Here's what Jenny is recommending.
Fans of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy will be thrilled to learn this new series-starter brings more adventures with Kell, Lila, Alucard, and Rhy! I found the latest book to be layered with one richly-drawn, intertwined plotline after another. Seven years have passed since the events of A Conjuring of Light, and in Red London, Rhy sits precariously on the throne ruling a magical land without magic of his own. A dark shadow looms, a league called the Hand, whose members are bent on overthrowing the monarchy, which puts not only Rhy in danger, but also his child. Still captain of her own ship, Lila Bard is charged with tracking down a stolen magical artifact capable of creating doors to other lands without the use of Antari magic. As for Kell, the traveler who launched the original series in A Darker Shade of Magic? It’s heartbreaking to watch my favorite character struggle to live with his Antari magic broken, but his swordsmanship rivals Lila’s now. In the midst of all this, Schwab has created a stunning new character to love. Tes is a repair-shop assistant, a tinkerer, and a girl who can literally see strands of magic. She becomes the missing piece we didn’t know we needed in the sparkling fantasy world of the four Londons. If you are already a fan, you’ll want to read this on pub date, and if you haven’t read the original three books? Hey, you’ve got the whole summer!
At the start of her first year of college, Brooke moves into a house with two roommates and only one house rule: no unnecessary drama. Brooke’s anxiety makes her more of the rules in a color-coded binder (or possibly a spreadsheet) type, but she’s trying to disguise herself as chill and fun. But that all goes out the window when one of her two roommates turns out to be Jesse, the high school friend she awkwardly kissed at a party four years earlier. His clumsy and very public denial that he might actually like her romantically left a scar so painful that Brooke never spoke to him again. To keep their no-drama roommate Harper from kicking them out, they pretend to get along in front of her which leads to laugh-out-loud moments of misunderstandings and even some fake-dating. The enemies-to-lovers trope is well played here, and the side characters are a delightful bunch, including an ex-boyfriend, a failed blind date, and Brooke’s wild older sister, the cheerful one who everyone loves. Brooke is such a relatable character that I found myself thinking over and over, “Yeah, that would totally happen to me.” Teens will love Brooke and her gang of friends, but don’t miss out on the hilarity and drama just because you’re a grown-up!
The wit of the original fills this contemporary and queer YA retelling of Emma, and like Austen's Emma, Emmett’s cluelessness about love makes for an irresistible read. He’s quite earnest in his quest to make the world a better place though, and to Emmett that means volunteering at a soup kitchen, running the winter carnival at his high school, and trying to set up all his friends (and even his current fling) with boyfriends. But for Emmett himself, it’s ‘no thanks’ to love or romance, because that might lead to loss and therefore the misery he’s watching his dad go through. Like Emma, Emmett’s own judgey demeanor is invisible to him, and I both laughed out loud and winced more than once at his conviction that he’s absolutely right about absolutely everything. But who doesn’t love a flawed protagonist? I certainly do, and Emmett, both the book and the boy, completely charmed me.
The set up for The Deep Sky, the debut sci-fi novel by biracial Japanese and American author Yume Kitasei, is as creative as it is disturbing. Main character Asuka left behind a planet earth embroiled in war and catastrophic climate change. Along with a crew of eighty, she’s aboard the Phoenix, a spaceship crossing the universe to settle Planet X, when a bomb explodes and jeopardizes the first trip beyond our galaxy. The captain and two others are dead, and the loyalties of the remaining seventy-seven are constantly shifting as they search for the person responsible. No one knows who to trust, and if the flight pattern can’t be corrected in a matter of days, all aboard will drift endlessly in the wrong direction until all the oxygen is used up. On top of all this, many of the crew members are pregnant, as being capable of carrying a child was a prerequisite for the trip. As the last selected for the mission, Asuka feels like an imposter, but during the extensive years of training she proved capable of puzzling her way out of realistic simulations of worst-case scenarios. I found the sci-fi tech exciting and plausible, and The Deep Sky works as a thrilling page-turner. But the novel also becomes extremely thought-provoking when the motivation behind the sabotage is revealed. You’ll think about this one long after turning the last page.
If you have kids in your life, or if you are one of those super smart grownups who knows picture books are the best books, then Have You Seen My Invisible Dinosaur? by Helen Yoon is a must-read! Everyone will laugh out loud at the ingenious ways our heroine uses to track down her invisible dinosaur after he disappears following his bath.
The 14th century Chinese classic The Three Kingdoms told stories of betrayal, greed, ambition, and plenty of scheming. Joan He reimagines this epic work as a young adult novel with a feminist bent, giving the role of hero to a girl named Zephyr. She’s a strategist with a wily, brilliant mind, who contrives ways to outsmart enemies with a small but loyal army led by a warlordess. From the beginning, Zephyr’s bold, somewhat arrogant voice drew me into her story, and I loved her verbal clashes with Crow, strategist to a rival army. The way the two also speak to each other through music played on a zither is absolutely charming and has all the makings of enemies-to-lovers romance. Not much in a Joan He novel is ever quite what it seems though. The plot twist this time takes the book in a direction I can only describe as equally humorous and heartbreaking, and the cliff-hanger ending has me longing for book two!
Alexandra Rowland’s latest novel is a lush fantasy, with a setting evoking the Ottoman Empire and a plot filled with palace intrigue, betrayal, and a glorious enemies-to-lovers romance. All that is plenty to draw me in, but the main character, Prince Kadou, really stole my heart. He’s a complicated bundle of anxiety, terrified of losing his sister, the reigning sultan, and scared his actions might cause pain to another person. One of the few people he’s not overly protective of is himself, which leads to clashes with his new bodyguard, Evemer. He finds the prince’s behavior self-indulgent and heartless. Prince Kadou has a rare talent, a magical ability to detect the purity of metal, and he and Evemer become drawn into an investigation of counterfeit currency circulating through the kingdom. Their hasty judgments of each other's character begins to shift as each questions the loyalties of everyone around them. Watching Prince Kadou and Evemer navigate what they truly mean to one another is really the soul of this delightful novel. You’ll be glad you met these two as you think about them long after turning the last page!
High school senior Shara Wheeler kissed her boyfriend, his ex-best friend, and her rival for valedictorian, Chloe Green. And then she disappeared, leaving behind cryptic notes and rumors. Where did she go, and why? Chloe doesn’t want to care, but she does. Finding Shara sends repercussions through the whole senior class in this clever YA novel from the author of One Last Stop.
Olive is one of those lively middle grade narrators whose voice pulls readers right into her story. She’s creative and funny and determined to live a life full of adventure. At age twelve, her brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, has kept her home from school, but she dreams of attending Macklemore Middle School and finding a BFF. Olive may be fragile, but that doesn’t mean she’s not capable. Even so, convincing her protective parents that it's time to let go turns out to be easier than actually fitting in once she gets her chance. Hummingbird is a terrific novel of friendship and sacrifice, and I loved this story for the characters that captured my imagination. But the believable way the author weaves magic into the story makes this book a real gem.
Sadie Green lost her best friend, Sam, at age twelve. Did she betray him unforgivably, or was she just a kid caught up in a situation she didn’t know how to escape from? That question, and the concept of betrayal, haunt Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Seven years later, Sadie and Sam crash into each other's lives again as college students while standing on a train platform in Boston, and they seamlessly pick up a conversation as if it had never broken off. These are two people who finish each other's sentences. Roommates and partners drift along on the periphery of their lives while Sadie and Sam obsess over the thing that brought them together in the first place: video games. Both are creative geniuses, and the first game they design together propels them from obscurity to fame in the gaming community. The result is messy, at times hilarious, often heartbreaking, and never without emotions that feel so raw they almost bleed off the page. Ultimately, this is a book about connections, the ones we find, the ones we lose, and the ones that nearly do us in. I’m not a gamer (though they’d probably love this book), but it doesn’t matter. Gabrielle Zevin drew me into her world with her flair for telling a powerful story and her mesmerizing take on what it means to love.
2022 is shaping up to be an excellent year for time travel novels. Literally one super-star read after another, and as I write this, it's only February. In This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub's take on the time-travel twist, we don’t need to understand the science behind main character Alice’s journeys to her past, just her motivations for going back to age sixteen - first accidentally and then on purpose. At the start of the book, she’s forty, and it’s apparent that Alice is not living her best life. Her father, the most important person in her life, is dying, and everyone else is caught up in the chaos of their own life or is just dull background noise in Alice’s. So, when the opportunity arises, Alice tries to rearrange her present-day life over and over again from the springboard of her sixteenth birthday. Fixing certain problems often leads to bigger problems and lots of laughs for the reader, but the heartbeat of the novel is Alice’s relationship with her dad. Her longing to somehow adjust his path by changing her actions gives This Time Tomorrow a sense of poignancy and tenderness. Trust me, you’re going to fall in love with Alice and the people who stumble in and out of her life over the course of this absolutely delightful book.
Signing up for physics her freshman year of college was a mistake that becomes clear the moment Barrett sits down next to the unbearably annoying Miles, a know-it-all who puts her on the spot in front of the class and the professor for absolutely no reason. She’s never seen Miles before in her life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know each other. It doesn’t take long for Barrett to figure out she’s become stuck in a time loop of endless Wednesday the 21st of Septembers. And caught there with her? Ugh. Miles. What ensues is hilarious and very nearly broke my heart (not unexpected for a Rachel Lynn Solomon novel). Writing a book set almost entirely in just one day is challenging, but Solomon’s creativity makes for a real page turner. Barrett’s combination of outspoken and insecure land her in trouble with every repeat, while Miles pretty much has to be dragged out of the physics library, where he’s determined to find the scientific solution to reaching Thursday, September 22nd. Barrett’s sense of adventure doesn’t mesh with Miles’s cautious personality, so watching the two learn to understand each other makes for a charming read. I’m not giving anything away to tell you that my favorite enemies-to-lovers trope is well played here, but the path to Thursday, September 22nd leads through an unexpected and epic twist that fans of YA romance won’t want to miss.
Sixth-grader Zia Angelis loves words, and when she doesn’t have the exact word to express what she means, she makes one up. The shadows and darkness inside her chest that make her want to curl up in a ball become the Shadoom, a feeling giving her countless worries and isolating her from her former best friends. Despite her many fears, Zia is a lively storyteller and her observations about the world around her lead to laugh-out-loud moments for the reader. When her difficult and unhappy grandmother, who is sliding into dementia, moves in with Zia and her single mom, she brings along an old family dictionary with an odd accessory - an eraser shaped like an evil eye. Imagine you could erase everything that scared you from the world by erasing the word from the dictionary! That’s just what Zia learns to do, and the results are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Do pain and fear have a place in the world, along with the dreaded audition? This heartfelt book both asks and answers that question in a way that gently guides young people towards a recognition of depression in both themselves, their classmates, and their families. Not to be missed by middle-grade readers or their grown-ups.
Phoebe Oppenheimer arrived in the world seventeen years after her triplet siblings, but as she likes to point out, she’s exactly the same age. Sally, Harrison, Lewyn, and Phoebe started as four embryos in a petri dish, three implanted, and one sent off to be frozen and just about forgotten. The triplets don’t exactly create the loving, close family their mother Johanna envisioned, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that they can’t stand each other by the time they leave for college. In addition, their dad has checked out of their lives, supposedly (but only partially) due to his obsession with his art collection. Johanna, still hoping to create the blissful, loving family of her dreams, makes what feels like an impulsive decision, but actually did take quite a bit of planning. She hires a surrogate to carry the embryo that becomes Phoebe, the child nobody really wanted (including Johanna), but perhaps the one they all needed. Her wise and slightly cynical voice carries the novel from beginning to end, catching the reader up on all the many things she missed out on through her arrival seventeen years too late. She’s one of the few people you won’t want to strangle by the end of the book, but if you like messy family dynamics, then this one is a winner!
Not only is Upgrade a fast-paced thriller, but author Blake Crouch takes a deep dive into the science of DNA. Since I find our genetic code fascinating, I couldn’t put this novel down. Main character Logan answered for the catastrophic destruction unleashed on our planet by his scientist mother, and he served time in prison following her death. After his release, several decades in our future, he’s a detective investigating labs suspected of modifying DNA, which has become illegal. When a mysterious virus targets him specifically, he recovers to find he’s now an upgraded version of homo sapien, with increased strength and speed and the ability to recall everything he’s ever read and process new information instantly. Who did this to him and why? The answer seems to lie with his sister, who also received an upgrade. They’ve seemingly been handed the task of saving humanity from a decimated planet, but along with these skills comes an ability to think critically without letting emotion guide them. So much of this book is food for thought. Perhaps the biggest question of all: if saving our species means giving up what makes us distinctly human, is it worth the price?
As humans, what do we really want in life? You can probably think of lots of things, but I’m going to guess that connections with others are definitely in the top three. Besides her brilliantly crafted sentences, the sometimes significant, sometimes small ways her characters and her books connect to each other make Emily St. John Mandel’s books unforgettable and so compelling. The Sea of Tranquility is her best yet for tying together some loose ends that I didn’t even realize were loose. I loved revisiting characters from previous books in timelines that sometimes cross one another but often run in parallel universes. It’s not a spoiler for either book to say that Mandel’s novel Station Eleven appears in The Sea of Tranquility as a novel written by one of the characters. The most significant connection of this fictional author’s life is made on a book tour to promote it. And if you are like me, the beauty of the ending will make you cry. All that said, these connections are bits of joy implanted in the book. You don’t need to have read previous titles. The Sea of Tranquility will keep you up reading late into night, and you’ll carry the story in your thoughts as you go about your day, constantly checking the time, waiting for the minute you can return to Emily St. John Mandel’s exquisitely built world.
Ingrid Yang doesn’t want to write a PhD dissertation; she wants to have written one. Waiting for her on the other side of the inconvenient dissertation is an (almost) guaranteed tenured position at a small, Northeastern college and therefore a lifetime of the one thing she wants above all else: security. If only she could motivate herself to actually like the poetry of Xiao-Wen Chou, a Chinese-American poet as beloved to high school English teachers as Robert Frost. Or find one single original angle on his writing. That would work too. Or maybe she should just become an accountant (though she’s not entirely certain what they do). Then a handwritten note appears in an archive box she’s looked through a thousand times. And that note changes everything. Uncharacteristic sleuthing and social justice protests follow as the plot twists, allowing Ingrid to begin to grow into the person she’s meant to be. Elaine Hsieh Chou takes on cultural appropriation in her own unique way in this devilishly clever novel. I read it with the words “Are you kidding me?” on a never-ending loop through my brain, but the truth is, no, she isn’t kidding. Because both the author and the character have experiences I can’t comprehend, from racist jokes at their expense to the ache of having what is rightfully theirs usurped by a person from a non-Asian background. So while the hilarious portrait of Ingrid’s many struggles made me laugh, the writing also made me imagine life outside my own skin, and both these make Disorientation a must-read. Ingrid Yang doesn’t want to write a PhD dissertation; she wants to have written one. Waiting for her on the other side of the inconvenient dissertation is an (almost) guaranteed tenured position at a small, Northeastern college and therefore a lifetime of the one thing she wants above all else: security. If only she could motivate herself to actually like the poetry of Xiao-Wen Chou, a Chinese-American poet as beloved to high school English teachers as Robert Frost. Or find one single original angle on his writing. That would work too. Or maybe she should just become an accountant (though she’s not entirely certain what they do). Then a handwritten note appears in an archive box she’s looked through a thousand times. And that note changes everything. Uncharacteristic sleuthing and social justice protests follow as the plot twists, allowing Ingrid to begin to grow into the person she’s meant to be. Elaine Hsieh Chou takes on cultural appropriation in her own unique way in this devilishly clever novel. I read it with the words “Are you kidding me?” on a never-ending loop through my brain, but the truth is, no, she isn’t kidding. Because both the author and the character have experiences I can’t comprehend, from racist jokes at their expense to the ache of having what is rightfully theirs usurped by a person from a non-Asian background. So while the hilarious portrait of Ingrid’s many struggles made me laugh, the writing also made me imagine life outside my own skin, and both these make Disorientation a must-read.
If you, like me, are waiting not-so-patiently for Leigh Bardugo to write the sequel to her adult novel, The Ninth House, here’s something to keep you busy in the meantime. Holly Black’s first foray into writing for grown-ups is an urban fantasy with a stunning mix of magic, horror, heists, and the perfect amount of impossible romance. There is nothing I love better than an author who creates a believable twist on magic, and Black’s world building is outstanding. Every page feels overcast and dark, and no wonder; human shadows are infused with power to be sold or traded and even killed for. Additionally, her characters are nuanced and sharply portrayed. Main character Charlie tries to keep a low-profile as a bartender, hiding from her past as a thief, but as in all the best novels, that past just won’t leave her alone. Her sister and seemingly perfectly nice boyfriend struck me as not to be trusted from the beginning. Were my instincts right? Find out for yourself on May 3rd! But here’s a warning for you, clear your schedule before you turn to page one, because you won’t put Book of Night down until you reach the gasp-out-loud last page.
No question, Bee and Nick are soulmates. They share a sense of humor and live by the rule that you can never have too much David Bowie in your life. Both are in a dark place when it comes to romance, and they can’t believe their luck when a misdirected email brings them together. So what if things sometimes feel a bit… off? Like Bee thinking the currency in England is pounds, not euros, and Nick having no idea what the word “app” means? Their decision to meet in real life has disastrous consequences that threaten to keep them apart forever. Because it isn’t just their pop culture references and currencies that don’t line up perfectly; neither, as it turns out, do their universes. This parallel universe romance sucked me in from page one and never let go. I loved reading the story from two points of view on opposite sides of the mesh separating Bee and Nick. Particularly interesting were the different trajectories taken by the characters. But the real pulse pounding thrill came from wondering how it could ever work out for them. No spoilers here. Let’s just say that if you like your sci-fi romances nice and twisty, this is the book for you.
I loved this middle-grade story about a second chance to save a friendship that crashed and burned during middle school. Mason and Ty are seniors in high school when the story starts. They don’t speak to each other - EVER! The reason? Her name is Ava. She’s smart, independent, and funny, and back in seventh grade, she chose slightly nerdy science geeks Mason and Ty to be her best friends. After a couple of serious crushes split the group up everyone went their own way, and Mason never really got over his lost friendships. When a twist of fate gives Mason a chance to live seventh grade over again, with all the memories of his seventeen-year-old self, he’s determined to stay out of Ava’s way. Gordon Korman has a wonderful knack for telling an emotionally wrenching story in a way that makes us laugh ourselves silly. He weaves the time travel aspect into the book by making it the subject of a science project that ties everything together - but can we change the future by redoing the past? That’s what keeps the pages turning. Middle grade fans should move this delightful book to the top of their 2022 reading list.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If I Was a Horse is about a child who imagines all the things they would do as a horse. This playful picture book with beautiful illustrations makes for a great story-time. What would you do if you were a horse? A wonderful picture book from Sophie Blackall that you’ll be glad you read.