YA Fiction

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.

DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt

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Malena didn’t want to go to school braless. Her abuela may think that large breasts is a blessing, but sometimes they are inconvenient and embarrassing. But the first degree burns on her back–the third disaster in a trifecta of tragedies, including the destruction of her home in Puerto Rico and the move to Florida–meant that wearing a bra was impossible. Unfortunately, the school administration didn’t see it that way, and they give Malena detention and force her to tape panty liners over her nipples.

Ruby hasn’t lived in Florida long but she already has a reputation as a feminist–the kind of girl who doesn’t mind announcing to her entire class that she needs a tampon. And why shouldn’t she? She has a body; she menstruates. She shouldn’t have to be ashamed of either of those facts. But when she sees another new girl in the bathroom being forced to wrap her breasts in surgical tape, Ruby knows it’s time to put her voice to better use–and she’s going to convince Malena to join her in this protest whether she wants to or not. As they take on the sexist, body-shaming administration, the girls quickly learn that activism has its price. The only thing costlier is inaction.

Unapologetically feminist with accessible voices and an inspiring storyline, DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? is a great pick for any fan of YA Contemporary fiction. The authors do not shy away from the realistic consequences of activism, especially for teenagers who are already bound by the rules and expectations of multiple authorities in school and their families. But the protagonists take courage in the knowledge that they are fighting for something important and morally just. Teen readers will be inspired by their story.

THE WORDS WE KEEP by Erin Stewart

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Lily is the one who found her sister bleeding on the bathroom floor, the razor still in her hand. But she didn’t go with her dad when he took Alice to the hospital. Or when he visited her in the treatment center. Instead, she stayed home and made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

Now, with Alice coming home, Lily will finally have to confront her sister’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. But how can she face Alice when she’s been working so hard to keep her life together–to keep her grades up, to stay at the top her game as a runner, and especially to hide the truth about Alice and the ways that Lily might be losing her mind, too? When her teacher pairs her with a new boy for a poetry project, Lily is horrified to learn that he was at the treatment center with Alice and knows Lily’s secret (or at least, one of them). When they stumble onto an idea for their project that involves anonymous poetry shared in public spaces throughout the school, however, she realizes he might actually be the key to helping her get through this–not just because their poetry is an instant success that sets them up for a top grade and the possibility of an elite summer program at UC Berkeley, but because through the poetry, Lily is finally able to anonymously express some of the darkness that she’s been hiding from the world. But as the time for revealing her identity as the mysterious “Guerrilla Poet” draws closer and Alice seems to be spiraling again, Lily begins to wonder whether her family can survive the revelation of her darkest thoughts when she’s the one they depend on to hold them all together.

This is both high praise and a warning: the depictions of an anxiety disorder, self-harm, and suicidal ideation in this novel are so real and raw that readers will feel them right along with the character. For some readers, this will be validating–a rare and powerful experience of seeing their own struggles reflected by another person, realizing they are not alone, seeing a path forward to hope and mental health care. For other readers, it may be triggering. Be aware before picking this book up and share trigger warnings with kids you recommend it to.

That praise/warning aside, I highly recommend this novel for YA Contemporary fiction fans and YA library collections. In addition to the realistic portrayal of mental illness, the novel features a strong, determined, witty narrator and a heart-warming romance, both of which buoy the reader up in the book’s darker passages. And the “guerrilla poetry” movement that the protagonist starts–and the way that poetry allows her and others in her community to anonymously express thoughts they fear to admit and forge unexpected connections–will warm the heart of any readers who have found themselves in the arts and literature (and of course every teacher and librarian!). It is a well-crafted and important story, and I highly recommend it.

THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

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Unlike her arch-nemesis, the vindictive and supremely self-absorbed Miss North Carolina, Teagan “Miss Virginia” Miller is not disgusted when she learns that the Miss Cosmic Teen USA Pageant will be sharing a hotel with a Sherlock Holmes fandom convention. She’s more petrified. It has taken a lot of work to keep her nerdiness–and her gayness–under wraps to placate the pageant bigots and give herself a real shot at winning that scholarship money. How is she supposed to maintain the illusion with hundreds of hot girls milling around, cosplaying as John Watson?

All hope of keeping her focus evaporates when she meets one of her favorite fanfic writers, Kay. While Teagan has been hoping to keep her queer identity secret for the weekend, Kay is doing the opposite, using the convention as a chance to escape her small town’s prejudices, experiment with using they/their pronouns, and (hopefully) kiss a girl for the first time. Unfortunately, the biggest bully from Kay’s hometown happens to be Miss North Carolina. It would be better for both Kay and Teagan if they avoided one another, just stuck to their own corners of the hotel, and not give Miss North Carolina a chance to destroy them. But love doesn’t always listen to logic, and once they share their authentic selves with one another, will they really be able to go back to keeping those identities hidden?

From the first page, I knew this book would be soaring to the top of my recommended YA RomComs list! The protagonists immediately hook readers with the authentic, heartfelt, and hilarious voices that England so excels at capturing–in their speculative works as well as this new contemporary novel. Through the escapist environment of a fandom convention, England provides a space for their characters to explore their identities, a common experience for all teens at Cons but especially powerful for queer teens who are infrequently surrounded by such an inclusive and accepting crowd. Yet this book is more than just the story of queer teens finding love and acceptance. England does not shy away from the thornier questions of identity and the blind spots and prejudices that their protagonists have toward one another and themselves. This is a book for the teen who isn’t sure whether it’s safe to come out in their community; the teen who isn’t sure whether they’re queer; the teen who isn’t sure what pronouns fit them best–and how on earth to communicate that to others. And this is a book for all readers, queer or straight, enby or cis, who are ready to laugh, fall in love with two incredible people, and be inspired to work a little harder on their own prejudices and accepting the people in their lives. I highly recommend this to all YA Contemporary readers. Though it is targeted at a high school audience, it will be accessible to mature middle schoolers as well.

THE FEAR by Natasha Preston

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Izzy is the only one in her school who hasn’t reposted the meme. It’s just too morbid, thinking about the worst way to die. But she never thought a creepy Insta post could be the work of a serial killer–not until she stumbles upon the first body. As classmates start turning up murdered in the exact ways they posted as their worst fears, Izzy gets caught up in the investigation. She knows it’s a small town, but it can’t be coincidence the ways that clues–and sometimes bodies–keep showing up in her path. And even though she never posted her worst fear, the idea that the murderer might be someone she knows could be the most terrifying thing of all.

This thriller starts to take on a slasher-horror vibe as bodies pile up and terror takes over. Preston meticulously weaves in clues that could implicate any of her three main suspects, setting up for a series of jaw-dropping twists. Teen fans of twisty thrillers who are up for some gore and horror-like conclusion will not want to miss this title!

GALLANT by Victoria Schwab

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Olivia Prior has no real memories of her parents–nothing but her mother’s journal. She doesn’t even know their names, just that her father is dead and her mother went mad before leaving her on the doorstep of the dismal boarding school where she has grown up. So when the letter arrives–a summons from the uncle she didn’t know she had, back to the family estate she didn’t know existed–the temptation to finally have a real home and family is too great to resist.

Even though her mother’s journal warns her of unnamed dangers within the halls of Gallant.

But the welcome at the manor is not what she expected. Her uncle is dead–and died too long ago to have sent her the mysterious letter–and the only remaining relative, her cousin Matthew, is determined that she should be sent away. Matthew is tortured by violent dreams, and the halls are haunted by ghouls that only Olivia can see. Yet none of that compares to the darkness on the other side of the stone wall in the garden, where a shadowy master of crumbling reflection of Gallant has been waiting for Olivia to arrive…

Atmospheric and horrifying, Schwab’s latest YA sits solidly in the horror genre and is impossible to put down. As you can expect from Schwab’s prose, every word hits like a gunshot, creating an atmosphere and story so immersive that you are as ensnared as her protagonist. This story is a must-read for teen and adult fans of paranormal horror!

WHEN WE WERE THEM by Laura Taylor Namey

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Graduation week isn’t going as Willa planned, and it’s all her fault. She hurt her best friends–badly–and the worst part is, that she isn’t sure why. But when her friends issue her an ultimatum with their friendship hanging in the balance, Willa will have to sort through her memories, from the blissful days on the beach their sophomore year with the girls and Nico, when all their dreams seemed perfect and possible, to the terrible tragedy their junior year that tore it all apart, to Willa’s choice last October that signed the death warrant of their friendship. With graduation looming closer, Willa opens some painful wounds, discovering some uncomfortable truths about herself and an even worse realization of what her future needs to look like.

This story hits the ground running with a strong thread of suspense that makes it hard to stop turning pages. The friendship struggles are relatable and heart-wrenching while the mysteries from the past give the story a bit of a thriller vibe. I highly recommend it to fans of books like WE WERE LIARS.

LAWLESS SPACES by Corey Ann Haydu

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Mimi’s sixteenth birthday isn’t what she’d hoped. She’s not surprised that her mother chooses to go on an impromptu trip with her boyfriend and leave Mimi alone for days. It’s just like her mom. But she is shocked when the news story breaks that her mother is the accuser in a high-profile sexual assault case that’s been all over the news.

Home alone, and unable to get in touch with her mom, Mimi isn’t sure how to handle this news–especially because of how her mom reacted about an incident in Mimi’s life last year, an incident which her mother seemed to think was all Mimi’s fault simply because of how her body is shaped. But as Mimi struggles to navigate these overwhelming revelations–all the while dealing with her own struggles with dating and her body image–she finds a stack of journals in the attic and begins to connect with the journey of the generations of women in her family before her, women who have had struggles that are dishearteningly similar to the sexism Mimi is still experiencing decades later.

Told through Mimi’s poetry, this story is beautifully told, but heavy. There are very few lighter moments in this book that deals with such important but difficult themes. It is a strong, feminist coming-of-age novel that will appeal most to older teens and twenty-somethings who want to immerse themselves in this struggle and come out the other side feeling connected to a community of women–generations of women–who have experienced gender-based violence and discrimination and feeling inspired to join them in the fight.