Young Adult

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas

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The house where Dani lives is just one in a long line of crappy living spaces. That’s what happens when you and your mom have to flee an abusive father/husband. You move frequently, stay wherever you can. But the houses don’t usually come with a ghost. Dani immediately connects with Sarah, the adolescent ghost, in part because they both know what it’s like to be hurt by a man. But Dani can’t tell Sarah that despite the name “Daniela,” Dani feels like a boy. He’s sure that if Sarah knew the truth about his identity, she’d never speak to him again.

When Dani and Sarah stumble on another ghost in the woods, Dani learns that abuse isn’t unique to the world of the living. When abusers die, they go right on abusing–sometimes the same people they abused in life. Dani is determined to find a way to protect the ghosts who are quickly becoming his closest friends. But will finding peace for others stop him from finding peace for himself?

Although there is a thrilling dose of speculative fiction in this ghost story, at its core, VIOLET GHOSTS is a story of surviving and healing after abuse and fighting to be true to one’s identity. It is set in the recent past, and until late in the book, Dani doesn’t know that there are other transgender people in the world (or even the term “transgender”). His struggle to figure out how to identify and even describe himself parallels the struggle of the ghosts to find a new way to fit into the world where they’ve existed merely as invisible victims, lying in the places where they died for years or even decades. The story is beautifully, emotionally told (I keep wanting to use the word haunting, but it will sound like a bad pun … but it is haunting…), and ultimately full of hope. I highly recommend it to fans of YA speculative fiction AND fans of YA contemporary.

Amazon.com: Violet Ghosts: 9781547604630: Thomas, Leah: 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

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 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 DimokratĂ­a, 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

WHITE SMOKE by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Mari’s mom insists that the move from California to Cleveland was her choice, an opportunity to enjoy an author’s fellowship, to revitalize a decaying neighborhood, and to bond as a newly-blended family. But Mari knows it’s really all because of her. If it hadn’t been for her drug habit, their old town wouldn’t have shunned them. If they hadn’t needed to pay for rehab, they wouldn’t need a rent-free place to live. And if her stepfather could see her as anything other than an addict, maybe he wouldn’t always take his own daughter’s side instead of hers. Maybe.

It isn’t long after they arrive in their new home that Mari realizes something is off. Their immediate neighborhood is entirely deserted, boarded up except for the house where they’ll be living. And the houses aren’t the only things that are falling apart. The people in the surrounding town seem both hostile and beaten down. Everyone has at least one family member in prison for a marijuana offense, most claiming that their loved ones were set up by the cops. And perhaps even more sinister is the way Mari’s stepsister has been acting, and her claim that she has a friend living in the boarded-up house next door, a friend who hates Mari and is plotting her revenge. The slick white man who set up the author’s fellowship dismisses all of Mari’s concerns as nonsense, and her stepfather clearly agrees with him. Even Mari’s mother thinks she’s lying and picking on her stepsister.

But then the ghosts wake up…

Jackson makes her pivot from psychological thrillers to horror look easy in this ghostly, unputdownable novel about a girl overcoming fears and prejudices to take on both supernatural and human threats to her family and community. As in all of Jackson’s work, the characters are multifaceted, the family and community dynamics complex, and the social justice themes prominent, accessible, and timely. Fans of YA horror and/or psychological thrillers will not want to miss WHITE SMOKE! If depictions of marijuana use won’t turn off your gatekeepers, this title could work well in teen book clubs, too.

A SISTERHOOD OF SECRET AMBITIONS by Sheena Boekweg

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The Society has been at work almost since America’s founding, but even now in the 1920s, no one knows about it. At least no men. Presidents have no idea how their Wives have shaped their policies. Male voters don’t realize how their Wives and Mothers have quietly but deliberately influenced their choices. No one expects to see a Spinster with a Beretta, or a secret code embedded in a recipe. When girls are brought to the Society, they are assigned a role: from the protective Spinsters to the espionage-minded Gossips, everyone has a part to play.

Elsie is a Wife-to-be. Up until now, she’s been paying “social calls” to women in distress to help rescue them from domestic violence. But she knows that her role will be greater. She will marry a great man–just as her mother (a Mother) was tasked with raising a great man in Elsie’s brother–and then she will get to work, anonymously guiding her husband to the choices that will advance women’s rights. She’s been training for it for years. But when her assignment finally arrives–a priority one man who the Society has selected as a future president–Elsie suddenly isn’t sure of her role anymore. It’s not that Andrew doesn’t seem great, from his dossier at least, but in order to win the priority one assignment, she’ll have to beat out her closest friends and fellow Wives-to-be. And as the competition for Andrew’s affections gets underway, a long-simmering doubt can no longer be ignored. The Society relies on secrecy, on the invisibility of women and the discounting of their contributions. But more than ever, Elsie just wants to be seen.

I think this Jazz Age alternative history was written especially for me. Full of secret codes, espionage, heist-like missions, humor, feminism, and discussion of queer and trans rights, this book is both fun and though-provoking in the best ways. Elsie is a heroine you will love to cheer for (and wish you could vote for!). I highly recommend this wonderful novel to fans of quirky YA history and/or spy/heist books. There is definite crossover appeal for adult audiences.

Amazon.com: A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions: 9781250770981: Boekweg,  Sheena: Books

MALICE by Heather Walter

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Alyce knows her place. She is the Dark Grace, not quite human enough, not quite Grace enough, tasked with mixing her potions and curses at the request of patrons from the town and then–for some reason–reviled for it. But when she discovers a castle on the cliffs and talks with the shadowy stranger imprisoned there, Alyce learns that there is a deeper magic inside her, capable of more than mixing elixirs and poisons. After a chance meeting with the princess Aurora, heiress to an ancient curse that dooms her to death by her next birthday, Alyce is shocked to learn that the princess is not searching for her true love to kiss her and break the spell. In fact, Aurora means to break it on her own–or with the help of a Vila. Alyce is skeptical; as the Dark Grace, she is capable only of destruction. But as her command of her powers grows, Alyce is noticed by another, more dangerous royal. And as her attraction to princess Aurora blossoms, Alyce will have to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice for love.

With so many fairytale twists on the market, it is a beautiful thing to find one so fresh, imaginative, and engrossing! The romance between Alyce and Aurora is believable with a strong foundation, and both teens and adults will resonate with the struggles of both young women to fit in and be true to themselves when who they are seems at odds with society’s values. (The characters are twenty years old, but the vibe is YA.) I highly recommend this one to all fans of magic-laden YA fantasy or heartfelt queer genre fiction.

Amazon.com: Malice: A Novel: 9781984818652: Walter, Heather: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

LIES LIKE WILDFIRE by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

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

Hannah is looking forward to college and to pursuing a career in criminal justice like her father, the sheriff. But when she and her friends accidentally start a forest fire during a day trip to a California mountain lake near their home, suddenly she needs to use her knowledge of the legal system not to solve a crime but to get away with one.

Hannah wasn’t the first to lie (that was Violet) but Hannah is the one who badgers the other four to keep the lies going. She knows her father. He didn’t balk at putting her mom in prison for the drunk driving accident that killed a person. Hannah and her friends have killed 3–and counting. Starting a forest fire, even accidentally, can be a felony with almost a decade of prison time. Her dad can never find out that the five of them were anywhere near the fire’s origin. But as homes are destroyed, more people die, and evidence starts to surface, lies might not be enough to keep them out of jail or save their lifelong friendship. Especially if someone breaks the pact and tells the truth…

This novel is divided into two halves, the first a disaster story, the second a straightforward thriller. The theme of loyalty vs. honesty unites both parts of the novel, but the thematic threads really serve the fast-paced plot which is the main drive, appeal, and strength of the novel. Pick this one up for a teen who loves heart-pounding thrillers with well-intentioned characters making abysmal choices.

Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez