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 Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins

Guest blogger Savannah Mansour here! Thanks, Mara, for letting me steal your platform for a second. I was just too excited about this Young Adult novel; I had to share it with your readers! Enjoy France!

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days (~6 hours)

A 1 Sentence Summary

Throughout her grandparents’ visit in the United States from India, Sunita Sen becomes aware of differences between the “Euro-Americans” and herself in her middle school which stir her to navigate social tensions and family dynamics so she can reconcile her Indian heritage and American upbringing and therein discover and accept her mosaic identity.

My Favorite Quotes

The winding dirt path leads through the mango trees. Soft shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees have dried some of the flatter parts of the ground. The boy’s cycle speeds easily over the path, avoiding holes and muddy puddles as though it doesn’t need his help. It stops obediently when he spots a ripe mango lying on the side of the path. He peels its thin skin off with his teeth and lets the sweet juice fill his mouth.

“Don’t get disillusioned, kid. Frances Burnett was a product of her time. India was under British rule for years, you know. You can still appreciate the story.”

“I forget you’re not a little girl anymore,” she said. “Someday you may wish you had made different choices. But I suppose, in a way, you’re right. You need to find your own balance, and I need to find mine.”

“That was all he said, but Sunita wrote the gist of it in her journal later. She might need to explain it to her grandchildren someday.”

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What I Loved About It

First, I just have to say how much I enjoyed reading this book meant for children. I don’t mean to start some sort of controversy – clearly young adult novels can be read an enjoyed by all. This book was straight up my alley.

A Search for Identity                            Family Drama

Strong, Honest  BFF                             Multicultural

The best thing about this book is the perspective author Perkins lends readers through Sunita’s multicultural awakening. The emotions of this eighth grader are so genuine and relatable. (I remember, and still often find myself, navigating the mother-daughter dynamic Sunita and her mother go through in the story.)

Although I rated the prose low (and that means a lot to me personally), the quick-moving storyline and interest in Sunita’s development kept me hooked. That being said, I have genuine interest in the immigrant- and 2nd generation-American experience. This may be the case for some students with personal ties, but most of my students probably couldn’t care less.

What My Students Could Learn From It

So basically, Mara and I are besties and we just talk about our kiddos all the time. We love ‘em and want the best for ‘em and the way we know to take care of them, like many of you reading teachers, is education through reading. Contemplating the myopia that plagues many people/youth today, I realized I had learned about different people and situations by fictional experience through the pages of childhood novels. As a kid, my favorite books were the American Girl series and the Magic Treehouse series. Each book transported me to another time and place and I didn’t just read about a Swedish girl’s arrival to American who tragically lost her best friend from Cholera, but within those pages, and often my ship-shaped playground, I became that little Swedish girl.

Another difference we all like to blame for lack of empathy is the rise of (yes, social media, but punnier…) the selfie. So less reading and more taking selfies/social media/self-absorption lends to a more short-sighted perspective of the world. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but really all I’m trying to say is ultimately:

The cure for myopia is… READING!

Okay, yeah, so that was a huge tangent. I got blog happy and felt the need to explain my obsession with flooding our schools and private libraries with multicultural literature. Here’s a quote that helps me understand my feelings:

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” – Tim Keller, author of The Meaning of Marriage

To love people, or even just extend them some empathy, we must have some level of knowledge of them. Through such perspective shaping experiences, we learn truth, humility, and hope. In fact, knowing and empathizing with other people helps us know and love ourselves. I know a classroom full of students who could use more empathy, hope, truth, and humility.

So back to Sunita Sen

I would love for anyone trying to reconcile two identities within his/herself to read this book. Students experiencing that situation will feel validated rather than other-ed by this text. Students not in a similar situation will get to experience what it might be like to feel caught between two cultures. No matter your situation, there is a lot to gain from reading the story of Sunita Sen’s experience.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 5 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Math nerd and high school senior Lex struggles to come to terms with her brother’s recent suicide.

My Favorite Quotes

“Forgiveness is tricky, Alexis, because in the end it’s more about you than it is about the person who’s being forgiven.”

“Everything changes, I think. That is the only constant. We all grow up.”

“Brave isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. It comes from action. I appreciate that.”

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What I Loved About It

This book is a serious book. When reading it, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a young adult book at all; The Last Time We Say Goodbye feels like an adult book with a young adult protagonist. That is refreshing. It’s a nice change reading a book that feels more serious, that lacks many of the common young adult book tropes and cliches. This book isn’t centered on a romance (though there is one deep in the background) and isn’t a typical coming of age story (though the protagonist learns many lessons and prepares for college over the course of the book). Though centered on teen suicide (like many other popular YA books) and how the people left behind by suicide cope  (see I Was Here and All the Bright Places), this book lacks the compelling qualities of many other YA books (and YA books about suicide). And while that meant this book took me far longer to read than I Was Here or All the Bright Places did, it is, in many ways, a positive statement about the book.

I wasn’t drawn in to this book by a angst-filled romance or by a protagonist that is so relatable she basically is me. With this book, a couple times I had to take breaks from reading because it was a bit too heavy for me to read for hours at a time. With this book, I had to, at times, force myself to read.

Many young adult books these days (even ones that I absolutely LOVE like All the Bright Places) follow a YA formula, a formula that draws in the most teen readers and ensures a place on the Bestseller list. And while I obviously love the components of that formula (because I love many of those enticing YA books), sometimes it’s nice to read a book that doesn’t prescribe to that formula, that is a bit more original, a bit more fresh, and a bit more adult. And that’s what The Last Time We Say Goodbye is. It’s not a page turner. It’s not a steamy romance or an action-packed dystopian novel or a dark and angsty teen mystery. It’s an adult young adult book.

Hand also does a superb job with putting the reader in Lex’s guilt- and shock-ridden headspace (possibly because she herself lost her teen brother to suicide as a young person). My heart can’t handle many more teen suicide books. They tear me to pieces every time, and this book is definitely no exception.

What My Students Could Learn From It

I think it’s good for students to read more serious YA books. I also do not prescribe to the (unfortunately popular) idea that we shouldn’t discuss suicide with teens so as not to give them ideas. Suicide is something we need to discuss with our teens. To show them that it’s not the right choice, that it destroys many other people than just the one who committed suicide. And this book could certainly serve as a conversation starter.