Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Briseis is queen of Lyrnessus, until the Greek army destroys her city and murders her husband. She is given as a prize to Achilles, where she lives according to the whims of a war hero. She finds an unlikely ally in Achilles' best friend Patroclus and starts to form bonds with the other women. But just as she starts to find her place in the camp, she is ripped away again to be Agamemnon's prize. Briseis is considered a symbol of power, to be possessed by the bravest and most important among the Greeks. But she is also a woman who watches and remembers; she will witness the rise and fall of two of the Greek army's most infamous warriors.

Pat Barker's writing is beautiful. This is my first time reading her work and I can certainly understand why she wins major prizes like the Booker. I saw some interesting criticism of this book, where readers were frustrated that Briseis only talks about men instead of interacting with her fellow captives or making a desperate bid for freedom. But the thing I found most compelling and unbearable about this story is that Briseis knows she is powerless. If she wants to live, she will submit. There is no happy ending for her once her city falls and maybe there never was one to begin with, as a woman married off to a stranger as a power play. Briseis is broken, but she has not given up.

The Silence of the Girls is not a romanticized version of the Trojan War. It portrays the brutal violence of war and its aftermath--the rape and trading of conquered women, the filth and disease of the camp, and the murder of the opposition and innocent civilians. Briseis' greatest strength is also the cruelest trait: she understands everything that is happening. She knows that she will be a footnote in Achilles's story, if she is remembered at all. Briseis tries to hold on to some semblance of her humanity, to remember that she is a person as everyone around her views her as something to be conquered and won. This is a difficult book, but it is good for us to read it. Through her story, we hear the story of women through the ages who have been brutalized by the wars of men and who lived to tell about it.

The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker
Doubleday Books September 2018
291 pages
From the library

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: Golden State

Laszlo Ratesic is proud to work for the Speculative Service. He is one of the few people who have the ability to tell when someone is lying and he spends his days pursuing those who choose to lie. In his society, truth is of the utmost importance, everyone is under surveillance, and those who don't tell the truth are arrested and punished. When people meet, they greet each other by reciting math equations or scientific facts. Laszlo and his new partner are called to investigate what seems to be an accidental death, but this one case will cause him to question everything he believes about the Speculative Service and the importance of truth.

Laszlo is a sympathetic character and it's hard to watch as everything he believed about himself, his colleagues and friends, and the good of their work comes crumbling down. As he investigates the death of a construction worker, he discovers that a whole week of his records are missing. In the Golden State, everyone is required to keep meticulous records of their days because truth can be verified if there is proof of everyone's movements and interaction. The lack of record leads Laszlo to do some investigating of his own, where he finds that truth is only required for some and that power (of course) trumps truth.

Ben H. Winters is a fascinating writer. Every time I read one of his books, I am fully immersed in a unique story and find myself grappling with some interesting and difficult questions. Golden State is no exception and I found myself thinking about the complexity of truth and the point at which it becomes harmful instead of good. This is a smart story and Winters is not afraid to play with form or the expectations of his readers. But there were also moments when he seems to be showing off just how clever he can be. In spite of this, I would heartily recommend Golden State to anyone who enjoys dystopia or any reader who appreciates good writing and inventive storytelling.

My reviews of Underground Airlines and The Last Policeman 

Golden State
By Ben H. Winters
Mullholland Books January 2019
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: Winter of the Witch

The Winter of the Witch begins just moments after the events of The Girl in the Tower. There is really no way to write about the plot of this book without giving a lot away about its predecessors. As usual, the story moves at a breakneck pace and Katherine Arden manages to include an incredible amount within the covers of this book.

Throughout these three books, Vasya is a woman torn between realities: she lives within the walls of Moscow, but yearns for the Russian countryside; she is committed to protecting her family, but also compelled to return to the frost demon Morozko; and she is pulled between the religious traditions she grew up with and the knowledge that magic is real and she has a powerful gift for it. All the threads from the previous two books come together here and it is impressive to see that no character or plot point was haphazard. In the midst of this, Arden introduces new characters and new facets to the magic we thought we understood, and it works beautifully.

Vasya has always been a compelling character. She is talented and committed, but she is not immune. In Winter of the Witch, we see that there is a cost to bravery and there are consequences for you and those you love when you run into danger instead of fleeing from it. She is determined to forge her own path, but she quickly learns that her understanding of both human politics and the history of magic are limited. It's a fascinating to watch Vasya realize her potential and then learn when to act on her own and when to ask for help.

In this series, Katherine Arden has achieved something remarkable. Her characters are easy to love and readers will race through the pages to find out what happens next all the while lamenting that they are reaching the end of the story. Each of the books in this trilogy is teeming with Arden's love for magic and Russian folklore. I can see myself returning to Vasya's adventures each winter, happy to be reunited with these characters and the possibility that magic might be just beyond those trees in the dark, cold forest.

My reviews of The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower

The Winter of the Witch
Winternight Trilogy #3
By Katherine Arden
Del Ray January 2018
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: The Only Woman in the Room

Hedy Keisler was a beautiful actress determined to enjoy her career and make her own choices. But when a powerful Austrian arms dealer courts her and proposes, she realizes that this is a chance to keep herself and her Jewish family safe from the horrors that are about to engulf Europe. Hedy pretends to be a proper wife while listening closely to Nazi information and planning her escape. Once she leaves Europe, she moves to Hollywood and becomes one of the most famous film actresses of her era. But her greatest accomplishment is one that few know about: Hedy Lamarr spent her evenings developing the technology that could help the Allies win the war.

The Only Woman in the Room covers much of Hedy Lamarr's life, but unfortunately Marie Benedict covers so much time that we never really feel like we know Hedy herself. It must be a delicate task to try to bring  a real person to life, but I found myself wishing Hedy had a more compelling voice and we got to really dive into her life instead of skimming through important moments.  I was also puzzled by how she gained enough knowledge to work on her inventions; the only time we ever hear about her being interested in science is when her father read her interesting articles about science or politics. We get no background into her scientific training; instead she suddenly seems to have the know-how to create groundbreaking technology.

I was thrilled to learn more about Hedy Lamarr in The Only Woman in the Room. I knew she was a scientist in addition to being an actress, but I didn't know the details of her life before reading this book. While this version of Hedy's story fell flat for me, I am glad that Marie Benedict is bringing incredible women to the attention of readers and I will certainly be reading more about Hedy's fascinating life and work.

The Only Woman in the Room
By Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks Landmark January 2019
272 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: The Book of M

One normal day, an Indian man's shadow vanishes. He is the first of many, as people all over the world find their shadows have disappeared, and their memories soon follow. Max and Ory have managed to stay safe so far by holing up in a remote mountain hotel after the wedding of their friends. When Max's shadow vanishes, Ory is determined to care for her. But Max wants to protect her husband while she still can, and she leaves their sanctuary. Ory refuses to let his love die alone without any memories and goes after her, hoping he can navigate this increasingly perilous world and find Max before it is too late.

Four years later, it still seems impossible for discuss an end-of-the-world story without comparing it to Station Eleven. I think there is a lot of comparison to be made between the two. Neither book is particularly concerned with the why of the disaster and instead, they focus on what happens to people as a result. Both stories take place on the road, which gives the authors the ability to introduce us to different locations and show their characters in varied situations.

One of the joys of reading The Book of M is discovering just how far and wide Peng Shepherd has allowed her imagination to wander. She follows Ory and Max not just on their journeys in the present, but she goes back to how they survived the early days of this crisis, and introduces the first victim, an amnesiac who tries to help him, and a potential Olympian reaching whose sport will be very helpful. This story is expansive and I loved seeing effects of this crisis that I could not have imagined and meeting groups of people who were willing to make different choices and sacrifices to survive.

In stories like this, the characters and the reader wonder if they can truly be human if they set aside things like compassion and beauty to stay alive. In The Book of M, the question becomes if we are still the same without our memories. If we have forgotten everything that makes us the people we are, are we still human at all?

One of the marks of great fiction for me is thinking about what these characters did before the story began and after the final page, and this is definitely a book where I did that. The story and its characters are unforgettable and I'm so glad I experienced the end of the world with Max and Ory.

The Book of M
By Peng Shepherd
William Morrow June 2018
485 pages
From the library