By all means, pick up this bloated, self-important hot mess of a book if you think Ruta Sepetys is the best author in the whole world. But if you don't like books that take forever to get to the point, multi-POVs with watery, bland characters, and a stream-of-consciousness style of narrating with incorrectly used semi-colons thrown in like ungrammatical confetti, AVOID this book at all costs.
THE SOUND OF THE HOURS is set in WWII and told in two POVs: Frank is a black soldier in the American army, serving in his own infantry and facing discrimination and segregation (mostly from unlikable white people portrayed as hilarious racist caricatures) and Vita is a half-Scottish/half-Italian girl living in Fascist Italy. They meet when Frank saves her from being sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by his fellow military men.
As I said, I thought the writing was horrible, the way racism was being broached felt lazy, and Vita was such a dull Manic Pixie Dreamgirl of a character. This is exactly the type of book that the book club I left would always end up picking-- it's dull, "cozy" armchair reading for the lazy and insecure pseudo-intellectual replete with glossy packaging. I picked this up because I ordinarily love WWII historical-fiction and it sounded really good, but I was disappointed.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
I requested this book because I was in a witchy mood and the concept of feminism and girl power set against the backdrop of the witch trials during the rule of King James appealed to me. In case you didn't know, King James was all about that witch-hunting life. He wrote a book called the Demonology, and Shakespeare actually wrote Macbeth with witches to appeal to his audience (i.e. King James). The witch trials in the United States were terrible, but the 100 or so women killed tops pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of women who were murdered in the UK on account of being "witches."
Fleetwood is a seventeen years old, pregnant, and the wife of a lord. Theirs was a marriage of convenience (she has the money), and he basically treats her like chattel, condescending to her and talking to her the way one would a child or misbehaving dog. So she's understandably shocked and outraged when she finds a hidden message from a physician advising against pregnancy as the next will be her last. Especially since he doesn't seem concerned about her health at all, despite 2 miscarriages.
Wanting to live, and wanting their child to live, Fleetwood enlists the help of a mysterious woman she finds gathering herbs on their property one day. This woman is Alice, a midwife and wise woman, who has gained her knowledge from the maternal line. Alice's knowledge of herbal remedies actually ends up helping Fleetwood and she finds herself feeling better than she has in months. All of that changes, however, when a friend of her husband, Roger, starts arresting and imprisoning women to await trial for execution. He's heard about King James's penchant for witch-hunting, and figures the murder of the innocent will be a fine feather in his cap when it comes to his own ambitions.
THE FAMILIARS is a very frustrating book because on the one hand, it doesn't fail to highlight how little respect women had back in the day, and how showing any sort of knowledge or ambition as a woman could quickly lead to suspicion and fear. On the other hand, it's a really great story of women bonding together and using what limited power they had to accomplish great things-- sometimes at the expense of the status quo. The writing style and message kind of reminded me of Margaret Atwood, so I think if you're a fan of Atwood and pro-feminist historical fiction, you'll enjoy this book.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
Psychic ballerina spies? I mean, with a premise like that, there was no way I couldn't read this book, even though an outlandish concept like that could really go either way. Luckily for me, this ended up being the perfect light read-- a lot like what RED SPARROW wanted to be, I think, had it not sucked. Plus, it's about ballerinas and I'm pretty sure I've said multiple times before that if the book is about ballerinas or ballet, I'm so reading it.
Svetlana is in a Moscow orphanage for children whose parents are traitors to Russia. Her mother is a stranger, imprisoned somewhere, and Svetlana anticipates her return as much as she dreads it. Ballet is her means to climb out of poverty and disapproval, and she pursues it relentlessly, rising up the ranks at a rapid pace that's aided, in part, by her assisting the KGB.
For some reason, Svetlana has psychic powers-- she can see things that she was never witness to, and one of those first things she "sees" is the assassination of her father by firing squad. It's quid pro quo-- she'll get to be a ballerina and protect those she loves as long as she provides her government with the assistance and experimentation they require.
ORPHAN, AGENT, PRIMA, PAWN follows Svetlana from childhood to adulthood, from her pursuit of ballet as a poor a struggling girl, to her first love, to her reunion with her mother, and finally to adulthood and motherhood. It can be a little dry at times, and the interludes with Svetlana's grand-daughter were weird, but I found Svetlana to be a sympathetic character, and even though there's a love triangle, I liked both Victor and Georgi equally. And that ending! That ending was great. It might be a weird and inconsistent book at times but, again-- psychic ballerina spies! I rest my case.
Apparently this is book three in a series, but it can be read as a standalone.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
A while back, I read another book called Ruta Sepetys, called OUT OF THE EASY, a work of young adult historical fiction set in 1950s New Orleans. It had the potential to be an interesting book, but the lazy, meandering pace; lack of action; and reliance on an almost entirely character-driven story made for some tough readin'. I hoped that THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE, with its intriguing premise of characters struggling to exist under the militaristic dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain might be better. At the very least, it might be more action-packed.
I was wrong, on both counts.
The slow pacing and character-driven stories seem to be hallmarks of Ruta Sepetys's style, regardless of whether she's writing for an adult or a young adult audience. And even when writing about "edgy" content, like prostitution or stolen babies, her books have an overly clean, sanitized feel reminiscent of Amy Harmon's - only, she isn't the emotional storyteller that Harmon is. It's like these books were put in a juicer and everything pulpy and interesting was extracted, leaving only the inoffensive concentrate behind.
There are multiple POVs in this book - another literary technique I'm also not a fan of, which wasn't present in OUT OF THE EASY - which made this book hard to read. One of the advance readers I saw actually ended up not finishing this book because of that, and I'll be honest and admit that I considered doing the same because this book took so long to get into. Daniel is the main character, I would say, even though it takes a while to get to him. His mother is Spanish, but his father is a Texas oil baron, and he's in Spain because his dad's trying to secure a drilling deal with Franco. The other main character, the love interest, is a girl named Ana, who works in the high class hotel, the Castellana Hilton, at which Daniel and his family are staying.
Ana's family also gets POVs, primarily her brother, Rafa(el), who wants to be a bullfighter; her married sister, Julia, whose fear at challenging the system makes her more willing to play by the rules; and then Ana's cousin, Puri, who works at a Catholic adoption center with the nuns and is beginning to discover something sinister about the babies being brought into their charge. Their stories intertwine, sometimes in dull ways, sometimes in interesting ways, sometimes in irrelevant ways that feel like they're only there to bulk up the page count. Ana learns desire and rebellion; Daniel learns to confront his own privilege; there's a love story that bends and twists under pressure and strife, but doesn't break; all of this is happening under a fascist yoke, where the Guardia Civil are everywhere, and so are their plants, slowing down the inevitable influence of Western capitalism.
I ended up liking this a bit more at the end than I did at the beginning, and obviously, since I made it to the end of this nearly-500-page tome, I ended up feeling invested enough to finish. It was an OK story, but again - it felt sanitized. History is dirty and awful. I didn't really feel like the fear, paranoia, and persecution of the dictatorship was adequately captured here. Even when bad things do happen, they come across as understated. You, as the reader, are utterly numb to the stakes. It's the type of book you might encounter at a book club or bring with you on an airplane, only to leave it behind you on the seat once you've finished. I don't think this is a bad book, but it's definitely not what I want out of historical fiction, and it's cemented my suspicions that Ruta Sepetys is not an author for me.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
I'm a sucker for stories about murderous obsession, especially if it's channeled through art. John Fowles's THE COLLECTOR was about a butterfly collector who decided to broaden his repertoire to include a woman, and Patrick Süskind's PERFUME is about a perfume creator who wants to perfect the scent of a young girl. THE DOLL FACTORY, with its compellingly creepy summary, seemed like it would be yet another tale in that vein.
Iris works in a doll factory under the authoritarian watch of a drug-addled woman who's going crazy on a cocktail of Victorian-era medications including laudanum and arsenic. Iris is a beautiful young woman with a birth defect that causes her to have a twisted collarbone and an outthrust left shoulder, who wants to be a painter. Working with her is her bitter twin sister, Rose, who used to be the favorite of the family until she was disfigured by pox and her prospects were ruined.
One day, Iris catches the attention of a creepy taxidermist named Silas, who provides stuffed animals to artists as models. Silas gives Iris's name to an artist, hoping to curry favor, although when she becomes first his model, and then, later, his student and lover, his jealousy and mad obsession increases, and he begins to conceive of ways to make Iris his and his alone - at any cost. As Iris's talent increases along for her ardor for Louis, time begins to run out, and Silas slowly drums up the courage and supplies to make his move.
THE DOLL FACTORY definitely fits neatly into the "obsessive artist" genre, paying obvious homage to THE COLLECTOR. As the years go by, I find that many people turn their attention to past classics for inspiration and what was old once again becomes new. Three years ago, I read another COLLECTOR-inspired thriller, which was Dot Hutchinson's BUTTERFLY GARDEN, only that book had the distinction of being sensational and salacious in a way that was hard to put down.
THE DOLL FACTORY, on the other hand, is slow-moving and long. Iris is a character who is easy to like, but everyone in her life - from her sister, to her parents, to Silas, and even to Louis, initially - seems to want to take advantage of her, which is typical for a woman of no means living in Victorian England; she is not a living breathing woman with agency, but chattel to be possessed. Also true to Victorian England is the setting of squalor and the obsession with death, particularly death in art. The Victorians were mad for death, preserving and displaying animals in curio cabinets and under glass domes, wearing the hair and portraits of loved ones in jewellery, and basically acting morbid enough to give even the most hardcore of goths a run for their money. I thought that was well-portrayed here.
I liked this book, but the pacing made it hard to get through and it felt longer than it needed to be. I felt like the passages about Albie and his sister, for example, were unnecessary, and it made them seem much more necessary to the storyline than they actually needed to be by the end. There were a lot of unnecessary scenes that could have been sliced out to tighten the narrative flow. I don't regret reading it and I found the ending satisfying, but it was a long and arduous path getting there.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
The "Affair of the Poisons" was an actual historical event in 17th century France, in which many members of the nobility purchased poisons and other illicit services from a woman named La Voisin, and other mystics and alchemists, to "take care of people" who served as an impediment to their ambitions. Hundreds of people were implicated and it understandably caused a lot of fear and paranoia. If you've heard of this and aren't sure why, it was mentioned in Versailles. That was how I first learned about it, watching the TV show with my mom.
AN AFFAIR OF POISONS takes that event and runs with it, spinning it out into a tale of historical fantasy with real alchemy and magical poisons. There are two narrators: Mirabelle is the daughter of La Voisin and a powerful alchemist. She aids and abets her mother and her sorcerer lover, Legrange, who are both part of the Shadow Society working to overthrow the nobility. She inadvertently starts a violent revolution when her mother uses one of her poisons to murder the king of France. Josse is the bastard son of the king and lives in the shadow of his favored older brother, Louis. His father's murder fills him with angst over the lack of closure, and the determination to protect what remains of his family from revolution.
When our characters meet at first, they do not like each other very much. Mirabelle has been taught her whole life that the Shadow Society are helping the commoners escape from the yoke of noble rule. And Josse has her society to blame for the murder of his father and the persecution of his siblings. However, La Voisin has lost sight of her original mission and soon proves to be utterly corrupt with power, willing to do whatever it takes to secure her foothold in the control of France, even if it means using the people she originally sought to protect as pawns.
I really enjoyed AN AFFAIR OF POISONS and I'm honestly surprised it doesn't have more reviews or buzz. First, it's a standalone in a genre being overrun by multi-book cash cows. When was the last time you saw a young adult fantasy novel that wasn't at least three books long? Second, Mirabelle is a strong female character and Josse is a flawed hero who doesn't act like an abusive creep. Both of them have a lot of character development over the course of this book, and make mistakes with grievous consequences. There is a lot at stake, and the author isn't afraid to show that. Third, it's a fantasy reimagining of Revolutionary France, and if you took one thing away from my review of Paula Volsky's ILLUSION, it should be that that is a concept I'm all over like white on rice.
AN AFFAIR OF POISONS is a good book and if you're tired of books like THRONE OF GLASS and the like, you should pick this up and also read up on The Affair of the Poisons while you're at it.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
If BLOOD & BEAUTY is the rise of the Borgia family, then IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY marks their fall. This rather chunky work of historical fiction details Alexander Borgia in his old age, losing first power, then his grasp on reality, and finally his own life. Beautiful and cunning Cesare is being consumed alive by syphilis, and soon, Lucrezia joins him, catching it from another husband who happens to be a little too fond of prostitutes. Even though both books are about the same family, the first one sparkles like a dagger, whereas THE NAME OF THE FAMILY is shrouded in the gloom of a funeral shroud. I'm still kind of in a funk.
IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY was not as easy to read as its prequel because the content is much darker and far less triumphant.We know how the story ends, and it's hard to root for characters when the writing's on the wall. It's a bit of a slog getting into this book, and normally I don't go for "slow reads" that wait you out, but the characters are so richly detailed and the writing is so gorgeous, that the journey is worth the effort. Honestly, this family was a real life Game of Thrones, and I'd really recommend this to anyone who's a fan of the series and wants more court intrigue and cunning schemes, as this family had both in spades. The scenes when Cesare kills his political prisoners are chilling.
Now that I'm done with the duology, I'm sad there's nothing left. It's hard for me to find historical fiction that I'm really into. Sarah Dunant has a masterful approach to story-telling, with a style that mimics that of nonfiction while still managing to be engaging. Lucrezia, Alexander, and Cesare were all so formidable in their primes; who knows what Cesare might have done to shape Italy if he hadn't contracted syphilis? He was a military genius. Dunant brought all of these long-dead historical figures to life, and they're alarmingly vivid.
I hope Sarah Dunant decides to write a follow-up to these books about the de' Medici family. Reading about the Borgias only piqued my interest in Machiavellian-style family plotting. I'd recommend BLOOD & BEAUTY and IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY to anyone interested in history and fond of court intrigue, especially court intrigue set during the peak of the Italian Renaissance.
I've said many times in my reviews that the YA genre needs to start taking risks. For about a decade, YA has been snowballing towards "safe" and "stale." Young adults are young adults, and I personally think, as a reader and a writer, that we need to stop acting like teens and adults in their early twenties need to be protected from difficult subjects or explicit content, as 1) they're going to go ahead and find it anyway if they really want to read it, so you might as well to try and do it well and for the intended audience and 2) it's not like teens aren't experiencing things like sex, swearing, alcohol, and bigotry/racism in their everyday lives.
So before I even get into the content of DREAM COUNTRY, I want to say that I appreciate that the author didn't try to dumb down the difficult subjects in her book, which was, to my surprise, for young adults. There is a lot of graphic content, everything from genocide, to rape, to racism, colorism, privilege, explicit language (multiple uses of the N-word especially, but also the C-word), as well as white supremacy and slavery.
DREAM COUNTRY is a multi-generational family saga centering around a Liberian family. The first narrator, Kollie, is a high school student in the early noughties who struggles with not being "black enough" to fit in with the American black students, but also very much conscious of the racism he faces as a man of color, and the xenophobia he faces as an immigrant. The second narrator is Togar, which takes place in the late 1920s. Togar is trying to escape the militant slavers who are forcing Liberians to work the plantations owned by ex-slaves who colonized Liberia in the 1800s. Yasmine is one of those ex-slaves, who thinks that Liberia will be a new chance for her and her children, but she is taken aback by the sickness, the poor health conditions, and the rural conditions. Then there's Ujay and Evelyn, whose narrative is set in the 1980s, during the Liberian Civil war. The story ends full circle with Angel, Kollie's younger sister, who is now an adult in the 2010s.
As I said, this book is written the way it would be for any adult. Gibney does not balk at the idea of communicating the horrors of slavery, racism, and war to kids. And really, I think most kids don't have any idea how horrific such events are, because frequently they are sugar-coated or glorified in children's fiction. Reading this book makes you fully cognizant of the stakes. It actually reminded me a lot of Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING, although between you and me, I thought HOMEGOING was a better book because each character was more fleshed out, and their story fully developed.
That actually brings me to my biggest complaint with DREAM COUNTRY: it felt like an unfinished book. The characters' stories didn't really close in a satisfying way, and in my opinion, the most interesting POVs ended way too soon and the less interesting POVs dragged on forever. I would have liked to learn more about Togar or see what Kollie's experience was like when his parents sent him to Liberia. Angel's POV felt like an afterthought, and Ujay's was the only historical POV that actually provided new perspective on his descendants, whereas the others really didn't, in my opinion.
DREAM COUNTRY isn't a bad book by any means and it does some pretty amazing things, but there were also many points where I found myself bored by the subject matter, and given the nature of the subject matter, that should not be the case. I'm going to donate my copy to a high school now that I've done with it. Hopefully the kids will enjoy it more than I did. :)
I actually received a copy of this as an ARC seven years ago, but I didn't finish it at the time. Clearly, this is proof of how much 30-year-old Nenia's taste has evolved from 23-year-old Nenia's, because 30-year-old Nenia thought this book was quite fine indeed. In fact, I'd totally recommend this book to those of you who have just finished Game of Thrones and are asking yourself, "What next?" because of all the sex, scheming, intrigue, and general fuquery that goes on in these 500-something pages. Best of all? It's true -
The Borgias are a much-maligned family and proof of what can happen when history decides to turn on you and make you into a scapegoat. The opposite is also true; just look at what history did to Christopher Colombus, turning a homicidal and delusional moron who perpetrated mass genocide against people of color into a nation's hero. In the Borgias' case, they became known for incest, poisoning, and debauchery, and were notorious in an age of notoriety.
I thought Sarah Dunant did a really good job bringing the Borgias to life and turning them into three-dimensional beings. If you have ever watched the show, The Borgias, this book is a lot like that. Alexander Borgia became Pope in Italy, despite openly flaunting his mistress, being of Spanish birth, and having bastard children (for whom he then used his churchly powers to advance). Cesare, his most famous son, was a brilliant military strategist until he went mad from syphilis (which he may have tried to treat with quicksilver, or mercury, steam baths). Lucrezia Borgia had three husbands before she was even in her mid-twenties, and for a short stint, even resided in a nunnery.
Alexander had two other children, Juan and Jofre. Jofre was a childish king married to a woman of great beauty (Sancia), and Juan was a more flamboyant and assholish version of Cesare, and flashing his womanizing and ill-gotten jewelry around to the wrong crowd ended up getting him stabbed and tossed in a river. History doesn't talk about these two as much, so it was interesting to learn about Alexander's other two children and their relationships.
Dunant actually does raise the matter of the potential incest between Lucrezia and her brother, and Lucrezia and her father. In this book, Dunant decides to make Cesare very jealous of Lucrezia, and at several points he does actually try to put the moves on her, giving this book a distinctly FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC vibe. His jealousy is also what leads him to kill Lucrezia's second and most beloved husband, Alfonso. Her relationship with her father is less uncomfortable, but there are still several moments in this book when he looks on her as a father probably should not look upon his daughter.
BLOOD & BEAUTY takes a while to get moving, but once the action starts, it doesn't let up. I'm not 100% sure how historically accurate this all is, but it was a lot of fun to read and see a different take on one of history's most notorious families. Looking at the names and events in this book, I wouldn't be surprised if George R. R. Martin borrowed from the Borgias as much as he did from the War of the Roses, because there are too many similarities to ignore.
I understood for the first time why the punishment for Lot's wife was so severe. There were times when it was unforgivable to look back (88%)
This is a dark and edgy book that explores the same themes of innate violence and tribal belonging as LORD OF THE FLIES. Set in a Southern military college, THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE is about a young Irish Catholic boy named William McLean. Since he's the most liberal and cynical boy in the academy, he's given the task of protecting the new black recruit who's entering the school as a result of desegregation. Their school, Carolina Military Institute, is well known for its "plebe" system and brutal hazing methods of incoming freshmen, culminating in something called "Hell Night." Will needs to make sure that Tom Pearce isn't run out of the school by racists who use that hazing to exert sadistic and bigoted revenge.
Unfortunately, hazing and Hell Night aren't the worst thing about the school. There's whispered rumors of a secret society called "The 10," filled with influential and powerful boys, who will stop at nothing to purge the school of anything that they deem damaging to the Carolina Military Institute's honor code. And if Will McLean does his job and protects Tom, he might come under fire, too.
This was so good, you guys. Even though it's 500+ pages, I finished it in just two days. It's brutal and twisted and violent and awful, and has all kinds of dark themes, but it says powerful things about honor and friendship and pride and loyalty and what it means to really do the right thing. I'm a huge sucker for secret society and boarding school stories, and when you throw revenge, friendship, and plotting into the mix, I'm sold. This book didn't fail to deliver, either. The hazing scenes are so disturbing and the stakes in this book are so, so high. There's a lot of grief and suffering.
THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE is why I feel the need to read old books that nobody else has heard of. This is an excellent story that I would have loved to have read in college, and I think it's got a story in it that a lot of my friends would be interested in reading. It says a lot of bad words (the F-word, the N-word), and has a lot of tough themes running the gamut from torture and assault (sexual and physical) to teen pregnancy and suicide, but it's such a powerful read that I feel like it's worth the struggle. The only reason it doesn't get a full five stars from me is because the writing can be a bit clunky and hard to get into, but man, the story is totally worth that bumpy, dumpy ride.
I love the title of this book. It reminds me of Halestorm's amazing ballad, Familiar Taste of Poison, and if this book ever gets picked up to become a Netflix series, that would be an amazing opening credits song. A BEAUTIFUL POISON is also a great story. I'm slowly but surely becoming obsessed with Lydia Kang, who works as a doctor when she's not penning original fiction. They say that authors should write what they know, and Kang follows that old adage to magnificent effect, using her medical knowledge to add credibility and detail to her historical works.
Her other historical fiction book is called THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL, which is about a grave-robber who has a second heart. She's also written a book of medical nonfiction with author Nate Pedersen called QUACKERY, which is about bunk medicine throughout the ages, and honestly, it takes a lot of confidence for a doctor to write a history book of all the times medicine screwed up, so major kudos to her for doing so - and in such a funny way.
Lest I start sounding like too much of a shill (#NotSponsored), I want to dive in to the book itself, A BEAUTIFUL POISON, and what it's about. The book starts out with a murder of a bitchy socialite named Florence. The murder happens at the party of another socialite named Allene, a self-centered girl who is interested in chemistry. Her two friends, Birdie and Jasper, are at the party as well, and while her father is determined to cover the incident up, Jasper recognizes the burnt almond smell of the corpse as belonging to cyanide, because his parents used that poison in their own double-suicide.
Pretty soon, other people start dying as well. A BEAUTIFUL POISON is set during the time of World War I, and part of these deaths are the result of the Spanish flu, but cyanide, arsenic, and wood alcohol are also the culprits in some of these murders, and those close to Allene, Birdie, and Jasper seem to be the targets. In typical young adult fashion, they decide to investigate themselves rather than involve the authorities, because obstruction is just another fancy word for DIY.
A BEAUTIFUL POISON is a very dark book and not an easy one to read. The medical knowledge can be fairly dense and the characters are not likable, especially Allene, who can be cold and callous. No one in this book is happy, either. Allene is engaged to a boy she doesn't like and appears to be coded as bisexual, as her friendship with both Jasper and Birdie has sexual undertones. Birdie's mother is a whore and she's resisting against following that path, but her resistance is what ends up being her destruction, because working in a dial-painting factory has given her radium poisoning. And then Jasper is facing the tragic struggle of being brilliant but too poor to advance himself. He was also orphaned by suicide, and his surviving uncle is an alcoholic and a bit of a wastrel.
The story is joyless and the characters are hard to like, but it was the grittiness and suspense that kept me turning the pages. As with THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL, the rich detail, historical accuracy, and strong (if somewhat eccentric) female characters made the story stand out from the other wallpaper historical fiction I've read. The author doesn't shy away from unpleasant topics if they have a place in the story and feel necessary, which I really appreciate. I don't need anyone holding my hand. There's also an amazing twist that is just as disturbing and dark as everything else in the book.
If you're looking for something new and different, I really recommend this author and this book.
THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE is one of those young adult books with a cultish following that is hyped up to the point where the book itself nearly becomes annoying because of all the fan baggage attached to it. Maybe it's the contrarian inside me, but when I'm surrounded by people who are all screaming "LIKE THIS! LIKE THIS!" I wanna be like, "NO! I HATE IT AND I HATE YOU. GOODBYE." It's the same way with books. The more people try to force me to like something, the more I drag my heels and am determined to find my own way.
Unlike 90% of other leading hyped-up YA titles, THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE has a couple things going for it that actually pleasantly surprised me. There's a trend of precious, twee fiction that's written like a series of Tumblr posts in which diversity is used like a checklist and the writing is as painfully and tackily ornate as a Bel-Air McMansion. THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, on the other hand, has a bisexual hero who is seen with both men and women. He's portrayed as being a bit of a slut, which points from Gryffindor, because stereotypes, much? But on the other hand, he's also a teenage boy wallowing in privilege and wildly swinging a hand basket of emotional hang-ups and issues, so this might actually be semi-reasonable.
Henry, said bisexual hero, is in love with his friend Percy. Percy is half-black and lives with a noble family, although they treat him like a second-class citizen. Lately, though, he isn't even accorded that much "privilege" because he's started to develop seizures, and his family has decided that they are "done" and are going to consign him to an asylum. It takes Henry a while to realize that his friend has his own set of problems, because Henry is so focused on his own - inheriting his father's business, the abuse handed out to him by his father, his forbidden attraction to boys. Going on Tour in Europe is going to be his last hurrah - or would have been, had his father not cottoned on to his attraction for the opposite sex and foisted a hand-wringing guardian upon him and a threat that he'll be disinherited if any whiff of shamed honor or homosexuality makes its way back to his priggish ears.
The way racism is addressed in this book was done pretty well, I thought, and wasn't too heavy-handed. Henry has to tackle his own privilege and confront the way that he really looks at his friend. One of the best moments was when he realizes that equality means not feeling obligated to fight all your friends' battles for them because you think them incapable of doing it themselves, and the fact that society sweeps their agency away from them is one of the intrinsic problems with discrimination. There was definitely a bit of "virtue signalling" with Henry "Look how tolerant I am" Montague, and so when he stopped looking down on Percy or viewing him selfishly, the attraction worked.
The story itself was a bit odd. I liked the beginning a lot more than the middle or the end. It's fun to read about rakes, and this was a good deal more salacious than I was expecting for a YA novel. Henry's drunken, slutty shenanigans were funny. I liked his interactions with Percy as well. At first his sister, Felicity, annoyed me a lot. I tolerated her by the end of the book but she won't be winning any "favorite character" contests for me. Modern day feminist characters don't really work in historical fiction for a myriad of reasons. But everything was mostly fine until the alchemy plot rolled in and there was all that bunk about panaceas and immortality. Suddenly this book went from being Oscar Wilde for kids to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Magical Surgery. I could not believe the ending of this ridiculous book. Pirates, sinking islands, living forever - did I MISS something?
Ultimately, I decided to deduct a star for that mess of a resolution. It really felt like the author had three ideas for a story and decided to cram them all together while crossing her fingers that it'd work. It didn't. I had fun reading THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, but sticking in all that crazy scientist stuff ended up making the book seem stupid and OTT, turning what could have been one of my top reads of the year into yet another YA novel that preemptively jumped the shark.
As a reader of bodice-rippers and books that are a part of the Luxury Suite Trash Experience™, I'm prepared to discuss how and when some of my favorite reads can be problematic. I don't feel bad about enjoying them but I do think it's important to have dialogues about why others might not, and why this is 100% okay for others to feel this way without having their opinions lambasted by stans. I, for example, refuse to buy or read anything by Orson Scott Card for personal reasons and once had an Angry White Man
™ call me names for being unable to separate my personal feelings about what Card has said about the LGBT+ from my feelings about his books. We all have those lines that can't and mustn't be crossed, so I totally understand why others choose to get political with their wallets.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA came under fire for multiple reasons, parts of which had to do with the book, and parts of which had to do with the film. The book has obvious surface issues, like cultural white-washing (giving the heroine blue-grey eyes, downplaying the tragedy of Hiroshima by portraying all American soldiers as fun-loving rascals who are definitely not rapey (seriously)), as well as presenting Chiyo's rise to geisha as a glorified Cinderella story shrouded in Orientalism (and some of the blurbs in this book really underscore that view with coded language, such as the Chicago Tribune's describing the book as "[a]n exotic fable" (emphasis mine) and Vogue's "a startling act of literary impersonation, a feat of cross-cultural masquerade" (emphasis mine). I'm not sure what "cross-cultural masquerade" means but it sounds unfortunately like, "literary yellow-face."
The deeper issue came with one of Arthur Holden's sources, an actual real life geisha named Mineko Iwasaki, who took umbrage with the way the details of her life were mangled in the telling of this novel. I had always been aware of the controversy, and knew it had prompted her to write a memoir detailing her life with more accuracy called, GEISHA: A LIFE, but only found out today while researching the background for this book that she apparently sued both the author and the publisher on the grounds that he had allegedly promised to keep her identity secret, and yet her name features prominently in the "acknowledgements" section of the book.
The movie was controversial because Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) were cast to play the roles of the Japanese women in the book. The response to this was the typical "white people who are of X descent play characters of Y descent all the time, and no one bats an eyelash," but the problem with that line of reasoning is that it assumes that actors of color have the same opportunities and varieties of roles open to them that white actors do, which isn't the case. Actors of color have far fewer opportunities, and when opportunities do turn up, they are usually type-cast. Memoirs of a Geisha was a beautifully filmed movie and I felt very grown-up when my mom took me to see it with her after I'd read the book for my high school book club, and it will always have a place in my heart, and I still admit that it smacks of cultural appropriation.
Getting to the book, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is one of those rare books that I have reread several times, and I consider it the entre to my love of epic stories and bodice-rippers. There is something so exciting about following a character from childhood and seeing them evolve and grow over the course of a novel, following them as they navigate new and exciting life changes and forge new relationships. Chiyo/Sayuri was a very readable protagonist and her goal - become a successful geisha - is a very clear one to follow, and root for, because the Cinderella story is so universal.
Upon this subsequent reread, I did notice things that somehow escaped my notice before. Chiyo's detachment from her family, and her under-reaction by the news of their deaths was very strange. I was also bothered by the fact that she never met her sister, Satsu, again, as it kind of felt like the author had left the door open for that reunion, seeing as how Chiyo/Sayuri experienced so many other reunions in her life. I also remember feeling sorrier and more sympathetic for Nobu the first time around, but now, as an educated and wise woman, I see that he is one of those "nice guys" who puts women on pedestals and cannot forgive them for toppling or getting dusty. Even when Chiyo/Sayuri was in his good graces, he was so mean to her, and it was kind of hard to read about that this time.
There were also some wtf moments, like the mizuage scene (or the virginity auction), which I guess was one of the portrayals that Iwasaki was much more upset about. Then the man who buys Sayuri's mizuage takes the blood stained towel her maidenhead dripped on and puts it in a briefcase holding his virginity collection, or vials containing blood-stained fabrics from all the geisha he has despoiled. What a creep! I couldn't believe I'd forgotten the virginity briefcase. It reminded me of a scene from a historical bodice ripper I read about this Norman invader who had a necklace made of the pubes from all the women he'd raped. You can't make this stuff up, guys. Romance novels are the wild, wild west.
To the author's credit, he wrote a somewhat convincing woman, especially with regard to sex and her views of her body and her relationships with other women. While reading this book, I couldn't help but compare this to Jason Matthews's RED SPARROW, in which the heroine didn't resemble an actual human being so much as an emotionless sex robot. Sayuri had hopes and dreams, and Golden doesn't kid himself that pretty young women dream about banging geeky older men for their personalities or their pasty looks; Sayuri does what she does to survive, but she prefers men she's attracted to on her own terms and isn't truly happy until she settles down with someone who can give her what she really wants. It's such a simple thing, but so many dudes either choose not to understand this or don't want to understand this in their writing of women and man, it shows. So, kudos.
I enjoyed this book, problematic content and all. I'm sorry it caused pain, and controversy, but I am reviewing this from my own biased, privileged perspective as a white lady, so take my opinion with several grains of salt. It helps to read this as a trashy bodice-ripper and not as 'historical' fiction.
Mulan is my favorite Disney movie, so while perusing books to read on my Kindle, in between bouts of flu-induced naps whilst curling up in a ball and asking what sins I've committed to deserve this suffering, there was really no question about indulging in a bit of Mulan fanfiction to make myself feel better. REFLECTION is part of the Twisted Tales series that Disney has put out, in which the corporation asks, "What if...?" hypotheticals that put spins on their original retellings of the story and then hire out young adult authors to write them. Most of the books are written by Liz Braswell, but they actually got a Chinese author to write the Chinese story - how woke.
REFLECTION takes this new approach to Mulan: instead of Mulan getting slashed by Shan-Yu (and betraying her identity as a woman), Li Shang takes the blow for her instead. The wound is fatal, and to save him, Mulan makes a deal with King Yama, the ruler of the Chinese Underworld (Diyu) to find and rescue him and escape from the 100th level of the underworld before time runs out and she's imprisoned there - forever.
I'm a sucker for underworld retellings, and this one smacked a bit of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Dante's Inferno, but with Chinese mythology instead. The writing was pretty simple (I think this book is for a middle grade audience) but could be vivid. At times, I could imagine this as one of those direct to VHS sequels that were so popular in the 90s. It really should be a movie; it'd be amazing.
There are a lot of call-backs to the movie, which is to be expected, and I thought the author did a good job staying in keeping with the characters as they were portrayed in the movie, although Mushu fell somewhat flat here in comparison to his portrayal in the movie. While I enjoyed the portrayal of the Chinese underworld and the trials Mulan had to undergo, at times the pacing was inconsistent and the middle section in particular got kind of tedious, although it picked up again by the end.
Overall, this was much better than the cash cow I was expecting. It entertained me and even moved me to tears at a couple points. If you're a fan of the Mulan movie and have always wanted more, you should pick up REFLECTION.
THE NIGHT TIGER was an OK read. There were some things about this book that I really enjoyed, and other things I didn't. The book is set in 1930s Malaya (Malaysia), when it was still under British rule. There are two main characters: Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy to British doctor William Acton, and Ji Lin, a dressmaker moonlighting as a dance hall girl. Their stories end up interconnecting due to a severed finger in a vial that Ji Lin obtains from one of her clients. The finger belongs to Ren's old master, and he has only 49 days to get the finger back to his master's grave before his soul is lost forever. At the same time, the women that William Acton fraternizes with keep turning up missing, dead, or both, often looking as though they were mauled by a tiger, and Ji Lin keeps having strange dreams about a river and a train, with a boy who tells her about five people whose names resemble the five Confucian values, and a terrible curse...
So what did I like about this book? It has the creepy, murder plot of a BBC murder mystery. I like how the murders were steeped in Chinese mythology and magic realism, and the looming specters of the weretiger, as well as the finger in the vial, were both suitably creepy. I didn't guess who (or what) was responsible until the very end, so there was a very nice series of reveals to make me feel as if the journey had been worth it. That's important in a murder mystery novel, I think you'll agree. Ji Lin was a great character and I liked that she had a job that was looked down on as being morally loose, and that she didn't tolerate any shit-talking from people about her career. Ren took longer for me to like, and I'm not sure I bought his "cat whiskers" premonitions. That was really strange.
So what didn't I like about this book? Good Lord, it was long, and took forever to get to the damn point. The first 100 pages or so were a breeze, and I thought I wouldn't be able to put the book down. Then the book started to drag a lot without revealing a whole lot of new information. While I did like Ji Lin's eventual love interest, that whole subplot was also dragged out for what seemed like emotional tension, and kind of felt like another excuse to pad the already bloated plot. I also felt like the ending was simultaneously too neat while failing to wrap up a few loose ends. I know on the surface that sounds like it doesn't make sense, but THE NIGHT TIGER focuses more on the kismet between the main characters, and yet ignores the rather glaring problem of the other severed fingers in the hospital, as Chelsea pointed out in her review. Do those souls just never get saved? Lame.
THE NIGHT TIGER is an interesting book, and I like the author's style of writing. I bought her other book, THE GHOST BRIDE, relatively recently and I'm hoping it'll be better than this one. I didn't hate THE NIGHT TIGER, but it has all the good ideas/less than optimal execution dichotomies and pacing issues of a debut novel, and since this isn't a debut novel, that isn't good. Still, it's great to see #OwnVoices historical fiction that explores time periods and situations that aren't getting as much representation as, say, Tudor England or British/American-fought WWII, so kudos for that.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
I've never read a bad historical title from Lake Union Publishing. This imprint seems to publish mostly historical fiction, thrillers, and women's fiction - three genres of books that I used to avoid, but now love, and features two of my favorite historical fiction authors: Amy Harmon and Lindsay Jayne Ashford. Every time I see new books from this publisher on Netgalley, I immediately request all of them, and I'm constantly buying them on sale from Amazon. I had visions of a small publisher, probably where the CEO wears a sunhat and evening gloves and all hands meetings are had over high tea, but no - apparently it's an imprint of Amazon Publishing, how very disillusioning.
BITTERSWEET BROOKLYN attracted me with that exquisite cover, and held me with the premise. Thelma Lorber is a young Jewish woman when we first meet her, cleaning up the dead body from one of her mobster brother's "fixings." She wonders, as she cleans, how she got to this place. The narrative is only to happy to show us, transporting us to Thelma's childhood in an abusive home with a neglectful mother and cruel, domineering sister. Her brothers, the only people who care about her, are torn from her and sent to an orphanage while she suffers under the tyranny of her female relatives and, later, under the attentions of a predatory stepfather.
I thought it was interesting that the author gave this character her first name. I wouldn't be able to do that - it feels too personal, especially considering all the bad things that befall the main character in the book. Thelma's life is one big heartbreak, and even the good things that happen to her - like being taken in by a warm Italian family or meeting her true love in a dance hall - don't have happy endings. I think if you read this book expecting a thriller or a romance, you'll be unhappy, since it is neither. It's a character study in regret and disappointment, and Thelma's insights as she looks back on her life through the experience of adulthood at the end are probably the best part of the novel.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
I've had incredibly good luck with Lake Union Publishing. There aren't many publishers I'll autobuy from, but the quality of their historical fiction has always been excellent: a fun blend of romance and historical details, with very good quality writing. Amy Harmon's writing has always been great, even if her stories can be hit or miss, and the fact that Lake Union decided to take a chance on this work of hers was a mark in her favor. Plus, it's WWII-era fiction, an old favorite. How could I resist?
As far as Harmon's body of work goes, FROM SAND AND ASH is definitely a hit. Eva/Batsheva is an Italian Jew living in Italy during WWII. Angelo is an Italian-American living in Italy with Eva and her father. He is missing a leg and has decided to become a priest at the urging of his rather disinterested father. FROM SAND AND ASH is about the forbidden romance between them, set against the backdrop of war, heroism and cowardice as they try to keep themselves and their families alive despite the callous and industrialized cruelty of the Nazi officers.
I liked FROM SAND AND ASH a lot. As with most of Harmon's works, it takes a while to get into and the romance is very slow burn. I liked the details about both every day life, and the war. It was interesting to learn about how the Catholic clergy helped shelter and rescue Jewish refugees. That's something I find interesting about books about war - you get to see snapshots of humanity at its best, and also at its worst. As brave as Eva and Angelo were, there were people who were much less selfless, and much more opportunistic. The stakes were both clear and compelling.
If you like WWII era books, I think this is a good one to add to the list. It has an HEA and seems well researched. The writing is also really lovely and the characters are compelling. Fans of books like THE BRONZE HORSEMAN will probably adore FROM SAND AND ASH.
I recently watched Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen's rise to fame. It's an amazing movie and Rami Malek outdoes himself - you should totally go see it if you haven't already. It's the type of movie that wins awards. Anyway, I was sitting in that theater, rocking out to the Queen songs (and other songs from the period, like Rick James's Super Freak), having a good time (having a good time), and then tragedy struck. I couldn't even say I didn't know it was coming, because I totally did. But when he was in that doctor's office, I started crying. And when he was performing at the LIVE AID concert, and started singing the most heart-rending performance of Bohemian Rhapsody that I ever heard, I started crying. I saw it with friends and we were all discreetly sniffing, like, "Oh my God, you guys, can you believe these allergies?" but we were all lying, of course. Those were tears. Tears.
Anyway, when I read THE SONG OF ACHILLES, the same thing happened. I knew, going in, what to expect. I've read The Iliad and seen the movies based on it. I know what happens. Heck, I just read Pat Barker's THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, which is Briseis's account of the whole chain of affairs, so you can't even say that maybe I'd just plumb forgotten. Nope. And yet, when I got to that part, I started crying like I did the first time I watched Bambi. It was a betrayal. I guess it's testament to the author's story-telling abilities that I still felt that gutting surprise.
I told myself when reading THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS that I wasn't going to compare Pat Barker to Madeline Miller, that it wasn't really fair to considering that they are different authors trying to do very different things. SILENCE OF THE GIRLS gives a voice to that oft-forgotten casualty of war: women. Briseis's narrative chronicles her abduction by the Greeks, her ill-use by Achilles, the occasional sympathy tossed to her like table scraps, her further ill-treatment by Agamemnon, and basically serves the message: to the victor go the spoils, and to the spoils life is a Baskin Robbins of hell consisting of 21 different flavors, plus toppings. Especially if you are a woman. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was there, but it was more of an afterthought; an, oh, so that's why Achilles went crazy that one time. Okay.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES is more of a romance. It follows Patroclus, the narrator, as a young prince who meets Achilles during his exile. The two form a close bond that starts as friendship and ends as something much more meaningful. Both boys, despite their best efforts to avoid the war, are forced into it knowing that they are both doomed. It's The Hunger Games all over again, but with a much more depressing ending, and trust me. Knowing that ending is coming doesn't lessen the blow. I found myself rooting for them against all odds, silently hoping that the author would find it in her heart to give them a happy ending (my romance side) while also silently hoping that she wouldn't (my purist literary snoot-snoot side). You can probably guess which side won, from the crying.
I don't think that this is quite the masterwork that CIRCE was, but it's still an amazing love story and an amazing piece of historical fiction. Cue me adding this author to my list of stalkables, because so far she hasn't written a thing I didn't like, and that circle of precious trust is mighty small indeed. If you like Greek myths and you like beautiful boys in love and you like crying your eyes out masochistically in the dead of night after reading a hideously good book, this is your deal.
Hello friends, I'd like to introduce you to the book that I've been secretly obsessing over these last couple days. It's adult historical fiction, which I know might seem off-putting to some who have neatly filed "historical fiction" under B for "Boring" in their mental file cabinets, but trust me when I say that this book is amazing and even though it's written for adults, there is tons of cross-over appeal for YA readers, especially YA readers of darker fiction cast in the molds of Rebecca Schaeffer's NOT EVEN BONES and Kerri Maniscalo's STALKING JACK THE RIPPER.
Our heroine, Cora Lee, was born in 19th century New York. By all accounts, this is a squalid, sordid time, but for Cora Lee, it's worse. Due to a genetic anomaly, she has two hearts. The doctor who delivers her into the world can't wait to acquire her tiny little corpse and puts in an offer then and there, but the family refuses. Frustrated, the doctor goes off and spews his drunken tale to all who will listen: stories of the half-Chinese girl with the two beating hearts who would make the perfect prize for a museum.
Fast forward two decades later, and the girl who the doctor said had no way of surviving is in good health, two hearts and all. Knowing that people will kill her for the marvel of her body, she has decided to work in the same shady career that would see her dead: she is a resurrectionist, a procurer of corpses for curiosity and scientific interest. A glorified grave-robber, basically. She does her work in drag, under the name Jacob Lee, and is considered the best in the business along with her crew.
One day she meets a man named Theodore Flint, who also seems to know a lot about the business, including the rumors floating around of a girl with two hearts. As the desire for freaks and geeks increases, some of those with curious medical afflictions begin to die under suspicious and morbid circumstances. And lest we, the readers, be too quick to pass over the dead, Kang writes of their deaths and last moments in the first person, to show their humanity in the way that their murderer(s) did not. As more and more people die, Cora Lee realizes that she's in grave danger, and that Theo, who she finds herself growing more attracted to by day, might pose the gravest threat of all.
So I loved this book. I posted about NOT EVEN MONSTERS recently, which is basically the fantasy equivalent of this book, and it has the same "hunter becomes the hunted" concept. I think both authors did a good job discussing that uncomfortable but still highly relevant question: what is the price of a life? NOT EVEN MONSTERS is gorier than this book but neither is a picnic, and THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL had some very dark moments, including a twist that made me raise my eyebrows the way STALKING JACK THE RIPPER did (although it's nowhere near as ridiculous).
Twist aside, I thought this book was great. The research that went into it was obvious, and Cora is such a great heroine - I love it when heroines are strong and clever, but also allowed to be vulnerable and make mistakes. I even liked the romance, which I didn't expect to like at all. But then, doomed romance always has been my catnip. I'm honestly shocked that THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL hasn't gotten more love. It was just shy of perfection and I can't wait to check out this author's other works.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
Man, people are getting all up in this book's face because it doesn't read like Madeline Miller. Of course it doesn't read like Madeline Miller. Do you see the name Madeline Miller on the cover? No; it says "Pat Barker." It's like marching up to your step-mom and saying, "YOU'RE NOT MY REAL MOM." Well, duh. But that doesn't necessarily mean that she's a bad person, either.
THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS appeared on Netgalley one fine summer day, and I did what I do with all ARCs: applied for it, and then promptly forgot about it until it was about to expire. When I saw that it was about Ancient Greece, however, I immediately prioritized it a little higher on my to-read list, because I love learning about antiquity. Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece - that sort of thing is my jazz. I could listen to it all day.
I actually read this book at the perfect time because I had just finished another book called A THOUSAND SHIPS, which is about the events in The Iliad that lead up to the Trojan War. In THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, everyone is already in the thick of it, and things are nearing the end. The narrator is Briseis, a casualty of the Trojan war, who ends up becoming a war prize/concubine of Achilles after watching everyone in her home be slaughtered or raped depending on their gender. She is also part of the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles, which ends up resulting in the turning point of the war, AKA When Achilles Loses His Sh*t™.
Most of the story is narrated by Briseis, but some of it is also narrated by Achilles. I wasn't really interested in his narrative, because he was a Sad Boy with Mommy Issues™ who Freud would have a serious field day with (seriously, the "sex" scenes in this book were wtf). It is not a book for the faint of heart. The author really does not shirk on the physical and sexual violence. As William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is hell." But it's especially hell for women, who are basically considered chattel as far as the men in this book are considered, and whether they're being sacrificed on a pyre, spat on, abused, assaulted, or treated with the most condescending sort of compassion possible, they are still considered objects - objects resented, cherished, despised, coveted, but objects all the same.
I remember reading somewhere recently that Greek heroes aren't really the same as American heroes, in that many of them were not Good People. They did awful things (see Hercules/Herakles) in the name of glory. Many of them would probably be closer to villains, now that I think about it, who are far more consumed by vainglory than our (almost self-abnegating) selfless heroes. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I remember exactly where I heard that quote: it was in Lindsey Ellis's review of Disney's Hercules (a must-watch; she really has the most excellent feminist/cinematographic rhetoric). And I think she has a good point. Achilles, too, is awful. Pat Barker lays that out clearly.
Barker also makes the odd choice of writing this book with modern language. Margaret Atwood did that too with the PENELOPIAD, but that feels like more of a post-mortem retrospective, whereas this takes place in Ancient Greece - and yet, they're talking like a bunch of modern British people. What gives with that? I saw that a lot of people who were criticizing this book took issue with that (yes, the Madeline Miller people, mostly) and I'm more sympathetic to this; the Greek myths were lyrical and dramatic, and its odd to have that sort of storytelling removed from the equation: odd and jarring.
That said, I did enjoy this book. Parts of it were slow (Achilles) and it was unpleasant to read (horrific scenes), and told in an odd way, but the modern language also makes it easier to understand what's going on. I would not read this in lieu of The Iliad, but it makes for a nice supplement.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
Hello, friends. Did you know that I am a sucker for Greek mythology? Because I am. When I was a kid, my mother used to read me stories from D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. And as obsessed as I was with Ancient Egypt (very), there was something incredibly appealing about the Greek pantheon, and how pettishly, foolishly human they were in foible and flaw, alike. I am by no means an expert in antiquities, but I know enough that I have an internal rubric of accuracy where 1 is Disney's Hercules and 10 is something like Mary Renault or Madeline Miller, depending on how much you allow for artistic license (I do).
I got A THOUSAND SHIPS from a co-worker (perhaps you are noticing a pattern in my latest slew of books, eh?). I'm enough of a nerd that when I heard the word bronze in tandem with comic, my first thought was "The Bronze Age of Comics," which spanned from the 1970s through the 1980s, and I was envisioning a "best of" anthology of panels from artists like Stan Lee or Jack Kirkby. But no, this is about the literal bronze age in Ancient Greece: a comic-book reimagining of The Iliad.
I had to read The Iliad in school and did not like it. Granted, I was only 15 or so, so the thought of a bunch of sweaty dudes duking it out over a girl they thought was hot felt a bit too "been there, done that." Plus, the military stuff. The military stuff was boring. Later, in college, I was forced to read it again, and I also watched some of the television adaptations, Troy (2004) and Helen of Troy (2003), and those actually made me like The Iliad more, because, like Shakespeare, it wasn't intended to be read; it was told, dramatically, and so seeing it on screen brought some of the magic back, I think.
A THOUSAND SHIPS details the prologue tothe famous battle of the Greeks vs. the Trojans, setting the scene, introducing us to the characters, and basically providing context for why the battle started (there were many reasons). The abduction of Helen was unarguably the catalyst, but it wasn't like the Greeks or the Trojans were biffles before that, either. I really liked the story-telling and the dialogue in this book. I thought the writers did a good job condensing the important parts, and used their medium to their advantage. Likewise, the art - the art. It was phenomenal. The characters' faces were so expressive and nuanced, and I loved that the artists actually made them look ethnic - I can't tell you how irritating it is to see illustrations of the Greeks as blonde, pasty white people. Excuse me.
I saw some reviews complaining about the removal of the gods themselves from this retelling - and yes, that is somewhat true. The gods are never illustrated and make no direct appearances in this book. However, their presence is still felt, and we encounter many of the demigods in this book, like nymphs and half-human progeny. I actually felt like this made the book feel more realistic, personally. It made this feel more mythological/religious and less fantastical to have the gods unseen.
If you're a fan of graphic novels and Greek mythology, this is a great book, honestly. Between the art and the condensed retelling of the story itself, I thought the creators did a great job. This would be a great tool for kids who are reading The Iliad and don't get it, because it provides excellent visuals for what's going on and why. I wish I'd had a copy of this floating around when I was getting quizzed on it back in the day, but hey, it was a whole lot of fun to read now, too. :)
My friends, I want to tell you about this book. Minette Walters is one of my favorite crime fiction authors, and I was psyched when I found out that she was writing a work of historical fiction. The length is intimidating - it's a whopping 547 pages - but please don't let this keep you from reading this wondrous tome. It's everything I love in fiction, and the pages just flew by. I tore through it in two days and one of those days was a work day, which just goes to show you how unputdownable THE LAST HOURS was.
THE LAST HOURS is set in medieval times, during the 13th century. There are two main characters: Lady Anne and Thaddeus. Lady Anne is a lady who was raised in a nunnery, and therefore unusual in that she knows how to practice good hygiene and how to read. She is married to a man she despises, for reasons that we learn later on in the book. Thaddeus, on the other hand, is a serf, and a bastard. The only person who has ever shown him consistent kindness is Lady Anne. He is intelligent and hard-working and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, no matter how unsavory.
Lady Anne's husband, Richard, leaves their demesne in Develish to go to a nearby province to meet with their daughter's husband-to-be. In this other demesne, the serfs are terrified and people are falling ill. His chief steward, Gyles, who is loyal to Lady Anne, begs that they turn back, but Richard is too busy wining and whoring, and refuses - until the lord of the manor also sickens, as well as several of Richard's own men. Luckily, Lady Anne finds out that her husband is ill from a pestilence that is fast-acting and contagious in a way beyond anything that they've ever known before, and she boards up the manor, destroys the drawbridge, and secures their raft to the other side of the moat.
In the absence of their lord, Lady Anne becomes their liege lord, and because one of her ways at getting back at her husband was to educate the serfs on their estate, Develish finds social order turned upon its head as serfs and nobles alike must band together to survive against what we know is the Black Death. Here, the book takes on an almost post-apocalyptic flavor - survival at its most basic, against basically all of the odds. What makes it even better is that it becomes a study in sexism, feminism, and classism, portrayed in a way that many books try and fail to do because they attempt to do these things in a heavy-handed way that goes against the realistic conventions of the times.
I loved this book. It's like a better version of PILLARS OF THE EARTH, in that it tells the story of the common people, but does so within a feminist lens, exploring the potential of women who were given power (albeit in a limited way). All of the characters in this book are great. Obviously Lady Anne was my favorite, followed closely by Thaddeus, Gyles, and Isabella. There are truly loathsome characters in here too, despicable in the way that characters in Game of Thrones are despicable (but not quite so cartoonishly evil in their caricaturing), like Richard (fuck him), Hugh (fuck him, too), and Eleanor (fuck, fuck, fuck). Eleanor reminded me a bit of Joffrey, actually, but then as I got to know more about her story and where she was coming from, she gained extra layers that Joffrey never received as a character, which I thought was really great, because we're often far too quick to villanize female characters without really giving them a proper motive, in my opinion.
This might not be the go-to book for many people and I get that historical fiction can be an intimidating thing for some people because it might feel like work or research, but if you feel like venturing out of your literary comfort zone, you should definitely start with THE LAST HOURS. It's so good. It's fast-paced, character-driven, and gritty in the same compelling way that many sci-fi and fantasy novels are. I don't think you'll be disappointed if you pick this one up. How could you be?
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
There's an author named "Jennifer Wilde" who wrote some of the trashiest, longest-winded bodice rippers I've ever encountered, always both lewd and boring, with heroines who go through hell and back and yet are somehow remarkably detached on an emotional level from anything happening to them, whether it's the death of a loved one or brutal rape at the hands of a captor. The stories are sometimes interesting, but virtually all of the voices of all of this author's heroines are interchangeable, because the only thing they lack more than agency is any kind of personality.
Jennifer Wilde is actually a man named T.E. Huff, and Jennifer Wilde is his bodice ripper pen name. He also had a gothic romance pen name, "Edwina Marlow." I've read two of his books recently, ONCE MORE, MIRANDA and ANGEL IN SCARLET, which were rags to riches tales similar to THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. Also like QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, both of these books were much longer than they needed to be and read as if they were written by someone who had never actually sat down and listened to a women regale the stories of her life before. I know how that sounds, and I'm sure Chee has talked to women, but man, the heroine of this book was bland AF and didn't seem to have any emotions at all. I've seen mirrors that were deeper than Lilliet Berne. And the book is written from her POV, so there is no escaping it.
I bring up Jennifer Wilde because that author is a prime example of a male author who has a good idea for a story starring a female hero, but who doesn't have the chops to back it up. There is no excuse for failing to make Lilliet Berne interesting. She lost her entire family to sickness, then went to work in a circus, then became a prostitute and then the servant to a noblewoman (or maybe vice-versa, I may be mixing up the order), and then she became the captive lover of an evil man, and then she escaped and became an opera singer-slash-courtesan in her own right. With a colorful tapestry like that at the backstory, I should be scarfing this down like it's "all you can eat" Tuesday at the Bodice Ripper Bistro, and the entree of the day is Rosemary Rogers au gratuitous WTFERY. But this book was BORING. I didn't want to believe the people who were saying that this book was boring and slow - I thought to myself, "Well, maybe they don't appreciate a book that takes a while to build up its characters." Some people don't. But this was circuitous, with the heroine constantly telling things to us instead of showing them to us (as unemotionally as possible), and by the time I was 25% to the end I basically started skimming heavily and ignoring 85% of what I was reading. Something about a duel and a final showdown and I think someone gets doused in gasoline. I don't even care.
Apparently this book was many years in the making and it is well-researched and has some well-written passages and descriptions. The problem, I think, is that the author fell so in love with his own writing and grandiose ideas that he forgot all about the heroine. How else to explain why she feels like such an afterthought in her own narration? There are Phantom of the Opera vibes! Faust vibes! Memoirs of a Geisha vibes! HOW WAS THIS BAD? She had this terribad life that she was trying to keep secret for all these years - and then one day, someone presents her with a play that mirrors the secrets of her dark past? WHAT. That sounded amazing. How was this not amazing?? What dark and evil magics were afoot to make this so? I don't always agree with Goodreads At Large, but the critics were definitely right about this one: it was a huge disappointment. I barely finished.
I was initially going to post lots of status updates for this book, because I feel like that is what you are supposed to do when you manage to finagle a prized ARC like this one - but instead I knocked it back like it was a glass of drinkable wine and I was trying to get drunk off of it. What I'm trying to say is that it was good. Really good. Defies expectations good.
AN ASSASSIN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND TREASON, despite the cutesy title, is actually a very dark story. It is set during the times of Elizabethan England. The heroine, Katherine, is the daughter of an illegal Catholic and sees him murdered before her eyes. Naturally, she wants revenge and seeks out his associates who are in the middle of a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic ruler. Her plan? To dress up as a boy and join a group of performers who are performing Twelfth Night before the Queen...and then assassinate her during the last act.
The hero, Toby, is a spy in the employ of the Queen's spymaster. He's part of the intelligence behind Katherine's father's murder, and is determined to ferret out the rest of the culprits. His plan is to work with William Shakespeare to create a play that appears to be sympathetic to Catholics (called Twelfth Night) that will be performed before the Queen. Surely, the would-be assassins won't be able to resist the trap, and when they do, they'll be waiting. To be absolutely sure that he's got the right person, he'll be acting in the play. He doesn't expect to fall for his opposite though; the attractive "boy" who plays his love interest, Viola-Cesario to his Duke Orsino.
So yes, it sounds cheesy, and it was, a little. But it was also action-packed and reminded me of some of the good YA I've read, like POISON STUDY or GRAVE MERCY or even THE WINNER'S CURSE. Books that are well-written and don't look down on their audience, and feature heroines who actually have agency and don't just sit around twiddling their thumbs while pining away over the love interest. I can't tell you how happy I was to see a few F-bombs dropped in this book, or to have actual grievous consequences looming over the two star-crossed lovers. Also, this is a cross-dressing romance, which is a secret weakness of mine, but it tackles head-on what most of those types of books only skirt around: the hero is bisexual, and reacts in a very believable way to finding out Kit is a girl (unlike some of those other books, where the hero is like, "Woohoo! Thank God I'm not gay!")
This book is very gay, and in the best possible way. I think you should read it.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
It didn't hit me until the very end of the book that our heroine was never even given a name. That's because she rules the narrative with her forceful, first-person account of how she went from a pencil-pushing, sweater-wearing 9-to-5er to a "queenpin." I've only read Abbott's young adult novels before this one and one of the things, okay, two of the things, that I've always liked about them are the fiercely intense, fiercely rivalrous homoerotic relationships between her female heroines, and the fact that she lets them be bad people if she wants, without judgement.
I don't usually like crime noir fiction because I feel like a lot of it is very misogynistic. And yeah, you might be thinking, "But wait, Nenia, you read bodice-rippers, you of all people shouldn't be talking about misogynistic." It's true that bodice-rippers sometimes carry an internalized misogyny of their own class, but it's penned by women, from a woman's gaze. It's an entirely different sort of misogyny than the "breasted-boobily" variety, where the heroine is constantly written from the male gaze, even as she's looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, and every "strong" heroine must be given a history of (usually sexual) abuse, and all of the men toss off bigoted one-liners while getting called "smooth" and "tough" in reviews.
Awful things happen to our plucky unnamed heroine and the woman who takes her under her marabou boa-wearing wing. They do awful things to other people. But both of them are full of agency, and I can't tell you how satisfying it was to see these women doing the things that men do, and taking advantage of that sexism to, in some cases literally, get away with murder. QUEENPIN is literally a Lana Del Rey song come to life, and if the idea of that appeals to you, put on Ultraviolence, plug in your ear buds, and just bask in the truly F'd up glory that is QUEENPIN.
Usually me + hyped-up YA novel = crushing disappointment. But how could I hate a book that could be summed up as Wednesday Addams and Sherlock Holmes have guarded flirtation over forensic sciencelab? I mean, that's just ace.
STALKING JACK THE RIPPER begins literally with the heroine arms deep in viscera, and continues in that vein (pun sort of intended). Audrey Rose is the daughter of the wealthy British upperclass and is expected to sit down and have teas and not pal around with her creepy uncle in his lab full of dead people. But dead people have way more appeal to her than dresses or tea - especially when she meets a boy named Thomas who shares her passion for corpses and deductive reasoning.
Said reasoning comes into handy when news of a serial killer stalking the London streets hit the presses. The killer in question is, of course, Jack the Ripper, and he's mutilating the bodies of dead women in such a grotesque fashion that even Audrey Rose, girl with the self-professed constitution of steel, feels like losing her lunch and swooning dead away. As more and more clues come to light, she's faced with the grim realization that the killer might be someone she knows.
Sometimes, deductions lead you down paths better left untrod.
So I did not hate this book like I expected (I do not have a good history with hyped-up YA). I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. It reminded me of Barry Lyga's Jasper Dent series. For 3/4 of the book I was sucked in and even found myself being amused by the burgeoning relationship between Thomas and Audrey (even if I personally found the love interest to be pedantic and annoying). I loved that this is a book aimed at girls that doesn't sugarcoat or tiptoe around unpleasant things. I appreciated the research that went into this and the photos (real photos!) inserted into the book.
My problems with the book mostly arose in the last 1/4, which is where the author writes a lazy attempt at a love triangle that goes nowhere, and one hell of a sharp-jumping ending that just about ruined the book for me. What the actual fresh hell was that. WHAT THE FRESH HELL WAS THAT. It was way too weird and about 150 kinds of nope. I am 99.9% sure I must deduct a star for that. (For those of you who are "in the know," I'm not deducting for grotesqueness but because "it" felt ridiculous and unrealistic and lame, just FYI.)
Also yes, the heroine is a Special Specialton who is praised repeatedly by being told that she's as good as a man (i.e. not like other girls) and allowed to do things that would get her tossed into a sanitarium by other folks of the era, including wearing pants, performing dissections, and wandering around with boys sans escort. Yes, it is annoying, but I just tried to ignore it. It's the only way.
STALKING JACK THE RIPPER did what it was supposed to do; it entertained me. But it also had a number of flaws (THAT ENDING). I'm curious to see where the story it goes from here - as long as the author keeps well away from the shark tank.