Friday, March 31, 2017

March Reads

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Synopsis:  The New York Times bestselling and legendary author of Helen of Troy and Elizabeth I now turns her gaze on Emperor Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.

Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar’s imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman—or child.

As a boy, Nero’s royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son’s inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead.

My take: I am a BIG Margaret George fan. I have been a fan since reading The Autobiography of Henry VII with Notes by His Fool, Will Somers. She might be my favorite living writer. For sure, I acted like a fan girl when I met her (in the airport shuttle) at a Historical Novel Society conference. I squealed "YOU'RE MARGARET GEORGE!" as if she were unaware of the fact. It was then I first heard about this book, and I have been chomping at the bit. It was released the day after my birthday, the perfect present.

First things first: This story is going to be a two-part experience. Sigh. I have no idea when the second book will be coming out, but I'm already anticipating it. IF you buy this novel hoping to get some juicy, but prurient details about the second most hated Roman Emperor, don't hit the Buy with one Click button; this novel is more nuanced than that.

Yes, I said nuanced! George's Nero is a nuanced character. Her interpretation of Nero, the one we remember as fiddling as Rome burns, will make your head spin.  While you might not agree with her, this novel gets inside the head of Nero, which the historical facts can never do; it is historical fiction at its best as it fills in the details of what might have been.

In many respects this novel reminds of the Henry VIII novel. An unlikely member of a royal family moves into the lead position; initial idealism gives way to the realities of ruling; and then things get REALLY bad.

George sets up some interesting conflicts in Nero: a child separated from his mother at a young age, and then reunited under deadly circumstances with a hint of nepotism that both attracts and repulses him; the burden of SO many distinguished ancestors that might be impossible to live up;  a desire to be an artist, a charioteer, almost anything but Emperor, but well, destiny calls. Then, ask yourself if you would have been any different than Nero in the same situation.

Her attention to details of the Roman world are awe-inspiring. Read the afterword for a list of the sources for this book and be impressed.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed was George writing about Nero as a writer. It might give  us an insight into some of her own views on the subject. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Nero puts together a writing critique group so that they can all improve their writing skills. Hmm. It's giving me ideas.

The scenes involving the birth and death of a child are remarkably tender and captures the experience of any parent, imperial or not. And finally, his obsession with his wife Poppea is a remarkable insight into the nature of obsession.

So, treat yourself to a trip to first century imperial Rome and keep an open mind. You might learn something about the human condition.

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Synopsis:  A lovely girl grows up in isolation where her father, a powerful magus, has spirited them to in order to keep them safe.

We all know the tale of Prospero's quest for revenge, but what of Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage Prospero chained to his will?

In this incredible retelling of the fantastical tale, Jacqueline Carey shows readers the other side of the coin—the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. The two find solace and companionship in each other as Prospero weaves his magic and dreams of revenge.

My take: If you're going to retell a classic, this is the way to do it. I am a fan of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart series, but haven't been big on her other works. This novel changes my perception, and I will be looking at some of her other books.

First of all, let's get this out of the way: you don't need to know Shakespeare's Tempest to understand this book. I've had a spotty relation with the play since I took the world's most frantic Shakespeare course in which we read 20 of the 37 plays attributed to him, including Titus Andronicus.  The professor promised that we would understand everything we needed to know about Shakespeare after we read The Tempest. AND we ran out of time and didn't read it.

As I said, Miranda and Caliban can stand alone. The character development and world building are marvelous. For the first time, I can actually visualize the island and the spirits, although Carey doesn't pound the descriptions to death. The novel is told from two points of view, and each has a distinctive voice. Although it is clearly marked when Caliban is speaking and when Miranda is, you will know just by reading what they have to say. I found this to be particularly adept in the early pages when Miranda is still a little girl and Caliban a nonspeaking, illiterate "beast."

At it's heart, Shakespeare's play is a study of what it means to be human and what is the nature of revenge. Carey picks up this theme and explores it in loving and lyrical detail for 350 pages, giving voice to characters who are blank slates in Shakespeare. It also is a love story that builds to the tragic conclusion worthy of Romeo and Juliet,.

Midnight Star (Vampire Girl 2) by Karpov Kinrade

Synopsis:  I was an ordinary girl, living an ordinary life, until I sold my soul to save my mother. Now, I am forced to choose between my heart and my conscience.
Either way, someone I love will die.

My take: And. . . I'm done with this series. Last month, I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness of this tale. This month, not so much. This really feels like a kitchen sink kind of book. The authors throw in a lot of stuff that seems to be there for no other purpose than to keep the reader interested. Naturally, the lovers, Ari and Fen, need to be separated.  . . again, but it seems contrived. I saw the gay plot twist coming a mile away. The pacing dragged with lots of unnecessary (and trite) descriptions. The plot revisited a lot of characters from the first book, presumably to remind us that they still existed, because the visits often didn't move the story forward. And finally, the cute little dragon named Yami was a little too saccharine for my taste and showed up predictably on time as a big, bad dragon. Clearly, I am alone in this opinion, because the second book is still rating five stars on Amazon.

The Gender Game (Volume 1) by Bella Forrest

Synopsis:  For fans of The Hunger Games and Divergent
comes a story like no other...

A toxic river divides nineteen-year-old Violet Bates's world by gender.
Women rule the East. Men rule the West.

Welcome to the lands of Matrus and Patrus.

Ever since the disappearance of her beloved younger brother, Violet's life has been consumed by an anger she struggles to control. Already a prisoner to her own nation, now she has been sentenced to death for her crimes.

My take: I'm doing a really poor job in keeping my vow to not start series. An ad appeared in my Facebook feed compared this book to  The Hunger Game, and it was on sale. It was a good, quick weekend read, but it wasn't The Hunger Games and suffers from the comparison. If you have a lazy weekend coming up and you have $3.99 to spend on the Kindle edition, you could do much worse.

The main character Violet suffers from what is becoming a stereotype in this genre: the hot-headed, kick-ass female protagonist. The plot hits the major points for showing her anger and call to action, but you don't exactly feel it. Then, she goes to Patrus to save her own life and to win the opportunity to see the "beloved" brother. The main problem with this novel, I think, is that the three main characters, Violet, her husband and partner in bringing down the patriarchy, and a hunk named Viggo that she falls in love with (of course) seem to live in a world not occupied by very many people. When you're in Matrus, you don't see any male characters and in Patrus you see almost no women. But to be perfectly clear, there aren't that many women you meet in Matrus and almost no other non-stereotypical males in Patrus. Therefore, it becomes almost impossible to determine whether the characters are acting in accordance with societies's rules or not. There seems to be a lot of wandering around in both lands. And like all not-so-great dystopian novels, there is a disconnect between super-technology and somewhat primitive conditions.

The ending, however, was a complete and total plot twist that I didn't see it coming at all. I'm not sure if it was a good thing (I think so), a bad thing (as several other reviewers said), or just a thing.

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Synopsis:  On a daring quest to save a life, two friends are hurled into another world, where an evil sorceress seeks to enslave them. But then the lion Aslan's song weaves itself into the fabric of a new land, a land that will be known as Narnia. And in Narnia, all things are possible.

The Magician’s Nephew is the first book in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, a series that has become part of the canon of classic literature, drawing readers of all ages into a magical land with unforgettable characters for over fifty years. This is a stand-alone novel, but if you would like to journey back to Narnia, read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second book in The Chronicles of Narnia.

My take: I'm reading this book for the Pardon my Youth, a book club for adults who like reading YA.
While I have been a big fan of the many Narnia films (particularly the spectacular BBC series from the late 80's), I'm not so enthusiastic about C.S. Lewis in print form. Suffice it to say, I did not approach this book with unmitigated enthusiasm. Although the writing and style are probably not going to win over a lot of contemporary readers, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Synopsis:  Whatever you've heard about Caraval, it doesn't compare to the reality. It's more than just a game or a performance. It's the closest you'll ever find to magic in this world . . .

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

My take: Alice in Wonderland for the 21st Century! I was expecting a take on Shakepeare's Tempest (for no particular reason except my own twisted logic), so I was pleasantly surprised at the freshness of the plot (as in notTempest). The Scarlett character's journey was very satisfying; and I, for one, was happy that she wasn't the typical kick-ass female hero who has become so de rigueur lately. The plot kept twisting and didn't telegraph the ending. The characters were intriguing and fresh. The world building was solid. I particularly enjoyed how Scarlett experienced emotions as colors.

Apparently there was a lot of hype about this book, which I missed. I'm glad, because I might not have enjoyed it as much if I'd built up a bunch of expectations. Coming on it fresh with no expectations, I can honestly say it was one of the best reads of the year so far.

Bright Air Black by David Vann

Synopsis:  In brilliant poetic prose Bright Air Black brings us aboard the ship Argo for its epic return journey across the Black Sea from Persia’s Colchis—where Medea flees her home and father with Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece. Vann’s reimagining of this ancient tale offers a thrilling, realist alternative to the long held notions of Medea as monster or sorceress. We witness with dramatic urgency Medea’s humanity, her Bronze Age roots and position in Greek society, her love affair with Jason, and her tragic demise.

Atmospheric and spellbinding, Bright Air Black is an indispensable, fresh and provocative take on one of our earliest texts and the most intimate and corporal version of Medea’s story ever told.

My take: Oh, PUH-leeze. I. Just. Could. Not. Finish. This. Book. 

Just as Miranda and Caliban is the way to retell a classic, this novel is an object lesson in how not to do it.

Medea is one of my favorite stories in Greek mythology. The tale is so rich, compelling, and full of psychological Sturm und Drang. I have happily sat through really bad college productions of  Euripides's play and even worse Hollywood versions of it. So, the fact that I could only read about a third of this novel before throwing my Kindle across the room says something.

First of all, the prose is the most deadly shade of purple that I've read in many a long year. I think it's supposed to poetic. Or as one reviewer put "it starts off lyrical but quickly grows repetitive.

Then, there's the mixing in of Egyptian mythology for no apparent reason. Me, I think the world turns around Egyptian mythology, and even I couldn't make it relate.

Finally, the novel is psychologically shallow with all the emotional resonance of a snow pea. Medea is stereotyped as a rather shallow barbarian, or in Jason's monotonously repetitive words, “bitter woman, butcher, [and] barbarian.”  In the laborious third of it that I read, Medea constantly (and I do mean constantly) reflects on how she is wallowing in blood and how much it stinks. This in no way create  insight, and one almost wishes that Medea turned her witch craft on Mr. Vann for creating this monstrosity of a portrait. She deserves better.