THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

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It’s not that Becca doesn’t want to visit her father in his new home in Austria. It’s just that she’s terrified. Of flying. Of metal detectors. Of soft-boiled eggs. Really, anything that normal people consider safe is fair game for Becca’s Doomsday Journal: a list of her fears and the worst case scenarios that could result from them.

Still, somehow Becca makes it all the way to Austria, and when faced with the au pair she doesn’t want and a new “friend” she doesn’t need, she’s determined to survive the eight weeks until she can go back to her mom’s house in Virginia. But when Becca starts learning about her au pair’s experiences as a Bosnian refugee, still separated from her mother and brother, Becca’s fears start to feel small by comparison. Although she knows she can’t just make her anxiety goes away, she decides to start using her Journal as her therapist intended: as a way to work through some of her fears on paper so that she can do more things without panic attacks. And once she starts working out her own fears, Becca starts to wonder if she might be able to help the refugees somehow, too.

I loved this middle grade historical fiction novel. Becca is a funny but authentic narrator and the setting in Austria is so real that I felt like I was on vacation (a rare treat in a pandemic…). Yet the Bosnian War in the background brought more serious thematic threads that added both suspense and layers of nuance. I highly recommend this novel to fans of middle grade historical fiction, fans of middle grade contemporary novels set in escapist locales (like ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, for example), and book clubs for 4-7th graders.

The Thing I'm Most Afraid Of: Levine, Kristin: 9780525518648: Amazon.com:  Books

YOU’D BE HOME NOW by Kathleen Glasgow

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Emory’s brother comes home from rehab, she hopes life will change for the better. Or as good as it can get after Joey nearly dying from a heroin overdose and Emmy nearly dying in the car accident that killed a classmate. At the very least, Emmy hopes to become less invisible. Maybe her parents will finally start paying some attention to her, instead of just to Joey and all his problems. And maybe the boy next door that she’s been hooking up with for ages will finally acknowledge her in public.

But even though neither of them was driving, the school community blames Emmy and Joey for their classmate’s death. And it turns out that Joey’s return from rehab is just the beginning of a long, arduous journey in his recovery from addiction. As Joey’s life crumbles again–and Emmy’s sex life becomes public in the worst possible way–a new community begins to form, and the hope Emmy had abandoned gradually flickers back to life.

Gorgeous prose and an infusion of classic literature elevate this story of a community’s coming-of-age into something truly exquisite. The suspenseful plot pushes readers along while authentic and complex emotions pull us deeper into the characters’ world. Though the novel takes on two mammoth social problems (the opioid crisis crisis and slut-shaming culture), Glasgow anchors them both in her protagonist’s struggle to be both noticed and respected by her family and community and also in the subplots of the parents and school community struggling to see outcasts as human beings. This novel is a must-read for any fan of YA contemporary fiction!

YOU’RE SO DEAD by Ash Parsons

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Plum’s older sister Peach Winter barely speaks to her anymore. She’s not doing it to be cruel. It’s just that since her business as an influencer took off, she hasn’t had much time for anyone. Especially not a baby sister who’s going nowhere back in her hometown in Alabama. But when an invitation to an exclusive festival on a private island gets delivered to the wrong P. Winter, Plum finally has a chance to go somewhere–even if it’s just for a weekend.

As soon as Plum and her two best friends show up on the island, though, they realize something is wrong. There are no famous people–just a handful of low level internet personalities. There is no entertainment. There’s barely even any food.

And then the murders start…

The mystery-thriller plot of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE meets the comic ridiculousness of CLUE in this new YA thriller. Don’t get me wrong–this is a murder mystery and the serial killer will keep you on the edge of your seat–but what makes this novel work is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The premise is over-the-top, but not unrealistic given the over-the-top reality of private-island-festivals and Influencer culture, and there is always a thread of humor, or a comment on the absurd extravagance of the murder’s pageantry, even at the most tense moments. It’s not true farce (like EAT YOUR HEART OUT), but it’s a heart-pounder that will also make you laugh (+ a warm-fuzzy friendship subplot). I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t need their thrillers to be dark.

Amazon.com: You're So Dead: 9780593205129: Parsons, Ash: Books

THE VIXEN by Francine Prose

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Simon was thrilled to be offered an editor position at a prestigious New York publishing house right out of Harvard, but he’s not off to an auspicious start. First, he had a confrontation with his disgruntled predecessor, who’d been fired for the “indiscretion” of becoming pregnant without being married. And then, his boss assigned him the manuscript: The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a terribly-written bodice ripper that makes a mockery of Ethel Rosenberg.

It has been a year since Ethel was executed for a crime she claimed not to commit. It didn’t matter what she claimed. McCarthyism had the country in its grip, and no one would dare suggest that the country’s most notorious Commie traitors were innocent–especially not Simon, who closely guards the secret that his mother used to live in the same tenement as Ethel. But he can’t shake his disgust at the way the deceased mother of two is portrayed in the novel. Against his better judgment, he decides to seek out the reclusive author, Anya Partridge, who is an inmate at a mental hospital, hoping to convince her to soften her portrayal of Mrs. Rosenberg. Instead, he gets drawn into a torrid affair with the enigmatic author. And when Anya disappears, the mystery she leaves in her wake is full of as much political intrigue as the Rosenberg case itself.

This literary historical novel has an immersive, noir feel that kept me turning pages throughout the slow-boil mystery. Rich characters and difficult moral questions propel a story that lingers long after the final pages. This novel has a classic feel that will appeal to intellectually-minded adult book groups and lovers of literary fiction.

Amazon.com: The Vixen: A Novel: 9780063012141: Prose, Francine: Books

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

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Since the car accident that took the lives of Moth’s parents and brother, she has been living with her aunt in a Virginia suburb where all the other kids (most of them white) do their best to ignore her. Moth doesn’t mind. She has been doing her best to make herself invisible. If she hadn’t lived so exuberantly before, maybe there would have been enough life available in that hospital for the rest of her family to walk out, too.

When a Navajo teen starts at her school just before summer break, Moth finds herself connecting with another person for the first time since her family’s death. Sani is a musician, always drumming on his desk, reminding Moth of her life before the accident, when she danced as easily as she breathed. And when Sani flees his abusive stepfather at the same time that Moth’s aunt vanishes, it seems like fate that the two should go on an adventure together, in search of healing and their history. On a roadtrip across the South toward Sani’s father in New Mexico, a romance blossoms as they each connect with their ancestors’ experiences and grapple with the magic and miracle of first love and their place in the universe.

This beautiful YA novel-in-verse explores the ways that our ancestral history and romantic love can both root us in the world and set us free. Poignant and surprising, the story brims with complex emotions and exquisite yet authentic poetry. Fans of Elizabeth Acevado and anyone looking for a thought-provoking, immersive literary novel will not want to miss this gorgeous debut!

THE CURSE OF THE PHOENIX by Aimée Carter

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Zac has always suspected that his father took a job that kept him away from home all week because he couldn’t handle the stress of Zac’s allergies and medical issues, but now Zac knows for certain. Since their mom died, it’s his twin sister, Lu, who’s been helping him with his medications and his inhalers, and after an officially vicious asthma attack, his dad finally announces that he’s sending Zac away–Zac and Lu, actually–to live with an aunt they’ve never heard of in England.

When they arrive on their family’s land, however, something immediately takes Zac and Lu’s mind off their father. Their mother’s relatives live on a vast estate called the Wildewoods where they are caretakers for the animals. Not normal animals, but dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and even a phoenix! As Zac and Lu explore the magical kingdom, they suddenly feel closer to their mother than they’ve ever been, realizing that all the stories she told them as children were actually true. Unfortunately, they also discover a terrible secret about the cause of their mother’s death and an ancient curse that could doom them–either to a life without the father they’re still missing or to an early death themselves. But Zac and Lu have always been partners in crime, and they’re determined to break the curse before it breaks them.

This family-focused, imaginative middle grade fantasy will appeal to animal lovers and mythology lovers–and anyone who likes a good adventure story! Even though it’s not based on single specific mythology, I’d put this one in the hands of Riordan fans, Fablehaven fans, and fans of brother/sister adventures.

Curse of the Phoenix: Carter, Aimée: 9781534478442: Amazon.com: Books

UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR by TJ Klune

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Wallace Price is not a good person. He doesn’t try to be. Being a good person wouldn’t have helped him build his law firm from the ground up, and it certainly wouldn’t help him keep the firm profitable. Maybe he’d have more friends, and maybe his wife wouldn’t have divorced him, but relationships have never been as important to him as work, and that’s the way he likes it.

Until he dies.

Wallace is alarmed to find himself at his own funeral, shocked by the abysmal attendance and scathing eulogy, and terrified out of his intangible, ghostly skin when a Reaper whisks him away to a tea shop in the forest. There, a living man named Hugo identifies himself as the ferryman, the person responsible for helping Wallace transition from life to death–or more specifically, from death to whatever life awaits him after death–through the mysterious door in the ceiling of the tea shop attic. Wallace isn’t particularly eager to cross over into the unknown, but neither is he excited to continue existing in a haunted tea shop with Hugo’s annoying (dead) grandfather and exuberant (dead) service dog. Yet as Hugo helps Wallace process his grief over his own death, his attachment to the world–especially to Hugo–becomes stronger, and the thought of venturing through the door becomes less and less appealing. Because now that he’s dead, Wallace has finally begun to live…

Readers that are willing to trust Klune with their hearts will have them broken, healed, and filled to bursting through this tender exploration of the meaning of life (and death). Like Klune’s recent bestseller, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA, UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR is full of emotional swells, humor, quirky characters, love, deep thoughts, and a touch of whimsy. Wallace’s personal growth drives the plot while a quiet, mature romance blossoms along the way. It is another stunning novel that will draw in both fantasy readers and readers who tend to prefer literary fiction (add it to your adult book club list!). This novel won’t capture all of the CERULEAN SEA fans, specifically those who are craving another charming and escapist magical island. Rather than immersing the protagonist in the child-centered emotions of wonder, joy, and tolerance to catalyze his change, UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR is about the transformative experience of grief. It is hopeful, hilarious, and uplifting, but also you will cry (at least, I did). Still, Klune earned every one of my tears through the sheer immersive beauty of his story, and even days after finishing it, I am still smiling. I highly recommend this one!

TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH by Beth Vrabel

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Trixy’s excellent storytelling ability came from her grandmother. While her grandma was alive, Trixy spent hours just soaking up her stories. She knows them all by heart. But in the six months since the traumatic accident that took her grandma’s life, the stories have been causing nothing but trouble. Trixy isn’t listening to her teacher, isn’t even getting her homework done, because she can’t stop telling stories. When her teacher suggests that she start writing down memoirs to get the storytelling out of her system, it’s her grandmother’s stories that pour out onto the page. The stories are so captivating and inspirational that they start changing people’s lives–not just Trixy’s, but her classmates’ and even her teacher’s. It seems like a no-brainer that Trixy should submit the stories to the library’s nonfiction writing competition. The only problem is that the judges can’t believe that the stories could possibly be true. Trixy is certain that all of her grandma’s stories are based in fact–after all, her grandmother hated liars–and she intends to prove it. But to do that, she’s going to have to stow away on the adventure of a lifetime…

This spirited, heartfelt middle grade novel has a strong, memorable voice and an exciting plot that make it hard to put down. But the core of the story is family and the life-changing power of story. Recommend to readers in grades 4-6 who enjoy contemporary fiction with humorous, quirky narrators.

SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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The Roberts-Darling family is changing. It changed once before, in the best possible way, when Lily’s mother married Wendy’s father and the two stepsisters became best friends. It grew again when Michael was born. But this change feels different. George Darling and his daughter Wendy will be moving to New York and Lily, her mother, and Michael will be staying behind in Tulsa, close to their Muscogee Creek heritage. This time, the family isn’t growing; it’s growing apart. And as the differences of opinions of the parents trickle down to the children, the stepsisters aren’t sure they’ll ever be best friends again.

But Lily and Wendy aren’t the only people who have been listening to their parents’ whispered fights after bedtime. A boy has been hovering outside their window, along with a tiny fairy. When Peter and Belle finally make their presence known, Wendy is captivated by the magical flying boy, but Lily senses something sinister. For one thing, Peter calls Lily an Injun, and though she doesn’t know exactly what that means, she’s certain that it’s rude. For another thing, when Peter flies out the window, Wendy follows–bringing Michael with her. It isn’t like Wendy to be so thoughtless. There’s something more than flying magic in that fairy dust. Lily chases after her siblings, finding her way to the magical Neverland where Peter has imprisoned generations of children, never letting them return home. Lost on the island and desperate to reunite, both Lily and Wendy will have to find the courage to brave the dangers of Neverland and the humility and forgiveness to become a family again.

There is so much to love in this beautiful story of family and redemption. Smith not only acknowledges the morally troubling aspects of Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy but also gives a voice and agency not only to her Muscogee Creek protagonist but to the other Native people on the island. In fact, all of Smith’s characters are complex and well-rounded–a much needed revision of Barrie’s original. And yet, SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is truly a revision, not a rejection. The omniscient narration nods to the style of Barrie’s work while being accessible and smooth enough for modern young readers. While Peter Pan’s flaws are brought to the forefront, this is a story of redemption, not a horror story. If you (like me) loved the fantasy of Neverland as a child but grew shocked by racism once you began to recognize it–or if you were injured by the hurtful stereotypes in Peter Pan and need your own redemptive experience with the story–SISTERS OF NEVERSEA is a wonderful book to share with your children or your middle grade students or book club.

Sisters of the Neversea: Smith, Cynthia L: 9780062869975: Amazon.com: Books

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

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Ambrose can’t remember the launch. He knows he’s on a spaceship bound for Saturn’s moon Titan, tasked with rescuing his sister, Titan’s only colonist. But he can’t remember the launch.

And he certainly doesn’t know why he was in a coma.

The ship’s OS assures him that he will recover and have plenty of time to finish all of the necessary maintenance on the ship to prepare for their approach to Titan–especially since the ship has a second spacefarer. Another surprise. When he meets Kodiak, the surly and infuriatingly attractive spacefarer from Dimokratía, Earth’s most backward, sexist, and homophobic country, Ambrose suspects he would be better off alone. But that’s before Ambrose discovers blood smeared on a panel in the engine room, blood that OS claims to know nothing about but which Kodiak is able to date to 5,000 years in the past–a time before the ship could have possibly existed. As they work to unravel the mystery, trying to somehow hide from OS’s constant surveillance, Kodiak and Ambrose quickly realize they will have to put mistrust and national rivalries aside if they want to survive.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US is both 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque sci-fi and YA queer romantic suspense. If you thought you only liked one of these genres, think again. This book will change your mind. It is both true to the classic tropes of each genre and somehow fresh and inventive in their application. It has humor and heart, gnarly moral situations and thrilling action, devastation and hope. This summer has seen a wealth of exceptional YA releases, but this one really stood out to me. It will be tricky to use in book clubs because there is sex, but I will definitely be recommending and displaying it. If you are a fan of either YA sci-fi or romantic suspense, this novel is a must-read!

The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer