Tournament of Books Round 1: The Walls Around Us vs. Calvin

Okay. For round one, I read Calvin by Martine Leavitt and The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Having never read anything by these authors before, I felt ecstatic going into this round. The only preconceived notions I could form about either book was what their dust jacket divulged. And I’ll be honest. I started reading with a huge bias towards Calvin.

Calvin is about a high sccalvinhool boy named Calvin whose sleeping schizophrenia has awakened. As Calvin is lying in bed, procrastinating and worrying about not graduating, he hears the voice of Hobbes the tiger from the classic comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes! Calvin blames this on his imagination, but the next day when Hobbes refuses to leave, and a doctor diagnosis him after an episode in school, Calvin decides this is real and medication cannot help him. You see, Calvin was born on the day that the last Calvin & Hobbes strip was published, toted around a stuffed tiger called Hobbes as a kid, and even has a best friend named Susie. This strong universal tie between Calvin and the comic’s creator Bill Watterson leaves Calvin with one conclusion: to rid himself of his Hobbes delusion, he must get Watterson to write one last strip with Calvin sane and free of imaginary Hobbes. As a grand gesture, Calvin embarks on a quest across a frozen great lake, with Susie, to meet Watterson, retrieve the strip, and regain his sanity.

The Walls Around Us is the story of a dark secret, its unraveling, and sweet justice needing to be served. The story is told by two different characters. Amber is a teen locked away in Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for a violent crime. Violet is an aspiring ballerina poised to start Julliard. Then there is Ori, who we never hear from directly, but who we learn about from the stories being told by Amber and Violet. Ori is really at the center of this book, even if her point of view is non-existent. But how are these worlds connected? Simple. Violet’s friend Ori was convicted of murdering Violet’s bullies and then sent to Aurora Hills where she met Amber. Now here’s where it gets tricky. The time lines for Violet and Amber are not the same, and Ori is dead, so a supernatural element begins to unfurl to further bridge the gap between the worlds of Violet and Amber. In the midst of characters sharing more of themselves with us (this book is driven more by character study than plot), and delving into the truth behind Ori’s imprisonment and death, Violet decides to visit Aurora Hills years after Ori’s death. Everything then collides for an explosive ending.

Both of these novels were good. No question. But both had their flaws. To begin, Calvin had an immediately engaging premise, humor throughout, a quirky setting, a good theme of friendship, and a QUEST! The structure of the book aided with establishing Hobbes as his own character, making the delusion real for readers (dialogue is displayed in script format). But that’s where it ended for me. The story always felt like it was lacking. We are given these insightful, philosophical monologues/dialogues about life and the brain, but I felt that they were more of a blatant attempt to create the “deep, precocious, old-soul” archetype than anything else (which, frankly, I’m bwalls around usored with). Hobbes could have been so much more of a force, but ultimately amounted to no more than a jester. And yeah, the ending is supposed to be symbolic of Calvin saying goodbye to Hobbes and him owning his mental illness, yet I could not shake that Calvin was mostly moving forward because of his extreme guilt he felt for nearly killing Susie on the frozen lake and for his love of her.   Which left me feeling unsatisfied with the ending. Did Calvin learn anything? It also is bizarre that such a self-aware, precocious teen is primarily taking his meds and going to school because his girlfriend Susie makes him and not because of an epiphany of self-realization. Ultimately, this was a good read, but very disappointing.

However, The Walls Around Us truly surprised me. The dust jacket left me flabbergasted over what the novel was even about. I couldn’t help but think this was going to be a Black Swan wannabe. But I was captivated by Suma’s beautiful writing, the themes of friendship/justice/appearances, the unflinching look at the damaging effects of bullying, the book’s originality, and Suma’s mastery of creating atmosphere. I will admit, while reading and piecing together the story, I was initially annoyed by the presence of the supernatural element—it appears tossed in for effect, with no purpose, until you get to the last few chapters. Also, Violet’s cold, privileged demeanor was hard to stomach. Necessary, but sometimes hard to read because the whole time I kept wondering why someone as kind and good as Ori would waste her time with someone like Violet. Furthermore, while I love how the loose bits and elements tied together in the end, I did not like the very last chapter and the “twist” ending. The author simply pushed my suspension of disbelief too far; I refuse to believe that ghosts tied to a very specific moment in time and place can have such overreaching powers to make that ending possible. Overall, this is a slow-burner of a novel with a fast-paced, huge ending that unites all of these elements you might have been questioning during the course of reading.

The winner? The Walls Around Us for its originality, beautiful writing, and unwillingness to avoid the dark.


Reviewed by Lisa Schemensky, Alpha Park Public Library


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

Round one: The Young Elites vs. We Were Liars — Two Tales of Power and Falsehood

In this corner: Marie Lu’s The Young Elites, a paranormal adventure detailing the rise of Adelina Amouteru. Adelina survived a deadly illness that left her with strange markings, supernatural powers, and societal scorn. After leaving her cruel father in the dust, she joins the secret society of the Young Elites and begins to develop her ability to create illusions — an ability strengthened byyoung elites fear and fury.

And in this corner: E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, a realistic mystery in which Cadence Sinclair Easton struggles to piece together what happened during her fifteenth summer. During summers spent on her family’s private island off the coast of Massachusetts, Cadence and her cousins and their dear friend have been inseparable. Now, Cadence suffers from amnesia and migraines after a mysterious accident and struggles to understand the changes around her.

The title of each book could almost describe the other. Two different visions of privilege play out, with We Were Liars centering on old money as a source of power and The Young Elites on unnatural abilities. Both books place our protagonists in tiny and select groups. Adelina’s lies rival those of Cadence — she doesn’t just lie to everyone around her, she creates illusions that twist their very perceptions of what is real. Meanwhile, Cadence is a highly unreliable narrator who has covered over unpleasant events in the past with such skill that she literally can’t remember them. When I set out to compare these titles, I wasn’t sure I could juxtapose such vastly different genres. But once I started, I found parallels everywhere I looked.

Our protagonists have strong and complex ties to difficult relatives. Although the Sinclairs are far more affectionate than the Amouterus, a quest for powwe were liarser drives a wedge between generations and spurs destructive behavior in both families. Cadence’s mother and her two sisters vie for their father’s love and money. In sharp contrast, Cadence loves her cousins and friend with abandon. Adelina’s father abuses her and eventually drives her to lash out at him, while her feelings toward her sister swing between love, hate, jealousy, and protectiveness. Both young women feel incredibly lonely, and indeed they are alone even when they’re surrounded by people who want to include them.

Adelina and Cadence have deep literal and psychological wounds and are haunted by ghosts of the past. They make bad decisions, and bad things happen to those they love. As I read The Young Elites, which drips with descriptions of Adelina’s dark and difficult character, I wondered how she would redeem herself. When I finished We Were Liars, I wondered if redemption was possible.

In the end, the biggest difference lies in the writing style. Lyrical and lovely, We Were Liars includes lines like, “There is not even a Scrabble word for how bad I feel.” Adelina’s emotions may be complex, but their expression generally isn’t: “I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside. It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.” I predict that Lu’s book will make more money than Lockhart’s, especially if the rest of the series lives up to the intriguing characters and plot introduced in the first book. But Lockhart’s novel still haunts me months after I initially read it.

Winner: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Round one: Glory O’ Brien’s History of the Future VS Grasshopper Jungle AKA Chronicles of the Apocalypse

In Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King, Glory O’Brien has no future. Despite her impending high school graduation, and her talent as a reflective and creative photographer, Glory has applied to no colleges and made no plans. Glory has become paralyzed by the fear of becoming her mother, Darla. Darla O’Brien, also a smart, funny, creative young woman and a gifted photographer, committed suicide when Glory was four years old. Glory’s father never recovered, giving up on his own career as a painter and eating himself to 400 pounds; he has stopped truly living. Glory has a “best friend,” Ellie, who is a friend only by default of proximity. Though Ellie brags about one day running away from her family’s controlling hippie commune, she too has no future plans.Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

When Glory and Ellie drink the desiccated remains of a bat, the two girls can suddenly see the past and future of each person they meet. And Glory sees horrific things. Everyone’s future culminates in a second Civil War, the history of which Glory begins to write down. She seeks out new people to piece together the story of this future she uncovers, and in doing so discovers her own past, present, and future. She gains the courage to ask questions about her mom, sets healthier boundaries with the parasitic Ellie, and reconnects with her dad. Readers watch a frightened teen become a compassionate, courageous young adult who not only turns away from numb despair toward hope, but helps others do the same. Despite the dark future Glory sees, knowledge that she will play a role in the future empowers her. She has the power to build her own future and begins to do just that.

A more visceral apocalyptic tale, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is quite literally a story of piss, shit, blood, and semen – the very stuff of life. The dust jacket promises catastrophic action, with 6-foot, man-eating praying mantises, yet these monsters don’t appear till almost 150 pages into the story. And while they do provide pretty provocative action, they are but a metaphorical and atmospheric backdrop for Austin Sczerba’s quest for truth. Austin is chronicling the history of the end of the world as these giant bugs take over. And much like the giant bugs, EVERYTHING in the history of the end of the world makes Austin horny – most of all his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend Robby. They are both in love with him, and he with them.  Austin can’t decide between the two people he loves more than anything in the world and he smashes both their hearts trying not to decide between them. But this is not the real crux of the story either.

As Austin tells his Grasshopper Junglepersonal history of the end of the world, he recounts the history of his Polish immigrant ancestors (and their glamorous urinals), vagrants, cooks, neighbors (and their testicles), friends, strangers, politicians (and their testicles), teachers, Saint Casimir, a mad scientist (and his semen), cave painters, and humanity itself. In the larger narrative created, we are a bunch of messy animals, trying and failing miserably to prevent the repetition of our own mistakes. And the inevitability of it is gut wrenching, terrifying, and tragic. The bugs, Austin, his friends, and family become a metaphor for all of humanity desperately chronicling their terrible mistakes in an effort to create some tiny change in human history. It’s funny and clever, crude and uncomfortable, raw and poignant, and absolutely heartbreaking. This is a story, like all of Andrew Smith’s, that will stay with me.

These were excellent books to juxtapose – both about teens finding themselves amidst tragedy, the unraveling of civilizations, and the connectedness of past, present, and future. But the history chronicled by Glory O’Brien pales in comparison to that written by Austin Sczerba. Glory’s magical visions of the future are almost unnecessary to the novel. They are emotionally distant, lifeless, lacking detail. But her story is more accessible than Grasshopper Jungle. I will be book-talking Glory’s story to my students, not Austin’s. Yet Grasshopper Jungle wins this competition, hands down. Austin’s history of apocalypse is acerbic, poetically profane, and epic in scope. The many layered meanings of Austin’s story, while creating a rich and complex picture of the human condition, do make it impenetrable to an inexperienced teen reader. This book requires a special student – one with advanced reading skills but also liberal appreciation of scatological and sexual references. For that reader, however, this book will dig inside and crack them open like the giant bugs of MI Plague Strain 412E.

P.S. I’m glad that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Shaun of the Dead) has signed on to direct the movie version of Grasshopper Jungle. If anyone can do this book justice, it’s the creator of The World’s End.

Winner: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith


Charm & Strange VS The Dream Thieves: the inner lives of boarding school boys

17347389charm and strange

The two challengers that I was up against were The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater and Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn.

The Dream Thieves is the second book in Stiefvater’s Raven cycle. It follows the continuing adventures of Blue, who has joined up with a cohort of private school boys in order to revive a long dead Welsh king who they believe is buried in Virginia. This work delves deeper into the backstory of the violent and mercurial Ronan, and also introduces us to the mysterious Grey Man.

Stiefvater’s characters are always witty and fun to read, the various relationships are lovingly built up, and the last five chapters of The Dream Thieves had my eyes glued to its pages, but the beginning of the book was so odd and disjointed, that I had a less than immersive reading experience (it took me far too long to finish).

Full disclosure: the book may have also been put at a disadvantage in this challenge because I had not read the first novel in the series and reading the two back to back was jarring. After the adrenalin laced magic and wonder of the end of The Raven Boys my attachment to the characters was diminished by Stiefvater’s return to her first love, character development. The endings of both of Stiefvater’s books are spectacular, so much so that I am almost able to forgive each books’ interminable beginning… but not quite enough to let it win this round.

Charm & Strange is a wonderful book, but also problematic to review. I actually have a great deal to say about the work, but it is one of those books where the impact will be diminished if too much is revealed in advance. For librarians, however, I will caution that the cover image and intentionally vague synopsis may lead you to inaccurately categorize the work and I would warn against recommending this book to teens until after you have read it (and I personally will stick with pitching it to older teen/adult audiences).

This brilliant first work delves deeply in to one young man’s story, told in alternating chapters. Present day Win is living at a boarding school in Vermont, exerting control anyway he can, mostly by isolating himself and starving his body. In contrast we also get a series of flashbacks that show the same character as a young boy, Drew, lashing out in rage at himself and everyone around him. The more you learn about his past and present the more you want to immerse yourself into his life, and Kuehn masterfully builds the pace in both time frames to a heart shattering climax (that may or may not have left me in tears). She never loses focus and never backs off, which makes for an extremely intense reading experience.

Both of these books have strong and compelling endings and each author graced their characters with rich and complicated lives, but the clear winner for me was Charm & Strange for doing such a wonderful job of exploring deeply disturbing real world issues in a unique way.

Winner: Charm & Strange

charm and strange

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

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