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.

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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.

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.

Classics: Pride and Prejudice

Image result for pride and prejudice bookFirst Lines: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I am 27 years old.  I took every AP English class I could in high school, majored in English education in college (which was basically majoring in both English and education), and I’ve been teaching for just over 4 years.

I’d never read Pride and Prejudice until now.

What’s ironic is that it was my own prejudice against it that kept me from reading it.  I had acquired a distaste for classics when I was in high school after being forced to read Dickens and Ayn Rand repeatedly, not to mention everyone telling me 1984 was great (it wasn’t).  I just stopped trusting that classics were actually good.

On top of that, I was forced in college to watch Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley by some friends.  (They promised Moulin Rouge and didn’t mention P&P was going to follow it.)  And after watching it, I didn’t get it.  I even saw the play version of this last fall and still didn’t totally get it.  What was the big deal with this story?  Why did girls fawn over Mr. Darcy, who was clearly a jerk?  Why was everyone so ga-ga over this book?

But after reading it…I get it.  I’m not going to say it’s my favorite book ever and I want a P&P proposal (pfft, Harry Potter all the way), but I understand the hype.

But this is supposed to be a book review, not my life story. I was charmingly surprised by this book, to be honest. Elizabeth, Darcy, Bingley, and Jane were all delightful for their own reasons. Elizabeth wasn’t afraid to say what she thought if someone pushed her too far. Jane is incapable of seeing the bad in anyone. Darcy is somewhat shy and his reticence comes off as being disagreeable and proud. Bingley, poor Mr. Bingley, keeps getting sucked into plots of someone else’s making. It was kind of cute.

Let’s make it clear though: Mr. Darcy is not, in my opinion, a stud muffin.  However, I can see why he’s a famous romantic figure.  Darcy is the farthest thing from an alpha male I think I’ve ever read.  He’s arrogant at times, sure, but he’s patient and humble and caring when it comes to those in his inner circle.  He does what he thinks is best for others and admits when he made a mistake.  These are very attractive qualities for sure, and I can see why he’s gained the reputation he has.  He’s just not what I would want most.  Thank you for putting up with my short stud muffin rant.  (I’m sure that Jane Austen’s greatest wish was that Darcy be described as a stud muffin, and therefore, I will continue using the phrase.  You may continue cringing.)

Austen’s writing style can sometimes gets confusing to a modern audience, particularly dealing with who is speaking. I frequently noticed that when three people were in a room, sometimes I had no idea which of the three were talking. I’d get almost done with a very long paragraph and realize someone else was actually speaking.

But truly, Austen’s writing was much easier to understand and follow than I expected, based on other classics I’d read. It’s funny and not terribly intricate, but there are webs Elizabeth attempts to dodge. It was more character driven than plot driven, which slows things down a bit, but I had no problem sticking with the story. I remembered the movie/play well enough to vaguely know what was supposed to be coming next and I was fascinated to see what the differences were.

I’m actually rather impressed that this female-driven story did so well for itself at the time. (Not that women didn’t want representation in books–I’m sure they did!) I’m also impressed that the women are well-fleshed out. Not every woman is a likable character. Some have nothing going on upstairs, some are petty, some are vengeful. But on the flip side, there are other women who are the model of female virtue (of the time), women who are strong-willed but kind, women who only want the best for those around them no matter the personal cost. I’m impressed.

Having had so much success with this book, I think I may have to add other Jane Austen novels to my to-read list. I hear good things about Sense and Sensibility

Caleb + Kate

Image result for caleb + kateFirst Lines: “Love is like death’s cold grip crushing the beats from an innocent heart.”  A ripple of muted laughter rolls through the girls around me, and I bite my lip to keep from joining them.

Y’all, I have a confession to make.  This book was on my to-read list on Goodreads since April 2010.  That’s nearly a full year before I started this blog.  Back then, I hadn’t even graduated high school yet.  Kids born in that particular month are probably starting 3rd grade right now.  I mean, Holy Hephaestus Batman, I probably should have gotten around to it before now.  Ugh, moving on.

As heiress to the Monrovi Inn hotel chain and one of the most popular girls in the junior class, Kate Monrovi has everything.  Money, friends, a life laid out in front of her.  And yet, Kate’s bored with life…until she locks eyes with Caleb at prom.  Caleb’s new to Kate’s prep school, and it’s obvious he doesn’t belong.  In fact, Caleb’s father works as a maintenance man at the hotel.  And while Caleb knows better than to spend time with the boss’s daughter, he can’t seem to pull himself away from her.  When their parents demand that they stay away from each other, they learn of a fight that happened between their families fifty years ago.  It’s a story Kate can’t comprehend, but one Caleb has lived with his whole life.  The world is pushing against them…can Kate and Caleb fight back?

So I was initially drawn to this book because it was a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet.  But also part of why it took me so long to read this is because it’s also labeled as Christian lit, a genre I generally try to steer clear of.  But I went for it anyway.

My real problem with this book was that it was utterly forgettable. There really wasn’t anything about it--at all–that I’ll probably remember about it in another year. The characters are relatively bland, the action is bland, and there isn’t a whole lot of any kind of emotion coming from the story.

Ok, like, the biggest crux of this story–and every Romeo and Juliet story, really–is supposed to be the family feud. Initially, I got behind this one. It wasn’t just a family feud so much as it was a social class difference (Kate’s parents own the hotel where Caleb and his father work) and a bit of a culture clash (Caleb and his family are Hawaiian, Kate and her family are white). With those differences, I was actually starting to get into the story.

But then like, the big family feud sort of just fizzles out. No one feels like they’re feuding anymore and it just sort of disappears. It was kind of a let down.

And all of the emotion of an epic love story I was expecting? Not there. I mean yes, they love each other and all that rah-rah, but none of that emotion translated from the page to my heart. It was more like the characters looked at each other and were like, “Oh, I think I love you,” rather than feeling butterflies in their stomach or the ache of being apart. That kind of thing. I suppose you could say it was more tell than show.

I was also disappointed in the characters. Things started out interestingly, what with Kate coming from an ultra-rich family and Caleb being the new kid in school, driving a motorcycle and being half covered in tattoos (which were explained as being part of his Hawaiian culture, so that made it ok…and that seemed like an odd thing to say). Anyway, they started off so very different and even though I knew they’d find their common ground, it was very sudden that all of their differences didn’t matter at all. Even Romeo and Juliet struggled more.

I want to touch briefly on the Christian lit aspect of this story. It wasn’t as prevalent as I thought it would be. It’s totally there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the whole story. There were times where I felt it got a bit awkward when someone would reference Kate’s Christianity (“You’re a Christian, you have to forgive him,” with the implication being that the other person didn’t have to/was a worse person), but that was moderately rare.

I wish it was better. There was a lot of potential here, but I didn’t feel like it was executed as well as it could have been.

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)

Image result for red queenFirst Lines: I hate First Friday.  It makes the village crowded, and now, in the heat of high summer, that’s the last thing anyone wants.

Yes, I know I’m behind on actually getting into this series.  I bought it ages ago from Scholastic, but never got around to it no matter how many friends told me it was great.  And being the 2015 Goodreads Choice winner for Debut Author means I definitely should have kept a closer eye on it.

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by the color of your blood–Red like Mare’s means you are lower class, the workers who struggle to survive; Silver is the ruling class, the ones who also possess incredible powers.  And to Mare, it doesn’t look like that will ever change…until she finds herself with a job inside a Silver palace.  Here, surrounded by those she hates, she discovers that she has a power of her own.  It’s impossible, and yet there she is.  It’s dangerous enough to upset the power system in place, and they decide to hide Mare in plain sight by insisting she is a long-lost Silver princess, now engaged to a Silver prince.  Even knowing that one mistake spells death for her, Mare joins the Red Guard, a group devoted to destroying the hierarchy in place and as many Silvers as they need to.  But in this dangerous new world, Mare must be careful.  Betrayal and lies are as common as air…

While it was an enjoyable read, there were a few issues I had with it as well.

I ended up really enjoying the fantasy world Aveyard created. Two different blood types, Silver and Red, have two very different stations in life. Silver blood also comes with abilities that make them even more powerful. And then comes Mare, the one who has Red blood but powers as well. It threw an interesting wrench into the cogs of that world.

I ended up liking Mare as well. I mean, I initially liked her and then I went through a period where I kind of didn’t, but then I was back to liking her again. Mare is a survivor. She does what she needs to in order to make sure she doesn’t die either in the streets or on the war front. She describes herself as a “rat,” one with instincts to know when to flee and when to push her advantage, and I think in a way that’s accurate. She’s sarcastic and dangerous, something the others do not miss.

The reason I had a little trouble liking Mare at times was actually probably not even her fault. There’s something of a love square in this book and I legitimately could not see why so many guys were falling at her feet. I mean, she had personality, but she also didn’t. A lot of this book is action-based and/or world-building, so we didn’t learn as much about Mare as we maybe could have because we were too busy figuring everything else out. So it felt a little strange that she was inspiring all of this allegiance from doing very little.

The world building was good and the descriptions were great for building a picture in my head, but I will say that as far as writing goes, I thought the foreshadowing was a little heavy-handed. It got to the point where I realized certain lines/sentiments had been repeated enough times that they were important and I put the pieces together before the end. To some extent, it still came as a bit of a shock (in the details), but I knew the event itself was coming. I would have liked that to have been more of a surprise. This actually happened with another event as well, but I think I was relying more on cliches to discover that one rather than foreshadowing.

I will say that the ending does come at you fast, with a lot of twists and a lot of action. I may have generally known what was coming, but I couldn’t has expected all that I got. So that was nice. I did like to end on that note.

Oh, and there was one plot hole that just kept bugging the crap out of me.  It’s probably not a big deal, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  So in Mare’s “Silver princess” backstory/lie, they said she was raised by Reds and had no idea she was a princess.  Fine.  But like, wouldn’t it have been noticed that she had a completely different color of blood from everyone else well before she was 17?  I mean, blood samples are part of their ID cards!  You’d think someone would think of this.  (Yes, I realize this is all part of the elaborate lie they told, but STILL.  Think. It. Through.)

This was good. I mean, it wasn’t super different from most other fantasy novels I’ve read (especially ones that still mostly live in the “human” world), but it was good.