MILLSTONE OF DOUBT (THRONDIKE & SWANN #2) by Erica Vetsch

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After wrapping up a whirlwind case as an agent-in-training for the Crown, Lady Juliette Thorndike has tried her best to forget Bow Street runner Daniel Swann and the improper, impossible feelings she has for him, a man entirely below her station. Although she and her family have often flouted class barriers, she worries that Detective Swann would only be embarrassed by her interest, a girl from such a frivolous world compared to his own.

But Daniel has some improper, impossible feelings of his own, and when a murder at a local mill looks like the work of anarchists, both Scotland Yard and the Crown get pulled into the case–meaning Daniel and Lady Juliette will be working together once more. As Juliette attempts to comfort (and glean information) from the victim’s grieving daughter, Daniel does some digging into the mill’s enemies. But the case is more complicated than it seemed, jeopardizing not only their hearts but their lives.

A (sweet) Regency romance pairs with an edge-of-your-seat murder mystery in a page turner with plenty of clues to piece together. Vetsch eschews the angst and slow-burn commonly infused in historical mystery relationships, relying instead on the murder itself and secrets from her hero’s past to drive suspense while the detective couple advances smoothly toward their happily ever after. Published by a Christian house, the book’s characters practice Christianity, but spiritual elements are smoothly incorporated with a light hand. A fun read for fans of the genre!

RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

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As a Floramancer and young woman of Afrikan ancestry, Laura has always known the Prohibition targeted her people specifically. When the Great Rust set in in the 1930s, the small-time Negro mages bore the brunt of the blame, even though white Mechomancers were the ones who’d taken the purity of the power imbued in in nature (the Possibilities) and exploited it for financial gain in their Industrial Revolution. But the Blights are getting worse, and the U.S. government has put the dangerous burden of fixing it on the Bureau of the Archane’s Colored Auxiliary.

With few options for gaining a license to practice Floramancy–or even earn enough money to live–Laura takes a new name (the Peregrine) and an apprenticeship with the Floramancer known as the Skylark who is tasked with finding the source of a particularly rotten Blight in Ohio. But when the Colored Auxiliary arrives, the Peregrine and her mentor realize something is wrong. The Blight bears an alarming resemblance to the Klan’s Necromancy–a horrific evil that touched the Skylark’s life once before. And as they travel toward the heart of the dark magic, the Peregrine realizes that there were secrets within her power she was keeping even from herself.

Justina Ireland once again proves herself the queen of historical fantasy, crafting a richly grounded world with a detailed, inventive magic system that both accentuates past evils and demands that readers recognize and analyze alarming trends in the modern world. She perfectly balances her voice with historical colloquialisms and modern sensibility and weaves a cast of nuanced secondary characters to support her heroine. This novel is a must-read for YA and NA fantasy fans! I cannot recommend it highly enough.

THE CURSE ON SPECTACLE KEY by Chantel Acevedo

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Frank Fern√°ndez was looking forward to finally spending a second year at the same school. As fifth grade ended, he had plans with his best friend and the prospect of a cool summer internship at the public library. But then his parents blow his plans to smithereens: they finished their renovation job early, so they will all be moving. Again.

The only consolation is that this time, the historic landmark they’ll be living in and fixing up won’t be a place they plan to sell. It will be their forever home, a lighthouse in the Florida Keys, close to Frank’s grandfather and more connected to his dad’s Cuban culture. But when the family arrives on Spectacle Key, things immediately start to go wrong. The local historical society is protesting their renovations, the dilapidated lighthouse itself seems to be trying to drive them away, Frank’s parents are always arguing, and to top it all off, Frank stumbles upon an old ruin inhabited by a scared, lonely girl who can’t remember who she is or where she came from and who no one but Frank can see. As strange happenings multiply, Frank and his invisible friend suspect that the key to breaking the Spectacle Key curse must be to discover the girl’s true identity–even if it means facing the unpleasant possibility that she might be a ghost.

Atmospheric and spooky, Acevedo’s speculative mystery focuses on uncomfortable truths in personal and community histories and the importance of confronting them to bring about healing and growth. Although creepy, the story stops short of being a truly terrifying horror, keeping friendship and hope in the forefront throughout. I’d recommend this one to fans of middle grade ghost stories and eerie mysteries. It could also suit for a middle grade book club.

THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Maddy did it.

Those were the only words uttered by one of two survivors of the Springfield, Georgia Prom Night Massacre. As the makers of a podcast delve into the history of Springfield and the unsolved mysteries surrounding the massacre that took place a decade ago, they keep returning to the same questions: who was the real Maddy Washington and could rumors of her horrific telekinetic powers be true?

The graduating class of 2014 thought the knew the real Maddy Washington: a quiet girl who wore long skirts and only came to school on sunny days. But when getting caught in the rain causes her straightened hair to return to its natural texture, Maddy’s classmates suddenly realize that she is biracial. After years of passing as white at the insistence of her fanatical, abusive father, Maddy’s life is thrown into chaos, now facing racist microaggressions, all too common in a small town that still holds segregated proms. When an incident filmed by a fellow Black student goes viral, one of the bullies fears that she will be labeled as “a racist” and in order to help clear her name, suggests finally integrating prom. But the media firestorm has turned an uncomfortable spotlight on racism and prejudice in Springfield, sparking conflict in the school and town and leading to Maddy’s discovery of another secret inheritance–one that might send them all up in flames.

Deliberately parallel to Stephen King’s Carrie, including the journalistic excerpts in each chapter, The Weight of Blood both springs from and revolutionizes classic horror tropes, using Carrie’s plot as a vehicle for exploring microaggressions and the weight of a town’s racist history on the shoulders of its younger generations, both Black and white. The narrative follows multiple viewpoints, including Maddy, a white teacher who wants to be a better ally, a white student who doesn’t want to be racist, an unapologetic white racist bully, and the Black football star struggling to find his place among white friends, fellow Black students, and a family split between philosophies of “keep your head down” and BLM-equivalent activism. The result is a nuanced, challenging, story that will stick with readers long after they close the book. Add Jackson’s masterful suspense plotting and gripping character development, and you have an unputdownable masterpiece that will have kids clamoring for more. An essential addition to any YA collection and must-read for horror fans or fans of Jackson’s work in general.

ALL OF OUR DEMISE by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman (Audiobook)

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Sequel to ALL OF US VILLAINS.

Seven teens were chosen by their families to battle to the death in the generational Ilvernath blood tournament for high magic. But none of this year’s champions is content to die. Some want to win. Some want to break the tournament for good. With secrets, twists, and dangers both within the tournament and without, one way or another, the blood veil will fall. The question: will any of the champions survive?

The thrilling, brutal conclusion to the All of Us Villains duology does not disappoint, with astronomical stakes, jaw-dropping twists, and a dose of doomed romance. Emotionally, the story focuses on the teens struggle to define themselves as independent from their families and grapple with the ways they’ve been abused–by parents and by society. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown and Raphael Corkhill, and I was riveted. Character voices felt distinct without being affected. There was one scene I personally found very difficult to listen to read aloud due to the graphic violence (torture, in this case) so be aware that if you usually skim through particularly graphic scenes, this might be one to read yourself rather than listen to. But if you have the stomach for some violence, this is a great audiobook for older teens and adults.

ON THE SUBJECT OF UNMENTIONABLE THINGS by Julie Walton

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Strait-laced high school journalist Phoebe Townsend has a secret life as the Internet’s most detailed and scientific sex blogger. All of her information comes from medical journals and books–really her only sources of knowledge since she hasn’t had sex herself yet–and it answers the kind of questions that she knows should be taught in sex ed classes but are instead swept under the rug by her conservative small town’s “abstinence-only” policy.

But when her decision to open her blog to comments and Q&A attracts the attention of an ultra-conservative local politician, Phoebe’s blog suddenly becomes the talk of the town. Although fellow teens seem grateful for the matter-of-fact information, adults either dislike the blog or are too afraid to get on the mayoral candidate’s bad side. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s work for the school paper has thrown her in the politician’s path, jeopardizing her anonymity. With her secret identity under threat and an unexpected love triangle making her life at school all-too-complicated, Phoebe has to ask: is fighting the stigma against quality sex ed really worth blowing up her life?

Militantly sex-positive in the best possible way, Walton’s novel includes a sprinkling of accurate information about taboo topics, including female masturbation, and a powerful call-to-action to fight for factual, science-based sex ed in high schools. By having her well-informed protagonist choose to wait to have sex until she feels emotionally ready, Walton provides a counter-example for anyone who worries that when kids learn about the existence of condoms they will immediately run out and have lots of promiscuous sex. That’s actually the main thesis of her work: information doesn’t lead to more sex. It leads to safer sex. Couched in an entertaining narrative with an unlikely heroine, repulsive villain, and tantalizing love triangle, Walton’s message couldn’t be more fun to read. I highly recommend this book to fans of YA Contemporary and any public and high school libraries who can get it past their gatekeepers. (Because yup, this book will be challenged. Oh, the irony.)

LOVE ON THE BRAIN by Ali Hazelwood

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For exactly one weekend, Dr. Bee Königswasser is thrilled to have gotten a temporary reassignment as the NIH neuroscience representative on a collaborative project with NASA. She celebrates with wild abandon, not only because this is the first big break in her career since she turned down a position working with her cheating ex (and the ex-best friend he cheated with) but because it will mean a three month break from her insufferable boss and his sexist bullshit.

But then she finds out who her NASA collaborator is.

Dr. Levi Ward has hated Bee since their PhD program, for reasons she’s never understood. And from the time she arrives at NASA, he seems to be sabotaging her, messing with her equipment and “losing” her emails. He seems determined to drive her away, but with her career on the line, Bee is more determined than ever to keep things professional. But when their relationship takes an unexpected twist, Bee will have to not only protect her career but shield her heart from the heartbreak she knows is inevitable.

Fans of Hazelwood’s debut The Love Hypothesis will find another, very on-brand Rom Com to fall in love with. She uses the same tropes (enemies-to-lovers, workplace romance, perfect hero who’s been secretly in love with the heroine since forever) and tops it off with her signature, laugh-out-loud STEM banter. One of few novelists in the genre writing in first person, Hazelwood effectively cultivates a distinct voice from her first novel, and while keeping us out of her hero’s head prevents us from becoming as intimately connected to his interior thoughts as a third-person, dual POV romance would, the focus on her heroine allows for a prominent subplot tackling sexism in STEM. A queer BIPOC romance subplot fills out the story and calls attention to the implicit racism in higher education admissions. Highly recommended to fans of the genre and tropes.

IF YOU READ THIS by Kereen Getten

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Since her mother’s death three years ago, Brie has felt forgotten by her family. Her Nana and aunt and uncle try to be there for her, but they never take her on the kind of adventures her vivacious mother used to imagine up. And her father is always working.

On her twelfth birthday, Brie receives a surprising gift: three letters from her mother, inviting her on one last adventure to her grandfather’s house on the rocky coast of their Caribbean island home. The only problem is that the letter insists that her father join her, and he’s never willing to take the time off work. Starting the journey with her extended family and two best friends, Brie feels her father’s absence keenly. But before the summer is over, her mother’s secret treasure might unlock a deeper connection, not only with her spirit but with all those who love Brie.

Once again, Getten has delivered a deeply moving, community-driven story with a genuine, authentic middle grade voice. The mystery keeps readers turning pages while Brie’s love for her family and longing for a relationship with her dad forges deep emotional connections. This is a must-read for middle grade fans of contemporary fiction!

THE UNDEAD TRUTH OF US by Britney S. Lewis

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Since Zharie’s mother died, her world has changed drastically. There are the practical changes: the fact that she now has to live with her aloof aunt and has had to quit dancing at the expensive studio where her mom used to work.

And then there are the zombies.

Zharie sees them everywhere, kids she used to know with the flesh peeling off of them, but no one else seems to notice anything wrong. She knows it has something to do with her mother, who seemed to be decaying in the few days leading up to her unexpected death. When Zharie meets Bo, a boy who for some reason morphs in and out of a zombie state in her eyes, she hopes that forging a friendship with him will provide some answers about her undead visions. But getting close to Bo just raises more questions–about friendship, love, and how people can be killed but keep on living.

Grief and heartbreak shimmer through Lewis’s poetic prose and symbolic fantasy as she explores the pain that comes with deep love. Within the story, Lewis shares the origins of zombies in Kongo, Haiti, and the Vodou religion. Fans of Amber McBrides’s inimitable Me (Moth) may enjoy this novel due to its lyrical style, heavily allegorical fantasy/horror, and grounding in African diasporic religion (although that last is more prominent in McBride’s work). A great addition to YA literary fiction collections.

I RISE by Marie Arnold

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To most of Harlem, Rosalie Bosia, founder of the social justice organization See Us, is either a heroine or a villain, but to Ayo, she’s mom–and the reason Ayo has no social life. It seems like all of the other almost-fifteen-year-olds at Ayo’s high school are dating and going to parties while Ayo is stuck at community meetings and pasting up flyers. Ayo understand that her mother’s work is important, but she is tired of feeling responsible for fighting racism every second of her life. She just wants to be a normal kid for once, and that’s why she’s determined to get out of See Us.

Unfortunately, her mom has other ideas. Viewing See Us as a legacy she’s leaving to Ayo, Rosalie insists that her daughter take on leadership responsibilities. Although afraid to strain her relationship with her mom, when Ayo finally gets the attention of the boy she’d love to be her first kiss, the stakes for achieving a social life have never been higher. But just as Ayo and Rosalie start to reach an understanding, a police officer shoots Rosalie, gravely injuring her. With her mom in a coma, Ayo is left reeling, following the birthday scavenger hunt her mom left behind and wrestling with the role political activism will play in her life in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Elevated by a poetic voice and a cast of nuanced characters, I RISE examines the experience of being a Black teenager in New York City and the unique burdens that Black Americans have to grapple with. Arnold never shies away from the emotional traumas of racism and microaggressions (including police brutality), keeping her story hopeful by focusing in on a protagonist with a powerful voice, a powerful platform, and the drive to fight. I highly recommend this novel for YA collections and readers who enjoy heavy YA contemporary fiction.