Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch Book Cover Akata Witch
Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a "free agent" with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she's finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin’s First to Read program for the review copy!

Unfortunately, Akata Witch just wasn’t for me. It didn’t hold my interest, and I spent much of the book compulsively checking how many pages I had left and hoping that I was almost at the end.

I’ve seen Akata Witch hailed as “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” but the book fails to live up to the hype. There are similarities between Akata Witch and the Harry Potter series – both star a preteen misfit who discovers they possess magical abilities and must be taught to wield that magic in order to fight an evil wizard – but Akata Witch lacks the richness and the “wow” factor that made me fall in love with Rowling’s novels.

Okorafor’s book stars a 12-year-old albino girl named Sunny who doesn’t feel she belongs. She’s picked on at school, and at home she has to deal with annoying older brothers and a father who doesn’t appreciate her “otherness.” Everything changes, though, when she learns she is a Leopard Person, or someone who possesses magic juju. She also finds out that she’s fated to be one fourth of a coven that’s purportedly destined for a great purpose. Like Sunny, her fellow coven members are very young – the oldest is about 14 or 15 – but they do their best to train and make ready for their ultimate battle with an evil Leopard Person who’s gone rogue. Much of the book focuses on the four coven members honing their juju, going to lessons and field trips, and teaching Sunny about the world of the Leopard People.

As much as I love fantasy stories, this particular one didn’t resonate with me for some reason. I was incredibly bored and didn’t feel the sense of wonder, delight, or amazement I usually experience when I read fantasy. Part of my problem is that I wasn’t enamored of the plot or the characters, who were flat at best and annoying at worst. I had a tough time connecting with them, and I partially blame this on the third-person point of view. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had a lot more personality if the story had been filtered through Sunny’s first-person viewpoint.

That said, there are a few interesting and creative bits of magic in the book now and then, like masquerades – spirits that enter the world through termite mounds; tungwas – balls of hair, flesh, and teeth that float around and explode at random; and wasp artists that build spectacular creations out of found household objects but are notoriously melodramatic if they feel their work isn’t valued:

“‘It’s a wasp artist,’ Orlu said. ‘They live for their art. If you want it to live for a long time, make sure you let it out like you’ve been doing, and show it that you appreciate its work.’

‘I’d smash the thing,’ Sasha said. ‘My sister had one when she was small , and when she forgot to give it praise once, it got pissed and stung her. Its sting paralyzes you for ten minutes so that you can do nothing but watch it build its ‘final masterpiece’ and then keep watching as it dramatically dies. The damn things are psychotic.’”

By far the most positive aspect of this book is that it opened my eyes to just how narrow my worldview is; it wasn’t until I read Akata Witch that I realized how rarely I read books that are set in a country and culture very different from my own. Growing up in the U.S., reading American books, and watching American movies and TV shows, my understanding of the world has been admittedly limited. I so infrequently venture outside of my comfort zone when it comes to books and other media that I was – stupidly – unprepared for Akata Witch’s descriptions of foods, expressions, residences, etc. that were so very unfamiliar to me. Sometimes this led to confusion (I still don’t understand what a “rapa” is, and what on Earth is a chewing stick?), but for the most part it was a humbling reminder that “my” way of life isn’t “the” way of life. This book showed me that there is so much I don’t know, and so much that I don’t even realize I don’t know.

One thing that really struck me was the fact that there are so many people speaking so many different languages in many scenes of the book. There’s no guarantee that everyone who needs to interact with one another in a given situation will speak the same language, which leads to a constant need for translation. This is viewed as the norm, as nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a stark contrast to what I’m used to in the U.S., where some people can sadly be rude – and downright ugly – when they hear people speaking anything but English. There’s even a reference to this in the book, which is, again, quite humbling:

“The toucan man scoffed. ‘They don’t teach them to understand others, they teach them to expect others to understand them,’ he said in English. He humphed and said, ‘Americans.’”

Bottom line? Much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of Akata Witch, I really struggled with staying invested in the story and characters. It just didn’t hold my attention, and I can’t say I’ll be reading the sequel when it comes out later this year.

Review: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist Book Cover Flame in the Mist
Renee Ahdieh

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass.

The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she's within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she's appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she's ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin Random House and their First to Read program for the review copy!

Flame in the Mist, you had me at “dangerous gang of bandits.” Authors, publishers, listen up – if you ever want to get me to read your book, all you have to do is make the slightest mention of thieves, bandits, or other disreputable rogues and I will be at the bookstore or library in a flash. These sorts of characters are my kryptonite, and the ones in Flame in the Mist are especially delightful.

Flame in the Mist follows the adventures of Hattori Mariko, a young woman whose traveling party is attacked on the way to Mariko’s wedding. Though she survives, Mariko is presumed dead, and she takes advantage of the newfound freedom this brings from obligation and expectation. Disguising herself as a boy, Mariko strikes out in pursuit of the Black Clan, the notorious band of thieves she presumes to be responsible for the attack. Her hope is to bring them down from the inside, and thus prove to her family that her worth goes beyond that of her value as a bride.

The Black Clan members are everything a rascal-loving reader could wish for. First off, there’s Ranmaru, their leader. He’s young, sharp, and canny, too clever by half. Then there’s his right-hand man, Ōkami. Known as the Wolf, Ōkami is the Black Clan’s deadliest warrior. He’s enigmatic, dangerous, and aloof, and his interactions with Mariko are my favorite parts of the book. The two needle one another constantly, and Mariko is both annoyed by Ōkami and drawn to him.

“‘If you were me, you would have done the same thing.’ She could not prevent her voice from quavering on the last word.

‘No, I wouldn’t.’ Ōkami’s dark brows lowered. Shadowed his gaze. Something tugged at his lips. ‘I would’ve succeeded.’”

Mariko herself is an interesting character, though I’m not sure I can truthfully say I like her. She has certain traits that I respect, and I could sympathize with her, but there’s something about Mariko that kept me from fully connecting with her. I did appreciate that she seems like a real person; not annoyingly inept, but not unrealistically capable, either. I like that she knows her own limitations and goes about finding ways to work around them. Likewise, she is able to acknowledge disappointing truths and deal with them accordingly. She’s smart and a quick study, but still errs and misjudges from time to time. She has weaknesses and flaws and frustrations, the most interesting of which is her resentment of the strictures placed upon her as a woman. She aches to prove herself and rages against her femininity like a trapped moth beating its wings against a glass jar.

“Mariko suddenly felt acutely aware of her appearance. Almost self-conscious. A feeling she disdained.

So much like a girl, despite all her efforts to the contrary.”

During Mariko’s time with the Black Clan, she attempts to insinuate herself into their ranks. She’s at a disadvantage among the older, tougher men but does everything in her power to show herself as willing and able to contribute. At the same time she works to unravel the mysteries surrounding the band. Ranmaru and Ōkami are particularly inscrutable. You get the sense that everyone in the book has secrets, and everyone is lying. You’re always trying to keep up and figure out who people are, what their motivations are, and whether they can be trusted. This constant second-guessing kept me engaged from beginning to end, so much so that I read the entire book in one sitting.

“That same awful feeling of being mocked took hold of Mariko. Vicious, unrelenting hold. Making her feel so much smaller than those around her. So much less of everything when all she wished was to feel taller and stronger and braver. So much more. It made her afraid to be herself. Afraid these men would see how every step she took each day was a lie.”

One last thing worth mentioning about Flame in the Mist is that it’s set in a magical version of feudal Japan. This means there are samurai, and bloodthirsty trees, and shape-shifting, and tea houses, and beautiful, mouth-watering descriptions of Japanese cuisine. I’m hopeful there’ll be even more of these things in the second book, which I will certainly be reading. There’s so much going on in the world of Flame in the Mist that I want to soak in as much of it as I can!

Around the World in 14 Days: Scotland

Banner for Around the World in Fourteen Days

Fàilte gu Alba! Or, in English, “Welcome to Scotland!”

Today’s post is part of the 2016 Book Blogger Creativity Project, run by Nori @ ReadWriteLove 28. The project is intended to promote creativity and new friendships among book bloggers, and participants are divided into teams and tasked with developing a unique post idea. I’m pleased to be a member of the Red Team, which has, for our project, decided to take a figurative, literary journey around the world.

Each stop on our team’s mini blog tour features books from a different country. I’ve always been fascinated with Scotland, and that’s the country I’ve chosen to represent for my stop. So let’s put on some bagpipe music, dig out the clan tartan and step into the Scottish highlands!

Book cover for Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert J. HarrisGirl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris: Girl in a Cage is the book that first got me interested in historical fiction. It’s based on the true story of Marjorie Bruce, a Scottish princess who was kidnapped by the English king during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 1300s. Marjorie, only 12 years old, was imprisoned in an outdoor cage, where she was tormented and ridiculed by the English. It’s stunning and terrible to believe that a young girl could have been mistreated this way, but in the story Marjorie withstands the abuse with amazing courage and strength.

The Moorchild Book cover for THe Moorchild by Eloise McGrawby Eloise Jarvis McGraw: It’s been a long time since I last read The Moorchild, but every time I think of it I’m overwhelmed with feelings of wildness and magic and longing. The protagonist, Moql/Saaski, is a strange young girl who’s never fit in in her village. Suspected of being a fairy changeling, Saaski is torn between the lure of the fae and her desire to belong with her family. Although the book isn’t explicitly set in Scotland, it has a strong Scotch/Irish vibe, with bagpipes, heather-covered moors, and tales of the fair folk.

Mary, Queen of Scotland and the IslesBook cover for Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George by Margaret George: I’ve read quite a few books about Mary Queen of Scots, but George’s book is my favorite. It’s no mean feat to make it through the book in its entirety – it’s pretty hefty, with close to 900 pages and a hearty dose of historical details. Historical minutiae can be hit or miss for me, but George uses it to spin such a complex, believable picture of Mary and the people, culture, and times surrounding her that I was enrapt.

Outlander Book cover for Outlander by Diana Gabaldonby Diana Gabaldon: Outlander is one of those rare books that not only lives up to, but exceeds all of the hype surrounding it. I’m not usually big on time travel books, nor on adult fiction, but this tale of a World War II nurse who’s magically transported to the Scottish highlands in the 1740s is phenomenal. As great as the book is, the TV adaptation on Starz is even better. I’m utterly obsessed, and waiting for the release of Season 3 will likely be the death of me.

An Earthly Knight Book cover for An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughtonby Janet McNaughton: This was the first – and, so far, best – retelling I’ve read of the Scottish legend The Ballad of Tam Lin. It tells of the story of young Jenny, the daughter of a 12th-century nobleman, who falls in love with a mysterious young man and must free him from the clutches of the Queen of the Fae. Like many of the other books on the list, it’s also chock-full of awesome historical information.

Book cover for The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim by Shane PeacockThe Dark Missions of Edgar Brim by Shane Peacock: I just started reading this novel a few days ago, so I can’t speak to much of the plot. It’s got a deliciously strange, gothic feel, though: a grim, imposing school on the mist-covered Scottish moors; eccentric professors who take a ghoulish interest in grisly murders and the occult; and a young boy for whom stories literally come alive, for better or worse. I can’t wait to see what else this book has in store!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to novels set in Scotland! Don’t forget to continue your bookish journey around the world by stopping by to visit the other members of the Red Team!

Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss Book Cover Anna and the French Kiss
Stephanie Perkins

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris--until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all...including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

Review:

I finally get why Anna and the French Kiss keeps popping up on so many Top Ten Tuesday lists – it’s wonderful! I was a little worried that it wouldn’t live up to all of the hype, but it really is a great book. I stayed up until midnight last night to finish it, and despite being exhausted this morning I still have a smile on my face from the experience.

One of my main reasons for liking Anna and the French Kiss is Anna herself. She feels like a kindred spirit, someone I can relate to and understand. It was such a relief to read about a person whose reactions to the events of her life are so similar to what my own would be under the same circumstances. For example, I’m a very nervous traveler. As much as I like the idea of seeing the world, the reality is that learning a new culture and being far from my family scares me to death. This is the case for Anna as well. When her parents send her overseas to spend a year in a French boarding school, she’s terrified. She sobs in her room after arriving at the school, only leaves the campus under duress, and feels overwhelmed and out of place. This is exactly how I would’ve reacted, and it was nice to see a protagonist deal with the same worries and anxieties and be able to overcome them.

Anna is a likable character, with fascinating interests and great drive and dedication. I enjoyed watching her grow over the course of the book. Her transformation from a scared, anxious, overwhelmed girl who didn’t want to go out of her comfort zone to someone brave and willing to try new things is a natural and believable one.

I also like that although Anna is spunky and smart and fun, she has negative qualities as well. She does a lot of crying, overreacts at times, has the occasional angry outburst, and lashes out and says things she doesn’t mean when hurt or upset. You’d think this would make her less likable, but the opposite is actually true. It makes her more interesting than if she were Little Miss Perfect, and it made me as a reader feel camaraderie with her.

Likewise, Anna’s love interest, the wonderful American/British/French Etienne St. Clair, is the perfect mix of delightful and real. He’s charming and quirky and cute, with a sexy British accent and a fascination with history and random trivia. He’s also on the shorter side, though he carries himself with enough swagger and confidence, and exudes such an air of charisma and magnetism, that he seems taller. He’s horrifically afraid of heights, can be mopey and unwittingly hurtful/unfair, and at one point in the book gets so intoxicated he throws up on Anna. All of these flaws are actually part of St. Clair’s appeal. He’s fun and interesting, unique among other male characters I’ve read about. He’s not some impossibly perfect boy toy but instead is the type of guy you could conceivably meet in the real world

The romance between Anna and St. Clair is lovely, although it’s quite exasperating that they have so many misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and instances of poor timing to contend with. Their relationship, which starts as a friendship and grows into something more, is the type that warms you from the inside out. I loved how they are always there for one another and how they always try to do what is best for each other even at the expense of their own happiness.

That’s not to say that they always act selflessly. St. Clair especially is a bit unfair in some of his actions. Again, though, their weaknesses made for a more believable, meaningful relationship once they finally got their problems straightened out.