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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Review: North of Happy

Title: North of Happy
Author: Adi Alsaid
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.

When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.

Review: Adi Alsaid excels at building a world. Whether Carlos is exploring his new home with Emma or at a party or in the kitchen at Provecho, it is easy to imagine the world he moves through. The kitchen itself is a highlight, filled with strong personalities and amazing food descriptions. Starting each chapter with an ingredient list for a recipe (for a dish that usually, if not always, showed up in the chapter) was a fun touch and an easy way to remind the reader just how much food and cooking mean to Carlos.

The interactions between Carlos and his hallucinations of Felix were one of the best parts of North of Happy, especially since it gave Carlos the opportunity to question what he actually wanted out of life. Deciding that his father’s plan wasn’t for him was the beginning, but that’s far from deciding on a direction that he actually wanted for his life. The pushes that Felix gave to Carlos were just as important as the times that Carlos pushed back, and it was great to see Carlos deciding for himself what would and wouldn’t make him happy.

There were two main weaknesses in my opinion: the lack of screen time for the relationship between Carlos and his father and the underdevelopment of Emma. I never really got enough of a close look at Carlos’s father to be able to fully understand why he was at such odds with both their sons. This undermined the conclusion of his arc for me since it made the ending feel at least partially unearned. Emma’s character was never allowed to flourish for me; or at least, I craved something deeper from the book on her behalf and didn’t feel like I ever quite got it. She swung very close to the Manic Pixie archetype at times and spent many of her interactions with Carlos as his unwitting therapist. That said, there were several excellent scenes between Carlos and Emma that gave Emma depth, and the culmination of her arc was a (mostly) pleasant surprise for me.

Finally, I do wish there had been some kind of overt mention of Carlos getting help for his mental health at the end. (If it was there, I missed it.) He was hallucinating his dead brother for months, struggling with depression, etc., and while Carlos does admit to not being entirely okay, it would have been nice to see him working toward getting him the assistance he still needs.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you have an interest in the culinary arts. While there are a few missteps in the book, Carlos is an engaging narrator whose story is likely to resonate with a lot of people. If you’re in the mood for a book about grieving and growing up, this will probably hit the spot.

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Review: Queens of Geek

Title:  Queens of Geek
Author: Jen Wilde
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 288
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Availability: Out now!

Summary: When BFFs Charlie, Taylor and Jamie go to SupaCon, they know it’s going to be a blast. What they don’t expect is for it to change their lives forever. Charlie likes to stand out. SupaCon is her chance to show fans she’s over her public breakup with co-star, Reese Ryan. When Alyssa Huntington arrives as a surprise guest, it seems Charlie’s long-time crush on her isn’t as one-sided as she thought.

While Charlie dodges questions about her personal life, Taylor starts asking questions about her own. Taylor likes to blend in. Her brain is wired differently, making her fear change. And there’s one thing in her life she knows will never change: her friendship with Jamie—no matter how much she may secretly want it to. But when she hears about the Queen Firestone SupaFan Contest, she starts to rethink her rules on playing it safe. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I was immediately sold on Queens of Geek, just by the blurb. While I’ve never thrown myself into a fandom, I find discussions of fandom culture – whether in fiction or in meta posts online – fascinating. In that sense, Queens of Geek was right up my alley.

The book follows two best friends, Charlie and Taylor as they attend the convention SupaCon for the very first time, with third BFF Jamie in tow. Vlogging star Charlie Liang is still dealing with the fallout from her celebrity breakup with her indie-movie-turned-sensation co-star Reese — all while falling for fellow superstar Alyssa Huntington. Meanwhile, her best friend Taylor is busy chronicling her SupaCon experiences on Tumblr and coming to terms with her crush on her friend Jamie.

The identities and topics included in Queens of Geek – bisexuality, mental health, body image, sexism, fandom culture, and more – are smoothly incorporated into the book. As I’m not super familiar with fandom culture and other aspects of the book, I’m looking forward to what other, more knowledgeable, readers think of how things are handled in the book.

In general, I had tons of fun reading Queens of Geek, and there were quite a few swoonworthy (yep, sorry, I’m using that word now) moments. If you’re into fandom culture, or just reading about it, then definitely check Queens of Geek out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: Ms. Marvel, Volumes 2–4

Title: Ms. Marvel, volumes 2–4
Author: G. Willow Wilson with Jacob Wyatt, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc as illustrators
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 112 to 136 pages each
Publisher: Marvel
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary (for volume 2): Who is the Inventor, and what does he want with the all-new Ms. Marvel and all her friends? Maybe Wolverine can help! Kamala may be fan-girling out when her favorite (okay maybe Top Five) super hero shows up, but that won’t stop her from protecting her hometown. Then, Kamala crosses paths with Inhumanity for the first time – by meeting the royal dog, Lockjaw! Every girl wants a puppy, but this one may be too much of a handful, even for a super hero with embiggening powers. But why is Lockjaw really with Kamala? As Ms. Marvel discovers more about her past, the Inventor continues to threaten her future. The fan-favorite, critically acclaimed, amazing new series continues as Kamala Khan proves why she’s the best (and most adorable) new super hero there is!

Review: I reviewed the first volume of Ms. Marvel about a year and a half ago, then got distracted and didn’t read the next three volumes even though I’d already bought them. I’m pleased to say that coming back to Kamala Khan’s world was just as fun as my first plunge into it.

Kamala’s story expanded nicely through these volumes. Her progression through obstacles (and villains) was peppered with a lot of cute, geeky moments. While there were a couple scenes were I think things got too preachy, I didn’t mind too much since I agreed with the messages. Kamala is a great example of a heroine who struggles to handle two different lives she is living but refuses to give up on either.

One of the ways that Ms. Marvel shines is that Kamala has so many important people in her life who she loves. Sure, her superhero moments are grand, but the character beats with her family, friends, and even idols are some of the best scenes. I was particularly fond of a scene with her mother in the fourth volume—you’ll know it when you see it—because I adore un-fridged mothers who love their daughters wholeheartedly. Other side characters got more development and screen time throughout these volumes, which helped give Kamala’s determination to protect her city more weight.

An unexpected downfalls of reading all three volumes back-to-back was that the change in art style between (and even within) volumes was glaring. The lack of a consistent illustrator was very distracting, and it tossed me out of the story every time the switch was made. Some of the artists were better at showing movement and action than others, and on occasion I had difficulty identifying minor characters because they looked so different from artist to artist.

Recommendation: Get them (and the first volume) soon if you’re into comic books. These three volumes are great sequels to the first Ms. Marvel volume. Readers who loved the first volume will be sure to like these, and this series is a good starting point for comic book newbies. I’ve added the next two published volumes to my TBR pile, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Kamala Khan’s adventures.

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Review: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Title: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Author: Octavia E. Butler, Adapter Damian Duffy, Artist John Jennings
Genres: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical
Pages: 240
Publisher: Abrams Comicarts
Availability: On shelves now

Summary:  More than 35 years after its release, Kindred continues to draw in new readers with its deep exploration of the violence and loss of humanity caused by slavery in the United States, and its complex and lasting impact on the present day. Adapted by celebrated academics and comics artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings, this graphic novel powerfully renders Butler’s mysterious and moving story, which spans racial and gender divides in the antebellum South through the 20th century.

Butler’s most celebrated, critically acclaimed work tells the story of Dana, a young black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in 1970s California to the pre–Civil War South. As she time-travels between worlds, one in which she is a free woman and one where she is part of her own complicated familial history on a southern plantation, she becomes frighteningly entangled in the lives of Rufus, a conflicted white slaveholder and one of Dana’s own ancestors, and the many people who are enslaved by him.

Held up as an essential work in feminist, science-fiction, and fantasy genres, and a cornerstone of the Afrofuturism movement, there are over 500,000 copies of Kindred in print. The intersectionality of race, history, and the treatment of women addressed within the original work remain critical topics in contemporary dialogue, both in the classroom and in the public sphere.

Frightening, compelling, and richly imagined, Kindred offers an unflinching look at our complicated social history, transformed by the graphic novel format into a visually stunning work for a new generation of readers.

Review: Kindred is not generally tagged as young adult, but it will likely be a cross-over title and it was one I wanted to read for our focus on women in graphic novels this month. Dana, the main character, has just turned twenty-six when the main action begins so it’s not about teens, but Dana’s a young woman and is interacting with a variety of young people. It’s a book that deals with slavery through the eyes of a relatively contemporary person and it shows aspects of slavery and racism through multiple perspectives. Dana’s beliefs about slavery are challenged as she lives among enslaved people. Things are not as clear-cut as she had thought. Dana learns about what she’s willing to do to survive and finds herself doing things that go against her ideals.

This book also deals with interracial relationships. The relationship Dana has with her white husband is simply incomprehensible to the people on the southern plantation 30+ years before the Civil War. A white man using the body of a black woman is accepted, or at least ignored by whites, but a white man loving a black woman is somehow shameful. Even in the 1970s, Dana and Kevin’s marriage isn’t fully accepted by some of their own family members. This issue, among many many others, highlights the fact that slavery affected everyone involved and those effects lasted throughout generations.

In some ways, the graphic aspect of this adaptation added to the original story. The visuals keep the pacing quick and definitely bring the action to life. Some of the scenes are extremely painful to see and increase the emotional impact of the events and interactions. In other ways though, this format wasn’t quite as powerful as the novel. For this to work, the text had to be streamlined and while the overall story line remained intact and the main ideas are all there, some of the more subtle aspects were missing or just not as clear. I was glad I’d read both so my brain could fill in some of the blanks. For those who have never read Butler’s works before, this would be a great introduction that would likely lead readers to want more. Those familiar with Kindred will probably enjoy the adaptation, but may find it lacking a little of the depth.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This graphic novel adaptation is one more way to experience an amazingly powerful story from Octavia Butler.

Extra:
Interview with John Jennings & Damian Duffy

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Review: Welcome to Gotham Academy

Title: Welcome to Gotham Academy
Author: Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 160
Publisher: DC comics
Availability: Out now!

Summary: Welcome to Gotham Academy, the most prestigious school in Gotham City. Only the best and brightest students may enter its halls, study in its classrooms, explore its secret passages, summon its terrifying spirits… Okay, so Gotham Academy isn’t like other schools. But Olive Silverlock isn’t like other students.

After a mysterious incident over summer break, she’s back at school with a bad case of amnesia, an even worse attitude…and an unexplained fear of bats. Olive’s supposed to show new student Maps Mizoguchi the ropes. Problem: Maps is the kid sister of Kyle, Olive’s ex. Then there’s the ghost haunting the campus…and the secret society conducting bizarre rituals. Can Olive and Maps ace the biggest challenge of their lives? Or are they about to get schooled? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Way back in May last year, I decided I was going to give superhero comics a try. It was a daunting prospect, sure, but I wanted to do it mainly because I’d heard of exciting new (and some not-so-new) comics with diverse main casts. One of my first tries was Gotham Academy, and it was the perfect introduction.

What drew me to Gotham Academy in the first place was the art. It had the cute, illustrated vibe of a particularly trendy webcomic you’d find in the tumblr tags. It’s just a lot of fun to look at.

And the moment I began reading, I was hooked. The first few pages introduces the crew that the series centers on – the spunky and resourceful Maps Mizoguchi and her brother, Kyle Mizoguchi, and the mysterious Olive Silverlock. Along the way, you meet the rebellious Pomeline Fritch and Colton Rivera.

Olive Silverlock struggles to navigate life at Gotham Academy while avoiding her ex Kyle Mizoguchi — but she can’t quite shake his younger sister Maps Mizoguchi, whose nose for adventure made me laugh the whole time I was reading. Mysteries abound within the walls of Gotham Academy and dog Olive’s every moment, but she’ll clearly make it through with the help of the ragtag group of friends who come together.

The friend dynamics of this diverse cast makes Gotham Academy infinitely worth the read. The sequel is a fantastic, if even spookier, follow-up, and when I have the time, I’m definitely getting my hands on the third volume. If you want a fun read, Gotham Academy is it.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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