THE WIZARDS OF ONCE by Cressida Cowell

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Xar, the son of the wizard king, is known for being a troublemaker–disobedient, destructive, leading his ragtag entourage of sprites and snow cats into all kinds of danger. And the fact that at thirteen his magic still hasn’t come in makes him even more unruly. Wish, the warrior princess, is downright weird. Her limp, her eyepatch, and her odd interests make her hardly fit to call herself a warrior. But the mischief of these two sworn enemies reaches new heights when two forbidden errands collide in the Badwoods. Xar has come to set a trap for a witch, the darkest, most evil magic creature ever to exist, which everyone believes are extinct, but whose magic Xar hopes to steal. Wish enters the Badwoods chasing her pet, an iron spoon that must be magic and is therefore thoroughly forbidden (much to her young Assistant Bodyguard’s anxiety). She also has a magic sword she found near her mother’s dungeon that has an inscription claiming that it kills witches. And unfortunately for both Wish and Xar, that sword may be blood-curdlingly necessary.

As much as this novel is the thrilling start to a creative and engaging new fantasy series, it is a coming of age tale for two very different protagonists, each struggling to find a place in their respective society and to work through a complicated relationship with their respective intimidating parent. I suspect that the cheeky omniscient narrator would have annoyed me had I not been listening to the brilliantly performed audiobook. But otherwise, I loved everything about it. Can’t wait for the next installment!

I highly recommend the audiobook (performed by David Tennant), a well-deserved Odyssey Award Honor recording.

THE GENIUS PLAGUE by David Walton

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It has always been Neil’s dream to follow in his father’s footsteps in the NSA. Unfortunately, he’s not quite the ideal candidate, with no college degree, no computer coding experience, and a seemingly disasterous set of missteps in his interview process. Yet somehow he lands a job on the team of NSA problem solvers tasked with cracking the impossible codes no one else can solve. At first the work is tedious, but as certain bizarre messages begin to come through, the team realizes that people all over the globe have somehow been infected with the same fungal virus that Neil’s brother, Paul, brought back from a harrowing ordeal in Brazil. Paul and the other victims exhibit advanced intelligence, but also display other behavior changes that connect them to group of Brazilian terrorists. As Neil and the team try to make sense of the seemingly impossible events unfolding around them, an international conspiracy emerges that could threaten the survival of the human race.

Fun, fast-paced, and full of interesting tidbits about mushrooms. I thoroughly enjoyed this sci-fi thriller! It’s light on the sci-fi, so a good fit for thriller fans, adult and teen!

LITTLE FISH by Ramsey Beyer

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Ramsey knows that she wants to go to art school and that she does not want to stay in the Midwest. She loves her small town, her family, and her friends, but something is calling her to Baltimore–and not just the punk scene. As she begins her college education in an unfamiliar environment, Ramsey navigates the challenges most college freshmen experience such as homesickness, adjusting to new freedoms, more difficult coursework, and new relationships. This graphic memoir will appeal to high school realistic fiction and memoir fans, especially seniors about to experience their own freshman year.

JUST LIKE JACKIE by Lindsey Stoddard

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Robbie’s temper is no secret. So if Alex Carter didn’t want to get punched in the face then he shouldn’t have made fun of her name. She is not named after some robin bird. She is named after Jackie Robinson, and everyone knows it. But not everyone knows that her grandfather’s memory is slipping, that he sometimes forgets where he is or where he’s going, or how to do simple things that he once did so well. And Jackie has to work hard to keep this a secret, because her grandfather is the only family she’s ever known, and she’s not about to let anyone tear them apart. But Robbie didn’t count on the Family Tree project at school that begins to bring all of the secrets in her life–and the lives of her classmates–to the surface.

This beautiful and engaging story was a fun read thanks to its vivacious narrator. The book deals with themes of race, identity, community, and what family means. Ultimately, Robbie will find a much larger family than she ever expected. I thoroughly enjoyed this new realistic fiction novel and would highly recommend it to middle grade readers.

BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty

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Jane moved to Pirriwee on a whim. Really, everything she’d done since Ziggy was born had been a whim, not just the frequent moves. But in the small seaside town she immediately strikes up an unlikely friendship with feisty, queen bee Madeline and kind, perfect Celeste, and Jane begins to feel a sense of community for the first time in five years. Unfortunately, not everyone in Pirriwee is immediately friendly to the single mom, and when Ziggy is accused of bullying, the kindergarten moms divide into vicious factions. It would all be somewhat funny, if there weren’t a murder on the horizon. . . .

This book grabbed me not so much from the suspense of impending murder (although there was some of that) but from the suspense in Jane’s and Celeste’s life stories. If you enjoy character driven realistic fiction with a bit of suspense, check it out!

THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan

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A man travels to a foreign country, seeking a better life for his family. He arrives in a strange new land with bizarre language, buildings, and creatures. Even food is unrecognizable. As he begins to find his way, he encounters immigrants from other places, each with a different story of how they came to this unfamiliar land. By the time his wife and daughter are able to join him, he is ready to help other new arrivals navigate the world he once found so unnavigable himself.

Though its pages are few, this wordless graphic novel contains a wealth of meaning in its detailed and imaginative illustrations. The artist has captured the alien feeling of being isolated in a new place through fantastical cityscapes, while moving his character through a chain of interactions with other immigrants that builds a sense of community and universality around the immigrant experience. This beautiful story is not one to rush through. I’d recommend it to teens and adults who enjoy graphic novels and character-driven historical fiction.

FACTORY GIRL by Josanne La Valley

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Roshen loves her world. Despite increasing involvement from the hated Chinese government, her Uyghur community continues to honor their own way of life and their Muslim faith, and Roshen is excited for what life holds for her. She will go to university, and then, at long last, she will marry Ahmed. But Roshen’s future is derailed when a Chinese official arrives with an ultimatum: either Roshen must be sent to work in a factory in China or her family must surrender their farm to the Chinese government. Although her father would do anything to save her from this work program (from which some girls never return), Roshen will not allow her family to lose their land and their livelihood. She embarks on the harrowing journey to the factory where she is forbidden to wear her headscarf or speak her language. Yet despite the oppressive rules and brutal working conditions, Roshen must find the strength in herself to lead the other Uyghur girls toward hope and survival.

This novel is a gripping glimpse into the oppression of the Uyghur people through the voice of a spirited, powerful, and complex narrator. La Valley spent time among the Uyghur people when writing, and her first hand research shows in the sensitive and well-developed portrayal of Uyghur culture. There is less nuance in the portrayal of Chinese characters–most of whom Roshen perceives as thoroughly evil–but a few Chinese characters exhibiting kindness helps round out the perspective. This realistic fiction novel is an engaging and immersive at a culture and aspect of modern world politics rarely depicted in American YA lit. I highly recommend it.