Here's what Jenny is recommending.
Since I like my magical boarding school fiction delightfully dark, I thoroughly enjoyed A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik and couldn’t wait for this follow-up. Especially after that killer last line! In The Last Graduate, El and Orion (who is not El’s boyfriend, except that he sort of might be) are in their final year at the Scholomance, facing the threat of the graduation massacre. Having friends for the first time in her life shifts El’s outlook toward the future, and I loved watching her grow as a character, becoming more compassionate while remaining as wonderfully prickly as ever. Should all the power and the safety it provides, be hoarded by the enclaves? This theme of social justice runs through the narrative, giving El (and readers) much to think about in worlds both imagined and real. If the mals can be stopped at graduation, it’s clearly El and Orion and their talents for havoc (El) and slaying demons (Orion) that can do it. But it’s what these two characters begin to mean to each other that gives The Last Graduate what I can only describe as a heart-stabbing painful longing full of possibility. And if you thought the first book ended on a cliffhanger? Just wait until you read the last line of The Last Graduate. I literally burst into tears. Book three can’t get here soon enough!
There are two reasons why a person might be born with blue skin. They might be the tenth and final reincarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu or, possibly, within their DNA is a rare recessive gene that has a chance of popping up when even distantly related people conceive a child together. Ten-year-old Kalki’s blue skin, his parents insist, comes from being a living god, one who can heal and perform miracles. His father creates a religious retreat in India called an ashram, and he welcomes Westerners interested in meditation and yoga and locals who yearn to be cured of back pain, bad luck, and more. Many simply want a blessing from a god. Secretly, doubts flicker through Kalki’s mind. Is he a healer? What if he is simply casting an illusion over people desperate to believe? Kalki’s journey from a living god in India to the mascot of his American cousin’s rock band, the Blue-Skinned Gods, is full of loss and much soul-searching. Blue-Skinned Gods is such a compelling take on identity written from the vantage of an adult recalling glimpses of his childhood and twenty-something years. This is absolutely the right choice, because this is a book that asks a question that I think needs an adult’s perspective to answer: Does having faith mean believing in a lie? And faith could mean belief in a god or gods, in our parents, or even in our political leaders. Blue-Skinned Gods is a great story, but it’s also a book that I’m still turning over in my mind days after the last page.
I would think that being the perfect betiya (daughter), here in America or anywhere else, would be exhausting. But try being perfect while carrying the weight of expectations from one culture when you live surrounded by the temptations of another. And to Rani, an Indian American high school senior, that temptation is a tattooed artist named Oliver who becomes her secret boyfriend. He’s a nuanced character, the true definition of bitter and sweet, and at first, their relationship practically sparkles with heart emojis. But soon his chaotic home life leaves him without empathy for Rani’s uncompromising need to please her parents, while at the same time, he’s just way too focused on traditional Indian culture. I gasped out loud at one incident, a shocking but realistic twist. And l definitely looked inward, as the best books insist that we do, and reworked my own understanding of cultural appropriation. At the same time, the strength of the writing forces readers to acknowledge that Rani hasn’t exactly been the perfect girlfriend either. But the messy lack of perfection from anyone in the novel gives the book its depth and provides for an emotionally charged read that I guarantee you won’t soon forget.
Any Sign of Life by one of my long-time favorite YA writers, Rae Carson, is a must-read dystopian-sci-fi mash up that has so many twists and turns that I could not have stopped reading late into the night even if you’d paid me a million dollars. Carson taps into our deepest pandemic fear, not the one where we die but the one where we wake up alone. It’s almost a relief to slowly realize the virus in question wasn’t created here on earth. The sci-fi action kicks in and a battle to save our planet from invaders ensues. Main character Paige is a high school senior with a basketball scholarship to UConn when everything she knows crumbles away, and she’s suddenly stuck in a new reality. She’s a leader, and no doubt she’s brave, but it’s her loyalty and fierce determination not to lose her humanity that will make readers want to take this treacherous journey along with her. The supporting characters are a diverse group, and best of all is Paige’s seriously sweet romance in the midst of chaos. Fans of Neal Shusterman’s Dry will definitely want to move this to the top of their TBR list next October.
It is the rare work of literary fiction that leaves readers wondering if the war against those stealthy little insects known as bed bugs can ever really be won. After finishing Uwem Akpan’s shrewd, heartfelt, and ultimately delightful novel New York, My Village, I turned that question over in my mind for a while before shifting my thoughts to war in general and the scars left behind even if the battles end and a victor is declared. Ekong Udousoro, a Nigerian editor and publisher, receives a fellowship to work alongside an American publisher in Manhattan while he edits a collection of stories about the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War. The novel weaves seamlessly between Ekong’s life in the present day to accounts of the war from his collection of stories and from his friends and family. These sections are painful to read but eye-opening about the ramifications of colonialism, especially for those of us who were only vaguely aware that the war even took place. Between his work colleagues, the other renters in his building, and the congregation at a New Jersey church he visits, both micro and macro aggressions abound. The biggest insults are the racist attacks on the Nigerian food he loves, particularly since Ekong finds so much joy in trying all the American and ethnic food to be found around New York. Ekong is a keen observer of everything, from New Yorkers to bed bugs, and his observations are often filled with humor. And it’s those bed bugs who journey with him throughout his time in New York, always a step ahead, causing misery that reaches out to touch every part of his life, a small but mighty symbol for the war that his country may never recover from.
Have you ever disagreed with a friend? Have you ever been wrong? Do you know how to apologize? If not, check out this helpful and adorable picture book. Greyhound sees a turtle up in the branches of a tree. A turtle! Impossible, says the much shorter Bulldog. He’s certain it’s a squirrel up there in that tree. As they gaze at the tree, arguing back and forth, suddenly THUNK! A turtle has fallen out of the tree! (She walks away from the incident uninjured.) And right behind Turtle is her friend Squirrel. Bulldog and Greyhound show they are adept at saying sorry, and wow! Did they ever learn about the importance of looking at things from all different perspectives? Not only is the story charming, important, and slyly hilarious, but Neesha Hudson’s whimsical artwork does a beautiful job expressing the many emotions of her characters. Turtle in a Tree will be among my favorite picture books of the year.
If you like your magical boarding school fiction delightfully dark and scary (and who doesn’t?), then I have a book for you. Main character El Higgins has survived the killer (literally) breakfasts and ominous monsters who feed on students to begin her second-to-last year at the Scholomance, a school that instructs students in the art of magic. As for survival against the hungry monsters known as maleficaria (or mals for short), students either figure that out on their own or perish trying. Each student has a talent, and some are more useful for fighting off mal than others. El keeps her talent for complete and utter destruction a secret, hoping that a sudden and spectacular revelation will ensure her a safe home among society's most elite sorcerers if she manages to survive the carnage of graduation. Always wrecking her plans is the infuriatingly nice Orion Lake, who quest to save as many students as possible is stupid and hopeless, but maybe a little endearing too. The constant bickering between El and Orion create lots of laugh-out-loud moments in this creative mix of scorching humor and horror. Naomi Novik has a talent for creating fantastical settings, but the heartfelt way she develops prickly El into a character to root for proves her genius as a writer. The gasp-out-loud last sentence left me desperate for the sequel. A Deadly Education might sound like fun for really brave kids, but trust me, this magical treat is for grown-ups.
Firekeeper’s Daughter is one of those books written for teens that adult readers must make a point not to miss. The plot moves along just like the very best of thrillers, and the characters are nuanced and believable. Main character Daunis Fontaine is biracial, with a white mom and a Native American dad who together caused quite the scandal, but they separated before Danius was even born. Now, as a teen, she’s welcomed by both her Anishinaabe and white families, and yet is not wholly part of either culture. When her best friend is murdered, and it’s clear that a new form of meth is devastating the tribe, Daunis is approached by law enforcement agents to go undercover to investigate where the drug is coming from. With her knowledge of chemistry and native plants, she’s clever and curious enough to take the investigation in her own direction. Along the way, she gets caught up in a pretend romance that starts to feel very real with an officer disguised as a high school student. With all the difficulties in her life, the relationship added just the right amount of sweetness to the novel. Ultimately, this is a story of community, which made a betrayal from within feel all the more soul crushing. But trust that a writer as talented as Angeline Boulley can, somehow, also leave us with hope.
On an island, somewhere out in the vast ocean, Cee has only one goal: find her sister Kasey. In Joan He’s enthralling, futuristic page-turner, the relationship between two sisters holds the destiny of earth in the balance. As climate change finally ravages our land and oceans, a chosen few take refuge in a levitating city built in the sky. The rest of humanity flounders on the surface, victims of extreme weather and a polluted atmosphere. Kasey may be a teenager, but her intellect leads her to a plan that will allow earth to recover and humans to thrive once again. But first she must solve the mystery of her missing sister, whose love of the ocean and swimming might have cost her life. Kasey’s search leads her to a mysterious boy named Actinium, who is either trying his best to help her or might be her biggest enemy. In a twisty, unpredictable way that’s reminiscent of We Were Liars, nothing is as it seems in this unforgettable book.
Sanjena Santhian draws readers effortlessly into the magical world she’s created where parents are so desperate to bring success to their children that they turn to a powerful and dangerous alchemy. What started in India continues in Atlanta as teenaged Neil Naryan, who lacks the drive of his overachieving sister, discovers his neighbors Anita and her mom are not only gold thieves but have also managed to siphon off the ambitions of the smarter, more motivated kids in their close-knit but competitive Indian community. What follows veers between hilarious and tragic, and the results haunt Neil for the next decade, until he and Anita reunite for one final heist. The actual drinking of gold is a symbol, of course, of the hopes, dreams, and ultimately the fears of Asian immigrant parents. How will their kids survive in a cut-throat America without a prestigious degree and job? This novel will leave you with lots to consider about the price of ambition. Neil’s slightly cynical voice mixed with his never-ending longing for an Anita, who’s always a bit out of reach, make this story of love and aspiration so much fun to read.
If you like your YA spooky and magical, All Our Hidden Gifts is the book for you! Main character Maeve’s voice is one of the highlights. She veers between sharp and cynical and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Two years earlier, before the story begins, Maeve dumped her best friend Lily on the way from the depths of unpopularity to a shaky position in a clique a few rungs higher. Lonely and uncertain, she’s not even sure she likes her supposed new friends. When Maeve finds a pack of tarot cards in the dusty basement of her private Catholic school, an unexpected talent for divination wins her a bit more social status, until a reading goes horribly wrong and Lily disappears. Her relationship with Lily’s gender-fluid sibling Roe turns from aloof into a delightful mixture of friction and electricity when the two of them pair up to bring Lily back from... wherever she disappeared to. All Our Hidden Gifts is an emotionally rich novel of loneliness, friendship, and sacrifice. I liked the unpredictability of the story, and the characters absolutely won my heart.
I knew after reading an advance copy of Project Hail Mary on January 10th that I’d found one of my Top 5 Books of 2021. Turn off your phone because you don’t want to talk to anyone until you reach the last page in this thrill ride of a novel. When the scientific world heartily rejected his theory on the possibility of life evolving without water, microbiologist Ryland Grace retreated in disgrace to life as a middle school science teacher. As it turned out, he likes teaching kids, and he’s good at it, but just as quickly as he was banished, Ryland is yanked back from obscurity to become earth’s one hope for survival. The beginning finds Ryland waking from a coma without the slightest idea of his name or where he might be. Slowly, he becomes more aware, and he's startled to find himself alone on a spaceship, eons from earth, most likely on an important mission, but without a clue where he’s headed or why. Fascinating doesn’t begin to describe the story from that point, and the plot combines chemistry and math with humor and compassion. I loved Ryland’s creativity, and he’s a problem-solving genius, but the connections he makes in space give this outstanding novel its delightful punch of emotional depth.
Honestly, there’s hardly a sentence in Leonard and Hungry Paul that isn’t a delight to read. Musician and first-time novelist Rónán Hession drew me into his novel with his mix of laugh-out-loud funny scenarios and the subtle humor of his writing, but I kept reading for the characters. Leonard and Hungry Paul are best friends and game night enthusiasts who have always found happiness in simple, quiet moments and a sweetly endearing bond with their parents (they both live at home). When the usual meanderings of everyday life intrude to shake up their steady, reliable days, the result is a gentle tempest of complications and unforeseen emotions. How they endure and even blossom makes for a charming novel that can’t help but leave you feeling happy. And after the year we’ve all just had, it’s the book we all deserve.
I didn’t realize how much I could love a novel-in-verse until I read Joy McCullough’s enthralling story of Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. At age seventeen, Artemisia is the apprentice to her father, a mediocre Italian painter, and she secretly fills all his commissions. She longs to have a career of her own, and a romance with a talented young artist has her believing they will open a studio together. But he is looking for a mistress, not a wife. When Artemisia refuses him, he rapes her, and Artemisia takes the unusual step in her male-dominated society of pressing charges. An early feminist and a brilliant painter, Artemisia is such a compelling character in her determination to live life on her terms. Written for teens who will feel empowered as they root for Artemisia, but trust me, adult book clubs will spend a lively evening discussing her choices, too.
I’m thrilled to report the return of Darius Kellner in this follow up to Darius the Great is Not Okay, one of my all-time favorite YA’s. Once again, I loved the detailed and laugh-out-loud observations Darius makes of the world around him. And Adib Khorram’s writing wields such a powerful impact that reading his work is both a joy and a journey back through the emotionally draining days of high school. If you’re still in high school, or have yet to begin, this is an author who gets who you are now and who you are endeavoring to become. Darius is a gentle soul, and between varsity soccer, working at a job he’s supposed to love with his boyfriend Landon (who should be the guy of his dreams), he still finds plenty of time to worry. Medication helps him cope with depression, but even so, sometimes his perceived inadequacies and anxiety about his dying grandfather and a best friend who lives on the other side of the world feels overwhelming. Darius The Great Deserves Better takes on essential topics like identity and depression in a way that’s is both fun to read and powerfully moving. Add some seriously confusing thoughts and mixed signals from a former tormentor and current teammate and friend, and you get another shining star of a book.
A heart-wrenching story of a messy, complicated sibling relationship. Viola prodigy Adina is my favorite kind of character- not nice, but...interesting. Her overachieving sister Tovah is weary of always being the nice one. What happens when one twin tests positive for the gene causing Huntington's, the other negative is shattering to this already fragile family. Solomon writes with empathy for her characters, understanding the bad choices each twin makes as she tries to cope with her new reality - the sister who will survive to pursue her dreams or the one who will someday be gone.
If you like your fairy tales dark and spooky, you will love The Hazel Wood. The characters kept me guessing the whole time. Who is evil? Who is good? And I did not see that end coming at all (essential for my highest recommendation)! Brilliantly twisty, with a not-always-likable main character named Alice whose whole life has been one bit of bad luck followed by another. Now her mother is missing, and the disappearance may have something to do with Alice's estranged grandmother, the author of a collection of creepy short stories with a cult following. Joined by her classmate Ellery Finch, a boy with questionable motives, Alice sets off for her grandmother's estate, the Hazel Wood, to confront her grandmother and find her mom. But the Hazel Wood has other plans for Alice, and only by facing her destiny can she rewrite her own fate.
The college admission process is brutal, but A.E. Kaplan’s We Regret to Inform You manages to make what is essentially a roll of the dice for even 4.0 students into a seriously funny and thought-provoking novel, perfect for teens and their anxiety-riddled parents. Mischa has the top grades, the test scores, the varied extracurriculars, and a scholarship at fancy Blanchard Prep. Maybe she won’t get in everywhere, but she should get in somewhere, right? Wrong. When even her not-quite-mediocre safety school rejects her and the school’s college guidance counselor suddenly vanishes, Mischa hunts for an explanation. Along the way she uncovers a conspiracy involving both the guy she loves (who just might love her back) and her worst enemy (whose burning desire to attend Harvard provides Mischa with exactly the tools she needs). My favorite characters are the Ophelia Syndicate, a group of girl hackers who have Mischa’s back as she struggles to figure out which direction her life will take now that all her expectations are flipped upside-down, and college is no longer a given. A page-turner of a novel that’s also a much needed commentary on the zany process of getting into college.
Everyone knows the love story of Romeo and Juliet, but have you ever wondered what happened to Rosaline? Yep, she’s the girl Romeo dumped when he met his one true love, Juliet. By Senior year, Megan Harper is sure she’s destined for a life of being Rosaline. Seven boyfriends have broken up with her only to find true love with the next girl. Megan has learned to steel herself against a broken heart by earning a reputation as the class flirt who never takes anything too seriously – except her plans for college and a career directing plays. But the school of her dreams has an annoying acting requirement, so Megan auditions for Romeo and Juliet. She’s hoping for a small part, but to her immense exasperation, she’s cast as Juliet! Cleverly written, with just the right amount of humor and swoony kisses, Always Never Yours has an adorable main character in Megan. Alongside is an engaging cast of supporting players, particularly the unlikely boy who convinces Megan she deserves to be the star of her own life, rather than settling for always being second best.
From the first page, Katherine Applegate’s eloquent writing stirs up the excitement of adventure to come. In the war-torn kingdom of Nedarra, animals live in an uneasy alliance with humans. After her pack is murdered by poachers, Byx is thought to be the last remaining dairnes, a dog-like species that glides like a bird, speaks, and is perceptive enough to tell the truth from a lie. She sets out on a journey to the icy cold north, holding tight to the rumor of an island hideout inhabited by others of her kind. Along the way, she learns just how treacherous humans can be in their quest for power over all other species, but she also creates alliances with a giant cat, a small and fiercely loyal wobbyk, a sword-wielding girl disguised as a boy, and an unexpectedly honest thief. Together they form an odd sort of family in their dangerous world. Full of sword fights, magic, and narrow escapes, Endling is a thrilling read, and Middle Grade readers are certain to be captivated by the world-building, the humorous dialogue, and most of all, by the remarkably drawn characters.
Charlotte and Ben live hundreds of miles apart and have never met in real life, but they've connected through a running game of online Scrabble. Over one tumultuous week in middle school, Charlotte's extensive knowledge of germs and bacteria make visiting her dad in the hospital after his heart surgery way too scary, and Ben's parents make a big announcement. No, they are not giving up on small-town life. Instead, they are staying put in Louisiana and getting a divorce. To make things even worse, their best friends have joined clubs and drifted away, leaving Ben and Charlotte to sit alone at lunch. When Charlotte skips school to visit her dad’s favorite museum at the same time bullies disrupt Ben’s class president speech, their lives further intersect. Often funny, with relatable characters, You Go First takes on the turmoil of middle school friendships and the often surprising ways life makes new connections for us.
From taking care of her rascally little sister to helping run the family’s farm stand, twelve-year-old Della already has more responsibility than most kids her age. When she discovers her mama digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and mumbling about keeping her girls safe, Della knows the schizophrenia that dragged her mother to the hospital years earlier is back. Are the rumors of a magic honey from the Bee Lady that can fix any sickness true? Della decides to find out. Cindy Baldwin does a brilliant job evoking the building fear of a girl who is not a child anymore but isn’t old enough to be an adult yet either. Della’s determination to cure her mother is raw and painful to read, but also beautifully captured through word choices that bloom right there on the page. Descriptions of summertime’s oppressive heat in the South will make readers reach for an icy-cold lemonade.
When June's parents find her reading a book about witches, they suddenly go to extremes to control her reading choices. Her dad is on the PTA, and he leads the charge to suspend the school librarian and clean the school library of any book that could be harmful to a child (or cause them to actually THINK). Even the books in June's own bookcase get a parental make-over. Pages are ripped out and note cards replace endings. (Old Yeller lives happily ever after.) Middle grade readers will connect with June's voice. She's smart and funny - the well-behaved child who never causes trouble who suddenly finds herself running an illicit library out of an empty locker and supplying banned books to her middle school classmates. In the back of the book is a list of books that have been banned or challenged. Students will enjoy looking it over to see what they've read! Property of the Rebel Librarian is a must-read for Banned Books Week and will make a great centerpiece for a school library display.
Gripping from page one, this YA thriller throws readers one perplexing twist after another. Peter is brilliant - a seventeen-year-old math genius - but his crushing anxiety makes it impossible to trust anyone but his twin sister, Bel. Because of panic attacks, he rarely leaves home, until he is forced to when his mom, a world-famous scientist, is shot at an award ceremony and his sister vanishes. Alone but for his best friend Ingrid, who might be involved in the conspiracy that has his mom fighting for her life, Peter ventures into the terrifying world of undercover spies. Together he and Ingrid unbury his mother's many secrets as they search for Bel. He must use his analytical skills to tell the truth from the lies, but his paralyzing terror makes fighting his own demons Peter's biggest obstacle. He's an engaging character, and readers will relate to his battle to determine which of his many fears are real and which are imagined.
Someone will shoot. And someone will die. Ellen Hopkins infuses the poetry and prose in People Kill People with such emotional depth that all six of her teen characters are beautifully complicated. In some cases, the lines between protagonist and villain are blurred until the reader can see any of them pulling a trigger. A gun is circulating in Tuscon that was used by a husband to kill his wife. One of the six teens bought it next, and each imagines a valid reason to use it. Silas, a white supremacist, believes in his Second Amendment right to open-carry at a peaceful immigration rally. Daniel lets jealousy overtake him, while Noelle is pulling herself out of deep depression, but sometimes slides backwards. Cami deals drugs knowing she shouldn’t bring her toddler into shady neighborhoods, while her husband, Rand, works himself to exhaustion while dreaming of revenge. Grace’s ex stalks her, and her new boyfriend is showing similar tendencies. As for Ashlyn? Life is tough, and the more thrilling she can make it the better. One central message runs through the novel: Yes, people kill people, but guns make it easier.
Peter has spent years on the transplant list, studying piano while he waits for a donor kidney. His neighbor, Sophie, is consumed by dance and her secret crush on Peter. They’ve wrapped themselves so tightly into an exclusive friendship there’s never room for anyone else... until Sophie turns eighteen and proves to be a perfect match. When her gift of a kidney frees Peter to follow dreams that don’t include his best friend, Sophie is devastated and forced to rethink everything she’s expected and planned for. Author Rachel Lynn Solomon has a talent for making me fall in love with her complex and somewhat difficult characters and then writing them into heartbreaking situations bound to tear their already challenging lives to pieces. Told through lovely and expressive prose, you'll be thinking about the choices Sophie and Peter make long after you've turned the last page.
In Muse of Nightmares, Laini Taylor pulled me back into the ingeniously-built world of Strange the Dreamer and didn’t let me go for 500 riveting pages. Set aside a weekend (or one intense all-nighter), and prepare to be emotionally drained but exhilarated by this novel. New characters are introduced, most importantly two mysterious sisters from a harsh world covered in ice. As their journey progresses, so does the story of Lazlo and Sarai, until an inevitable collision has devastating consequences for godspawn and human alike. Lazlo is still endearingly strange, no longer a librarian, but as always a dreamer. Sarai discovers she had only just begun to understand the reaches of her magic, while other characters grapple with the consequences of choices they made during the overthrow of the gods. Burning questions are answered as the pages turn, and Laini Taylor’s writing shines as always.
Jack doesn’t believe time travel is real until he becomes caught up in a seemingly endless loop of meeting his girlfriend Kate for the first time - starting over and over the moment she dies. Doesn’t take long until he catches on that he’s supposed to save her life, but how can he do that if she won’t even discuss her chronic illness? And with each loop, he’s forced to begin their relationship again, winning her trust and her love. I was charmed by Jack and Kate, in all the different ways their relationship played out. Their dialogue is snappy and laugh-out-loud funny. The most fascinating part is that Jack learns he can make different decisions, and his choices will not only affect Kate’s life but will have (sometimes disastrous) consequences for everyone else around him too. He’s caught in a tangle of possibilities without a clear right direction, making for an intriguing novel that kept me guessing until the end.
Don’t miss this delightful return to the 18th century world of siblings Felicity and Monty Montague. The banter between Felicity and her roguish brother is just as hilarious, but this time around it’s clear that as much as they provoke each other, beneath it all is affection. Felicity has spent a difficult year since returning from Monty’s disastrous-slash-romantic Grand Tour-slash-Pirate Adventure. Medical schools in Edinburgh have refused to entertain the idea of a female student. Determined as she is to destroy the gender roles of her time, she’s also sorely in need of a place to live that doesn’t require squishing into bed with her lovesick brother and his boyfriend in their squalid London flat. Discouraged, she ponders marrying a man she could never love, or even worse, returning to her parents. But fate intervenes in surprising ways, starting with her estranged friend Johanna’s wedding and leading to yet another pirate adventure. Along the way is a heist, an unexpected kiss, a mysterious map, and (as is usual when pirates are involved) plenty of chances for a scholarly girl to use her considerable medical knowledge. I enjoyed Mackenzi Lee’s take on female friendships, and the gentle way she lets Felicity discover that what we now think of as feminism can take many shapes, and all are valid.
This YA mixture of historical fiction and fantasy gets my award for the most captivating page turner of 2018! Khalaf is a prince determined to hold onto his family's portion of a divided kingdom. Marrying a cunning princess is his only hope, but all her suitors must answer her three riddles. If they fail, they die - instantly. Still, he vows to try, and sets out on a treacherous journey across the vast Mongol Empire with his father and Jinghua, a slave girl living in exile. She is hiding not only her true identity but a secret with the power to destroy Khalaf's plans. As they travel, they fall in love over their shared passion for language and poetry. The story is based on an opera so I knew it would break my heart, but gorgeous writing make all the tears worth it.
Once a generation a prince rescues a damsel from a dragon and earns the right to become king, with the damsel as his queen. It’s always been that way in the kingdom of Harding. In a traditional fairy tale the rescued damsel might be content to marry her handsome prince and wear her lovely gowns, never mind the freedom from a dragon’s lair. But as wedding plans unfold, Ama comes to see that speaking her mind borders on treason. She has no memory of the dragon or her own family, and right along with her I grew suspicious of everything she was told. My favorite part about Damsel was the very last page, but don’t even think of reading that first! Enjoy every word of this this fiercely feminist novel.
In their follow-up to one of my favorite reads of 2018, Always, Never, Yours, Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka continue their fun, romantic, and irresistibly charming Shakespeare retellings. This time it’s The Taming of the Shrew starring Cameron Bright, a girl whose popularity at her fancy prep school combined with the unsparing honesty she can’t be bothered to tame leaves hurt feelings in her wake and most of her classmates both terrified and envious. Then her sharp tongue causes the guy she really likes to unleash some shockingly brutal honesty of his own: Cameron is not just truthful. She’s cruel and he’s not interested. Up to this point If I’m Being Honest is engaging, but it’s after this revelation that the book, and Cameron, really shines. Because she decides to undo all the harm she’s caused over the years, and the results are both hilarious and poignant. Especially when the geeky, brilliant boy she hurt the worst might just have the most to teach her about compassion and being true to who you really are, blunt honesty and all.
Let’s Go Swimming On Doomsday is an emotionally gripping story of sacrifice, family loyalty, and redemption. Set in Mogadishu, Somalia, teenager Abdi faces only terrible choices: become a spy for the CIA and go undercover to infiltrate a brutal group of rebels, or never see his kidnapped mother and younger siblings again. The Americans have hidden them away, with promises of a new life in Idaho, but only if Abdi does what they want. I liked how the novel jumped seamlessly back and forth in time, tracing how Abdi fights to hold onto his humanity while at the same time being forced to become one of the terrorists he despises, and later, when he winds up struggling to reinvent himself in Kenya. Memories of the older brother he betrayed and left behind haunt him. Then he makes two of the most of unlikely of new friends and will sacrifice anything to keep them. He's such an intriguing, well developed character, and his story veers wildly between horrific and touching. Natalie C. Anderson's previous Young Adult book, City of Saints and Thieves, was one of my top 5 reads of 2017. Both high school students and adults will find plenty to keep them hooked on her latest.
Dry is a far too plausible YA dystopian/thriller about the day California runs out of water. While I was reading, all I could think was this could really happen! The pacing is non-stop, but it’s the constantly shifting loyalties of the four vividly drawn teen characters that make the pages turn. Survival is foremost in their minds in a world where telling lies and stealing are the new normal. But are they willing to forfeit their humanity for a bottle of water? What about a sip? Readers will contemplate what their own choices might be as they take in what desperation can do to a person. Particularly interesting is the relationship between popular Alyssa and her smart but odd neighbor, Kelton, whose family has spent years stocking their house for doomsday. Frightening, tense, and surprising!
Brilliant world-building immerses readers into this fantasy where every person has a bit of magic related to their caste. When the life of the royal prince from the highest-ranking Phoenix caste is threatened, his cunning Hawk bodyguard, Tavin, devises a daring plot to smuggle them both to safety. He places their lives in the hands of a band of mercy-killers of the lowest caste, the Crows, and their chief-to-be, an equally clever witch named Fie. She risks everything to bargain for a future where her people will have protection from castes who consider Crows expendable. Tavin and Fie’s mutual distrust and constant bickering evolves into that kind of a heart-pounding attraction that couldn’t help but leave me to adoring them both. The fast-paced plot kept me intrigued, but my favorite part of The Merciful Crow is how the author forces each character - and readers - to rethink the idea of what it means to be powerful.
My heart ached for protagonist Tiger Tolliver on every page, but I was so caught up in the lives of the engaging characters that I could not put this book down. Tiger and her mom have only each other, and that’s their family. While their bond is tight, they argue one morning about a dress, the same sort of trivial argument that plays out in homes across the country on any given day. But Tiger’s mother dies suddenly that evening, leaving Tiger broken and guilty. Her grief is all-consuming, and her journey into the foster care system frightening. Scattered throughout the book are little flickers of grace and moments of compassion that I clung to as a reader, even as Tiger was too bereft to even dream of life without her mom. This isn’t a hopeful novel that asks readers to make peace with death. Instead, it’s a book about survival that asks us to recognize that small moments of joy, such as the soft touch of a horse’s mane, are still possible. Yes, your heart will break, but read How to Make Friends With the Dark for the gorgeous prose and the characters you’ll be glad you met.
There’s always something to love about a novel narrated by a ghost. Who else can take us so easily through the walls and doorways separating characters, not to mention into their minds and hearts? Like her Printz Award-winning novel Bone Gap, Laura Ruby’s latest book is set in our world, but with the magic touches that make the experience of reading her work anything but ordinary. The setting is World War II era Chicago, and Frankie and Toni have been deposited in an orphanage by a father who cares more for the wishes of his new wife than the happiness of his daughters. The tale of the narrator, the boy she loved, and the racism they faced in their early 20th century society is woven together with Frankie’s struggle to reach beyond the limited possibilities that her own 1940s society had for young women. The characters are nuanced and full of courage, and even the minor characters could have starred in their own books. Bittersweet in many ways Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All, forces readers to reflect on the hardship of women who came before us, and would make a great discussion book for both teen and adult book clubs interested in a fiercely feminist read.
Perfect for readers of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, The Ninth House is set in our world but positively crackles with dark magic! Many readers know Leigh Bardugo’s talent for creating nuanced characters with their own set of questionable ethics from her wildly popular YA fantasies including Six of Crows (and if you don’t know that book, please find a copy right now because it’s one of the best books EVER). Bardugo wrote her latest for adults and will no doubt expand her crowd of devoted fans. Main character Galaxy “Alex” Stern had been tormented by ghosts interfering with her life for as long as she can remember. Her ability to see the dead catches the attention of a dean at Yale University, who offers twenty-year-old Alex a full ride. Surprising since she never even graduated from high school, and the too-good-to-be-true offer does come with a catch. Alex is required to become a watchdog, keeping an eye on Yale’s eight secret societies whose practice of magic to manipulate politics, the stock market, and more is both chilling and dangerous. And they don’t appreciate being scrutinized. After years submerged in LA’s drug culture, always on the verge of homelessness, Alex’s hope that if she could just somehow make this chance work out is really poignant. Then a town girl turns up dead. When the easy answers don’t satisfy Alex, she realizes how seriously she takes her new job. I liked how the author juxtaposes a tough and street-smart character against the privileged prep school crowd at Yale, giving her exactly the qualities that just might help her survive freshman year. Bardugo’s plot is clever and her writing as mesmerizing as always. All I could think as I turned the last page was “how long until the sequel?”
Jacqueline Woodson has a breathtaking ability to tell a complex story in a few carefully chosen words. But exquisite writing is only one of the reasons I loved this jewel of a book. It’s the richly developed characters who really give the story power. Melody is turning sixteen, and her African American family has gathered at her grandparent’s house for a celebration. As a crowd watches, she walks down the stairs wearing the white dress her grandmother purchased for another coming-of-age party, one that never took place. The reason? Melody’s mother, Iris, was fifteen and pregnant. The complications of Melody’s very existence echo through the generations, bringing forward painful memories for each character. At the heart of this book are the choices that Melody and her parents make regarding their relationships to each other as they search for their paths in life. Along the way, Woodson examines the issue of social class within the African American community, making Red at the Bone deeply thought-provoking. My favorite books are the ones that ask readers to look inward and ask “What would I do?” and from that perspective Woodson’s latest shines bright.
I’m always dazzled by writers who can tell a story through verse, with each word fitted like the exact right puzzle piece into a landscape that is both sparse and complex at the same time. At the center of Three Things I know Are True, Liv struggles emotionally while her daredevil brother Jonah struggles physically with the new reality of his traumatic brain injury. Liv’s bond with her brother allows her to communicate better than his caretakers or her mother, who cannot even bring herself to say his name. Across the street is Clay’s family, owners of the gun Jonah used to shoot himself in the head. But who was the careless one? Jonah for yet another one of his reckless acts or Clay’s father for keeping a gun where a 17-year-old could find it? The small Maine town is divided, and a judge will have the final say. As the verdict weighs on both of them, Liv and Clay must find a way to navigate back to the friendship they’d always had and the something more that was just beginning to spark. This thought-provoking book asks readers if forgiveness is possible in a world changed forever by grief and loss, but it’s the strength of Liv’s cleverly written voice and sharp-edged wit that keep the pages turning.
Rule follower Felix and rule bender Benji are reluctant field trip partners on a museum trip, and during lunch break they find a wallet in Central Park. And... woah! According to the driver's license, the wallet belongs to Laura Friendly who founded a Facebook-like app "that parents and grandparents like." So, she's got to be a billionaire, right? And what's $20 to a billionaire? That's like a penny to anyone else. So Benji buys hot dogs, chips, and soda for their lunch with Laura's $20 bill. They turn the wallet in, but instead of a grateful Laura Friendly raining reward money down on the boys, they meet an angry billionaire who decides to teach them the value of a penny. The result is both hilarious and poignant as Felix and Benji race to spend the value of a penny doubled every day for thirty days - $5,368,709.12 - in one month! There are lots of rules - no buying investments - but also lots of pizza for the whole school and in the end many lessons learned about both money and the value of friendship. If author Stacy McAnulty has a super power, it's writing side-splitting books about STEM.