Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Fall of the Empire (The Rise of the Aztecs Book 5) by Zoe Saadia

The Fall of the Empire is the 5th book in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and, as with the previous four; Zoe Saadia captivates the reader from the very onset and leaves us craving more. Despite the fact that this book is part of a series, Saadia allows enough back story so that it could easily be enjoyed as a standalone read.

One of the things I like best about Saadia’s novels is that, even though they reflect a very male dominated, patriarchal world, she really makes her female characters count. The Fall of the Empire is no different and introduces us to Tlalli, a market girl with a deep burning secret. It is Tlalli who drives the story on, lending the warriors her geographical knowledge and, in the end performing so bravely that she is the one who dictates the fate of the deposed Tepanec Emperor.

Although Saadia’s novels are sequential in the telling of the ancient America’s history, each one seems to have its own individual focus. The Fall of the Empire presents us with the reality of war. There are two big battles in the novel, as both Azcapotzalco and Coyoacan fall to the Aztecs and their allies, and Saadia captures the atmosphere of chaos perfectly. We are invited to experience the sights, sounds and smells of war in such a way that we are left with no doubt of the ugly reality.

Prior to this novel, Saadia has mainly depicted the life of noble people and warriors; however with The Fall of the Empire, she introduces us to a different stratum of society through the characters of Etl and Tlalli, who are both commoners. In doing this, Saadia is able to illustrate how the perception and experience of war can differ, depending on a person’s position. For warriors such as Tlacaelel and Kuini, war is glorious and thrilling. In fact, when Saadia describes the fights between warriors, her writing becomes almost cinematic in style. However, it is the ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of war. They become expendable and dehumanised as their towns are destroyed and countless people are slaughtered whilst the rest are forced to become refugees. It is a testament to Saadia’s writing skills that she is able to effectively highlight this dichotomy of both the historical battles and indeed war in general.

In The Fall of the Empire, Tlacaelel steps into the limelight as Itzcoatl, Coyotl and Kuini rely on his strategic and diplomatic skills to get things done. It becomes clear that growing up in a treacherous environment, where his survival depended upon him not being seen as a threat, his tactical skills have been honed to perfection. Of all the warriors, he is the one with the clearest vision. He is pragmatic when he offers Tlalli the stark choice of being reborn in the new world or going down with the old world.

The notion of a new world order is the central theme of the novel. As Tepanec rule is swept aside, all remnants of their culture is destroyed most notably by burning their temples. Saadia uses the two new characters of Etl and Tlalli to illustrate how historically the people most able to survive are the ones who are willing to adapt. Tlalli is just sixteen with no real ties to the old world so it is probably easier for her to let go of all she has known and move forward into a new life.

I loved the character of Tlalli, who acts not only as the heart of the story but enables Tlacaelel to engage with his feelings rather than being ruled completely by intellect. The two may be a surprising match but they each provide the other with what they need. As the novel ends the reader is left in little doubt that the two of them will enjoy an enduring relationship which will serve them both well.

The Rise of the Aztecs is a series that just seems to get better and better and makes for compelling reading. Saadia’s gift for storytelling and her incredible passion and knowledge of this historical period, combine to ensure that readers are simply able to immerse themselves into the sheer joy of reading these books. Although The Fall of the Empire would work perfectly well as a standalone, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough and I’m so pleased that I started at the beginning. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Married To Maggie (Texas Boys Falling Fast) by Jan Romes

It’s a testament to Jan Romes’ writing that after downloading Married To Maggie, I intended to have a little peek and four hours later I was still reading. Married To Maggie is the best kind of romance, fun, witty and pure escapism.

With a plot that would rival Shakespeare, Married To Maggie hinges on secret schemes, double crosses, an arch-villain and nothing being as it seems. When Maggie Gray loses her job as a nurse, she is tempted into accepting an offer from billionaire oil tycoon Loy Vincent, to marry his grandson Ty. In a quirky twist of fate, Ty also hires Maggie to pose as his wife, in order to get his grandfather off his case. The novel takes place over the seven days from Maggie and Ty’s meeting to their wedding day and what a seven days it is.

The heart of the story is Maggie Gray herself, who is a terrific combination of vulnerability and grit. A dedicated cardiac nurse in her late twenties, she has a full life; helping at shelters for the homeless and dogs as well as belly dancing and socialising with her best friend Nancy. She’s not a woman to be pushed around and has no problem in standing up to the ferocious Loy Vincent and Ty’s snobby friends but at heart she is kind and caring. It doesn’t take long for her to regret becoming embroiled in the madcap scheme as her feelings for Ty are genuine and real.

Ty is also a likeable character, a man trying to live up to the reputation of his imposing lineage whilst making his own mark. There are lots of other engaging characters, most notably Ty’s mother Ellen and my own personal favourite, the paparazzi photographer Chaz Rosston. Romes’ skill as a writer is evident in her ability to bring her characters to life which makes her readers believe in them and care about them.

Married To Maggie makes no pretence to be anything other than what it is, a light hearted rom-com. However, it does touch on serious issues. Romes uses her novel to explore grief and how people deal with it differently. Ty is grieving for his father who died in a car accident and, because he has not really processed what happened, he suffers from debilitating panic attacks. Maggie has lost her own mother and her grief is manifested in a quiet sadness. At the same time we see how families can have a negative impact on each other when relationships become controlling rather than accepting.

Married To Maggie is the first novel in the Texas Boys Falling Fast series and one of the things I enjoyed was looking out for other characters who may be featured in future stories. I’m holding out hope for Sam Bright, the bar owner. All in all, I really enjoyed this novel and if you like a story that puts a smile on your face and a spring in your step then I think this will be a great choice for you. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Burnt Promises by Brenda Perlin

Burnt Promises is the second book in the Brooklyn and Bo Chronicles by Brenda Perlin and like its predecessor, Shattered Reality, is written with a searing honesty. Perlin’s style of faction is almost naked in its rawness; she offers us the bare details and leaves us to make of them what we will.

Where Shattered Reality presents Brooklyn’s life from childhood to her relationship with Bo, Burnt Promises focuses primarily on that relationship. Brooklyn meets Bo while they are both married to other people and the subsequent complications reflect a reality for a lot of people. Bo’s wife sets in motion divorce proceedings that drag them all through the mud and ultimately benefit nobody but the lawyers involved.

Brooklyn was raised in a traditional home, where she was expected to maintain high moral standards. Like many women, she was encouraged to put other people’s needs before her own and became a ‘people pleaser’. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Brooklyn judges herself more harshly than anyone else could. She is the one who labels herself a “home wrecker” and obviously feels a great deal of guilt over her failed marriage.

I think Burnt Promises actually works on two levels. On the one hand, it is an engrossing tale of a woman’s struggle to accept herself and make sense of her relationship but it is also a form of social history. Brooklyn’s story is such that it chronicles what life is like for many women who were born in the 1960s. The specifics may not be identical but there are many issues bubbling beneath the surface that I suspect lots of women will be able to relate to.

In common with many women, Brooklyn suffers from a lack of self-esteem, which leads her to a disastrous long term relationship with serial womaniser, Joey. Her inability to withstand Joey’s excuses exacerbate her feelings of worthlessness and her consequent attachment to Gerard, whom she marries, is primarily born out of the fact that he is nice to her. The marriage is doomed, Gerard is ten years Brooklyn’s senior and resents her free spirit, trying instead to control her. Brooklyn had a complex relationship with her father which has clearly impacted on her dealings with men, as her default setting seems to be to assume a passive role.

Despite marrying Gerard for the wrong reasons, Brooklyn tries to make it work, ignoring her own needs and feelings for fifteen years. When the marriage ends, it seems to Gerard to be out of the blue but that’s only because Brooklyn has never felt able to express her dissatisfaction with the relationship. It would have been easy for Perlin to cast Gerard as the villain of the piece but she goes to great lengths to show how he is damaged from his own parents’ divorce. He also takes good care of Brooklyn when she becomes ill with a neurological disorder but that consideration is not enough to base a marriage on. In fact, Brooklyn’s illness is a massive stress factor in a relationship that was never particularly strong to begin with. Brooklyn’s expectations for herself are so low, she probably would have settled for an unhappy marriage had she not met Bo, who represents a new beginning for her.

An interesting aspect of Burnt Promises is the way it reflects our society’s obsession with appearance and the impact that has on women. Exercise is a massive part of Brooklyn’s life; she was a fitness instructor prior to her illness and continues to spend a good deal of time in the gym after her recovery. There is poignancy in the fact that as she looks forward to a cruise with Bo, the first vacation of her adult life, one of her primary concerns is the potential weight gain she might experience.  There is also a hilarious anecdote where Brooklyn compares her own lady parts to those of Pamela Anderson, whose vagina she has seen on a sex tape. At a time when young people are defining their own sexuality through porn and Brazilian waxes are the new norm, I found this episode incredibly relevant. Tellingly Bo’s ex-wife insults Brooklyn via her looks, which she obviously perceives as being more damaging than any other form of attack.

Perlin’s writing style is such that Brooklyn’s truth becomes the only truth. Even though I was aware that the novel is not necessarily autobiographical and, even if it were there are always many sides to any given story, I constantly found myself immersed in Brooklyn’s version of events. One of the reasons why Brooklyn’s truth is so compelling is the fair handed way in which Perlin delivers it. There are no villains, even Bo’s ex-wife, Ruth, who puts the couple through hell, is more mad than bad. In fact much of the humour in the novel comes from the emails that Ruth sends to Bo.

Burnt Promises is a novel that offers up a woman’s life for inspection and, through our relationship with Brooklyn, I think most readers will be forced to face truths about their own lives. It might not always be pretty but Burnt Promises is a reflection of reality for a lot of women trying to find their place in a so called modern world.