Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Jewel

It's been a couple weeks since I read The Jewel, a young adult novel by Amy Ewing (busy month for us!), so this review will mostly be overall impressions. What attracted me to the novel in the first place was a pretty cover and a fascinating premise: teenage girls sold to rich women as surrogates to birth their babies for them. In addition, these girls have magic powers (the why of this is never quite explained...maybe a topic to be covered in future books of the series?) that allow them to manipulate the color, shape, gender, and growth of the babies. All this takes place in a world separated into tiers of wealth, with the rich at the center of the city, a ring of merchants after that, an industrial ring, a farming ring, and finally a ring for the poorest of the poor, from which the magic surrogate girls come. It's a pretty nice set-up for a dystopian world.

(SPOILERS follow.) The thing is, some of the subject matter is a Teenage pregnancy is still kind of frowned upon in modern USA (though maybe less now than it used to be). Though it's been a part of other cultures for millennia, it's not something our kids are really prepared for. Violet, the main character, does manage to avoid pregnancy in this book despite her enslavement, but she does undergo doctor's appointments and tests that my younger, teenage self might have found a little freaky to read about. Fortunately, nothing is overly graphic, so I'd still consider it teen-appropriate material.

I was more bothered, really, by the other morally degraded content of the book. Girls are not the only ones forced into certain lives. Teenage boys can sell themselves as companions who entertain rich females in every way except the actual sexual act. But since the mothers buy these boys to entertain their daughters, some of the mothers are a bit proprietary toward the companions and use them to meet their own sexual needs (again, not graphic; this is only spoken about and not depicted at all).

In The Jewel, Violet falls in love with Ash, who is one of these companions. Both of them find themselves slaves in the same household and reach out to each other. At least that's the way the book tries to sell it. I had a hard time buying Ash's "slavery" since he basically chooses to lead this kind of life. While the surrogates have no choice and little freedom in their new lives, the companions are paid and are even considered acceptable company in the upper echelons of this world. I had a hard time respecting Ash as the love interest (I had someone else in mind, actually) and rooting for the romance. I never like it when the teenage love interests of a book have sex, but when a character is basically a male prostitute, whatever the book is trying to say about the wrongness of that gets a little muddled when he has no problem having sex with a girl he gets to choose. I get the difference there, but I'd rather see more realistic repercussions to an enforced lifestyle of prostitution. I didn't want the sex to be there at all, but if it had to be, difficulty being vulnerable with Violet, difficulty giving her more than he might give a paying partner, would have been more realistic. I just didn't buy it.

One other minor moment in the book bothered me because it was cheap conflict. Violet is a slave, and she knows that Ash is essentially one, too. After they have an intimate moment together, she sees him with the girl he's been paid to be a companion to and she gets mad. It just annoyed me. She knows what he does, knows he doesn't have a choice (according to the book, at least). Her anger comes off as petty in this situation. If he doesn't have a choice, she doesn't really have a right to be mad at him. If anything, she should understand him and forgive him because they are both being forced to do things they don't want to do.

Without the companion parts, I would have liked this book more. It was different and intriguing. It offers a lot of interesting moral discussion without being too over-the-top. (For instance, the girls are impregnated in a lab by doctors and not by having to sleep with their owners' husbands or anything too heinous like that.) So, I give it three out of five stars.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The One (A Selection novel, #3)

After reading and reviewing The Selection and The Elite, by Kiera Cass, I just have a few thoughts to add about The One, which ends this trilogy. I admit, I enjoyed the series...more than I thought I would. It's odd because I'm not really into pageantry and I've never watched The Bachelor. I do, however, enjoy an occasional reality TV show (more along the lines of Survivor), and I do love to read dystopian young adult fiction. This series combines both, but to read more about that, start with my reviews above. (I was rather negative on The Selection, but as I read the other books, I was proven wrong about a few things, including the heroine's name.) Obviously, this review may SPOIL the earlier books of the series, so if interested, don't read on here.

In this third book, the Selection comes to a close. One girl, just a commoner, is chosen to be the prince's wife. It's almost like a fairy tale, except this one comes with the politics of a world dying for a change in leadership. You would think--I would think--it would be mostly fluff, but it doesn't come across that way.

(This paragraph definitely contains SPOILERS.) But I didn't give it five stars. As usual, I come to the end of a series and find something lacking. Actually, this time, I am pleased with the end. Some might find it too neat and happy, despite a few deaths, but I like the overall turnout. No, the end is not the problem, but getting there is a little bumpy. Throughout the three books, the main character, America, has been hiding a lingering love interest from the prince. At the end of the second book, she makes her decision between the two men in her life, but in the third book, the effects of hiding one from the other linger. The conflict comes to a head when the truth is revealed near the end in a close that feels both a bit rushed (multiple people die quickly and without much fallout) and a bit tacked together for the sake of added drama and angst. I would have preferred a more mature approach to the revelation at the end, both characters realizing the irony of the situation (the prince was allowed to date 35 girls at once, but America would have been in serious trouble if her one other love interest was discovered).

Other than that, I was mostly pleased with the book and, aside from the annoying love triangle, the series as a whole. Three stars.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Outlander (the book)

I got interested in Outlander through the advertisements in Entertainment Weekly. I'm always interested in TV shows that are a little (or a lot) out of the ordinary. First, the pictures attracted me, and then I watched the free first episode on the Starz website. I was a little worried about the amount of sexual content the show would have, being on Starz, and my worry was warranted. When I finished the first episode, I had mixed feelings. I was undeniably curious about where the story was going, but I was put off a little by the sexual gratuity. I would have continued to watch more of the show anyway if I could have, but I don't have access to Starz on TV. So, the show was done for me, at least until DVD. But fortunately for me, it was based on a book, and I figured that was a better way to satisfy my curiosity anyway.

The attraction of the story lies in this: Claire is a war nurse from 1945 who, while trying to reconnect with her husband on a trip to Scotland, finds herself transported through time to 1743. There, she becomes captive to a Scottish clan and is eventually forced to marry. It's certainly an interesting premise. But that's not all the story has going for it. Once I started to read, I was fascinated by the land and people that the author, Diana Gabaldon, describes so well. There's a wealth of detail in this book.

There's also an intriguing moral question. If a person is married, and happily so (though that doesn't affect the morality of the question), but finds herself two hundred years in the past with no knowledge of whether or not she will ever get back, is it right to get married again and essentially be married to two men at once, though in two different times? I'm not sure the book gives a satisfactory answer, though it is certainly addressed.

(SPOILERS ahead.) The shock value of this situation is not singular in this story. And I have mixed feelings about this, too. Gabaldon seems to rely on providing as much shock value as she can throughout the book. While this pulls the reader further into the story, I think it also hinders her story in two ways. First, the story seems a little less likely. (I mean, it was never that likely to begin with, but all the details do create a fairly believable world.) Second, the shock value often goes hand-in-hand with moral depravity. For instance, Claire encounters a predecessor of her 1945 husband in 1743. He looks nearly identical to her husband but ends up being the villain of the story. He attacks Claire, creating a link between her first husband's face and violence. He's a sexual sadist and gets pleasure particularly out of violating men, both body and spirit. All that seems a little over-the-top. Speaking of sadism, the one scene that almost stopped my reading was toward the middle of the book when Claire's new husband (1743) whips her with a belt. It's to punish her for nearly getting him and his men killed, but he gets some pleasure out of it, too. The book does a remarkable job of explaining the situation and relating the fallout of it (I did keep reading, after all), but it made me so mad. I won't spoil every instance of shock value for you, but these should give you an idea.

And unfortunately, on top of a lot of shock value, Gabaldon is at least as graphic as the one episode I saw of the TV show, though the TV show added details that weren't in the book. Now, I've never read Fifty Shades of Grey and don't plan to, and I'm not really comparing the two books, but I doubt Fifty Shades could be much more graphic. There are pages and pages of details about Claire and her 1743 husband's sexual explorations. Later in the book, there are details about the villain's homosexual sadism. Not much is left to the imagination. As far as the sex scenes involving Claire go, I was at least happy that she was married. Morally, that is acceptable. But is it morally acceptable for a person to read all that explicit sexual content? Perhaps there are people out there who can read it with impunity. Their consciences are whole, and they are unaffected by what they read. I admit, I can't. And I think a lot of people who do read that stuff shouldn't. I think it hurts us, raises expectations that can't be met, causes us to long for a fantasy that isn't real. It's not harmless. Our culture says it's harmless, and we've become much more sexually "free," or so we believe. We give our hearts and souls away for nothing. We are lose everything. And through books like these, we numb our consciences until we believe the lie.

Soap. Box. Sorry. But it needed to be said.

Outlander begins an eight-book (eight major books so far, but there are also extra related books) series. The first book was published in 1991, and the latest book was published this year. So, there's quite a lot of content. But as interesting as some of the details about Scotland and the livelihood of people from the 18th century are, I think I am already done with this series. Perhaps it's just that these are very long books, and it took me awhile to get through Outlander, and I'm ready for something else right now. But also, I think I need to be careful about searing my conscience with images that are meant to shock and entice. From what I know of the latest book, I don't think that aspect of Gabaldon's books goes away. I do know the series continues on years into Claire's future (in the past), and I'm sure there's a lot of great stuff in there. But for now, it's not for me.

I give it three out of five stars.