#40 The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)

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In the aftermath of World War II, three widowed women find themselves seeking refuge and protection within the walls of an old Bavarian castle which used to play host to the aristocracy of Germany. Marianne von Lingenfels, whose husband was executed after a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, is trying to fulfill a promise to a childhood friend, to protect and shelter the wives and children of the resisters should their plans fail. She takes young Benita and pragmatic Ania under her wing, certain that their shared pain and loss will bind them together. But she must come to terms with the weight of secrets and guilt that will haunt the women and their children for years to follow.

This novel by Jessica Shattuck begins with a lot of promise. Readers are introduced to Marianne at a party in the castle before the war, mingling with the upper echelons of German society. She is portrayed as a determined, forthright young woman who is fully committed to resisting Hitler’s growing efforts to rid Germany of “undesirables”. We then skip forward to 1945, as Marianne throws her considerable connections and wealth into tracking down the scattered widows left behind by the failed resistance effort. The chapters then proceed to include the perspectives of the two women that are “rescued” by Marianne. Benita, a young and beautiful woman who unknowingly married a member of the German resistance; and Ania who was the wife of a Polish diplomat but lives in fear of a secret being discovered.

The perspectives of the latter two women are far more interesting than that of Marianne. Once she is fully described as being a forceful presence who takes it for granted that everyone shares her opinions, Marianne isn’t given much to do. Far more compelling is the character of Benita, who never had any allegiance to the German resistance and finds Marianne’s patriotic fervor uncomfortable to duplicate. The third woman, Ania, is equally intriguing, especially as more and more of her history during the war is revealed. All three of these women are devoted to their children, and in the beginning these are the ties that bind them.

There are scores of historical fiction novels that deal with the second World War from a myriad of perspectives. With the glut of available literature, it can be difficult to find a viewpoint that raises new questions. Here, Shattuck succeeds in giving voice to the women who found different ways of surviving Hitler’s Germany and its aftermath. All of  them have either seen or committed horrible acts in the name of protecting themselves and their children. They find themselves being slowly gnawed upon by the never-ending guilt that settled on their shoulders and indeed that of the entire country in the years following the war. Shattuck wisely avoids laying either blame or absolution on any of her characters, instead allowing her readers to reach those conclusions for themselves.

The first two thirds of The Women in the Castle focus on the years 1943-1950. This is easily the most interesting portion of the novel. The last one hundred pages or so skips forward to the year 1991, and here the suspense that has been building since the beginning is entirely lost. Jessica Shattuck seems very intent on hammering home the point that the wounds inflicted on the German psyche during World War II bear lasting scars to those who lived during this time. Unfortunately, this grinds the narrative to a halt and never fully manages to get back up to speed before the end of the book. Dealing with the ideas of guilt and redemption while it is still fresh in the minds of those who experienced it is a far more interesting idea than looking back on those years through the haze of forty years.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. It raised some interesting points when it comes to the repercussions of love, culpability, and surviving through hardships.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Women in the Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#39 The Heart Forger: The Bone Witch Trilogy #2 by Rin Chupeco (2018)

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The second installment of Rin Chupeco’s Bone Witch trilogy continues the story of the dark asha Tea. War and treachery are looming among the kingdoms. Given her newfound connection with the daeva monster, Tea must try to unravel the plots against her while trying to fight the dark power that seeks to engulf her. The plot interlaces the past with the present as Tea begins her ultimate mission to defeat those that she feels have wronged her.

Last month I read The Bone Witch and came away with mixed feelings. The fantasy world that built by Chupeco is both elegant and intricate, and the majority of the first novel is devoted into building the Nine Realms into a solid and believable place. The downside is that so much time and effort was spent on detailing politics, music, and fashion that it felt as though the novel ended before anything significant had happened concerning the plot. I said in my review of the first book that a better title might have been Memoirs of a Magical Geisha.

Following that vein, the second novel could easily be renamed Avatar: The Last Corpsebender. The action that was lacking from The Bone Witch is definitely made up for in The Heart Forger, as we see Tea and her fellow asha wield the four elements (as well as the dead) to defend their allies and defeat their enemies. These sequences rely heavily on the reader being able to follow the action, and here Chupeco succeeds admirably. The long fights between the forces of good and evil could easily have become bogged down and difficult to visualize, but instead they are clearly imagined and conveyed through her writing style.

Our heroine, Tea, is finally given something more interesting to do than marvel over her pretty new clothes and pine after the prince of Kion. She comes into her own in The Heart Forger, and begins questioning the strict rules and traditions that dictact the lives of her and her fellow asha. The bone witches are often scorned and looked down upon by the elders of her guild, and Tea is the one who begins to wonder if this is because they are feared for their powers. There is still a light romantic element to the story, but it is there to empower Tea as opposed to chain her down.

Just as in The Bone Witch, each chapter is preceded by a short flash forward which shows Tea raising an army of monsters and preparing to exact revenge on those who have wronged her. These short previews are used much better here than in the first novel. There, they were somewhat useless and kept pulling me out of my enjoyment of the main narrative. In The Heart Forger they are used to heavily foreshadow events to come. They slowly built a level of suspense that left me eager to find out what was going to happen next.

Overall, this novel was superior to the first installment in many ways. The final book in the trilogy is due to be released next year, and I am greatly looking forward to it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Heart Forger here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#38 Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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In the days leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the former CEO of NPR Ken Stern realizes that his social and professional circles are comprised entirely of liberal progressives. He then proceeds to spend a year immersing himself in “Trump’s America”, attending gun shows and NASCAR events, and speaking with the people who feel that the American dream has left them behind. He wonders if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can’t be solved by a little human empathy and understanding.

I need to begin this review on a personal note. I am a liberal progressive from a family with deeply conservative, evangelical roots. To this day I cannot for the life of me figure out how I ended up on the completely other end of the ideological spectrum from the majority of my relatives. Part of me blames Harry Potter. Or the fact that I was one of the first members of my family to attend university (a liberal arts university at that). Whatever the reason, I can state with utter honesty that the 2016 election was a devastating blow towards my relationship with my family. I felt personally betrayed by their decision to vote for Donald Trump. I felt that they had been brainwashed by Fox News and the NRA, and that they had chosen to side with racism, intolerance, and misogyny. Was I being close minded, unfair, and more than a bit immature? Most definitely. But this knee-jerk offense that people tend to take in reaction to those who have different views from them is part of what author Ken Stern seeks to unravel in his book. I went in with very high hopes of a liberal’s fair and reasoned perspective on rural, white America.

It must be immediately addressed that Stern’s book focuses almost completely on white conservative America. At no point does he acknowledge the white, male privilege that allows him to blend in at a gun show, or to interview people in a depressed mining town. The entire book consists almost entirely of one middle-aged white man talking to other middle-aged white men, which gives an extremely limiting perspective. A young black man asking questions of Trump supporters at a NASCAR race would likely have written a very different book. And possibly a more interesting one.

In Republican Like Me, Stern tackles major “hot button issues” such as gun control, evangelism, climate change, and attitudes towards the media. His research is meticulous and well-cited. I enjoyed his use of statistics to blow holes in both conservative and liberal ideologies. For example, during his chapter on gun control he mentions that the majority of firearm deaths in the United States are committed using handguns, not assault rifles. And the vast majority of firearm homicides are either individual murders or suicides. Stern uses this data to draw the conclusion that the Democrats frenzied screaming for a ban on assault weapons will not significantly lower the percentage of gun deaths in the United States.

It might lower the rate at which (white) gunmen walk into public schools and shoot a bunch of children, but Stern doesn’t talk about that.

He does delve heavily into the economic factors which led people to vote for Trump. If a person from a West Virginia mining town sees Hilary Clinton speaking at an exclusive Manhattan banquet about “shutting down the coal industry”, of course they are not going to view her with favor. Stern does not address Clinton in his book, but I wish he had. I had to bite my cheek and grimace as I checked her name on the ballot in 2016. I imagine that a great deal of conservatives had to do the same thing when they voted for Trump. It was this idea more than anything else which caused me to pause and think.

I’ve been a liberal all my life, and I can say without pause that the Democratic party comes off as arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and sanctimonious. They have ceased to be the party of the working people. And while liberals, myself included, pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we will at least be on the “right side” of history, it doesn’t change the fact that 33 governorships, 51 senate seats, and 237 house seats are held by the GOP. If the Democratic party hopes to succeed, they need to remember that not everyone in the country lives in New York or California. But I digress.

I found myself consistently irritated and annoyed by this book. Stern wastes an opportunity to point out the hypocrisy that thrives on both sides of the aisle. He has a wonderful soapbox from which to describe the extreme discrepancy between the majority of reasonable Americans and the frothing lunatics who have been elected to represent them. Instead, he offers pithy platitude on top of condescending comment. “If we just listened to one another…” “If we just took the time to get to know one another…” “Republicans aren’t all that bad…”

On one hand he is absolutely correct. Republicans demonizing liberals and Democrats bashing conservatives doesn’t help anyone except the lobbyists and the corporations they serve. And it is much easier from a psychological standpoint to cater to our own confirmation bias than it is to logically and rationally consider new ideas. It’s easier to point the finger at the “dumb rednecks” who got duped into voting for Trump because they were to stupid to know any better. Most Republican voters are decent, middle-class people who are just trying to support their families and build a better life in a country that they perceive as falling into chaos. This is not new information, and it is not presented here in a new way.

The problem is that it is very difficult to have a logical and rational conversation regarding these ideas. I will absolutely listen to someone from a small, dying Rust Belt town as they lament that all of the factories are closed and the jobs are gone. I can and have discussed fracking versus solar versus coal as a viable form of energy for the future. But I cannot in good conscience listen and nod as someone lays all the blame for their misfortune on “the Muslim African” who got elected illegally by putting mind-control substances in America’s drinking water. I’ve had those exact words said to me by a former coworker. What does Ken Stern think a person should do in that situation? Am I supposed to say, “Ah, yes that’s a very good point and I respect it”? What about the man from my hometown who thinks that all Muslims should be deported whether or not they are legal American citizens? I would wager ninety-to-one odds that he has never met a Muslim in his life. But am I meant to shake this xenophobe’s hand and strive to find common ground?

I realize there are no easy answers, and this is not a conversation that can be solved with one book, or ten, or a thousand. But at the end of the day, Ken Stern pulls too many punches, wastes too many opportunities, and only acknowledges the “white working class” facet of an extremely convoluted issue. For now I will have to accept that we cannot “just all get along”. I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding political conversations at family gatherings.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Republican Like Me here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

#37 The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (2018)

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The glitter and glamor of the Harlem drag ball scene is described through the eyes of four young transvestites. Together they form the house of Xtravaganza, led by Angel who is recovering from a dark past. Beneath the excitement and energy, all these women try to fight against the allure of drugs and the rising threat of AIDS.

“So I always say that when the world calls you a slut, just kick back your legs and fuck and enjoy it. Because if life don’t call you a slut, she’s gonna find something else to call you.”

The early pages of Joseph Cassara’s debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, are a little confusing. There is a fluidity of pronouns and personal names that make it difficult to determine exactly who is speaking at any given time. It also helps while reading this novel if you have some background in Spanish, as Cassara often interjects English sentences with Spanish phrases. Not being able to understand these phrases will not necessarily detract from the overall plot, but it did have the effect of constantly pulling me out of the novel while I tried to dredge up the remnants of my high school Spanish.

The House of Impossible Beauties switches perspective between four young drag queens who have moved to New York with tall dreams and even taller heels. Angel yearns to create a family to replace the one that rejected her. Venus strives to find someone who will love her for who she is and take her away from a life walking the piers at night. Juanito is a gentle and shy boy who lives to create his own fashions and dreams of seeing them walk down the runway at the drag shows. And Daniel is a tough butch queen who refuses to take shit from anyone, until he falls in love. These four band together to try to make a life for themselves in a world that has given them only disgust and revulsion.

All of this takes place against the background of the 1980’s drag queen ball culture, where the women are straddled between two very different lives. On one side, there is sisterhood and pride, strutting attitude and false eyelashes and desperate hope. On the other side, there is a life of turning tricks in the backseats of cars, of battling addiction, depression, and the cruelty of society. And in the background, like a horrible looming spider, is the threat of HIV and AIDS, a virus so terrible that it threatened to wipe out this community in its entirety. Like Shakespeare’s Scottish play, it is never directly referred to by name, as if to invoke its name would be to tempt death itself.

As I was reading, Darren Aronofsky’s horrifically beautiful film Requiem for a Dream kept flashing into my mind. There are the shared themes of people building castles in the sky and watching them crash down around their heads. There is the same sense of reckless hope that fuels a manic energy. And when the flame of that hope dwindles, all anyone is left with are the ashes.

Filled in turns with rage, romance, grief, and tenderness, The House of Impossible Beauties is a poignant and evocative novel. I would definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

#36 The Girl in the Tower: Winternight Trilogy #2 by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Orphaned and ostracized by her community after her encounter with the Bear, Vasilisa Petrovna flees her village. She is now faced with the only two options available to a Russian maiden, allowing her sister to arrange a marriage to a strange noblemen or retiring to a convent. Scorning either, Vasilisa dresses as a boy in the hopes of traveling outside of Russia and seeing the world. But a chance encounter with a group of bandits in the forest finds her in the service of the Crown Prince of Moscow. Now she must carefully guard her secret even as a larger threat begins to loom over the kingdom.

I reviewed the first installment in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, last month and absolutely loved it. Author Katherine Arden created a stunning world of deep winter and deep magic. The heroine Vasilisa was a lovely mixture of vulnerability and defiance. Overall, I was enchanted by the world that Arden wrote and eagerly awaited the second novel in her Winternight trilogy. I was definitely not disappointed.

While The Bear and the Nightingale was a dark and lyrical fairy tale, The Girl in the Tower is a little more plot-driven. Vasilisa Petrovna exits the cold and cloistered village of her childhood and bursts into the wider world with equal parts determination and naivety. This is a girl who considers a tiny mountain town to be a “city” because it has wooden walls. You can imagine her surprise when she is finally presented to the city of Moscow. There are numerous action sequences in this novel, all of which unfold in a straightforward and easy to follow manner. Too many fantasy and fairy tales rely heavily on deux ex machina and surprise plot twists. Katherine Arden avoids all of this.

But Arden also does not stray far what made Nightingale so enchanting. The numerous Russian spirits still play a major role in the proceedings, as do ghosts, frost demons, and one very opinionated horse. Together they form a world that I was excited to revisit and reluctant to leave.

Also, major props go to illustrator Robert Hunt for yet another gorgeous cover design.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Girl in the Tower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

#35 Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney (2017)

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My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie

Amber Reynolds wakes up in the hospital, unable to open her eyes or move her body. She can hear the people around her, but cannot respond. Amber is in a coma, but can’t remember anything about the accident that put her there. Alternating back and forth between the days leading up to the accident, her incapacitated present, and a series of diary entries from twenty years before, Alice tries to piece together the mystery of what happened before it’s too late.

Last year I wrote about publishers who feel the need to advertise the “surprise twist ending” on the front cover of their novels. It spoils my enjoyment of reading when I am constantly trying to figure out what the twist is before it happens. It screams of laziness and click-baiting. I began this novel in a state of mild dismay that the twist ending was given away on the front cover. Also, because the publishers have already seen fit to spoil the novel, I won’t lose any sleep about giving away a few plot points. You’ve been warned.

When choosing fiction novels, I tend to gravitate towards horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Even though this was a bit outside of my usual, Sometimes I Lie started off strong and captured my interest in the beginning. Amber tells us straight away that we cannot trust her memories, so her narration is therefore unpredictable and suspicious. She appears to suffer from a mild case of OCD, and is both selfish and self-centered. Therefore, she was relatable in a world where too many female characters are manic pixie dream girls. The chapters set in the early 1990’s are clearly written by a troubled child, and I immediately sympathized with a sad, lonely girl who is struggling to discern the difference between truth and fiction. Author Alice Feeney crafts her characters with care, and sets them loose in a world that has been built in a realistic manner.

Towards the end of the novel, however; things started to spin out of control. The first plot twist was interesting and honestly surprised me. The second one made things a little confusing. The third twist left me rolling my eyes and muttering about overkill. It wasn’t that Feeney set up red herrings; in fact everything fell into place by the end of the book with surprising ease. It all just felt so unnecessary.

In the end, if you are a reader who enjoys the “twisty thriller” genre, you will probably love this book. Personally, I enjoyed it, but in a superficial way. Sometimes I Lie was a fun diversion, but I doubt that I will remember much of the plot after a few months.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Sometimes I Lie here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#34 The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (2017)

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When her brother is killed by an evil monster, Tea surprises herself and her entire village by resurrecting him from the dead. All of her sisters have some magic, but Tea now finds herself destined to be a bone witch, a necromancer. Feared and shunned by her community, Tea travels to Kion, where she can gain the training that she desperately needs if she hopes to control her powers. She quickly learns that her Dark gifts come with a heavy price.

I’ve read the first two novels by author Rin Chupeco. The Girl in the Well and The Suffering are both excellently crafted horror novels that left me very excited to read her next book. With a title like The Bone Witch, I assumed that Chupeco’s third book would be yet another foray into the world of horror. Instead, I found myself submerged in high fantasy, where magic has a concrete and useful place in society and those who can control the elements are celebrated.

The bulk of The Bone Witch could just as easily be titled Memoirs of a Magical Geisha. For nearly two hundred pages the reader is treated to numerous descriptions of the dwellings of the magical asha, the clothes they wear, the training they undergo, and the parties they attend. Instead of any meaningful use of magic, there are the mundane problems of political alliances, rivalry between competing asha, and annual dance performances. This is all very useful in setting up the fantasy world that the asha inhabit, but it does wear a little thin towards the end.

Each chapter of the novel is preceded by a short flash-forward, where Tea has been banished to a lonely cave by the sea. She reveals early on that she is raising an army of dark spirits to enact revenge upon those who have wronged her. However, the book ends before the two segments of time intersect. The reader is left trying to figure out why Tea has been banished and exactly who she is so keen to take revenge on. It felt a little like a bait-and-switch to spent two hundred pages reading about her training in the village of the Willows, only to have the novel end before anything meaningful has taken place.

I assume all of this will be resolved in the recently released sequel, but there is a different between ending a novel on a cliff-hanger and ending a novel in the middle of the rising action. Ending the narrative with a cliff-hanger leaves the reader hungry to find out what is going to happen next. Ending a novel midway through the rising action leaves the reader frustrated and annoyed. I definitely found myself in the latter category.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Bone Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!