Rambling Review: Dread Nation

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a book about zombies interrupting the Civil War. Don’t let the idea of zombies scare you off, though (Mom), because this story is so much more than the next zombie apocalypse novel.

Our main character, Jane, was born during the Civil War, right around the time the dead came back and put a stop to the battling. Everyone became focused instead on solving the issue of zombies — or “shamblers” as they’re known in the book. Old beliefs linger despite the physical war ending, and the view of post-war America where neither side won is fascinating.

Black and Native American children are sent to boarding schools where they learn combat skills to fight the shamblers. The ultimate goal is to attain a position as bodyguards for the wealthy. Jane is enrolled in one of the best of these schools, and while she is an excellent fighter, she struggles with following the rules. Her antics lead her from a frustrating situation to one that is downright deadly. She has to fight –and not only against shamblers — to keep those she loves safe.

Dread Nation is very well-written with believable and relatable characters. The America Justina Ireland paints is vivid and sometimes heart-wrenching in its authenticity. It isn’t hard to imagine some of the reactions, beliefs, and social norms created in this alternate society. This book is both entertaining and deep, evoking fun conversations about zombies as well as more serious social commentary that could be applicable even today.

Also worth noting, I really love the chapter titles. It’s a small touch, but in my opinion, they are very well done and made me look forward to each new story-within-the-story.

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Rambling Reviews: An Ember in the Ashes

HOW HAVE I NOT ALREADY WRITTEN THIS?! Guys, this is my all time favorite YA book that isn’t Harry Potter (because Harry Potter is really its own thing at this point, anyway).

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir is about a slave and a soldier in fantasy-Ancient Rome. Laia is a Scholar, the broken and subservient class, sent as a slave to spy on the martial school in order to help free her brother from imprisonment. Elias is a Martial, and on his way to joining the upper echelons of the Empire — a position that only fills him with disgust. (And also, Helene is a badass secondary character whom I love — dare I say it — possibly more than either Laia or Elias).

I will say right off the bat, if you haven’t already noticed, I’m not too hard to please when it comes to the love interest. I know that makes me somewhat unreliable when it comes to actual opinions about the guys in these female-led novels. Set that aside for a second and trust me when I say, Elias is everything. Strong and deadly and kind and compassionate. He’s probably my favorite swoon-worthy character since Gilbert Blythe (not that anyone will ever take the place of Gilbert Blythe).

Laia is relatable, at least for me. She wishes she were braver than she thinks she is, but she’s willing to do anything it takes to save her brother. She pushes herself out of her comfort zone time and again until she learns she is strong enough to take charge of her situation.

The writing is exceptional, especially for a debut author. It’s the kind of writing that makes me question whether my own could ever be good enough. And I mean that in a good way — too many debut novels make me cringe and wonder what the point is of even trying if pretty much anything can be published.

And, if you find yourself falling a little for Helene, she gets a main character POV in the next book which will only make you love her more. Plus, the third book is due to come out this June, so it’s a pretty good time to get started on the series. DO IT!

Rambling Review: Daughter of the Pirate King

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller is my favorite YA book I’ve read so far this year. And guys, it’s currently only $5.99 for hardcover on Amazon right now. That’s amazing! It could be because the sequel, Daughter of the Siren Queen just came out. I say buy ’em both!

DotPK stars Alosa, a fiery pirate captain (and, you guessed it, daughter of the king of the pirates). She gets herself kidnapped by a rival pirate ship so she can search out a piece of the ultimate treasure map (and show off her overall badassery).

Of course, she meets her match in the handsome Riden. They battle wits and occasionally trade physical blows and fill the pages with wonderful tension. I loved their banter and their chemistry.

This isn’t the first heroine I’ve met who is both feminine and strong, but I love it every time. She brags about her fine clothes and threatens to murder those who get her gowns dirty. She’s been hardened by past trauma but still leaves room for hope and kindness. Alosa is both vicious and compassionate, and I greatly enjoyed her story.

Rambling Reviews: Secondborn

**This contains a few spoilers, though — as I’ll go into more below — nothing really felt like a “big reveal” enough to qualify protecting the details**

For July’s “Kindle First” book, I chose Secondborn by Amy Bartol. An aside — Kindle First is possibly my favorite part of being an Amazon Prime member, since I get a free book each month before it’s released to the public. It’s currently $4.99 otherwise.

I love the concept of the story: Firstborns are basically royalty, secondborns are servants and soldiers, thirdborns are illegal and therefore destroyed. Of course, Secondborn follows one such secondborn, Roselle, as she acclimates to her new life as a member of the Fates Army. Since she’s the daughter of one of the highest leaders of the society, she’s something of a celebrity, making her transition into the ranks that much harder.

Bartol’s world-building is pretty phenomenal. I love the different “trees” everyone lives in, and the imaginative technology. After finishing this book, I read that she is well-known for her fantastic worlds, and this time was no exception.

World-building aside, this book felt more like a rough first draft than anything. The relationships are hurried and there is very little depth to Roselle. I liked Hawthorne as a potential love interest, but as soon as I’d thought that, he was declaring his love and they were in this intense physical relationship that just felt strange. Then a year passes (denoted by “one year later”), in which an actual relationship could have developed more naturally between them — complete with the slow, delicious build up of more and more physical affection — and I might have felt more invested when he was suddenly ripped away from her.

She seems to attract every handsome male in her vicinity. That didn’t exactly bug me — after all, her life had been broadcast since a child, and it’s insinuated she’s very pretty — but I couldn’t tell how she felt back. There’s a lot of exposition and “telling” rather than showing, but I don’t feel like I ever really saw inside Roselle’s head.

The whole thing ends rather abruptly, in what feels like the middle of a conversation. There’s no resolution of a goal — and in retrospect, I’m not even sure what Roselle’s goals as a character were for this story. Too many questions were left unanswered, and more cropped up with such a quick ending.

All that being said, if the second book shows up as a free option, I might check it out. There’s so much potential for a great series. The characters can be fleshed out more, given actual motivations and backstory and their relationships and interactions to flow more naturally. The underlying concept of the story has potential to generate enticing plot lines. And like I said earlier, the world itself is fascinating. The first book was just too rushed and disjointed for me to recommend it.

Rambling Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was very hard to read. Not because it was poorly written or boring — that’s not the case at all. The story was intriguing and I was invested in the narrator’s plight. The end felt like such a cliffhanger that I audibly yelled “are you serious!” which scared my husband, but then I realized there was more to the story in a new section with a different perspective (so if you hit a snag near the end, keep reading — it’s not just end of book acknowledgements!).

No, the reason this book was so hard to read was its terrifying plausibility. Most dystopian novels are set in a far off future, after wars and bombs and viruses and apocalypses have utterly changed the face of the earth and how society runs. Some dystopian novels are a chilling commentary on where the world could be headed (think: 1984), but this is so much more immediate. The changes, the leeching of power from the people — or from certain types of people — are so subtle at first, so insignificant that by the time enough people start to question things, it’s far too late.

In a lot of dystopian stories, there is one dictator or a small group of “bad guys” lording it over the masses. The majority of the people don’t agree with their leadership, but are too downtrodden and tired to fight back. In The Handmaid’s Taleplenty of people agree with the new society. There are rumors of underground movements, sure, but most people seem supportive of the new order’s ideals.

The story is both intense and detached, told by a narrator who has nearly given up on everything that mattered to her in the world before. It is both resigned and angry, rebellious and cautious, disgusted and apathetic. It is a desperate warning wrapped up in inevitable possibility.

I had to take a lot of breaks while reading this one. It isn’t something you’ll binge-read for hours or enjoy while lounging on a beach. It’s a tale best told in snippets and whispers, with long silences to digest each piece of new information. It’s heavy with real-life foreboding, but I’m so glad I read it.

Rambling Review: Garden of Thorns

Recently, I’ve been reading more “adult” books (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale — reviews to come), modern classics that make me sound more cultured and grown up than the usual YA fiction I prefer. I do feel more well-rounded, but I’ve missed the adventure and angst and inevitable romance that all winds together into nearly every young adult novel.

Garden of Thorns by Amber Mitchell popped up on my Amazon recommendations, and I couldn’t resist. In all honesty, I was fully prepared to re-read any one of my favorites I already own, but currently they would need to be fished out of boxes, and Garden of Thorns was only $3.99 on Kindle, so I figured I’d take a chance on it.

The story is about a girl, Rose, who is part of a traveling entertainment troupe called the Garden — in which the Flowers dance and the Wilteds are punished for any infraction the Flowers make. The Gardener is cruel and abusive, and very early on we get to see just how devastating life in the Garden can be. Rose manages to escape, only to find herself in a rebellion against an emperor every bit as cruel and emotionless as the Gardener. All she wants is to free her sisters from the Garden, but first she has to prove herself worthy of the rebellion’s help.

Her growth throughout the novel is a beautiful thing. She struggles with trust issues and hope, vacillating between the two nearly constantly. Frustrating and relatable, it sometimes seems like one step forward is met with two steps back. I soared with her triumphs and screamed (internally) when she seemed to have run out of chances for success. As a reader, her fears seemed objectively ridiculous but also extremely valid at the same time. The frequent reminders of her past felt repetitive at first, but were necessary to continuously explain her hesitations.

I’m not sure if this is a stand alone novel or part of a series. Unlike most series, the ending was satisfying and didn’t hint at another story waiting to be told. I’d be perfectly happy with this as its own novel, but I can’t deny I’d love to see Rose and the others back for another adventure.

Rambling Review: And I Darken

Okay, the next book in this series (Now I Rise) comes out in July, so I was putting off rereading And I Darken until the end of June to get ready for it, but I just noticed it’s currently $1.99 on Kindle so I need to share my love for it RIGHT NOW.

That being said, I’m a little foggy on all the details that make this book great and can’t really remember anything glaring that made it difficult to read.

It’s one of my favorite young adult books out there. I love the opportunity to learn things while reading historical fiction, and Kiersten White gives a great little blurb about her research and the areas she took liberties and tweaked timelines.

I love the imagination behind turning Vlad the Impaler into a woman and exploring what might have been different (and what might have stayed the same). Lada is a beautifully written character, with depth and strength and fierce rejection of her weaknesses. Even though she is rough and hardened, she’s relatable. I could relate to the little girl trying desperately to make her father proud, to the woman afraid of losing herself in love, in the man she loves, to the fighter who refuses to lose sight of her end goals, no matter how hopeless they can seem at times.

It isn’t a light-hearted read. The book explores the dark side of a person’s character. It exposes flaws in heroes and muddies the waters between right and wrong. It’s full of painful sacrifice and selfish choices, hurt and betrayal and love and ambition. It ripped holes in my heart and put the pieces back in ways that weren’t neat and tidy, but satisfying in their “rightness”. For the bright and shiny people, those like my husband, this isn’t the book for you. But if you like books that blur the line between hero and villain, books that spit on your expectations and make you question your own nature, your own response to a hostile world, this book is everything.