When We Caught Fire

Image result for when we caught fireFirst Lines: By morning the city had fallen.  We had not seen the sky in a long time, even the sky was made of fire.  The State Street Bridge was impassable, they said.  The Rush Street Bridge, too.  The streets were littered with objects that had once seemed valuable enough to carry, but now lay abandoned.

Y’all, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say this, but I got my hands on some ARCs!  I’m super excited to spend the next few months mixing them in with all the other books I have!  This one does not officially release until October 2, 2018 (so, you know, 1.5 more months).  I was interested to see what Anna Godbersen had in store for this historical fiction about the Great Chicago Fire.

It’s 1871 and Emmeline Carter could just about be described as a Chicago Princess.  With her father’s sudden wealth and her recent engagement to Chicago’s most eligible bachelor, the world is all laid at Emmeline’s feet.  But Emmeline can’t stop thinking about the life she left behind in one of Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods and her first love, Anders Magnuson.  Fiona Byrne, Emmeline’s best friend, is thrilled with Emmeline’s societal rise–especially because it means Fiona can pursue Anders herself.  But when Emmeline risks everything for a final fling with Anders, Fiona can’t help but feel betrayed.  As summer turns to fall, friendships and hearts may just go up in flames.

When I was younger, Godbersen’s The Luxe series was what got me interested in historical fiction. I will always have a soft spot for that series, which taught me so much.

I don’t want to undersell this because it’s actually a decent story, but I struggled at times.  It was just…sometimes it was too over-the-top.

The setting is really awesome. I loved that it was set in Chicago, a town that has a rich and unique history of its own. Chicago was a boom-town in the mid-1800s and it was full of immigrants looking for a better life. This blend of people brought an interesting quality to the story, especially given that it acknowledges the rampant prejudice also present at the time. (The Irish are the focus here, though admittedly the racism is not the story’s focal point.)

Anyway, the history surrounding the Great Chicago Fire was fascinating, especially since I didn’t know about the days leading up to it.

What could have used a little more work were the characters and the plot. Neither is inherently bad by any means, but they just weren’t molded as well as they maybe could have been. The plot feels overly melodramatic, with everything feeling life-or-death, especially when it isn’t actually. It subsequently makes the actual life-or-death events feel less dramatic, in a Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf kind of way. And the characters were just kind of ho-hum. It didn’t feel like there was any real emphasis on getting to know them or feeling what they were feelings, especially when their feelings sometimes flipped like a switch. I wish there had been more to dive into their personalities.

There are some interesting surprises along the way, things to keep you guessing. It’s worth checking out if you’re a history buff (Godbersen also has a very interesting author’s note at the end about her research), but be prepared that it’s more about the teenage drama than the historical drama.

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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.

The Beast Is An Animal

Image result for the beast is an animalFirst Lines: The Beast is an animal/You’d better lock the Gate/Or when it’s dark, It comes for you/Then it will be too late. / The Beast is an animal/Hear It scratch upon your door/It sucks your soul then licks the bowl/And sniffs around for more. / The Beast is an animal/It has a pointy chin/It eats you while you sleep at night/Leaving nothing but your skin.

I found this at the library and, I’m not going to lie, I thought it might be some kind of dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast.  (To be fair, I think that about anything with “beast” in the title.)  It’s not, but I wanted to read it anyway.

Alys was seven when she first saw the soul eaters.  At first, the energy of the twin sisters excited Alys.  It was only later that she realized that power was connected to The Beast and that it had the power to destroy.  By fifteen, Alys knows all too well about the lure and danger of soul eaters.  She lives in a world where adults fear their power, hiding behind gates and strict rules in an attempt to save themselves.  Fear rules their lives, and they fear those that might have the power of The Beast among them–within girls like Alys.  Alys hides the fact that she has a connection to the soul eaters and The Beast, something she can’t reveal to anyone.  As the threats from the soul eaters grow, Alys must undertake a journey into the depths of the fforest to confront what is there.  But what if the danger isn’t in the forest…but inside Alys?

I nearly quit reading this story multiple times early on. I just couldn’t get into it. It was strange and because it spans Alys’s life from 7 to 15, it takes a super long time to get started. I mean, there’s so much backstory that it just seemed to take a long time before the plot really got going. Even 100 pages in, I was still asking myself if I wanted to be reading this.

But I kept at it, especially once fear came more into the story through the soul-eaters started terrorizing villages. Then, admittedly, it got more interesting, especially since Alys wasn’t as affected as everyone else.

The story is supposed to be a story of showing how no one is entirely good or evil (at least according to my book jacket). And it’s true–it does show that. It just wasn’t compelling. The writing style van Arsdale has reminds me of old classic novels, which seem to always be distant from the characters and emotions. You never really feel the story the same way you can in novels now. And that was my problem here. It seemed like it was trying so hard to be this moral story that is sacrificed emotion to get there.

And frankly, most of the characters are unlikable. For some of them, I get it. They aren’t meant to be characters we like because they’re mean to Alys.  And as a study of good and evil, it makes sense that people walk that line.  But there’s not much kindness from anyone in this story and it’s hard to want to keep reading when you find so little to look forward to.

I will say that I liked the setting. There’s something vaguely Welsh about the whole thing, from spellings (fforest) to names of towns (Gwenith, Defaid) that seem too similar old Welsh kingdoms to be coincidence. That was kind of interesting, even if it wasn’t actually Wales or wasn’t supposed to be historically accurate in any way.

There wasn’t a whole lot that I came away liking from this, but it wasn’t a terrible story. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I would like to have.

Compare This! Alice in Zombieland vs. Splintered

Hey everyone!  So for whatever reason this summer, I’ve been pretty much obsessed with everything Alice in Wonderland.  (My guess is because it’s the ultimate escape from reality, especially since Wonderland makes about as much sense as the news lately.)  So for this week’s Compare This! I decided to go thematically rather than by an author’s works.  These are two very different series, but they are based on the same source material.  Also, why not?

So let’s get the show on the road!

Alice in Zombieland series (by Gena Showalter)

VS.

Splintered series (by A.G. Howard)

Image result for alice in zombieland series

Alice in Zombieland series by Gena Showalter

Summary: Alice “Ali” Bell’s family has always been eccentric.  Her father always insisted that monsters were real and were out to get them.  When his guard dropped, Ali realized he was right: monsters do exist.  To avenge her family, Ali needs to learn to fight.  To survive, she needs the help of the baddest boy in school, Cole Holland.  But Cole has secrets and if she’s not carefully, Cole could be more dangerous than the zombies.

Pros:

  • I absolutely adore the characters in this series.  They are so different, in many respects, from characters you usually see in YA.  While being driven to protect those who can’t protect themselves, these guys are downright dangerous.
  • Let’s not pretend the idea of mixing Alice in Wonderland with zombies is not intriguing.  (And it’s done well!)
  • I liked the subtlety of many of the connections to the source material.  If it hadn’t been called Alice in Zombieland, it might not be as obvious what it was based on.  So if you like feeling smart by finding Easter eggs throughout a novel, this is for you!  Things like the white rabbit, time, madness, etc., find their way into the story from time to time.
  • These zombies are not your run-of-the-mill dead guys eating brains zombies.  They’re a unique kind of zombie I’ve never read about before and I am having a hard time putting into words what exactly they are.  But it’s cool.
  • I very much enjoyed the writing style of this series.  Ali’s voice is clear and strong.  You know it’s her because she’s always voicing her (strong) opinions about everything.  It’s something I don’t always notice, but when it’s done right?  I’m going to shout it from the rooftops.

Cons:

  • While I really enjoyed the first and the fourth books (the 4th book has a different narrator and it’s, pardon my 90s slang, DA BOMB), the 2nd and 3rd books kind of hit a little bit of a slump for me.  They started becoming predictable.
  • I also felt like the longer the series went on, the more unnatural the plot twists became.  It felt like a soap opera after a while.  But we are talking about a story involving zombies, so “unnatural” kind of comes with the territory, I guess.
  • If you’re really looking for a good retelling of Alice in Wonderland, this isn’t it.  As I kind of mentioned above, it’s really more of a spin-off that’s loosely based on the classic story.  Sometimes this is good, other times it’s not.

Image result for splintered series

Splintered series by A.G. Howard

Summary: Alyssa Gardner hears bugs and flowers talking to her.  It’s the same thing that got her mother locked up in a mental hospital.  The family curse stretches back to Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.  Alyssa’s managing for now.  But when her mother’s health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was just a curse is a terrifying reality.  Wonderland is real, and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever revealed.  To save her mother, Alyssa must undo Alice’s mistakes and set Wonderland to rights.

Pros:

  • Now this is a bona fide Alice in Wonderland retelling.  Alyssa’s family is totally Mad Hatter-crazy if they deny Wonderland long enough.  And because this is a retelling, we’re visited by many of the characters we’ve come to love from the original story.  It’s a new spin on an old story, so you still never quite know what’s going to happen.
  • I really liked the characters, particularly the inclusion of Jeb, a childhood friend of Alyssa’s who’s looking for more.  He really helped pull the story together, grounding it in a reality that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
  • The story is incredibly clever.  It takes quite a bit of skill to weave all of this together, the old and the new.  There’s also a lot of word play, foreshadowing, etc.  Kudos to anyone who could do that well.
  • There is tons of action in this series, mostly in the form of mind games but occasional fight scenes.  I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a good puzzle.  I liked trying to figure everything out before Alyssa did.

Cons:

  • I did think there were times when the story took the easy way out or over-foreshadowed something.  The ending of at least two of the three books felt too convenient for what the series had set up.  So while I was happy with what happened, I just wished it hadn’t been that easy.
  • Y’all, I read the first two books in this series and couldn’t have told you what even happened.  It encompasses all of the madness of Wonderland so well that I was constantly getting confused and not sure what was happening.  (I’m interested to see if, upon rereading it, this is still the case.)
  • Personally, I don’t like the feeling of realizing that everything I thought I knew about a story is suddenly wrong.  This happened in multiple ways throughout the story (rules get rewritten on a whim by characters, betrayals, etc.) and it just rubs me wrong.  But that’s my own irritation and I know that.  Some/many of you will not probably have this same problem.  I just like to trust that what the author tells us.

 

My Winner: Alice in Zombieland

Why?  I like it for multiple reasons.  First of all, I found I liked those characters better than I liked the characters in Splintered (though sometimes it was a close call).  I liked the zombie angle because it was easier to understand than the return to Wonderland.  I liked Showalter’s writing style and her sense of humor.  And I felt like I got into the emotion of the story more.

It’s not that Splintered is not worth a read.  It completely is.  It’s utter madness and I have yet to find another YA book that is quite so mad.  It’s fascinating.  It’s just really weird and hard to understand.  But I encourage you to try it.

Thoughts?  Did I pick the right series?  Is there another Alice in Wonderland-based series I should try?  Let me know in the comments!

Dramatically Ever After (Ever After, #2)

Image result for dramatically ever afterFirst Lines: My last word echoed just slightly in the bathroom-turned-recording studio and, when I looked up, Phoebe and Grace were looking at me with identical expressions of awe.

I am always game for a cute contemporary romance, so when this series caught my eye a few weeks ago, I continued the love with this second installment.

Senior year is shaping up to not be the dreamy, amazing year Em Katsaros wanted it to be.  With her leading man five thousand miles away in Germany and her dad getting laid off his job, Em is struggling.  Especially since her dreams of becoming a famous actress will die if she can’t get a scholarship to study acting in college.  In the hopes of turning things around, Em enters a speech contest and wins a spot for herself at the US Youth Change Council national round.  She’ll spend a week in Boston and, if she wins, come home with a huge scholarship.  Everything’s great until Em’s nemesis, the egotistical and stuck-up class president Kris Lambert, is also going.  Weirdly, Kris is being nice in Boston.  But Em knows this game–lull the enemy into comfort and then strike.  So Em decides to beat him at his own game and ups her flirting and niceness.  Only, soon it’s hard to remember what’s acting and what’s real.

So far, I’m finding this series rather adorable.

While it’s solidly YA contemporary romance and packed full of fun cliches, there’s something about each of these books that has felt new, in its own way.

In this book, Em is entering into a speech competition for a scholarship she desperately needs to prove to her parents that the arts are what she wants to study–not getting a safety job in accounting or business or whatever other idea they come up with. She’s dramatic and confident on stage. But off stage, she’s self-conscious and afraid. She’s something of a perfectionist, and when she gets stressed, she micromanages the lives of those around her to feel in control.

In other words, Em is very flawed. But I did like seeing some of her better qualities. Her passion for history, her desire to help others in small scale ways, her ability to fight for what she believes in. She was kind of awesome, and not in small part because she is so flawed.

The story itself sometimes gets a little slow, simply because most of it is focused on Em’s fears about the competition, college, Kris, etc. But it was still a cute story.

There are also some really interesting themes in this, particularly about who we are and who we want to be.  This is a Youth Change Council, after all.  The whole contest is about how people can change the world, in one way or another.  So there’s a lot there about humanitarian work, government, art, etc.

Oh, and the history!  Em is a huge history buff, like me, and being in Boston is #NerdParadise for the both of us.  It was so cool to see her reacting to the history around her in the same way I wanted to.

I just found this book to be adorable and I can’t stop saying that over and over.

Now I Rise (And I Darken, #2)

Image result for now i riseFirst Lines: Hell was a party.  At least, Radu was fairly certain that whatever hell there was would certainly resemble this party.

So my Twitter feed has been blowing up lately with the release of the 3rd book in this series.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can see it before you go, “Gee, I suppose I should catch up on that.”  Voilá!

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Lada Dracul has lost nearly everyone she could call a friend or ally for one reason: she is determined to call the Wallachian throne her own, no matter the costs.  She has the loyalty of her soldiers, which she deeply values.  But lately, she’s started noticing that brute force isn’t getting her what she wants.  Thinking of Mehmed, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and her sort-of love, only make her hurt.  What she needs is her brother Radu, who could charm a saint to sin.  But Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople as a double-crossing spy.  Mehmed wants the city at any cost, and he trusts Radu to help.  When Radu learns Lada wants his help, he feels torn and rejects her plea.  If she dies, he’ll never forgive himself–but if Constantinople doesn’t fall, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

When I think back on the first book of this series, I remember it being slow and taking forever and not having nearly as much action as I had wanted.

This was the book I had been waiting for.

In this book, Lada and Radu are off on their own story lines. Lada is fighting her way through Hungary to claim the throne of Wallachia. Radu has been working closely with Mehmed to make Constantinople fall, eventually getting to the point where Radu works from behind enemy lines. Both of these stories were equally fascinating because of the action and the differences in the characters.

I’d almost go so far as to call Lada an anti-heroine. She’s brutal and vicious and vindictive. She betrays people that trust her and she kills without a second thought. When you step back and look at everything she’s done, it’s kind of hard to like her.  (She is supposed to be the female version of Vlad Tepes/”Vlad the Impaler”, the historical inspiration for Dracula.) But what this hides is that she’s determined to make a better country than the one she left as a child. She wants to help the poor and she’s driven toward her goal with an intensity she can’t hide. Everyone is either with her or against her and she will act accordingly. And she’s equally determined to prove that women can do great things and be great–without being stuck in the role of wife.

Radu is the far more sympathetic of the two. He is in love with Mehmed, though he can never admit it. It just means he’ll do anything for Mehmed and the Ottoman Empire. He’s religious and kind-hearted. However, he has some darker traits too. He’s also skilled at betrayal because he’s an excellent liar. He’s clever and knows how to maneuver people to just where he wants them for a plan to succeed. It’s just that his intent is never to kill or harm–he’s too kind for that.

Action throughout the story is almost constant between these two. Lada has to do most of her fighting early to even have a shot at the throne. Radu’s comes later after he’s established himself behind enemy lines. So between them, there was always something going on.

I will admit, though, that it took me a while to get into the story. Even with notes, I had a hard time remembering who everyone was beyond Mehmed, Lada, Radu, and Nazira (who became my favorite character in this book). In then end, it almost didn’t even matter. The story reminded us of a lot of what we needed, but since the first book was a lot of Dracul backstory, it just didn’t impact this as much.

This ended up being really good and I’m glad that I (accidentally) waited to read this until the last book was coming out.