Smoke in the Sun by Renee Ahdieh

Smoke in the Sun by Renee Ahdieh

Overall Rating: 3/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 1/5

Quality of Characters: 3/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 2/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: All summer

A 1 Sentence Summary

While awaiting her marriage to the imperial prince, Mariko attempts to free her love Okami from prison, figure out why her brother betrayed her, and discover who was behind her assassination attempt.

My Favorite Quotes

“I see mystery and sadness. Anger. Not necessarily because you were born a woman…but more because you have always been treated as less than you are…We should create a world for women like us. It would be a thing to see.”

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What I Loved About It

As a sequel to Flame in the Mist, a novel I absolutely loved, there are, of course some automatic redeeming qualities to Smoke in the Sun. First, it’s written by the genius Renee Ahdieh, who is usually so amazingly good at creating complex characters, writing incredibly sensuous and descriptive prose, and developing super compelling action, suspense, and romance. Ahdieh did all of those things in Flame in the Mist (and she definitely did them in The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger), but I found that while the characters she created in the prequel were still strong and complex in this novel, I cared far less what happened to them. This is even more true with her new characters that didn’t appear in the prequel. Her prose is less interesting in this novel, and the trademark action and suspense that usually lead Ahdieh’s plots is lacking as well. The reason it took me so long to finish Smoke in the Sun is because literally nothing happens in the first 75% of the novel. Okami is tortured, Mariko argues with her brother and meets the princes’ mothers. That’s it.

It’s true that Ahdieh’s sequels are never as good or as interesting as the first books in her series. But The Rose and the Dagger, while certainly not as good as The Wrath and the Dawn, was still a very compelling read, with new characters, new plotlines, less romance but a whole lot of–super interesting–action. And this was simply not the case in Smoke in the Sun. As a HUGE Renee Ahdieh fanatic, in a word, I would call this book disappointing. (And it truly pains me to say that, as The Wrath and the Dawn series is my all-time favorite YA romance/fantasy series and as I really, truly loved Flame in the Mist.)

I’m not saying Ahdieh has lost her touch (I refuse to ever believe that), just that this particular novel is not quite up to her usual unmatched quality–which, come to think of it, was also the case with de la Cruz’s Love and War or Jae-Jones’ Shadowsong.

Sequels are hard.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Despite my own crushing disappointment, I think my students who enjoy a good fantasy romance would still enjoy this novel and the series as a whole. And, like all of Ahdieh’s books, it still features a very strong female lead, a great feminist message, and a window into ancient Japanese culture. Which are definitely some redeeming factors.

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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Frankie Landau-Banks, infiltrates a boy’s-only-secret-society at her uppity New England boarding school and attempts to dismantle the “Old Boys’ Club” atmosphere of her school and the patriarchy itself.

My Favorite Quotes

“Matthew had called her harmless. Harmless. And being with him made Frankie feel squashed into a box–a box where she was expected to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with. Frankie wanted to be a force.”

“It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can’t see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people. She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her to be.”

“In some ways, we can see Frankie Landau-Banks as a neglected positive. A buried word. A word inside another word that’s getting all the attention. A mind inside a body that’s getting all the attention. Frankie’s mind is a word overlooked, but when uncovered–through invention, imagination, or recollection–it wields a power that is comical, surprising, and memorable.”

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What I Loved About It

This book is the ultimate teen-girl (and all women everywhere, really) feminist manifesto. E. Lockhart is seriously one of THE most talented YA authors out there. Her books are always witty and sharp (in a funny way, like in The Boyfriend List or The Disreputable History, or in a disturbing way, like in We Were Liars or Genuine Fraud). They always feature amazingly complex, strong, and still “girly” and feminine main characters who the audience often can’t help but to respect but also fear (though the question Lockhart repeatedly asks through these characters is: do we fear these girls because they don’t follow the social rules we often expect girls to follow? And: if a male character did or said the same things would we be as disturbed by them?).

It’s amazing that Lockhart can address these deeper ideas and create these complex and amazing characters (and write a freaking feminist manifesto) while still building a world and a story that is funny and interesting, filled with boarding school hi jinx and high school pranks and teenage romance, a world and story that teenaged readers would be so unbelievably engaged in.

One of my most favorite qualities of this book is the matter-of-fact storytelling nature of the prose. In the novel, Frankie finds the book written by members of her school’s secret boys-only society titled, The Disreputable History of the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds detailing all of the society’s various pranks, hi jinx, and activities. The novel itself is written in such a way as to suggest that it is Frankie’s own Disreputable History book, with prose that speaks directly to the reader and uses pronouns like “I,” with entire chapters that include hilarious grammar lessons (about neglected positives, which I now find to be incredibly funny) and excerpts from Frankie’s school essays and pieces of evidence that link her to her many crimes. It’s such a unique storytelling style that isn’t used in YA lit enough and that would certainly interest teen readers.

I seriously can not stress enough how amazing this book is. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the perfect blend of the fun of her Ruby Oliver novels and the depth and provocative nature of her more “serious” novels, We Were Liars and Genuine Fraud. This is pretty evident in that the novel has, deservingly, won a bajillion awards.  It’s the kind of book that makes me desperately wish I had the depth of mind and writing abilities to write, a book that, while interesting and fun and witty, makes a reader think and question and affect social change.

What My Students Could Learn From It

There are, sadly, not enough YA books that appeal to students’ more shallow interests (romance and humor and rebellion) and that also make them think deeply about social issues. But all of E. Lockhart’s books do. She is such a literary genius. Frankie Landau-Banks is a protagonist my students need to read about–a teen who cares about social issues and wants to affect social change, who is a free thinker and a leader, who is intelligent and funny and sharp, but also who, unlike the characters in a lot of John Green books, is an authentic and realistic teenager.

Reading about Frankie’s efforts to escape the panopticon, to force her way into a social group she has been barred entry from, and her frustration at the lack of care her classmates have for these things would provoke my students to really think about their own social lives and the social rules they are following simply because they think they have to, because they think they are being watched.

Most teenagers are followers. It’s simply the phase of everyone’s life where they are so desperate to belong, to fit in, and to continue the social status quo. But reading this book could maybe give students the courage to lead instead of follow and to not cower in the face of the high school social strata.

The novel would get students thinking about society and socialization in general but would also be a great first foray into feminism without being preachy or overt or whine-y.

I seriously cannot stop raving about this book. So go buy it and read it and share it with your students! You won’t be disappointed!

 

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Danny, a quiet, half-Mexican-half-white baseball prodigy, goes to stay with his absent father’s family for the summer, where he meets new friends, masters his pitching skills, and comes to term with his father’s absence and his own racial identity.

My Favorite Quotes

“He’s Mexican, because his family’s Mexican, but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like his grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.”

“I came here because sometimes I feel like a fake Mexican. And I don’t want to be a fake. I wanna be real.”

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What I Loved About It

I haven’t read very many sports-related books and have always had to look up books to recommend to my students who only want to read books about sports. I guess I always thought those athletic-teen-boy-protagonist, sports-focused books would be hard for me to relate to (as the least athletic person ever), but after reading this book, I can at least say I was very wrong about Matt de la Peña’s books. The dude is a genius. Mexican Whiteboy is phenomenal. It transcends the sports genre and even the coming of age genre to provide social commentary on race and poverty and identity and how these things are entwined, teaching teen readers so many important lessons and asking them so many important questions.

de la Peña has created an unusually relatable protagonist in Danny Lopez. Danny’s anxiety, loneliness, and confused sense of self are so typical to all teenagers and is, therefore, extremely relatable. But then it’s compounded by his biracial identity, which he struggles with because he feels like he doesn’t truly belong to either race. And de la Peña does such a good job in writing about that internal conflict and creating such a realistic teen character (and in such poignant prose too!).

What My Students Could Learn From It

I already mentioned that all of my students (regardless of their ethnic or racial makeup) could certainly relate to Danny’s struggle to understand his own identity. Many of my students could also relate to the poverty depicted in the book and the trouble each character has with understanding and being understood by their parents. Kids have got to read books they relate to or they won’t want to read, and I think Mexican Whiteboy, with its real characters and exciting baseball scenes and relatable conflicts would definitely capture their attention.

My students also desperately need to read books that give perspectives that are different from their own, racially, religiously, sexually, etc. Mexican Whiteboy is not only told from the perspective of a half-white, half-Mexican teen in Danny, but also in Uno, a half-black, half-Mexican teen. Mexican Whiteboy would certainly serve as a much needed window into these other experiences for my students and for yours too.