I have a hard time seeing her being content to live in anonymity for the rest of her life. As we saw in the other two books, Kelsea is constantly battling with a dark side. Despite the fact that Kelsea’s temptation with darkness seems to originate from Row’s sapphires, I think her struggle will always be internal. And I think she loves being powerful, even if she uses her power for good.

And the part where Kelsea sees the sapphires in a museum and seems to be tempted to take them makes me wonder … A) How has no one ever been tempted by their power?! B) Is Kelsea going to take them back to try and regain her old life??

I guess we’ll just have to wait to find out. The ending didn’t ruin the series for me, but it just wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. It didn’t ring true to the norms of the series. I’m just not sure I believe it.

Overall, I really liked this series,  and would recommend them to any fantasy lover. I look forward to reading whatever Johansen writes next!

Great audiobook narrators, Part 1

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

— Lemony Snicket

Picking a good audiobook isn’t just about picking the right book.

It’s about picking a voice you can listen to for the next 12 hours. I’ve written about it before, but a narrator can make or break an audiobook.

Struggling to find something you’ll enjoy? I’ve done the hard work for you.

Here are some of my favorite audiobooks by narrator:

 

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Rosamund Pike, Pride and Prejudice

Not only is Rosamund Pike my favorite Jane Bennet of all the Pride and Prejudice film adaptations, she is a marvelous narrator. Her voice is melodious and her voices for different characters are marvelous. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice more times than I can count, but listening to Pike’s narration was like hearing it for the first time. Her voices are excellent, and her delivery impeccable.

Use your free 1-month trial from Audible and fall in love with this classic again!

 

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Carey Elwes, As You Wish

If you’re a fan of The Princess Bride (especially the movie), you’ll absolutely love this audiobook. Carey Elwes (aka Wesley) narrates the story of The Princess Bride‘s journey from book to movie production. His humorous stories, wonderful voice (who could resist Wesley??), and storytelling ability is a wonderful tribute to the movie and its fans.

What I especially love about this particular audiobook is that many of the original actors narrate sections of the book from their perspective. The story of making the film is almost as hilarious as the film itself.

 

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Rob Inglis, Lord of the Rings

I love Rob Inglis’ narration. Every time I press play, I feel like I’m being wrapped up cozy blanket by the fire with a mug of tea, listening as Gandalf reads me a story. While I absolutely love Lord of the Rings, there are definitely some thick/slow parts that audiobook helps you power through.

Also if you, like me, love Lord of the Rings but hate reading the songs and poems, you’re in luck. Rob Inglis actually sings every song, so you can finally appreciate Tolkien’s poetry instead of just skipping over it.

 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

If you love listening to writers read their own books, listen to a copy of Between the World and Me next. I honestly don’t know if I would have recognized all the emotion, heartache, and passion Coates writes with if I hadn’t heard him read his own words aloud.

Beyond the fact that Coates is an excellent narrator, Between the World and Me is an excellent book, and it’s one you need to read. I didn’t have the slightest understanding of what it was like to be black in America before reading this book. I probably never will, fully. But this book was a good place to start. Listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates, and let Between the World in Me draw you one step closer to understanding, compassion, and hope.

 

Who are your favorite audiobook narrators?

 

*No affiliate links used in this post

Old book, new review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? Yes. For more conservative readers, there will definitely be some sections to skip over (sex, rape, violence etc.). However, despite these flaws, Follett’s world is so captivating and the drama of the cathedral’s construction is so captivating, that if you love being sucked into a new world, you’ll find much to enjoy.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This September, Ken Follett will be releasing a new book — the first since he completed the Century Trilogy (which I’m currently reading). Out in September, A Column of Fire is the third book in his Kingsbridge series.

I decided to revisit book one in the series, The Pillars of the Earth, in a new review of the 1989 epic.

First, this book is no joke. At a whopping 1,000+ pages, it’s no quick read. This is not a Harry Potter-1,000 pages that vanish all too quickly. It’s a sizable commitment. But that shouldn’t scare you away, and here’s why:

 

The weird and ugly

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But there’s definitely some disturbing content. If you’re particularly sensitive to these topics, you might want to skip on Pillars.

Graphic sex and rape: There is a lot of sex throughout, and most scenes are pretty descriptive. I found it easy to skip over them (no major plot points lost), but the amount of detail felt unnecessary. I didn’t pick up a romance novel. Be warned: One rape scene is particularly disturbing and graphic.

Plot devices: As another reviewer pointed out, sometimes the plot felt a bit methodical: Things are going well, HUGE PROBLEM, solution is discovered at the last second, repeat. It’s no surprise that Follett started out writing thrillers.

I eventually came to expect that if things were going well, it was only a matter of time until things got crappy again. Nothing is sacred. No one is invincible. Even though I knew exactly what Follett was doing, I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Corruption and violence: Medieval England is about what you would expect — violent, cruel, every man for himself. There are accusations of witchcraft, misogyny in its worst forms, and evil, oppressive leaders. The injustice was so despicable at some points that it took my breath away.

Despite the ugliness depicted throughout Pillars, the stories rang true. Even today, evil exists and abounds. Nothing irks me more than a story that untruthfully depicts human nature.

Now, some of the characters were almost a little too evil, and much of the sex was highly dramatized. But overall, Follett does a good job of presenting flawed, believable characters who develop throughout the story.

 

The beautiful and good

Religion and the Church: For Christian readers, one important thing to keep in mind is that Follett does not believe in God. This is part of what drew me to the book in the first place. It’s totally fascinating to me that someone who doesn’t practice Christianity would write a book about the construction of a cathedral.

Yet somehow Follett creates multi-layered, three-dimensional characters who struggle with their beliefs and wrestle with discerning how God would have them live — something Christians experience daily.

For the most part, Follett was respectful of the church (even though he doesn’t subscribe to faith himself) and Prior Philip is still one of my favorite Christian characters.

World building: This is Follett’s true triumph. The world that he weaves is beautifully intricate and surprisingly real. The layered, rich world-building alone made it worth skipping over all the negative parts.

I’m amazed at how Follett has the ability to capture life in a different time and place, so that you really start to believe you’re immersed in medieval England. I was completely sucked into a different time and place.

Every time I read a Follett, I learn something new about history and people. I know everyone doesn’t love learning (so tragic), but when you read Follett, it doesn’t feel like learning. That’s the beauty of it.

I do wish the book had included a diagram of a cathedral. I’m not familiar with cathedral architecture and terms, and I ended up searching cathedrals online so I could visualize the descriptions of the construction.

 

Why I’m not interested in World Without End

This brings me to why I haven’t read the sequel, World Without End, and why I probably won’t be reading A Column of Fire.

It’s important to note that World Without End was written 20 years after Pillars. Several friends who have read both books (and many Goodreads reviews) point out that much of Follett’s political and personal philosophy seems to have shifted in the years since Pillars was published.

Whereas in Pillars we had Prior Philip — a believer in God, but also a strong, courageous, and flawed character — World Without End seems to be exclusively populated with religious figures who are evil and corrupt.

As a person of faith, I just can’t bring myself to read it. I’m not trying to be naive — I know that throughout history (and today) many religious institutions have been controlled by the corrupt. (Spotlight is one of my favorite movies!)

But why devote the time to reading a 1,000-page book that will likely just make me frustrated?

Life’s just too short and there are too many other good books to read.

 

Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What did you think? Have you read the sequel?

Snooze Alert: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

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Title: Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Author: Chris Cleave
My rating: 1 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? No. I found it to be long, flat, and confusing at times. Characters are underdeveloped, the plot tries to accomplish too much, and dialogue is tiresome. There are  so many great WWII novels out there … this is not one of them.

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

Where to begin.

If Everyone Brave is Forgiven hadn’t been the selection for the book club I’m in, I would have DNFed it pretty early on.

In a nutshell, Everyone Brave is Forgiven was one of the most disappointing books I’ve read in a while. All the elements of a great story were there: Little-known history of WWII, racial tensions, love triangle … but somehow it just falls flat. Chris Cleave is a bestselling author and many people have enjoyed this book.

Perhaps it’s just my personal tastes, but this particular book just didn’t work for me.

This is the only Chris Cleave book I’ve read, so I might just not like the way he writes. I’ve thought about reading Little Bee several times, but I don’t think I can do it if it’s similar in style to this one.

Characters & Setting

WWII is one of the most tragic, formative, and fascinating times in history. That’s why I was surprised to find Everyone Brave is Forgiven was so snooze-worthy. It lacked any of the drama that usually surrounds this era of history.

The characters were one-dimensional and the most emotional parts of the story left me nodding off to sleep.

The transitions and descriptions throughout the book were often very strange. At times I didn’t know what was real and what was a dream, what the characters were thinking or doing, or who characters even were (For example, one book club member didn’t know how Hilda was related to Mary until partway through the book). Once or twice I asked myself, Do I have to be British to understand this??

We never get inside character’s heads, understand their motivations, or see how they deal with grief, heartache, or joy.

Another strange thing: Almost all of the dialogue in this book was just witty banter. Characters rarely talked directly about the true, terrible things that were happening. Everything was a sarcastic joke. Maybe Cleave was trying to make the point that the war was too horrible for words, and could only be spoken about in jokes … but it came across as trite and shallow.

And if the dust cover description hadn’t mentioned that Alistair and Mary fell in love when they first met, I wouldn’t have picked up on that fact at all.

This is one of my ultimate book pet peeves: I can’t stand it when a dust jacket description is a bait and switch. The description for this book made it sound like the book was going to go one direction, but it went a completely different one. I don’t know why, but that always leaves me feeling deceived and shortchanged.

Story & Plot

I so wish Everyone Brave is Forgiven had focused exclusively on the relationship between Mary and black students during the war. Not only would it have been timely, it would have been valuable to read a black perspective during WWII. The dust jacket made it seem like that was where the book was going, but it was just a sidebar storyline.

In fact, there wasn’t any clear, dominant storyline throughout the entire book … it’s like it tried to cover too much ground without really making any clear point. We have Mary and Tom’s story, the school story, the war in general, Alastair’s experiences, Alastair and Hilda’s story, Mary and Hilda’s friendship, and then Mary and Alastair’s romance. None were particularly successful.

I walked away from this book not sure what, exactly, I was supposed to learn or get out of reading it.

But perhaps one of the most unbelievable aspects of the book is Mary’s behavior.

She galavants around London doing whatever her heart desires … like spending the night and sleeping with her boyfriend (did people really do this so willy-nilly before birth control?) or frequenting “seedy” clubs. If her family is really as affluent and concerned with image as the book makes them sound, I have a hard time believing that during the 1940s she could have slept at her boyfriend’s house or hung around the club without strong consequences to her parents’ political image.

Even the TV show Call the Midwife (which is set in the 1950s) clearly shows that sex outside of marriage was, in general, publicly frowned upon.

Final Thoughts

The most positive thing I can say about Everyone Brave is Forgiven is that it reads really quickly. Small mercies.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book. If the scope of the story had been pared down, and the characters and setting had been more developed, this could have been something special. But it just fell flat for me.

There was no drama. There was no anticipation. There was no conflict, climax, or resolution. And then the ending: No resolution. No hope. It ended on such a discordant note.

I think the most painful part or reading Everyone Brave is Forgiven was this: At the most dramatic, important, and tragic moments, I felt nothing. I felt numb. I just didn’t care.

As a reader, that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

Is The Circle by Dave Eggers worth reading? | Book Review

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Title: The Circle
Author: Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Fiction (Dystopia)
Audiobook note: The Circle‘s main character is a woman. Soooo I’m still trying to figure out why it was narrated by a man. It doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to enjoy the audiobook, because Dion Graham honestly sounds like the voice of Aslan (which definitely doesn’t fit the book’s tone). After a while though, I got used to it—plus Graham’s “valley girl” interpretation of Annie’s voice is actually hilarious.
Is it worth reading? If you’re a sucker for anything dystopia, you’ll probably enjoy The Circle. If your only foray into dystopian fiction is The Hunger Games, I’d pass on this one. What I enjoyed most about The Circle was how it built on the dystopia genre and compared to other dystopian books, and not so much for its merits as a stand-alone book.

 

>>Minor spoilers ahead<<

In the spirit of full disclosure, the only reason I picked up this book was because I saw The Circle movie trailer.

Emma Watson with an American accent? Tom Hanks as a villain?! Creepy dystopian universe eerily similar to our own?!?!?!?

Yeah, I was in.

So I popped over to my local library (tip #2 in my 4 tips for keeping your 2017 reading goals post) and picked up the audiobook.

This is dystopia for our current era. I’m looking forward to more in this genre to come.

The Weird Stuff

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. There were many things I disliked about this book, to the point that it made me wonder if that was the point. Maybe Eggers is intentionally trying to create a certain revulsion in the reader so that we recognize the ultimate message behind the book (read more under The Good Stuff).

Sheep Characters

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book from the perspective of one of the sheep.

By that, I mean that Mae Holland believes everything the Circle tells her hook, line, and sinker. Even when trusted people in her life challenge her to think critically about the company she works for, she rejects their ideas as stupid, ignorant, and selfish.

The speed with which the world adopts the tyranny of the Circle was a little unrealistic to me, but not too unrealistic that I completely rejected it. I was spooked by how mindlessly and willingly the characters were willing to give up their freedoms—without even realizing it.

(More on this under Critical Thinking is Critically Important)

Mae is Freaking Annoying

What an obnoxious head to be stuck inside.

I’m really curious how Emma Watson is going to play her in the movie. Mae accepts everything without question, ridicules and hates anyone who questions her wisdom or choices, and cares only about the power she has over people or the way they make her feel.

She is petty, vain, people-pleasing, self-centered, and thoroughly unlikable. She is completely asleep to the dangers of the world around her. Listening to her internal dialogue was agonizing at times. But what made it worse was that I was also sort of rooting for her at the same time.

Incongruous Sex Scenes

In general, I’m not a fan of sex scenes. But I have no problem just skipping over them, and normally they don’t ruin my reading experience. I can still find a lot to love about a book aside from the parts I skip over (like in Game of Thrones or Pillars of the Earth).

But for some reason, I never saw the sex coming in this book. It just seemed so oddly out of place with the whole theme/tone of the story to have kind of descriptive sex thrown in there 5-6 times.

I don’t know if Eggers was trying to highlight the vast gulf between the digital and physical at the Circle or what, but it seemed weirdly incongruous with the rest of the book.

The Good Stuff

While I definitely didn’t love The Circle, there were some redeemable points. If nothing else, it served as a warning, and it’s always, always a good idea to examine warnings.

Especially when we live in a world where the plot of The Circle seems plausible.

These were my main takeaways (aka The Good Stuff):

Great World Building

One thing I loved (and which I think is critical for a good dystopian novel) is solid world building. If I’m going to buy into a futuristic, oppressive society, a believable, well-constructed world is key.

The Circle excels at creating a believable setting.

Maybe we’re just used to the idea of sprawling tech company campuses, but I think Eggers takes it to the next level. I could picture going to work with Mae every day and experiencing the things she experienced. Even the sometimes-tedious descriptions of her moment-by-moment movements helped highlight Mae’s increasingly frantic mental world.

Critical thinking is critically important

Every program or initiative started by the Circle was good in theory: microchips to prevent children from being kidnapped, programs to prevent racial profiling, surveys to ensure quality products and services, etc.

But no Circler seems to recognize how each new, exciting advancement is another infringement upon personal freedom and liberty. Every initiative is cloaked under the guise of safety, wellness, and acceptance.

The groupthink was so strong and the ideas were so “good” for society that it’s nearly impossible for any person to disagree without being branded as outlier, anti-social, or luddite.

When society loses the ability to constructively critique itself, tyranny slips in the door.

Disagreement does not equal hate

The more the Circle takes over, the more that negativity, disagreement, or dissent is punished.

I think this reminder is especially poignant in the wake of the 2016 election season. It’s easy to assume someone who disagrees with you hates everything you stand for, or even worse, hates you. But in reality, disagreement is valuable and necessary for a thriving society. It drives us to look at problems from all angles, and it reminds us that each person is unique and brings their own perspective to the the table.

When we seek to erase all disagreement, we encourage a culture of robots.

The dangers of seeking approval in a digital world

The more likes, followers, and approval ratings Mae receives, the better she feels about herself. She gets an endorphin rush from the instantaneous affirmation the Circle encourages.

And the more she’s treated as an object (albeit, a loved object) by her fans, the more she treats other people as pawns in her attempt to feel loved, valued, and approved.

This is a real problem we’re facing right now.

Social media makes it incredibly easy to start basing our value and our worth as human beings on the impersonal approval of people we have no connection to in real life.

The Circle shows us the danger when every action we take is categorized, ranked, rated, and evaluated. When our performance in the job force, the classroom, and the social realm are ranked and rewarded, it’s easy to slip into a mindset where we believe arbitrary numbers correlate to real things like value. It’s a dead-end search that can never be satisfied.

State-imposed morality is bad, bad, bad

The flaw with the goals of the Circle is that Eamon Bailey believes he can eradicate sin and change human nature by instilling “checks and balances” that will ensure everyone is intimidated, harassed, or forced into perfect behavior.

And it’s impossible. You can’t force people to make moral choices and you can’t force people to be perfect.

Although a perfect society would (theoretically) eliminate pain, suffering, fear of the unknown, and heartbreak, it would also eliminate choice. It would rob us of the agency to do good, to love others, and to make mistakes and learn from them. It would remove the ability to heal.

There’s a biblical application here as well: Agency means we have the choice to move toward God or away from Him … He didn’t make us into robots who are forced to choose Him.

Is The Circle Worth Reading?

Either this book is kind of crappy, or Eggers is doing something powerful here. I’m honestly not sure. Maybe I’m reading too much into it … or maybe not.

But that’s what I love about reading. To me, a book isn’t wasted if it teaches or reminds me of something powerful and true.

So is it worth reading?

I’d say yes if you like dystopian novels. If not, some of the subtler themes may not be worth slogging through the droning of Mae’s sheep-like mind or the petty behavior or the sort-of-disappointing twist at the end. If you don’t like this genre, it might just end up on your Did Not Finish pile.

 

Have you read The Circle? What did you think? Will you go see the movie? Leave a comment below!

 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett | Review

YOU ARE SIMPLY THE (1)

Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: General Fiction
Audiobook note: I highly recommend the audiobook! Hope Davis has this fascinating voice—equal parts smokey, crackly, and hilariously sarcastic—that makes listening to Commonwealth pure pleasure. Each character has a unique vocal fingerprint. I remember thinking while listening, “I could never have brought these characters to life in my head as well as she does.”
Is it worth reading? If you enjoy stories about family dynamics and the power of love that can transcend generations, then Commonwealth is your kind of book. Patchett is a master storyteller who knows how to write a sentence so smooth, you’ll want to stop random strangers and say, “Just listen to this!” While Patchett is perhaps best known for Bel Canto, I actually liked Commonwealth better. Don’t tell anyone.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This is my first Ann Patchett novel. I’ve seen her books around for years in libraries and bookstores, but it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve started picking up “adult” novels and moving away from Young Adult.

I also have to confess—the main reason I gave it a shot was because of the cover. The book description didn’t appeal to me. But the dust jacket had this glorious texture and something about the cover design made me stop every time I walked into a bookstore.

(Yes, I’m one of those people who pick up books, stroke the cover, flip through the pages, and then repeat before finally giving in.)

And I’m so glad I did. Commonwealth didn’t disappoint.

Here are some things I loved:

Chronological leaps

Commonwealth spans over five decades, and many chapters end on a cliffhanger … and  the next chapter picks up in the past or future, and you’re left dangling. I could tell from scanning Goodreads reviews that this was a major drawback for some readers. It was infuriating. But I loved it.

The story was bit of a puzzle. You only got a small piece each chapter, but by the end I can assure you (most) everything fits together.

Patchett’s writing style

Before reading Commonwealth, I didn’t know it was possible for a novel to sound like music. Each sentence flows perfectly into the next—a delight for readers and listeners.

Nothing turns me off of a book quicker than bumpy, unreadable sentences. If the plot is compelling enough, sometimes I will stick in it just to find out what happens (see my The Light Between Oceans review), but for the most part, sentence flow is a sticking point.

The fallout of broken promises

So these families are pretty screwed up.

Bert Cousins kisses another man’s wife at her daughter’s christening party for crying out loud. Their children spend the rest of their lives trying to reconcile the brokenness that seems to be the core of their existence. Their ex-spouses must find a way to move on.

Commonwealth is a story of the search for something whole and true.

It’s a harrowing reminder that our relentless search for meaning and purpose can lead us down paths we never intended to take … ultimately hurting those we love the most.

I love that Patchett doesn’t glorify Bert and Beverly’s unfaithfulness. She simply tells a story and lets the reader decide how to feel about it.

Love’s power to heal

Commonwealth could have been a really depressing story.

Instead, it’s strangely hopeful.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, sorrow, betrayal, and disappointment the Cousins/Keating families experience, Commonwealth ends with forgiveness, hope, and a deep love that transcends each person’s faults.

This is the truth Commonwealth offers us:

We are all broken. We hurt each other in selfish and cruel ways. But love has the power to transcend the ugliness in this world.

Our brokenness can be mended.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman | Review

Copy of The circle review

Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M.L. Stedman
My rating: 3.5 / 5
Audiobook note: I initially tried listening to The Light Between Oceans on audiobook, but I had to constantly adjust the volume because the narrator fluctuated between a whisper and yell. Annoying.
Is it worth reading? If want a beach read or a quick love story with a little bit of edge, this is your jam. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s got more meat and moral backbone than your average romance.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

It’s been weeks, and I’m still not sure how I feel.

Until I got to Part III, I had already decided that I was going to give this book only 3 stars.

what I DIDN’T like:

I really had to force myself through the first few chapters. But I had to know how it ended.

Maybe it was just the author’s style, but I didn’t think the short and staccato sentences really worked. It felt unnecessarily choppy. I had also finished Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, where every word and sentence was almost lyrical in its flow. Reading TLBO felt like driving along a bumpy road.

Another style note: each chapter is divided into multiple “vignettes” that gave you a small peek into the action. I rarely say it, but this book just wasn’t long enough. The snapshots just weren’t enough to immerse you into the world or character’s heads.

The book description essentially gave away the plot of Parts I and II. For almost half of the book, I was waiting to get to the parts of the story that I didn’t already know.

I didn’t like how most of the book was Tom’s perspective. I really, really wanted to understand Isabel. I wanted to get inside her skin and understand what it felt like to be on the edge of grief and sanity … I wanted to connect somehow, but I couldn’t.

It’s shame that this book missed such an incredible opportunity to explore the depths of postpartum depression and mental illness.

For me, The Light Between Oceans‘ biggest flaw was a lack of character development.  At the end of the day, as much as I long for this to be a character-driven novel, it’s a plot-driven novel. The plot is so good. But the characters suffered as a result.

I never fully understood Tom or Isabel’s motivations or hearts. And I really wanted to. I wanted to experience every emotion and heartbreak. I wanted to not hate Isabel and be frustrated with Tom. I wanted to feel for them. At the end, I sort of did. But I wanted more.

And yet.

In the last few chapters, TLBO suddenly redeemed itself from 3-star status.

what I DID like:

First and foremost, if you are a lover of the rules (like me), this book instantly becomes dually stressful and fascinating. The main characters (good people, we’ve learned) make a terrible, awful, (and in my opinion) wrong choice. A choice that is so fraught with illogic and heartbreak and desperation that you have to know how it ends.

And this is where the book is redeemed. You can point your finger at sloppy writing and poor characterization, but this is powerful story. This is tragedy in all its beauty and messiness and heartache. The plot kept me coming back for more. And more. And more.

Could our beloved characters be redeemed? Could there be any meaning in the fallout?

Stedman does a fabulous job of not casting judgement on her characters. It’s up to us, the readers, to decide whether Tom and Isabel’s crime was evil or natural. 

And, for all it’s flaws in character development, I loved the world of Janus Island and Australia. Stedman’s settings are beautiful and vivid.

As I hungrily read the last chapter on the floor of my bathroom at midnight, and I was surprised to find tears running down my face. Most books don’t make me cry. But this one did. This frustrating, stressful book of unfulfilled potential made me feel much more than I ever expected.

my internal dilemma:

The Light Between Oceans has some lovely symbolism about light, opposing forces, and reconciliation. The lighthouse is caught between the meeting place of two oceans. Our two main characters are diametrically opposite in personality and temperament. They are faced with choice that will define them for better or for worse … they come face to face with life and death.

There is something true beneath the surface here.

 

I guess my struggle is that The Light Between Oceans was an entertaining page turner that also had some qualities of good literature. And this messes up the categories I normally place books within. Normally I’ll say something was a page turner, but wasn’t very deep, or it wasn’t the easiest read, but was filled with depth and meaning.

The Light Between Oceans didn’t really accomplish either completely. But it did make an impact on me, and I can’t discount that.

This book shows of the importance of story. You can have beautiful language and stunning technique, but if your story stinks, it’s not going to resonate with anybody.

Ultimately, I think the greatest stories are ones that allow us to experience tragedy in such a way that we are pointed back to God somehow: we must be able to recognize our purpose in life beyond the people and circumstances we face.

It’s healthy in our privileged American life to vicariously experience sorrow and tragedy from time to time. Sometimes, we need to be reminded how to feel again.