Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone

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Adeyemi, Tomi. Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

If you’re at all active in the Young Adult book community, you’ve likely heard the buzz surrounding Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel Children of Blood and Bone. Some of this buzz surrounds Adeyemi herself—a Nigerian-American Harvard grad who landed a movie deal for her forthcoming series. When my copy arrived in the mail, I was anxious to read and evaluate the novel.

In Zelie’s world, citizens were once divided into two factions: those who wielded magic (known as maji or diviners) and those who did not. Zelie’s mother was a powerful maji who could command spirit armies to do her bidding; however, she is eventually killed in a maji raid orchestrated by the cruel King Saran. With magic eradicated and Zelie’s mother only a memory, Zelie’s days are spent with her broken father and older brother, Tzain. The family catches and sells fish to survive.

While in the marketplace peddling her fish, Zelie is accosted by a panicked stranger. This stranger is fleeing from the king’s guards, and she’s adman ant on needing Zelie’s assistance. Later, the identity of the stranger is revealed—she is Princess Amari, the daughter of King Saran. She doesn’t share her father’s views on magic, though, and in fact claims to know a way to return magic to the kingdom. Can Zelie trust Amari? Will the magic that existed in Zelie’s childhood ever return?

Adeyemi’s world is carefully crafted and intricate; there’s truly no facet she hasn’t thought out. Even the animals are reimagined and renamed as hybrids—lionnaires, for example. I also loved that the female characters in Children of Blood and Bone are multifaceted. Zelie is tough and guarded but quickly falls in love; Amari is fearful and delicate but can act with violence when necessary. The book’s ending, too, is a true cliffhanger and made me eagerly anticipate the next book in the series.

I sometimes felt that Zelie and Inan’s relationship moved unrealistically fast. Like other large fantasy novels, keeping up with the many names, locations, special powers, particular deities, etc. grew to be a bit of a challenge.

Despite its length, Children of Blood and Bone is extremely teachable, particularly because of Adeyemi’s author note at the book’s end. She reveals that the book was inspired by sad instances of police brutality, and that various heart wrenching losses in the book mirror actual losses in the real world. Children of Blood and Bone, then, would be the perfect book for a unit on allegory or text-to-self and text-to-world connections.

Book Review: Juliet Immortal

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Jay, Stacey. Juliet Immortal: A Novel. Ember, 2012.

Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is the most fun I have during the school year.

I love assigning roles to my students, having them act out the various fight scenes with foam swords, and helping them uncover all of the hidden meanings and double entendres found within the text. I’m a sucker for any Romeo & Juliet retelling—from West Side Story to the children’s cartoon Gnomeo & Juliet. I was powerless, then, to the novel Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay.

In Juliet Immortal, Shakespeare’s play is not fiction, but a romanticized and warped retelling of actual events. Romeo and Juliet did fall in love in Verona and marry impulsively; however, Romeo killed Juliet as she awaited him in the tomb in order to gain immortality. Juliet’s spirit goes to work for the Ambassadors of Light, inhabiting the souls of others across centuries and bringing soulmates together. Romeo works for the Mercenaries, dark spirits who try to convince soulmates to kill one another in exchange for the same immortality.

Juliet has awakened in the body of Ariel, a teenager of the 21st century with physical and emotional scars. Via glowing auras, Juliet realizes that she is to bring together her best friend Gemma and a haunted boy named Ben. But Juliet’s own feelings for Ben threaten to derail her mission and the rules of the spirit world. Romeo, too, has returned to the same era, inhabiting the body of Dylan, one of Ariel’s schoolmates. Who will win this struggle of good versus evil—Romeo or Juliet? Will Juliet ignore her feelings for Ben and complete her mission? Are the goals of the Ambassadors of Light and the Mercenaries as clear as they seem?

The premise of Juliet Immortal is an intriguing one as Romeo, the Nurse, and various Ambassadors and Mercenaries can inhabit any body of their choosing. Anyone in Juliet’s new world, then, could quickly turn into an enemy. The suspense is palpable, and many of the fight scenes and moments of violence felt appropriately climatic.

To my disappointment, Juliet Immortal did not satisfactorily mirror its source material. As readers of Romeo & Juliet know, the Nurse is a lively character in the play—raunchy, dimwitted, and incredibly funny. The Nurse in Jay’s novel is an extremely flat, almost robotic character, and I would have loved to see some of her traits from the play carry over. And while Juliet’s immaturity and impulsiveness result in her death in both the play and the novel, she doesn’t appear to have learned her lesson in Juliet Immortal. Her feelings for Ben bloom as quickly as her feelings for Romeo, and some of Ben and Juliet’s proclamations of love were much too corny.

I’m not certain that Juliet Immortal would be an appropriate book to read with a class in its entirety. The violence in the text is graphic and disturbing. Still, Jay’s book would be suitable for a classroom library, and a great recommendation for a mature student who is hesitant to leave the famous star-crossed lovers behind.

Book Review: The Hazel Wood

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Albert, Melissa. The Hazel Wood. Flat Iron Books, 2018.

Note: This is a review of an advanced reading copy.

I was fortunate to receive an ARC of Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood. I’ve received other books in the past; however, upon opening the package, I knew Albert’s novel was unique. The cover was beautiful, embossed with silver and gold images of daggers and castles and birdcages. It was covered with blurbs of praise from authors such as Stephanie Garber and Kristin Cashore. And now, having read the novel, I can say with certainty that “unique” was an understatement. The Hazel Wood will be a sensation very soon, and with good reason.

At only seventeen, Alice has lived the chaotic life of a wanderer. She and her mother have never settled in one place, moving from one state to the next. Once in a new home, they relax briefly before being plagued by bad luck and moving again. In fact, Alice’s earliest memories consist of long stretches of highway and the books she read during her travels. There is another memory, too: the time she was kidnapped by a redheaded man who promised to deliver her to her grandmother. The man did not harm her, and she was soon rescued and returned to her mother; however, the incident spurred an obsession in young Alice. Her grandmother, Althea Proserpine, is an author who wrote a single book: Tales from the Hinterland, a collection of dark fairy tales. Although it was a hit, very few copies of the book still exist. Those who have read the book are secretive and fanatical about what lies within. Alice has never met her grandmother; her mother avoids the subject altogether, forbidding Alice to research the topic further.

The bad luck that once followed Alice and her mother seems to have finally come to an end. Alice’s mother is married to a wealthy man and Alice attends an elite prep school in New York. At the café where Alice works, one of the patrons bears an uncanny resemblance to the redheaded man of her past. Later, she returns home to find her mother gone, a single page from Tales of the Hinterland left behind as a clue. With the help of her classmate and Althea Prosperine expert Ellery Finch, Alice begins the quest of finding her mother and uncovering her family’s secrets. Will she find her mother alive? Will she ever meet the elusive Althea Proserpine?

I’ve read very few novels that are able to weave together contemporary and fantasy as well as The Hazel Wood. The fusion of the two genres kept me on my toes, unsure of what to expect. Alice is perhaps one of the best YA narrators I’ve ever read—her observations are laced with sharp sarcasm and a distinct voice. And the descriptions—particularly those at the latter half of the book—are as magical and vivid as any fairy tale.

I had no qualms about The Hazel Wood, only disappointment that the book will not be accessible to all young readers. The vocabulary can be challenging in parts, and I can foresee reluctant or struggling readers throwing in the towel.

Still, this novel will be beloved by teens who are up to the challenge of reading a complex and humorous tale. I believe the world will be raving about The Hazel Wood very soon, so I feel honored to have received an early copy of such a magical book.

Book Review: Warcross

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Lu, Marie. Warcross. Penguin Books, 2017.

I spent the bulk of my undergraduate career reading, but not reading for fun. I instead poured through classics or textbooks or articles about effective teaching practices. So, when I finally had time for leisurely reading, I chose Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I can remember my fascination with this new world, and how my heart soared and broke for Katniss Everdeen. I read at such a feverish pace that I had the trilogy completed in a few days. My love for YA fiction began with those books.

Perhaps that’s why I found Marie Lu’s Warcross such a pleasurable read. Emika Chen reminds me a great deal of Katniss, and the nonchalance found among the citizens in Warcross reminded me of the ignorance in Panem.

Emika Chen is left penniless following the death of her sole caretaker, her father. A doting man and a creative fashion designer, Emika’s father had a dark secret: a copious amount of online gambling debt. Left to her own devices and sporting a spotty criminal record, Emika turns to bounty hunting to survive. Thanks to a new technology sweeping the world—a virtual reality that exists just by putting on a pair of glasses—Emika is alerted when the police need extra assistance. Still, Emika is down to thirteen dollars, and she, too, finds an escape in virtual reality and an online game known as Warcross. Emika is watching the Warcross Championships when her desperation reaches a fever pitch. She attempts to hack into the game and steal a valuable power-up to resell. This unintentionally glitches her into the game, bringing the festivities to a halt.

Afterward, Emika is panicked, believing she will be arrested or sued. To her surprise, the creator of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka, pays off her debts and requests her presence in Tokyo. He tells Emika that a hacker with malevolent intentions is attempting to disrupt Warcross. He needs her help identifying and capturing the hacker, and believes her participation in Warcross as a wild card will provide an inconspicuous and convenient disguise. The payment for capturing the hacker is monumental—ten million dollars. Will Emika find success as a Wacross player? Will she be able to reveal the identity of the hacker? Will she learn more about the mysterious Hideo Tanaka?

Marie Lu is an expert in sensory detail. Every facet of Emika’s world is described in a detailed way—from Emika’s rainbow streaked hair to the brightly colored power-ups in Warcross to the seedy underbelly of the Dark Web. The descriptions of Warcross and the various, ever changing worlds where the game takes place were absolutely captivating. And the book maintains the suspense throughout; Emika, and the reader, is never sure who to trust.

As someone who teaches and loves dystopia, I was a little disappointed that Warcross doesn’t make a lot of social commentary. There’s very little information about the government that exists in Emika’s world as well as what hardships in the “real world” have driven so many to seek an escape in virtual reality. I do believe the book is likely the beginning of a series, so perhaps this will be addressed in a sequel.

Overall, Warcross is an immersive, beautifully-written novel that will hold your attention from the first page to the last. Students will likely be attracted to the colorful cover and the action found within. Those who teach technology or coding will find it a useful addition to their curriculum. The novel will spur teens and adults alike to meditate on their own values and beliefs, as well as their personal definition of right and wrong.

Book Review: All Rights Reserved

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Katsoulis, Gregory Scott. All Rights Reserved. Harlequin Teen, 2017.

When teaching poetry, my students and I pause and discuss our favorite (school appropriate) words. There doesn’t have to be a deep, philosophical reason behind the favoriting of a word—perhaps it’s simply fun to say. Some of my favorite words include umbrella, melancholy, and cacophony.

If I lived in the dystopian world of All Rights Reserved, I would likely pay a hefty sum of money for using any of my favorite words.

Speth Jime lives in a world tightly controlled by greedy corporations, litigation happy lawyers, and stringent copyright laws. In Speth’s society, citizens receive a cuff they must wear around their wrist from their fifteenth birthday onward. The cuff records the words they speak and the gestures they make and charges the wearer appropriately. The phrase “find me”, for example, costs over eleven dollars. Citizens are also charged for hugging, holding hands, nodding, and kissing. Corporations own every word and gesture, and debt is seemingly unavoidable. Most teens live alone as their parents enter indentured servitude to pay the money they owe.

On Speth’s fifteenth birthday, her friend Beecher commits suicide moments before Speth is due to give her first speech and plug various sponsors. His actions convince Speth to keep silent and not engage in any gestures or actions that would cost money. Speth’s guardian, friends, and siblings are shocked—Speth will be unable to work or purchase goods if she chooses not to speak. This is further complicated when Speth’s older sister and the family’s bread winner, Saretha, is barred from working outside the home. As Speth strategizes various ways to save her family, she notices a growing movement of “Silents”—fellow adolescents who have chosen not to speak. Will Speth be blamed for their disobedience? Will she find a way to keep her family afloat? Will she be able to maintain her silence?

In a genre saturated with dystopian books, All Rights Reserved manages to stand out as a unique read. I was drawn into Speth’s world immediately, as the various nuances and rules seem eerily similar to today’s world. For example, Speth cannot ring her friend’s doorbell as she would be required to watch and react to an ad beforehand. This reminded me a great deal of watching an ad before a YouTube video or logging onto a website and dealing with many pop up ads. And, as an English teacher, I couldn’t help but smile at the references to classic dystopias sprinkled throughout the novel—Ayn Rand and 1984 are both subtly incorporated.

I had few complaints about Katsoulis’ novel—it was engaging and fast-paced. There were moments, though, where I hungered for more detail and explanation. Some areas of Speth’s world—the park at the book’s opening, for example—seemed to lack sensory detail. And some characters were briefly touched on, then forgotten. I was particularly captivated by Speth’s rebellious teacher, Mrs. Soleman, who is given a pivotal scene and then never mentioned again.

I plan to recommend All Rights Reserved to my students as we prepare for our upcoming dystopian literature circles. Even if you don’t teach dystopia, there are plenty of reasons to include All Rights Reserved in your classroom library or curriculum. The novel can start great conversations about rhetorical devices and advertising techniques—how do advertisers attempt to manipulate Speth and other citizens? How do advertisers manipulate us today? Students will come away from the novel with a greater appreciation for words and our ability to communicate freely, which is an extremely positive side effect.

My Favorite Book(s) of 2017

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2017 has been a great year for Young Adult fiction.

I’ve read a wide variety of books—from contemporary romance to fantasy to dystopia. YA authors have tackled important social issues, created new and exciting worlds, and spurred fandoms and film franchises.

It’s been such a great year for YA fiction that I simply couldn’t narrow my favorite 2017 read down to one. It was a struggle, even, to narrow it down to two.

So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce my favorite books of 2017: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current.

Green’s newest book is all about vulnerability. Turtles All the Way Down presents the gritty reality of mental illness, a reality that extends beyond the narrator’s adolescence. The pacing is perfect, the dialogue smart and funny. During my entire read, I just kept thinking, “Yes. I’ve missed this.”

Tolcser’s pirate adventure manages to weave in moments of humor and fantastic feminist themes. The surprises and plot twists felt genuine. The characterization in Song of the Current was so well done that I was sad to leave Caro and company. As I am normally not a fan of pirates nor fantasy, Tolcser’s novel has been my most pleasant surprise of the year.

Honorable mentions include Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls.

I will, unfortunately, have less time for reading in 2018. I will be working on the completion of my thesis for my MFA, and this coupled with full-time teaching will mean that a once-per-week book review might be a bit of a stretch. I am still planning on reading and reviewing plenty of YA books; however, the blog posts might not be as frequent. I still hope you’ll continue to read my little blog.

Here’s to plenty of great books in 2018! What were your favorites this year?

Book Review: Children of Eden

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Graceffa, Joey, and Laura L. Sullivan. Children of Eden: A Novel. Keywords Press/Atria, 2017.

As has already been insinuated on this blog, I love dystopias. But even my favorite dystopias can be a bit formulaic. A power-hungry dictator rises to power and dismantles society. A lone, disobedient protagonist challenges the powers that be, and an epic struggle ensues.

In many ways, Joey Graceffa’s Children of Eden fits neatly into this formula; however, it has an added facet that I found intriguing—the inclusion of many environmental and global warming issues.

In Children of Eden, human beings polluted the Earth and burned through resources at a breakneck speed. This led to a mass extinction: most humans, animals, and plants perished. Only a handful of human beings persevered and were placed in a community known as Eden, a haven devised by the benevolent visionary Aaron Al Baz. In Eden, everything is carefully monitored, recycled, and regulated, lest society slip once more into wastefulness and gluttony. This stringency is seen even in reproduction: couples are allowed only one child, and must terminate any subsequent pregnancies.

This is bad news for the protagonist, Rowan, as she is a second child. While her twin brother, Ash, enjoys going to school and socializing with friends, Rowan must stay hidden within her home. Rowan’s information about the outside world comes from Ash’s stories and careful peeks over a tall stone wall. Venturing out into Eden would be extremely dangerous—all citizens have eye implants that verify their identity, lenses that Rowan doesn’t have. But Rowan’s mother shares some shocking news—she has found a doctor who will implant Rowan’s lenses. Afterward, Rowan must live with a different family and begin life anew. Will Rowan go through with her mother’s plan? Will she ever be permitted to freely roam the streets of Eden? Is she the only second child in existence?

Children of Eden is a book with extremely strong imagery. Readers never lack for a description of Eden’s intricacies or operations. There were several exquisite details that quickly burrowed into my brain—the electric footprints left by citizens of Eden, the kaleidoscope eyes of human beings before the implantation of their lenses, and the glittering rock and crystal formations that exist underground.

That said, I found the narration dizzying. The conflict begins immediately, within the first chapter, and I felt as though I had no chance to get to know Rowan or to care deeply about her. Rowan experiences some major trauma early in the story, but she reflects on it very little. In short, I wanted to see more ways that Rowan was affected by the secrecy and shame that permeated most of her young life.

This book would be a perfect fit for a dystopian unit because, as I mentioned, it hits many standard dystopian attributes. Furthermore, the author, Joey Graceffa, is a popular YouTube personality, making Children of Eden a smart addition to a classroom or school library. As the book discusses the after effects of environmental pollution and global warming, it might be of interest to Science teachers as well.