YA Fiction

BE DAZZLED by Ryan La Sala

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Raffy practically drags May from the car to the convention center. He can’t risk being photographed before he finishes gluing moss onto May’s face. All the other cosplayers got dressed at home, but they didn’t havr famous artists for moms–artists who for some ridiculous reason don’t consider crafting an art and don’t want their sons to go to art school. But Evie is not going to stop Raffy from entering–not entering, winning–the biggest cosplay competition in Boston. And once he does win, he won’t need Evie’s support for art school. He’ll have sponsors. Fame. He’ll finally be out of Evie’s shadow and surging into his future as a crafter.

But Raffy never thought about the one other person who could throw him off his game: his ex-boyfriend Luca. And when Luca doesn’t only show up but shows up in a costume Raffy designed, it’s impossible for him to keep his cool. Is it possible that Raffy’s hopes for the future could self-destruct as violently as their relationship?

This rom com is adorable and uplifting. By alternating between past and present, La Sala threads the suspense of the competition through the build-up and collapse of Raffy and Luca’s relationship. It’s definitely a page turner! I loved the evolution of Raffy’s relationship with his mom (and Luca’s!) and the depth given to the secondary characters (May and Inaya especially). A well-written, engaging, funny book for fans of YA realistic fiction and/or romances.

GROWN by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Enchanted needs to sing like she needs to breathe. The white girls at her school say she sounds like Beyonce, but that’s only because they don’t know many Black singers. Enchanted’s passion is the classic singers–the ones she and her grandma used to sing along with–Gladys Knight, Aretha, Nina Simone.

When she auditions for Music LIVE, the judges aren’t impressed with her dated sing choice or her timid performance, but 28 year old superstar Korey Fields is. He convinces her parents to let Enchanted tour with him, his newest protege. But there’s a darkness to Korey that Enchanted didn’t see at first, and the whirlwind that she thought would lead her to fame and love instead carries her down into terror, abuse, and ultimately a pool of blood on the floor of Korey’s penthouse.

I cannot adequately express how powerful and moving this book is. Enchanted’s voice is so strong. Even with the immense power her abuser holds over her, even when she is confused and heartbroken and doubting herself, she holds on. She fights when she’s able (and when she isn’t able to fight emotionally, mentally, the author makes it very clear that it is NOT her fault that she is in this situation). And she survives.

And the community around her! Reading this book as an adult and a parent, I wept at some of the scenes where her parents defend her. Jackson incorporates their voices directly through police interview transcripts and minutes of mom group meetings to provide a deeper perspective on how a whole community is affected by and responds to the violent abuses of a powerful man. Not all adults react in a positive way, but many do–from the parents, to the psychiatrist, to the flight attendant who notices something amiss. A reader will come away from this book knowing that there is help out there. That they are not alone in their experiences and they do not need to be alone in their rescue and recovery. As dark as the subject matter is, a reader will come away from this book with hope.

TW: This book could definitely trigger survivors of sexual violence and/or abusive relationships, but FWIW it didn’t trigger me. I think it was the strength of Enchanted’s voice and the knowledge from Chapter One that she will escape–that there will be some form of justice–that kept me from going to a dark place. But every survivor’s journey is different, so definitely exercise caution.

GIRL, SERPENT, THORN by Melissa Bashardoust

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Soraya has spent most of her life in hiding in the palace. While her twin brother prepared for his future as shah, Soraya tended her secret rooftop garden, watching the poison in her veins flow beneath her skin, wishing she had never been cursed. But when a captured div, or demon, reveals that her mother lied about the nature of the curse–that it wasn’t a punishment for her mother’s carelessness, but rather a poison the shabanu requested the div bestow upon her daughter, Soraya leaves her isolated garden and accepts the help of a new guardsman to find a cure. Unfortunately, her plan backfires. With her brother deposed and her own power drained, Soraya hopes there is enough monster left inside of her to defeat the div that now holds the key to her freedom.

An exciting fantasy in a masterfully-built world, GIRL, SERPENT, THORN plays with the tropes of the princess and the monster by combining them into one, intertwining poison and strength and exploring the gray area between good and evil. Highly recommended to YA fantasy fans who like fast-paced yet character driven adventures.

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THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA by TJ Klune

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Linus takes his job as a case worker investigating orphanages for magical youth very seriously. He does his work thoroughly, accurately, and impersonally. And it’s precisely his thorough, accurate, and impersonal track record that prompts Extremely Upper Management to offer him a temporary, top secret assignment: to spend a month evaluating an exclusive seaside orphanage for extraordinary magical youth (including, among others, the Antichrist). Although initially overwhelmed by the unusual assignment, Linus finds that the magical youth–and their exceptional caretaker, Arthur–are working their way into his heart and threatening his objectivity as a caseworker. And as his impersonal lens cracks, he must question the truths he’s been taught, the morality of his own work, and how far he is personally willing to go for love.

A well-deserved award-winner, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is a quirky, funny, sweet, thought-provoking social-commentary with equal parts humor and heart. Highly recommend for adults and older teens–anyone who likes stories that are a little weird and a little magical with a healthy dose of undermined social norms and queer romance.

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MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Samira Ahmed

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Khayyam is grateful to have the summer in her father’s native Paris to get her life together. Her senior year is about to start. Her never-quite-official boyfriend is off to college and popping up in Instagram pics with other girls. And worst of all, Khayyam has ruined all of her chances of becoming an art historian with one ill-conceived, under-researched essay erroneously linking Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix.

“The work of a dilettante, not a future art historian.” That was how the head judge at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had described her work. Khayyam had hoped that participating in the essay contest would set her apart–show the Art Institute how serious she was–so that the School would take a closer look at her college application. Now, she wonders if she’s distinguished herself in a bad way and is destined for still more rejection.

But when she meets a descendent of Alexandre Dumas (another, younger, perfectly charmant Alexandre Dumas) by chance at a cafe, Khayyam sees new possibilities opening up for her. Maybe she and Alexandre can work together to unravel the truth behind Dumas’ connection with Delacroix and salvage Khayyam’s reputation as a future art historian. And maybe in the process, they can discover the identity and history Leila–a woman of Asian and Muslim descent (like Khayyam)–who was described by the poet Byron, painted by the artist Delacroix, but never given a voice of her own.

With the hashtag #writeherstory, Ahmed attacks the narratives that men build around women (particularly women of color and intersections of marginalized identities)–narratives that subsume women’s own voices and cast them as sexual objects in dramas directed by the men around them. She mounts her assault poetically with the interweaving of Khayyam’s voice with the voice of Leila, fictional in reality but real in the world of the narrative. Khayyam’s conflicts and power struggles with the men in her life parallel on a less grand scale the experiences of Leila in her interactions with the male-dominated artistic community–many well-intentioned men, none quite listening to Khayyam or to Leila. I loved every page of this book and highly recommend it to older YA readers who like deep, thought-provoking (thought-requiring) realistic fiction, especially readers with an interest in art history and/or classic literature.

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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As one of only four Black kids at her preppy high school, Kiera gets tired of answering stupid questions. Like, “Can I wear dreadlocks?” How is she supposed to answer that? Do they expect her to speak for all Black people? It’s one of the reasons she created SLAY, an online VR gaming universe exclusively for other Black gamers. In SLAY, Black gamers can just be themselves without having to worry about facing the kind of harassment Kiera experienced in other MMORPGs. But when one of the players is murdered IRL, SLAY becomes the subject of international attention and a catalyst for racially charged conflict and conversation.

Engaging from page one, SLAY uses a gaming lens to explore the diversity of Black experiences in the US and around the world. From Kiera–an American high schooler trying to balance the expectations of her friends, boyfriend, and family with her own hopes for herself–to an assortment of other players around the globe, readers see how Black people experience discrimination in various social and even family settings. We also see through Kiera’s experience how the VR experience that allows her to express herself authentically without discomfort or fear of judgment (an experience she does not have IRL at her high school) can also allow bigots to play out violent racist fantasies without fear of consequences. This book is important and beautifully written. I highly recommend it to teens and adults.

THE BEAST PLAYER by Nahoko Uehashi

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Elin’s mother has always cared for the water serpents, the Toda. She is the best Toda doctor in all of Aluhan. But when the most powerful Toda mysteriously die, Elin’s mother is blamed and sentenced to death. After failing to rescue her mother, Elin flees and takes refuge with a beekeeper in a neighboring territory. There she learns of her own gift of communication with the Toda, of her mother’s connection with the mystical Ahlyo people, and of her own place in the civil war between the country of her birth and the country where she found refuge.

An award-winning novel with masterful world-building, THE BEAST PLAYER will appeal to YA fantasy fans despite the protagonist’s youth (age 10 at the novel’s start). For graphic novel fans, there are manga and an anime TV series!

A SPY IN THE HOUSE by Y.S. Lee

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Mary Yang should have been hanged. She would have been–in fact–had the headmistresses of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls not been interested in her promising skills and personality. Because more than an Academy, Miss Scrimshaw’s is a cover for a feminist spy ring called the Agency. And at 17, Mary (now under the pseudonym of Mary Quinn) is ready for her first assignment. She infiltrates the household of wealthy merchant as a companion for his vapid daughter in the hopes of finding clues as to the whereabouts of missing cargo ships. It is supposed to be an easy job for a beginning agent. But Mary and her supervisors didn’t count on the presence of a charismatic (and persistent) young man. Or on the fact that this particular job has a connection to Mary’s long-buried past….

A fun Victorian mystery with crossover appeal for teens and adults, A SPY IN THE HOUSE is the first in THE AGENCY series. Lee has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and her credentials show in her meticulous world-building. Recommend to readers who (like me!) enjoy a touch of romance in their mysteries.

DAMSEL by Elana K Arnold

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It is Emory’s destiny to kill a dragon and rescue a damsel. Without achieving this task, he cannot become king. Though Emory does not feel ready when his father dies, he has no choice but to travel to the gray land and hunt a dragon and its damsel. He succeeds on his quest, and rides home triumphant, his damsel before him in the saddle. But the damsel has no memory of the event. She has no memories at all before waking on Emory’s horse. He assures her that he “saved her,” informs her that she is to be his bride, and gives her the name “Ama.” But Ama is not sure how she feels about this hunter, her savior. And as she struggles to fit into the roles prescribe to her, she begins to wonder about her past and whether or not she has any control over her future.

I would not necessarily call this novel YA. Not that teen readers couldn’t enjoy it, certainly, and I’m sure many do, but it read more like adult allegorical fantasy to me. Regardless of your age, be warned of graphic violence and abuse (sexual, emotional, physical).

Because of the allegorical nature of the story, the “twist” is very obvious from early on, and so what drives the plot forward is not a question of where Ama came from/what “mysterious” past she has forgotten, and more the suspense of not knowing exactly how it will end. (I mean, we can hope that Ama will find a happy or at least less-miserable ending, but we don’t know what that will be.) Though there’s an old quip that the purpose of a novel is to create a compelling main character and then find the best ways to torture him/her/them, this novel is particularly torturous. Ama is forced to suffer until she must break one way or the other–either become a rabbit or a cat, as one character puts it.

I think the key to enjoying this novel would be first to savor the gorgeous prose. And second to remember that it is allegory. All characters are (I believe intentionally) underdeveloped. The point of the novel is to turn fairytale traditions on their heads (especially the trope of the prince earning a maiden’s “hand” in marriage by “saving her,” often by some form of sexual/romantic act like a kiss or–as in the original Sleeping Beauty fairytale–rape), and with this purpose in mind it’s the symmetry of actions that becomes important. Predator/prey relationships feature throughout with human characters (Ama in particular) switching between the two groups. There are some reviewers who have felt the ending is arbitrary. I disagree. I won’t spoil it (insofar as it isn’t obvious) but the groundwork is laid for the specific moment even before Emory fights the dragon at the beginning. Again, it’s all about the parallels in this story. Hunter and hunted. Predator and prey.

As much as I do believe the book is well-written, I cannot think of a teenager to whom I would recommend it. I’m not saying that teen isn’t out there, but I’d have to know for certain that she/he/they were not a survivor of sexual violence or abuse of any kind. Full disclosure, I had to stop about 1/2 of the way through and just skimmed to the ending because the graphic violence and (particularly the emotional) abuse was too much for me. And while I know that some books are more disturbing to adults than to children because we bring a different set of experiences to them (e.g. The Giver as traumatizing for parents but not for kids who don’t have babies of their own), that is not the case with this novel. Arnold intends all readers to be deeply disturbed; if you’re not disturbed, you missed the point. It’s a well-crafted book, but proceed with caution–especially when recommending it to others.

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

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In 1860s Massachusetts, four sisters and the boy next door grow up from a childhood of wild imagination and adventure to an adulthood of loss, love, and hope.

So I may be the only American white girl who was not a fan of LITTLE WOMEN as a kid. I mean, I liked most of the first half (the original Book One) but I never, never, never forgave Amy for burning Jo’s book. And I got very bored by Book Two, and also annoyed that Laurie married Amy (because again, SHE BURNED JO’S BOOK) and also super-super-annoyed that Jo married some random middle-aged German guy she just met because just because she was kind of lonely….

But I think that Greta Gerwig either read my childhood mind, or was also me as a child, because her adaptation was everything I wanted it to be. Florence Pugh made me like Amy. Genuinely understand and like her. The chaos of every scene must have been a nightmare to film, but it created such a joyful sense of community and family and connection between the four girls. I was mad at Amy for burning Jo’s book, but I was also mad at Jo for not noticing how much Amy looked up to her and wanted to spend time with her. And I loved the two-pronged solution to the “random German guy” problem: first, introducing him at the beginning of the film so he doesn’t come out of nowhere, and second, crafting an ending where Jo morphs with real-life Alcott, who didn’t believe women (including her character Jo) should have to get married (as she didn’t) but was forced to marry Jo off in the end to make it palatable to contemporary readers. In the film, you can take some delight in the unbelievable, silly, head-over-heels, love-at-first-sight ending because the director has hinted that it’s a fantasy and that the real Jo that you’ve known and loved is actually off somewhere, self-confident and content, living her dreams, publishing her books, and creating this fairytale ending for us to enjoy and for her to roll her eyes at.

P.S. I should note that I actually enjoy much more of Book Two as an adult. Especially now that I have kids. Especially that scene where Meg and John are trying to get their son to go to sleep and John ends up passed out in bed with his kid and Alcott remarks that trying to get a two year old to go to sleep is more exhausting than an entire day of work. Yeah. That. I read that part out loud to my husband. It’s somehow both comforting and discouraging to know that in 200 years of parenthood, nothing has changed….