Review of We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire

by Joy McCullough
with illuminations by Maia Kobabe

Dutton Books, 2021. 383 pages.
Review written June 8, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

As the book opens, Em Morales learns the verdict against the college student who raped her sister after a frat party – guilty on all counts. But then comes the sentencing, and he’s sentenced to only time served.

Em feels terrible, because she urged her sister not to accept a plea deal and to go through the agony of the trial. She’s been trying to speak up for victims of sexual violence, and now it seems that she’s done more harm than good. The summer before her Senior year is starting, and she even decides to give up on journalism, which has been her life.

So now she’s at loose ends for the summer, and she starts hanging out with Jess, a nonbinary teen whose parents are splitting up and who stayed in town to try to keep them together. Jess mentions a medieval woman, Marguerite de Bressieux, and Em discovers she went to war to get vengeance for her family, who were slaughtered and raped by the Count of Orange.

Em starts writing a novel in verse about Marguerite, and Jess, an artist, begins illuminating the pages.

But Em’s dealing with a lot of anger and people are still upset with her sister for speaking up. So things that happen are far more complex than simply writing a book to get out her rage.

While I was in the middle of reading this book, someone called the library and asked me to read him a specific Wikipedia article. I did so – until I listened more closely to what he was saying and realized he was masturbating while I was talking. Having that happen when I was in the middle of reading a book about characters angry about our toxic society and the power men have over women and rape culture didn’t help.

There are a couple of good men in this book, Em’s father being one of them, so they’re not trying to say that every man is a predator. But it’s a dark book, a book about fighting back against oppression – and not a tremendously hopeful one.

Something I loved that wasn’t a main point of the book was how nicely Em modeled using they/them pronouns for Jess. She referred to Jess smoothly and consistently with they/them pronouns, not making a big deal of it, and the reader picks up on it quickly. Anyone who reads this book will find it that much easier to use the correct pronouns when they have a nonbinary friend.

This is a powerful book. It got me a little discouraged – but that’s probably more a function of what happened to me while I was reading the book than of the book itself. It is about women fighting back persistently, whether they are successful or not.

PenguinTeen.com

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Review of Within These Wicked Walls, by Lauren Blackwood

Within These Wicked Walls

by Lauren Blackwood
read by Nneka Okoye

Macmillan Audio, October 2021. 8 hours, 54 minutes.
Review written July 27, 2022, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

First, I have to say that I’ve found another favorite narrator. Nneka Okoye has a voice I love to listen to, and made this book all the more mesmerizing and magical. That was a little bit unfortunate. I was listening to this audiobook on the same weekend I planned a 48-Hour Book Challenge, and spent more time listening than I did reading. I thought it was a shame, since I can read a book faster than I can listen to one, so I didn’t finish as many books. But I did tremendously enjoy the time, so it’s all good.

Within These Wicked Walls is a very loose resetting of Jane Eyre, set in Ethiopia, where Coptic Christianity is the main religion and the Evil Eye is running rampant.

Andromeda is a debtera — an exorcist who can cleanse households of the Evil Eye by crafting silver amulets. Unfortunately, because her guardian threw her out, she’s not licensed. So she needs to take any job she can get and hope for a patron to vouch for her so she can get more work.

She comes to the castle of Magnus Rochester. And it turns out that he will hire an unlicensed debtera because ten others have already given up on the job.

The more Andie sees, the more she’d like to leave as well. But she needs that patronage. And worse, she’s beginning to care for the cursed master of the castle.

This version takes out some of the worst parts of Jane Eyre — there’s no crazy wife in the attic and no illegitimate daughter. He’s not vastly older than her, only a couple years.

He does put her in situations that make her jealous, though not quite as blatantly and intentionally as the original. And she does run off at one point, though with every intention of going back.

So admittedly, Jane Eyre isn’t a model for a functional romance. This one did nice things with the material. There’s lots of death and danger and a creative story with compelling magic and a young heroine with the strength to fight demons in order to save those she loves.

laurenblackwood.com

(Link to My Plain Jane and Brightly Burning.)

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Review of Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021. 10 hours, 3 minutes.
Review written April 30, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and yes, you should read them in order. So if you haven’t read the first book, please don’t read more of this review as it may give you some spoilers.

If possible, I loved this second book even more than the first. It’s from Ari’s perspective as he navigates his senior year of high school. He’s accepted that he’s in love with Dante, and he’s figuring out what that means.

But why I loved this book so much is that Ari also learns to develop many meaningful relationships. In the first book, Dante was his first friend. But now, as well as being in love with Dante, he develops deep friendships with some fellow students, with his parents, and with some teachers. All of those relationships help him get through when hard things hit.

And it’s definitely not all sun and roses. Some major life events happen that are hard to face. Ari goes to visit his older brother, who is in prison. And Ari and Dante have been accepted into colleges far apart from one another, so they both have anxiety about what comes next.

Also, the book is set in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Both Ari and Dante are coming to terms with what it means to be a gay man in a culture that hates them.

But they encounter beautiful people in their journey, and all the difficulties they face in this book are faced with a community of supportive friends, which makes all the difference.

benjaminsaenz.com/

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Review of A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I. Lin

A Magic Steeped in Poison

by Judy I. Lin
read by Carolyn Kang

Listening Library, 2022. 11 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written September 19, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

The first thing I need to say about this book is that it’s one of those where the story doesn’t finish at all. In fact, it ends right at a point where things are looking bad for the main character. However, the good news is that the second volume is already out, and the literature says it’s a duology. So I plan to finish the story soon.

But the story is a good one — magical and imaginative, all about magic inherent in tea as well as the skills of the person making and pouring the tea.

The book begins as Ning is preparing to go to the capital city to compete to be the court shennong-shi — the best in the art of wielding the magic of tea. The winner of the competition will be granted a favor from the princess. And Ning thinks this is her only chance to save her sister Shu, who is desperately ill, having been poisoned with the same tainted tea that killed their mother.

Shu was the one who trained to be their mother’s apprentice in the arts of shennong-shi. But Ning learned many of those skills, as well as some of the art of their father, a physician.

When she gets to the palace, there’s plenty of contempt among the other competitors for girls from a rural province, but Shi befriends another like herself. She encounters a handsome stranger who turns out to be part of the imperial family — the part that is in rebellion to the emperor.

Besides the competition, which is full of creative and challenging ways for Ning to use her gifts, the book is full of court intrigue and danger. Ning wants to find out who was responsible for the poisoned tea that killed her mother. And then she needs to combine her physician skills with shennong-shi to save a life. But her skills may put her in grave danger.

I’m glad I listened to this audiobook, because I wouldn’t have known the correct pronunciations for many words, and the narrator did a nice job pulling me into the story. The original magic made this a fantasy tale that stood out, and Ning’s a character who’s resourceful and unstoppable. This book left her in a bad place, and I very much want to read on and discover how she gets out of it.

judyilin.com

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Review of Star Daughter, by Sveta Thakrar

Star Daughter

by Shveta Thakrar

HarperTeen, 2020. 435 pages.
Review written October 21, 2020, from a library book

Star Daughter is a fantasy story refreshingly different for me, informed by Indian mythology. It’s about Sheetal, an American teen of Indian descent, who’s the daughter of a star and a mortal astrophysicist. Sheetal is almost seventeen, and her mother left them years ago and returned to her place in the celestial court.

But something’s going on with Sheetal. Her shining silver hair has stopped holding the black dye she tries to cover it with, and the music of the stars is getting harder and harder to ignore. When she accidentally gives her father a heart attack with her star fire, she must go to the heavenly court to get a cure. Her grandmother is willing to give it – if Sheetal will help them out.

I enjoyed the imaginative setting of this book and the details of the heavenly court. I enjoyed Sheetal’s best friend Minal, who was allowed to come along as a mortal companion. It was refreshing to see a good friendship portrayed in a teen novel. And it was touching that Sheetal had parents who loved each other, even if they couldn’t be together.

Beyond that, a lot of the motivations in the book seemed one-dimensional, and there were some fairly large coincidences that turned the plot. But I enjoyed my time reading this book and getting a window into the world of stars who provide inspiration to humanity.

shvetathakrar.com
epicreads.com

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Review of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn

by Melissa Bashardoust
read by Nikki Massoud

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2020. 10 hours, 6 minutes.
Review written December 12, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a modern fairy tale rooted in Persian folklore. The story is told from the perspective of Soraya, twin sister to the young shah, but who is kept hidden from all outsiders. She has been cursed to be poisonous to the touch. If anyone touches her, they die instantly. She is even deadly to insects. So she travels the palace in secret passageways and wears gloves at all times.

But then she meets a young man who’s not afraid of her. When she finds out a way she may be able to remove her curse, he is willing to help her. There’s a little problem, though – She would have to put out the royal fire that protects her family.

I thought most of the book would be about Soraya trying to lift her curse, but it turns out there’s a lot more that happens, because there are consequences.

The narrator brought the story to life with her lilting accent.

I did enjoy this tale, and loved the Persian flavor. The story was a little convoluted for me – I didn’t completely buy Soraya’s motivations at every point. And there seemed to be coincidences at others. And I wondered at how easily she found out a couple of things – like how to discover an old criminal in hiding, long ago condemned to die.

But the concept – a princess who had been cursed to be poisonous, wondering if that makes her a monster – that concept was worth building a fairy tale around.

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Review of Everything I Thought I Knew, by Shannon Takaoka

Everything I Thought I Knew

by Shannon Takaoka

Candlewick Press, 2020. 308 pages.
Review written December 7, 2020, from a library book

Everything I Thought I Knew is the story of 17-year-old Chloe, six months after she got a heart transplant from an unknown donor. She’s recently been set free by the doctor to live her life, though her parents are anxiously keeping tabs on her, and she’ll be taking medication for life to keep her body from rejecting the new heart.

Chloe’s friends are spending the summer getting ready to go to college, but she has to go to summer school to finish the classes she missed the last semester of her senior year. And besides the nightly dreams about a terrible accident, she’s finding herself drawn to new things and acting out of character.

Without telling her parents, when she’s supposed to be at the library, she starts taking surfing lessons from a teen trying to make a little money. And she makes a friend at summer school and finds out what teens who have no parental supervision can get up to.

Chloe and Jane start doing a little research and discover internet theories about cellular memory, and stories of heart transplant patients who suddenly have skills their donor had and know people who were important to their donor.

Could this explain some of Chloe’s strange experiences?

At this point in the book, I almost put it down. It seemed a little too predictable. And while I think cellular memory might be a thing on some level, my suspension of disbelief didn’t extend to the detailed memories Chloe was experiencing.

But it turns out the book was not predictable at all. There’s a twist at the end I didn’t see coming and did enjoy – though it also was a little too much for my own suspension of disbelief.

But I did enjoy the way this tale is told. You feel Chloe’s bewilderment and her pressure to make the most of her life after the gift of a heart. Although I didn’t completely believe everything about this book, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

candlewick.com

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Review of As Good as Dead, by Holly Jackson

As Good as Dead

by Holly Jackson
read by Bailey Carr with a full cast

Listening Library, September 2021. 15 hours, 4 minutes.
Review written July 20, 2022, based on a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Big thanks again to my coworker Lisa, who recommended this trilogy to me. She was anxious to read an Advance Reader Copy of the third book, and I had never read any of them. So I was lucky and didn’t have to wait long in between books, because they were all published by the time I got to them.

In my review of the second book, I’d said that they stand alone okay, but now I say No, not at all. You absolutely need to read the other two books before you read this one. For one thing, you’d find out some major events of the earlier books, but mostly you’d understand the ins and outs of this one better.

Things escalate tremendously in each book. In the first book, Pip is a Senior in high school and takes on a 5-year-old murder case because she doesn’t think the dead boyfriend was actually the murderer, despite a texted confession. In the second book, Pip stumbles into an immediate case where a friend goes missing, but the police don’t think there’s anything to worry about. That case bumps up against another long-ago case of a serial killer.

Well, in this book, Pip gets involved again in an old case involving a serial killer. But this time, a person keeps commenting on her podcast episodes, “Who will look for you when you go missing?” and then some things happen to her that are eerily similar to experiences reported by victims of a Connecticut serial killer from years ago. But there’s someone in prison for the crimes, and there haven’t been any more since he was arrested. So when Pip gets a message from the mother of the convicted man, Pip doesn’t actually want to see the evidence that he is not the serial killer after all. Because that means he’s still out there and may have taken an interest in her.

I won’t say any more about the plot. There was a big turning point about a third of the way into the book, and I really disagreed with the decision Pip made. It had to do with not trusting the police.

As I kept listening and thought about it more, I had to admit that Pip had many, many reasons not to trust the police, and even though I wouldn’t have made that choice, I could believe that Pip would have.

And that choice contributed to an incredibly tense story from start to finish. I was listening this past week when traffic was terrible after a thunderstorm had gone through and stopped electricity and downed trees, and the audiobook had my nerves stretched tight — but at least I wasn’t bored for a second when my normally 15-minute drive took me an hour!

This trilogy is incredibly good, but be aware it’s extremely intense. And the crimes escalate from book to book and get closer and closer to Pip.

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Review of Cold, by Mariko Tamaki

Cold

by Mariko Tamaki
read by Katharine Chin and Raymond J. Lee

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2022. 4 hours, 37 minutes.
Review written August 19, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

Cold is told in two voices, and one is the voice of Todd, a boy who just died. He’s hovering over his body, in a park naked and frozen in the snow, when his body is found by a dog. Detectives come and begin trying to figure out what happened to him and who killed him.

The other narrator is Georgia, a girl who didn’t even know Todd. But as she learns about him, she feels like they have some things in common. They’re both queer and don’t have many friends at their respective high schools. It turns out that Todd was a Senior at the boys’ school where Georgia’s big brother Mark is also a Senior. Mark tells her he didn’t know Todd, but something’s bothering her about that statement.

Meanwhile, while Georgia is thinking about Todd’s death and what might have happened, Todd’s ghost is following the investigation. The detectives are interested in the one teacher who was kind to him. Todd didn’t have a lot of friends, and maybe if he hadn’t wanted one so badly, things would have turned out differently.

This isn’t really a detective story, as the mystery isn’t solved so much as slowly revealed. When Georgia and the reader find out the answer, all the pieces fall together.

Todd’s ghost watching events takes some of the sting out of the story of a 17-year-old being murdered — but not entirely. I was left with a sense of sadness, as Georgia’s left thinking about what it all means.

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Review of The Lucky Ones, by Liz Lawson

The Lucky Ones

by Liz Lawson

Delacorte Press, 2020. 343 pages.
Review written December 12, 2020, from a library book

The Lucky Ones in this book are teens who survived a school shooting in their high school the previous year. The reader does learn they’re not very lucky.

We follow two teens with a very different relationship to the tragedy. May was in a closet when the shooting happened in the band room. Her twin brother, her favorite teacher, and several of her friends were killed. She stayed in the closet. After the tragedy, she kept lashing out at school, and was eventually asked to take a leave of absence and home school. Now it’s second semester of the following school year and students from May’s old high school have been moved to the two closest high schools. She’s trying to go back to class. At least it’s a new building.

Zach’s mother is the lawyer who took the case of the school shooter. And when that happened, he lost all his friends except one. Someone – Zach doesn’t know it was May – has been vandalizing their house at night. But then a new girl shows up in class and smiles at him.

It feels good to both May and Zach to find new romantic interest in someone. Then they find out who the other is.

This is a tough book, dealing with so many awful emotions in the aftermath of a school shooting. It’s terrible how many teens may relate to it. It’s a well-written story, with both kids figuring out what’s going on in their own heads and how to communicate and what’s the best way to express all those mixed-up emotions. And not all the trauma happens before the story begins.

This is a good story and does end with a note of hope, but it’s not light reading.

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