Friday, July 7, 2017

June Reads


The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Synopsis: Manhattan has many secrets. Some are older than the city itself. 

The city sleeps. Selene DiSilva walks her dog along the banks of the Hudson. She is alone -- just the way she likes it. She doesn't believe in friends, and she doesn't speak to her family. Most of them are simply too dangerous.

In the predawn calm, Selene finds the body of a young woman washed ashore, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. Her ancient rage returns. And so does the memory of a promise she made long ago -- when her name was Artemis.

"The Immortals is a lively re-imagining of classical mythology with an engaging premise, a page-turning plot, and an eye for the arresting and uncanny in contemporary urban life."

My take: OMIGOD (no pun intended), this book is just flat out FUN to read. It was definitely my favorite book this month.  Brodsky takes all the elements of Greek mythology and weaves it into a classic who-done-it without missing a step.

Bravo for her scholarship and knowledge of Greek mythology that never becomes didactic. It's well paced, romantic without being schmaltzy, and wickedly funny when you read about how the gods try to adapt to modern day life in an attempt to get their waning power back. Unlike so many who-done-its, I didn't see the perpetrator coming; but in the reveal, I wanted to smack myself in the head because all the clues were there. After my disappointment with Starz's rendition of American Gods, this was the pick me up I needed for my "gods walk among us" obsession.

I ordered the next one in the series, Winter of the Gods, and I hope Brodsky can keep up the good work.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by M. K. Jemisin

Synopsis: Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history.

With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate - and gods and mortals - are bound inseparably together.

My take: All the potential for an interesting story was here: a flawed heroine investigating her mother's death, preventing genocide, fighting for her life with awesome matriarchal warrior skills, and discovering the role of the gods in the life of mortals. (Did I mention I like books with gods in them?) Then, there is this weird double soul thing (channeling The Host, maybe), which had potential but didn't work all that well for me, possibly because the reveals in the writing didn't exactly reveal it. Maybe someone more astute than me picked up on it a lot earlier. 

Jemisin's writing style is a little convoluted, and I often found myself a bit confused. (See the whole double soul thing.) Her world building with the gods is fantastic, and Yeine Darr's relationship with those gods are the best and  most evocative scenes. Although I agree with the reviewers who said the novel could have spent less time on sexy Lord of the Night and explored some of the other gods and goddesses a bit more. Jemisin's world building for the "political world" is dull, dull, dull even though that world is rather blood-thirsty. Yeine Darr's character development leaves a little to be desired as well. 

I liked this book, but I didn't love it. I'm not tempted to read the next book in the trilogy.

The Dawn Girl by Leslie Wolf

Synopsis: Her blue eyes wide open, glossed over. A few specks of sand clung to her long, dark lashes. Her beautiful face, immobile, covered in sparkling flecks of sand. Her lips slightly parted as if to let a last breath escape.

Who is the beautiful girl found at dawn, on a deserted stretch of golden sand beach? What is her secret?

FBI Special Agent Tess Winnett searches for answers relentlessly. With each step, each new finding, she uncovers unsettling facts leading to a single possible conclusion: Dawn Girl is not the only victim. Her killer has killed before.

My take:  Ho-Hum. I'm sure there's at least one stereotype that Wolf didn't use in this novel, but I'd be hard-pressed to name it. The characters are flat (and did I mention stereotypical?). The plot is predictable. The writing is passable, but nothing to write home about. It was an okay read for a hot Sunday afternoon.

Gilded Cage (Dark Gifts) by Vic James

Synopsis:  MAGIC RULES. WE SERVE.

In a darkly fantastical debut set in modern-day Britain, magic users control everything: wealth, politics, power—and you. If you’re not one of the ultimate one-percenters—the magical elite—you owe them ten years of service. Do those years when you’re old, and you’ll never get through them. Do them young, and you’ll never get over them.

This is the darkly decadent world of Gilded Cage. In its glittering milieu move the all-powerful Jardines and the everyday Hadleys. The families have only one thing in common: Each has three children. But their destinies entwine when one family enters the service of the other. They will all discover whether any magic is more powerful than the human spirit.

Have a quick ten years. . . .

Synopsis:  Want your Harry Potter dark and dystopic, a world in which Lucius Malfoy rules? This is the book for you. It held my interest, despite the constant change in POV and hopping from one place to another. I found myself more interested in the world of the Skilled than the world of the Unskilled, and I tended to skim the latter. I might read the next in the series.

When She Woke: A Novel by Hillary Jordan

Synopsis:  Bellwether Prize winner Hillary Jordan’s provocative new novel, When She Woke, tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed—their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.

In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

My take: I mostly liked this re-do of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter with a dystopian worldview that is reminiscent of  Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. In fact, I found the book in an article that said, If you liked The Handmaid's Tale. . .  The novel covers sensitive topics head-on, which means some people will be totally offended by it. On the other hand, these topics need to be addressed in the age of Trump.

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Hannah's crime is not adultery, as in the Scarlet Letter, but abortion, and the role of the Church in the State, particularly in the state of Texas. Oh, and it touches on the hypocrisy of Christians who value life before birth, but not so much after birth. So, if these are topics that offend you, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

Some parts of the book are quite well written, specifically the beginning and the late middle to the end. You can totally feel Hannah's horror when she wakes up and finds herself tinted red. The whole Chroming, or making a person wear the color of their sin, was creepy, yet realistically plausible in a world that already judges people by the color of their skin. Her experiences with a sort of half-way house, which seems like a take on some of the conversion therapy clinics I've read about, and escaping from Texas both have a gritty reality that made me shiver.

What didn't work for me was a long backstory that explained how Hannah decided to have the abortion. It felt a lot like reading a treatise rather than experiencing her emotions. The minister who seduces Hannah, who is just coincidentally the head of a megachurch and known for his good deeds, is about as cardboard as they come. Hard to believe anybody would make the sacrifices Hannah made for him. I also did not particularly enjoy what felt like a token, obligatory Lesbian encounter, which she then blows off about two seconds later and runs back to the minister who impregnated her. If I were a Lesbian, I would have felt both offended and violated.

Ramses: The Son of Light - Volume I and The Eternal Temple (Ramses, Volume II) by Christian Jacq

Synopsis 1:  Historical fiction meets mythology as ancient Egypt comes alive in this monumental epic with over 2 million copies sold around the world.

At fourteen, Ramses, the second son of the Pharaoh Seth, must begin to pass a series of royal tests designed to build his mental and physical prowess-or break him. Is Seth planning to leave the world's most powerful empire to Ramses, and not his corrupt brother, Shaanar? Before he knows it, the younger prince is surrounded by enemies and turning to his friends: Moses, the brilliant young Hebrew; Setau, the snake charmer and mage; Ahmeni; the frail scholar; and Set and Nefertari, the two beautiful women Ramses loves.

Synopsis 2:  The splendor and danger of ancient Egypt continues in the second volume of this magnificent saga. For Ramses, the Son of Light, the coronation has arrived. Now he will learn whether the friends of his youth--people such as Moses and the aging Greek poet, Homer--can truly be trusted. Shaanar, the young king's scheming older brother, still has designs on the crown, and in the shadows, the machinations of a mysterious sorcerer threaten the throne.

My take: I've started this series several times, and then I run out of steam. However, since Ramses II is a character  (although not the main character) in my latest work-in-progress, hear I am. Again.

As one reviewer suggests, Christian Jacq is no Pauline Gedge, my absolute favorite writer of Ancient Egyptian novels. Jacq is often historically inaccurate, mixes current Arabic names and places with ancient ones, and isn't much on character development in the first two books (at least).

As an Egyptologist, he must know that the truth he's omitting is often at least as (if not more) exciting than the falsehoods he tells. In the first two volumes, Ramses comes across as an arrogant ditherer who somehow always comes out on top; clearly, it must be the will of the gods. Oddly enough, Seti I, Ramses' father, turns out to be the most interesting character in Volume I, although the way he wanders in and out of the plot (more like Yoda than Pharaoh) is a bit disconcerting.

I am not a big fan of the brother who challenges Ramses for the throne, because no such brother or challenge ever existed.  Of course, the fake brother is supported by a sister who has a name that doesn't seem remotely Egyptian. Why not use the name of  one of his real sisters instead of making a name up? I suppose Jacq felt the whole challenger idea was necessary for an exciting plot line, but it's the kind of thing that gives historical fiction a dodgy reputation.

Perhaps the mistake was trying to fashion a complete novel around Ramses late boyhood about which we know very little. Still, I think he would have been better served to depict the struggles the boy-who-would-be-king might have had in coping with his very real non-royal bloodline and the confusion left behind in the wake of the 18th dynasty rather than cobbling together a fake fight for the throne with a non-existent brother. I would also have liked to see more conflict around his marriages to Nefertiti and Iset-Nofret, because surely there must have been some.

In Volume II, not a lot happens except that Ramses becomes king and a non-existent daughter of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten shows up to complicate the whole challenge to the crown thing. Oh, and he starts building his House of a Million years and mortuary temple.  Volume II also has some of the most boring sex scenes ever. Am I going to finish this series. Well, maybe.

In the end, the Ramses books are quick reads and  and I'm having some fun making lists of their inaccuracies. If you enjoy the television series Reign, Ramses will be right up your alley.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Synopsis: It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred.

A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right--with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.

A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor's salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all--though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface.

Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.

Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe.

My take: I give this book a good, solid B for effort. The premise is fantastic and, at its best forces, you to confront the hypocrisy around race in America today. Is it ground-breaking? Not so much. The whole time I was reading I kept wondering if it was this decade's Man in the High Castle, and I kind of missed the "thriller" part of it.

Winters clearly did some research to make the alt-history believable and incorporated slightly altered factoids at the right time.

Victor, the main character, is a black man and a former slave who is essentially forced  to become a bounty hunter of escaped slaves. He is both interesting and complex, and Winters captured the dichotomy of a good man who must do bad things. Did Winters capture the essence of the black slave experience? I thought so, but I can't be sure. Sadly, no other characters have Victor's richness; they were fairly cardboard caricatures of good and evil.  I sometimes had trouble remembering who the various characters were. Maybe that was the point, but it made the novel feel a little dead.

The first few chapters as Victor settles into his "current job" are the most compelling and kept me turning the page. Somewhere along the way, and I can't quite say when, the plot became episodic and full of plot holes. Although Victor is built up as being as skillful as James Bond, he escapes so many times from virtually escape-proof scenarios in an almost deus ex machina fashion  that I started muttering to myself "gimme a break." There are many other plot moments that also seem to hinge on the goodness of the universe for their resolution, which ultimately makes Victor's struggle less compelling.

I recommend reading the book, because it is a chilling allusion to what has happened in the America of today, and there is some fine writing. That said, some of the writing is problematic, and a number of reviewers cited that as a reason for not finishing the novel.

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