First Lines: Her mother had once told her that the only way to truly know someone was to fight them. In Lore’s experience, the only thing fighting actually revealed was the spot on their body someone least wanted to be punched.

It’s probably no secret to those of you who have been following my reviews for a while, but in the past year I’ve become a big fan of Alexandra Bracken. I’m slowly working my way through her published works and this one definitely caught my eye from the moment I first saw it.

Every seven years, the Agon begins. Nine Greek gods are forced to walk the earth as mortals, a punishment for past rebellions. They are hunted by descendants of ancient bloodlines who all want to kill these gods and absorb their power and immortality. Years ago, Lore walked away from this life. After her family was brutally murdered by a rival bloodline, wanting nothing more to do with this world unless it’s about getting revenge against the man–now god–who ordered their deaths. Except as the newest Agon begins, two participants need Lore’s help: Castor, a childhood friend who Lore believed to be dead, and a gravely wounded Athena, one of the last remaining original gods. Athena offers Lore what she can’t turn down: revenge and a way to leave the Agon forever. But Lore’s decision comes at a deadly cost she may not be willing to pay…

I actually genuinely really liked this. (Are there enough adverbs in that sentence?) I thought it was interesting and engaging and fun. It’s basically Greek mythology meets The Hunger Games. I didn’t realize it was a standalone until I finished it. That impresses and disappoints me.

The story follows Lore, a seventeen year old (who definitely does NOT act like she’s seventeen, but we’ll get to that) who discovered her entire family murdered seven years ago at the end of the Agon, a week-long hunt every seven years where the Greek gods become mortal and can be killed. Since then, she’s tried to escape her heritage and the Agon, wanting out. But when the Agon comes again, she finds herself dragged back into it.

First of all, I love this take on the Greek gods. The fact that they can turn mortal while still retaining some of their powers is cool. The wide range of personalities and backstabbing between them also really made the story. I felt everything was really well fleshed out, from the mythology and world building to how this Agon and hunters thing works. It was fun to sink into this world–and super easy to do so.

The characters were also really cool. As I mentioned, Lore feels much older than 17. At first, I thought it was just because of all the darkness she’s gone through, it had matured her, but now I definitely think this is the one misstep in the writing. Honestly, she acts like she’s in her twenties and I had a very hard time believing she was just seventeen, considering she’d been someone’s caretaker for a few years and a runaway at twelve and no one cared. Like…that’s odd. She was a great heroine, but I just did not feel like anyone in this story was actually a teenager. That was the most unbelievable part of a story about Greek gods getting killed in New York City.

Still, despite all that, I truly did like the story. I thought it was fun and fast because I got so pulled into the story. Lots of twists, lots of turns. Lots of fun. Easily my favorite read of this summer.

Dance of Shadows (Dance of Shadows, #1)

Dance of Shadows (Dance of Shadows, #1)

First Lines: In the harsh glare of the lights, Chloe’s shadow stretched across the stage. Her toes pointed and taut, her arms fluttering like wings, she arched her neck and watched as her own silhouette seemed to move without her…

I bought this book a long time ago for super cheap and I have been meaning to get around to it for a long time. (Why is it so much harder to read books I own?) I consider myself a dancer, though I never took ballet or anything like that. But that means I’m always drawn to stories about dance and with the touch of paranormal in this one, I thought it would be something I enjoyed.

Vanessa has just been enrolled in the world-renowned New York Ballet Academy. It would be the dream of a lifetime–if it wasn’t that this was the same school her sister, Margaret, disappeared from three years ago. Vanessa is here in part to find out what happened to Margaret. But when Vanessa lands a lead role in a NYBA production most girls would kill for, she’s suddenly thrown into a world of secrets that stretches beyond NYBA. Someone–or something–wants to use Vanessa for more than her talent. Will she be able to fight back…or could she end up sharing the same strange fate as her sister?

Some things about this book turned out to be pretty good. The characters, while sometimes not being fully fleshed out or just following stereotypes, were still usually entertaining. It’s just that there are so many named characters that, beyond Vanessa and a couple of her closest friends, you really don’t get to know anyone else well at all. Teachers, enemies, villains, everyone is really just a stereotype. You have mean girls, mysterious persons who know more than they should, people who are only in the story to drop a bombshell and you never hear from them again, etc.

The mystery was intriguing most of the time. I thought it started off well and I had questions about it all the time as new little clues came to light. But the final “payoff”…boy, was that not what I wanted. Sure I saw it going that way, but it was kind of weird. And I thought the ending had some tone problems because, for as serious as it was, there were a ton of jokes being cracked the whole time.

I do like the subject matter. As a dancer myself (though not a ballet dancer), I related to a lot that Vanessa talks about and experiences. So I did like that a whole story revolved around dance so much. But this is just a weird story. 

Love, Lies and Spies

Love, Lies and Spies

First Lines: “Oh my, this is embarrassing,” Miss Juliana Telford said aloud. There was no reason to keep her thoughts to herself, as she was alone, completely alone. In fact, that was half of the problem. The other half was, of course, that she was hanging off the side of a cliff with the inability to climb either up or down and in dire need of rescue.

This book was on my to-read list for something like 5 years. It always sounded vaguely interesting, but never something I was really in the mood for. It’s a Swoon Reads book (which is sort of the YA version of Harlequin Romance). Some SR books are really good and I’ve loved them. Others are cheesier than Hallmark movies, if you can believe it. Not knowing which way this went prevented me from picking it up sooner.

Juliana Telford isn’t a typical debutante. Instead of longing for balls and gowns and lingering glances from eligible gentlemen, Juliana wants nothing more than to publish her research on ladybugs. So when her father sends her to London for a season, Juliana’s determined to make no matches and instead secretly search for publishers. Spencer Northam is not your typical gentleman. A spy for the War Office, he’s determined to do well on his first mission–and that doesn’t include falling for any young women. When he learns Juliana feels the same way, they decide to fabricate an attachment to keep others off their backs. Spencer can finally focus on his mission…until he’s told to keep a close eye on Juliana and her companions…

It was fine. I read a lot of historical romances that take place in this era, some of them involving spies or soldiers from this war, and this admittedly fell a little flat from those. Granted, those are actual romance novels, but they are typically very well researched and don’t shy away from the darker sides of human nature in these instances. This was pretty much all fluff. The reason Spencer’s even spying is kind of dumb.

Juliana and Spencer do have some really interesting and funny moments together. When we first meet Juliana at the very beginning, she’s gotten herself into a spot of trouble and is in need of rescue. It’s a ridiculous situation, which sort of helped to set the light-hearted tone of the story. I liked them both as characters, given their different interests and skills. Juliana is something of a bluestocking, helping her father with their ladybug research. Spencer works as a spy to feed misinformation to the French because it’s something he’s good at. And together, they kind of worked too.

My problem with this story comes more from the plotting. Admittedly, the beginning and a good part of the middle are good. I was drawn in. There are even a few twists I did not see coming that changed my whole outlook on the story. However, I felt like the end was a bit off the mark and something of a let-down. I just felt like it was kind of a weird way to end the story. I mean, there was a lot about this story that was cheesy from the get-go (and that was appealing for a while), but the ending just went over the top.

I enjoyed parts of this story, but it’s totally a gimmick story that is over the top on purpose. That’s not a bad thing if that’s what you’re in the mood for, but I just felt like sometimes the melodrama went on too long.

Words in Deep Blue

Words in Deep Blue

First Lines: I open my eyes at midnight to the sound of the ocean and my brother’s breathing. It’s been ten months since Cal drowned, but the dreams still escape.

I’ve read one or two books by Cath Crowley before, so I sort of knew how the writing style would be here. The other book(s) I read had a lot of depth and a lot of realism. From the book jacket, I knew this was going to be similar in that way.

Once upon a time, Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie were best friends. They did everything together. But then Rachel’s family moved to the sea and the two fell out, leaving Henry stuck in his life at his family’s used bookstore–never knowing that Rachel left him a note in his favorite book. Now Rachel’s back, reluctantly working with Henry at the bookstore while grieving for her brother. She’s searching for meaning and advice in the words people have left behind in books. But maybe she’ll learn how to live life again, with the help of a friend…

This ended up being mostly what I thought it would be: a sweet story of old friends finding each other again amid some pretty awful tragedies. It’s bittersweet.

Rachel’s brother Cal died about 10 months ago and she’s still far from over it. She can’t feel much else except her grief, which is why she gets sent back to her old hometown, where she’s going to live with her aunt and try to make a fresh start. Henry’s girlfriend Amy has just broken up with him and almost immediately moves on with someone else, while Henry has to watch. Both are heartbroken in their own ways and it’s going to take leaning on each other to start to recover.

What’s kind of cool about this is the bookstore setting. Henry’s family owns a secondhand bookshop that also has a Letters Library in it, where people are encouraged to leave notes in the margins and letters within the pages. It’s a fun little idea, even if the type of book nerd I am really dislikes writing in books. But it’s definitely what helps drive this plot, as the characters frequently leave or find things in the books.

Oh, and the story’s set in Australia. That’s also pretty cool, though I definitely had to consciously think about the seasons being flipped. I think they talk about summer in January and that was startling for a second until I remembered.

The characters have their low points and their high points, but I really just liked that they were able to fail with each other and learn and become better for it. Rachel and Henry are just two young, broken people with the world ahead of them, if only they can see it. It’s sweet with a good message.

The Downstairs Girl

The Downstairs Girl

First Lines: Being nice is like leaving your door wide-open. Eventually, someone’s going to mosey in and steal your best hat. Me, I only have one hat and it is uglier than a smashed crow, so if someone stole it, the joke would be on their head, literally.

I think I’ve only read one other Stacey Lee book, but I was blown away by it. And with the amount of praise I heard around this book, I really wanted to check it out. It’s historical, it’s diverse, and I knew the writing would be excellent.

By day, Jo Kuan is a lady’s maid for a horrible daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest men. By night, Jo moonlights as advice columnist “Miss Sweetie” in the local paper under that same pseudonym. When her column becomes incredibly popular, she uses her newfound status to write about some of society’s ills, but she’s not ready for the backlash her stance on gender and race gets. Opponents now want Miss Sweetie unmasked, something that absolutely cannot happen due to her own race. At the same time, Jo finds a mysterious letter that sets her off on a path to discover her birth parents, who gave her up as a baby. But when this puts her in the path of the town’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide if she’s ready to move from the shadows into the light.

This did not disappoint.

In this book, we meet Jo, who is one of very few Chinese Americans in Atlanta–even though she was never seen as “American” despite being born in America. Jo is sassy and, while that sometimes gets her into trouble, she feels the need to share her opinion on how dumb things like discrimination and segregation are. She’s fighting for a little piece of freedom: the ability to make the most of her own life. And she’s a great heroine, honestly. I really liked her.

The setting is obviously a huge part of the story, especially as it’s 1890 Atlanta, just as the South is really pushing back against all the post-Civil War regulations placed on them and technology/norms are changing for everyone. There’s a focus in this story not just on racial segregation but also women’s rights issues like suffrage and even being able to ride a bike in public without being seen as a loose woman. The past was weird.

I really enjoyed the story overall. All I really had a problem with was that near the end the plot twists come at you fast and they’re not exactly needed. One or two of them, maybe, but I felt like the last quarter of the book was just one reveal after another and I just had to wonder why we needed them, or why so many of them all at once. Otherwise, I see why this book gets the praise it does. It’s deserved.

Phoenix Flame (Havenfall, #2)

Phoenix Flame (Havenfall #2)

First Lines: Havenfall is my home. I test the words out, whispering them to myself as I walk slowly down the grand staircase toward the ballroom.

Earlier this year, I picked up the first book in this duology semi-randomly at the library. I’d seen it before and thought it looked interesting, but it wasn’t high on my to-read list. And I didn’t exactly love it, but I thought it was worth seeing how the series wrapped up since it was so short. So I wanted to give this a chance.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Maddie thought she’d saved her home and her friends. She defeated the Silver Prince and protected the Inn from a coup. Her uncle is recovering from the mysterious spell that made him not quite human. And there are still a few weeks left of summer for her to enjoy with her best-friend-turned-maybe-boyfriend Brekken. But it’s not over. The black-market trading of magical objects is still going strong and in order to shut it down for good, Maddie might have to go through the Inn’s doors into the once feared land of shapeshifters. Secrets abound, a few of them that could change everything…

Overall, I found this entire series to be somewhat lackluster and predictable. This book was especially hard for me to get through for some reason.

What I struggled with a lot at the beginning was that I just didn’t care about the plot or the characters. It picks up pretty much right where we left off in the previous book, but there were just so many moving parts and nothing was being accomplished for so long. Everyone was acting weird and it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

I did start finally getting more into the story about halfway through with the convenient introduction of a new character. (Everything in this series is either wildly predictable or very convenient.) So I wasn’t surprised by what happened, but it added a nice amount of spice to the otherwise boring story.

The end of this book (and thus the end of this duology) was pretty lackluster as well. One of the major plot lines doesn’t even get fully resolved. Actually, a lot of stuff doesn’t really get resolved, now that I think about it. It was somewhat satisfying as far as just finishing the book went but that was about it.