Book Review: Flame in the Mist

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: I loved Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, so I was really excited to read Flame in the Mist. From the summary it looked like it would hit all the beats that I love about fantasy – smart heroine, dashing fight scenes, a bit of magic, and a plot where nothing is as it seems. Flame in the Mist does hit all those beats, but for some odd reason it took me a while to get into the story. I initially wasn’t feeling Mariko; I can’t truly figure out why it took me so long to warm up to her. Markio is an extremely intelligent young woman who is quite observant (a quality that I love in a character) and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is inquisitive, always asking questions which was a wonderful device Ahdieh used to get background information across. She’s decisive and is full of agency in this novel. When she learns that her parents had arranged her marriage, she rebelled in the most unique way – not that her parents know it, but Mariko feels like she has taken some control over her life with that one act. When the kiss comes between her and the mysterious Wolf, she is the one who initiates it. Clearly, as I describe her Mariko is a great character, but for some odd reason it took me a while to make a connection with her. I think it is because while Mariko is main character and we are in her head a good portion of the book, we are also in the heads of other characters fairly early in the book as it sets up the mystery. To me, it brought a sense of distance from Mariko that I didn’t fully connect with her until the plot became fully focused on her time with the Black Clan. I also feel like the pace of the novel changed from that point on as well and I was really able to dive into who the Black Clan truly were and what they stood for, as Mariko became comfortable with her abilities and becoming a member of the group.

On the other hand, Ahdieh did her due diligence in her research on feudal Japan. Granted, I am not an expert, but the world that Ahdieh created felt very real and believable, with the exception of the inclusion of magic, as if the events in the story could really have happen in history. The detail to which she describes the various locations bring to life Mariko’s world and all who inhabit it. Ahdieh weaves folklore into the story, such as the terrifying Jubokko tree that feeds off of human blood, as part of the every day world. Feudal life is accurately depicted as well as the tension between nobility and commoner when a call for change begins. Mariko is from the noble class and very quickly learns what life is like for those who are not. This is never more apparent than when Mariko and the Wolf have to run from a teahouse and visit an orphanage that the Black Clan gives money to. Ahdieh describes the teahouse with such glamor, from the motions the geikos use when performing dances, to the descriptions of the building itself, that when Mariko encounters the orphanage, the feeling of the book practically changes. The orphanage is the exact opposite of the teahouse and Ahdieh’s powerful prose juxtaposes the harshness of the orphanage to the teahouse beautifully. Ahdieh’s careful and accurate description of Mariko’s world is ultimately what makes Flame in the Mist so enjoyable. It’s so easy to get lost in the world Ahdieh created and imagine the time of the samurai.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good fantasy, buy this book.

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A Plea to Publishers

Two weeks of book festival loot. Photo by my friend Haneen Oriqat.

 

With spring comes book festival season and I’m a huge lover of any celebration of books. Here in Southern California the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is one of the biggest festivals around with an estimated 150,000 festival goers, according to the LA Times FOB website. It is a perfect place to be introduced to up and coming authors as well as seeing your old favorites. I attend every year ready to listen to authors speak on panels, get autographs, and of course, spend lots of cash. However this year, as many friends pointed out, there seemed to be a lack of “color” shall we say. I like to go to panels with authors of color to support them, but this year I only went to 2 panels (would have been a third, but scheduling conflict) and while there were a number of interesting YA panels, I chose not to attend them because the diversity in the panel was glaringly absent. I also did not see publishers pushing any of their authors of color and that made me extremely sad. There were some authors of color there signing books, but the ratio of authors of color to white authors was disappointing. Now, I do know that YallWest was the following weekend and there was more of a balance in terms of signage and panels, but even then, more books by authors of color were not pushed.

So what do I mean by being “pushed”? I’m talking about giveaways, signage, call to action items, etc. I saw very little pushing for authors of color at LAFOB, and there was some push at YallWest*. At both festivals, publishers were giving ARC’s, holding raffles, etc for authors and unfortunately between both festivals only about 4 books by authors of color were promoted in such a manner. Why is that? Why were more not given the push? Why didn’t publishers/publicists push for more authors of color to participate in panels at the LAFOB? A number of the best sellers were represented, which is great, but what about everyone else? What about the debuts by mid-level authors? What about sophomore novels by authors of color?

Book festivals are the perfect opportunity for publishers to expose readers to different voices and promote authors of color to a wider audience. Book festivals also give teens of color a chance to meet authors who look like them, maybe even inspire future writers. I’ll never forget the look on a former student’s face when I introduced him to Jason Reynolds at YallWest last year. His eyes lit up at the fact that he was meeting a cool looking author of color just like him. I encourage my students to attend both LAFOB and YallWest in the hope that they get to meet their favorite authors, as well as meet new authors, specifically authors of color. I can’t imagine I’m the only teacher to do so. In fact, last year at YallWest, there were buses of teens, specifically teens of color, at the event. That was the perfect opportunity for publishers to push their authors of color, as we know that when teens love a thing, they really love a thing, and will spend money. I understand that publishing is a business, but as Disney found out, when you actively make your product more diverse and push diversity, you will make more money. So, I have a plea for publishers – please put more money and effort in promoting your authors of color. There is a hungry market out there for diverse titles, you publishers just have to go find them, and trust me, you will not be disappointed when you do.

*Disclaimer – I was unable to attend YallWest due to reasons, but I had a friend attend and give me the scoop.

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New Releases

Two new releases for this first week of May. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been waiting for the third “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” novel for a while now. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. How about you?

Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3) by Jenny Han
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Lara Jean’s letter-writing days aren’t over in this surprise follow-up to the New York Times bestselling To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You.

Lara Jean is having the best senior year a girl could ever hope for. She is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Peter; her dad’s finally getting remarried to their next door neighbor, Ms. Rothschild; and Margot’s coming home for the summer just in time for the wedding.

But change is looming on the horizon. And while Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. Most pressingly, where she wants to go to college and what that means for her relationship with Peter. She watched her sister Margot go through these growing pains. Now Lara Jean’s the one who’ll be graduating high school and leaving for college and leaving her family—and possibly the boy she loves—behind.

When your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to? — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

 

Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu
Harlequin Teen

They’re more than their problems

Obsessive-compulsive teen Clarissa wants to get better, if only so her mother will stop asking her if she’s okay.

Andrew wants to overcome his eating disorder so he can get back to his band and their dreams of becoming famous.

Film aficionado Ben would rather live in the movies than in reality.

Gorgeous and overly confident Mason thinks everyone is an idiot.

And Stella just doesn’t want to be back for her second summer of wilderness therapy.

As the five teens get to know one another and work to overcome the various disorders that have affected their lives, they find themselves forming bonds they never thought they would, discovering new truths about themselves and actually looking forward to the future. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

Title: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 369 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

Review:  I really enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen so I was really looking forward to A Crown of Wishes. Initially I was hoping it would be more of Amar and Maya’s story, so I was a bit sad that it was not. However, I do love “sequels” that are not really sequels to a story, but rather the story of a peripheral character from the first book. I do like when authors do that because it gives us more of the world but from a different perspective. We get a sense of the young woman Gauri has become from her and Maya’s brief interaction in the first book. We learn she has become a fierce warrior and is willing to take risks her brother won’t. Outside of that we don’t know much about her, so A Crown of Wishes allows us to learn more about Gauri and so much more. We also learn more about Vikram, the soul whose thread Maya has to make a decision about in the first book. In Crown of Wishes, we ultimately learn what her decision was and how it has affected his life. All that being said, I totally and completely loved the book!

One critique of The Star-Touched Queen”that I had was there was so much description that it sometimes slowed down the story a bit. With A Crown of Wishes, while Chokshi’s signature lyrical descriptions of the Otherworld are there, the strength of this novel comes from the character interactions between Gauri and Vikram. In this novel, Gauri and Vikram both narrate so we get to spend time in each of their heads as they go on the journey to the Tournament of Wishes, and their time in Alaka, where the tournament is held. They begin their relationship as enemies, barely trusting each other. In fact, their first interaction was a delight to read as their chemistry practically flew off the page. Both are equals to each other and treat each other as such, which is refreshing as Vikram doesn’t see Gauri as a “female warrior” but just as a warrior. Both also have emotional walls surrounding them due to the way they were raised, and through their experiences, they eventually learn to open up and trust one another. As they do, the sarcastic barbs between them become less and less, and they become more honest with each other. Again, refreshing as there was none of the “noble idiocy” trope in this novel at all. They truly become a team who works together to solve problems and survive the tournament. Of course they fall in love too, but the development of their relationship is a healthy one full of mutual respect for the other’s skills and their flaws. And as they came to love each other, they were able to grow as individuals as well. Gauri and Vikram’s personal growth and relationship growth is what made this book so wonderful.

Chokshi also added a new character to the narrative who reflects the main theme of the story – personal choice. While the premise of the tournament is to gain wishes, through their experiences Gauri and Vikram learn that wishes cannot solve all problems, and that it’s our choices and how we use them that do. The character, Aasha, is a vishakanya who was taken from her family at the age of 4 and raised to be an assassin. She longs for a different life, however, and her attendance at the tournament allows her that opportunity as everyone, both human and non-humans, are all contestants in the tournament. For her, all she wants is to have choices in life, and through her actions, befriending Gauri and Vikram when it is dangerous to do so, is an example of how our choices matter in who we become, who we believe ourselves to be. I loved her character and I’m hoping that if there is a third book, we’ll have more of Aasha’s experiences.

Recommendation: I was planning on reading this novel slowly, but got so caught up that I did a marathon session. You know what that means, you have to get A Crown of Wishes now!

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Romeo & Juliet 2.0 – Reflecting our World

I was recently accepted into a summer workshop where I will be learning teaching strategies for teaching Shakespeare, so the Bard has been on my mind of late. As part of the application process I had to create a unit plan, so I re-worked my Shakespeare unit in which I have my students read Romeo & Juliet. Normally I have them also read a modern adaptation of the play, so I’m constantly on the look out for adaptations that feature characters of color. Because R&J is the perfect story to use to explore different cultures and race, there are truly a good number of well-written adaptations of the play. Some of them follow closely to the play’s story line and others take a departure, but all are novels that draw you in and make you root for the couple and the happy ending that Romeo & Juliet never got. I’ve read all of the following, but Ronit & Jamil, which was just released. Rest assured, it will be on my shelf soon.

Romeo and Juliet by Gareth Hinds

She’s a Capulet. He’s a Montague. But when Romeo and Juliet first meet, they don’t know they’re from rival families — and when they find out, they don’t care. Their love is honest and raw and all-consuming. But it’s also dangerous. How much will they have to sacrifice before they can be together? In a masterful adaptation faithful to Shakespeare’s original text, Gareth Hinds transports readers to the sun-washed streets and market squares of Shakespeare’s Verona, vividly bringing the classic play to life on the printed page.

 

 

Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper

Like Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers, Romiette Cappelle and Julio Montague face strong opposition to their budding romance. In their case, a dangerous gang’s disapproval of their interracial relationship puts the two in mortal peril.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIke No Other by Una La Marche

Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart? 

Devorah is a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing.

Jaxon is a fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls (unless you count his four younger sisters).

They’ve spent their entire lives in Brooklyn, on opposite sides of the same street. Their paths never crossed . . . until one day, they did.

When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the pair becomes stranded in an elevator together, where fate leaves them no choice but to make an otherwise risky connection.

Though their relation is strictly forbidden, Devorah and Jax arrange secret meetings and risk everything to be together. But how far can they go? Just how much are they willing to give up?

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

“This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.

“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”

They know the people who enforce them.

“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”

But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

 

The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi

Set in present-day Afghanistan, this is the story of two teenagers, one Pashtun and one Hazara, who must fight against their culture, their tradition, their families, and the Taliban to stay together. Told in three rotating perspectives—the two teens and another boy in the village who turns them in to the local Taliban—this novel depicts both the violent realities of living in Afghanistan, as well as the beauty of the land and the cultures there. And it shows that love can bloom in even the darkest of places.

This is an absolute must read not just for teens but for anyone who has lived during the time of America’s War in Afghanistan.

 

Ronit and Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin

Pamela L. Laskin’s beautiful and lyrical novel in verse delivers a fresh and captivating retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that transports the star-crossed lovers to the modern-day Israel-Palestine conflict.

Ronit, an Israeli girl, lives on one side of the fence. Jamil, a Palestinian boy, lives on the other side. Only miles apart but separated by generations of conflict—much more than just the concrete blockade between them. Their fathers, however, work in a distrusting but mutually beneficial business arrangement, a relationship that brings Ronit and Jamil together. And lightning strikes. The kind of lightning that transcends barrier fences, war, and hatred.

The teenage lovers fall desperately into the throes of forbidden love, one that would create an irreparable rift between their families if it were discovered. But a love this big can only be kept secret for so long. Ronit and Jamil must face the fateful choice to save their lives or their loves, as it may not be possible to save both.

 

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March Releases

There are no new diverse releases in this first week of April, but March was full of literary goodness, so let’s review what books you need to run to the bookstore for.

Future Threat (Future Shock 2) by  Elizabeth Briggs

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Jessica’s Review)

Bone Witch (Bone Witch #1) by Rin Chupeco

You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

The End of Oz (Dorothy Must Die #4) by Danielle Paige

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Shadow Run (Kaitan Chronicles #1) by AdriAnne Strickland and Michael Miller

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2) by Roshani Chokshi (Read the excerpt)

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Overturned by Lamar Giles

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