THE LAST LEGACY by Adrienne Young

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When Bryn Roth turned eighteen, she was summoned back to the country of her birth to take her place in her powerful family. But she soon learns that her uncle’s methods of securing and maintaining their power are illegal, underhanded, and sometimes even violent. The first time she one of her uncle’s schemes deliberately puts her in danger, she realizes that she will need to find a way to make herself valuable to the family to avoid being used again.

Unfortunately, her uncle has other ideas of how she can be of use to him in his bid for a coveted merchant’s guild ring. And his plans keep bringing her into conflict with Ezra, the surly and infuriating silversmith that Bryn finds herself unwittingly drawn toward. As her uncle plots to sell her to an influential merchant in marriage, Bryn desperately tries to distance herself from the dangerous family politics by immersing herself in her late mother’s legitimate business. But when lies and betrayals come to light, Bryn learns that if she is to have any hope of a future independent from her uncle, she will have to embrace all the aspects of being a Roth.

Young returns to the cutthroat world of the FABLE duology for a story of political intrigue and forbidden love. Fans of FABLE and SKY IN THE DEEP may be surprised at the almost courtly start to this novel, as the well-bred, gown-wearing young woman arrives to take her place in her powerful family. But the story quickly gets underway with all of the grounded world-building and visceral story experience you can expect from Adrienne Young. The plot kept me guessing, the characters surprised me, and the romance threw me off-balance in the best possible way. This was one of my favorite books of the year. Highly recommend!

GUSSY by Jimmy Cajoleas

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Gussy knows never to open the gates after dark. It’s one of the first things she learned from Grandpa Widow when he trained her as a Protector: if you open the gates after the sun sets and the rites have been performed, the Great Doom could slip inside. But there’s a girl outside in the desert, and if Gussy leaves her out there in the middle of the hailstorm, she’ll be dead before morning. Gussy wishes Grandpa Widow hadn’t left, leaving these difficult decisions up to her. But then, there’s really only one choice. Gussy opens the gate.

At first, it seems like things are going well. There’s no sign of the Great Doom, and although the girl is a little odd–and determined to practice strange magic in Gussy’s house. But the mayor is acting oddly, and strange people are sneaking around in the dark. And when the first sinister signs of the Great Doom appear, Gussy will have to embrace her role as Protector and save the villagers–whether they want her to or not.

This charming story is both grounded and transportive, told through the quirky, confident voice of Gussy herself and set in a desert community where rituals and faith that would not be out of place in our world blend with the magic of the fantasy. Though the magic system itself isn’t revolutionary, the way it fits into the rich, unique world- and character-building makes it feel truly inventive. This novel is a wonderful choice for middle grade readers who love to be immersed in a fantasy world with characters they’d love to hang out with.

THE LAST GOODNIGHT by Kat Martin

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When they pull Kade’s estranged wife’s car from the lake, old wounds reopen. It’s been eight years since she was murdered, and the cops have given up on solving the case. But no matter how painfully their marriage ended, Kade can’t live knowing her killer hasn’t been brought to justice. Though his last attempt at hiring a PI went nowhere, he hopes new evidence from the recovered vehicle could revive the cold case. But he didn’t expect the PI to be a woman–an attractive and charismatic woman who makes him feel things he swore he’d never give into again.

Eleanor was eager to take the job at Kade’s ranch and confident that she could find his wife’s killer. But she soon realizes she made a mistake. She’s still confident she can find the killer, but she’s not confident she can resist her employer. Her lust is reciprocated and the two soon fall into a torrid affair. But as a mysterious enemy begins a violent assault on the ranch and Eleanor’s resolve to stay emotionally detached falls victim to Kade’s charms, she doubts either one of them will get out of this unscathed…

This suspenseful, lust-at-first sight romance will satisfy many fans of the genre. The majority of the tension and conflict in the plot comes from the external dangers while the relationship faces only superficial and easily-overcome obstacles. For romantic suspense readers who like their characters to have to fight as hard for their love and personal growth as they do to survive, this novel will fall short. But for readers who like a thriller plot with a hearty dose of steamy sex scenes, this new series-starter is a solid pick.

THE SWAG IS IN THE SOCKS by Kelly J. Baptist

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Xavier’s great uncle Frankie Bell is a legend. The man is seriously old, but he hasn’t slowed down one bit. He’s still traveling the country with his jazz band, making music and making history. And apparently, he’s decided it’s time for Xavier to step up his sock game.

The socks Frankie Bell sends are crazy–bright colors, wild patterns, the kind of socks that call attention to a person. And with his stutter, Xavier doesn’t usually like calling more attention to himself. But lucky things happen every time Xavier wears Frankie Bell’s socks. He finds money on the street, gets free ice cream, even catches the attention of eighth graders. That’s a really good thing because some of those eighth graders are members of the Scepter League, an elite group of young men built on the pillars of leadership, education, service, and character, and it’s Xavier’s goal to get inducted this year. But once school starts, the sock luck seems to run out. First, Xavier’s art elective gets canceled, and he winds up in sewing class where he is the one and only boy. Then, there’s the usual embarrassment of being pulled out of class for speech therapy. But when isn’t invited to join the League, Xavier finally realizes that the socks aren’t the problem. If he wants to catch the attention of the League, he’s going to have to step up more than just his sock game. He’s going to have to stop hanging back and start speaking up–start living Frankie Bell’s legacy. And socks are a great place to start…

A powerful story with a humorous and authentic narrative voice, THE SWAG IS IN THE SOCKS is a wonderful pick for middle grade readers and book clubs. Baptist challenges readers to stop putting people in boxes and to search for their own “thing,” even if that talent or interest isn’t socially acceptable. Between the humor and Xavier’s quest to join the League, there is plenty to keep young readers engaged and turning pages. A great addition to any middle grade collection!

ALL THE FEELS by Olivia Dade

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Alex is being punished. The showrunner for the wildly successful fantasy cable show Alex has acted in for the past nine years doesn’t even ask him whether the tabloid stories about a drunken bar fight are true (which, for the record, they aren’t…mostly). He just assigns Alex a babysitter. Lauren Clegg–or Nanny Clegg, as Alex prefers to call her–is joyless, unless she enjoys killing Alex’s joy, in which case she must be overflowing with well-disguised mirth. Because Nanny Clegg is in charge of making sure Alex doesn’t do anything fun or interesting (read: embarrassing to the production) for the next nine months until the final season of the show airs.

After leaving her job as an ER therapist, Lauren had been looking forward to a break. But when her mother asks her to do her cousin a favor, she can’t exactly say no–not without causing family drama–and so she ends up as the babysitter of a TV star who is by all accounts a wild, irresponsible party boy. Within a few days of knowing Alex, however, she begins to suspect that the tabloids–and her cousin–have gotten him all wrong. In fact, with the exception of some impulsive behavior stemming from his ADHD, Alex seems like a responsible and compassionate person. As their relationship develops from something purely professional into a real friendship, Lauren’s loyalties are tested. But it is Alex’s devotion to Lauren (surely just friendly devotion, right?) that ends up causing the next scandal, costing Lauren her job and Alex his career. With their professional relationship over and both of them steeped in guilt over the fallout, Alex and his one-time nanny will have to figure out how much sacrifice their friendship is worth–and whether friendship alone is really enough.

This hilarious, swoon-worthy, steamy romcom picks up the love story of two secondary characters in Dade’s bestseller, SPOILER ALERT, and if it’s possible, I think I liked this one even better(?!). Mostly because Alex, but also because the issues of self-worth and sacrifice were so powerful and accessible. Also, despite Alex’s occasionally juvenile sense of humor, the relationship was extremely mature: gradual to develop and always respectful, without the kind of lies and deceptions that often provide the tension in romance plots. I certainly enjoy lie/deception based suspense, but sometimes it’s nice to sink into a romance where the relationship is actually pretty healthy throughout and it’s the characters’ need for individual growth that creates the obstacles to their relationship’s success.

FYI, you do not need to have read SPOILER ALERT to read this one. You can read them in either order. If you have read SPOILER ALERT, you will notice that ALL THE FEELS has less fanfic but don’t worry: it still has plenty of amazing references to fanfic romance tropes (and, of course, pegging).

THE UNHEARD by Nicci French

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Tess and her ex have been effective co-parents since they split. He is happily married, and Tess is content in her relationship with Aidan, even if she’s not comfortable letting him spend the night yet. (At least not when her three-year-old daughter is home.) But when Poppy comes home from her dad’s house with a drawing of a woman being pushed out a window–and the cryptic message “he did kill and kill and kill”–Tess begins to fear that she witnessed something terrible. The police dismiss her as paranoid, but when a woman that Tess met at a cafe who claimed to know her (and Poppy) is murdered in the exact manner of her daughter’s drawing, Tess is certain that it must be connected. And if the murderer is someone that Poppy knows, then all of the men in Tess’ life are suspects–and she and Poppy are in very real danger.

Fans of psychological suspense won’t want to miss this mystery with a possibly-crazy narrator and an edge-of-your-seat climax. The protagonist gives us every reason to mistrust her judgment–and yet as we know there’s a murderer on the loose (and we are reading a thriller), we are left to calm our own anxieties over whether one of her many male acquaintances is truly a villain, or whether her obsession is blinding her to another lurking danger. Another triumph for Nicci French, and an excellent addition to any collection of adult mysteries and thrillers.

A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

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Addie’s school year is off to a bad start. Her teacher accuses her of being sloppy and lazy and tears up her story in front of the entire class. Addie’s older sister warned her about this teacher–about how she doesn’t like autistic kids–but Addie had hoped it wasn’t true. Making matters worse, Addie’s old best friend has stopped hanging out with her and is instead spending time with the class bully who has it out for Addie.

And then Addie learns about the witches.

They weren’t really witches. They were just women who were different–like Addie–but the people in their Scottish town killed them for it. Addie knows it isn’t right that nothing has been done to apologize to these women and honor them, so she starts a campaign to build a memorial for them. Because maybe if she can make her town care about this injustice of the past, they might start to realize that “different” people aren’t as scary or dangerous as people seem to think.

From the feeling of electricity that comes with sensory overload to the exhaustion of masking to the sense of pride and identity and unique strengths of being autistic–this middle grade novel captures the reality of one autistic girl’s voice in a way that was entirely relatable to me as an autistic reader–and (I believe) accessible to neurotypical readers as well. Although it is in many ways a book about what it is like to be autistic, it is never overly explanatory, making it as much a story for autistic children as about them. I felt an enormous sense of connection with this text–I felt seen–and I’m an adult; I can only imagine that the experience is more poignant for those neurodivergent readers at the same stage of life as the protagonist. Add to this wonderful autistic representation the compelling plot, horrifying villain (the bullying teacher), and underdog heroine you can’t help but fall in love with, and you have a perfect title for any middle grade contemporary collection or book club. I’m so glad this novel finally made it over to the US. I highly recommend it!

THE STARS OF WHISTLING RIDGE by Cindy Baldwin

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Ivy and her two sisters have spent their whole lives on the road, living out of an RV and watching their mom grant other people’s wishes. But it’s because her mom is a fallen star with the ability to grant wishes that Ivy’s own dearest wish will never come true: to have a forever home, a place to put down roots.

As her thirteenth birthday approaches, Ivy takes a desperate chance, stealing nine wish jars from her mother and opening them all at once. Making so many simultaneous wishes gives Ivy pneumonia, but when her fever breaks, the RV is parked–broken down, actually– in her mother’s star sister’s town of Whistling Ridge. Pneumonia aside, Ivy is ecstatic; the town is a perfect place for a forever home! But all is not well in Whistling Ridge. Something is draining the magic and making Aunt Agatha sicker and sicker. And as Ivy researches the town’s history to try to convince her family to stay, she starts to realize that finding a cure for her aunt might require a sacrifice Ivy isn’t sure she can make.

This imaginative, immersive middle grade fantasy gripped me from page one. I’m a sucker for a well-intentioned protagonist who makes terrible choices! Every character is well-developed and authentic, and the problems are relatable even in their fantasy. I highly recommend this one to fans of contemporary magical realism and to middle school book clubs!

The Stars of Whistling Ridge: Baldwin, Cindy: 9780063006416: Amazon.com:  Books

KEEPING IT REAL by Paula Chase

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Mari can’t believe her parents didn’t tell her that their company was running a summer internship for aspiring fashion designers. The program was practically made for her! And her best friend (and secret crush) Justice is one of the three lucky kids who were accepted. When Mari confronts her parents, they explain that it was their intention to give opportunities to kids from less privileged backgrounds than her own, but Mari can’t let it go. She’s tired of being one of the only Black kids at her elite prep school, tired of all the code switching she’s required to do just to fit in. A hip-hop style internship will be a perfect opportunity to be herself–and spend some extra time with Justice.

But her plans go awry as soon as the internship starts. The two other girls see her as the boss’s daughter instead of a fellow intern. Even Justice is treating her differently and spending all his time with Kara, who for some reason seems to hate Mari’s guts. Kara doesn’t even seem enthusiastic about the program, and Mari can’t understand why she’s even there. But as the internship progresses and Mari struggles for acceptance, a long-buried secret will come to light, one that will test Mari’s world-view, her resilience, and her capacity for forgiveness.

This hard-hitting (but fun) middle grade novel explores the complex dynamics of privilege and class within a Black community. Mari’s authentic and realistic pre-teen voice will be accessible to middle school readers, who will see their own struggles to fit in reflected through her experiences. I highly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary realistic fiction and to middle school book clubs!

THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins

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Camping may not have been the best idea for Neena and Josie’s last adventure before college separates them. Neither of them has ever been camping before, and it isn’t long before they’re exhausted and lost on a lonely mountain trail. With Josie watching fearfully for bears, and Neena trying to stifle her fear of running into a dangerous criminal in the isolation of the forest, their nerves quickly fray, and it isn’t long before they begin to fight. But the fight ends abruptly when a horrible accident leaves Josie trapped in a pit, Neena racing down the mountain alone for help. Unfortunately, their fears weren’t just in their imagination, and the worst kind of predator is on the prowl…

After a slow start, blood-chilling, violent terror drives an unputdownable second half of this psycho/serial killer horror novel. The psychological suspense in the first half wasn’t enough to keep me from skimming, but for the second half, I couldn’t look away. I’d recommend this to horror fans who love books with high stakes and physical violence.