Young Adult

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 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.)

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.

HOW TO DATE A SUPERHERO (AND NOT DIE TRYING) by Cristina Fernandez

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In a world of superheroes, Astrid Rose has the most boring superpower: an extreme ability to schedule every last second of her time. Technically it’s not a real superpower, like the ones of the figures in capes and spandex who fly around New York either saving or terrorizing the citizens, depending on their moral persuasion, but as a premed Cornell student, it is a very useful ability When she learns that Max, the guy she’s been dating, who she’s known since their freshman year of high school, is the legendary Kid Comet, however, her perfectly planned sophomore year suddenly shatters.

After a nasty run-in with Kid Comet’s nemesis, Astrid gets inducted into a special program for significant others of superheroes, a “prevenge” course designed to prevent the need for the superhero to seek revenge for their loved one’s senseless murder by teaching the significant other survival skills. Astrid doesn’t have time for this program, especially once someone starts sabotaging her lab samples and threatening her internship and her grades. Meanwhile, Max keeps blowing off their dates for admittedly important reasons (like saving lives), and even as she grows to love him more deeply, she grows to wonder whether she’s cut out for this relationship. When a supervillain starts stealing samples from Astrid’s lab, she and Max will both be swept up in a dangerous plot, and Astrid will have to decide what she’s willing to sacrifice: her time? her love? her career? Or maybe even her life…

Set on a college campus, this book exists in that “New Adult” space that has great appeal for both teen young adults and adult young adults (as well of some of us who are even older than that!). The narrative voice hooked me immediately (third person present tense with a tongue-in-cheek vibe that kept reminding me of Slaughterhouse Five, although the subject matter is very different). In the tradition of most great Sci-Fi, Fernandez uses her hard Sci-Fi world as a lens to explore real world issues, in this case, the uncertainty of love and commitment, the fragility of human existence, and how to stop existing and truly live in a dangerous and frightening world. I am head-over-heels for this book, and if you love both Sci-Fi and Rom Coms, you will be too!

TWICE AS PERFECT by Louisa Onomé

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Adanna Sophie Nkwachi is no stranger to pressure. She’s always top of her class (or second in her class after her debate partner, chief rival, and maybe-crush Justin) and rocketing toward a career in law. So she can handle being a bridesmaid to her diva cousin and her Nigerian pop icon fiancé, no matter how many times she changes her mind on the dresses, and even if it means deciding whether she wants to cause a furor among the aunties by inviting her other maybe-crush Tayo as her plus one like he insists she should. She can even handle being two different people: obedient Ada in her close-knit Nigerian community and driven Sophie at school.

But a group project in art class? That’s too much.

The required art elective at school doesn’t seem to be getting Ada any closer to her law career, and the assignment pushes her out of her comfort zone. Worse, it throws her into the orbit of her estranged brother, Sam, who became a poet at some point during the six years they haven’t seen one another. But Ada’s encounters with Sam–and with poetry–make her dig deeper into her past and into her heart. Is it possible for her to be a perfect daughter and be happy? Maybe the epic wedding of the year is the perfect chance to reunite her not-so-perfect family.

Onomé builds an immersive, character-rich world around her protagonist in this heartfelt contemporary novel. As she learns more about herself, Ada finds a place for herself as an individual within her family and her community and negotiates the challenge of pursuing individual needs while still caring for those around her. Clear, conversational prose with a first-person narrator provides the perfect voice and vehicle for this story. I highly recommend this one to fans of YA contemporary literature!

VIOLET MADE OF THORNS by Gina Chen

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Since saving Prince Cyrus’ life as a child, Violet has lived a charmed yet precarious life as the king’s official Seer, tasked with relaying prophecies to the entire kingdom, whether they are real prophecies from her dreams or the harmless ones she invents at the king’s behest. A previous Seer predicted the kingdom’s destruction unless it is averted by Prince Cyrus’ as yet hypothetical bride, but Violet is determined that nothing will threaten her hard-won security and comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately, Cyrus is the one person who never listens to Violet.

Tortured by dark dreams of the Fates and frustrated with “Princey’s” obstinacy, Violet fakes a prophecy about Cyrus’ “true love,” hoping his bride–any bride–will be able to break the curse. But the woman the king selected is wrapped in her own curse, spun by a witch of nightmares. As beasts swarm the land and fairy glamours flicker, Violet and Cyrus search for the truth behind the veil of deceit, and their mutual hatred sparks into something passionate, thrilling, and infinitely more dangerous. With her life hanging in the balance, Violet will have to decide on which side of the fairytale she belongs–the dream or the nightmare–and whether she can claim either of them without being someone else’s pawn.

Deep, dark, and immersive, VIOLET MADE OF THORNS had me devouring its pages as ravenously as the characters fed on one another. Although tastes of well-known fairytales call attention to the storytelling theme, Chen creates a wholly new fairytale, not directly a twist of any individual story. Her characters are addictive, her steamy romance writing as compelling as any master of that genre, and her world-building a perfect blend of well-worn high fantasy tropes and a new, exciting magic system. I cannot praise this book highly enough. If you read high fantasy (whether you are a young adult or not) don’t miss this exceptional debut!

THE COMEDIENNE’S GUIDE TO PRIDE by Hayli Thomson

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Aspiring comedian and daughter of one of Salem Massachusetts’ many witch-themed inn caretakers, Taylor Parker may have just outed herself. When she sent her Salem Witch-themed comedy sketch to SNL’s “diverse writers” internship, she never expected to make it to the finals. If by some miracle she wins, her name will be announced and everyone will find out exactly what makes her so “diverse.”

Taylor honestly isn’t sure how the people closest to her will react to the news that she’s a lesbian. After all, her mom’s best friend, Jenn, is basically Taylor’s gay idol, and Taylor’s friends in the theater department aren’t exactly homophobic. But things get complicated when Jenn returns to Salem pregnant–and in a relationship with with the Impregnator–shaking Taylors respect for her. And then the thing that seems even less likely than winning an SNL internship happens: Charlotte Grey, high school acting goddess, the most beautiful girl in the universe, the girl that Taylor has been in love with since forever (and the most hated person in the drama department) seems to be interested in dating her. Taylor’s stress is mounting. She can’t confide in Jenn until she comes to terms with her being bi. She can’t tell anyone about the SNL internship possibility until she tells them she’s gay. She can’t openly date Charlotte without alienating her friends (and telling everyone she’s gay). But as hard as opening up might be, if she doesn’t start being honest, she might be squashing her chance for the life she’s always dreamed of.

Complex character relationships shine in this YA “coming-out” Rom Com. While worrying about how those close to her will react to her lesbianism, Taylor must grapple with her own biphobia and the ways it has tainted her relationship with a bi mentor. Not only Taylor’s choices, but the choices of her mother and her best friend contain layers of good intentions, flawed assumptions, and subconscious selfishness. There are no villains here, only humans doing their best to love and support one another. If you’re looking for a nuanced Rom Com or a coming out narrative with a unique backdrop, this is a book you’ll want to pick up.