SOCIAL DISTANCE. READ TOGETHER.

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There are two reasons I don’t link to big box stores or book sellers when I recommend a book. Of course, I hope my readers will borrow from their local public libraries (as I do!). But I also hope that when readers purchase books, they’ll support independent book shops.

Patronizing local small businesses is more important now than ever. To find a local bookstore near you, check out this handy search: https://www.indiebound.org/indie-store-finder

FIGHT FOR HER by Liz Plum

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When her brother Max died, something inside Scarlett broke. Being alone was almost torture–a chance for her mind to spin out of control in an eddy of what ifs. Fortunately, since she started dating Jack, she’s rarely had to be alone. Between attending Jack’s football games and parties, hanging out with Jack’s friends, studying, and working at her dad’s auto mechanic shop, Scarlett is almost too busy to think.

But after a chance encounter with the school freak, Elijah, makes her realize the effect of Jack’s bullying, she starts to see the flaws in her relationship. And when she and Elijah become friends, she gets sucked into an underground boxing ring and uncovers secrets from her past.

Though you wouldn’t know it from my blurb above, the second half of the book reads like a thriller–street fighting, guns, gangs, murder… But the gradual, romance-centered start makes FIGHT FOR HER a much better pick for fans of YA contemporary/romance than for the mystery/thriller crowd. Pick it up if you like love triangles and bad boys.

ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE by Tanya Guerrero

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Alba’s mother has finally given up on her. Why it was now–not the first time she got detention, or the time she cut off all her hair–Alba doesn’t know. Maybe her father insisted. He gave up on Alba a long time ago, and her mother wouldn’t dare contradict him.

But whatever the reason, Alba’s mother puts her on a plane to Barcelona, to live with the grandmother she barely knows in a country where she doesn’t even speak the language. She expects to hate it, but when she arrives, she discovers that her grandmother is compassionate and loving–a complete difference from her cold and distant mother. And when she meets her mom’s former best friend, a baker, Alba discovers two things: first, baking bread is a great way to soothe her anxiety; and second, her mom might have been a completely different person before her dad came along. As Alba settles into her new life in Barcelona, she finally begins to come to terms with her father’s abuse and to rebuild the broken relationship with her mother.

Spousal abuse is a heavy, heartbreaking, and (unfortunately) necessary topic for children’s collections–for the many children who have witnessed such abuses and every child who needs to build empathy for people with those experiences. For her middle grade readers, Guerrero softens the potentially disturbing subject matter by removing Alba–and soon her mother–from the environment where the abuse occurred, limiting the scenes of abuse to memories and devoting the entire action of the plot to healing, rebuilding relationships, and forging a new life in a safe community. Highly recommend for older middle grade readers who enjoy character-driven realistic fiction in rich settings and don’t mind some heavier themes.

THE BURNING GIRLS by C.J. Tudor

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Perhaps it’s best that the bishop is reassigning Jack. After all, she doesn’t enjoy being “the vicar with blood on her hands.” Maybe in getting away from Nottingham, she and her teenage daughter, Flo, can escape the scandal, escape the memories of little Ruby–and Jack’s husband–and start anew.

But Chapel Croft, Sussex, might be just a bit too far from the life she and Flo know. The isolated country parish isn’t enthusiastic about a female vicar. And Jack soon learns that Chapel Croft has scandals of its own. From the legends of the two young girls burned to death in the sixteenth century (and allegedly still haunting the chapel) to the disappearance of two teenage girls in the ’90s to the suicide of Jack’s predecessor, the village has a dark past. It isn’t long before Jack and Flo get sucked into the mysteries–all of which seem to point back to the Church itself.

I literally read this book in one sitting. The e-reader did not leave my hands until I got to the end. It’s dark and layered–full of twists to keep you guessing and underlying questions about the nature of evil, spirituality, and free will. Whether you are a fan of psychological thrillers, suspense-heavy mysteries, or Kingian horror, this is one you’ll definitely want to check out!

ROSIE LOVES JACK by Mel Darbon

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When Jack doesn’t arrive at the cafe on time, Rose knows something is wrong. She races up the hill to their inclusive college and is just in time to share one last hug with Jack before the police take him away. He’s had another outburst, and this time, he’ll need to go to a special facility to help with controlling his anger.

Rose’s dad is happy that Jack has been sent away. He tells Rose to forget him and confiscates all the postcards Jack sends her. But Rose can’t forget Jack. She loves him. And she knows that her dad is being overprotective because she has Down syndrome. Rose is not going to let her dad or her disability keep her away from Jack. She runs away from home, determined to find Jack in his new home in Brighton. But a fierce snowstorm turns her travel plans awry, and Rose will need to rely on her thinking cap and her love for Jack to survive the dangerous journey ahead.

Heads up: this book gets DARK…. Rose’s journey pits her against bullies, thieves, and even sex traffickers. As she faces each challenge, her love for Jack and hope for their future keep her from giving up. While Darbon does an excellent job in creating Rose’s voice and an action-packed plot, she falls short on Rose’s overall character development. The romance is certainly heartwarming–and shows Rose’s acting with her own agency when her parents want to limit her choices–but throughout the book, Rose defines herself only in terms of her relationship with Jack. It was really all I knew about her interests by the end of the book: Jack, Jack’s artwork, her future marriage to Jack. This would annoy me in any romance, but is particularly disappointing in a romance featuring a couple with disabilities.

The strength of the book is Rose’s courage in facing–and ultimately assisting the police to take down–the sex traffickers. Her “friendship” with the fifteen-year-old imprisoned in the brothel and the ways in which they ultimately help one another was my favorite aspect of the book. And the courage she finds to go to the police in the end is incredible. The challenges she faces would (and do) daunt even typically-abled characters, and you will reach the end of the novel knowing that Rose’s disability does not make her weak.

In short, I’d recommend ROSIE LOVES JACK as a thriller or contemporary fiction with a unique narrative voice, but as a romance ft. a couple with disabilities, I wish it were more nuanced.

THE STOLEN PRINCE OF CLOUDBURST by Jaclyn Moriarty

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It is easy to overlook a middle child, especially when she’s as overwhelming ordinary as Esther. But being overlooked can have its benefits. Eavesdropping, for example, is much easier when people don’t know you’re there. And though it’s probably just an oversight, there is technically no rule against eavesdropping at her magical boarding school.

When her year gets off to a rocky start, Esther’s eavesdropping leads her to some startling discoveries, and she soon realizes she’ll need to hone more of her espionage skills. Because Esther is the only one who knows that the Spellbinder has been compromised, that the new teacher is more sinister than she appears, and that their entire school–maybe their entire world–is in terrible danger from the Shadow Mages.

And though she has no idea how, she suspects that the whole crisis connects back to her cousin the adventurer and the poor little prince who was stolen away by the sea.

This latest installment in the Kingdoms & Empires world will not disappoint, either as a standalone novel or a companion to …BRONTE METTLESTONE and/or THE WHISPERING WARS. Esther’s deliciously quirky voice and indomitable personality are an excellent hook at the start and later, an accessible lens through which to view the complex social issues Moriarty explores throughout the novel. Fun, original, accessible–highly recommend!

CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY by Steven Salvatore

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In their heart, Carey is a diva. Their mom must have had a glimpse of their future when they named them after Mariah Carey. Of course that glimpse of Carey’s destiny didn’t clue her in that her child was genderqueer. Fortunately, ever since Carey came out last year, their mom has been a fierce advocate who continues to try to understand and educate herself about Carey’s identity and experiences.

Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t as awesome as Carey’s mom. Their best friend Joey has been distant. Their classmate Max tortures them with microaggressions during class (and more overt bullying everywhere else). Even teachers and administrators discriminate against them.

So when the hot guy who is for some (incredible!) reason interested in dating Carey encourages them to audition for Elphaba in the school musical, Carey has a choice to make. Will they find the courage to fight the hateful people–and their own self-doubt–and live their dream? Can a small group of activist students overcome the powerful forces determined to silence them?

Carey’s diva-dreams play into a plot that is at times larger-than-life, including a deus ex machina defeat of a villain. In contrast, some passages early in the novel read as informational–explaining Carey’s gender identity, how they* came to understand their identity, and related terminology. This slows the narrative but may be helpful to less-informed readers or any reader who is exploring their gender and might resonate with the part of Carey’s story that happened before the book begins.

The strength of the novel, though, is its depiction of Carey’s mental health journey. The effect of misgendering, bullying, and microaggressions on Carey is raw, realistic, and heartbreaking. Since they already know who they are at the novel’s start, Carey’s emotional journey is not toward self-knowledge, but toward self-acceptance–toward realizing how much they have internalized and believed the lies of a hateful society that tell them they are “broken” or without value. Importantly, Carey seeks (and receives) help from a professional therapist as well as his family and friends.

Therefore, CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY has a hard-hitting and multi-faceted value for YA collections. It allows genderqueer teens to see themselves reflected in literature; it allows communities to see a path to allyship and the genuine damage caused by people who fail to take a strong stance against discrimination; and it gives teens with depression, anxiety, or PTSD a positive example of how to seek mental healthcare and the difference it can make in their lives. And ultimately (thanks to Carey’s awesome community and diva-dreams) we also get an uplifting, triumphant conclusion!

*Note: In this recommendation, I have used the pronouns they/them/their when referring to Carey because they use those pronouns most often in the book. But Carey also uses she/her/hers and he/him/his depending on how much feminine or masculine energy Carey feels on a given day.

THE MANY MYSTERIES OF THE FINKEL FAMILY by Sarah Kapit

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Lara started FIASCCO (that’s Finkel Investigation Agency Solving Consequential Crimes Only) because she wanted something that was her thing. Everyone else in the family is good at something–or more than one thing in the case of her infuriatingly perfect cousin Aviva–and Lara just wants something that’s hers and hers alone. Why can’t her younger sister Caroline understand that?

But Caroline doesn’t understand. Why won’t Lara let her help with FIASCCO–especially considering that when they’re at school and Caroline desperately wants to be left alone, Lara won’t stop hovering? It’s Caroline’s first year of middle school–and her first year of attending school without an aide. She doesn’t need one; with her tablet, she can communicate just fine. She knows Lara is trying to help–and that since her sister has autism too she can predict some of the challenges Caroline might face–but how is she supposed to make friends when Lara keeps scaring them off?

When a blossoming friendship drags Caroline far out of her comfort zone, however, she might need her sister’s help after all. And when Lara’s detecting leads her to discover their dad has been fired, she realizes that some crimes are too “consequential” to be solved alone.

Though the premise may snag some mystery readers, at its heart, this novel is contemporary realistic fiction; rather than solving suspenseful mysteries, the girls “detecting” leads them to learn more about each other–and themselves. THE MANY MYSTERIES… is sweet, funny, and impactful, with family and friendship predicaments that will be immediately accessible to any 4-6th grade reader.

Both protagonists have autism, and the book features other neurodiverse characters, as well. All of the characters have realistic and well-developed personalities, giving readers in the Autistic community a chance to see their experiences reflected and normalized–and giving neurotypical readers the chance to “get to know” a diverse group of kids with autism and see a story unfold through their perspectives.

An excellent read and a must-buy for your MG fiction collection!

THE PRINCESS SPY: THE TRUE STORY OF ALINE GRIFFITH, COUNTESS OF ROMANONES by Larry Loftis

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Though Aline Griffith’s contributions to the war effort in 1940s Europe were entirely clandestine, her life after leaving the OSS was anything but. She married into Spanish nobility, attended parties with stars like Audrey Hepburn, and published a series of sensational memoirs about her time as a spy.

But how much of Aline’s memoirs was sensationalism, and how much (if any) was truth? Larry Loftis set out to answer these questions and in THE PRINCESS SPY, brings the real Aline Griffith to light. Though there were fewer murders and death-defying feats than her memoirs suggest, Aline’s impressive fieldwork, her involvement in a lesser-known theater of the war, and her courtship with various bullfighters and noblemen make her a fascinating figure by any measure.

Though Aline’s story anchors the narrative, Loftis includes deep-dives into the overall work of the OSS in Spain, especially where it involves her recruiter, Frank T. Ryan, and colleague Edmundo Lassalle. For this reason, I would recommend THE PRINCESS SPY not only to biography readers but also to any WWII or military history enthusiast who enjoys narrative non-fiction.

THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AIDAN S. (AS TOLD TO HIS BROTHER) by David Levithan

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When they first discovered that Aidan was missing, they thought he was playing hide and seek.

By the end of the first day, they were in a panic.

By the end of the week, they were looking for a body.

So the last thing Lucas expected when he went up to the attic was to find his big brother lying on the floor in front of the old dresser–alive, disheveled, and muttering about visiting another world.

Aidan’s story is so absurd that no one believes him. His parents are frustrated that he won’t tell them where he really was. The town is furious that their search efforts were wasted on a liar and a runaway. His classmates mock him, calling him Unicorn Boy. Only Lucas seems to wonder if Aidan might be telling the truth–and if knowing might be less important than believing.

THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AIDAN… sits near the intersection of thriller, mystery, and magical realism, but it might find most of its readership among fans of contemporary fiction. Though the suspense brought by questions of “what really happened” and “what is true” drives the plot, thriller fans might be disappointed by the slow-boil plot–and mystery fans by the lack of clues and investigation. But contemporary fiction readers will relish the deep exploration of themes of acceptance, trust, bullying and community. By drawing these themes out of a fantastical event (Aidan’s story of visiting another world), Levithan gives readers an opportunity to connect these themes into their own lives without pigeonholing any specific real-life scenario. (Though one of the most beautiful moments in the book is the casual, matter-of-fact introduction of Aidan’s boyfriend near the end; that way, the world of the story is thoroughly inclusive–Aidan never judged or bullied for his sexuality–but the parallel between the need to accept Aidan’s truth (about the fantasy world) and the need to accept people in general for their true selves (e.g., sexual identity) is difficult to miss.) It’s a highly literary and masterful way of exploring these complex themes. A great book for book clubs and classrooms (but possibly not for your mystery/thriller fan).

“I loved Netflix’s BRIDGERTON, but will I like the books?”

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If you are anything like me and had already read Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, halfway through the first episode you had Questions…

Her debut season? A diamond of the first water? Daphne?? And why is Anthony being such a tool about her suitors? (And in general?) And wait–Daphne and Simon don’t like each other? And why is the queen involved in any of this? And who the heck is Marina Thompson? Oh her–but isn’t she…? So why…? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?

Of course if you are like me, you also believe that “different from the book” does not mean “worse than the book,” so you quit with the comparisons and settled in to enjoy the show on its own merits.

But if you are one of the many Bridgerton viewers who had not read the book, but who watched in the series three times in a row and are now going though Bridgerton withdrawal and wondering if you should get the books… this post is for you!

The answer to your question depends on why you liked the series. So I will give a breakdown of the big picture similarities and differences (NO SPOILERS beyond Episode 1 in case you haven’t finished) so that you have an idea of whether the books will be for you.

If you love Daphne, read the books! She is if anything more lovable. Daphne is in her second season in the Marriage Mart because too many of the “good” men view her as a friend. And though the show plays on the “enemies to lovers” trope, in the books she and Simon are BFFs from the moment they meet (when they bond over Daphne punching a suitor in the face). She has turned down several suitors she wasn’t keen on by the time she meets Simon, and Anthony (who is much more likable in the books) is wholly supportive of herĀ wishes. If he weren’t, she’d punch him in the face…

If you love Simon, you should know that he is less likable in the books. Not that he’s awful, but some of the events that happen in the book were changed slightly but deliberately in the show to make Simon look better. BUT that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the books. Each book has a different hero (and heroine) and honestly, Simon and Daphne aren’t my favorite couple. So if you find yourself disgusted with Simon in The Duke and I, you should still read The Viscount Who Loved Me because Anthony and Kate are awesome. (If you don’t like The Viscount Who Loved Me, you probably won’t like the rest either.)

If you love Penelope and Eloise you’ll have to wait for books 4 & 5 or skip ahead. And in the meantime, you might be annoyed at some moments of Eloise as Generic Girly Younger Sister. Don’t worry. She’ll come into her own.

If you love the whole Bridgerton family dynamic, read the books! The in-depth exploration of non-Daphne Bridgerton characters is saved for each of their specific books so don’t expect any subplots from Anthony, Benedict, Eloise, etc., but the camaraderie, affection, and FUN is there from book one. Speaking of which…

If you love the drama, be advised that there is less in the books. There are fewer subplots, and the overall tone is just lighter.

If you love the social commentary, you might like the books. The Netflix series draws on and deepens some themes that are present in the book. For example, the theme of a woman’s options and agency is present in The Duke and I, but Daphne is more confident from the start. Anthony gives Daphne her choice of suitors (acting more as a messenger to turn down proposals as she rejects them); Lady Bridgerton is head of household in all but name and Anthony defers to her; Lady Danbury is never shown as subordinate to anyone. Marina Thompson isn’t in any of the books, (though her absence plays a role in a later book). My point: though the chains of the patriarchy and societal expectations limit and direct the characters’ actions in the book, there is much less straining against the bonds.

But if you love the show specifically because of the alternate history and commentary on racism, give the books a miss. The reinvention of the racial make-up of the ton extrapolated from the historical Queen Charlotte’s possible African ancestry is exclusive to the show. In the books, you will not find the racial overtones that accompany Marina Thompson’s reception by her “elite” relatives or Simon’s view of his position in society. But you will find an occasional (unrepudiated) casual racism from the characters, like this moment in The Duke and I:

“Now look here,” Simon said hotly, “I’m not some sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered on the altar of your mother.”

“You have spent a lot of time in Africa, haven’t you?” Colin quipped.

Though likely historically accurate, such remarks will disappoint readers looking for meaningful commentary on racism either yesterday or today.