The Viper Amulet

51h73vic5yl-_sx331_bo1204203200_The Viper Amulet by Martha Marks

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick via  Discovering Diamonds

Length: 404 pp

Publisher: Martha’s Art

Year: 2017

I definitely recommend this novel. I also feel it needs trigger warnings for rape and child harm. If it has a theme, it is all suffering, all the time, because it is rare that there is a time when at least one of the characters isn’t in some kind of pain. That isn’t preventing me from highly anticipating the final installment of the series, though!

The second novel in Marks’s early Roman Empire trilogy takes up very shortly after the end of the first. Theodosia Varro has escaped Rome along with Alexander, Stefan, and Lycos, her former slaves. They eventually land on the island of Euboea, off the eastern coast of Greece. Stefan and Alexander had previously befriended a farmer there, while Theodosia had still been in prison in the previous book, and it was to his farm that they fled. Alexander had also gone searching for his wife, who he learned had died some years previously, but he was able to use rubies that Theodosia had given him to secure a letter of manumission for his son Nikolaos. He brings the boy back with him to the farm, where Stefan has married the farmer’s daughter, and they are starting to make a grand life for themselves. Alexander takes Theodosia, who had given him a new baby son, Doros, and Nikolaos, to the city of Eretria to start a new life for his family. As the years pass, Alexander builds a large shipping business, becoming a respected member of Eretrian society. However, Nikolaos’s rage towards Theodosia and Doros for replacing his own dead mother cause familial rifts that will have devastating repercussions.

Overall, this was another excellent novel by Marks. It picked up almost immediately after the end of the previous, which is appealing. This novel covers a lot more time than the previous, which took place over a handful of years. The Viper Amulet covers close to 15 years. The sense of time is handled well, with children being born and growing but not with jarring gaps or jumps ahead in time. The characters each develop in their own ways, but in others they may take a step back. It was interesting to see how Theodosia reacted to life as a Greek woman, which was more limited than that of a Roman woman.

My favorite character was Myrene, Theodosia’s slave. She had an awful time in so many ways, but she was the strongest woman in the book and deserves all the credit for most of the good things that happened because of sheer force of will. Yes, things happened for Theodosia, but often because she played on her family’s name, not really any other reason. Myrene is the lady who gets stuff done, often while pregnant, just post-delivery, or just after any number of tragedies and traumas. She is a woman to be reckoned with and respected.

My only real quibble was with Nikolaos. Some animosity towards Theodosia and Doros when he was a child would have been understandable, at least if he had bonded with Alexander once he had been freed from his own slavery. However, it was never really made apparent that such a deep bond had occurred. If father/son bonding took place, it must have happened off the page. Then as Nikolaos aged, he should have outgrown his animosity. Possibly Alexander could have had an adult conversation with him rather than just commanding him to knock it off. If Alexander had decided to disown him in favor of Doros, for example, that would have given Nikolaos an understandable motive for his anger. The rage and hatred he harbors toward Theodosia and Doros is the catalyst for several plot points, so it is necessary, but the way it manifested – basically out of thin air and with no real explanation – got kind of old after a while.

Eventually you will be able to read this review on Discovering Diamonds.

 

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Trenton Makes

Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb

I read it as an: ARC

Source: my own collection/review source

Length: pp/time

Publisher: Doubleday

Year: 2018

Thoughts: A woman in post-WWII Trenton, NJ, accidentally kills her abusive husband, disposes of his body, and takes his identity. She can do this because he was apparently pretty small and she had worked in a factory during the war making wire rope and was strapping like Rosie the Riveter. She took on his identity as Abe Kunstler, moved to another part of town, went through a string of various odd jobs, and eventually is able to get work at another factory, making wire rope as he had done during the war. Abe has it pretty good until he decides that in order for his ruse to be complete, he needs a wife and child. He meets Inez, an alcoholic taxi dancer, and woos her away from her job at her dance hall. They marry and start to build a life together.  In time, Abe takes steps to start a family. After one on-the-page attempt to get Inez pregnant, the narrative then jumps ahead about 25 years to 1971. Trying for a family apparently worked, because Abe has a son, Art, who has possibly figured out Abe’s secret. Now Abe is determined to hold together everything he has struggled so hard to create.

Spoilers below cut.Read More »

The Kill Fee

51kb9sptu2l-_sx324_bo1204203200_The Kill Fee  by Fiona Veitch Smith

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 330 pp

Publisher: Lion FIction

Year: 2016

Thoughts: The second instalment of the Poppy Denby series finds our intrepid heroine chasing down a killer who is after a stolen Faberge egg. The egg may contain a document containing information about the monarchs and other ruling members of European society, enough to destabilize every government and draw the continent back into war again. Key to finding the egg are members from a Russian noble family who were thought to have been murdered years ago. Poppy and her colleagues are trying to track down the egg and missing Russian nobility before the killer strikes again, this time at one of Poppy’s inner circle.

This book was as tautly written as the first in the series. The action was fast paced and the plot was complex without being unbelievable. The characters, including the secondary ones, were interesting and fun in their various ways. I enjoyed getting to know more about Poppy and Rollo. Rollo is my favorite, I believe, next to Poppy herself. I do enjoy a strong lady Bright Young Thing. However, not gonna lie. I just – can’t – care about the Russian stuff. It wasn’t anything the author did that I felt was badly handled or anything. I just don’t care about and have never been interested in Russian stuff, current politics excepted. Don’t know why, just not my jam. So this took me forever to read because I wasn’t all that invested in the actual plot, though it was well written.

I am, however, excited to read the next in the series, which I started today.

 

Grimmtastic Girls #1: Cinderella Stays Late

51ojqeu0dul-_sx342_bo1204203200_Grimmtastic Girls #1: Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: daughter’s personal collection

Length: 192 pp

Publisher: Scholastic

Year: 2014

Thoughts: In this introductory book to the Grimmtastic Girls series, we get to learn about the Grimm Academy, where characters from fairy tales and folklore go to school. Cinderella (call her Cinda) is just starting her first year at the Academy, having been too poor to afford tuition before now. Her mean “Steps” have attended the Academy since first grade. Cinda is quick to learn the ropes but there are so many rules and new ways of doing things that she never would have expected. This retelling of “Cinderella” sticks to the main plot points of the original tale, but includes new twists like a secret society that her stepsisters are involved with, a magical mystery, and a sentient wand instead of a fairy godmother.

This series seems like a fun way to teach younger readers about various characters from literature in a setting that is not as stuffy as some of the original fairy tales themselves. This particular book highlights themes such as perseverance, being brave in new surroundings, and making new friends. As with Holub’s other series, I appreciate the diversity shown in the characters, but there is still too much emphasis placed on who has a crush on whom, and on getting a crush on someone. Also, if romance is going to be a feature, I really think less time needs to be spent on gender norming and heteronormative social constructs. If fairy tales are going to be rewritten for the 21st century, then include characters in the LGBTQ community as well as the characters of color.

 

Rubies of the Viper

51vmvrmuwll-_sx331_bo1204203200_Rubies of the Viper by Martha Marks

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick/Discovering Diamonds

Length: 368 pp

Publisher: Martha’s Art

Year: 2010

Theodosia Varro had been living in the slums of Rome when her fortune changed. Upon the murder of her brother, Gaius, she became the sole heir to her father’s vast fortune. She moves back home to her childhood villa north of Rome, determined to make a new life of wealth and ease for herself. Marriage is nowhere near the top of her list of things to do, though as one of the most eligible young women in the Empire, Theodosia suddenly finds herself courted by many suitors. The prime candidates for her affections are Otho, an ambitious politician and Gaius’s best friend, and Titus, the son of her father’s best friend Vespasian. Otho tries to help the innocent and somewhat naive Theodosia understand that her slaves may not have her best interests at heart, that they may in fact have killed her brother. Titus is barely out of his boyhood, just starting out on his military career, more a friend than a lover at this point. Theodosia is torn as to which man she wants to marry more, and soon she has to discover for herself whom among her servants she can trust – her steward Alexander, her childhood friend Stefan, her maid Lucilla? Is Otho correct that they are conspiring to kill her, as he’s convinced they killed Gaius? Or is something darker at work in the alleys of ancient Rome?

Marks’s novel was a fast read, full of twists and dark plots and some heavy topics. I was quickly drawn into Theodosia’s world and her struggle to navigate the treacherous waters that were Rome, so dangerous for a single woman. The characters are complex and have deep motivations for their actions. As I learned more about her brother and his actions, the happier I got that someone did him in. He was a despicable human being. The question grew, though, of whether one of Theodosia’s servants had done the job and was now putting her in danger, or if someone else was to blame. The tension mounts nicely throughout the book, and I felt genuine concern for her when one person reveals the true depth of their vileness, costing Theodosia all she had so suddenly gained.

There were a couple things I think were anachronistic. There were many references to the glass windows at Theodosia’s villa, for example. I am a medievalist, not a Roman historian, but I believe even the very richest Romans had a hard time affording glass windows. According to this article, glass windows were in use at the time this novel was set, though mostly in bathhouses. So I suppose it isn’t entirely impossible that Theodosia’s villa had glass windows, but it still seems a little out of place. I also had to give a bit of a side-eye to the way Theodosia treated her servants. She was quite progressive, I think, for her time. Granted, her attitude was explained by her unusual childhood and living conditions after her father’s death, but it was still perhaps a bit a stretch. None of these minor quibbles prevented me from thoroughly enjoying the book, though.

This was a great read with many enjoyable characters (or deplorable characters, as appropriate) and a good deal of vivid historical detail. I am eager to read the sequel, The Viper Amulet.

You can read the official review at DDRevs: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/

 

A Man Like His Grandfather

A Man Like His Grandfather by R. Jack Punch

I read it as an: ARC

Source: review site

Length: 330 pp

Publisher: iUniverse

Year: 2017

Thoughts: During the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852), many starving and desperate Irish immigrated to America in hopes of starting a new and better life. In A Man Like His Grandfather, Matt Donahee is one such immigrant. After the deaths of his mother and fiancee due to illness, Matt, bitter and full of rage, flees Ireland for America, determined to make a better life for himself. Upon arriving in New York City, he instantly lands a good job with a railroad company and quickly moves up the ranks, becoming a valued negotiator. He meets Jade Malloy, an abolitionist and suffragette who operates a branch of the Underground Railroad with her father. Eventually, Matt and Jade fall in love and marry, to her father’s delight, despite having “broken all the rules of Victorian courtship.” But, like, they’re in America, not England. Would they really know, or give a shit if they did? That seemed weird to me that Matt thought about this more than once. Over the years, Matt and Jade have four children. Their youngest son, Ross, carries the point of view during the next section of the novel. As the narratives continue on from Ross’s generation and through his children and grandchildren, the Donahee family continues its growth and progress through WWI, the Depression, WWII, and Vietnam, and I basically lost interest. Each generation always manages to come out a little further ahead than the one before, always at the right place at the right time, and making the most of the latest trends in technology. It were like magic! They are the epitome of the old fashioned American Dream, in a too-perfect, mostly unrealistic sense. They seem utterly unfazed by everything – all their immediate family is unscathed during WWI (a BIL is killed but he’s only related through marriage, so it felt like it didn’t matter. His widow, who was a Donahee, didn’t seem too fussed about it); they all land on their feet and aren’t starving and out of work during the Depression; no one dies in WWII or Vietnam. The only one who dies young is one of the Donahee grandchildren who falls off a newfangled trolley and gets run over when she’s 10, but hey, she’s just a girl and they had an abundance of boys. It felt like an afterthought. Her family was sad for a minute and then they moved on.

This novel had nothing really going for it to set it apart from any other multigenerational saga. It wasn’t *bad,* it just wasn’t good. It was too rushed and short for a really in-depth multigenerational novel, but too long for the lack of detail that we got. There was a whole lot of nothing really happening, only not in a “quiet novel” kind of way. It was mostly just blah and lucky white men. A big problem throughout is that the passage of time is really, really hard to keep track of. On one page, there’s a newborn baby and a page later, the baby is 17 years old and talking about getting married. In other cases, major historical events are almost entirely glossed over. Matt’s years fighting in the Civil War, for example, spanned two paragraphs (paragraphs, not chapters, not pages. Paragraphs. Short ones, at that), and the entire war lasted for eight paragraphs, including dialogue. Additionally, after Ross’s generation, which ends about halfway through the book, the narration speeds wayyyy up. Each successive generation gets less time spent with it, each point of view character has a shorter time to talk, and there are more and more of them talking. There were suddenly SO MANY people! It felt like the author got himself in a pickle and wasn’t quite sure how to wrap things up.

Ultimately, if you dig immigration narratives where every single point of view character is white, almost every single one is male, everything magically goes right for them almost all of the time, weird sexist comments that seem to be the author’s own biases leaking through rather than inaccurate historical character traits, and being beat over the head with the message that working is the only thing real men should do because education is for people who can’t make it in the real world, then this is the book you are looking for. If you are looking for something with actual character depth and historical detail, keep looking.

 

If We Were Villains

51atvtzdzkl-_aa300_If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Robert Petkoff

Source: library

Length: 12:51:00

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Year: 2017

Thoughts: I loved this book so much I went out and bought my own kindle copy of it, even though this is supposed to be my year of not buying anything. This was a tale of madness and obsession and ALL the Shakespeare! A group of theatre students at a prestigious college, nearing graduation, are coming unraveled and their places in their group are not as secure as they once thought. Tensions come to a head when they receive their role assignments for a major play in the fall and not all goes as they expect. Soon after, one of their troupe ends up dead and the others know more than they are willing to admit. Someone has to take the fall for what turns out to be a killing rather than an accidental death, and the resolution does indeed “make mad the guilty, and appall the free.”

There was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book. The characters were well developed and complex. They all had flaws and some were just downright nasty. Some were confusing – I do NOT understand why Oliver did what he did, nor why the others let him. I loved all the Shakespearean quotes littered throughout the text, even if it was a hodge-podge and not always entirely accurate. The only thing I didn’t love was that sometimes I felt when they were acting the plays, it got a little too long. Too much direct quoting from Shakespeare. Just, maybe, sum up. We’ve all read those, we don’t need a whole act copied out again. So some of those scenes got a little long. But otherwise, the tension and the action and setting were all brilliant and I adored the final twist in the last lines. I can’t wait to read more by this author.

Rudy’s Rules for Travel

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Rudy’s Rules for Travel by Mary Jensen

I read it as an: ARC

Source: a site I review for

Length: 256 pp

Publisher: She Writes Press

Year: 2018

Jensen and her late husband, WWII veteran Rudy, have diametrically opposite personalities, but the combination makes for excellent travel stories. Jensen’s travel memoir highlights her husband’s list of rules he developed for travel, and over the course of their marriage and global adventures, he teaches her how to apply those rules to all things in life. The tales span from side-splittingly hilarious to utterly heartbreaking. All showcase the spectrum of the human condition and highlight Rule #11: “Relax – Some kind stranger will appear.” Throughout, readers are introduced to Rudy’s adventuresome spirit and absolute optimism. The book journeys from Scotland to Mexico, Egypt to Indonesia. The stories have the effect of teaching readers not necessarily about the places themselves, but rather how to live life to the fullest. “We don’t travel to have comfort…we can have comfort at home. And we don’t travel to meet Americans. We can meet Americans at home.” Traveling, according to Rudy, is for learning about a new culture and meeting people from that culture. To do that, you must “ride with locals, not tourists.” In Oaxaca, for example, the Jensens, eating at a tiny local taqueria, get swept up in a crowd headed to celebrate Holy Thursday in an unplanned local tradition. They would have missed the opportunity to participate in the ceremony if they had gone to the recommended tourist destinations, and indeed Jensen looked up “to see tourists in the two restaurants above us … straining to see, to understand what has happened on the streets below. I see what they had missed.” Other stories are laugh out loud funny, such as when the Jensens had to decide between one of two death-trap modes of transportation in Puerto Escondido. When in Egypt, the Jensens are faced with one of the most heartbreaking experiences of their travels, yet it also shows the generosity of people in a community when a family’s cow is killed by a car. The cow is the only thing they own and the villagers are trying to collect items from their own limited provisions to help. Not a lot of time is spent at any given location in each section. Instead, readers are taken to many places, each vividly but briefly described. In this way, Jensen is able to provide many examples for how Rudy’s Rules apply to a variety of scenarios.

Bonus points for feminist presses!