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.

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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.

Slightly Subpar Sequels

There’s nothing better than getting sucked into a series where you just want to keep reading book after book.  But for every series like Girl of Fire and Thorns, where I found the second book to be a huge improvement on the first, there is also a series where the quality dips after the first, or the story goes off in a completely different direction.  I read a couple of books recently that, while perfectly fine books, did not live up to their predecessors in my mind.

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Dragonshadow

By Elle Katharine White

I enjoyed the initial book Heartstone (billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons) earlier this year; however this follow up went in a bit of a different direction and lost my interest.

For a series where the first entry adhered almost completely to the plot points of P&P, the second book takes a hard left and, aside from the characters of the previous book and an occasional “sir,” has no relation to Austen or the Regency whatsoever that I could tell.  The closest connection I could make is Northanger Abbey, both involving a visit to a mysterious house of secrets, but since everything that Aliza imagines at Castle Selwyn is actually true, the lesson seems to have been lost.

As much as I wasn’t crazy about the slavish adherence to P&P in the first book, without the Austen connection the sequel lost one of the things that drew me to the series and became just a decent generic fantasy. (I did like that it incorporates further mythological creatures instead.)  Another issue is that without the P&P backbone, this story is not as tightly plotted and seemed like it was stretched out to make a trilogy. It takes the entire first half of the book for Aliza and Alastair to get where they are going, which seemed like a very slow start to me.

But as a last note, it does take a serious and mature look at some difficult aspects of married life that I think is great for a YA novel to explore.
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Suitors and Sabotage

By Cindy Anstey

This YA Regency intrigue was entertaining but kind of forgettable. I discovered the first two books when I was on a Regency romance kick, and really enjoyed them, but I didn’t really feel anything special about this one. Perhaps the formula is getting old for me? (Though these 3 books are similar, they are more companion novels than a series; there is no overlap in characters and no overarching plotline.)

I think the level of tension and drama was not quite up to the level of the first two books.  For comparison, the first book Love, Lies, and Spies begins with the heroine hanging off a cliff; this one starts with a lovely picnic among some scenic ruins.  It was also less epic in scope, nothing to do with international espionage or even kidnapping, just some vaguely threatening events.

 

Overall, I’d give these two sequels 3/5 stars, while I probably would have rated their predecessors around 4 stars.  While I enjoyed reading them, I doubt I’ll continue with either series, or ever revisit them in the future. On to better books!

2018 Reading Review

In some ways, 2018 was a great year for reading.  But it had its downsides, too.  I was once again able to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  But being a parent has really changed how and what I’m reading, which is disappointing to me.  Here are some notes from my reading this year and my goals for next year.

The Great American Read

PBS’s Great American Read was the highlight of my reading year.  I had great fun reading four of the books on the Top 100 list, bringing my total read to 36, and voting for my favorites in the contest.  To Kill a Mockingbird was the big winner, but many of my favorites rounded out the top five.  You can read more about it here.

Author Discovery: VE Schwab

When I was getting back to reading earlier this year, I picked up the A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by VE Schwab and fell in love.  You can read my longer review here.  I then went on to read Vicious, which I may love even more!  I’m still working my way through the rest of her repertoire, so expect to see more about her other novels next year.

Audiobooks

I tried listening to some audiobooks for the first time this year and had a mixed reaction.  I listened to two romance novels and VE Schwab’s Venegeful (sequel to Vicious).  I did enjoy listening to them on my commute, but I actually like listening to music just as well.  Mostly, I felt very impatient with them.  I was listening to them on 1.5 speed, and it still took hours longer to listen to them than it would have to read them.  I also didn’t really like the voice performance aspect, because when I read of course I never do different voices for characters in my head, so that was a bit weird to me to hear that.  What do you guys think?  Should I keep trying?  Do you have suggestions for books that are really good as audiobooks?

Blogging Book Reviews

One of my goals at the end of last year was to review more of what I am reading here, and I’m happy that I did review a lot of my genre reads here on the blog.

Now for the downsides…

Although I read about 100 books, about 80 of these were Regency romances, and I would say only about half of those were worthwhile reading.  So I hit the mark for quantity but not quality.  Hence I want to change a few things in my reading next year.

  1. Read from more genres.  Although I did read a good mix of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as evenly from adult and YA, I barely read any manga or comics and no nonfiction at all this year.   I also want to read more short stories and historical fiction.
  2. Finish Heyer’s romances.  I’m not giving up Regency romance entirely! I mentioned last year that I began reading through the works of Georgette Heyer, and I was able to read several more this year.  I have yet to be really disappointed by a single one of her stories.  I want to finish reading her oeuvre of historical romances (I only have about five left) and maybe try some of her mysteries.
  3. Read books I already own.  I have shelves and shelves of books and people keep giving me more.  Yet I’m constantly requesting books at the library, and then I have to finish them first because there’s a deadline!  Which leads me to…
  4. Finish the books I started.  I started 11 books this year that I was unable to finish before they had to go back to the library.  Eleven!!  I would check out too many books on my Kindle, then not get to one until it was almost due, then be unable to finish it.  I couldn’t renew because they all have long wait lists.  It was a vicious cycle I want to break next year.  Because my reading time is more limited now, I need to be a little more focused in my reading and maybe not check out every single ebook that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ve also discovered that I can “suspend” holds, so instead of a library book just showing up on my Kindle when it comes available, it won’t come until I’m ready for it.

What books did you enjoy most in 2018?  Do you have reading goals for 2019?

Christmas Songs Book Tag

I absolutely adore Christmas music (though I only listen from Thanksgiving to New Years haha), so I was excited to come across this tag on Madame Writer’s blog.  It was originally by The Artsy Reader Girl.

1. “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Favorite bookish couple.

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I have a lot of favorite book couples, including Lizzy and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and Eowyn and Faramir from LOTR.  But this said “bookish,” which makes me think nerdy, so I’m going to go with Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables.  Among other things, their relationship is built on academic rivalry.  This image is from the marvelous 1980s Canadian TV adaptation starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie.  One of my favorite scenes is where Gilbert gives Anne a standing ovation after she recites “The Highwayman.”  He’s always so proud of Anne’s intelligence and her hard work.

2. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: Name a book where a character is away from home (school, vacation, etc.).

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Jane, Unlimited is a unique speculative fiction story that relies on a classic premise: an orphan travels to a strange mansion.  Very gothic!  Jane is visiting Tu Reviens, the large and intriguing island home of her friend Kiran, where everything from art theft to alternate dimensions may be happening.  The premise is reminiscent of Jane Eyre as well as Rebecca, but spins off into an interesting type of choose-your-own-adventure story.

 

3. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Name your favorite “little” book (children’s book, short story, novella, etc.).

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Ella Enchanted, a classic middle grade Cinderella tale, is one of the books that inspired my love of fairy tale retellings.  It is on the bookshelf next to my bed, along with 101 Great American Poems, which I think was a gift from my mother about fifteen years ago when I was in high school.  I have read both countless times, and they are great for when I want a quick, satisfying read before bed.

4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: What book(s) do you hope Santa brings you this year?

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I have a lot of books on my wishlist, and my family always gets me lots of books for Christmas.  One I’m really looking forward to is Daemon Voices, a collection of essays by the author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman.

5. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: Which book turned your nose red (made you cry)?

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I scared my husband when I was reading The Book Thief because he looked over to see me silently sobbing with huge tears rolling down my face.  “What’s wrong?!” he said.  Oh nothing, just this book broke my heart into pieces.  What a beautiful, powerful book.  Narrated by Death, it’s the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals books.

6. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Your favorite book/kind of book to read during the holidays.

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In my Seasonal Reads blog series, I mentioned that I frequently read The Dark is Rising during December.  It’s full of both warm and cozy Christmas cheer as well as ominous Yuletide magic.  I love the whole series, but this one in particular is my favorite.  I also love Christmas cozy mysteries and Regency romances.

7. “We Three Kings”: Your favorite trilogy.

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I’m going classic for this one: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I first read in high school, right when the movies were coming out.  It’s still one of my favorite series.  Trilogies are very standard nowadays, especially for YA fantasy, and I think that can be traced back in part to LOTR.

8. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”: A character you would love to be snowed in with.

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David Suchet as Poirot

If I were snowed in, I would want Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie’s mystery series to be one of the party.  Because inevitably there would be a murder, and then we could rely on Poirot to solve it!  I’m imagining something like the premise to Christie’s play The Mousetrap, which places a bunch of guests trapped in a manor inn together.  But luckily Poirot would be there to solve the crime before any further murders take place.  Plus Poirot is just a genial guy.

9. “Last Christmas”: A book that seriously let you down.

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Sometimes I hear about YA books that are getting a lot of hype and figure I should check them out.  Spoiler alert: they don’t always live up to the hype.  That’s how I felt about Snow like Ashes and An Ember in the Ashes (maybe I should just avoid books about ashes?).  The first books in the series were fine, but nothing spectacular, and the follow-ups got less interesting so that I didn’t continue on with either series.

10. “White Christmas”: An upcoming release you’re dreaming about.

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Well, I don’t believe that The Winds of Winter will be released next year, and Peace Talks also doesn’t have a release date as far as I know, but there are a bunch of YA fantasy book by favorite authors coming out next, including King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo.  I’m also looking forward to The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (sci-fi) and A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay (historical fantasy).

 

Do you guys have favorite Christmas song?  I love all the old carols, especially obscure ones or ones in foreign languages.  And my favorite Christmas album is John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.