Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

37969723._SY475_The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. Briseis was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war, all of them erased by history. Pat Barker offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations.

Review:

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize finals and I gotta say, my expectations were pretty low. I’m not a fan of Greek mythology, though I have been pleasantly surprised in the past (see: The Rose). And while the book is obviously good enough to make it through to the finals, I haven’t heard anything in reviews that made me want to pick it up.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed myself, following the actions of Achilles and the Greeks as they try to take Troy. The plot is solidly put together and I kept getting drawn back to the page in spite of myself.

I’m lukewarm on the writing because it doesn’t stick to a historical tone, throwing in modern idioms and speech. On one level this may be a good thing, making the text more accessible, but it pulled me out of the setting.

The hype around this book stresses that it focuses on the women, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a re-framing of the myth, but not a reclaiming. Achilles is very much the hero and the protagonist, and hearing the tale from Briseis, standing in the corner, doesn’t change that. Everyone once in a while, though, a passage shines:

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

This ended up being a book that I’m glad I read as it was an interesting introduction to The Iliad. I put The Song of Achilles on my TBR as soon as I finished because the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was one of my favorite parts of the myth. Not amazing enough to rise to the top of my ranking, but enjoyable all the same.

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Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

Thanks to Carina Press and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

Kingdom of Exiles by Maxym M. Martineau (The Beast Charmer #1)

42366222Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review:

Content warning for physical and emotional torture.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy and this one delivers.

The good:

  • The characters make this novel. They’re complex and shaped by their pasts in real and meaningful ways. Hangups are spun out slowly, both to other characters and to the reader, and motivation and character arcs ring true.
  • In that vein, people keep their secrets for as long as makes sense and no longer. This is big for me, as I’m not a fan of secrets in general, but it works here.
  • There are heaps and heaps of plot once the story gets going, which is the escapism I wanted while stuck inside during a windy typhoon.
  • Themes include found family, finding home, redemption and forgiveness, and how to take care of those we love. Love itself is explored on many dimensions – romantic of course, but also platonic, material, familial, and love for those you are responsible for.
  • Side characters have pasts that are hinted at, and make me excited for more. It appears to be a Happily Ever After For Now for the main couple, with other couples coming together in future books.
  • Noc has the best cover for being an emotionally stunted man that I’ve seen in a long time. It makes for a slow burn and thoroughly confuses Leena.
  • Queerness is natural and a given – stated as fact and not commented on beyond that. When Leena turns on her charm both men and women get starry eyed. While some characters seem to prefer a particular gender for romantic partners, several others are attracted to more than one.
  • And speaking of sex, Leena is given the same latitude a male hero would get. She enjoys casual sex and isn’t above considering it as a means to an end. She’s experienced, enjoys her sexuality, and doesn’t apologize or feel guilty for her desires. Most excellent.
  • Similarly, Leena proves her self as equal to, if not better than, the guys early on. There are a couple of moments where she takes action without giving them warning because she knows better, something men do all.the.time in fantasy. It’s challenged and connects to a couple of character arcs, but it isn’t framed as something wrong, mean, or awful. She has to get shit done, yo.
  • The more that I think about it, gender differences are minimized overall. The immediate bad guy is indeed a guy, but the Big Bad is a woman. When the group stops at an inn she isn’t given a separate room “because she’s a girl” – everyone shares one room or gets their own as circumstances dictate.
  • The ending strikes a nice balance between wrapping things up (the romance and main conflict) and unresolved storylines (the Big Bad, several characters’ mysterious pasts).

The less-than-good:

  • There are some first novel wobbles where details don’t come together or quite make sense.
  • The worldbuilding is good but not perfect. It took a while for me to get my head around the world.
  • The healing nature of some beasts leads to convenient deus ex machina moments. Big stuff comes with a hefty price, which helps.
  • There’s an index of all the beasts mentioned but beware using it as a reference while reading – many spoilers are contained within.

I ended up giving Kingdom of Exiles 3.5 stars, and I can’t wait to see how the story develops from here!

Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Vampire Sorority Sisters #1)

10161265It’s rush but college freshman Ginger Carmichael more has important things on her mind, like maintaining her perfect GPA. No matter how much she can’t stand the idea of the cliques and the matching colors, there’s something about the girls of Alpha Beta Omega—their beauty, confidence, and unapologetic sexuality—that draws Ginger in. But once initiation begins, Ginger finds that her pledge is more than a bond of sisterhood, it’s a lifelong pact to serve six bloodthirsty demons with a lot more than nutritional needs.

Despite her fears, Ginger falls hard for the immortal queen of this nest, and as the semester draws to a close, she sees that protecting her family from the secret of her forbidden love is much harder than studying for finals.

Review:

I love Weatherspoon but her next book is half a year away (gah!) so I’ve decided to dip into her backlist. Better Off Red, a paranormal erotic romance, is her first book.

The good:

  • Huzzah for own voices queer romance! And if you’re looking for hot sapphic sex, we have lots of it here.
  • The plot is built around an interesting idea – that vampires would use a somewhat secretive institution, like a sorority, to recruit people to feed on. The world building in general is deeper and more well thought out than I was expecting in a debut.
  • I didn’t even think about rushing a sorority, so I like the look and observations about a corner of college life I know little about.
  • I’m a fan of the vampire mythology and ethos. Humans aren’t used merely as food – they’re carefully selected and protected for their entire life. It’s a loving relationship, both in feeling and deed.

The not-so-good:

  • There are some typical debut wobbles. The plot gallops a bit at the end, and I’m not sure I buy everything that happened.

Not amazing, but enough for me to pick up the next book in the series.

Tentacle by Rita Indiana

translated by Achy Obejas

40679930._SY475_Plucked from her life on the streets of post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo, young maid Acilde Figueroa finds herself at the heart of a Santería prophecy: only she can travel back in time and save the ocean – and humanity – from disaster. But first she must become the man she always was – with the help of a sacred anemone. Tentacle is an electric novel with a big appetite and a brave vision, plunging headfirst into questions of climate change, technology, Yoruba ritual, queer politics, poverty, sex, colonialism and contemporary art. Bursting with punk energy and lyricism, it’s a restless, addictive trip: The Tempest meets the telenovela.

Review:

Tentacle is hard to explain. It’s queer. Some sections are science fictional, others historical. There’s time travel. It touches on the health of our oceans, climate change, politics, indigenous culture, colonialism, and the art world. All in 160 pages.

While I enjoyed the book it’s not exactly a satisfying read. First of all, I recommend that you read it in a day or two, in long bursts. There’s a lot going on here – two disparate story lines in three different historical eras that end up uniting by the end. Character names change several times. The fresher the details are, the better. I ended up reading it in long spurts but over a week, and I found myself flipping back and forth to double check names, relationships, and places.

I may have gotten more out of this book if I were familiar with Dominican politics and history. I get the feeling Indiana is touching on broader issues that I don’t know about and am having trouble identifying. And I want to mention that one main character is racist and misogynist and uses slurs against people of color and women on the regular.  It gave me pause because I’m not sure it had a point other than to show how awful he is, and that’s obvious even without the slurs. Which reminds me, content warning for an animal being killed to spite someone. Sigh.

The ending leaves the reader hanging out to dry. It’s not vague, but it feels odd and left me with a lot of questions. I had a moment of, ‘but then why did I read this?’ I think Indiana is making a point about how humans are (ineptly) dealing with climate change, and how current comfort can affect our thinking more than vague, long-term consequences.

Tentacle was a mind-bending trip and while I’m glad I read it, I’m not sure it’s a book for me.

Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #3)

7850602._SY475_After getting caught turning wolf on national television, Kitty retreats to a mountain cabin to recover and write her memoirs. But this is Kitty, so trouble is never far behind, and instead of Walden Pond, she gets Evil Dead. When werewolf hunter Cormac shows up with an injured Ben O’Farrell, Kitty’s lawyer, slung over his shoulder, and a wolf-like creature with glowing red eyes starts sniffing around the cabin, Kitty wonders if any of them will get out of these woods alive…

Review:

After everything that happened in book two Kitty needs to get away from it all and repairs to a cabin in the woods to take a break and maybe write her memoirs. While this is a good thing for her it minimizes my favorite aspect of the series – the wonderful conversations that Vaughn writes, especially when Kitty is hosting her radio show.

The first two thirds is your usual urban fantasy. Kitty is helping someone who was recently turned into a werewolf while figuring out who is leaving curses and dead animals outside her front door. The last third, though, concentrates on a trial where the action stops dead. It feels like two different stories grafted together.

My overall impression was mediocre, and not helped by the depiction of a skinwalker, which is a figure from Navajo tradition. A quick look at the wikipedia page shows that Dené folk would rather white people not appropriate the idea. The issue came to the fore when J.K. Rowling did just that, which put it on my radar. Kitty Takes a Holiday was written before the hullabaloo so I’m willing to overlook it to a point, but I’m not sure about the quality of the Native rep, period, and I’ve yet to find an own voices review.

The grafted stories, rep I’m not sure about, and miasma of meh did not work well for me. I’ll be pushing though to the next book soon in hopes that things get better.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

37789271._SY475_A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.

Review:

Trigger warning for drug abuse.

This is exactly the kind of book I was hoping to read for the Booktube Prize – something that I’m interested in, but probably wouldn’t have picked up anytime soon. A Place for Us is a multi-generational family saga of sorts, which originally made me wary, but I ended up liking it. A bunch.

What makes the entire book for me, on top of great writing and character work, is the structure. The first major section is told from the perspective of the three children. We watch them grow up – moments between them, how they interact with the community, major events that shape their lives, even though they may not look significant to start. We bounce around in time, which made me nervous at first, but once we learn a couple of milestones (the eldest going to college, a particular birthday party or conversation) the timeline becomes easy to keep track of. Based on the kids’ stories we form some ideas why Amar is no longer part of the family.

The second section is from the point of view of their mother, and while some parts overlap she adds more information and another way of looking at things. We learn about conversations the kids had no idea about as well as the thoughts behind her actions, and it both interleaves a layer of story and changes our ideas and who is most wrong.

The father gets his say in the last section in a note written directly to Amir. He explains what he did and why, and realizes he may have gone wrong somewhere but isn’t sure how. The overall affect is a story that is told both straightforwardly as well as intricately.

The way everything is woven together is masterful and a bunch of interesting themes are explored – growing up as a brown person in the US during 9/11, how each person approaches their Muslim faith differently, the roles different children are expected to fill and why. I love that the religious elements are both so important and not explained in a Islam 101 manner. We aren’t spoon fed info about the faith, and I think the book is stronger for it.

All in all it’s hard to believe this is a debut. I actually enjoyed a multi-generational family story of sorts… I don’t think that I’m coming around to the sub-genre, necessarily, but this book is an outstanding example of it.

Fire on the Ice by Tamsen Parker (Snow & Ice Games #4)

36471949Blaze Bellamy is the bad girl of the short track speed skating world. She’s got a punk attitude to match her provocative dress and her dyed hair, and she’s determined to get onto the front pages of the papers regardless of how she has to do it.

Maisy Harper is the workhorse of the Canadian women’s figure skating team. Maisy would prefer to win her victory on the ice rather than in the press, and is exasperated by Blaze’s antics. After they both failed to make the medal podium at the last Snow and Ice Games, they drowned themselves in gin—and each other.

Despite their hookup being drunken, they both harbor fond memories of their night together and are keen for a repeat. But they’ve got different ways of going about getting what they want, and Blaze’s willingness to go to any lengths for the spotlight could ruin any chance she has with Maisy.

Review:

Fire is right! ~wipes brow~

The good:

  • The Snow and Ice Games stand in for the Olympics, because copyright, and it’s fun to watch people from totally different sports interact. Blaze only wants to go to events ruled by the clock, while Maisy wants to check out curling and ice dancing.
  • Maisy and Blaze’s public personas are near opposites, but their personalities have enough in common to make this thing work.
  • Their sports have given them very different bodies – the thick thighs of a speed skater, the petite build of a figure skater – and they love each other for it.
  • Yea for a name check of Surya Bonaly, who is badass.
  • Blaze is bi, poly, and out and proud, while Maisy prefers to shield her private life, including being lesbian, from prying eyes. Her homophobic parents, who have repressed her in all kinds of ways her entire life, are part of that.
  • There’s bunches of interesting conflict to drive the story forward. Will this be a hookup like before, or a relationship that lasts? Can Blaze resist the urge to drag Maisy into the spotlight? Will Maisy ever go against her parents?
  • Harmful stereotypes about people who are bi, as well as those who are poly, are challenged head on. They talk about how important communication is in a relationship, and they actually do it. Woot.
  • The story fits the length, a novella-esque 169 pages. There’s nothing slapdash, no hanging ends.
  • There are a bunch of lovely sex scenes, all different and smoking. However…

The not-so-good:

  • …they all come at the front of the book. It makes sense – this is a re-hookup, and both ladies are eager to get back into bed as soon as possible. It slows the story to a crawl, though, when you spend that much time doing one thing, no matter low lovely it is. For a while there I was worried the whole book would be pron without plot.
  • The story is there, almost all in the second half, and the sex dries up to nothing. It all makes sense as far as event timing goes, but at the same time I would rather the sex and plot were more balanced.

It all evened out into an average read for me, and I’m interested in reading more from Parker even though I won’t be searching it out right away. It’s rare for a single romance series to have differently gendered pairings, and I love how this one has m/f, f/f, and m/m all mixed together.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

In a small town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her house. Everyone in town, including her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and she doesn’t correct them. In New York, Dean Tenney, former major-league pitcher and Andy’s childhood friend, is struggling with a case of the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and he can’t figure out why. An invitation from Andy to stay in Maine for a few months seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button.
When Dean moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken.

Review:

Trigger warning for gaslighting and emotional abuse.

I have been reading and listening to Linda Holmes almost ten years now, and she is a pop culture critic of the first order. She’s smart and insightful, a damn fine writer and a wonderful person, so I’ve been looking forward to her debut novel Evvie (rhymes with Chevy) Drake Starts Over. And while it’s a good novel it has a bunch of elements that make it hard for me to fall head over heels in love.

First and foremost, it’s set in a small town where everyone around you knows your business and you have to care what the neighbors think. I grew up in a small town and got the hell out as soon as I was able, so I usually stay away from this type of romance. The rest is best addressed in the lists I love….

This and that:

  • Good: Holmes is obviously well versed in pop culture, and while there are tons of references they are of the well-wearing sort. I mean, are we ever going to be without Law and Order reruns? Doubt it.
  • Not-so-good: Having lived abroad for a long time I’m not up to date on the shows she mentions, and felt kind of left out. Your mileage will most likely vary, though.
  • Good: The relationships are complex, centered on family and found family. Evvie has a guy as her best friend, which I love because platonic friendships are everything to me, but
  • Not-so-good: The plot around it is people thinking, “they must love each other, why would they be so close otherwise, look at how he took care of her,” etc. It works for the book, but in general I just want guys and gals to be friends and have the world be happy about it, darn it.
  • Good: A realistic, respectful, and positive discussion of therapy, including a couple of short, down to earth sessions. Holmes has talked about having depression and going to therapy herself, so it’s own voices rep.
  • Not-so-good: While the romance is a slow burn I felt like I floated through it. The banter was okay, but not standout. And after making a big deal about consent it’s skipped over for comedic effect soon after.
  • Good: Evvie’s husband was an asshole, and how we learn about it, as well as how she processes it, is unspooled realistically. The emotional lives of the characters is amazing overall, nuanced and well-drawn.
  • Not-so-good: All of the conflicts boil down to a lack of communication. Not telling people things for “their own good”, because you’re embarrassed, or because you don’t want to face the consequences. It’s not the awful, stereotypical Big Mis often misused in romance, but I’m not a fan of the trope, in general. Most of this stems from the fact that Evvie has been keeping secrets, and it fits with her character… but that doesn’t make me love the trope instantly, you know?
  • Not-so-good: It’s a first novel, and those wobbles are here – getting ready for a date takes pages and we see every piece of clothing she fusses over, Dean goes from coaching football to both football and baseball mid-book without an explanation, and I didn’t quite buy the ending.

So while I’m a huge fan of Holmes and her work I’m afraid the tropes worked against me in this one. Still curious to see what she comes out with next.

There There by Tommy Orange

36692478There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Review:

Trigger warnings for alcoholism, domestic violence, rape, and violence in general.

This is my second read for The BookTube Prize and it did not go as well as the first.

The good:

  • There There is an own voices story about urban Native Americans and the issues they face, from the trigger warnings above to loss of culture and traditions. It’s an important story that I’m so happy to see being told, and to such acclaim.
  • The introduction and interlude, essays about being Native American today, are powerful and affecting.
  • The story is told via many narrators, allowing for windows into many different Native experiences.

The not-so-good:

  • None of the narrators are particularly fleshed out. We learn who they are, what demons they may be fighting, and how they are related to the pow wow. But that’s it. I never felt connected with the characters as people, only as a set of circumstances.
  • …when I could remember them. My edition of the book has a detailed cast list in the front, with a paragraph for each main character. This made me suspicious – the book should make each character memorable enough for this not to be a problem. A list of names and one line description, sure, but paragraphs?
  • I am not a fan of the writing. It’s going for punchy more than lyrical, but I found it choppy and plodding.
  • The voice changes from first person to third and back again, which I found interesting at first. I was particularly intrigued by one chapter in the second person – what is Orange trying to say by making us, the reader, this particular character? But I don’t see any rhyme or reason to which character gets what treatment. The author Q&A at the end confirms my suspicion, as Orange says, “The final POV for each chapter in some cases wasn’t decided until the end of writing the book.” And that second person POV character becomes third again later. I would have liked more intention in the choices.
  • When it comes down to it I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. You can tell that they’re all coming together for the pow wow, and that something big will happen.
  • At the end this big thing happens, but that’s it. No exploration of it while it’s happening, no aftermath.
  • The biggest detractor for me was that I had to fight to get through this book. I seriously considered DNFing at 85%, and definitely would have done so earlier if I weren’t reading it for the BookTube Prize. Not to mention it put me in a reading slump. Gah.

It’s an important story and I’m glad Orange is telling it, but the method of telling wasn’t for me.