review: AND I DARKEN

And I Darken is an alternate history re-imagining the notorious Vlad the Impaler as a girl--Lada. Young and ruthless Lada initially wishes for the approval of her father, but when she and her brother, Radu, are sent to the sultan's court as something akin to collateral, she must navigate the twists and brutal turns of politics and eventually, love.

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most recommended books: 2015

This year marked a major career change for me. I moved from the bustling, chilly metropolis that is Chicago to the balmy, humid region of Southwest Florida in order to begin teaching. I teach history to 7th and 8th graders, and it really wasn't long at all before I had a student ask me for a book recommendation.

I was THRILLED. And it took me about .5 seconds before I recommended The Scorpio Races. The student in question adored it, and moved on to some of Maggie Stiefvater's other books, and every once in a while she checks in with me about her recent reading adventures. A few seventh graders talk to me about the historical fiction and dystopian books they read, and of course I found there were a few books I was recommending over and over again.

1. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Not only does this book feature an event that is little-known to most of the general public, but it captures the immense sadness in a poignant and memorable way. Students of mine who snapped up Diary of Anne Frank usually enjoy this one particularly.

2. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. This book is whimsical, captivating, and felt to me like a fantastic blend of Diana Wynne Jones meets Marguerite Henry. I recommend this to fantasy readers who want something a little different.

3. Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin. Thrilling, fast-paced alternate history with an amazing narrative style. In class, I challenge my students to think about the 'what-ifs' and why certain historical events came to pass. I'd love to see more alternate histories like this on bookstore shelves!

So, there you have it. Three of the YA books I recommended the most to my students the first semester of my teaching career. I'm looking forward to pushing even more books in 2016!

review: WOLF BY WOLF

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title: WOLF BY WOLF

author: Ryan Graudin

pub info: October 20th, 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

genre/audience: alternate historical fiction, ya

note: I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback.

summary courtesy of Goodreads:

Code Name Verity meets Inglourious Basterds in this fast-paced novel from the author of The Walled City.

The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor's ball.

Yael, who escaped from a death camp, has one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year's only female victor, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele twin's brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael's every move. But as Yael begins to get closer to the other competitors, can she bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?

REVIEW

I was thrilled to finally get my hands on this one--ever since the blurb made it onto the internet I've been itching to read Wolf by Wolf. This fall I started teaching history to middle schoolers and I love to talk books with my students--and I will certainly be recommending this one!

As a history teacher, I often remind my students that history is a narrative. To understand history one must understand how and why everything fits together like the puzzle that it is. History isn't a bunch of dates and foreign names floating in a vacuum. History is an interwoven fabric made of individual threads--individual people. Alternate histories force the reader to confront historical questions and the intricacies of historical events. Wolf by Wolf does exactly that. And it's not a lecture. It's not a textbook. It's thoughtful fiction, and it's beautiful.

Yael's story is heartbreakingly compelling. Adele's story is wildly compelling--heck--this whole book is flat-out compelling. The plot grabs you by the lapels and you better hold on tight, because the end really kicks into high gear. And it does so faster than you can say "Los!" Yael shares the road with plenty of other fascinating characters--and I can't wait to read all about them in the next installment. 

Friendship, determination, loyalty, bravery, family--this book has it all in spades. Wolf by Wolf is the rare combination of qualities that don't just make it a good read. It's a great read. I recommend it especially to readers of YA who are hesitant to dive right into strict historical fiction, readers who love richly-imagined plots, readers interested in WWII in particular, and readers who are after an adrenaline rush.

Thank you, Ms. Graudin, for sharing this story with the world. I cannot wait to tell my students all about it.

And, of course, to hear how much they'll love it.

5/5

review: THE SCORPION RULES

title: THE SCORPION RULES

author: Erin Bow

genre/audience: YA sci-fi

published: September 22nd, Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

**note: I received an e-copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback.

summary below courtesy of Goodreads:

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages. The Children of Peace - sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals - are raised together in small, isolated schools called Preceptures. There, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of the North American Precepture. Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace, even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water — she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

Enter Elián Palnik, the Precepture’s newest hostage and biggest problem. Greta’s world begins to tilt the moment she sees Elián dragged into the school in chains. The Precepture’s insidious surveillance, its small punishments and rewards, can make no dent in Elián, who is not interested in dignity and tradition, and doesn’t even accept the right of the UN to keep hostages.

What will happen to Elián and Greta as their two nations inch closer to war?
— Goodreads

MY REVIEW

I can honestly say that this was one of the most interesting books that I have read all year—maybe even in a few years. I raced through to finish it because the premise was absolutely intriguing, and brought to mind one of my favorite scenes from the book *All Quiet on the Western Front*. In AQOtWF, the characters (soldiers) discuss the nature of war and one suggests that the world leaders fight one another to decide the outcome of conflicts instead of countless soldiers fighting one another.

I desperately wanted to fall in love with the characters in SCORPION RULES—after all, most of them are stuck in a cruel sort of limbo that is not in their making, held hostage until they come of age and are released back to their home kingdoms. But I read to the end because I was curious about how the plot would resolve, not because I loved Greta or Elian. Talis was nothing if not wrenchingly wry and entertaining, and brought a spark of life to a story that seemed strangely sterile. 

That may have been because the setting was confined to the Precepture. I understood why that was, but it made the action sluggish and I caught myself skimming in places.

That being said, the concept was really very imaginative. Readers ready to venture into light sci-fi fare might enjoy this, as well as readers of YA who also enjoy the ‘original’ dystopians—1984 and FAHRENHEIT 451.

 

3 / 5

Review: THE WITCH HUNTER

TITLE: The Witch Hunter

AUTHOR: Virginia Boecker

GENRE & AUDIENCE: YA Fantasy

PUB. INFO: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2nd 2015

**note: I received an electronic copy of this book via Netgalley from the publisher in exchange for honest feedback.

 | AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE  | POWELL'S

Summary Courtesy of Goodreads: 

The magic and suspense of Graceling meet the political intrigue and unrest of Game of Thrones in this riveting fantasy debut.

Your greatest enemy isn't what you fight, but what you fear.

Elizabeth Grey is one of the king's best witch hunters, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and doling out justice. But when she's accused of being a witch herself, Elizabeth is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake.

Salvation comes from a man she thought was her enemy. Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful and dangerous wizard in the kingdom, offers her a deal: he will save her from execution if she can break the deadly curse that's been laid upon him.

But Nicholas and his followers know nothing of Elizabeth's witch hunting past--if they find out, the stake will be the least of her worries. And as she's thrust into the magical world of witches, ghosts, pirates, and one all-too-handsome healer, Elizabeth is forced to redefine her ideas of right and wrong, of friends and enemies, and of love and hate.

Virginia Boecker weaves a riveting tale of magic, betrayal, and sacrifice in this unforgettable fantasy debut.

MY REVIEW

The title of this one grabbed me right away. Reformation-era England? Witches? Hunters hunting them? Count me in.

The story follows Elizabeth, a young woman hunting practicers of outlawed magic in an alternate England in the sixteenth century. After a devastating betrayal she must work with one of the most notorious outlaws of all—a wizard rumored to have started a deadly plague—or endeavor to survive on her own with a substantially troublesome bounty on her head.

 

FIRST CHAPTER FOCUS

I might have been a little disappointed with the other aspects of the book, but this was, I thought, an excellent lesson in how to start a first chapter off in a fantastically informative and engaging fashion.

  1. Setting the stage. The story begins with an excellent set-up. We learn instantly that not only is magic against the law, but that there are extremely terrible consequences for breaking that law. 
  2. Characters. We meet the primary players, and very quickly have a grasp on who they are. We learn right off the bat that Elizabeth is a bit reckless and overconfident in her abilities.
  3. Action. Lots of it! It would have been very difficult not to keep reading, especially with the way in which that chapter came to an end. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but boy did it have my attention!

OVERALL

I wanted a little more of the historical stuff out of this book. The dialogue between the characters came across as extremely modern. I figured this might have been because the book is written with the YA audience in mind, but it still made it seem very much like a “generic” and “medieval” fantasy setting despite the fact that the book takes place in a very specific time and location. What was more, I was absolutely astounded that there was no mention of religion in regards to how magic was outlawed—I think I remember only two or three weak references. This might be nitpicking, but I couldn’t help but wonder—where was the Church in this conflict? I shouldn’t have expected so many historical details. Maybe this was my bad!

At first I felt the plot was very fresh and exciting—but the hard-headedness of the main character, Elizabeth, became a tad overwhelming. I saw one of the major reveals coming from a mile away—several miles in fact—so when the time came, it fell pretty flat. There was also a startling disturbing aspect of the plot that seemed to just disappear—I couldn’t believe that it was just abandoned, or that the main character could so easily brush it away. But again, perhaps I nitpick.

Some of the more interesting secondary characters spiced up the plot—one of my favorites were the revenant, and Caleb.

The book read quickly, and easily, and I didn’t feel myself tripped up over any awkward phrases or dialogue. 

I would recommend this to readers who like a dose of witchy magic in their fantasy.

3/5