The Jewel

I thought the novel The Jewel by Amy Ewing was going to be very similar to The Selection by Kiera Cass, but I was wrong. I actually liked The Selection in a kind of guilty pleasure way which surprised me because I have never watched a single episode of The Bachelor and the plot seemed fairly similar to what I have heard about that TV show. In each, two attractive girls are swept away from poverty and their family. In the case of The Selection, the main character has to compete for a prince’s hand and therefore get a makeover, training in manners, public speaking, etc. while navigating contestants who may be their enemies. In The Jewel, Violet is sent to a boarding school and trained for her role as a surrogate to a wealthy family. On her graduation, she is given a makeover and thrown into the Auction where wealthy women will bid for her.

Obviously, The Jewel is a much darker story than The Selection where most girls want the opportunity, and even the reluctant ones will do it to help their family, and no one is really forced to stay in the competition. While Violet will live in luxury, she would trade it all to go home to her family, even if that means a hard life of work, but she doesn’t have a choice, to run is to be executed, to stay is to give up her freedom and her body to the woman who bought and controls here, the Dutchess. Therefore, this book suddenly reminded me much more of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Just like in that story, there is an infertility problem, in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale it’s the women religious zealots that have trouble conceiving and therefore force women to become Handmaiden’s impregnated by their husbands who have become the leaders of the U.S. government. In The Jewel it’s the royal women who can’t bear their own children, but at least the surrogates aren’t impregnated by the royal husbands but through the in vitro process. That’s not the only similarity; each woman is marginalized in their dystopian society by being stripped of their identity. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character is called Offred, literally meaning “Of Fred” the man she is forced to become a concubine for by the new Christian regime. When Violet graduates from her training, she is called only 197, which is the number ranking she receives at the auction. Even the relationship between Violet and her best friend Raven, also a surrogate reminded me of the relationship between Offred and Moira both are rebels against the system, but it is the friend who experiences the violence and horror more than the protagonist.

There is even a dash of The Hunger Games in The Jewel. The dash comes in the form of Lucien who was the servant who prepped Violet for the auction selecting her dress and styling her hair and makeup. Lucien reminds me of Cinna of The Hunger Games in the way he forms an instant bond with the person he assigned to work with, and each in their own way help both their charge, and help incite a rebellion. Moreover, each of them are strong characters, despite the fact that they are not one of the main characters, their charisma and mystery makes you wish Suzanne Collins had provided more a backstory for Cinna, whereas we get to learn a lot more about Lucien’s life and his motivations.

Yes, there is a silly love story in The Jewel, but even that has a dark twist with the man in Violet’s life also as much of a prisoner as Violet is, despite the fact he seems to be able to interact more freely. Getting back to the comparison with The Selection, not only is The Jewel a darker story, but it is a lot more sexual as well.

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Breathe

For some reason I use a lot of movie examples when writing about how I feel about books….Well here is one more, Breathe by Sarah Crossan is like the B Movie version of Wool by Hugh C. Howey. The two have a similar plot idea that there is a society of people living in a contained space because the air outside that space will kill you. In addition to the apocalyptic event that created each of these situations, each book is also a dystopian novel because of course there has to be a quasi-government that is both controlling the citizens and hiding some truths from there. Wool was the superior version because it is simply a more mature book, and I don’t mean that the main character was out of her teens unlike the protagonists in Breathe, I mean there is a depth and maturity in Wool missing from Breathe.

Here’s where I always second guess writing a sentence like the above, after all Breathe is a YA book and maybe if I was still a sixteen-year old girl the level of writing would be just fine for me. However, I am not a sixteen girl and I also suspect that with the state of worldliness of teens today, they may also feel that the writing is a bit immature for them too.   The author Sarah Crossan was a high school teacher, I was too, but my teaching career ended years ago so maybe I am off- base, but I was bored and I think th teenage attention span is even shorter than mine.

The book just had far too many stereotypes for me too. There are the rebels who know that the government has been lying to them and have their own lair in the Outlands outside the domed city with its pumped in oxygen. Of course one of the rebels is a beautiful teenage girl, Aline, a hard case who lost her parents and has nothing but contempt for the ‘Premiums.’ The Premiums are the 1% of their society who live in the nicest neighborhood sector and can afford to buy all the oxygen they need while the rest of society struggles with fatigue and overwork brought on by the lack of oxygen and the depression caused by the lack of opportunities available to them. Bea, another ‘auxiliary’ is one of those who don’t understand that no matter how hard she works, she will never get the opportunity that she deserves. When she debates Quinn, her best friend and the boy she secretly loves, she wipes the floor with him. However, it’s Quinn, the Breathe Director’s son who is accepted into the leadership program not her. To make matters worse the hiking trip to the Outlands that Quinn has treated her to doesn’t go the way she hoped. Instead of getting some time alone with Quinn hoping he will notice her as something more than a friend; he helps their classmate Alina who is on the run because he has a crush on her. Once they are deep in the Outlands Alina parts from them but they decide to follow her, which brings them into contact with a drifter who makes them see these people in a different light, and the rebels themselves where they get a mixed reception.   Yes, the love triangle thing has been done too many times in other books, and done much better. Quinn is really immature and selfish and I can’t understand why any of the girls would find him interesting, at least in most of these triangles the guy is a tough guy with a heart of gold underneath, but Quinn is just a wimp.

Really, the most interesting part of the book for me was in the flyleaf where the author states she got the idea for the book when traveling in Washington State (where I live) and seeing tree logging she thought, “Don’t people understand that we need trees to breathe?”   She is right, we do though few seem to realize that, especially where I live where old growth trees are being torn down to build yet more luxury townhomes and condos. So therefore, I give Ms. Crossan a thumbs up for weaving real world conditions into this cautionary tale.

Carry the Flame

The action in the James Jaros novel Carry the Flame may be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand we are a civilization that seems to need a lot of stimulation, hence movies with one action sequence after another and the plethora of online distractions, gaming, etc. For people of that ilk, Carry the Flame delivers. I myself don’t mind a degree of heart-stopping action, it’s one of the reasons I have turned increasingly to apocalyptic and dystopian fiction over just regular fiction, but I think when you have non-stop action and violence without pause that’s as bad as the other extreme of not much happening. Think about it, our bodies pump cortisol when we are experiencing a classic “fight or flight” moment, but it’s not good to sustain that increase in blood flow and cortisol. Too much and it can make you sick. In a novel one of the consequences of the pacing being at full throttle throughout includes missing out on the buildup to the action or violence which creates that extreme tension and suspense. You really feel the difference once your heart has slowed to a normal rate and then suddenly something unexpected or terrible happens. If your heart is constantly racing you miss out on that sensation, think about a rollercoaster, when you are climbing your heart can relax, then you plunge down while your adrenaline cranks up, then you recover just enough when climbing again to feel the difference with the next plunge.

The other problem with the non-stop pace is there is less time for character development. I do think James Jaros has drawn some vivid characters starting with Burn Down the Sky, the first book in which the pacing wasn’t as fast. In this sequel the strong female characters of Jessie, Bliss and Ananda are again fighting to survive with the help of Burned Fingers, the former marauder. However, we are missing the backstory of new characters like Sam, Steph, Xray, Linden and especially the Mayor. How did Sam’s daughter get taken? Were Steph’s people trying to reach the Artic too? Linden is the Mayor’s aide but is actually a good guy in disguise. How long has he been on the side of good and how has he managed to keep his secrets in the deadly City of Shade? If he is good, how did he get mixed up with the Mayor in the first place? The Mayor appears to be an educated foreign psycho with an honor code. I wanted to know more about what made him into the person who rules the City of Shade. It’s interesting that he looks upon the Alliance of God with disdain as child molesters and religious freaks, but he is willing to trade with them and his own hands are far from clean. Unfortunately, despite the over 400 pages that make up the book, there isn’t enough time to fill in this gaps when most of the words are made up of the violent action. There also wasn’t enough time spent on the evolution of the relationship between Jess, her girls and Burned Fingers. Bliss literally has to fight back to back with Burned Fingers and trust him with her life and her mother’s, but a psychiatrist would have a field day the effect that must have on her young psyche. Plus, what about Jessie the mom? Burned Fingers is responsible for killing the love of her life Eden, yet he is constantly saving her other great loves, her children and she is caught off guard by other glimpses of his humanity and a part of her appears to admire his ability to make war. That is an interesting plotline that is hinted at too briefly.

However, if I had to err on one side I guess a heart pumping read wins out over long chapters where nothing is happening. My only other quibble is it’s unclear whether there is another sequel to follow this one. Yes, there isn’t exactly a cliffhanger ending such as one of the girls being taken and us readers wondering what will happen to her, so technically this could end the story. However, we haven’t learned who or what the mysterious Dominion is who doesn’t want people to cross border into Canada. Also, is the Artic the new Promised land? Are the trees and plants growing back in the north allowing life to be sustained?   What will be the consequences of the caravan splitting into two groups heading north and Ananda is in the separate group from her mother and sister? This book was published in 2012, so it seems that timing-wise if a sequel isn’t coming soon, it may not be happening, and that would be a shame.