YA 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.

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.

A DISASTER IN THREE ACTS by Kelsey Rodkey

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Saine Sinclair has one shot to make it into her dream college program, an elite track for documentary filmmakers at Temple University, by filming a 40-minute documentary on a local Virtual Reality competition. Unfortunately, the lovelorn millennial who’d agreed to be her subject drops out last minute, and Saine has to pin all her college hopes on another competitor, one who let her down spectacularly during a disastrous game of spin the bottle six years ago that ended their once-close friendship: Holden Michaels.

Privileged Holden isn’t the ideal subject for a heart-wrenching documentary, and his personal history with Saine will definitely make things awkward. Her feelings of embarrassment and resentment crystalized into something closer to hate last year when he dated, and was dumped by, her new best friend, Corinne. Hoping that Corinne won’t freak out about it, Saine agrees to a professional truce with Holden to help each other on senior projects. But as Saine gets reacquainted with Holden and the changes to his life, she realizes he’s not the vapid documentary subject she feared–great news for her admissions project, but terrible news for heart. Because as hard as she works to tease real life into a compelling story for her films, being honest about her own personal drama could cost her Corinne’s friendship and the friendship of the boy she’s might not hate after all.

I’m head-over-heels for this book. Saine’s voice surprised laughs out of me on every page, I swooned for Holden, and I adored that the captain of the cheerleading squad BFF Corinne was a good person trying to be a good friend. Therapy-positive conversations support the story’s more emotionally poignant moments. A great read for fans of contemporary rom-coms with great banter and some deeper themes!

FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley

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Daunis has always existed in two worlds: the Ojibwe community where her father is from and the community of wealthy white people in Sault Ste. Marie where she lives with her mother. She is part of both but fully accepted by neither.

When her maternal grandmother has a stroke shortly after her uncle dies of a meth overdose, Daunis knows a third disaster is coming. She tries to prevent it by deferring her college admission–pushing off her dream of becoming a doctor so that she can stay close to both of her communities–but her presence isn’t enough to stop a shocking tragedy. With her world crumbling around her, Daunis is swept up into an investigation of drug trade on the reservation as a confidential informant, taking the place of her uncle, who she learns was likely murdered. But even though she isn’t an enrolled member of the tribe, Daunis is an Ojibwe woman, and she has her own agenda for helping the Cherokee FBI agents who have infiltrated her town. She will be searching for the truth to save her people’s lives, while also protecting their culture and traditions from meddling outsiders. Unfortunately, even in the investigation, the line between her identities is blurred, and as her secrets pile up, and the fake relationship she’s developed with the young FBI rookie starts to morph into something real, Daunis realizes that the truth has the power not only to save lives but also to tear them apart.

This stellar novel hits all of the notes for a heart-wrenching YA contemporary, a brain-teasing YA mystery, and pulse-pounding thriller. Boulley immerses readers in Daunis’s communities–from Michigan “Hockey World” to her Ojibwe nation–and crafts a stunningly character-driven mystery that crescendos gradually toward the shocking conclusion. This book satisfies me as a thriller reader and as a contemporary reader, and while thoroughly accessible for its teenage audience, the mature storytelling style and pristine prose makes it a great choice for adult readers, as well. I will add my voice for the clamor of recommendations for this truly exceptional novel.

QUEEN OF THE TILES by Hanna Alkaf

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It’s been a whole year since Najwa last competed at Scrabble, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The stakes are always high at these competitions–or at least they seem like they are, with the hyper-competitive word-nerds clawing their way toward the top of the Scrabble hierarchy. But at the very top of the pyramid was always Trina Low.

Until last year. Until she died.

Najwa returns, still battling her grief and the gaps in her memory from that day during the last competition when her best friend Trina died on the board in the championship game. She’s here to win, not for herself, but for Trina–to keep her title as Queen of the Tiles out of the hands of the circling vultures. But the competition has barely started when Trina’s Instagram account, which has been silent for a year, starts posting, claiming that Trina was murdered. As Najwa takes up the challenge to follow the clues, she begins to uncover the darkest secrets of her competitors, and the stakes of the game have never been higher.

Fast-paced with a compelling cast of suspicious characters and an unlikely heroine, QUEEN OF THE TILES is a triumphant win for YA thriller and mystery fans. The story unfolds like a detective drama, while the undercurrent of the Scrabble competition and the persistent Instagram posts crying murder keep upping the pulse. With its appealing premise, binge-able plot, and diverse representation, this book is a must for any YA mystery/thriller collection. Highly recommended!

YEAR ON FIRE by Julie Buxbaum

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Maybe Immie shouldn’t have told Paige that she was the one who kissed her boyfriend. Maybe she should have told the truth–that it was really her twin brother–but that night, with her brother sobbing on the bottom bunk and the remnants of one of their father’s rages echoing through the house, keeping the secret of Arch’s sexuality seemed important. And after sixteen years of living with their father, the twins were good at keeping secrets.

With their friendship already on shaky ground, the arrival of the new boy only makes things more complicated. Paige calls dibs and Immie can’t say anything–not after what Paige thinks she did with her ex–and not even when it starts to become clear that the attraction between Immie and the new boy is very much mutual. As mysterious fires begin breaking out in their school, new relationships spark and old ones combust as the friends struggle to keep their secrets–and to know when they should let those secrets go.

Told through four alternating points of view, YEAR ON FIRE explores the limits and the power of love among friends and family. The twins wrestle with their love of their father and coming-to-terms with the ways he is abusive and the effect it has had on their lives. The new kid finds himself on a new continent, struggling to relate to his father and forgive him (or not) for the adultery that destroyed his parents’ marriage. And the wealthy best friend with the seemingly perfect life has to confront the cracks in her family and her own image and identity. There is a lot going on in this story, but the storylines are thematically parallel and therefore easy to keep track of. I’d recommend this one to teens who love weighty contemporary fiction, especially stories with multiple protagonists.