Tournament of Books Round 2: Walk on Earth a Stranger vs. The Alex Crow

Comparing The Alex Crow and Walk on walk on earth a strangerEarth a Stranger is tricky. One might think comparing two books is like deciding between Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples. In this case, it’s more like comparing apples to celery. Or comparing a goldfish to a shoe. These books are so completely different, a comparison is very, very tricky.

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson is the story of Lee, a 16-year-old girl living in Virginia in 1849. Lee has a gift that comes in very useful in this time and place – she can sense gold. Nuggets buried in dirt, dust in a stream, or even jewelry around someone’s neck, gold takes her breath away and calls to her. Lee and her parents have used this talent wisely. They are no richer nor poorer than anyone else in their small town, and they are a close, happy trio. One day, this all goes wrong. Lee returns home to find her parents murdered and their hidden stash of gold stolen. Disguising herself as a boy, Lee flees to California with her best friend Jefferson, drawn by the recent discovery of gold in the area.

I really enjoyed Walk on Earth a Stranger. Historical fiction is my cup of tea, and this was a well-done story about a time period that doesn’t get much play in YA fiction. The bit of fantasy thrown into the otherwise realistic story is also a fun touch. The only downfall of the story, if there was one, is that it was slightly predictable. It follows the format that so many other novels follow – young orphan gets by with plucky attitude and talents, has a number of minor adventures, and *SPOILER* confronts the bad guy at the end. However, this doesn’t detract from the story in any way. I finished this and felt for sure it was going to be the winner of my two books.

alex crowThe Alex Crow by Andrew Smith doesn’t summarize well. I read the LOC summary and thought “This book sounds like four unrelated stories crammed into one.” Primarily, it is the story of a boy named Ariel, who is the sole survivor of a massacre in his Middle Eastern Village. Ariel is taken from his refugee village and “adopted” by an American army major. He is placed in a small West Virginian town with a family that includes Max, a boy only 16 days older than Ariel. Max’s father works for a research group who is creating all sorts of top-secret devices and incredible projects, including bringing animals like the Polynesian Crow back from extinction. (So what if this de-extinction process has the small side effect of making the animals suicidal?) Mixed in with Ariel’s stories of his present and past are diary entries of an arctic expedition gone wrong and sections about the “melting man,” who is listening to Joseph Stalin talk in his head and is building a giant bomb in his U-haul.

The different stories, as crazy as it sounds, tie together in the end. Smith drops hints as the novel progresses and the reader begins to see how these are all related. Each different story has a clear voice and style so there is no doubt which narrative one is reading and no confusion, which really surprised and pleased me. Even though there are unusual elements to the story, it’s definitely not a fantasy and would fall under the emerging genre of Realistic Fantasy.

I was so sure Walk on Earth a Stranger was my winner, I didn’t start The Alex Crow for a few days. But when I finally did start it, I couldn’t put it down. The Alex Crow is more intricate, more intriguing, and written with more depth and complexity than Walk on Earth a Stranger. These two books have different audiences and will each appeal to teens in a different way. While it’s not really fair to compare these two books (again, like comparing tacos to gingko trees), The Alex Crow is the clear winner for its unique format, clever storyline, and interesting characters. I can’t adequately sell it to you. Just read it.


Reviewed by Gail Guzman, Librarian at Thornton Fractional South High School


Tournament of Books Round 1: Walk on Earth a Stranger vs. The Wrath and the Dawn

Walk on Earth a Stranger is 10% fantasy, 90% walk on earth a strangerhistorical fiction. Leah Westfall lives with her mother and father in 1849 Georgia. The family has a secret that no one else knows: Leah can sense gold. Her talent has kept her family wealthy throughout the years. However, with the announcement of the California Gold Rush, there are people who might kill in order to take control of Leah. After all, she could make anyone rich with her ability to sense gold. Leah finds herself in danger after a tragedy strikes the family. In order to stay safe and protect her secret, she disguises herself as a boy and joins a team of wagons traveling west to California. If you’re looking for a book to take you back to the days of playing the Oregon Trail computer game, Walk on Earth a Stranger will absolutely do the trick.  I was so delighted to read a teen book about a girl traveling across the country to start a new life in the 1800s, aka my favorite period in history. I loved Leah as a character; she was strong, independent, and feisty. I typically don’t finish series but I will definitely continue this trilogy and look forward to spending more time with Leah. This book was an absolute delight to read.

wrath and the dawnThe Wrath and the Dawn is inspired by A Thousand and One Nights. Khalid is the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan. He marries a new bride every day, only to have her strangled to death with a silk cord the very next morning. Shahrzad, a sixteen-year-old girl living under his reign, is devastated when her best friend suffers the same fate as dozens of his other young brides. Shahrzad volunteers to be Khalid’s next bride, determined to survive long enough to murder him. She captures his attention with her storytelling, bravery, and confidence. However, the longer she stays alive, the more she finds herself falling in love with the Caliph, even though her first love, Tariq, is simultaneously attempting to rescue her. I personally do not enjoy fairy tale retellings and love triangles drive me up a wall so this was a tough read for me. However, I have lots of teen patrons who love Cinder, Splintered, Dorothy Must Die, etc. and I know they will adore this book.

This one is a no brainer for me. I loved Walk on Earth a Stranger. I loved it so much that I emailed the entire adult department urging them to read it. I brought it to my Pizza & Pages and TAB meetings and gave mini book talks to the teens. I’m eagerly awaiting the second installment (a rare occasion for me). I hope the next reviewer enjoys Walk on Earth a Stranger as much as I did!


Reviewed by Claire Griebler, Park Ridge Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 1: A Court of Thorns and Roses vs. Black Dove, White Raven

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a dark fantasy woven together with elements from Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin. Feyre, a human, is carried off by a monstrous creature the night after she killed a large wolf in tcourt of thorns and roseshe forest. According to a treaty between faeries and humans, she owes her life to the faeries after having killed one of their own. Her captor, Tamlin, spares her but takes her to live on his estate in the faerie realm of Prythian. Tamlin, a shapeshifter and one of the High Fae, provides Feyre every sort of comfort with the understanding that she will not leave. During her stay, she begins to learn of a blight, a magical sickness, that has infected Prythian lands and weakened the powers of the faerie rulers. As Feyre’s loathing of Tamlin evolves into desire and affection, she becomes determined to help fight against the evilness that threatens Prythian and the mortal lands.

Elizabeth Wein’s historical fiction novel, Black Dove, White Raven, is primarily set in 1930s Ethiopia. Through journal entries, stories, and flight logs, the novel tells the story of Emilia and Teo. Although not related by blood, they grow up as sister and brother as they travel throughout 1920s America with their stunt pilot mothers, the White Raven and the Black Dove. Teo’s mother, Delia, dreams of moving to Ethiopia to raise her son in a land where he will not face discrimination for the color of his skin. After Delia is killed in a plane accident, Emilia’s mother immigrates to Ethiopia with the children. Their peaceful lives on a cooperative coffee farm are interrupted by the threat of an Italian invasion, and Ethiopia, the only African nation to have not been colonized, finds itself at war. Separated, Emilia, Teo, and Momma must each play a role to defend the country they call home and find one another.


A Court of Thorns and Roses is an engaging story, but not without faults. I found the lyrical descriptions of the faerie world to be a bit much at times to the point of distracting me from the plot. I also thought the effects of the magical blight were inconsistent. Even with his limited powers, Tamlin was able to shapeshift, make items appear and disappear at will, and create illusions. However, he could not remove masquerade masks from his face and those of his court (the image of which I found quite amusing and not beautiful and romantic as Mblack dove, white ravenaas probably intended). Finally, as I read, I continually questioned the motivations of the characters and their unnatural actions, particularly Tamlin’s. Why did he spare Feyre’s life and treat her so well when she had killed his friend? Why did he divulge so many private concerns when he barely knew her? Explanations of the characters’ motivations finally made an appearance two-thirds of the way through the book and redeemed my faith in the story.

I had previously read Black Dove, White Raven and was not particularly eager to pick it up again. Although it is well-written and covers a piece of little known history, I did not find it gripping. I typically enjoy historical fiction, but I did not connect with the characters enough to care about them. Also, I did not find any distinction between Emilia’s and Teo’s voices, both of whom take turns narrating the story through their entries and logs.

The two books I read were drastically different, in genre, writing style, tone, and so much more. Although I would say Black Dove, White Raven has a higher literary value than A Court of Thorns and Roses, teens (and I) are more likely to devour a decently-written, yet engaging, story than a well-written one that does not interest the reader. Black Dove, White Raven is not without value, but because A Court of Thorns and Roses is, in my opinion, more appealing, I determine it to be the winner!


Reviewed by Jennie Fidler, Geneva Public Library District

Tournament of Books Round 1: The Hired Girl vs. The Rest of Us Just Live Here

As I read the titles in my bracket I will admit I cringed a bit when I saw The Hired Girl next to my name. I have never been a fan of Laura Amy Schlitz. Do I see the quality of her writing? Yes, totally. Her books just haven’t been for me. Patrick Ness’ books on the other hand have always intrigued me. Could I have been assigned two more different books? Could I guess which book I would pick as the winner before even cracking the cover? Maybe I would receive a pleasant surprise.

With low expectations, I started slogging through The Hired Girl, a story shired girlet in the Eastern US during 1911 introducing readers to, Joan who is all alone, though surrounded by brothers and farm work. A story which somehow touches on fears that many girls (and maybe boys) have, fears of not being good enough or smart enough for society. Somehow (almost against my will), I was hooked! I really wanted to see things worked out for Joan. The Hired Girl is heavy on the religious discussion, and while I know there is a whole spectrum of religious beliefs today I am not sure if most teens will relate to this theme. The story dragged on a bit long and wrapped up too unbelievably neatly for me.

As I started The Rest of Us Just Live Here I was really confused. The chapter headings had nothing to do with what happened in the chapter, but as I continued on I started to realize what a unique way Ness had found to tell a story! As with many of Ness’ books the use of a measured pace to set the scene pays off. Protagonist Mike has a sly, sarcastic sense of humor and will be relatable to a variety of readers. This was a typical sort of teen story, yet so unique. It was the kind of story I needed in high school, but just as with The Hired Girl I’m not sure it will speak to everyone. Then ending here too was a bit unsatisfying.

It was mrest of us just live hereuch harder to pick a winner than I thought it would be, but ultimately I had to go with my gut.


Reviewed by Jessica Parker, Geneva Public Library District

In the Shadow of Blackbirds VS Out of the Easy

Which one will be the winner? Both of these books were stories I had been looking forward to reading. I decided not to read the previous bracket reviews of both and just start with the basic knowledge I had of both stories. So, on with the fun!

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters is set during the influenza outbreak of 1918. Mary Shelley lives in a in the shadow of blackbirdsworld where everyone’s nerves are frayed and on edge. Between not trusting neighbors for fear they could be spies and the flu pandemic that is striking down healthy young men and women, the country is gripped by terror. Mary Shelley is on run to San Diego to live with her aunt after her father was arrested for being a traitor. One solace Mary Shelley has is thinking of her love Stephen, who is off in Europe fighting in the war. Soon word of Stephen’s death reaches her. Voices and mysterious happenings make Mary Shelley believe Stephen is reaching out from beyond the grave to tell her something. Is it real or is it fake? And if it is real—what does he want her to know?

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys is also a historical novel, this time set during 1950 in New Orleans. Josie has essentially raised herself since she was 12. She has a mom, but her mom doesn’t care at all for her. Josie works mornings at a brothel for Willie. Willie might be a madam but she’s also a savvy businesswoman, well-connected in the community, and Josie’s mom’s boss. Josie second job is as a shopgirl at a bookstore. Between these two jobs and taking care of Charlie (the owner of the shop who’s suffering from a brain injury), Josie dreams of a life away from New Orleans and away from the life she associates with her mom. She’s inspired to apply to Smith after meeting an out-of-town Smith student as well as a bookstore customer who mistakes her for a college student. When the customer dies mysteriously, Josie’s world starts to falter as her mother is suspected of murder.

The winner is Out of the Easy. I really enjoyed In the Shadows of Blackbirds’s atmosphere and the contrast between Mary Shelley’s scientific mind and what is happening to her. I felt on edge during the whole story—would anyone survive? However, Out of the Easy captured my heart from the beginning. Josie was an amazing character to spend time with. The people who made up Josie’s world were an eclectic mix and I liked the family that she had found in them. A mix of mystery, coming-of-age, romance, and historical fiction—I felt like I could feel the steamy air of New Orleans around me. The feelings of not fitting in and wanting more are so universal that I found myself hoping that Josie would win out over New Orleans.

Winner: Out of the Easy


Of Boxers, Saints and Dream Thieves

I had the task of deciding between two very different challengers, Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves.  It was hard to compare one to another since Boxers & Saints  are historical fiction graphic novels with a touch of fantasy and The Dream Thieves is a blend of realistic fiction and paranormal fantasy.  (Actually now that I’m reading through this again they’re kind of similar with how pieces of fantasy are intertwined in the story, but I feel it has a much bigger role in The Dream Thieves’  story building)

Boxer & Saints were well-crafted graphic novels, detailing the events of the Boxer Rebellion in China from two boxers and saintsdifferent perspectives.  The choice in topic really made the books stand out because I can’t think of one fictional YA book that focuses on the Boxer Rebellion (not saying that another doesn’t exist).  Plus the graphic novel format makes the topic much more approachable and engaging for some teens.  Along with detailing the two sides of the rebellions, I really liked the personal development of both of the main characters.  Both characters had flaws and difficult decisions to make throughout their journeys and the right answer wasn’t always clear.  Added bits of humor throughout the story help lighten some of tougher issues addressed in the book.  I enjoyed how Gene Luen Yang connected the two stories together by having characters from each book show up in the other story and sometimes even taking a critical role.  Overall, I appreciated the unique views that the two books provided on the Boxer Rebellion and how it deeply divided the Chinese people. While the experiences of the main characters were fantastical at times, both characters had relatable experiences, whether they were the complications of falling in love, family issues or where one’s loyalties lie.

The Dream Thieves is the second installment of a planned four book series by Maggie Stiefvater. If you had a chance to read the first book in the series The Raven Boys, you may have wondered how its storyline would spread out over four books especially since the ending (or what seems like the ending) is revealed at the beginning of the first book. The Dream Thieves makes it clear how this complex and interesting story can develop into a series.  Maggie Stiefvater impressed me by focusing much of this book on the dark and moody Ronan, which was a shift from the character focus in The Raven Boys. In The Dream Thieves, Ronan learns more about his ability to pull actually things from his dreams and he also starts to piece together secrets from his past. At the same time Adam is still trying to figure out his place in the world. Blue is struggling with her relationship with Adam and her visions of Gansey, and Gansey is still in search of a dead king, Glendower.  The story is told through alternating viewpoints, each is well developed. The characters are very deep, and more layers are revealed as you progress through the book, even with secondary characters.   Written beautifully with enchanting descriptions of dream worlds and reality The Dream Thieves keeps you transfixed and leaves you gleefully awaiting the next book in the series.

After much internal debate, I decided the The Dream Thieves is the winner.  The excellent writing and spellbinding story kept me turning the pages to the end.  It was one of those books that you’re sad to finish because you know you’ll have to go back to reading just- okay books for a while.

Winner: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

dream thieves

Just One Day vs. Rose Under Fire

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Just-One-Day-cover-682x1024This story takes place in a world that might be a stretch for some readers; it begins with a main character meeting a guy at a Shakespeare play and deciding to throw all caution to the wind in the name of adventure. No, that’s not the entire plot…that’s just the first day. Allyson Healy lives a life of order and obedience up until that point, complete with a life that’s been mapped out based on a decision she made in middle school. Her parents are loving but controlling, and she never knew she craved freedom from those things until she had the chance to run. The allure of Paris and a beautiful person named Willem draw her temporarily away. After Allyson returns home, she tries to adapt back to her old life sans adventure. Allyson starts college and her relationships in life begin to change while she feels more stuck than ever. Slowly, she begins to figure out that in order to move forward with her life that she’s got to make changes by going backward a bit.

Yes, this book sounds as though it’s got lots of room for fluffy teen-angst moments. But, it’s completely the opposite. Forman has crafted a story that will resonate with your teen readers and adults alike. Forman’s writing style makes you overlook any unbelievable parts in the plot. The reader isn’t being told the story of a sad kid; rather, readers are living the doubts, fears and questions that come along with being eighteen, and actually becoming a functioning adult. The reader can feel the new friendships forming and taste the sense of living on the cusp of teenage child and young adult. Forman’s descriptions of Allyson’s European destinations and travels paint a scene that will make you yearn to visit these sites again and again—with or without Willem at your side. For this reader, the story definitely began as one thing and turned out as another—from finding love to learning how to love yourself in the process.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

17262236You know Elizabeth Wein’s voice from last year’s Printz honor title, Code Name Verity. This book is not a sequel; it is a companion title. The story is told in a similar writing style through Rose’s journal. We’re still experiencing the life of a female ATA pilot in Rose Justice and her compatriots. Rose takes some risks result in time as a political prisoner in Ravensbruck concentration camp in Nazi Germany. There, the descriptive nature of Wein’s writing kicks in. Wein definitely has a way with scenery. Akin to Forman, Wein’s writing style creates images that are powerful and meaningful to the reader—it is impossible to be unmoved by the themes in this book. The stories of the individual women that Rose meets while in the concentration camp are the biggest draw for the reader; this diverse group of women (even some who were defined as Rabbits by the Nazis and used as human experiment subjects) provide a face and a personality to those forced to endure such atrocity.

While I found value in reading Wein’s title, and I truly believe that this story is a win for fans of historical fiction, I didn’t find myself engrossed in the actual plot. And, I should have been, as Wein had a plethora of elements in her favor. The idea is fascinating, and kudos to Wein on using real historical figures to base her characters upon. The setting is one that, at the mere mention of the word Holocaust, evokes a powerful emotion. Wein had all of the elements of a winner here, but all of them just didn’t mix well for me. The journal writing style is not my favorite to read (I got through it with Verity only because I listened to it on audio). The story was interspersed with Rose’s poetry, too, which added another disruption to the flow. I can say that I was definitely connected to the emotion and the pain of the women (and Rose’s, too) in the story, I don’t know that I ever felt connected to Rose herself. She didn’t express the depth that would have moved me to call this book a complete win.

So, I’m calling Forman’s emotional connection the winning element. I think if Wein could have brought this to the table, things might have been different, but for now, I’m travelling with Allyson.

WINNER: Just One Day by Gayle Forman