Saturday, August 25, 2018

BRIGHT WE BURN (The Conqueror's Saga #3) by Kiersten White

AUTHOR: Kiersten White -- Twitter | Website
PUBLISHED: July 10, 2018 by Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
GENRE: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
PAGES: 416
Find it on Goodreads

Haunted by the sacrifices he made in Constantinople, Radu is called back to the new capital. Mehmed is building an empire, becoming the sultan his people need. But Mehmed has a secret: as emperor, he is more powerful than ever . . . and desperately lonely. Does this mean Radu can finally have more with Mehmed . . . and would he even want it? 

Lada's rule of absolute justice has created a Wallachia free of crime. But Lada won't rest until everyone knows that her country's borders are inviolable. Determined to send a message of defiance, she has the bodies of Mehmed's peace envoy delivered to him, leaving Radu and Mehmed with no choice. If Lada is allowed to continue, only death will prosper. They must go to war against the girl prince. 

But Mehmed knows that he loves her. He understands her. She must lose to him so he can keep her safe. Radu alone fears that they are underestimating his sister's indomitable will. Only by destroying everything that came before--including her relationships--can Lada truly build the country she wants. 

Claim the throne. Demand the crown. Rule the world.

When I started this book I felt very clear of one thing: There is no way Mehmed, Radu, and Lada would make it all out alive.

It was also obvious that Lada would not take kindly to being told how to rebuild HER Wallachia.

I will say that my initial conviction was, in a way, true. But I won't spoil you (those will be below the jump).

Bright We Burn was everything the ending to a complex, deeply woven fantasy should be. It also saw all the characters finally being true to themselves. Lada was always true to herself, but Radu denied himself certain things because he was blindsided by his love for Mehmed, and Mehmed, even though he awarded Wallachia to Lada, was not happy by the way she was ruling and was ready and willing to go to war, as it seemed the son of Murad was always in the mindset for.

Early in the novel, we learn from some peasants about Prince Lada and how she is perceived -- and everyone in Wallachia, minus the boyars -- are starting to experience prosperity in the way Lada intended.

This was extremely fulfilling, right from the beginning, to see that she was able to do what she set out to do. That her gut instincts were leading her people to a better tomorrow. And she was doing what no prince had done before, yet she was a WOMAN. Once again, the feminist tone could not possibly be ignored.

It also sees Radu finally choose HIMSELF over Mehmed in so many ways, which was so incredibly refreshing. To me, he'd gotten a little annoying, but seeing him finally take a stand or some things was really satisfying.

I gave this final installment 5 HEARTS because I felt it successfully wrapped up the story and each character's story line.

Here's where it gets spoilery ...

WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU: An Overachiever's Guide to College Rejection by Ariel Kaplan

This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way shaped or forms my opinions of the novel. Thank you Penguin Random House and the wonderfully generous people at Underlined for the opportunity.

AUTHOR: Ariel Kaplan -- Website | Twitter
PUBLISHED: August 21, 2018 by Knopf Books For Young Readers (Penguin Random House)
GENRE: Young Adult Contemporary, Mystery
PAGES: 352
Find it on Goodreads

Mischa Abramavicius is a walking, talking, top-scoring, perfectly well-rounded college application in human form. So when she's rejected not only by the Ivies, but her loathsome safety school, she is shocked and devastated. All the sacrifices her mother made to send her to prep school, the late nights cramming for tests, the blatantly resume-padding extracurriculars (read: Students for Sober Driving) ... all that for nothing.

As Mischa grapples with the prospect of an increasingly uncertain future, she questions how this could have happened in the first place. Is it possible that her transcript was hacked? With the help of her best friend and sometimes crush, Nate, and a group of eccentric techies known as "The Ophelia Syndicate," Mischa launches an investigation that will shake the quiet community of Blanchard Prep to its stately brick foundations.

I remember my college application process and I'll tell you this much: I didn't put nearly as much effort as I should have. My dream school -- University of Michigan -- was ruled out for me in my freshman year when I had mono for four months and had to teach myself everything and ended up getting an incomplete in geometry, setting me back behind everyone in my class that would eventually take AP Calculus together. And in a small school like mine, where every little detail counted, that was a big one.

When I found out a school nearby to U of M -- Eastern Michigan University -- offered some great scholarship opportunities, I decided that was the school for me. It was close enough for me to visit home often, I could keep dancing and teaching at my dance studio, and maybe I'd even be able to transfer to EMU. Oh, and it helped that when my boyfriend, who was a year ahead of me in school decided to go there, too, in advance of my application process, that was basically the icing on the cake. Like a lot of icing. So much icing that the cake was more frosting than not.

I don't regret going to EMU -- I met some of my favorite people there and was in a sorority and did a lot of things that really changed my life. But when my brother started doing his application process a few years later, it became clear to me that I hadn't put nearly enough thought into mine. I did get into a few other places because I needed back ups in case EMU for some reason didn't take me. But I didn't care when I got into them and when one of those admittance letters came first, I didn't care. And for the record, I didn't graduate from EMU because of health problems. I've still yet to finish my degree. And sometimes I wonder if I'd chosen some place else if maybe I wouldn't have lost my momentum, as I seemed to have done by my fifth senior year.

Long story short, the college application process that goes on now for seniors is NOTHING like what mine was. It wasn't this big day or week where everyone starts getting offers. Even if I'd applied to some other schools or done some real research, it was a waiting game -- waiting for mail to arrive to tell us the result. It wasn't all done by email. It wasn't even like that during my brother's college application process. But I know it's real because I've coached at high schools and I have seen the anxiety and devastation and the celebrations that those weeks bring to high school seniors. So reading about it was really interesting.

This book is incredibly smart and shockingly witty. Mischa's narrative is funny and quick. If you loved the quick repartee of Gilmore Girls, you'll love this book. It moves fast and Mischa is a very worthy narrative. The mystery element is also really entertaining. It's basically a whodunnit and the ultimate culprit was NEVER on my list of suspects. If you enjoyed One of Us is Lying, you'll really enjoy We Regret to Inform You. It's a quick moving mystery that you can't put down, and though it doesn't involve murder, it also doesn't lack an element of excitement.

I also loved that this is a very diverse book. Mischa works with the Ophelia Syndicate to try and crack the case of who tanked her college chances, and the Ophelias are a group of super computer whizzes, professional level coders, and hackers. This is so incredibly important! We need more women who code and who are into the different computer sciences and engineering. And that they've learned and taught themselves is really, really inspiring.

The LGBTQ+ community is also represented here -- Nate himself is bisexual and when Mischa met him and first developed a crush on him, she learned her had a boyfriend, so she stifled those feelings away.

I gave this book 5 HEARTS! I loved it and I read it in about six hours. I absolutely couldn't put it down. My mom was watching me devour it all day long!

Things start to get spoilery here -- you've been warned!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

NOW I RISE (The Conqueror's Saga #2) by Kiersten White

AUTHOR: Kiersten White -- Twitter | Website
PUBLISHED: June 27, 2017 by Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
GENRE: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
PAGES: 471
Find it on Goodreads

Lada Dracul has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself. After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won . . . and souls will be lost.

After finishing And I Darken, I immediately dove into Now I Rise.

Lada, recently awarded the role of prince of Wallachia by Mehmed himself has embarked on a journey back to Tirgoviste, leaving Radu behind as Mehmed's singular focus, Constantinople, and a war with the Byzantines looms on the horizon.

Radu is feeling both a little abandoned and more than a little ignored and even slightly skeptical of Mehmed, but still has an undying devotion to him. When a team of Byzantine ambassadors visits Edirne, Radu once again crosses paths with Cyprian, someone he'd met previously and who he felt a certain pull towards and this time, is pushed towards him.

Things get a little spoilery here, so look out ... 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

NINE by Zach Hines

This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way shaped or forms my opinions of the novel. Thank you Harper Collins for the opportunity.

AUTHOR: Zach Hines -- Twitter
PUBLISHED: August 7, 2018 by HarperTeen (Harper Collins)
GENRE: Young Adult Sci-Fi
PAGES: 260
Find it on Goodreads

In an alternate world startlingly close to our own, humans have nine lives—and they can’t wait to burn straight through them.

As you shed lives, you shed your awkward phases: one death is equal to one physical and mental upgrade. Julian’s friends are obsessed with the idea of burning lives, but Julian is determined to stay on his first for as long as he can. His mother, the ultimate cautionary tale, burned through her first eight in just a few years, and Julian has no intention of succumbing to the debilitating rebirth sickness that she inflicted on herself.

But the regime has death incentives aimed at controlling overpopulation, and Julian realizes that he’s going to have to burn at some point—especially when he becomes a target for Nicholas, the manipulative leader of the Burners, the school’s suicide club. And when Julian eventually succumbs, he uncovers suspicious gaps in the rebirth system that may explain exactly why his mother went so far down the rabbit hole years ago. Along with a group of student dissenters, Julian sets out to find answers and is soon on the verge of exposing the greatest conspiracy ever unleashed on the world.

He has just eight more lives to uncover the brutal truth.

Nine was a book I was REALLY looking forward to. It seemed like nothing I'd ever read before and I loved the premise -- that humans had nine lives. The book was absolutely everything I expected, and then some.

It gets spoilery here. Enter at your own risk.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

AND I DARKEN (The Conqueror's Saga #1) by Kiersten White

AUTHOR: Kiersten White -- Website | Twitter
PUBLISHED: June 28, 2016 by Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
GENRE: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
PAGES: 475
Find it on Goodreads

No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

And I Darken is a perfect example of a book that at one point, when it first came out, I couldn't get into, but I'm so glad I gave another try.

It's also the first historical fantasy I've ever read. It has its basis in fact in the change that occurred in the Ottoman Empire and Wallachia. The main characters are Lada, Radu, and their friend Mehmed. Kiersten White includes an important author's note here:

"While the book is based on actual historical figures, I have taken massive liberties, filling in gaps, creating characters and events, shifting time lines, and most particularly, changing Vlad the Impaler to Lada the Impaler." 

In regards to Radu, she said this:

"Radu the Handsome is merely a footnote in Vlad's story, but I did my best to breathe life into his legacy."

And finally:

"Mehmed the Conquerer is a revered Turkish national hero, with Istanbul still a testament to his greatness and his ability to think that far into the future. I have done my best to honor that, while still acknowledging that he was a real person. Just how much interaction the three would have had growing up in the Ottoman Courts together is unknown. I've crafted a fictional history in which the formative relationships of their young lives were with each other."

This entire first book take you from Lada's birth -- to a lazy father named Vlad, who had already named one son after him and chose to name his daughter Ladislav, after himself as well. Born in Transylvania in 1435, she was formidable, right from the start. Radu, a slightly more fragile being, was born about a year later. After their mother, Vassilissa abandoned them, they were left to their nurse and her son, Bogdan, roughly the same age as them, as their father was rarely around. Vassilissa seems like a characternym -- look up the word vacillate and you'll find out exactly what I mean. "To be ambivalent," was the phrase that stood out most to me.

Eventually Vlad becomes Prince of Wallachia. While children, the are taken on a rather rare trip with their father to a village near the Arges river, where he takes them to a rundown old fortress and explains to Lada that THIS -- Wallachia -- is her true mother. She takes it to heart and collects some dirty, sticks, and pine needles which she keeps in a pouch she wears. This becomes a defining concept of the book and the entire series. Having Wallachia for her own is paramount, especially once her father trades them to the Ottomon Empire to build his own power when Lada is 13 and Radu is 12.

Lada and Radu strike up a friendship here with Mehmed, often called "the little zealot," but he's of no real threat because he is third youngest of his father Murad's sons. The likelihood of him ever becoming Sultan is minuscule.

As we get to know Lada and Radu (the chapters alternate between them), it becomes obvious that there couldn't be a more stark difference between them. Radu is sensitive where Lada is aggressive. Lada is suspicious of everyone and their intentions where Radu is too trusting. Lada is extremely independent, whereas Radu is at first lost without his nurse and is generally a little needy. Lada is considered by many to be ugly where as Radu grows into a handsome young man. Radu is diplomatic, gifted with a silver tongue and an ability to get people to listen to him -- Lada would rther ram someone through with a sword than be diplomatic. Despite coming from a Christian country, Lada is atheist and her brother Radu is introduced to Islam by a man named Kumal, where he finds great faith and finally, something as tantamount to his character as Wallachia is to Lada.

But as they get older, they find they do have one thing in common: a love for Mehmed that sets them against each other even further. But as he takes up with concubines, marries a first wife, and produces an heir, both Radu and Lada feel a little lost to the rituals of court.

When Wallachia's finally vulnerable, Lada begs Mehmed to send her back to be prince and challenge the current usurper of the throne -- and Radu holds him as he cries.

I thought this book was really triumphant in so many ways.

First, it covers such a long expanse of time. When the book starts Lada has only just been born. She is nearly 18 when they see her off. And she accomplishes so much in that short time. While Radu wanders slightly aimlessly and then only wherever Radu goes, she personally manages to become Jannissary and lead her own troop of all Wallachian men, including Bogdan, when they are finally reunited.

Second, it challenges traditional gender norms. Radu marries Nazira because that is the law-abiding, religiously-approved standard, but she knows that he longs for Mehmed, and she herself has had a spiritual wedding to Fatima, who was Kumal's maid. Lada herself should never have been able to become what she did, but she was a rich character with absolute ideals for herself. She wouldn't cheapen the future she saw for herself by marrying or becoming part of Mehmed's harem. She wouldn't even accept it if Mehmed gave everyone else up for her. She wanted to be an equal to him in every way, not subservient. And as she approaches Wallachia, she says:

"I am no longer the daughter of the dragon ... I am the dragon."

This book is drenched in feminism. It's exactly the kind of book young feminists should be reading. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with getting married and having that kind of wish if you genuinely wish it. But there is something to be said for a YA book that so blatantly contradicts the patriarchy by virtue of Lada.

I give this book 5 Hearts! 

Monday, August 13, 2018

WARCROSS (Warcross #1) by Marie Lu

This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way shaped or forms my opinions of the novel. Thank you Penguin Random House for the opportunity.

AUTHOR: Marie Lu -- Website | Twitter
PUBLISHED: September 12, 2017 by G.P. Putnam 's Sons (Penguin Random House)
GENRE: Young Adult Sci-Fi
PAGES: 366
Find it on Goodreads

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire. 

Let me start this out by saying, especially to Marie Lu herself and any publishing associates who come across this: I finished Warcross in less than a day and I have been in pursuit of a Wildcard ARC since BEA and ALA, which I was supposed to be at but had to bail on because my cancer relapsed and instead, I've spent the summer reading. I am DESPERATE for an ARC. Does someone at Penguin Random House want their bathroom tile cleaned with a toothbrush? I'm your girl if it means getting Wildcard. I have NEVER in my five years of blogging begged for an ARC, but depending on my health, I may have to enter the hospital for a month and I there's a good chance I could miss the release. So I really, really, truly want an ARC so bad. 

So now you know, I LOVED Warcross. I loved it SO MUCH more than I thought I would. I'm a girl gamer, but I've never been involved in games that involved a lot of battle or live opponents/teammates through online games. I'm a Pokemon and Mario kind of girl. But this still fascinated me and within the first five pages I was hooked and simply could not put it down. Let me talk about a few points in general that I thought were really, truly exceptional.

Marie is fantastic at world-building. And in Emika's case, she had to build a world of grief, because it's all Emika's known for a very long time. Her mother left for no apparent reason when she was young, so it was just her and her dad, an artist, until he passed away. She has sold off many of her possessions to make ends meet in a crappy apartment and she is still wracked with grief. Marie creates this portion of the story so well and depicts grief thoughtfully and authentically in a way anyone could relate to.

The world building throughout the rest of the novel is phenomenal, too. I can see the characters and the environment and for a video game she had to imagine and then create a world that contains it is just so impressive.

At one point a quote is used -- and this is from the ARC edition, so it may have changed, but I thought it was so beautiful and true now:

"Everyone in the world is connected in someway to everyone else."

I just thought that that was so honest. And in today's world, a lot of people forget that we, as humans, are linked all together, too. But we are focusing on what's separating us instead of what connects us, especially here in the U.S. We've become less human and value those connections less. The only bonds that seem to be treasured are the ones that offer something to someone else. And the very bonds that humanity is supposed to treasure are flicked aside for someone or something else, and very often involving hate.

One thing I love about this is being inside Emika's mind and seeing how she thinks and analyzes. She's so brilliant! But like many brilliant people, her social skills leave a little to be desired.

If you're worried about SPOILERS they start here ...