The Aeneid by Virgil

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One. That’s how many lives I have, you guys. And sometimes I can’t force myself to fritter it away reading dull books when I have stacks of other books looking at me longingly, calling my name, whispering that they will love me so much better than that other book if I would only put it down and listen to them…

Anyways, I didn’t finish the Aeneid. Virgil’s writing is descriptive but not engrossing and the same could be said for his characters. The whole book is essentially a Roman version of The Odyssey, but boring. Aeneas and his ships escape their beloved city of Troy after the Greeks sack it and sail around the Mediterranean in a quest for the land Venus has promised them wherein to found their new nation. Madcap hijinks ensue. Or they would, if anything that happened was exciting and quirky. Dull road-trip is closer. There’s a lot of sacrificing bulls, pouring streaming bowls of wine and oil upon altars, sailing cautiously through dangerous passages, and the like. They have the ancient Roman equivalent of a sports day, with sailing, shooting, running, and sparring challenges complete with fabulous prizes (more bulls). They battle harpies. Once. The ships pass Scylla and Charybdis and nobody dies. One of the most legendary, feared sea dangers; a piece from the Odyssey which I have never forgotten reading and seen reproduced in other movies and books time and again, and Virgil has his fleet get insider’s sailing advice from a god and slip through without so much as an interested snuffle from Scylla, nor a bubble from Charybdis. It’s not that there isn’t enough death, just that after the fall of Troy the whole book becomes almost unrelievedly boring. One life, guys. Don’t squander it on draggy sagas.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One hundred seventy two pages of deceptively complex sentences are what make up this delightful snapshot into the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and her friends, as she prepares to throw a dinner party for the upper class of London. Such simple premise belies the thought and effort Woolf put in to writing this and which you, the reader, will have to put in to reading it. Paragraphs that start with one person’s perspective can suddenly switch to another’s. Pronouns point wildly every which way like some sort of befuddled compass needle. Very “James Joyce”, but with well-off characters and no onomatpaeic sound words. Which may or may not be a perk, depending on how much you enjoy puzzling through unintelligible consonant strings. Mrs. Dalloway stood up well to a second reading and I suspect it will enjoy a place of respect in the literature canon for decades hence. Woolf’s ground-breaking writing style and interesting female characters merit a read from any dedicated literary buff.

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Seducing Abby Rhodes by JD Mason

Seducing Abby RhodesSeducing Abby Rhodes by J.D. Mason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here’s a hot read for those sultry summer nights. Abby Rhodes is a contractor who makes a living flipping fixer-uppers across the United States. Her most recent purchase in Blink, Texas; owned by business tycoon Jordan Gatewood comes with unexpected inclusions – ghosts. And romance. But Jordan has secrets. And an ex-girlfriend who will do anything to get rid of that prefix.

It’s pretty fast paced. I found myself flipping addictively through it, despite knowing exactly how it was going to end. I was not wrong. But you know, there are times when you just want an easy read that’s going to give you the ending you want, but still have some mystery in the details. Plus
bizarre quirks: Mason has the characters alternate between describing someone as a “fucker” and a “fucka” but almost religiously uses “gotdamn.” It got under my skin really fast. Furthermore following an f-bomb with a curse modified for palatability seemed incongruous.

There is some racism in this novel. Gatewood ends his relationship with Robin Sinclair to pursue Abby, and Sinclair does not respond well, to put it mildly. Occasionally Jordan just lets her vent, and the vitriol she spews at Abby is misogynoir in all its hateful glory. The only good point is that it’s obvious what Sinclair is doing is wrong, and the reader empathises with Abby. There’s also depictions of murder and suicide, discussions of drug and arms dealings, misuse of the justice system, and adultery. On the upside, the story isn’t about Abby saving Jordan. He’s saved himself by the time they meet. I’m delighted to read a story where the male love interest isn’t a tool who is reformed into a decent human being by the woman’s physical affection. That being said…

My copy is an advance, uncorrected proof which I won in a draw. It includes acknowledgements by the author, who comments that one of the characters, “has been emotionally abusive to me for years, but I stay because he’s my heart and soul.” I really hope that when they publish, that comment is gone. The sentiment gives me the willies. It completely justifies staying in abusive relationships because of love, an attitude which fortunately isn’t reflected in the rest of the novel. And the last thing society needs is more books muddling romance with toxic relationships.

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The Day the Sky Fell: The Yellow Hoods, Book #5 by Adam Dreece

The Day the Sky Fell (The Yellow Hoods, #5)The Day the Sky Fell by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is it. The last of the series. Do Tee and her brave friends triumph against the Lady in Red, the Piemans, the Fare, and all the other foes arrayed against them? Can a group of teenagers best experts in intrigue?
Of course I’m not going to tell you. Read the book and find out. The Day the Sky Fell had the fastest plot of the whole pentalogy, I really couldn’t put it down. I still wanted a flowchart for all the character relationships, but at least there weren’t any new ones added. Again, some violence and bloodshed, but little else. Dreece has even revealed one of the characters is gay, in the sort of offhand scene that makes me dream of one day having a society where homosexuality isn’t a big deal. It just is. I’m happy to see that Dreece agrees with me, and put his beliefs where his mouth is. Or rather, where his writing utensil is.
Despite Dreece closing The Yellow Hoods with this book, not all the loose ends are tied up. A few of the antagonists could certainly stage a comeback some years down the road, and Dreece mentions possibly starting a second series around a more mature Tee and her friends. I wouldn’t say no to that. It’s been a good run.

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Beauties of the Beast: The Yellow Hoods Book #4 by Adam Dreece

Beauties of the Beast (The Yellow Hoods, #4)Beauties of the Beast by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe you thought there weren’t going to be new characters in the penultimate book. Maybe you thought you could stop updating your cast flow chart. Finally laminate it and put it up on the wall to use as a reference. Well put that frame back in the box. Dreece put in more people. Never fear, the delightful Tee, Elly, and Richy are still with us. As are many of the old favourites from previous installments. Plus all the backstabbing, plotting, and double-dealing we’ve come to expect from Dreece’s writing. But wait, there’s more! Airship battles! More explosions! Rocket packs! Here I thought shock sticks and mechanical horses were enough excitement. Dreece disagreed, and we all benefit. Something he didn’t add more of was bloodshed. The level of violence has been pretty consistent since it was upped in the second book, and there isn’t much else to warn for. This is a really decent series, and I’m looking forwards to seeing how everything gets tied together in The Day the Sky Fell. Stay tuned!

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All the King’s-Men: The Yellow Hoods Book #3 by Adam Dreece

All the King's-Men (The Yellow Hoods, #3)All the King’s-Men by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just when you thought you knew all the characters. Dreece keeps stuffing them in, with more betrayals and flashbacks than you could shake a shock-stick at. If your memory is anything like mine, it isn’t the gripping plot alone that keeps you from putting these books down. It’s the fear that when you pick it up the next day you won’t remember who is on what side anymore. Tee, Elly, Richy, and Nikolas Klaus haven’t left us, nor have the Cochon brothers from Along Came a Wolf, but the leaders of the Tub and the Fare join the Pieman family in seeing just how many people can fit into a 340 page steampunk romp. (Answer: about 30). I wonder if Dreece reads much Russian literature? Tolstoy would be proud.

It seems that Dreece uses All the King’s-Men to start tying the history of Eorth with its present political climate, as he brings the series to its climax. Tee and the Yellow Hoods are joined on their flight through the wilderness by new friends and questionable leaders as they flee the agents of the Fare and other rogue factions bent on toppling the government and taking over the world. Again, some bloodshed, gunshots, and deaths. Suggestions of child abuse and mentions of kidnapping, but written from the perspective of the (safe) survivor which takes out much of the sting. An even mix of female and male characters. With an even mix of strong and weak traits. Take a spy novel, add teenagers, set it in the medieval era and then hose everything down with a good spray of steampunk and you’d have yourself The Yellow Hoods series. It’s good stuff.

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Breadcrumb Trail: The Yellow Hoods Book #2 by Adam Dreece

Breadcrumb Trail (The Yellow Hoods, #2)Breadcrumb Trail by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is where things start to really pick up. Tee, Elly, and Richy are joined by a steadily increasing number of characters as Dreece weaves several parallel plot lines; chapters on missing children in the previously peaceful town of Mineau tag team with secret societies plotting to steal steam engine plans in a universe where inventing has been outlawed. If you had a tough time putting down Along Came a Wolf, clear your calendar when you start Breadcrumb Trail. You can put it down if you really have to, but there aren’t exactly breathers built into the plot. It’ll be a struggle. This was also the book with the strongest fairy tale influences, thanks to the plot line with the disturbing “Ginger Lady.” The fairy tale influences in the first book seemed to revolve around names and titles rather than having those old stories come to life, or be rewritten in a novel way. Compared to the first book, this one has more violence. Actual bloodshed, gun shots, deaths. No racism or sexism. Child abuse and kidnapping are present in this installment, however. Only hinted at, but they are there. Having finished the series, I can say they are mentioned again later in the series, but only in passing in two other books. Dreece writes a good story without resorting to sensationalism, and his non-stop plots make for a quick read.

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Along Came a Wolf: The Yellow Hoods, Book #1 by Adam Dreece

Along Came a Wolf (The Yellow Hoods, #1)Along Came a Wolf by Adam Dreece
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With Along Came a Wolf Dreece launches a steampunk-fairy tale young adult fantasy series with ample excitement, danger, and plot twists to keep you engaged until the last page of book five. We follow the spunky Tee, Elly, and Richy as a visit from a mysterious messenger to Tee’s grandfather plunges the four of them into a world of intrigue and danger. The action barely pauses until the last page. The characters are pretty well fleshed out and a good balance of gumption and terror. There isn’t a single thing for me to offer a content warning about. Very little violence, no sexism, no racism, nothing. Only the editing could have been better. There are some sentences that could have been more polished, and a few times where Dreece used the same word in two adjacent lines, which is kind of a pet peeve of mine. However, I will say that I started book two Breadcrumb Trail immediately upon finishing Along Came a Wolf and the editing has much improved, so if it bothers you push through it and the rest of this page-turner of a series will be your reward.

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Doubting Yourself to the Bone by Thomas Trofimuk

Doubting Yourself to the BoneDoubting Yourself to the Bone by Thomas Trofimuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Moira James dies in a car crash while taking a time-out from her marriage, her husband Ronin moves himself and his two daughters to a tiny town in British Columbia to try to reassemble their lives. The stunning mountain scenery makes an incredible backdrop to the grief Trofimuk explores in his incredible, heart-opening story. It has been one of my favourite books since I snagged it on a whim in the library one day. I liked the title. I love the writing. Every page has poetry on it. There’s weight to the grief, to the range of emotions. Depth to the confusion. There are also monks. Scotch. Wine. Music. This book always makes me want to put on some classical and pour myself a drink; I could see it being a problem for a recovering alcoholic. There is also a lot of emphasis on womens’ bodies that rubs me the wrong way. Of the five adult women in the story, four are depicted on the basis of their sexual attractiveness to Ronin. But I can’t tell you what Ronin looks like. This gets under my skin. As I mentioned at the beginning the novel is built around an automobile accident death, but there are also discussions of bombings and suicide. Some not-great language surrounding abortions. While Ronin doesn’t outright condemn abortions, the words he chooses when discussing them are pretty judgmental and someone who actually supported a woman having the right to choose what happened to her own body would most likely use different language. Again, not outright anti-choice, but not as good as it could have been. No book is perfect. For the delight I have gotten – and continue to get – from this wonderful work I am content to overlook a few flaws.

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