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 Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

After a car crash that ruined his chances at the tennis scholarship he had always counted on, Ezra Faulkner begins his senior year, falls in love, and tries to figure out who he really is.

My Favorite Quotes

“And so we sat there in the sickening sillage of the truth, neither of us angry, or upset, just muddling through this shared sorrow, this collective pity. And as much as I wanted to sound my tragic wail over the rooftops, and let go of the day, and crawl back toward that safe harbor, and give in to the dying of the light, and to do all of those unheroically injured things that people never write poems about, I didn’t.”

“She tasted like buried treasure and swing sets and coffee. She tasted the way fireworks felt, like something you could get close to but never really have just for yourself.”

“I read somewhere that the hair and fingernails on dead bodies don’t actually grow, it just looks like they do because the skin contracts as the body dries out. So it’s possible to lie even in death, to deceive people from beyond the grave. I wondered if that’s what this was. If I was staring at the rotting corpse of what Cassidy and I had once had, wrongly convinced there was still life in it, grasping onto an uninformed lie.”

“Oscar Wilde once said that to live is the rarest thing in the world, because most people just exist, and that’s all. I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that I spent a long time existing, and now, I intend to live.”

beginning

What I Loved About It

While reading the first half of this book, I was completely certain it would be a pleasant but ultimately forgettable high school romance (because, let’s be real, that’s kind of what it’s marketed as), but right around the halfway marker I realized this book was so much more than that. In fact, I wouldn’t classify it as a romance at all–but instead a classic coming of age story. There’s a first heartbreak sure (which most coming of age stories tend to have), but also a main character who is struggling with who he is in the wake of a major life change and as he prepares to enter the real world, and this makes this book so much more interesting and more important than a simple YA romance.

A quote from the end of the book that perfectly encapsulates this is when Ezra, the protagonist, is discussing whether it was falling in love with Cassidy Thorpe that made him grow into the person he is at the close of the novel and says, “I never should have given her so much credit. It all got tangled together, her appearance and Toby coming back into my life and the first time I ever read a book that spoke to me, and the question of who I wanted to be in the aftermath of my personal tragedy. Because I made a decision that year, to start mattering in a way that had nothing to do with sports teams or plastic crowns, and the reality is, I might have made that decision without her.” This book isn’t really about a love story, but really a teenage boy on a journey of self-discovery.

And what an amazing journey it is to watch. I mean, seriously. The biggest thing that impresses me about Schneider’s writing in this novel is the character growth Ezra undergoes. Though you get hints throughout the whole book that Ezra is smart (little scientific metaphors he makes or when he talks about the Great Gatsby–which is literally all the time), he also comes right out and says that he’s no star student, that he could/would never consider going to a university any more prestigious than a state school. And yet, as the book progresses, he embraces his own intelligence more and more and makes bigger plans for his future. It is truly incredible to see him at the end of the book investing in his own intellectual future. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved watching a character grow as much as I loved watching Ezra in this novel.

And though I am not a teenaged male former jock, ladies’ man, and homecoming king, I can relate to Ezra’s journey of finding himself and having that finding being tangled up in falling in love for the first time and not being able at first to determine how much of his new self is him and how much is a result of loving that person he loved. I can also relate to the discovery that high school popularity and the expectations of others don’t matter at all. This book is able to capture and verbalize that ridiculous notion everyone has in high school that they have to hide their true selves from literally everyone or they’ll be shunned and made fun of forever. I’ve never read a book that conveys that feeling as well as this book does. It really brought me back to my high school days (and not in a bittersweet-nostalgia kind of way and more in a man-high-school-is-so-dumb kind of way.)

What My Students Could Learn From It

By reading this book, I think my students could all learn that they shouldn’t hide themselves or dumb themselves down or hold back to seem cool, and that one day (namely, college) the people who are original and never hold back will be the coolest people out there. I also just think my kiddos would relate to it and enjoy watching Ezra’s coming of age journey as much as I did.

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

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: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Three years after the love (or obsession) of Reena’s life, Sawyer LaGrande, abandoned her and left her pregnant and alone at 16, Sawyer returns to the town, girl, and family he left behind.

My Favorite Quotes

“I wasn’t shy, exactly…I just didn’t know how to do this, is all, the clang and chatter of high school. And, more than that, I didn’t particularly want to learn…I wasn’t unpopular, exactly. I was just…unequipped.”

“The hideous thing is this: I want to forgive him. Even after everything, I do. A baby before my 17th birthday and a future as lonely as the surface of the moon and still the sight of him feels like a homecoming, like a song I used to know but somehow forgot.”

“I am remembering so clearly how he looked when he was eight, when he was eleven, when he was seventeen. Sawyer and I were only together for a few months before he left, but he was my golden boy for so long before that he would have taken the guts of me with him even if we’d never been a couple at all.”

“My whole life a holding pattern, some variation on wait and see.”

how to love

What I Loved About It

I’m not gonna lie: I did not have very high expectations from this book. I got it for free at a book fair type thing at my school and had heard from a colleague that a lot of her students loved it. So I assumed it’d be one of those books teen girls who don’t like to read like but that lacks depth. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

Catugno’s prose is exactly the kind I like, poignant and beautiful. Her prose (and really the entire book itself) reminded me of Sarah Dessen (who, as you probably already know, is one of my favorite YA coming of age/romance authors). Both of her lead characters in this book are interesting but flawed, and the romance between them is electric and sweet, and yet so dang full of angst. (Again, just how I like my YA romances.)

I think what also made me really love this book was how much I related to the protagonist, Reena. While I can’t really relate to the whole falling-in-dangerous-love-with-the-bad-boy thing (though my sixteen year old self would have really wanted to) or the pregnant-at-sixteen thing, I can certainly relate to her loneliness, her high school-related social ineptitude, and her great desire to escape. I thought Catugno, like Queen Sarah Dessen, did a really good job depicting that kind of character.

My main hang-up with this book though is the lack of importance Reena and Sawyer’s baby Hannah had in the story. After his return, Sawyer was completely focused on getting Reena back. There never once was a conversation about him wanting to know his child or him despairing about missing the first two years of her life. While Reena seems to be a decent mother off-the-page, the book doesn’t actually give any evidence that she is a good mother on-the-page. The book is a love story. It focuses on Reena’s feelings about her abandonment and how trapped she feels, how much she feels like her life is over. It’s a coming of age story, with a teen pregnancy thrown in for extra drama, not a story about a mother. While I liked the book this way, I also felt like something was missing because of this.

What My Students Could Learn From It

There aren’t a ton of lessons students could learn from this novel. I do think, however, that it’s a good chronicle of the coming-of-age experience. It shows teen readers that life doesn’t always go the way you planned, that your decisions have consequences, and that you should never forget yourself because of a boy (or a girl, for that matter). And, of course, it’s a book that could teach kids that reading can be fun. And that is one of the most important lessons I want students in my care to learn.

 

Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David Levithan

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

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

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

For A’s entire life, A has inexplicably started each day in a new body, taking over another person’s life against their will and against A’s as well, but when A inhabits Justin’s body and meets and falls in love with his girlfriend Rhiannon, A starts taking foolish risks to be close to her and wishes for a body of A’s own and a normal life.

My Favorite Quotes

“What is it about the moment you fall in love? How can such a small measure of time contain such enormity?…The moment you fall in love feels like it has centuries behind it, generations–all of them rearranging themselves so that this precise, remarkable intersection could happen. In your heart, in your bones, no matter how silly you know it is, you feel that everything has been leading to this, all the secret arrows were pointing here, the universe and time itself crafted this long ago, and you are just now realizing it, you are just now arriving at the place you were always meant to be.”

“This is the trap of having something to live for: Everything else seems lifeless.”

every day

What I Loved About It

Levithan’s prose is great, beautiful and striking and poignant. Though you’d think A’s incorporeal nature would make A (I’m avoiding gender pronouns because A has no gender because A is bodiless so my wording is necessarily awkward, sorry.) a character that is difficult for readers to understand or relate to, A is an incredibly sympathetic and even venerable character (I’m not sure I’ve ever described a young adult protagonist as venerable, but A’s just a really different, refreshing brand of protagonist–in all the best ways). Though A and Rhiannon’s relationship is incredibly unusual and the trials they face because of A’s amorphous nature are–admittedly–abnormal, Levithan is able to expertly depict the pain and joy of first love through their relationship.

But in Every Day, Levithan’s not just telling the story of first love. He’s telling the story of all of us, of humanity itself. A has lived as every type of person with every type of idiosyncrasy and every type of problem. Through A’s unique life, Levithan is able to address illness, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual orientation, the dangers of being too beautiful or too overweight, the fluidity of gender, grief, reputation, family, love, and most of all (and perhaps best of all), what makes a human human. Is it a mind, a consciousness? Is it our bodies? Is it our genders? All of the above? None of the above? I found myself thinking about gender, consciousness, and humanity in completely different ways while reading it. And yet it never once comes across as didactic or preach-y, or even predictable. Every Day is just such a meaty, thought-provoking, and unique novel.

What My Students Could Learn From It

The biggest thing I (and all of my coworkers) want my students to learn is empathy, and Every Day is uniquely qualified to do that. A book wherein the main character literally walks in the shoes of so many different kinds of people and learns so much about the trials each of them face–and the trials all of us face–is unmatched in its ability to teach students how to have compassion and empathy for those different than themselves. And, like I’ve already said, Every Day can get kids to think about innumerable teen issues in different ways. I just can not praise this book’s quality enough.

 

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4.5/5

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

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Juliette has been stuck in an insane asylum because of her unique ability to hurt and even kill anyone her skin touches–whether she wants to or not–for 3 years, but everything changes when the Reestablishment, the governing body that took control when the world was destroyed by climate change, decides they want to use her abilities in the war.

My Favorite Quotes

“The moon is a loyal companion. It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.”

“Hope is hugging me, holding me in its arms, wiping away my tears and telling me that today and tomorrow and two days from now I will be just fine and I’m so delirious I actually dare to believe it.”

“I always wonder about raindrops. I wonder about how they’re always falling down, tripping over their own feet, breaking their legs and forgetting their parachutes as they tumble right out of the sky toward an uncertain end. It’s like someone is emptying their pockets over the earth and doesn’t seem to care where the contents fall, doesn’t seem to care that the raindrops burst when they hit the ground, that they shatter when they fall to the floor, that people curse the days the drops dare to tap on their doors. I am a raindrop. My parents emptied their pockets of me and left me to evaporate on a concrete slab.

 shatter me

What I Loved About It

From the very first word, sentence, paragraph, and page, I loved this book. Mafi’s writing is poetic, riddled with metaphors, and truly beautiful. You can see just a few of these beautiful metaphors in the quotes I included above, but the whole book is full of them, and man am I a sucker for novels that read more like poetry. The metaphors and crossing out of various sentences throughout the novel (you can see an example in my third favorite quote above) help to portray the scattered mind of the narrator and protagonist, Juliette, in a way nothing else could.

And what’s perhaps even more impressive is that this is a young adult dystopian novel that is beautifully written. I hate to be a Debbie Downer about young adult dystopian fiction, but with the exception of Ally Condie’s Matched series and now the Shatter Me series, I’ve yet to read any that are poignant or exquisitely written. Sure, they’re fun to read, exciting, and great to turn into movies with hot male leads (I’m looking at you Theo James!), but are rarely books with diction that makes me swoon. But man oh man is Shatter Me different. Mafi’s prose in Shatter Me is more in the realm of Margaret Atwood than Suzanne Collins and is all the better for it.

And yet it still has all the things that make young adults love dystopian fiction. It’s got great romance, action, suspense, a powerful hero, an even more powerful heroine, and the ever-present love triangle of all dystopian books. But the action, suspense, romance, and characters in Shatter Me are much better than that of the average dystopian book. The plot of this book is unexpected and not at all predictable (as most dystopian books admittedly are), with so many unexpected twists and turns your head will truly (forgive me for the cliche) be left spinning. It’s one of the most exciting and beautifully-written books I have read in awhile.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Though I love this book so so much, I must admit there’s not a ton kids could learn from Shatter Me. I think it’s just one of those novels that make kids love reading and appreciate poetic language. Which, in my opinion, is enough.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Overall Rating: 2/5

Quality of Prose: 2/5

Quality of Story: 1.5/5

Quality of Characters: 2/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 0/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Betrothed to the Demon Prince from birth, Nyx travels to his enchanted castle to be his bride and to get close enough to him to kill him and free her people from his captivity.

My Favorite Quotes

“I had been waiting, all my life, for someone undeceived to love me.”

(You can tell by the quality of this quote (or lack thereof), that there were no impressive or notable quotes in this novel that I loved.)

cruel beauty

What I Loved About It

I usually love fairy tale retellings and I especially love Beauty and the Beast, but this particular retelling just seemed contrived and far-reaching. If it wasn’t marketed as a retelling of beauty and the beast, I probably wouldn’t have even guessed that it was meant to be one. The only similarities are that the heroine is locked in a castle with a seemingly evil man who she eventually falls in love with. The comparison stops there.

The whole hermetic magic part of the plot and the mysterious and magical castle setting just seemed so silly to me and put me off from the very beginning. The plot itself seemed tortuous and gratuitous and not the magical and intriguing fairy tale retelling I expected. I also didn’t find the Demon Lord or his mysterious shadow, Shade, to be attractive characters.

The whole time I was reading this book, I thought of my favorite folk tale retellings, Wintersong and The Wrath and the Dawn (if you haven’t read them, go read them right now. Right now!), and how I wished Cruel Beauty was more like them. I honestly didn’t even know this was a book people actually read and liked (I checked out the Kindle copy from my local library’s app after reading the summary and had never heard of it before then) until I looked at Goodreads after reading it. I honestly don’t see the appeal at all.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Nada.

Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid

Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid

Overall Rating: 3/5

Quality of Prose: 3.5/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

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

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

When best friends Dave and Julia started high school, they created a list of “Nevers,” cliche high school rites of passage that they refused to participate in, but as high school comes to a close 4 years later, they decide to complete every item on the list, including #10, “never date your best friend.”

My Favorite Quotes

“Love traveled, it ran, it covered ground, eager to see more, do more. It was two people keeping pace with each other.”

“Human beings are more or less formulas. We are not any one thing that is mathematically provable. We are more or less than we are anything. We are more or less kind, or more or less not. More or less selfish, happy, wise, lonely. Just like things are rarely always true or never true, we aren’t ever exactly one thing or another. We are more or less.”

never always sometimes

What I Loved About It

Never Always Sometimes is an enjoyable read, a light-hearted novel that encapsulates the fervor, fear, and nostalgia of the last months of high school in a way that few other novels do. It didn’t change my life or give me a book hangover like all my favorite books do, but I definitely had fun reading it.

Alsaid’s prose is great. Though it wasn’t immediately evident, Alsaid’s characters are fleshed out and interesting. While reading the first half of the book (from Dave’s perspective), I was not a fan of Julia. And then, just like that, Alsaid changes perspectives  and you get to read Julia’s side of things and you quickly find she is just as complex and likable a character as Dave. The switch in point-of-view certainly makes the book more interesting and enjoyable. And though the book’s plot is all about cliches, the novel itself refreshingly avoids all the high school coming-of-age romance cliches. Its ending is unexpected and real and bittersweet, much like the ending of high school itself.

What My Students Could Learn From It

This isn’t really the kind of book you read to give you a new perspective or to change how you think or feel about something, so I can’t honestly say my students could learn much from it.

But I do think it’s a great, perfectly nostalgic coming of age novel for kids to read in the months leading up to their high school graduation. I also think reading Never Always Sometimes could make kids realize that while they shouldn’t avoid all the typical high school rites of passage like Dave and Julia tried to, it’s important to remain an individual when everyone around you is content to conform (which, in case you don’t remember, is high school in a nut shell).