Tournament of Books Round 4: An Ember in the Ashes vs. The Alex Crow

I Will Survive: The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith vs An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

At this point in the Battle, these two titles have been reviewed multiple times, so please bear with me if I repeat anything others said before me; I tried to avoid reading the reviews to avoid spoiling or biasing myself.

At first glance, these two titles don’t have much in common. On the one hand, with The Alex Crow you have a story that takes place in a mostly contemporary setting with no magic but plenty of science to back up claims of the supernatural and on the other, you have a magical, ancient Roman-esque setting in An Ember in the Ashes. A mostly male lineup of characters in the former versus a relatively balanced lineup in the latter. The completely unexpected versus the more formulaic. No romance versus a double love triangle. Etcetera, etcetera, these two titles seem to be about as different from each other as it is possible for two books to be. But what these two titles do have in common are the underlying themes of fear, survival, uncertainty, and a loss of family that the main characters have to experience and endure. In those ways, thalex crowese books aren’t so different after all.

The Alex Crow

Finding himself the lone survivor of a terrorist attack on his small Middle Eastern village, 15-year-old Ariel is swept away by the U.S. military to join a new family and lead a new life in the United States. By all accounts, he should be grateful that he’s escaping a brutal, lonely, war-torn existence in favor of a comparatively quieter life with a wholesome West Virginian family. But when Ariel is sent off to the Merrie-Seymour Camp with his adoptive brother for the summer, multiple events occur which allow Ariel to see his adoptive family and his new life are anything but wholesome.

The Alex Crow is a highly clever, creative, and wholly unique book – something that I’ve heard is the case for Andrew Smith books in general (though I don’t have firsthand knowledge of this given it is my first time partaking in his writing). It blends contemporary with a touch of humor, sci-fi, and faux historical fiction, and Smith masterfully works multiple subplots into one larger, seamless yet surprising and compelling story. Besides the nonlinear storyline depicting Ariel’s time both in the Middle East and in the U.S., Smith also adroitly weaves together threads that tell the stories of animals long extinct and the mostly-failed boat expeditions of a time before the world was largely conquered by man.

In his portrayal of modern warfare and the collateral damages and spoils thereof, Smith doesn’t shy away from depicting horrifying acts, which are more than hinted at but that somehow manage to avoid crossing into the obscene or gratuitous. They are scenes chockful of discomfort but they feel unrelenting in their realness.

To that point, Ariel is not a character with whom many people can sympathize but he is a character who is becoming more and more conceptually familiar in our society due to current international events. Throughout the story, Smith manages to believably convey Ariel as haunted by his past and unsure of his future. His companions throughout the story help to provide comic relief and assist in pushing the plot along but in doing so, they never quite manage to gain any depth.

An Ember in the Ashes

500 years of Martial rule have wrought oppression and persecution for the Scholars of the Empire but in all that time, it hasn’t managed to dampen their passion for learning or their desire for freedom. Laia, a member of a prominent Scholar family, helps her grandparents to earn a meager living until her brother Darin is caught and arrested as a traitor of the Empire. Not content to let Darin meet his fate in the Empire’s hands, Laia goes undercover as a spy for the Resistance and in the process, many of her preconceived notions about who she is and what she is capable of are challenged.

Although this fantasy book is riddled with familiar tropes that almost make it sound like a dystopian novel – quashed intellect, a great foretelling, fights to the death, a despotic regime – they are presented in ways that make them feel new and exciting. It helps quite a bit that Tahir presents a world in which many of the characters are not strictly good or evil, but realistically complex beings who make both good and bad choices.

Although the Commandant, the rather frightening face of the ember in the ashesEmpire, is decidedly less nuanced than that, Laia, Elias, Cook, and Helene are all great counter-examples to the Commandant and brilliant examples of the complexity Tahir was able to inject into the story. Laia and Elias, especially, are equally deep characters who have faced great losses in their lives and must overcome their fears and weaknesses to prevail against the Empire.

Tahir also excelled in her ability to flawlessly provide a great deal of backstory – via flashbacks, dreams, and dialogue – for the characters, the magic, and for what led up to the events that take place in the story, all without slowing down the story’s quick-paced tempo. More than Alex, the pages of this book kept themselves turning without cause for much hesitation or fear of the kind of discomfort that might be found in the upcoming pages. Unpleasant things may be (and certainly were) headed the reader’s way in Ember but they surely couldn’t be (and weren’t) as strange and unexpected as something Smith would write.

The most disappointing aspect of Ember is the fact that it contains a double love triangle: Laia-Elias-Keenan and Elias-Laia-Helene. In both cases, there is at least one instance of characters being pulled towards another simply due to the way they look. In particular, Tahir did a less than stellar job fleshing out the Keenan character and making him believably compelling as a romantic interest for anyone other than those who like the silent, emotionally detached yet moody types. I know there is an appeal for some in those types of romantic partners but encouraging it in a novel meant for teens is a pet peeve of mine.

What It All Comes Down To

The Alex Crow has so many things working in its favor but this title is not for everyone. Besides its well-crafted absurdity, The Alex Crow falls very short in how it treats females. It’s not that female characters are simply underdeveloped (though they are) or even lacking in greater representation (while it would have been nice to see more females in the story, the minimal inclusion makes sense due to the setting), it’s that those who do exist in the story are insulting and disagreeable depictions of what a girl or woman can be.

Female readers deserve a clever, creative, wholly unique book that does not paint the only representatives of their sex as overly and dangerously accommodating (Natalie Burgess), too good and sexually available to be true (Crystal Lutz), or radically calling for the end of men, only to disappear themselves (Mrs. Nussbaum). Perhaps there is a deeper meaning or a social criticism from Smith that I am missing but if there isn’t, it’s unfortunate that this is the case because Smith hit every other note exactly right, slowly pulling the reader into a reality that no one would want to claim as their own but would delight in reading about.

Where The Alex Crow fails spectacularly, An Ember in the Ashes shines. Although Ember similarly suffers from a surprising lack of female characters (again, the setting provides some annoying but believable limitations), it does have more than Alex and the way Tahir handles the few who are present is a breath of fresh air after Smith’s male-centric storytelling. Tahir herself pays the characters more respect, making them capable and giving them ambition, intelligence, and a full array of emotions. Tahir also acknowledges that in the society in which these female characters exist, things are stacked against them. Fewer are accepted into prestigious positions than men and those who are have to continually prove themselves to the men around them. However, the fact that the females make an effort to fight against those injustices makes all the difference in the world.

In the end, it was Tahir who wrote a book that is accessible and non-polarizing, not to mention completely captivating.


Reviewed by Alea Perez, Westmont Public Library


Tournament of Books Round 3: The Rest of Us Just Live Here vs. Dumplin’

Yikes! This was a seriously tough match-up and I’m sure it’ll only get tougher as we get to Round 4. Don’t make me choose! How do I choose?! But I’m jumping ahead of myself — let’s talk about these two awesome books.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness hasrest of us just live here a really clever concept. We all know how the Chosen One story goes where an unassuming but effortlessly cool teenager is tasked to take on the zombies, ghosts, vampires, or [insert monster of the week here] that are threatening the town. As Rebekah said in Round 2, Ness must be a fan of Buffy because the Chosen Ones in this story sound a lot like her and the Scooby Gang. But while the Chosen Ones a.k.a. “indie kids” go off and take on these mysterious paranormal figures, the other teenagers in town are just trying to take on their lives while hoping to not become collateral damage. Sure they may encounter these paranormal figures from time to time, but they’re not the ones the blue-eyed Immortals are after.

As Mikey and his friends navigate their senior year, they are acutely aware of the mysterious happenings in their town and Ness provides a short summary of what’s going on with the indie kids at the beginning of each chapter. This format was a bit confusing at the beginning since, as Jessica said in Round 1, the bit about the indie kids has nothing to do with the main characters of this story or any of the chapters. But once you get in the groove of reading, you appreciate the angle in which Ness forces you to see the story. I also appreciated the diversity of this crew of Scooby Gang adjacent teenagers. Kids who are gay, straight, multiracial, high achievers, low achievers, anxious, and seemingly confident make their way front and center, and are all relatable and recognizable characters. I could especially relate a lot to Mikey who, in a story about the kids who are not the Chosen Ones, feels particularly unchoosable. He says to his best friend Jared that he often feels like he’s the “least wanted” of his friend group, and that is a fear that is totally relatable especially when you’re a teenager and sadly even when you’re an adult.

It was a quick story with great narration from Mikey, had kind of a weird developmental arc for the characters, but was very relatable even with all the kooky stuff that happens on the sidelines. As I said before, it has a clever concept…and I love a clever concept!

dumplinNow as I started reading Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, I knew I was going to like it. C’mon! It’s about a fat girl named Willowdean who loves Dolly Parton — that’s me, y’all. (Note: I am not from Texas like Willowdean or the south but I often say “y’all” for some reason.) Willowdean doesn’t mind that she’s fat at the beginning of the story, but it’s no secret that waist size is often equated to attractiveness and that can take a toll on your self-worth if you’re bigger. It also doesn’t help that there are real bullies out there who go after fat people and ironically make them feel small. Now Willowdean knows all this and, in a way, has made her peace with it. But then Bo, the cute boy she works with who attends the local private school, becomes a real part of her life and her deep-seated insecurities all start to surface from this relationship. It then becomes plain to her that she isn’t like her mom or her best friend Ellen — she’s not what people would consider a beauty queen.

But what’s endearing and realistic about Willowdean is how she reacts to the situations in which she finds herself. She decides that she’s going to enter the local beauty pageant (which may not be super realistic) but her rationale and her defiance against being pigeonholed into a stereotype of a fat girl are. And although she ruffles some feathers and feels insecure every step of the way, she acts against other people’s perceptions of her because damn it to hell she does what she wants okay and why does she have to apologize?! After all, she has the power of Dolly Parton on her side! There’s a realness to her way of thinking that I can relate to as a fat girl. But I bet that non-fat girls, boys, and people will also find themselves relating to Ms. Willowdean Dickson too. I mean, just check out the reviews from Round 1 and Round 2 for this novel — it’s obviously highly relatable, features some real nice romantic moments that made me sigh, and provides an inside look into the far out world of teen beauty pageants!

Although it is a tough choice because these are two fantastic books, I’m going to have to crown Dumplin’ for this round. When I read about Willowdean, it finally felt like I found a character that thought my thoughts. Because being fat does in a lot of ways dictate how you think about the world around you. Just like race, sexual orientation, and other crucial parts of your identity might. It was a deeply personal read for me, and I imagine it will be for others too. But in the end, you have to just channel your inner Dolly Parton and be unapologetic for who you are!


Reviewed by Alice Son, Arlington Heights Memorial Library



Tournment of Books Round 3: The Walls Around Us vs. An Ember in the Ashes

Man, this was a tough choice. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are both really strong titles. They are just so different.

The Walls Around Us is “Orange Is the New walls around usBlack” meets “Black Swan”. Violet is a promising young ballerina on her way to Julliard. Three years ago, her best friend Ori was convicted for murdering two ballerinas in their company. But who exactly actually committed the crime? Our other narrator is Amber who is serving time in a women’s juvenile detention center in Upstate New York for murdering her stepfather. Throughout the story, the reader is confronted with questioning the guilt, innocence, and reliability of all three girls. Suma’s writing is creepy and strange. She twists reality in ways that push this book beyond realistic fiction, but not quite into paranormal fiction either. The Walls Around Us deals with female relationship dynamics, bullying, revenge, violence against women, and the tremendous pressures of young adulthood.

An Ember in the Ashes is a really well-fleshed out fantasy saga. Elias is a top military trainee in a martial society (this book was inspired by ancient Rome). He has all the privilege and power a citizen of the Empire could want, yet, he doesn’t actually want it. He detests violence despite being a skilled fighter and strategist. His struggles with morality within the confines of this oppressive world are wholly original and genuine. Laia is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is a Scholar, the conquered people ruled over by the Martials. A Mask, the type of soldier Elias is training to become, takes Laia’s family from her. Thus, she chooses to become a slave to the violent Commandant of the military academy in order to spy for the Resistance who promises to help break her brother out of the Empire’s prisons. Yet, of Elias and Laia, who has more freedom? Who is making better choices? This struggle for agency and humanity is what makes this book stand out among similar fantasy/dystopia novels.

While Tahir’s fast-paced story is more engaging, it feels almost unfair to compare a well-fleshed-out fantasy saga to something that is pushing the boundaries of realistic and paranormal fiction. Tahir has more to work with just because of the ember in the ashesgenre; fight scenes, mind-reading immortal creatures, explosions, sexy revolutionaries, spies, torture, sexual tension, etc.  I think Nova Ren Suma is more skilled as a writer. Tahir’s similes and metaphors are often clichéd and repetitive. Suma uses her writing to confuse the reader; the plot relies on her strong imagery and characterization through internal monologues. Tahir’s writing, however, is simply a vehicle to deliver a great story. She relies on dialogue and action to deliver the punches far more than Suma needs to.

While I respect Nova Ren Suma for doing something really unique, I have to pick An Ember in the Ashes as the winner. Sabaa Tahir’s characters grapple with interesting challenges both internal and external in a well-built world. She has great command of the plot. She maintains the tension to keep you reading (to the point where you might skip ahead to the next chapter when she switches narrators). As my meter for readability is “Which book made me late for work the most?” I have to go with An Ember in the Ashes.


Reviewed by Kim Naples, Prospect Heights Public Library District

Tournament of Books Round 2: Carry On vs. The Walls Around Us

This was a really interesting bracket for me. I knew nothing about The Walls Around Us except that I had purchased it for my collection. The cover didn’t really give me any further insight. I decided that I was going to go into it without reading the last bracket or any reviews so I had no preconceived notions about what the book was or should be. I did know Carry On. I had read and loved Fangirl and I knew that Carry On was an extension of the fanfiction in that novel. I have had a lot of people ask me if I had read Carry On knowing my love of Rowell and Fangirl. The answer was, “no.” Thcarry one fanfic was my least favorite part of the novel. The stuff I had to skim over to get to the story. I had no desire to read 500 pages of that. Then I received my reading assignments . . .

I don’t feel like I can talk about Carry On without mentioning Harry Potter. While I am aware that it is a different story with a different ending, it is clear that Rowell wanted to acknowledge one of the largest fandoms in the world without making direct references (or having to worry about copyright issues) in Fangirl. Simon Snow is Harry Potter. Baz is Draco Malfoy. The first 200 pages of Carry On brings the reader up to speed on what has happened in the past however many books leading up to it. I would repeatedly text the people who had read the story and told me they loved it and ask, “Is this going to get better? Because I want to punch someone or something.” It did get better. After the 200+ pages of backstory and once the second of the two main characters actually shows up, it greatly improves. There is a lot of action. It stops feeling like masked Harry Potter fanfiction and becomes its own story. It’s is action/adventure love story. The ending is a definite twist. Penelope is (of course) a poor man’s Hermione but I’m a sucker for a strong, smart girl who has zero *cares* to give the patriarchy. Agatha made me upset. I think she is supposed to be the Ron-like character but she is weak and whiny. While I didn’t HATE this novel, I didn’t love it either. I know that Rainbow Rowell felt like Simon Snow had a story that she needed to get out of her head and I know a lot of people are happy that she did. If this was the SAT, the correct answer would be:  Carry On is to Harry Potter as 50 Shades of Grey is to Twilight. (But, you know, better written.)

On the other hand (inwalls around us the other bracket?), The Walls Around Us had me from page one. People are calling this novel “Orange is the New Black Swan” which I think is a pretty apt comparison. It is the story of a ballerina, a juvenile detention center and dealing with major traumatic life experiences. The way that Suma weaves all of the character’s stories together is brilliant. She foreshadows events to come in such a way that you just want to keep reading. Once I was halfway through this novel, I was committed. I read until the end. I couldn’t put it down. I was pretty sure that I had figured out the “twist” and I was correct. Then it turned out to not even be the twist. How’s that for brilliant writing? It is unlike anything that I’ve read before.  It is beautiful and haunting. It even touches on bullying without being preachy or sounding like a PSA. If you like contemporary fiction with a touch of mystery and a haunting of ghosts, this is the book for you.

For me, the clear winner is The Walls Around Us. Poor, Rainbow Rowell. She always gets the short end of the stick when it comes to the YASF Tournament of Books. The one person who didn’t like her novel gets it in their bracket and she gets knocked out.


Reviewed by Becca Boland, Hinsdale Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 2: An Ember in the Ashes vs. Saint Anything

In An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Laia and Elias occupyember in the ashes very different places in their militaristic society, but both are equally trapped.  Laia is a slave at an elite military academy where Elias is a student.  Upon Elias’s graduation, when he had planned to escape his life long role as a soldier of the Martial empire, it is determined by fortune telling augurs that he is a candidate to become the new emperor.  This news, unwelcome to the existing imperial family, sets Elias upon a series of dangerous and deadly quests.

Laia’s slave status is hiding the fact that she is also working secretly with the underground resistance of her people, the Scholars, against the Martial empire. In an effort to save her brother, she has agreed to infiltrate the commandant’s household.  The commandant is vicious, bloodthirsty, and Elias’s estranged mother.

The details of this story’s plot, its thrills and intrigues, are not what ultimately make it an amazing read.  What makes this book stand out is the intensity of the emotions and the knife edge of tension that the author maintains without draining the energy of the reader.  One caution offered: due to the degree of violence in the book, both physical and sexual, this is best kept to high school readers.

saint anythingSydney is the younger sister of Peyton, who has always been the star of the family in Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything.  Peyton has landed in jail after a drunk driving accident caused him to paralyze a teen boy.  Even with Peyton in jail, Sydney still feels lost in his shadow.  Her dad continues to ignore the family and her mom obsesses over Peyton’s well being in jail.

Sydney needs a break from all the drama, so she enrolls at a new school – the local public school rather than the private school she had been attending.  Much to her surprise, Sydney manages to make friends and a life at her new school despite her overwhelming guilt over what her brother did.  Saint Anything is a solid realistic fiction offering with genuine feeling and completely plausible characters.  Sydney’s friends – the new and old – are fully realized people in their own right.  The pain that Sydney and her family experience feels true to life.  The only down side to this book is that it feels like I’ve read this story before in other novels.  It’s a good book, but not a unique one.

And the winner is…For its pure emotional power and unique fantasy world, An Ember In the Ashes wins this bracket.


Reviewed by Julia Driscoll, Matteson Area Public Library District

Tournament of Books Round 2: A Court of Thorns and Roses vs. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I first read A Court of Thorns and Roses last year when I received a review copy from the publisher. I immediately loved its rich, nuanced world-building, fiery characters, and dark subplot. Sarah J. Maas is the queen of modern young adult fantasy and court of thorns and rosesI couldn’t wait to reread this beautiful fairy tale. As for Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? My co-worker had been not-so-subtly trying to force me to read it for the better part of six month. I generally ignored her suggestion and when I learned that it was the winner of the previous round, we both found it amusing that the cosmos seemed pre-determined; I would have to read this book.

In A Court of Thorns and Roses, Sarah J. Maas weaves fairy tale retellings with her classic Fae characters. The result is a dark, seductive, creative re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast that will leave you breathless. Feyre has nothing but the charge of providing for her family. Her two sisters and invalid father, she’s responsible for their survival in the harsh human realm. When she mistakenly hunts and kills a Fae disguised as a wolf in the woods, Feyre is bound to repay the debt for the life she ended. Dragged to a magical land that is fraught with treachery and deception, Feyre learns from her captor, Tamlin, and immortal shapeshifter and High Fae, that she will never return to her homeland. Soon, Feyre’s relationship with Tamlin evolves into something neither of them expected. She realizes that her captor is also a captive and that there are forces at work much darker than she could have ever imagined.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a witty contemporary drama about a gay teen handling evolving identities, self-acceptance, and love. When Simon Spier’s emails fall into the wrong hands, he worries that his online friendship with Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised. Funny guy Martin, demands that Simon hook him up with Abby, the cute new girl, or he’ll reveal Simon’s true identity to their entire school. Simon’s life soon gets really complicated when he finds himself pulled out oSimonVS_quote_NEWf his comfort zone and into something entirely new. As his closeness with Blue continues to grow deeper, Simon realizes that he must accept his own story and identity before he’s outed by a class clown.

Despite both books being from two very different YA genres, they both deal with protagonists that must find their way through trying circumstances. Both Simon and Feyre realize their own strength and identities despite outward pressure to fail or reject their true natures. While I am a huge fantasy fan, I was struck with how developed and “real” the characters in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda were. By the end of the novel, you feel as though you are a part of Simon’s life. I loved his obsession with Oreos and Elliott Smith, and that Albertalli alternated chapters with snippets of their emails to each other. The reader can see the connection between both of them so clearly and I soon found myself anxiously awaiting the next email chain. While I felt that the ending was a little too happily-ever-after for me, I believe that it’s important to have positive LGBTQ novels available for teens to read. In the end, Simon realized that his initial apprehension was not about external reactions to his coming out. He knew he would have to handle occasional bullies, and he was secure in the acceptance of friends and family. Simon found that he was his own worst enemy, and his emails with Blue helped him understand that this is who he is. Simon’s story is about accepting and being ok with who you are, and that is a seriously powerful message.


Reviewed by Elise Martinez, Zion-Benton Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 2: Bone Gap vs. The Rest of Us Just Live Here

I was given the task of reviewing two critically acclaimed books for the Tournament this year. Critics, as well as our previous reviewers, have raved over them. Bone Gap was the winner of the distinguished Printz Award. Imagine my distress, when I found, unfortunately, I didn’t exactly love either book.

Bone Gap, is the haunting tale of two brothers, the foreign girl who simultaneously connects them and pulls them further apart, and her mysterious disappbone gapearance. It is a tale of appearances, family, friendship and love – in many forms. Laura Ruby slowly sets up the story of Roza’s disappearance, and takes the time to build the characters. We come to know the quirky characters in this small town. Finn, Sean, Petey and the rest, are fully developed people that almost jump off the page. Roza, the visitor, is a bit more complex. The magical realism devices the author uses, and the interweaving of past and present, make it a bit more difficult to relate to her as a character. The book is beautifully written and explores relationships in a way that feels fresh. While I appreciate the author’s writing style, and I can understand the acclaim that the book received, it left me feeling a bit flat. The slow build-up made it difficult to get into, and the story didn’t stay with me after the last page was turned.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a book that I was hugely excited to read, as I have been a fan of Patrick Ness for years. The concept of this story, which focuses on the blurry secondary characters, is a fantastic one. We can’t all be superheroes, but we can all live heroically. It became clear upon reading this story that much of the set-up is a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Being the superfan that I am, I thought this was ingenious.

Jared from The Rest of Us Just Live Here:

Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but   trying to find a way to be happy anyway.”

rest of us just live hereXander from Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie. To be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary.”

I think most readers can relate to these quotes, and to a further extent, to these characters. We know the kid with anxiety issues. We know the kid who is afraid to admit his crush to a friend. We know the kid with body issues. However, that being said, focusing on the secondary characters can sometimes be a bit, well…boring. That was a bit of a let-down.

While both books were technically flawless, neither book honestly excited me. At the end of the day, The Rest of Us Still Live Here slightly edged out Bone Gap because of the relatability of the characters.

Not an easy choice, but The Rest of Us Still Live Here wins this round.


Reviewed by Rebekah Raleigh, McHenry Public Library District