The Valiant (The Valiant, #1)

Image result for the valiantFirst Lines: The steam rising off the backs of the cantering horses faded into the morning fog.  Our chariot raced toward the far end of the Forgotten Vale, and Maelgwyn Ironhand–my charioteer, constant companion, and frequent adversary–pulled back on the reins.

Back in high school, I was reading Lesley Livingston’s Wondrous Strange series, about faeries and Shakespeare and a bunch of other cool stuff.  At the library one day, I saw this on the shelf and I thought it looked interesting.

When Fallon was a child, Julius Caesar invaded her homeland of Prydain and captured her father–a king of the Celts.  To get him back, Fallon’s older sister Sorcha fought Caesar’s legions–and died.  Fallon has been living in Sorcha’s shadow ever since and now, on Fallon’s 17th birthday, she can finally be a warrior like Sorcha.  But she never gets the chance.  Captured and sold to an elite Roman school training female gladiators, Fallon discovers she’s owned by her worst enemy: Caesar himself.  In a cruel twist of fate, Caesar may just be the only hope Fallon has of survival.  With enemies all around her, and not just in the arena, Fallon will always be fighting to protect herself.  And her most dangerous adversary may just be Cai, the young Roman soldier intent on stealing her heart.

This was a very interesting concept. I’ve read Lesley Livingston before and, as she admits in her own acknowledgements, this is the first time she’s written something that didn’t involve characters using magic. And I liked the result.

This covers an interesting moment in history that I don’t see many other books write about. It’s set during the reign of Julius Caesar in Rome, but it takes place not just in Rome but in Prydain or Britain as well, with the different bands of Celts that lived there. With my fast growing interest in the Celts and Anglo-Saxons who lived in England before the Norman Invasion, this was something I had to check out. And it did not disappoint.

The story focuses on the idea of having female gladiators known as gladiatrix. At the time of the story, it’s been a role that has been growing only for the last ten years or so, so there still aren’t many gladiatrix. It’s kind of interesting to see how it might have been different for a female warrior than a man, and the story makes sure to point some of that out.

The plot was fascinating and gripping once you knew what was going on. (It takes some time to set everything up, especially since we’re no longer familiar with the day-to-day of the Celtic or the Roman cultures.) When warriors of any kind are involved, there’s always danger and tempers on edge. I had a hard time predicting what might happen next because, like Fallon, I didn’t know what was normal in Rome and neither of us knew who was friend and who was foe.

I found myself really enjoying the characters in this. Fallon is strong and determined, but that determination also makes her blind to the politics of what’s happening around her. That’s where Cai comes in, as he wants to protect her as much as he can, even knowing she can fight her own battles. They have an interesting chemistry together because they push each other. I like that. It was even interesting to see people like Caesar himself and Cleopatra make appearances in this book. They were given personalities I have never really heard either of them having, but it makes sense. (Example: Caesar is nice and Cleopatra is clever but compassionate.)

I keep using the word over and over, but it really was interesting! There were so many little pieces of this story that I kept seeing that got my interest. While I’ve never been a fan of Romans (I much prefer the Greeks), I now kind of want to read up a little on their culture.


Black Keys (Colorblind, #1)

Image result for black keys rose b mashalFirst Lines: Oh, God!  I’d never let that pig touch me!  I shot up into a standing position like the couch was on fire and looked around, finally really taking the room in.  The sheets on the bed were white with red rosebuds all over them, shaped like a giant heart.

Ok, I recently read this and had to share it with you guys, but I do have a disclaimer first: this is not YA.  It’s officially billed as Romance, but I’m telling you, it’s not explicit like, at all.  And because of that, I wanted to let you guys know about this, especially since it’s FREE on Amazon!

As a bright, young CEO of her parents’ company, Marie feels like her life is in her control.  Her life has had its rough moments, but her Catholic faith and her own strength have persevered.  When her brother Joseph returns from their Middle Eastern branch, he comes bringing news that he’s going to be married.  But when Joseph betrays her, Marie learns suddenly that he’s brokered her own marriage–to a Muslim Arab prince named Mazen.  Heartbroken, lost, and afraid, Marie struggles to deal with what Joseph has just thrown her way.  Her new husband feels equally betrayed, but all he wants is for Marie to understand and learn that he’s not the monster she believes him to be.

I feel like I’m underselling this in the blurb, but I promise you, it’s so good.

Holy Schmoly Batman, I could not put this down. Yes, there are moments that are cliche or there’s the fact that the timeline can sometimes be hard to follow, but it was still amazing.

I was completely drawn in by the culture of the story. Marie is a twenty-two year old American who runs her family company with her brother after the death of their parents.  Obviously, I’m well-versed in her culture.  Then you have Mazen, the Muslim Arab prince and his culture.  I was not as familiar with that.

It was dramatic. It was scary. It was sweet and tender. Like, most everything I could want from a book was in this. (I’ll also fess up right now and say that one of my favorite tropes is arranged marriages, for some reason. I like seeing what happens when two unlikely people end up being pushed together. So I was really into this.)

Like I was saying, I got swept up into everything to do with the culture. Mazen’s Muslim background is a complete no-no for Marie. She doesn’t understand it at all and, even though she is clearly prejudiced again them, thinks of herself as nowhere near racist. It was a really interesting study in how people can deny everything they see if it messes with the world view they’ve held so close.

On top of that, I vastly enjoyed learning more about the Muslim religion and culture. There were some things I knew, but many that I did not. I was learning right along with Marie and I’m happy that I had that opportunity.

While this is billed as a romance novel, it’s not what you’re probably picturing at all. I don’t want to say too much, but let’s just say that both Marie and Mazen can be quite stubborn when things don’t go their way.

Also, these characters are fantastic. I mean, the character development is ace. Marie obviously changes a lot throughout the story as she learns that what she’s been taught is wrong, but it was also amazing to see the way Mazen’s character was revealed in bits and pieces. I was constantly wanting more. But there are all kinds of other characters. The characters you love immediately, the characters you hate immediately, the characters that surprise you, and the characters that betray your first feelings. They all took it to new levels.

I will say that the writing style…something about it seemed a little distant.  Normally when I read stories I get swept up in, I feel everything.  I mean, I blush and giggle and cry along with the characters.  I didn’t do that with this one.  I felt like I wasn’t Marie.  Which makes the fact that I loved this so much more bizarre.

This is just so different from everything else I’ve read. I loved it.

Towers Falling

Image result for towers fallingFirst Lines: Pop groans.  He’s having bad dreams again.  I hear Ma trying to comfort him.

So I’ll start by saying this is a younger story than I usually read.  The main character is a 5th grader.  But I got this from Scholastic a while ago as part of some bundle and I had to try it, especially with 9/11 around the corner.

When her 5th grade teacher starts hinting about things that happened in New York years ago, things involving two towers that are no longer there, Deja is confused.  She’s never heard of it before, and something that major, shouldn’t she have?  On a journey of discovery with her two best friends Ben and Sabeen, Deja is going to discover what it means to be American, how communities can grow and heal, and how history can still touch us.  Worse, she might find out why her father gets upset every time she mentions the towers…

It’s been 17 years since the world as I knew it changed. I was only 10, the same age as the characters in this story. In many ways, their reactions were very similar to mine at the time, especially Deja’s. Like me, it was very difficult for her to fathom the extent of the damage and what it meant. Like me, it seemed impossible that people would willingly want to kill so many people to make a point. Like me, she didn’t understand what a “terrorist” was.

In that way, this really resonated with me.  I understood Deja a lot more than I thought I would.  (I almost stopped reading this because she was so young, then I related to her.)

It really struck home in a lot of ways. While I don’t come from New York and have never been, 9/11 was a massively impactful day for me. And Deja’s only just figuring out how it affected her. As a teacher, I’ve come into contact with this generation that wasn’t even born when it happened, a generation that doesn’t always understand. Following Deja’s journey was also helpful for me in knowing how to frame this for my students.

This is a story of acceptance, of understanding. Deja is friends with a girl of Turkish descent and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see what she struggles with, being in NYC after the attacks. The story never goes too far into the details of 9/11, but it doesn’t leave anything out either. It’s faithful to what happened, but it doesn’t delve into all of the details. It’s perfect for the grade level it’s marketed to, because it’s going to give the basics that could help a parent or a teacher really start talking about these topics.

And Deja’s right. It’s not our differences that matter, but our similarities. 9/11 proved to us that we are all Americans, no matter what we look like or what we believe. If only more people could learn from her example.

The 48

Image result for the 48 donna hosieOk, y’all, this review is going to be formatted a little different than usual for one very good reason:

This is a DNF.  At 17%.

I got this book from Edelweiss as an ARC (it’s set to come out in October).  It looked interesting.  Time traveling assassins Charlie and Alex go back in time to King Henry VIII’s Tudor court to prevent Henry from marrying Jane Seymour.  It gets more complicated when their friend and fellow assassin Alice shows up unexpectedly.  Told in alternating perspectives between Charlie, Alex, and Queen Anne’s ladies’ maid Lady Margaret, we get to see both sides of history: the one who lived it and the two who want to change it.

Sounds exciting, right?

And at the beginning, it was fine. We start in Tudor England following Lady Margaret, Queen Anne Boleyn’s lady in waiting. And that was interesting, because Anne was about to start her fall from grace. It’s a very dramatic moment in history and it was lending itself well to that.  Everyone more or less knew Anne’s number would soon be up.

Then the time travel/The 48 stuff really started coming in and I lost it. I lost the momentum of the story, I lost why I should care about these characters, and I love the motivation to keep going. It’s this whole secret society thing and I couldn’t quite get behind a group that appears to want to change history willy-nilly for personal gain of some kind (I didn’t quite get far enough to piece all of that together).

It just…ok, I’m used to time travel stories where the time travel is more of an accident, like Outlander.  I don’t read a whole lot of time travel stories to begin with, but the whole systematic secret society aspect of it made it feel clinical and brutal.  I seriously felt like they had no real motivation to be doing what they were doing.  I didn’t understand why these characters would risk their lives to change history when it seemed like all they were trying to do was keep Catholicism from rising again in England.  (And that was just in Charlie and Alex’s case!  Who knows what the others were doing.)  I got weirded out.

I simply wasn’t enjoying it. It felt like a chore to pick it up and then my mind started wandering when I did. It wasn’t worth it to continue.

Daughter of the Pirate King (Daughter of the Pirate King, #1)

Image result for daughter of the pirate kingFirst Lines: I hate having to dress like a man.  The cotton shirt is too loose, the breeches too big, the boots too uncomfortable.

I was intrigued by this book before it got a cover.  Then, after it did…I was a little disappointed in the cover.  I thought it looked cartoony and gave off a totally different vibe than the synopsis did.  I thought I’d misjudged it, so I let it sit on my to-read shelf.  When I was at the library last, it was available and truly, I can’t stay away from female pirates.

Seventeen-year-old captain Alosa willingly allows herself to be captured by her enemies in a desperate quest to find one part of a famous treasure map.  Being captured by them allows her to search their ship without raising too much suspicion.  More than capable of handling the crew, there’s only one thing in Alosa’s way: Riden, the suspicious first mate who seems to suspect something isn’t right.  Clever as he may be (and hot to boot), Alosa has more than a few tricks up her sleeves.  Besides, failure is not an option for her.

Alosa is a lot of fun. Snarky and stubborn, she’s not about to let anyone get the jump on her if she can help it. And most of the time, she’s one step ahead of everyone else. I liked that cleverness and foresight.  The quote at the top of the book from Anna Banks calls her a female Jack Sparrow (I’m sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow), and I see the similarities.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but Alosa does have that same sarcastic, devil-may-care streak they both have.  But she’s not a drunk like Jack nor does she rely on luck.  Alosa writes her own destiny.

For the most part, I found the other characters delightful as well–though a number of them felt flat. Obvious exceptions would be Draxton, the captain who kidnapped Alosa, and Riden, his first mate. And there are other goofball side characters who had a bit of a personality of their own that I enjoyed.

While the characters may not have always been overly impressive, I thought the action was. The plot was very fast-paced and always interesting. It was just a matter of me finding time to read it! But between Alosa being so clever and the constant fights (yeah, pirates) and Riden being suspicious, there was always something going on. I had a lot of fun reading about it all, especially when Alosa got herself out of some tight scrapes. It might be a weird way of describing it, but I thought those action scenes were well-edited. It always seemed to focus on just the right information without going too long and always stayed focused on what was important.

Oh, and there were a few flirty scenes that were muy caliente.  Like, surprisingly so.  I was reading it at school before our open house when parents come meet us and I was pretty sure that more than once I was probably blushing when a parent walked in.  (Not that it’s explicit–just caliente.)

I know this is supposed to be a duology, but as I got closer to the end, that well-edited compliment started to feel a little less so. The story builds up a lot along the way and then as you know the ending’s coming, there’s way too much to be wrapped up or even described well. That started to feel a little like the story had either lost its momentum or had lost its aim.

But otherwise, I really enjoyed that. I’m interested to see where the story goes next.

Slay (Freya, #2)

Image result for slay matthew laurenceFirst lines: The lava hasn’t even cooled yet.

We interrupt our dour doom-and-gloom post of yesterday to bring you something light and fluffy: a marshmallow!  I joke.  But really, this book is light and funny that it can blast away pretty much any bad mood.  So what did I think of it?  Let’s find out.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

After Freya escaped from the Finemdi Corporation, she journeys to Hollywood with her friend/high priest Nathan and Egyptian goddess bestie Sekhmet.  Again, Freya disguises herself as Sara Vanadi, an up-and-coming actress on a television show.  She desperately needs followers because each worshiper she has gives her more of the power she had when the Norse gods ruled.  But her enemies aren’t done with her yet.  Freya needs to walk a fine line between goddess and mortal.  Because if she loses her humanity, who will save the world?

The first book in this series bowled me over. I mean, it was sassy and action-packed, absurd and so much fun.

This book really isn’t any different in those respects, but I struggled with it. Part of it probably had nothing to do with the book. It was a book hangover from finishing a different series and while I thought I wanted something completely different from what I had just finished, apparently that was not the case.

But part of it, I think, was the book. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it was, but I’m going to try.

Ok, so Freya/Sara is still as sarcastic and kick-butt as ever. She will grind you into dust and examine her nails as she does so and it’sawesome. But I think part of what was weird about this book was that Sara was so unsure about herself. And I get that it’s not a bad thing to have flaws (she has plenty in other respects, like being pretty impulsive and morally iffy in some of her actions), but the self-consciousness was odd. I mean, we pretty much never saw her question herself in any respect in the first book and then about a quarter into this one, she suddenly starts feeling unsure about a lot. It was an odd tone for her to take.

I will say that one of my complaints about the first book was fixed this time around. I thought Nathan felt like a flat character last time, but that was definitely not the case this time around. I appreciated that. And getting to know other characters, like Sekhmet. She’s an interesting one.

The action’s also not as fast as it was in the last one. Last time, we were getting introduced to Norse mythology (if you weren’t well-versed in it anyway), figuring out just what exactly Finemdi wanted, and discovering Freya’s character. This time, it just felt slower. Sara decides she’s going to be a movie star for all the idolization, but every step of her journey was mentioned. Her spa days, her shopping sprees, her magicking her way to the top. In the reality TV-soaked world that we live in, I thought we may not have needed all of the details. I saw in a way why they were there, but it slowed the pace.

I will say that the end was quite adventurous. It took a very huge risk and I thought it paid off. That was gutsy and I respected that. I’m interested to see where that goes from there.

It’s so not a bad story. I’m still very invested in the story. Just the wrong book at the wrong time, I think.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018 Netflix Movie)

Image result for to all the boys i loved beforeThe letters are out.

This has gotten so much hype so quickly that I had to see what it was about.  I mean, not that I didn’t know.  I read the book years ago when it first came out, so I knew the plot.  But every YA author was all over Twitter spreading love and I needed to check it out.

In case you don’t know, Lara Jean Covey writes letters.  Ok, she only writes letters to her crushes when the feelings are so overwhelming that she doesn’t know what to do with them.  She never intended for them to be seen.  They were a way for her to deal with her feelings.  But when the letters get sent out by mistake, Lara Jean quickly finds herself caught up in trouble she never wanted.  When one of the boys pretends to be her boyfriend to save her from some of this trouble (and helps him get back with his ex), Lara Jean thinks it’s the perfect deal.  Until the feelings may not be pretend anymore, at least.

In a nutshell, it’s cute.  I’m thrilled at the diversity of Lara Jean’s half-Korean family (her dad’s white, her mom Korean) and all that came with that.  I thought the story was intriguing and I got sucked in even though I was initially doing other things when it started.

Lara Jean is the girl I think many of us might have been in high school.  She has one best friend, but mostly spends time with her sisters and stays home.  It’s all she needs.  She’s messy and shy and lives by the rules she sets for herself.  (She makes her fake boyfriend sign a contract!)  But perhaps my favorite trait of Lara Jean’s is that she is terrified of driving.  Praise the angels, there’s finally a character like me!  At 16, the last thing I wanted was the responsibility of handling a multi-ton vehicle that put my life–and others–in jeopardy every time I was on the road.  I’ve never seen another character like that and I’m so thrilled that Lara Jean was able to represent me in that way.

The plot, as I mentioned, is cute.  Lara Jean is stuck in a hard place, as one of the letters that went out was to her sister’s ex-boyfriend that Lara Jean had been crushing on for years.  Um…oops?  Watching her dodge that but also getting into hi-jinx with her fake boyfriend was just fun.  It was pretty light-hearted and funny most of the time.

But it definitely gets deep too. Death, abandonment, rumors, and bullying all play a role in this.  And it deals with them in a way that’s definitely respectable.  It didn’t feel like it was the “adult” response to these things, but it felt like teens trying to muddle through the best they could.  And that was pure and real.

And now we come to my single complaint of this movie: it’s not for younger viewers.

A coworker of mine is of Persian descent.  Her girls are half Persian and half white.  She’s constantly looking for movies and books for younger teens (7th and 9th grade) with a minority lead so they have representation.  I initially told her this might be a good choice.

I was wrong.  And I hate that she can’t show this to her girls.  (Also, they’re the type of girls who would self-censor, so it’s not entirely because their mother’s fault.)  Sex jokes, mentions of porn, and some strong language all make this perhaps not the best choice for younger teens.  I know some younger teens will watch it regardless, but I’m frustrated that YA as a genre (books and movies) seems to be making the main characters more/too mature for their ages.  It used to be that I couldn’t find YA books for older teens, but now I can’t find YA that’s appropriate for middle school, like I grew up with.

And I know that I can’t fault this movie too much for following the trend.  I promise I won’t take it out on this movie.  But I’m frustrated.  (Side note: if you know of any YA books with minority leads that are appropriate for middle school, leave a comment and you will have my eternal gratitude if not my soul to boot.)

Ahem.  As I was saying, this movie as a whole is quite cute.  The love story is adorable, Lara Jean is charmingly quirky, and it’s quite funny.  Just don’t maybe let the little ones watch it unless you want to explain what some things mean.