Fiction

NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

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The world began in fire, ice, and mist.  This is also how it will end.  The gods who formed the earth by slaying a giant will in turn be slain by giants, and thus will end the reign of the Aesir and the Vanir, the gods of Asgard.  But before the end of the world, the gods went (or perhaps are still going) on adventures that still capture the imagination.

Neil Gaiman breathes life into the ancient stories of the Norse gods, embracing their crass and ignominious qualities along with their cleverness and nobility.  The characters and stories he explores are complex and humorous, told with his characteristic narrative style and masterful world-building.  In contrast with many mythologies, the Norse tales focus on the gods and their enemies, the giants, almost exclusively.  The gods fight their own battles rather than enlisting mortal heroes.  Although all of the tales are distinct and–as Gaiman notes in his introduction–occasionally contradictory, still a story arc sweeps from the world’s creation to its destruction and rebirth.  The short tales, however, make this book an ideal audiobook to listen to during start and stop activities, such as a commute, and the author’s reading of the audiobook is, as always, superb.

Highly recommended to mythology fans and fantasy fans!

THE HOLLOW GIRL by Hillary Monahan

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Bethan wants nothing more than for Gran to teach her the magic of their Romani people. But knowing magic is dangerous among the gadjos in the neighboring town, and the birthmark on Bethan’s face seems to betray her as a witch to the fearful villagers who hesitate to buy Gran’s herbal cures. Only the young farmer, Martyn, and his father respect her. Bethan finds herself falling for Martyn, and he seems to have already fallen for her. But as if their cultural differences weren’t enough, Silas, the chieftain’s cruel son, wants Bethan and believes he deserves her body. A horrific violence leaves Martyn all but dead and Bethan empty and forever changed. But Gran knows it is time for Bethan to learn dark magic to save Martyn and exact her bloody revenge on those who wronged her.

After days of pondering this book, I still have strong, mixed feelings. The short review is that despite some flaws (a shallow depiction of gypsy culture and awkward and explication-heavy development of the relationship between Bethan and Gran), it is a gripping and deeply, lingeringly disturbing page-turner that fans of violent revenge stories may enjoy. But survivors of sexual violence should be aware that many scenes are graphic and could prompt flashbacks.

If you are a teacher or librarian planning to recommend it to teens, I recommend you read the long review below.

SPOILER ALERT

This novel devotes significant attention to the psychological effects of rape on the protagonist. In particular, Bethan wrestles with how the rape had impacted her identity. Who is she now? Who does she want to be? How can she regain control over ever aspect of her life and self–not just her physical body.

Intertwined with this complex exploration is Bethan’s contemplation of herself as a perpetrator of violence. Gran insists that Bethan herself commit the bloody tortures to complete the dark magic that will raise Martyn from the dead. As Bethan tortures her torturers, she sometimes feels satisfaction in her revenge in addition to a conflicting guilt and disgust at the acts of violence she commits.

Ultimately, for Bethan, the violence is worth it. The men who attacked her are far from innocent and despite their pleas for mercy and the tears in their mothers’ eyes as they see their sons tortured, sometimes to death, the end of resurrecting Martyn justifies the morally questionable means. On a broader thematic level, once her attackers are gone and Martyn is once again by her side, Bethan feels a weight lift and feels hopeful for her own emotional resurrection in the future. Reclaiming her own identity, she tells her village that she did what she needed to do and now she is done with violence and dark magic forever.

So here’s where I’m conflicted. It is a common enough trope for an act of evil to turn a victim to further acts of evil. But that isn’t what’s going on here. I believe we are supposed to like Bethan throughout and to approve of her decision to save her love (and herself) by torturing others. The author copiously records Bethan’s distaste and moral conflict about the tortures she commits, but Bethan’s rejection of violence came too late for me–only after she had used it to achieve her end. When she is uncomfortable with violence, Gran pushes her into yet–yet there is no condemnation of Gran. To Gran and Bethan, people who beat a man to death or rape a girl deserve to be burned alive in front of their mothers, have their eyes gouged out, etc. And on an allegorical level, perhaps they do, but given the sensitive and modern treatment of the other aspects of Bethan’s psychological recovery, her embracing of violence (and indeed the seeming necessity of that violence for her psychological recovery) seemed jarringly out of place and has lingered with me.

For that reason, I can’t decide whether I like this book or not. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but upon finishing, find myself still unsettled and not necessarily in a good way.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US by Charles Martin

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Hoping to get back home to his patients ahead of a snowstorm, Ben Payne charters a flight from Salt Lake to Denver and, on a whim, invites the bride-to-be that he met in the terminal, Ashley. She needs to get back home for her rehearsal dinner, and Ben can’t help think of Rachel and how special his own wedding was. They fly out with a chatty pilot and his little dog, only to learn mid-flight that the pilot never filed a flight plan, and the plane is only supposed to seat one passenger. Then, over the frozen mountain wilderness, the pilot has a heart attack. Although Ben and Ashley survive the crash, Ashley’s femur is broken, along with several of Ben’s ribs, and altitude sickness makes their predicament worse. With no one knowing where they are, Ben must use the few provisions they have to survive the snowstorm and drag Ashley down the mountain to safety. Throughout their weeks struggling in the wilderness, Ben composes letters to Rachel on his audio recorder, remembering their relationship and coming to terms with the horrible experience that brought it to an end–as well as the knowledge that, should they survive, his developing feelings for the soon-to-be-married Ashley must also end in heartache.

I really enjoyed this novel. The action of the survival-thriller plot neatly compliments the tragic love story told in flashback. Interestingly, though, it is the suspense of the love story–the desire to find out what happened to Rachel, who is implied at various points to be both dead and alive–that really kept me reading. I’m not sure I would enjoy the new film adaptation, which seems to focus solely on the survival plot. But I would recommend this novel to realistic fiction readers who like action-packed love stories. Although it is literary fiction, romance readers may also find this novel satisfying.

MWD by Brian David Johnson and Jan Egleson

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Liz left high school and went straight to Iraq.  Her town was a dead end, her mother in prison, her grandmother as selfish as ever, and the military was an escape.  There was good and bad, but through it all, she had Ender, a Military Working Dog that she trained and worked alongside.  When a bomb abruptly ends her tour of duty, however, she finds herself back in her miserable hometown where even the few friends she used to have can no longer relate to her, no matter how hard they try.  But when she has a run-in with an aggressive stray dog, Liz finds a new sense of purpose.  She knows that Brutus could learn to be a great companion if only he were given a chance and the right kind of training.  Unfortunately, he is on doggy death row.  Desperate to save Brutus, Liz takes a job at the animal shelter and begins building her relationship with him–and with the people in her life.

A powerful story of a young woman whose connection to animals helps her rebuild her life after the trauma of war.  The characters and relationships are complex and the subject matter heavy.  Some of the more complicated action sequences were difficult to follow without any accompanying text due to the chaotic, dark and occasionally unclear black and white illustrations.  But the story overall still came across powerfully in the text and artwork.  I highly recommend it to mature teen fans of graphic novels and realistic fiction.

FRICTION by Sandra Brown

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The minute Judge Spencer starts asking about his past, Crawford knows he’s lost.  His in-laws will keep custody of Georgia, and his sweet little girl will only see him on weekends.  A split second later, a masked gunman enters the courtroom, kills the bailiff, and aims for the judge.  Crawford’s Texas Ranger instincts kick in.  He tackles Holly Spencer to the ground, shielding her bodily, and kicks out at the gunman, who flees the scene.  Crawford follows.  After a rooftop shootout, the man with the gun is killed, but no motive can be found.  And Crawford’s reckless pursuit has likely sealed the fate of his custody case.  But when Crawford  goes to Holly’s house to check in on her, things take an unexpected turn as their mutual attraction leads to one amorous encounter after another.  Their relationship gets more complicated as Crawford becomes a suspect in the shooting–and it turns out that Holly might not have been the target after all.

This fast-paced romantic suspense novel is marred only slightly by the stereotypical tall-dark-handsome male lead.  But his love for his daughter rounds out his character a bit, and the compelling female protagonist makes the relationship more engaging.  The sex-at-first-sight is a little ridiculous, but it is not atypical for the genre.  Overall, a fun read for romantic suspense fans!

THE RADIUS OF US by Marie Marquardt 

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It took less than two minutes for Gretchen’s life to change.  She was hit from behind, crushed into the asphalt, and robbed.  And then she witnessed something even worse.  Six months later she’s still having panic attacks.  Phoenix has them, too.  After what he experienced of gang violence in El Salvador, and his harrowing journey through Mexico, he is now being treated as a criminal for seeking asylum in the United States.  His brother Ari, in his group home in Texas, is worse:not speaking a word to anyone.  A legal adult at 18, Phoenix is grateful to have a place to live in Atlanta, even though he knows he will soon be sent back and killed. Almost no one from El Salvador is allowed to stay, even when deportation is a death sentence. But when he meets Gretchen, things begin to change.  He begins to enjoy his life in the U.S.  And Gretchen begins to venture out of her shell.  Together, they begin to heal from the traumas gang violence brought to their lives.

A horrifying glimpse into the realities of gang warfare and the Central American refugee journey, The Radius of Us does not shy away from graphic violence.   As disturbing as some scenes are, the novel helps teen (and adult) readers understand how gangs can take hold of the lives of children and teens and what the experience of fleeing to the U.S can mean for these children, including being abducted up by drug cartels and trafficked as slaves.  And memories and flashbacks aside, the story is busting with kindness and hope.  It does have the fairly trite plot where the girl kicks the boy out, but once he’s gone suddenly learns from his friends all these wonderful things about him and must therefore go on a road trip to get him back.  But still a worthwhile read.

EXCESSION by Iain M. Banks

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Culture ambassador Byr Genar-Hofoen is called away from his diplomatic mission to the warlike Affront aliens in order to undertake a secret mission for the Department of Special Circumstances.  Thousands of years ago, a star vanished, and now a mysterious thing–not a planet, not a ship, but another entity: an Excession–has appeared.  Is it a weapon?  An ally?  A group of sentient ships plots in secret, while eccentric ships act as double agents, meddling in the affairs of ships and humans.  And somehow connected to it all without knowing it, a woman living in a simulated world waits to give birth. 

In this immersive, unique, and thoroughly imagined science fiction novel, the reader must piece together seemingly unconnected or loosely connected characters and events which gradually come together into a rich image of galactic life and the prideful folly of political entities and sentient individuals (both organisms and machines).  Sometime humorous, always thought-provoking, this novel will appeal to fans of hard sci-fi.  At times, it was reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,  but be prepared for a much denser read that demands focus, attention to detail, and occasionally, a willingness to think about math.