“Arena” is a futuristic dystopian story with some flavors of “Hunger Games” meets “Red Rising” but follows along a more traditional Roman gladiator structure—which shouldn’t be a surprise given the title and cover. The story follows Colston, the son of an abusive drunk and owner of an estate where murderers are sent to fight in gladiatorial combat, as he grows from a lonely 15 year old to the premier trainer of these fighting men. By befriending Cole, a giant of a man convicted of murder by trying to defend his slaughtered family, the two help each other survive in their respective worlds. When Colston falls for Anna, a debtor that his father purchased, he starts to plan for a future away from his father’s estate. Unfortunately, he never really gets to the point where he wants to better or change this dystopian society where those who fall into debt are sold like slaves, and those convicted of murder must entertain the masses in bloody combat, which you kind of expect from a dystopian story. Despite the feel of those other books present in “Arena”, Colston is only ever focused on him and his immediate circle, not changing an inhumane practice the way Anna encourages him, which never sat well with me. Now, some of these plot points are spread out between several books, but this is the omnibus with all three books rolled into one. I liked some of the books better than others, but as I received the whole collection, I’ll be rating it as the omnibus and not the individual stories.
“Choose to Rise” is a lyrical account of the Armenian Genocide. I know what you’re thinking: how can such a horrendous (but historically important) part of our history be LYRICAL? Allow me to explain. “Choose to Rise” is a historical fiction of the events that happened in the years leading up to the Armenian Genocide, during, and very briefly the aftermath. The vast majority of this book occurs over the span of a few years (1913-1915) and is told in first person through the main character Armen, who is finally telling his grandchildren what he and his family endured. Despite the heavy subject matter, the author endeavors to make his readers really feel what his characters (and countless real people) encountered. He aims to bring that era to life by painting us a picture through prose. Mekaelian’s descriptions throughout the book are just lovely, which is why this book has a lyrical quality to it. While I thought the author’s writing was beautiful, it didn’t always work well with the story he was aiming to tell, however.
Let me start by saying that I don’t typically read middle-grade books, but my niece and nephews are getting to that age where they can start reading “real” books, and being the awesome aunt I am, I’m going to shower those ragamuffins with literature. So, I read this in preparation for that. While this book says it’s about the issues First Daughter Audrey faces when she is uprooted from her comfortable life and whisked away to the White House, and then plopped into a school that felt like “Mean Girls” meets “Cruel Intentions” but for children, none of that really mattered for the story. You can take away the whole living in the White House thing and this story stays pretty much the same: a young girl whose parents aren’t giving her enough attention or freedom, acts out in an attempt to be treated as “not a child”. Which, as “not a child” anymore, sounds silly because rebelling in that way has the opposite effect, but I guess this is what sounds good to kids these days…
I’ve got to hand it to James Malone, he did a TON of research going into “Rainbow Gardens”. The events he describes of World War I and World War II are pretty spot on, but with enough liberty to take a historical twist that fits into his fantasy world, and that’s coming from the granddaughter of an Air Force pilot who served in the Pacific during WWII and the daughter of an Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, so even though I did not serve, I know enough to know when people just embellish or romanticize those events without doing their due diligence. So, first and foremost, this is a great historical fiction story that focuses on honor, family, and forgiveness. But it’s also a fantasy because, well, trolls.
****I received a copy from the author in exchange for an honest review****
Much like Heldt’s other stories, “The Mine” follows the soon-to-be-graduating-from-college-ladies’ man, Joel, as he and his friend Adam return from a road trip across America. When a traffic incident prompts Joel to convince his friend to take a service road to get around it, and then explore a dilapidated mine, Joel’s life changes forever. The stars align and the mineral composite in the mine sends Joel back to 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The reader watches as Joel pieces together where he is, how he got there, what he can do about it, and then what happens when his life gets even more complicated by falling in love. Heldt creates an endearing story about a young man who has to make some genuinely tough decisions: does he change the past and risk potentially his own existence for the woman he loves? Or does he break both of their hearts and return to where he belongs? While some sections of the book felt a bit slow, I genuinely enjoyed this version of Heldt’s time travel series!
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