Tsarina

First Lines: The rioters at the gate were loud, but no match for the music inside the Winter Palace.

As someone who once voluntarily gave a speech in high school about Anastasia Romanov, I knew that eventually I was going to get around to reading this book.  A focus on Alexei instead of Anastasia?  That looked new, promising, and exciting.

Natalya, a noblewoman in Imperial Russia, feels like her life is nearly perfect.  As the intended for Alexei Romanov, Natalya will someday be tsarina.  But the Reds in the streets are on the verge of started a revolution that will threaten Natalya’s world as she knows it.  As long as the strange (and possibly magical) Constellation Fabrege egg stays in the Winter Palace, Natalya’s future is safe.  But when the Winter Palace falls into the hands of the Reds, and the egg as well, how far will Natalya go to save Russia?  To save Alexei?  With the help of a young Red looking for the egg himself, Natalya’s world just got vastly more complicated.

I found this to be a charming story.  It was about a historical time period in which I am already incredibly interested in and it twisted the story slightly by talking about Alexei instead of Anastasia.  The premise was different and moved at a good clip, considering Russia is a powder keg just waiting for a spark.

Natalya was a good lead for this story.  She was strong, stubborn, determined, and compassionate.  It was a good combination, and it was easy to see why she could be tsarina someday.  Natalya’s best friend Emilia was strong but fearful.  She was a nice contrast to Natalya’s stubborn strength because Emilia couldn’t handle some of the same things Natalya could.  And Leo, the young Red, he was quite the character.  Determined, clever, and sympathetic.  Though Alexei wasn’t in the story much, it was easy to see how sweet and charming he was.

One thing that has stuck with me is how the author’s note said she wrote this in part to show how we must remember that our enemies are still people too.  When we see our enemies as simply those who oppose us, they stop being human.  She wrote this to help show that we’re more alike than we think we are.  I think she easily succeeded in her mission.  In this day and age, it’s so easy to forget that our enemies are still people with lives, feelings, family.  We see them as what they stand for, not as people.  This book was a nice example of how we can still work together, even though we have opposing viewpoints.

There were a few things I had small issues with.  First of all, the historical timeline was incredibly sped up.  And I realize why this was done.  (The author even mentions this in her author’s note as well, stating that this book is not a textbook, it’s a novel.)  I don’t know if I would have liked the book as well if there was so much downtime for the characters.  The excitement kept the story going.  But that doesn’t mean I still don’t feel a twinge of something icky inside, knowing that the timeline was sped up.  It’s the history nerd in me.

But I also thought the story could have stood on its own legs without the magical/mystical angle to it.  Of course, most people are aware of Rasputin’s legendary accomplishments that took “magic”, but the story took it beyond that.  Again, it did make the story exciting and was basically the plot.  I just wish it had been more historically factual.  This is, once again, the history nerd in me coming out.  I just think Imperial Russia is exciting as it is.

Overall, though, it was an exciting read that tours some beautiful sites in 1917ish Russia with a nice cast of characters.  I enjoyed it.

Take Me On (Pushing the Limits, #4)

First Lines: A door squeaks open at the far end of the barren hallway and the clicking of high heels echoes off the row of metal post-office boxes.  I attempt to appear casual as I flip through the mail.

This is another book I’ve been meaning to read for a while.  (Amazing how I finally get around to those when I visit a library bigger than my local one.)  And a snow day was the perfect time to really sink into this monster 500+ page book.

Champion kickboxer Haley swore to herself that she was never going to set foot in the ring again…until West came along.  West got caught up in a fight to defend Haley’s honor that will use the mixed martial arts training Haley has.  Suddenly, Haley finds herself training West, a guy she normally would stay away from…if only he’d get out of her head.  But he needs Haley’s help to survive a few seconds in the ring.  West, however, is hiding a huge secret from Haley.  This fight may just be his shot at redemption, especially since it’s his fault his family is falling apart.  He may not be able to change the past…but maybe he can change Haley’s future.

I knew I wanted to read this book when I learned it was from West’s perspective.  He was a character in the last book that caught my attention.  I just felt like he had a story to tell, and boy did he ever.

A truly did like West.  He seemed to me like a rebel without a cause.  He was stubborn and obstinate without really knowing exactly what he was fighting against.  (Definitely, sometimes he had a very real attacker.  We are talking about MMA fighting here.)  And Haley was alright.  I understood why her character was the way she was, but I didn’t necessarily like her for it.  But I got it.

But here’s the issue I’m starting to have with McGarry’s novels: they all feel exactly the same.  I mean, the writing of each is fantastically descriptive and the romance is *mwah*, but every book feels like it is the book, just with new characters and a new sport to focus on. (Only the first one is an exception to that.)  And the characters even have eerily similar backgrounds.  Each one struggles with some kind of secret they feel they can’t share with anyone…and usually one of the characters has someone physically abusive in their lives.  I know these things happen in real life.  I know it.  But when each book is exactly the same, it blunts the effectiveness I think the story is trying to have.  Instead of having my sympathies with the characters, I find myself almost bored.  I know that sounds horrible, but when each of her stories is the same…it’s predictable.

I did like the story.  McGarry does write really well and the romance is developed in a way that feels natural.  It’s slow and adorable.  You root for them to be together.

My only wish was that there was something fundamentally different about this book that made it stand out more.  Maybe McGarry’s new book series will be what I’m looking for.

Awaken (Abandon Trilogy, #3)

First Lines: In school they told us to follow the rules.  Don’t talk to strangers.  Safety first, they said.  Walk, don’t run–unless it’s from a stranger, of course.

I am so bad about finishing off series.  I don’t know why, but it seems to take me years to finally read it.  According to my records, it’s been over 2 years since I last read the previous book in this series.  Oh, the joy of trying to remember everything when you dive right back in.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Death has Pierce in his clutches, and Pierce doesn’t want him to ever let her go.  Pierce is happy with John, even if it means spending eternity in the Underworld with him, a place she’s always feared.  Still, the sacrifice seems worth it.  But now everything Pierce holds dear is at risk when the Furies discover that John has broken a sacred rule: he’s brought someone back from the dead.  If the balance between life and death isn’t fixed–and soon–then the world as Pierce knows it will change forever.  But there’s only one way to fix it…someone has to die.

First of all, as many of you are already very aware, I am a huge fan of Greek mythology, especially the myth of Persephone and Hades.  There’s just something about it that captures my imagination.  While I was happy with the previous books in the series for modernizing the myth, this one took the cake for being the closest to the original myth.  And it even incorporated more Greek myths!  I was a happy nerd.

I could tell quite clearly early on the book, though, that I wasn’t going to be able to drop right into the story.  I’d forgotten too much.  I was lucky to remember what I did based on my notes.  I even thought about putting it down, calling it a bust because I just didn’t know what was going on.

But I stuck with it, just for a few more chapters.  And that turned into the whole book.

There just got to a certain point in the story where the action picked up and it got really exciting.  That was great for helping me feel like I was part of the story.  I liked Pierce and John.  They were definitely what kept me reading the story, though I think I liked them more in the earlier books.  But that’s pretty typical of me.  I like the beginnings of series more than I like endings.

I thought some things resolved themselves too easily in the story too.  Not everything was wrapped up in a pretty little bow, but it sure felt like a lot of things at least came with a sticker.

The book was really funny too.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Usually, the later into a series you get, the more serious it gets.  But there were so many points in this book that showcased characters’ humor and simply put them in horribly awkward situations that made me giggle.  (I’m a giggler when things get awkward.  As long as the awkward things aren’t happening to me.)  So funny.

Overall, I thought it was an exciting modern twist on the Greek myth I love so much, but it’s just been too long since I read the previous books to fully enjoy it.  If I had, maybe I would have been more into the story.

The Moon and More

First Lines: Here they come.  “–or I promise you, we’ll turn right around and go back to Paterson!” the woman behind the wheel of the burgundy minivan was shouting as it pulled up beside me.

With two snow days this week, I have had an impromptu four-day weekend and LOTS of time to read.  Which is FANTASTIC.  I’m breezing through thick books that would take me about a week with school!  This is a book I have been meaning to read for a while, but it just never seemed like the right time.

Luke is the perfect boyfriend for Emaline.  He’s kind, sweet, and super hot.  They’ve been together for three years, basically all through high school.  But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if that’s enough to keep them together.  Then comes Theo, the super-ambitious New Yorker who’s come to Colby to make a documentary about a local artist.  Theo’s different and smart…and he thinks Emaline is too smart for Colby.  So does Emaline’s absentee father, who’s convinced Emaline has to go to an Ivy League school to meet her potential.  Emaline loves all these bright stars in her future, but she also has deep roots in Colby, with her mom and step-family.  Emaline wants the moon and more, but can she balance that with where she came from?

I really liked Emaline in this story, and I thought she was highly relatable.  How many of us dream our whole lives to leave our hometown and then, when the time comes, we aren’t so sure we actually do want to break free of our roots?  Emaline is a strong female character who tends to be a people person.  But when she’s upset, she’ll say exactly what she’s thinking.  I liked how realistic that felt, and how opposite they were.

Other characters, too, felt realistic.  Some were sweet, some were frustrating.  And some were quirky.  But the best part was that you found yourself relating to and liking the characters you never thought you would.  (Morris?!  Really?)

I liked that this felt different from other Dessen novels.  (This is something she has specifically talked about before.  She was told she was too formulaic with her novels so she wrote this differently and was given backlash for it.  You can’t win.)  Anywho, I liked that this felt different because that also made it feel more relatable to the point I’m currently at in my life.  Emaline is at a crossroads in her life, where every direction feels like it has more cons than pros.  But this ending just felt like Emaline, pure and simple.  Anything else wouldn’t have been her.

I know I have very little evidence to back this up, but it felt like Emaline’s home situation is harder than previous Dessen characters.  I don’t know exactly why, except that it’s been a long time since I’ve read other Dessen books.  Emaline has a pretty good relationship with her mom and dad (who is actually her stepdad), but a rocky one with her biological father.  That was an interesting relationship to explore.

But the reason I really love Dessen books is that there’s always something to learn from them.  Something about life, love, relationship, or something in between.  There’s so much wisdom in these pages.  Sometimes, that means the story is emotional and heavy.  Other times I just happened to find things in Emaline’s life that echoed mine.  But I just love the advice I find in her writing.

Overall, this was a really cute book that doesn’t shy away from tougher topics.

Resolutions Check-In: Part 1

Hello lovelies!  I figured the only way I would be able to make sure I keep up on my resolutions would be to occasionally post some kind of a check-in about my progress.  And also, I thought it might help some of you.  For example, I follow Sarah Dessen (@sarahdessen) on Twitter and she posts some amazingly personal struggles she has gone through with her writing, her daughter, and a miscarriage she had years ago.  And even though I cannot relate to 2 of those 3, it’s still truly inspiring.  So, to follow in her amazing footsteps, I thought maybe if I posted some of my progress, maybe it would help inspire some of you to find your own happiness…or at least take some time to smell the roses around you.

Truly, this is the one I’ve made the most progress on, and it’s also the hardest.

Fill my life with as much happiness as possible.

You don’t realize how hard that is until you realize how many times you throw yourself mini pity parties without consciously noticing it.  When I’m sitting at home, stuffing my face with crackers, it’s easy for me to sit there and say to myself, “I’m lonely.  No one likes me.  That’s why I’m sitting here alone on a Tuesday night with a 10:30 bedtime.  Being an adult sucks.”  But, really, what does this kind of thinking accomplish?  Nothing.  Not a thing.  It only makes me feel worse.  So when these thoughts creep in, I take a few deep breaths and try to remind myself about things in my life that do seem to be going well.

And I have made a very large step in this direction.

After making this resolution, I broke up with my boyfriend.

For many, this came as a surprise.  My family, my coworkers, my boyfriend himself.  But after 3 months with him, I just found I wasn’t happy.  I enjoyed spending time with him, sure, but I had this nagging voice in the back of my head that kept telling me something wasn’t right.  I tried to ignore it.  I’ve heard that voice before, every time I get scared of something.

See, I’m constantly terrified that people are going to leave my life.  I’m envious of people who have had the same best friend since first grade, who know without a doubt who their maid of honor will be in their wedding.  I don’t have that.  I’ve had close friends throughout every school I went to, but after high school ended, after college ended, they all drifted away even as I tried to keep in contact.  It makes me feel clingy to keep trying to put things together when they only ignore my attempts to plan a get-together. So the more I feel for a guy, the more afraid I get that he’s just going to leave.  It’s a panicky, fluttery feeling that makes me feel like I’m just going to disappoint someone, than I’m going to watch everything crash and burn, that it’s only a matter of time before things go south.

This was the feeling I was trying to ignore.

But when I stopped to think about my relationship with this guy, I realized there were cracks emerging.  We didn’t communicate well together.  We fell into a rut by date 2 of going to his place, eating, and watching something.  (We only went “out” somewhere three times in three months.)  We didn’t really try to include each other in our lives.  Now, I’ve only ever been in one other serious relationship, and it was the complete opposite of this.  I didn’t have a lot of previous experience to draw from, and that made me nervous.

And it created the worst problem: I kept comparing this boy to my ex.  I couldn’t get my ex out of my head.  I kept thinking about him and our good times, about him and the things I loved (and hated) about him, and then about him and his new girlfriend.  It wasn’t that I wanted back together with him (I don’t), but it seemed a really bad sign to be thinking about my ex the whole time I was with a new guy.

So I ended things.

I wasn’t happy when I was constantly trying to impress him or make him happy.  Worrying about all of this didn’t make me happy either.  Ultimately, I think I got into the relationship for all the wrong reasons.  After a devastating but unsurprising break-up with my ex in April, I think I just wanted to know that I wasn’t unlovable after that.  This guy was sweet and caring, but it just took me three months to realize that I needed some time to love myself before I could give my heart to someone else.

That sounds like a line out of a B movie, but there’s really something to it.  We spend so much time trying to impress other people, to silently shout “We are important!  We are worth your notice!” that we stop noticing ourselves.

And once I started noticing myself, I discovered something kind of amazing: teaching makes me happy.

*Slow clap for the teacher*  Yes, I realize how ridiculous this sounds.  But a teacher’s first year is the hardest thing ever.  And I forgot over the last semester why I got into this profession.  I love the kids.  I love seeing the wheels turn in their heads as they start to figure something out.  I love seeing them become passionate about something important to them.  Just talking to a few of them one-on-one after class makes me feel good.

I’ve finally started getting organized and hitting my stride as a teacher.  It’s still a bumpy road, but it’s getting smoother.  And it makes me happy to know that I’m doing something I enjoy.

It hasn’t been an easy first week, but it’s been interesting.  Slowly, I’m finding my groove.  And if I can keep this up, it’s going to be a great year.

– Holly

Whisper the Dead (The Lovegrove Legacy, #2)

First Lines: Gretchen was on her way to the Worthing musicale when her head exploded.  She finally knew exactly what a ripe melon felt like when it burst open.  Frankly, it was knowledge she could have done without.

I think the weather is paying attention to my reading habits.  I read a book with snow and frost on the cover and what happens?  Blistering cold and snow.  Coincidence?  I think NOT!  …Ok, maybe a little bit.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Being a Lovegrove is no easy task, as Gretchen has learned.  As a Whisperer, a rare kind of witch that can tell when spells aren’t right, Gretchen constantly hears voices in her head from other witches about spells.  It’s a pain.  But when something evil descends on her town, Gretchen must master her gift–and fast.  Together with her cousins, a Madcap named Moira, and the reserved Tobias Lawless, Gretchen will go through unimaginable trials in order to keep the Greymalkin sisters from rising again.

First of all, I give Harvey kudos.  This book did not pull its punches.  Some of them were soul-beating punches, others just enough for a bruise.  But it was rough and surprising at times.

I actually liked this book better than the first one.  There was just something about Gretchen and Tobias that I liked better than Emma and Cormac.  I think it’s because Gretchen’s fiery attitude immediately made her more interesting to me than Emma’s personality.  And Tobias’s reserved nature–along with his secrets–was more entertaining than Cormac’s flirty demeanor.  There’s nothing wrong with Emma and Cormac…they just weren’t terribly interesting to me.  I love a heroine with a ton of spunk and rebellion to her name.

There is a lot of action in this book as well.  Sure, there were dull moments at times, but the ending of the book is quite intense.  And action–fighting, unraveling secrets–is present throughout the entire novel in good doses.

Still, even though I enjoyed the book, there was something about it that keeps me from saying that I loved it.  I think it stems from the narration style.  I had this issue with the last book too.  The narration jumps from Gretchen to Penelope to Emma to Cormac to Tobias to Moira and then back again in any number of combinations.  There are just so many characters that crop up as narrators and it just felt choppy to me.  While it absolutely works for some stories, I just don’t think this is one of them.  Or at least something about it feels off.

Overall, it’s a fun paranormal/historical fiction read that is even more intense than the last and full of fun spice from our lead characters.