Vengeance Road (Vengeance Road, #1)

Vengeance Road (Vengeance Road, #1) by Erin Bowman

First Lines: It weren’t no secret Pa owned the best plot of land ‘long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him.

I won’t lie–I’d seen this cover before and thought it was too busy, kind of Gothic, and just…not me. But a few months ago, I was looking through books online and for some reason, I gave this enough of a chance to read the blurb. And I found that it was probably totally something I would enjoy.

When eighteen-year-old Kate’s father is murdered, she doesn’t just want justice–she wants revenge. And answers. Because it seems her father was killed for a journal detailing the location of a gold mine in the area. And the only way Kate’s going to get her revenge is if she disguises herself as a boy and does the dirty work herself. But Arizona is not a safe place and Kate’s going to need the help of a couple of meddling brothers who won’t leave her along and an Apache girl who’d just about given up on hope. Even that may not be enough to keep her safe from the gang that’s out for gold and doesn’t mind spilling some blood.

This is an adventure story set in a very dangerous time and place. Arizona in the 1870s was an unforgiving land, especially if you managed to strike gold in any of the mines. As the story constantly points out, gold can turn men into monsters. The setting itself was unconventional enough to make it an interesting story. Factor in that this entire novel was based on a legend (which the author explains at the end) and it just makes it both more fascinating and weirdly creepier.

Kate walks an interesting line as a character. She’s not your typical young woman of the time. She’s lived out in the middle of nowhere her whole life. She knows how to shoot with killer aim and live off the land and track animals. That makes it easy for her to pretend to be a man as she seeks her revenge in a world unfriendly to women. Her voice easily shines through in the story, given her very distinct way of speaking as you can see from the first lines.

This story does not shy away from the harsh realities of a life like this. I was constantly surprised by the level of violence. Shoot-outs, blood, cold-blooded murder. It’s all there.

And this story takes some serious chances. There were some surprising twists I did not see coming because I thought there was no way this story would go that far. I was wrong.

This story rocks because it’s a female protagonist in a dangerous world doing what no one thought she’d be able to do. I would actually consider teaching this in my classroom if it worked in the curriculum. It’s a fast-paced story with tons of action. I’m pretty sure you could get a lot of reluctant readers to fall in love with this.

The Steep and Thorny Way

The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters

First Lines: I drew a deep breath and marched into the woods behind my house with a two-barreled pistol hidden beneath my blue cotton skirt. The pocket-size derringer rode against my outer right thigh, tucked inside a holster that had, according to the boy who’d given it to me, once belonged to a lady bootlegger who’d been arrested with three different guns strapped to her legs.

I love a good historical fiction and Cat Winters is one I’ve come to respect when I want a story I know is going to unique and interesting. But she has had 1-2 that I wasn’t exactly a fan of, so despite my enthusiasm, I was leery.

Oregon, 1923. Hannalee Denney is the daughter of a white woman and a Black man. A few months back, her father died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Hannalee is even more convinced something isn’t right when Clyde Koning, the doctor who treated her father that night, soon becomes her stepfather. When her father’s ghost suddenly begins appearing around town, Hannalee is sure there’s more to the mystery. And she wants answers. But to get those answers, she’s going to need to face something truly terrifying: the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan.

Cat Winters’s writing is usually meticulously researched and that showed in the book. From the very beginning, I felt like I was part of this world.

Set in 1923 Oregon, we enter a world that isn’t exactly familiar when we think of the Roaring ’20s, but isn’t all that different either. Characters are dealing with the loses from World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. There are bootleggers and places that sell hooch on the sly. But, being rural Oregon, there aren’t glamorous speakeasies and flappers in this story. So if you’re looking for that, this isn’t it. But it is still definitely the time period and definitely interesting.

The story bills itself as being a 1920s retelling of Hamlet, but I feel like that’s a pretty loose description. The story certainly seems inspired by it, but most of the similarities to the famous play wore off quickly and this became its own story. I mean, this seemed to follow the Hamlet story line less than The Lion King did.

Hanalee is definitely a different kind of character for this type of story. She’s biracial, the product of a love match between a white woman and a Black man, in a time when those marriages were actually illegal. Hanalee experiences prejudice and legitimate danger because of her skin color, despite having some protection from living in the town all her life and having a white mother and stepfather. This story goes deep into the prejudices and dark realities of the time, a real scar in American history. I like that it didn’t flinch away from that.

But on top of that, we also see animosity for another marginalized group of the time: gays. I won’t go into details and say who or what happens, but I really appreciated that it showed their plight at the time as well. It truly was a scary time to be “different” for any reason.

As for the plot, I thought it unfolded really well. The mystery may not be the deepest or the most twisting one ever, but that was ok. The story was just as much about survival as it was solving the mystery. I got really into the characters, both main and minor, and that really made the story take off. Oh, and there are real pictures scattered throughout of Oregon during this time period. That’s super fascinating to me. I mean, I have an entire wall in my dining room devoted to pictures as much as 130+ years old of my ancestors.

This was a super fast read for me because it was just so interesting. Great for history buffs.

Blackhearts (Blackhearts, #1)

Blackhearts (Blackhearts, #1) by Nicole Castroman

First Lines: After Anne’s father died, her mother often said that sorrow was the only sun that rose for them. Her mother had since followed him into the darkness of death, leaving Anne to face the dawn alone.

I love a good pirate story. I was into it as a kid, but the more I understand their oddly democratic society as an adult, the more interesting they are. So with this story supposed to be about Blackbeard, who was such a cool freak, I was in.

Blackbeard the pirate is known for the terror he caused, but at one point he was a young man trying to find his place in the world. Edward “Teach” Drummond has just returned from a year at sea to find that his life…well, it’s really not his anymore. His father, one of the richest merchants in Bristol, has arranged all the pieces and Edward must follow the plan–or else. Affianced to a girl he doesn’t love and desiring only to be back on the water (something his father won’t allow), Edward finds his world getting smaller and smaller. Anne, penniless and orphaned, is about add “homeless” to the list. Forced to take a job at Master Drummond’s house, Anne dreams of leaving England and sailing to the Caribbean where her mother was born. From the moment Anne and Edward meet, they see how trapped they both are. But can they escape their circumstances? Is it worth it?

I was really excited to read this. Except…nothing happens. I kept waiting the whole book for something to happen. I mean, there are plot things going on. We see the struggles of Anne and Edward, but the pace was just so slow it felt like nothing was ever going anywhere. What I really wanted to read was a pirate book and that is definitely NOT what I got.

This whole book is exposition for the real pirate story, which I assume is what the sequel will be. This is Anne and Edward both having crappy lives, feeling trapped by society, and wishing they were somewhere else before extra crappy things begin happening. I felt no suspense, no drive to the story. I wasn’t even really invested in the characters.

Let’s talk about a few things here. First of all, I felt historically speaking it took a lot of liberties (a fact the author acknowledges). We really don’t know anything about Blackbeard’s childhood/adolescence. But let’s allow that because of artistic license. Beyond that as our indicator, it didn’t really feel tied to any specific time period. It could have been anywhere from the 1500s to the 1800s (it’s really the early 1700s based on Teach’s life). Literally nothing distinguished the setting. Setting had a lot of struggles.

There are really only two “real” characters in this story: Edward and Anne. And I’m not just picking them because they’re the main characters. Every other character is a caricature of a person. The vast majority of minor characters are meant to be evil. For Anne, there are two maids who make her life miserable. For Edward, they’re two men who are supposed to care about him–and a vicious fiance. There are some “good” characters, but we see very little of them. It ended up seeming almost whiny from Edward and Anne’s perspectives, how everyone is out to get them. I guess the point is that they weren’t supposed to have any allies besides each other, but man did it make the story a downer.

I will give props to one aspect of the story, with a caveat. Anne is a mixed-race main character. Her father was white and her mother was a West Indian slave, their story a love story. While I appreciated that for that (and because historically, that obviously happened in England just like it happened in the US, if pretty rare in both places), it never went anywhere. Anne was very rarely distinguished because of that. Sure, there were references to how she wasn’t going to “be accepted” by society because her skin is “a shade darker”, but even that only came up in a few scenes. I was a little surprised by that, especially since pretty much everyone was xenophobic in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It just felt like, for a historical fiction, someone didn’t do much homework.

The Game of Love and Death

Amazon.com: The Game of Love and Death eBook: Brockenbrough ...

First Lines: The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really: a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common housefly. Although he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.

I got this book at a library used book sale years ago, fully intending to read this. Fated lovers, Love and Death as characters. It has the hallmark of something I would truly enjoy.

For centuries, Love and Death have chosen their players in their ultimate game of, well, love and death. (And death has always won.) Helen of Troy and Paris. Cleopatra and Antony. Now, it’s Henry and Flora. Flora is an African-American girl who dreams of being the next Amelia Earhart while she sings in her family’s jazz club. Henry, born only a few blocks away, is white and has a secure future ahead of him with a wealthy adoptive family in the middle of the Great Depression. What happens next, even Love and Death may not be able to predict.

What a downer. I’m not really sure what I was expecting from this book, but this wasn’t it.

I liked the idea of Love and Death fighting with each other–does love really conquer all? Especially since it kept tying back to those great historical loves. So the concept was pretty cool.

I just thought the execution wasnt there. It reminded me a lot of A Series of Unfortunate Events. In order to ask the question does love conquer all, you have to throw a bunch of really horrible things their way. But that’s all the story was. Bad Thing 1 happens and they just start to get their feet back under them when Bad Things 2 and 3 happen and so on.

That in and of itself might not have been so bad except that I could not connect to the characters. They felt rather emotionless. Their “passionate” love was anything but. Henry was probably the one who got the closest to that, but he was so love at first sight that it was like the writing didn’t need to go into the emotion. It all felt so cold and calculated that I struggled. A lot.

I did like the idea of turning Love and Death into characters who influence the story. That was an interesting twist that brought some actual emotion and interest to the story because Henry and Flora weren’t doing it for me.

I just found the story to be so slow. I couldn’t get into it, nothing happened, and the main loves don’t even really talk to each other until about 100 pages into a 325 page book. It was a slog for me. It took way longer than it should have.

Hunting Prince Dracula (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #2)

Amazon.com: Hunting Prince Dracula (Stalking Jack the Ripper (2 ...First Lines: Our train gnashed its way along frozen tracks toward the white-capped fangs of the Carpathian Mountains. From our position outside Bucharest, the capital of Romania, the peaks were the color of fading bruises.

A week or two after finishing Stalking Jack the Ripper, I put this book on hold at my e-library.  With a 4.31 rating on Goodreads and given my enjoyment of the first book, I was really excited to get my hands on this one.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

After the horror and heartbreak of the Jack the Ripper case, Audrey Rose needs a fresh start.  Heading from London to Romania with her too-charming-for-his-own-good companion Thomas, Audrey Rose soon learns Romania is no safer than England.  Now, as they journey to join a prestigious forensic science school, they find themselves in the path of another serial killer.  Mimicking the legends of Vlad the Impaler, this killer leaves few clues and many nightmares for those left asking…who is this brutal killer?

I know I’m starting to slip into the “unpopular opinion” category, but I had some problems with this book. Maybe I’m just nitpicking, but it did hurt my enjoyment of this book.

My first problem (and perhaps the biggest for me) was that I’ve figured out The Pattern. I’ve figured out what details are clues or are oddities I need to remember as soon as I read them. I’ve figured out how each clue is really a red herring and it never means what they think it means. I’ve figured out that every character–and therefore, none of them–is suspect.

Momentary interruption: I didn’t figure out the killer before the reveal. So there’s that.

Anyway, I just hated that for most of the book, I felt like I was more in tune with the mystery than the characters were. Whereas I felt like Thomas and Audrey Rose were smarter than me in the last book, I felt like the clever one this time around. That bothered me. The puzzle wasn’t as fun.

I’m also starting to have issues with the portrayal of feminism, which was something I loved last book. Last time, Audrey Rose was this scientific warrior crime solver who also loved big dresses and makeup–and that felt exactly on point. She could do “men’s work” while looking amazing if she wanted to. This time, she’s falling more into the “I’m tough because I wear pants” mentality and, for a story set in 1888, that just didn’t sit well with me. I think Audrey Rose would be a stronger character if she was allowed to be feminine and smart at the same time.

Which leads me to my next, slightly overlapping point. I didn’t feel like Audrey Rose’s character–or Thomas’s for that matter–were as strong this time. Piggybacking on the previous point, I thought Audrey Rose’s personality was contradictory. She’s aggressively aware of reputation and what is respectable. She frequently seems scandalized by the idea of holding Thomas’s hand or being alone with him in a carriage for five minutes–and yet she’s completely fine with breaking with the times and wearing pants or other spoilers I can’t mention? Yes, I know she’s breaking with the times already to be a woman in a man’s ghastly profession, but that’s core to her character. That’s who she is and her goals and ambitions revolve around it for the sole reason that she wants to help people and she wants to understand death. Changing a part of her personality to allow her to wear pants may seem like a little thing, but it’s just one more thing drawing the story away from its historical basis and using the time as a backdrop rather than an integral part of the story.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the whole Dracula angle. I found it to be trite and eye-rollingly boring.

I know I’ve just probably rained on a few parades, but there were a few things I did like. There were moments where the mystery or the suspense was quite exciting. There are scenes that stick out in my memory for one reason or another.

The story is still macabre, if not quite as disgusting (until the end) as the previous book. And I did like that the story didn’t shy away from exploring PTSD in the characters. Audrey Rose endured a lot in the last book and when we catch up to her here, only a few weeks have gone by. She’s not ok. She’s hurting. And we get to see how that affects her. That was a very smart move on the author’s part and I appreciated that.

While this wasn’t my favorite, I will still be checking out the next book. Why not?

Kent State

Amazon.com: Kent State (9781338356281): Wiles, Deborah: BooksFirst Lines: You are new here,/and we don’t want to scare you away,/but we want you to know the truth,/so we will start by telling you what is most important:/They did not have to die.

I got an advanced copy of this from Edelweiss.  When I taught 7th grade English, we actually use to talk about the Kent State shooting in this nonfiction unit we did.  So when I saw there was a book in verse coming out about it (this May marks the 50th anniversary), I had to read it.

May 4, 1970.  Kent State University.  What started as protests against the Vietnam War and the draft soon rolled out of control as Guardsmen were called in, violence erupted, and four students were killed.  To this day, there is still arguments over what exactly happened.  From multiple perspectives–Guardsman, townie, student, and protester–you get the chance to decide for yourself.

I find that with serious topics like this, books told in verse tend to hit the emotions better. But the problem I had (and this might be because maybe Kindle changed the format somewhat?) was that there are a lot of people talking and I could barely tell them apart. I was only 100% positive about two out of roughly 6 (according to my count) narrators. The others tended to blend together and it was never explicit who they actually were. Perhaps the printed version will be easier to follow, but this was a mess for me. You can only tell them apart by things like italics, ALL CAPS WRITING, one in a different color, one that doesn’t use any capitalize letters, and two that honestly looked normal and I have no idea what the difference was but they argue with each other.

However, the subject matter and application of different voices was well done. There were lots of survivors with lots of different perspectives. These voices cover anything from protesting students, non-protesting students, citizens of Kent, a Guardsman, and a Black student. Some thought the Guardsmen were the monsters; some thought it was the students. Seeing that really brings home how divisive the times were. It also tells the story in a slightly unreliable way because the “witnesses” tend to contradict each other a little, which is what actually happens when people recount an event.

Obviously the meat and potatoes of the book is May 4 itself.  (…Why did I just phrase it that way??  Anyway…) For that section, I thought the reality of what happened was emotional, devastating, and still factual. Oh, and maybe keep this away from younger readers? It doesn’t shy away from details about how exactly people died.  It’s gruesome.

It’s an important read and it’s definitely a story that still needs to be told.  I just think the narrators could have been a LOT clearer.