Friday, September 22, 2017

August Reads

The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo

Synopsis: Inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution and the last months of the Romanov sisters, The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo is a beautifully crafted historical fantasy with elements of technology fueled by evil magic.

The Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, and the Five Daughters of the Moon are the ones to determine its future.

My take:  I'm a sucker for the Russian Revolution even though I know it always ends badly. Take note: If you're looking for a literal retelling of the tale of the last Romanovs, this book will surely disappoint you. Some reviews crawl through the Romanov minutiae and enumerate the discrepancies, such as Daughters of the Moon makes no mention of the ailing son. There is an ailing youngest daughter. . . . so like I said, it's just not literal. If you want a good fantasy  that uses the Romanov story as a jumping off point, however, this novella will satisfy your longing.

As the description says, it is rather beautifully crafted, and the lore of both the Russian Revolution and the fantasy/magical elements  result in great world-building. Likalto does an excellent job of invoking Rasputin as an antagonist without making him a carbon copy of the mad monk. Each of the sisters have a couple of chapters that tell the story from their point of view, and the author does it nicely. I'm not so sure, however, that all five sisters were needed. The middle three sisters didn't seem unique enough, and I often confused them; that is often true of the historical Romanov sisters as well.

The novella has a rather nice steampunk ambiance with mechanical peacocks, lamps fueled by animal souls, and machines that require human souls to work. There is also magic, although that aspect is not a fleshed out as I might like it to be.

All in all, I liked this novella. It has a realistic ambivalence in which you can root both for those who need the revolution and those who suffer from its consequences. The elegiac tone reminded me of the non-fiction The Romanov Sisters, which I read a few years ago. I will definitely read the sequel.

Synopsis: Firstborns rule society. Secondborns are the property of the government. Thirdborns are not tolerated. Long live the Fates Republic.

On Transition Day, the second child in every family is taken by the government and forced into servitude. Roselle St. Sismode’s eighteenth birthday arrives with harsh realizations: she’s to become a soldier for the Fate of Swords military arm of the Republic during the bloodiest rebellion in history, and her elite firstborn mother is happy to see her go.

Televised since her early childhood, Roselle’s privileged upbringing has earned her the resentment of her secondborn peers. Now her decision to spare an enemy on the battlefield marks her as a traitor to the state.

My take: First off, let me say I loved this book. Some compared it to Hunger Games, and it's a fair comparison. Like Katniss, Roselle is a great kick-ass heroine in a genre where kick-ass heroines are becoming a dime a dozen. Like Katniss, we actually see what went into the making of the kick-ass part, whereas in many books we are just supposed to accept it when there is no reason to do so.  Unlike the tributes of the Hunger Games, however, these contestants aren't necessarily from the poor and downtrodden class, but often the ruling class itself, which causes its own set of problems. This book took what is becoming a rather tired trope and breathed some new life into it.

Clearly the book is dystopian, but in the vein of Red Rising instead of a completely shattered world. It certainly takes the whole idea of "the heir and the spare" to  new levels. It might even be an interesting treatise on what it's like psychologically to be the second born.

Above all, the story was engaging, well-paced, and had some good plot twists.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Synopsis:Raised among New York’s high society, Lily Bart is beautiful, charming, and entirely without means. Determined to maintain the extravagant lifestyle to which she is accustomed, Lily embarks on a mission to marry a wealthy man who can secure her station. However, the businesslike proposals from her many suitors remain fruitless, and her thoughts keep returning to the one man she truly loves. Bedeviled by debt, betrayal, and vicious gossip, she is forced to confront the tragic cruelty just beneath the surface of the Gilded Age.

My take: I sometimes think of Edith Wharton as America's dark Jane Austen. The storys often start at the same place: woman from "good" society doesn't have the means (aka money) to maintain her position in that society.  While neither author spares  society their castigation for creating the problem, Austen heroines usually turn out just fine. Wharton heroines (and heroes for that matter) rarely do. Lily Bart may be one of the saddest and silliest protagonists ever. I read this novel every few years as a cautionary tale.

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe Book 1) by Neal Shusterman

Synopsis:Two teens must learn the “art of killing” in this Printz Honor–winning book, the first in a chilling new series from Neal Shusterman, author of the New York Times bestselling Unwind dystology.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery: humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now Scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

My take: So many books to love this month, and this one gets a big dose of love. The idea of this book made me shiver, and the execution (no pun intended) of the idea did as well.

I really admire the way Shusterman takes on social issues that no one wants to touch and makes a compelling story of them. Usually, such stories are fairly heavy-handed, but Shusterman has a light touch that  inspires a great deal of thought. I was a big fan of his Unwind series, and the Arc of a Scythe books promise to deliver as well.

The character development in this book is excellent; the idea is daring and original; and the pacing is right on point.

House of Names: A Novel by Colm Toibin

Synopsis:From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra—spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling—and her children.

“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

My take: I like novels based on the classics, but told from a different point of view. With a minor in mythology, I read plays and sat through the lectures on the mythos behind this story.

To the Greeks, Clytemnestra was a horror. Women murdering husbands for a wrongdoing was bad for the business of patriarchy--a system to which they were firmly attached. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus's telling of events, Orestes reestablishes order (i.e., male authority) but a resolve to kill one's own mother is hardly endearing. He's a conundrum for the modern reader: Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, and I'm not sure Toibon changes our mind on that, although he spends a lot of time trying.  I could have done with a whole lot less Orestes and a whole lot more Clytemnestra.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper

Synopsis: She survived her own innocence, and the treachery of Europe’s royal courts; The Last Boleyn is the story of the rise and fall of the Boleyns, one of England’s most powerful families, through the eyes of the eldest daughter, Mary.

My take: I always tell myself I will not buy another book on the Tudors, and then I remember Wolf Hall and relent. I'm not sure what the decision making process that went into this one was. Probably it went something like this: I'm going to the airport; I need an easy read; this book is on sale. Buy on impulse; regret at leisure.

The writing feels amateurish -- turgid and overblown with inappropriate adjectives, such as 'lumbering castle'. Research is shallow. I noted several inconsistencies from one page to the next in descriptions of the same scene, errors which would have been caught by careful editing. The writing style is  exhausting. Sentences are elongated with too many adverbs and adjectives to keep my attention.

A Rebellion In Heaven: A Novel of Ancient Egypt by John-Philip Penny

Synopsis: Will an immortal god sacrifice eternity to find true love, and the meaning of life?

This lyrical and poetic tale is set in ancient Egypt, when Pharaohs and strange but divine beings ruled over the fates of all.

Enter Anubis -- a young god, powerful, introspective, and heir to the throne of the Afterlife. Within himself he harbours a dark secret, one that throws his immortal soul
into chaos, and drives him to the edge of despair. . .

This poignant new novel from the author of Blood of a Barbarian, and Panzerfaust, is a clever blend of historical fiction, myth, spiritual adventure, and fantasy. It is,
above all, a meditation upon the eternal questions that we all ask ourselves: What is the meaning of life? How can one be happy? And how does one learn to give, and to receive, true love?

My take: Penny gets a few things wrong. For example, you simply cannot see the Pyramids from Thebes (Luxor), and the story of Anubis's birth doesn't jive with the most common myths. However, this book is a nice little read in the vein of American Gods. Anubis, more popular in artwork than in myth, deserves his own quest, and this novel does him proud. If you're an Egyptomaniac, as I clearly am, this is a must read.

His Wicked Wish: A Cinderella Sisterhood Novel (Cinderella Sisterhood Series) by Olivia Drake


The daughter of a disgraced woman and a common actor, Madelyn Swann has been shunned by the nobility. No proper lady would traipse about on a Covent Garden stage, let alone sell herself at auction to the highest bidder. So why in heaven’s name would Nathan Atwood, Viscount Rowley, make a generous offer for her hand?

Turns out Maddy is exactly the type of woman Nathan wants as his wife. Finally, he can embarrass his snobbish and cruel father, the Earl of Gilmore—and scandalize London society—with his beautiful, unsuitable bride. Then he’ll depart England forever and leave his wife behind. Having secret plans of her own, Maddy is happy to play the role … only to find that enjoying her husband’s seduction requires no acting whatsoever. But as she falls madly in love with Nathan, can she persuade him to stay with her for always?

My take: I received this book directly from the hands of the author at a Romance Writers of America 2017 Conference party. It was fun and predictable. I read it in an evening. Sometimes, that's just what I want to do.