Under a Painted Sky

First Lines: They say death aims only once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush.

I put this book on my to-read list ages ago when I was looking for diverse books.  I think diverse books are amazing and there needs to be less of a stigma on them.  Anyway, I bought this book from Scholastic finally and, after ages on my shelf, finally pulled it out to read.

It’s 1849 and Samantha dreams of nothing more than returning to New York to be a professional musician.  Instead, she’s stuck in Missouri with her father, working in a dry goods store.  The fact that she’s a girl and Chinese makes life on the edge of the frontier that much harder.  After a tragic accident destroys her dreams of being famous, Sam fears for her life.  With the help of a runaway slave, Annamae, she flees on the Oregon Trail and they pose as boys–Andy and Sammy–headed to California for the gold rush.  In their travels, they begin to form a close bond of friendship and try to avoid any unwanted attention.  When they cross paths with a group of lighthearted cowboys, the girls find unexpected allies.  But as the law catches up with them, the girls soon see how hard it is to hide in the open.

In all, it’s pretty good. There are a few parts that are slow or simply just lack suspense. But there were other parts that were pretty entertaining.  (And in case you were wondering, there are parts that feel like it could have come straight out of that Oregon Trail game.  If you’re old enough to know what I’m talking about.)

The characters are, for the most part, pretty interesting. Sammy and Andy (our heroines) are both racial minorities in a time when that’s not a good thing. As Chinese and African respectively, these two have a lot of road blocks in their way to freedom–not to mention that they’re women on top of all of that. They have struggles that relate to their race and their cultures, but there are also struggles that they have that relate to growing up, fitting in, and keeping their identities secret. I rather enjoyed all of them.

And I thought the men Sammy and Andy joined up with were also great. They had their own personalities and differences. Sometimes they seemed a bit shallow, but mostly they were pretty well-written.  It’s been a few days since I finished this book, and I can tell you they still make me smile, thinking about their antics.

I thought it took the story a while to get rolling. I had a hard time getting into it initially because there was so much set-up before they actually got on the Oregon Trail. But once they got traveling, things pick up. It’s not always action-packed, but there are moments of suspense that make it worth the while.


One thing this book is pretty good at is creating themes that run through the entire book. There are lots of little things that keep coming back up and look more at the meaning of life or identity or whatever else. I liked that. It never felt like it got too preachy or philosophical. It just was what it was.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book once the story got moving.

Victoria

51e3y0cfeylFirst Lines: A shaft of dawn light fell on the crack in the corner of the ceiling.  Yesterday it had looked like a pair of spectacles, but overnight a spider had embroidered the fissure, filling in the gaps, so that now it looked, she thought, like a crown.

Ok, so I’ll be the first to tell you that this isn’t technically a YA book.  But we are dealing with a barely-eighteen-year-old girl who finds herself to be the Queen of England.  So…that counts, right?  I’m a big follower of Queen Victoria’s early years (I mean really, how difficult would that job have been?  I do not envy her.), so when I saw this at the library, I had to grab it.

In 1837, Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.  Many had no faith in her.  After growing up completely sheltered by her mother and her comptroller, Sir John Conroy, Victoria knew little about the way the world truly worked.  But from the very beginning, she was determined to show everyone (especially her ministers) that she was her own woman–and she started by dropping her Alexandrina name.  Quickly, she wins over Lord Melbourne, who becomes her private secretary.  Perhaps he could have been more if Victoria wasn’t destined to marry Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha.  Having met him as a child, Victoria was less than enamored with Albert.  There’s no way she could want someone like him as a husband…

I want to start by saying that I already knew a lot about Victoria’s youth thanks to the fabulous movie The Young Victoria.  Sure, it takes a few liberties with her story, but it’s incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, this book didn’t work as well for me as I hoped it would. I thought the beginning was slow. Why? Because it was (perhaps obviously so) nearly identical to The Young Victoria. Granted, they are based on the same sources (Victoria was a methodica diarist), but I always assumed the movie took more liberties, you know? Turns out it’s quite factual, which is great, but it meant that nothing new was being added as I read this book. Hence, I found it slow. And this is predominately the reason why I gave it a lower rating. It took a really long time to feel invested in this.

I needed something to spice it up, and I found it in the oddest place. See, I thought it was going to be the scenes of Victoria and Albert (who, let’s face it, make an adorable couple on and off screen), but it was really the scenes with Victoria and Lord Melbourne. Odd, right? But it’s a complicated relationship these two have, and this book really shows the nuances there. That was kind of fascinating, especially since the story shows both how Victoria views their relationship and how Melbourne does. Now how much of that is factual, I don’t know. But it was interesting.

I think this book does do a nice job showing Victoria’s personality: strong, stubborn (sometimes to a fault), a bit vengeful and vindictive, witty, humorous, and sometimes short-sighted. It didn’t shy away from her worse traits, nor did it try to paint her with the blackest brush. It just made her look like the teenage girl she was, the one who was clearly unprepared for the role she had to fill but tried to make the best of it. She learned quickly, especially once she started trusting the right people.

Also, this book doesn’t shy away from the volatile relationship between Victoria and Albert. For as good as they were together, they had some wicked fights. But they seemed to even each other out at the same time that they presented a challenge, so I think that’s adorable.

So yeah. Overall, I found it to be informative and showing a wide array of emotions not only from our heroine but also from other major and minor characters. It was just really slow to get going.

Oh, and if you’re interested in this but don’t have time to read the book right now, Daisy Goodwin wrote this book at the same time she wrote the screenplay for a new PBS series, Victoria, which premieres Sunday, January 15.  I am so there.

Like a River Glorious (The Gold Seer Trilogy, #2)

f16_likerivergloriousFirst Lines: Sunrise comes late to California.  Even when golden light washes the sky, and the snow-tipped peaks of the Sierra Nevada glow pink as winter roses, we remain in shadow for a spell, dwarfed by the slope of the land.

There’s always something about Rae Carson that draws me back.  After devouring The Girl of Fire and Thorns series, I’ve had to wait patiently for each new Gold Seer book.  But I do keep coming back.  And I’ll explain that more below.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Finally in California territory, Leah Westfall and her friends are ready to settle down and make their fortunes in gold.  Of course, Lee’s abilities make this easier than for other settles hoping to strike it rich.  But while Lee just wants the chance to start over, Uncle Hiram isn’t ready to let go of the one person who could make him as rich as Midas.  Kidnapping and sabotage are the least of what he’s willing to do to keep Lee under his thumb.  His mine is the deepest and one of the most dangerous in the territory, but it’s there that Lee truly learns the meaning of friendship, the full extent of her powers, and the depth of the evil inside her uncle.  To save everyone she loves, Lee just might have to give up that which is most important to her: her freedom.

For those of you familiar with Carson’s writing style, I found this to be very typical of what she’s written before.  The plot isn’t full of action and plot twists, but it always manages to keep you invested in the characters and what is happening.  I hesitate to call it slow because that’s really not the truth, but it’s not always going to throw fight scenes and such at you.  I like that it spent time developing the characters through those slower scenes.  Also, there’s a slow-as-a-moving-glacier romance.  But again, I’m kind of used to that from Carson and it makes sense for the characters.  Nothing about it felt forced or contrived, so it worked.

I really like the focus on the 1849 California Gold Rush because it’s a time that is often overlooked in historical fictions for some reason, even though it’s full of unsavory characters, danger, and fascinating historical tidbits.  Carson does a nice job of making the time period feel realistic and as though we’re actually there.  (That goes for the setting as well.  I’ve never been to California, especially a California full of wilderness, so she did a great job creating that world.)

I said this with the last book and I’ll say it again.  I know this technically qualifies as a historical fantasy, but I swear that the fantasy is really no big deal.  Like, it’s definitely a driver for the plot, but as for how often it shows up in the story?  It’s remarkably little, I feel like.  It’s more historical than anything else.

Oh, and I definitely adore the characters.  Lee has grown on me.  (I didn’t like her so much in the first book.)  But it’s the minor characters (Jefferson, Becky, Major, Jasper, Henry, Tom, etc.) who have completely won me over.  The character development in this book is fantastic because they all feel unique and real.  They all have little moments to shine.

Depending on your temperament and personality, this next bit may be a make-or-break moment.  This book left me hopping mad.  I mean, spitting nails and breathing fire angry.  Part of that is my personality.  To avoid spoilers, I can’t go too far into it.  But let’s just say that when civil liberties are brought into question (yes, even in 1849), I tend to have a very quick and very fiery reaction.  I understand that it was a different time, historically, but it doesn’t stop me from being angered by it.  I spent at least a third of the book fired up over this.

I read a couple of reviews after I finished this that kind of make sense, so I think they’re worth repeating.  One review mentioned how the plot of this book is virtually the same as the previous book.  And that’s true.  It’s all about trying to escape Uncle Hiram’s grasp.  The other point is that there are historical inaccuracies when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in this book.  And that’s because history is way worse than this book portrayed it.

Overall, this book will throw some weird things your way, but it’s really good.  You’ll quickly become invested in the characters and the action will always keep you guessing.  Surprises are a frequent occurrence.

The Passion of Dolssa

the-passion-of-dolssaFirst Lines: I must write this account, and when I have finished, I will burn it.

This book caught my eye for a couple of reasons.  First, I knew of Julie Berry.  I have one of her books, The Amaranth Enchantment, on my bookshelf at home.  As a cute take on a fairy tale-esque world, I’ve read it a few times and enjoyed it.  But this book looked vastly different from that, as a historical fiction charged with potential heresy, the equivalent of a witch hunt, and the dark side of religion.  I was intrigued.

Dolssa, a young gentlewoman with mystical abilities to communicate with Jesus, is being hunted.  On the run from a friar obsessed with burning her for heresy, Dolssa must stay one step ahead of him.  When Dolssa meets Botille, a wily matchmaker in a small seaside town, she’s found the ally she’d been looking for.  In 1241, these lands are struggling to recover from a bloody Crusade that destroyed most of Provensa (what we now call Province, France).  Hiding from the Catholic church will not be easy.  Can the girls put themselves at the mercy of a town that could betray them in an instant?

I thought the setting and subject matter for this story was incredibly unique and interesting.  I haven’t read much from the Middle Ages, especially in France (or Provensa, if we’re being technical), but I have dipped into the *lovely* record the Catholic church had around this time.  (To be fair, societal rules from 800 years ago are vastly different from our societal rules now.  But it’s still really hard to imagine a church being this ruthless.)  Also it was just fascinating to read about how a girl who claimed to talk to Jesus was treated.

I liked the cast of characters.  Botille is primarily our narrator for most of the story, and she’s a great mix of strong independence and the humility required of women at the time.  I liked that she was fierce while still realistically fitting into her time period.  Dolssa had more of this kind of humble strength that hovered just below most people’s radar.  Truly, what I liked about these girls was that they were clearly very strong without being physically strong, like most of the butt-kickers we admire.  They were clever and a bit sneaky, but that’s what they needed to be to survive.

As I kind of alluded to above, we do get to see the dark side of Christianity in this book.  This isn’t the church you see on Sundays.  This is more “grab your torch and pitchfork” when it comes to evil.  Souls who haven’t committed a terrible sin like heresy can be redeemed, but others are lost forever.  It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that Dolssa, who is performing miracles on command, is being hunted for conspiring with the devil.  But that’s just how it was back then.  And it was truly frightening to see the impact of the church on people back then.  There’s an awesome and extensive author’s note at the end of this book that shows some of this in more detail.

I also thought the action kept the story interesting.  The pace moved well and never really got slowed down by anything.

The only real qualm I had with the story was that there were a lot of characters and by the end of the book, there were a few I had given up on remembering who they were.  I liked the characters, don’t get me wrong, but it was a lot to keep straight, especially when I can’t remember the names of all my students yet.  Oh, and they speak a language called Occetian or something similar to that which basically looks like most other Latin-based languages.  Mostly a cross between Spanish/Italian and French.  And while that was cool to see that language, the words weren’t always fully explained for what they meant.  Still, after a few times seeing the word, I usually figured it out.

Overall, I thought it was a fascinating story that managed to be both hopeful and horrifying.  Which is a weird combo, but it worked.

Ivory and Bone (Ivory and Bone, #1)

covers_371395First Lines: The darkness in this cave is some complete I can no longer see you, but I can smell your blood.  “I think your wound has opened up again.”

I was super excited to read this because I thought the premise sounded so different.  It looked unique and different (it’s set in a prehistoric clan!), and you guys all should know by now that I love me some historical fictions.  So, before my summer ends, I was going to read it.

Kol’s life isn’t anything special: he hunts, gathers, and protects his family.  His clan is close, and as the son of the High Elder, Kol knows that one day this clan will be his.  Then Mya arrives with her family from a clan to the south and turns Kol’s world upside down.  Bold but standoffish, Mya doesn’t fit into Kol’s world.  Still, she intrigues him.  But any chance he had to impress her disappear with a careless mistake.  When another clan arrives, led by Lo, an enemy of Mya, Kol becomes trapped in the middle of a history he knows nothing about.  The tension between the girls escalates until violence erupts.  Face with disaster at every front, Kol has to ask himself which girl he trusts more.  Because make no mistake, one of them has been planning war for a long time…but Kol doesn’t know which one.

So like I said, I was really looking forward to this because it’s so weird to find a prehistoric historical fiction.  And truly, I thought the setting was cool.  We don’t know exactly where we are in today’s geography (though it would have been cool if Eshbaugh had told us that in the acknowledgements or something), but we know they’re pretty far north because they’re near ice.  Anyway, I really liked seeing things like how they hunted, how they built huts, how they lived off the land, etc.  Sure, we can’t verify that all of this is historically accurate, but it’s still fascinating.

I also liked the explanation of the culture of Kol’s clan as well as the differences noted between his clan and Mya’s and Lo’s.  I often feel like having a culture that makes sense helps a lot toward making the story believable.  (Also, mammoths and saber-toothed tigers make the story awesome.)

And generally, I liked Kol.  He’s very driven to protect his family and show his manners to anyone he runs across, but he’s sometimes overly cautious when taking risks.  He’s more reflective than some of his brothers are, and it was interesting to see how being a bit cautious plays out in this setting.

At the same time, I had a hard time connecting with Kol and the other characters.  Kol’s fascination with Mya seemed just the slightest bit stalkerish.  Mya gives no indication whatsoever that she would encourage Kol’s feelings, yet Kol keeps watching her to figure her out and he’s constantly aware of where she is.  Yes, I give him a little slack because he’s in a clan of no females his age, so Mya as a teenage girl is going to be something he has little experience with.  I just can’t reconcile it, though.

I read another review that said that this story lacked soul, and I kind of agree with that.  The story is plotted well, it seems pretty well researched, but it just lacks emotion.  Mya is cold emotionally all the time, so there’s no connecting with her.  Kol is curious, but he tries to lock up his emotions too, and that cuts him off from us.  It’s just so hard to feel emotionally invested in a story when even the characters aren’t.

But truly, what threw me off was the writing style.  You can see part of that in the first lines.  It’s all told as Kol talking to Mya, so “you” is a very common word.  So a scene could say something like, “I saw you entering camp from the bay where I last saw you” or something.  It’s a very disorienting writing style because of how little it’s used.  I kept getting confused, especially in the beginning when I didn’t know who the narrator was and who he was talking to.  Also disorienting is the use of modern words and terms for things.  Obviously, this book has to make sense to us as modern readers, but when you see prehistoric men and women talking about parkas, it can pop you out of the right mindset for the story.

So while I loved the uniqueness of the story, I didn’t so much like the uniqueness of the writing style.

And I Darken (The Conquerors Saga, #1)

25324111First Lines: Vlad Dracul’s heavy brow descended like a storm when the doctor informed him that his wife had given birth to a girl.  His other children–one from his first wife, now nearly fully grown, and even a bastard child from his mistress, born last year–had been boys.

I’ve been following Kiersten White on Twitter for a while now, and she was talking about this book for the longest time.  And I got really excited.  It sounded different and interesting.  Plus, it was Kiersten White.  I’ve read everything she’s written.

No one expects Lada Dragwyla to be a vicious and ruthless princess, even given that her father is Vlad Dracul.  But Lada knows that being brutal is the only way she’s going to survive, especially given that her younger brother, Radu, is gentle and compassionate.  Abandoned in the enemy territory of the Ottoman Empire by their father, Lada and Radu know they are doomed to be pawns in a political game that could easily bring about their deaths.  Lada knows brutality is the only way to survive.  She bides her time until she can find a way back to Wallachia.  Radu just wants a place where he can feel safe.  When they meet Mehmed, the lonely son of the sultan, they know they’ve found a true friend and possibly, someone who matches Lada’s passions.  But Mehmed is the heir to the empire Lada hates–the empire Radu now calls home.  Can they all get what they want or will they remain pawns?

I just want to start by saying that this is nothing like White’s previous books.  Even the writing style seems different.  Normally her stories are kind of funny and cute, but this?  Whoa, no.  I’ll explain that more below, but just keep this in mind.  Her writing feels…I guess more like an adult mainstream fiction.

The story unfolds in what I usually call the “life story.”  As you can tell with the first lines, it starts with Lada’s birth and really, the timeline only slowly moves up to her teenage years from there.  It probably takes nearly a quarter of the book before she even hits 13 and at least another quarter before she hits 17.  (This is part of why I compared this to adult mainstream fiction, because that’s one of the few places where I ever see this kind of timeline.)  Even though I understand why the story plays out this way, it also really slows down the story.

But while it may be slow, it is incredibly intricate.  There is foreshadowing out the wazoo.  You have to pay attention to every character and a lot of what the characters say because it usually comes back.  And that was interesting.

I hesitate to say that this story is action-packed or suspenseful because I didn’t think ti was.  What we do is follow all these friendships, relationships, and political maneuverings as they tangle and knot and fray.  I was never on the edge of my seat, but I was always interested in what would happen next, just to see what the characters did.

Lada and Radu are interesting.  I truly hate to call it a gender swap, but they have switched the stereotypical personalities types associated with their genders.  Lada is vicious, stubborn, cold-hearted, and tactically brilliant.  Radu is compassionate, gentle, sweet, and sensitive but no less brilliant at political maneuvering.  They are ruthless in their own ways, but Lada is more of the “let’s punch him and get it over with” while Radu is more focused on getting revenge through social manslaughter.  Radu plays with subtleties, Lada plays with cannons.

Now that I’ve repeated myself about five times over, I just want to say that I liked this change.  I liked that Lada had to prove herself as a strong and competent woman and shocked the crap out of a lot of men.  (It’s an underdog story, truly.  And I’m a sucker for those.)  But what was really fascinating was seeing how Radu became a master of social manipulation and how he used that to further his own aims.

And it was pretty interesting from a historical standpoint as well.  (If Vlad Dracul isn’t exactly ringing any bells for you, he was also known as Vlad the Impaler and was the inspiration for Dracula.)  For this story, White has turned this into a little bit of a fantasy by taking liberties with Vlad.  Basically, she’s replacing Lada into all that stuff that Vlad did, so it’s not totally historically accurate, but the setting is legit and culture, as is the stuff with Mehmed.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting read once I got past the slow beginning.

My Lady Jane

my-lady-jane_gallery_largeFirst Lines: You may think you know the story.  It goes like this: once upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Grey, who was forced to marry a complete stranger (Lord Guildford or Gildford or Gifford-something-or-other), and shortly thereafter found herself ruler of a country.  She was queen for nine days.  Then she quite literally lost her head.

You ever have those books that you’re as nervous to read as you are excited?  I’m a Tudor history buff and poor Jane Grey happens to be one of my favorites.  So when I saw this was coming out, I got really excited. And then I saw it was supposed to be a comedy.  Erm…how is the story of a young girl being beheaded going to become a comedy?

For the sake of getting the mood of this right, I’m going to copy in the actual summary: Edward (long live the king) is the King of England. He’s also dying, which is inconvenient, as he’s only sixteen and he’d much rather be planning for his first kiss than considering who will inherit his crown…

Jane (reads too many books) is Edward’s cousin, and far more interested in books than romance. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession. And there’s something a little odd about her intended…

Gifford (call him G) is a horse. That is, he’s an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated). Every day at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed—but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay. It’s all very undignified.

The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy. With the fate of the kingdom at stake, our heroes will have to engage in some conspiring of their own. But can they pull off their plan before it’s off with their heads?

A bit strange, right?  Actually, it worked.  I was surprised.

See, my love for Jane Grey runs deep.  Once I discovered the 1980s movie Lady Jane (which launched the careers for both Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes), I started researching her.  So I knew the history here pretty well.

And, thankfully, the first half of the book actually sticks pretty close to the truth (if you don’t factor in Gifford being a horse.  We’ll get to that).  Truly, the biggest change to the history is the switch from the British fighting over being Catholic or Protestant and instead fighting over Ethian rights (I’m not even going to pretend I can type that word above, so just go with it).  Essentially, it’s the same fight with the same players who wanted to be Protestant (and now support Ethians) on one side and those who wanted to be Catholic (and now wish to destroy Ethians) on the other.  The strife is still there, just different.

I was so glad that Jane was still the historical figure that I’ve come to know. Clever, willful, bookish, someone who truly didn’t think she deserved–or wanted–the crown and yet became a pawn in a game she didn’t understand.  And, in this story, she’s quite funny.

The humor in this book was not what I was expecting.  Some of it was–puns, calling people weird insulting names (like “you yellow-faced baboon” style insults), situational irony.  But a lot of it was unexpected pop culture references.  There were some obligatory connections to Lady Jane, but there was also a ton of Shakespeare and movie references to The Princess Bride, Monty Python, and even Tangled.  I wanted to start making a list of all the references I found because there were so many.  They’re like Easter eggs.

The plot was pretty interesting.  Like I mentioned, the first half is pretty close to the real history.  The second half throws that out the window, and the narrators even tell you that.  Personally, I liked the first half better because I wanted that history, but that’s me.

The one thing I didn’t like so much was that the narrators actually interrupt the story, to the point where they almost start feeling Grandpa from The Princess Bride.  Every now and then, I was cool with it.  They’d say things like, “We the narrators want you to know that the term ‘foxy’ for describing women didn’t come about until Jimi Hendrix used it.”  Historical or informative tidbits were fine.  But remember that scene from The Princess Bride with the Shrieking Eels when Grandpa interrupts the action? As we got closer to the end, that’s exactly what happened.  They started interrupting the action to talk for a page or more about absolutely nothing.  Ugh, it was frustrating.

Simply put, this was way better than I was expecting, especially since I thought the comedy part would be a train wreck but actually became really impressive.