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 4: Dumplin’ vs. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Of course my bracket came down to 2 of my favorite SimonVS_quote_NEWbooks of 2015! I am a huge fan of the sass of Willowdean in Dumplin’ and well, I am a super fan of all things Simon (Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda).

Body image and coming out are two hot topics with many teens and so we see this topic coming up more frequently in YA Lit. I think both of these books made it this far in the tournament because they took real issues and moments in the lives of teens and made them feel relatable.

Body image in YA when it’s done right is a great thing. I loved that Willowdean embodied the strength and confidence that you see in many big ladies but is something that doesn’t get shown a lot. While I loved Willowdean’s confidence, I also loved that her skinny friend had to tell her that body image issues aren’t exclusive to those who are overweight. The characters felt real and it felt so good to read a story that didn’t end with a fat girl finding redemption by losing weight.

While I can’t relate to Simon the way I can relate to Willowdean, his story is also felt really real to me.  Well first off, Simon has real, normal parents. They are embarrassing in the way parents are when you are a teen, they sometimes say the wrong things as parents do, and they love him the way parents are supposed to love their kids. His friends are different and have normal teen drama and are still awesome most of the time. And social media causes extreme havoc on his life, as we witness in our teen spaces every day.

In the end, it’s hard to pick a favorite but Dumplin’ dumplingets my pick this round. I loved the characters in both books but in the end, Willowdean’s sass is hard to forget.


Reviewed by Denise Hudec, Skokie Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 3: Zeroes vs. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

In the matchup between Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld et al, I immediately “zeroed” in on the theme of difference that flows through both books. Both feature characters struggling to appearzeroes “normal,” and differences are something to hide or at least keep to yourself until you’re ready to reveal them on your own terms. When the characters in both books fully embrace their own differences, they triumph.

While sexual identity and superpowers set the protagonists in each story apart from their peers, race does not. Both books feature diverse characters with back stories that show ways that cultures are part of identities. The variety of characters in Zeroes (including an ultra-rich Latino boy, a second generation Nigerian-American girl, and a blind white girl) comes across as very intentional. However, it’s hard to imagine that the teens would ever hang out if their powers hadn’t brought them together – they live very different lives from each other.

Meanwhile, the friendships in Simon’s high school feel natural, being formed around classes and shared interests like drama and soccer. Whiteness is not assumed but rather described, in the same vein that being straight is rejected as the “default” way to be. I particularly appreciate this exchange:

“Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garrett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”
“If you say so.”
“And Nick’s are from Israel.”
“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”
So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.
“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know . . .” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.
“West African. I think.”
“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”
“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.
And fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.

SimonVS_quote_NEWSimon and the people in his world are well developed and complex; even the ostensible villain is never just a jerk. Simon’s family is warm and solid, and his teachers have inner lives. The voices in the book’s email correspondence sound distinct from each other, and the dialog is generally a joy to read.

Oddly, the voices in Zeroes all sound alike to me, despite that fact that each character was penned by one of the three authors. The teens each have a power and an agenda, but their stories could be richer in emotional detail. And most of the adults in the book are flat caricatures.

Although I’ve loved almost all of Westerfeld’s previous books, and I’ll keep reading the sequels to Zeroes, I’m super excited to read whatever Becky Albertalli writes next. Simon wins the day!


Reviewed by Rachael Bild, Oak Park Public Library

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 Step Toward Falling vs. More Happy Than Not

Ok, so . . . both these books kinda made me want to hurt myself. . . In a good way? A bit. A bit.

I mean, there are fun books that aren’t very well written, and themore happy than notn there are works of great literary merit that just aren’t all that fun. More Happy Than Not was most definitely one of the later persuasion. Poetic. Artistic. Insightful. Honest and . . . yes even poignant. I will use that word in this case. Poignant. I hate that word, and am using it anyway. But was it diverting? Uplifting? Did it give me hope? Oh, hells to the no!

Young man’s life is hard. He just lost his somewhat abusive father to suicide, and tried to take his own life soon after. His home life is brittle, and his friends are emotionally remote. He uses his girlfriend as a kind of life raft to keep himself afloat, piling the conditions for his happiness upon their relationship as only a teenager can do (unfair generalization, yeah). But this is part of what kept me reading it. Silvera’s characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. They’re fully developed and interesting. Conversation feels real, whether it’s the stilted mini-machismo boy-talk of main character Aaron and his friends, or the bipolar teen romance. It smacks of real. It made me remember that time of my life. How you could feel so gut wrenchingly in love/lust, and so insecure. So changeable without being shallow, or flaky. It’s just that things happen so quickly; feelings develop so fast. I thought, and I heard some teen readers comment as well, that the “twist” to the story was somewhat predictable, seeing as the one sci-fi-esque element of the story – the Leteo Institute and their memory suppression procedure – stood out as only a sore-thumb plot device can do. But Aaron’s slow grapple with his sexuality was honest, and relatable, and painful to watch. His arrival at the end of the book, damaged – his realizations, his acceptance . . . are beautiful, but bleak.
The world is bathed in tears for Pete’s sake. Ultimately, More Happy Than Not is beautifully written, and I’m glad I read it, but I never want to see it again. I will avert my eyes whene’er I pass it on the shelf, and will recommend it to readers with alacrity, but will make them go pull it from the stacks for themselves.

By the time I was a quarter way through the other book, A Step Towards Falling, I knew this one was gonna get my vote. So yeah, it still made me want to hurt myself a little bit (maybe I should stop saying thastep toward fallingt), but this particular flavor of heartache wasn’t as desolate. Emily, like Aaron from MHTN, has begun to define herself by her self-loathing. Hers is born from her inability to say or do anything to stop a girl with developmental disabilities from getting raped at a high school football game. She froze, and all of the idealistic notions of social responsibility and awareness that she had been championing through her extracurricular activities were trumped by one moment of apparent cowardice. Or, so she feels. But she is eventually able to take the guilt and shame, and do something constructive with it. This is an overly simplistic description of her journey, but there’s just not enough room here, right? What really should be said is that this wasn’t just a cop-out, quick and easy, “oh, they’re real people too” kinda story. The petty meanness that people can exhibit towards the developmentally challenged is certainly a character in the book, but the focus isn’t on moralizing here. The story follows Emily, and Belinda, the victim of the attack, and their “journeys of self-discovery” – ick, I can’t believe I just used that phrase, but it’s the quickest way to summarize . . . sigh sigh. They don’t linger overlong on differences between “regular” and “other”. It’s not all that important, really. Both Emily and Belinda are teenage girls dealing with teenage girl stuff. Belinda’s life perspective is different than Emily’s, of course, but it is matter-of-fact. There are no caricatures here, and this is refreshing. There aren’t a lot of titles that give a voice to teens with developmental disabilities, much less do it in such a compelling manner.

To conclude . . . Both books were beautiful in concept and execution, but my vote will ultimately be dictated by enjoyment factor. I don’t particularly enjoy standing on the precipice of despair, screaming “NOOOO” at the cover of a YA book, while crying into my Rice Krispies. The feeeels were of a healthier variety in A Step Towards Falling.
A Step Towards Falling gets the win.


Reviewed by Micah Rademacher, Blue Island Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 1: All the Bright Places vs. Everything Everything

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a book I wanted to like but I ended up hating. I read a finished copy which I checked out from the library. It takes place in the dual perspective of Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. They go to the same school, but have always led separate lives until they meet on top of the sixth floor of t

heir school, where they both were thinking about killing themselves. Finch talked Violet down from jumping off the roof.

Theodore who is known as Finch is the unpopular boy whoall the bright places causes problems in school. Finch and Violet are both going to counseling, but it seems that it is not helping them at all. Finch had lied constantly to his teachers and counselors to make them believe his father is dead. He lives with his mom and two sisters and has visitation with his much alive father once a week.

Violet was the outgoing cheerleader who loved writing until she was in a car accident where who older sister, Eleanor, died. Violet has refused to ride in a car since the accident and stopped writing her blog, which she shared with her sister.

Both characters become closer when Finch starts watching Violet and volunteers them to work on a class project together that involves going around the state and see different unique locations. They fall in love and bond over their problems.

Thoughts: This is a book that is one of the worst depictions of mental illness I have ever read. The mental illness is mostly brushed aside or romanticized. The talk of suicide throughout the whole novel was basically presented in unique facts. It seemed like the characters where supposed to be fun and quirky, but they just fell flat. The parents in this book were just in the background not doing anything. I do not believe any of the situations with Finch’s parents could have actually happened. The parents were so unrealistic it was just shocking. Everyone is ignoring the teens’ problems. There is no reasonable explanation why Finch was not kicked out of school for throwing a desk at a chalkboard and furthermore that his mother was never brought in to school. I felt like it wanted to be like The Fault in Our Stars but the book was so poorly done it was shocking. Mental Illness is not a quirky indie movie.

Everything, Eveeverything everythingrything by Nicola Yoon was read in an advanced reader’s copy that I got a ALA Midwinter in 2015. Madeline Whitter is a teenage girl who has been stuck in her house, because she has a life threatening allergy to basically everything. She lives with her protective mother who is a doctor and is visited by her nurse, Carla, who is like second mother.

Madeline’s life changes completely when Olly moves next door. Madeline starts to explore the world outside her house. She starts to dream of doing new things and going new places. She begins to watch Olly and everything he does and feels a connection to him. He shows her his email address with a dry erase marker and begins talking.

Olly works out a way to come visit Madeline by going through decontamination with Carla’s help. Their friendship deepens into something more.

Madeline’s mother finds out about the visits and fires Carla and grounds Madeline. Madeline loses all contact with the outside world and becomes depressed. Madeline comes up with an idea to runaway with Olly and go on a trip that might kill her, but she feels it is worth the risk to live her life. She convinces Olly that she found a miracle cure.


The ending of this book is troublesome. It turns out Madeline is not even sick and her mother invented the illness and Madeline’s whole life is a lie. I felt this ending was a little too easy, but at least it does not magically solve all the problems of the book. Madeline still lives with her mother and has to deal with the past.  Even with it’s flaws Everything, Everything is the clear winner.



Reviewed by Cindy Shutts, White Oak Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 1: Court of Fives vs. An Ember in the Ashes

In Court of Fives by Kate Elliot, Jessamy wants nothing more than to participate in the Game of Fives which includes rigorous obstacle courses. Some of the paths can be deadly if you don’t make sure you have your footing right. Much to her dismay, there is no way that her father would ever let her participate in the trials but Jessamy has no intention of following his orders.
court of fives
On the day Jessamy is to participate, her father comes home from war as a hero and she is torn between trying to be the dutiful daughter or following her heart and participating in the Fives. What happens next is a complete undoing of the world she has come to know. Not only will she meet someone during the game who will play an intricate role in her future, but her whole family will be torn apart all to serve another man’s greed for power.

This book has a older world feel to it that would perhaps be best compared to early Paris or Rome. Wars constant and men are judged by their valor and how many sons they have. There is also a very firm hierarchy of classes and a firm belief in folklore which is passed down through the generations. The book is a page-turner but there are times when the story slows down or goes too much into the historical that I did feel a little disinterested though these were few and far between. Overall I would say this is a book I would recommend to fans of dystopian or historical fiction of this time period.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir contains a world that works like a Roman Empire which is filled with nothing but danger for all. Two individuals from opposite worlds, but share a common view for their own future, just might have the courage to break the bonds that chain them.

ember in the ashes
Laia is a Scholar slave, the lowest of the low in the ranks of the Martial Empire is fighting to find her brother and break him out of prison. Elias is a Mask, a warrior who has known nothing other than fighting and training as an empire soldier since age six. Two completely different lives yet the both only long for freedom from this world which is filled with violence and uncertainty. Both live in fear and both want to change the world. Elias wants people treated equal but lives in fear that he will be discovered deserting and will be killed. Laia just wants to survive her time as a servant under the watchful and terrifying eye of the Commander. Death is a possibility for her every day and the Commander is merciless. Yet Laia tries to get information to the Resistance in order to gain her brother’s freedom.
But when Laia and Elias meet, worlds collide. Both are guarded against each other yet are yearning to find out more about the other. Especially when they discover they have the same views. But to let people know they know each other is almost certain death and they both have something much bigger to survive.
This is an edge of your seat book in a world determined to crush all those who don’t follow the rules. You will be amazed at Laia and Elias’s will to survive and the trials they will overcome. The world and the characters are realistic and moving. Not a book to be overlooked and an amazing production for a debut author.


Reviewed by Shelley Daugherty, Library Media Specialist at Richwoods High School, Peoria, IL