Free Books from Kellogg’s Feeding Reading

Kellogg’s is running their Feeding Reading program again this summer that allows you to get free books when you purchase certain products like cereals, Cheez-Its, Eggo waffles, Pringles, and Pop-Tarts.  You can get up to 10 free books, from all reading levels from picture and board books to YA titles.

Here’s my first set of free books, all for my toddler:

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We’ve been reading these three at bedtime for the past week, so I think they were a hit.

With the amount of Pop-Tarts and waffles we go through in my house, I’m sure we’ll get the other seven soon.  I like to get some of the YA titles for myself; some of the choices this year include these:

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Go check it out and get your free books!

Review: Rebel by Marie Lu

I very much enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy when I read it six years ago, mainly on the strength of the two excellent main characters, June and Day.  I am not a huge fan of dystopian novels, but this series stood out to me in the sea of YA dystopias.

42121526So I was very pleasantly surprised to see a new installment in the series, Rebel, which takes places 10 years later following Day (now going by Daniel) and his brother Eden’s adventures in their new home of Antarctica.  But this one turned out to be a mixed bag for me, and I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you are already a fan of Legend.

Eden and his friend Pressa are at the heart of the story; they are the new generation of the post-war era, and in many ways like a new version of June and Day.  Eden is part of the “establishment” (the upper levels of Antarctica) as June was, and Pressa comes from the Undercity similar to how Day came from the streets.  However, I never found them as compelling as June and Day.  If Pressa had some chapters from her perspective, I think she would have felt like a more fully-realized character.

I also missed June’s perspective, though I enjoyed the chapters from Daniel.  It is a very satisfying story for June/Day shippers like myself.  The development of the relationship between the brothers Daniel and Eden was also really nicely done, and that bond was something that I never realized was missing from a lot of the books I read.  Plus, I also liked the villain, Dominic Hann, who really ends up being more of a grey character.

Antarctica is a very interesting place, governed by a system that works like a video game.  Doing “good” things gets you points that allow you to level up, getting more privileges in society, while doing “bad” things decreases your level.  However, I wish the story would have shown more of the flaws in the system rather than telling.  The scene with Eden’s classmates works towards this a bit, but we don’t really get to see from the undercity perspective at all.  What is it that is really keeping the undercity people from moving up in this supposedly merit-based system?  For example, we don’t find out until ¾ of the way through the book that it’s illegal for groups of citizens to protest in public, after the people are already doing this.

I was pretty harsh on Champion for its biological mumbo jumbo regarding plague cures, and I’m sorry to say Rebel has a bit of a similar problem: for a sci-fi book, it’s not very interested in accurately describing the engineering behind Antarctica’s level system.  When discussing how to reset the Ross City’s level system using Hann’s machine, Eden says:

“It’s the machine that’s complicated to put together. Not the signal. Once you understand how it works, you can run another signal through easily.  I watched them test one, and it took a matter of minutes.”

Huh? I supposed I should ask my husband for accuracy, but this does not sound like something a computer programmer would say, even to a non-programmer.  Is he saying that it is the hardware that is complicated, not the software?  That seems…unlikely.  Sure, it may not take long to upload the code to the computer, but how long did it take to write the code??  The Antarctic level system is a complex system with a lot of rules, all of which would have to be programmed in, including the changes that Eden wants to make.  Eden does it in no time at all, which I can tell you is not realistic, even for someone as talented as Eden. 

Overall, I enjoyed reading Rebel, but I did struggle a bit to finish it because it dragged in places.  I think it would have been better served as a novella.

Review: Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

I’ve been taking advantage of all this time home to pick up some new books, and my latest find is a YA fantasy series by an indie author living in Ohio.

Intisar Khanani heads her website with the tagline “Writing mighty girls and diverse worlds,” and that’s exactly what she delivers.  I have not read a lot of YA fantasy recently because I’ve been disappointed by the quality of recent releases, but I can tell that’s going to change with the discovery of her Sunbolt series.

I cannot say enough about the amazing worldbuilding in this series.  The world features many diverse fantasy cultures with roots in real-world cultures, which you may recognize by names, foods, clothing, and phrases. (Even if you don’t recognize them, the cultures are rich.) The main character Hitomi is mixed race; based on context clues her parents would be Arabic and Japanese, though she begins the story living on a warm island populated by darker-skinned people. There are also several races of beings similar to things like fairies and vampires.

The series begins with Sunbolt, a novella that is the kind of book you can read in one gulp.  The pacing is great, the characters are memorable, and the events are exciting.  It does read like it’s only the first part of a story, so you will want to be ready to go straight on to Memories of Ash, the full novel that follows.  This installment is even stronger, continuing to develop an interesting system of magic and new regions of the world.  Old friends reappeared in just the right spots, while introducing great new characters that I can’t wait to see more of.  Some details of the escape plan were a bit meandering, but overall I was on the edge of my seat following Hitomi through one adventure after another.

I really have very few criticisms of these books; they are better than many traditionally published YA fantasies I have read, and I will definitely go back to revisit them again.  (This is basically more what I was hoping We Hunt the Flame would be.)  The only tedious parts are that most of the plot revolves around people that keep getting captured and planning how to escape.  

These books also avoid most YA tropes.  There is no instalove. There are no love triangles.  In fact, here is no romance of any kind! It focuses exclusively on the deep relationships Hitomi has developed with those around her, basically her surrogate family members.

This doesn’t mean I’m not shipping characters.  Because I’m totally shipping some characters. But it’s still great to read quality YA without romance!

I guess I do have one criticism of the series: it’s not complete!  The author has said it was meant to be four books in total, but there seems to be no news on when the last two might be out.  I need book three! Pleeeeease.

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In the meantime, I’m going to check out Khanani’s other novel, Thorn, which is a Goose Girl retelling (have I mentioned I love fairy tale retellings?).  Thorn was originally self-published in 2012, but was picked up by HarperTeen and re-released by them this March.  This kind of thing rarely happens to indie authors, so I think that really speaks to the quality of her writing.  I have the digital version on hold at the library, but the wait list is 16 weeks long! I guess that also speaks to the quality of the writing.

I was able to get both Sunbolt and Memories of Ash on Kindle from my library through Overdrive, but they are of course also available from Amazon for only $2.99 and $4.99 respectively.

I really hope you guys will check her stuff out; if you are a fan of YA fantasy, you will not be disappointed.

Review: We Hunt the Flame

I heard a lot of hype about this YA debut fantasy; its Arab-inspired setting was a huge draw for me.  But ultimately, my feelings about We Hunt the Flame were complicated.  In short, I’d probably give it 3 / 5 stars, and I’m not planning to read any future books in the series.

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From Goodreads:

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king.

When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

The world building did end up being my favorite thing about this book.  I loved the setting of Arawiya and its countries, based on ancient Arabia.  We learn a lot about its government and culture, including food and rituals.  The author drops in Arabic words frequently, which I liked.  Some of the fantasy even ties into the cultural aspects with appearances by mythological creatures like ifrits.

The story was pretty engaging.  Although a bit slow to begin, it really picks up about a third of the way in, once Zafira and Nasir meet on their quest.  There are some nice twists at the end, several I saw coming and several I didn’t.  The characters were all pretty interesting, but I can’t say I really fell in love with any of them.

The fantasy and romance aspects were fine, nothing really special or new.  Zafira reminded me strongly of Katniss from Hunger Games because of her home life situation, her prickly personality, and her talents with a bow.  The overall tone of the book as well as some of the fantasy elements reminded me of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series.

The prose was one aspect of the novel that did stand out to me, being rather pretty and flowery, even going almost into poetical forms at times.  While it was nice, it also was not particularly easy to read.  I frequently had to stop and re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs to figure out what had actually happened.

Occasionally, the writing seemed overly detailed in a confusing way.  For example, one of the side characters I ended up liking the most was the young general Altair, but during his introduction scene I couldn’t get a read on him at all.  He is described, all within about a page, as having a “cheery voice” and a “wolfish grin,” while “anger feathered his jaw” and he spoke “hateful words,” yet “he acted as if everything were a jovial affair” and had the “eyes of a hawk.” Huh?

Overall, I enjoyed We Hunt the Flame, but I didn’t feel that it really stood out among other current YA fantasy except for its setting and world building.

This is Why Representation is Important

Last week, Slate published an essay by an 11-year-old reader that illustrates perfectly why I believe in the need for books with diverse characters.  “This is Me” by Audrey Hall was a winner in the New York Public Library’s Summer Reading 2019 Essay Contest.  In her essay, Audrey describes how the book Blended by Sharon Draper expanded her universe.

You can read the full essay here, which is well-written and even includes quotes from the book to support her thesis.

Audrey checked Blended out of the library and it quickly became a favorite.  The book features a multiracial protagonist with divorced parents, which also describes Audrey.  She describes how she related directly to the character’s experiences in the book, moving between households and debating how to describe herself.  It was a revelation for her to know that there might be other kids who shared her own experiences. “This book made me feel like I belong,” she wrote.

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An excerpt from Audrey’s essay

I personally could not have written a better essay to describe why representation is important, especially in children’s and YA literature.  Every child should have the same feeling that Audrey had when reading.

38351370Of course, we will not relate to every character we read about, which also expands our minds.  And of course, we can relate to characters who don’t look like us at all. For example, my pen name Mei-Mei was taken from a Chinese character in a Japanese anime.  But I won’t pretend that I don’t automatically feel a sense of kinship with every redhead character that I meet. Being able to see ourselves so directly in characters is such a valuable thing that I want every child to be able to experience it as I have.

For this reason, I have been a fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which started as  a Twitter hashtag and has become a phenomenon. I think we have seen a huge growth of diverse books in YA fantasy (my wheelhouse) over the past ten years, and I hope this trend will continue.  I am personally making an effort to read more books featuring diverse characters and, just as importantly, by diverse authors to support the publishing industry following this trend.

Audrey’s prize for the essay was a trip to a NY Yankees game.  I hope she has a great time!  I also hope she grows up to be a writer of many more characters like herself.