Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong // Book Review

Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong // Book Review

The sequel to These Violent Delights will dazzle you with its action-packed retelling of both Romeo and Juliet and the Shanghai Massacre of 1927. Filled with mystery, political intrigue, and romance, this one will keep you reading all the way to the end.

Here’s more about Our Violent Ends

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

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My thoughts

I read the first book only last month, so it was pretty fresh in my mind and made the experience for this one even richer. I felt like the first book was good, but it definitely had a few flaws that many readers brought up. However, I saw this sequel as flawless and I would highly recommend checking it out if you read the first one and liked it. I’m probably bias because I loved it so much and overlooking some smaller issues, but it really blew me away.

The biggest components that I adored was using real Chinese history during the early part of the 20th century to help tell this tale. The communist and nationalist parties working in tandem with the gangsters was so intriguing. Incorporating them into creating Chloe’s own retelling of those events really made the story way more interesting! Of course, the gangs working alongside these two parties really brought another dynamic level to the story that really reminded me of Fonda Lee and her Jade City trilogy.

The characters were a huge part of why I loved this book. Roma and Juliette, of course, were so interesting and very different from each other. Roma is more of a lover than a fighter, but has no problems with pulling the trigger when needed. Juliette is always fighting for approval as a female heir to one of the biggest gangs in Shanghai, so she tries to keep a pretty stern air about her. But I love that you see all of that change for both of the characters throughout the second book. They grow and change into the people they’re supposed to be, which I loved reading throughout the process.

I think another surprising set of characters were Marshall and Benedikt. I loved seeing their friendship grow over time and although I don’t want to spoil anything, the book definitely dives further into that for you. And I think my favorite character of all was Alisa. In the first book, there wasn’t much about her. She was more the naive younger sister who was infected by the bugs, but in this book, she grows exponentially.

I did want to touch on Romeo and Juliet and how it plays out in this part of the book. If you’ve read the first book, then you know exactly where the story kind of leads you, but ultimately this second half of the book is no way similar to the play. And honestly, I preferred it. Chloe Gong has created something special here with her story and I don’t think the play was necessary. It was fun to see the nods to the play and see how she’s used the components within her own story, but I wouldn’t go into reading this series thinking you’re going to get a verbatim retelling. It’s way better than that!

Finally, the bugs aka the sci-fi element in the story that drew me to the book in the first place. It felt like it took a backseat in the second book and didn’t play as big of a role as it did in the first book. My anxiety thanks Chloe Gong for that. However, I think she did a good job incorporating into the story and making it a part of the bigger plot. I loved that the bugs formed a riff in power within Shanghai and subsequently led to the people wanting to move away from gang rule, but aside from that I like that she kept the bugs to a minimum (gross).

Overall, I absolutely loved this ending. The story wrapped up beautifully, surprised me all the time, and really captured the tragedy of the massacre days before it happened. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better sequel.

A Clash of Steel by CB Lee // Book Review

A Clash of Steel by CB Lee // Book Review

I’ll be honest, I really wanted to like this one. Swashbuckling pirates, destinies to chase, coming-of-age, and treasures to find. It was honestly the perfect setup for a super fun pirate book. However, it just didn’t hit the mark for me. Thanks to Fierce Reads for gifting me a copy of this book.

Here’s more about A Clash of Steel

1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

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My thoughts

In many ways, this book has all the things I’m looking for in a really good pirate story. It has adventures to mysterious lands, pirates with quirky personalities, a little bit of romance, and a whole lot of coming-to-age and understanding that your parents aren’t always the superheroes. It has everything and even buried treasure to be found with an encrypted map that only a handful of people could actually understand. It had the potential to be a phenomenal story, but I think I came away from this book really wanting more.

Much of the story felt like a historical YA story rather than a historical pirate story. The focus was more on Xiang, her life, her upbringing, the people around her, and her mysterious father. She wears a pendant she was told was a token from her father before he passed, but that’s pretty much all she knew about him. The beginning shares her sheltered life. She lives in a super small village with her caretakers and her mentor. The only exploration she knows is what she’s traveled through town and in the books she reads.

Then one day, she asks her mother to take her to Canton to see what the rest of the world looks like. While she’s there, she meets Anh who steals her pendant and reveals to her that the pendant actually had something hidden inside of it; a treasure map to one of the most famous pirate’s buried riches.

In a desperate attempt to make Xiang’s mother proud of her (and avoid the marriage proposals her mother keeps pushing on her), Xiang leaves with Anh and her family’s ship to set sail for a world of exploration, daring adventures, and finding out more about the treasure map she found.

From that point on, the story has so many twists and turns. The drama in Xiang’s life is so unreal and with each new surprise, I was drawn to finding out more. I wish I can talk about them here, but I might give too much away. But be prepared to find how much Xiang’s family has been keeping from her.

I also really loved the characters in this book. The entire crew on Captain Hoa’s ship were all interesting characters that I wish had more time to learn about them. I wanted to know so much about each of the characters and how they make up this beautiful found family. Xiang and Anh’s relationship also deepens as they get to know each other. Xiang learns to fight, the importance of working hard, and discovers a lot about her past that’s been kept hidden from her. Honestly, I was so surprised with all the reveals that kept rolling in.

The pacing in this story felt a little out of sorts. At first, it was slow-paced, which I liked. I felt like I was getting into a seriously big story with tons of adventure and action, but then the second half of the book seemed to rush focusing less on the treasure and more on the drama. I think if I had set my expectations a little differently when I started the book then I would have enjoyed it more than I did.

Overall, it was a fun adventure story filled with a lot of learnings, surprises, and pirate-y action. While it wasn’t my favorite, I know many folks out there will really love this one.

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee // Book Review

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee // Book Review

I’m going to start off by saying that I don’t normally read historical fiction. However, when it’s a historical fiction that 1) takes place on the Titanic 2) brings in an under-represented group that wouldn’t normally be on the Titanic, then I need to investigate. And much like Valora Luck, I got lucky with this one.

Here’s More About Luck of the Titanic

Southampton, 1912: Seventeen-year-old British-Chinese Valora Luck has quit her job and smuggled herself aboard the Titanic with two goals in mind: to reunite with her twin brother Jamie–her only family now that both their parents are dead–and to convince a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus to take the twins on as acrobats. Quick-thinking Val talks her way into opulent firstclass accommodations and finds Jamie with a group of fellow Chinese laborers in third class. But in the rigidly stratified world of the luxury liner, Val’s ruse can only last so long, and after two long years apart, it’s unclear if Jamie even wants the life Val proposes. Then, one moonless night in the North Atlantic, the unthinkable happens–the supposedly unsinkable ship is dealt a fatal blow–and Val and her companions suddenly find themselves in a race to survive.

Stacey Lee, master of historical fiction, brings a fresh perspective to an infamous tragedy, loosely inspired by the recently uncovered account of six Titanic survivors of Chinese descent.

My Thoughts

This was a slow burning story about young Valora Luck; a Chinese British person who’s trying to get to America and become an acrobat in the Ringling Bros Circus. While it was slow burning, I also remembered this story takes place on the Titanic and perhaps it was more the anticipation of what happens to the ship that made it feel slow. But it was definitely entertaining. Watching Valora pull off being a boy to hang out with her brother and his friends in third class to pretending to be Mrs. Sloane in first class, I loved seeing her dynamically navigate through those different worlds. It was also quite fun especially when she’s fooling the rich folks that she’s also rich and white.

It was interesting to see the dichotomy between first class and third class. Naturally, we’ve seen these class wars in movies like Titanic, but what Titanic failed to recognize was the level of discrimination people of color from third class were faced. It wasn’t only Valora, Jamie, and the boys who are discriminated against and it made sense with the story. And although they were faced with a lot of discrimination, there were also people on board who looked beyond their ethnicity and befriended them. It made me happy to see a few allies in the mix.

I also loved that this story was loosely based off the six Titanic survivors who are of Chinese descent. It blew my mind reading the author’s note at the end and seeing the inspiration for the story. Personally, as a Korean American, I never imagined someone who looked like me on board the Titanic. I think the biggest depiction of life then was that big blockbuster movie we all know and love. And in many ways, I was worried with the direction this story went. I was worried she would fall in love with some rich white guy and abandon her plans to be independent, but it didn’t turn out that way! It actually made me so happy that she was so stubborn!

This book also deals a bit in grief/loss. When Valora boards the ship, there’s a lot of recall to her mother and father who both tragically passed away. It fueled her determination to follow her dream especially since it was her parents that got her and Jamie into acrobatics in the first place.

The ending was definitely where all the action was. I mean, this is the Titanic and I don’t think it’s a spoiler with what happens to that ship at the end. But it was interesting to see this represented. I appreciate so much what Stacey Lee was able to do with this book. I loved the story and imagining myself in such a historical moment. Although, I am glad I wasn’t on that boat in real life.

Thanks Penguin Teen for gifting me a copy of this book. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.

The Conductors by Nicole Glover // Book Review

The Conductors by Nicole Glover // Book Review

I was really excited to read this one especially since historical fantasy is a sub-genre I’m really into lately. But what I read felt more like a historical fiction with a touch of fantasy. It may be perfect for those who love alternate history or a historical fiction that takes place during the late 19th century.

Here’s More about The Conductors

A compelling debut by a new voice in fantasy fiction, The Conductors features the magic and mystery of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files written with the sensibility and historical setting of Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Introducing Hetty Rhodes, a magic-user and former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now solves crimes in post–Civil War Philadelphia.

As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband Benjy have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions. To solve this mystery, they will have to face ugly truths all around them, including the ones about each other.

In this vibrant and original novel, Nicole Glover joins a roster of contemporary writers within fantasy, such as Victor LaValle and Zen Cho, who use speculative fiction to delve into important historical and cultural threads.

My Thoughts

I liked this one! While it wasn’t entirely what I’m usually reading (more on the fantasy side than the historical side), I still appreciated the story and the world Nicole Glover’s built for Hetty and Benjy. This was such an interesting world and while I imagined it being more like a crime noire story, I’m still happy with the results.

I really loved the magic. While it could have done with a bit more explanation on how they all work (what’s the difference between sigil magic and sorcery?), I loved how it’s used. I loved reading Hettie sitting and sewing constellations into the collars of her shirts and how she’s able to lift an entire bathtub with her things in it and move. The magic felt romantic especially when it’s using constellations. I loved seeing the different signs of the zodiac come to life and help Hettie and Benjy on their missions.

I also liked the setting. I’ve read a few historical fiction stories that are set in this post Civil-War America, I liked how this one still continues to look back at the events prior to the war and how it affects the characters in the book. You can tell from the subtle nods to enslavement and the war that this is still fresh in the characters’ minds and how their decisions are sometimes based on the world they used to live in. But I also appreciated reading about how this young Philadelphian town is thriving with affluent Black Americans making a name for themselves after the war.

Hettie was definitely my favorite character and while Benjy does have his moments, I loved following Hettie along. Perhaps it’s because most of the flashbacks are about Hettie and her life, but she’s also such a humble and strong character who isn’t as showy as some of the other characters. She’s a seamstress who doesn’t want to be bulldozed into working for little money. She’s a detective who can use magic, but she doesn’t use it for just anyone. Even though some characters bugged Hettie, she still kept her cool and composure and never showing her full hand before figuring out the situations.

And for the other characters in the book, I don’t know how but I fell in love with them as well. Everyone from Penelope who seems just so kind and brews potions for Hettie to Alice, the passing Black elite looking for her sister. There were so many characters and each of them had such different and interesting personalities. I loved how developed they were and how they relate back to Hettie and Benjy.

However, I wasn’t a fan of the mystery. I think it’s because it didn’t feel like the most important part of the book. I found it much more interesting to read about Hettie and her journey to find her sister, to help out the local townspeople, and contribute to society. But when it came to the mystery behind the murders, it almost felt like an afterthought. I was surprised by the big reveal at the end because there weren’t enough breadcrumbs or clues within the text to suggest otherwise. I think this is the first book in a really long time that I couldn’t figure out who did it before the reveal. You can definitely tell there’s something going on and there are hints throughout the story, but I also felt they were too few and far between. Every time it came back to the mystery component, I’d completely forgotten it was a part of the book.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good historical fiction novel with a bit of magic and a bit of mystery. I wouldn’t hold out for figuring out the culprit before the end of the book because it may get in the way of your enjoyment of the story.

Thanks to HMH Books for sending me a copy of this book. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.