YA Fiction

THE SANDCASTLE EMPIRE by Kayla Olson

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Eden’s world didn’t completely fall apart on Zero Day when she and all of the other kids at her private school were rounded up by the Wolves and sent to prison camp.  The final blow came when they gave her a vial of her father’s blood and teeth.   That was the moment that every whisper of of her old life vanished.  She was alone.  But when Eden and three strangers take the opportunity to flee their island prison, Eden knows exactly where she is going.  She will follow the course set out in her father’s old notebook and find Sanctuary Island–the place free from the tyranny  of the Wolves.  As long as he completed his life’s work before he was murdered, they will find safety there.  Unfortunately, “safe” is not the right word to describe the island they discover, and the unknown threats the travelers must survive may be just as treacherous as the prison they left behind.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by this new dystopia.  It took me a little while to get into it and then lost me again by the end.  Alternating chapters tell large chunks of backstory and the protagonist’s feelings, which I found off-putting.  But for readers who aren’t as turned off by explication as I am, the actual real-time plot had plenty of action and mystery which will likely hook many sci-fi fans.  It may appeal to Maze Runner readers.

CHARM AND STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

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Andrew has felt dead inside for a long time.  He couldn’t explain exactly why he smashed that kid in the face with a tennis racket when he was nine, and he can’t explain why he would rather be alone in the forest than talking to the new girl at his boarding school.  But something about Jordan draws him out in a way that his other classmates have not.  He finds himself at a party with Jordan and his former roommate, Lex, on the night of the full moon.  Which is a bad idea because he is certain that tonight will be the night that he changes.  He has known it would happen, ever since that summer in New Hampshire when his older brother, Keith, told him that the wolf lived inside all of them.  As he waits for the change, memories of Keith and their sister, Siobhan, intertwine with Jordan and Lex’s attempts to break through his shell.

This book is intense.  Suspenseful, horrifying, and beautifully written.  Did I mention intense?  Kuehn weaves hints of fantasy through the novel, enough to make a reader hope that maybe it is a fantasy.  Maybe the wolf is real.  All the while, the fantasy echoes heighten the horror of the real story and help the reader find herself in the mindset of a traumatized child.  If you like dark realistic fiction, this book is excellent.  But be forewarned:  intense.

MWD by Brian David Johnson and Jan Egleson

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Liz left high school and went straight to Iraq.  Her town was a dead end, her mother in prison, her grandmother as selfish as ever, and the military was an escape.  There was good and bad, but through it all, she had Ender, a Military Working Dog that she trained and worked alongside.  When a bomb abruptly ends her tour of duty, however, she finds herself back in her miserable hometown where even the few friends she used to have can no longer relate to her, no matter how hard they try.  But when she has a run-in with an aggressive stray dog, Liz finds a new sense of purpose.  She knows that Brutus could learn to be a great companion if only he were given a chance and the right kind of training.  Unfortunately, he is on doggy death row.  Desperate to save Brutus, Liz takes a job at the animal shelter and begins building her relationship with him–and with the people in her life.

A powerful story of a young woman whose connection to animals helps her rebuild her life after the trauma of war.  The characters and relationships are complex and the subject matter heavy.  Some of the more complicated action sequences were difficult to follow without any accompanying text due to the chaotic, dark and occasionally unclear black and white illustrations.  But the story overall still came across powerfully in the text and artwork.  I highly recommend it to mature teen fans of graphic novels and realistic fiction.

YOU DON’T KNOW MY NAME by Kristen Orlando 

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Reagan Elizabeth Hillis has been known by many names.  The type of work her parents do for the Black Angels, a secret branch of the CIA, has required them to change homes and identities more times than she can keep track of.  Reagan is being groomed to join the Black Angels as soon as she graduates from high school, which will at this point be in only a few months, but Reagan isn’t sure she wants to go to the Academy.  Even though she’s been training all her life, and her martial arts skills do come in handy for taking out bullies, she kind of just wants to go to college.  With Luke.  She can’t bear the thought of leaving Luke.  And she fears she might have to even sooner than graduation.  A mysterious new janitor is following her around at school. If she tells her parents, they’ll have moved before the end of the day.  But Reagan soon learns the consequences of keeping a dangerous secret and must fight to save her parents’ lives–and her own.

Fast-paced with engaging characters and a storyline that comes to a thrilling, impossible-to-put-down climax, I highly recommend this novel to teen thriller fans.

FROSTBLOOD by Elly Blake 

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Ruby thought her life of running and hiding her powers was torture.  That was before the real torture began–before the Frostblood king’s guards found her, killed her mother, and imprisoned her in a dungeon of ice.  After six months in prison, even her fire powers can’t warm her.  But when two mysterious figures with frost powers rescue her, she isn’t sure whether to be grateful or afraid.  Surely a Frostblood would never help a Fireblood.  They take her to a monastery and the older Frostblood, Brother Thistle, begins to train her to control her powers.  He needs her to carry out a mission for him to destroy the cursed throne, and hepledges to keep her safe, no matter how suspicious the other monks may be.  The younger Frostblood is definitely not a monk.  A warrior with a scarred face and a surly disposition, Arcus initially infuriates Ruby, but soon earns her respect and maybe something more.  But nothing–not even love–will get in the way of Ruby’s own mission.   She will destroy the throne for Brother Thistle, but then she will finally avenge her mother’s death by killing the Frostblood king.  

I am so glad I picked up this book!  I hesitated since the plot seemed so tired (boy and girl with opposing magic powers fall in love and kill the king), but what it lacked in originality, it made up for in compelling characters, good pacing, and a complex picture of good, evil, and the human heroes and villains who fall somewhere inbetween.   In many ways, the story reminded me of the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamara Pierce.  The romance itself is very Elizabeth Bennett-Mr. Darcy.  As the ending was left open for a series, it will be interesting to see how Blake keeps the relationship tension alive in subsequent books, since the romance was completed in the first.    

Very highly recommended to teen fantasy readers! 

A LIST OF CAGES by Robin Roe 

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Julian hasn’t seen his former foster brother since Uncle Russell took him in.  Uncle Russell told him how much Adam and his mom hated him. He was such a burden to them.  And now he’s a burden to Uncle Russell.  He hates himself for all the mistakes he makes.  And for how he can’t even make it to school the days after Uncle Russell’s punishments.  

Adam can hardly believe it when he sees Julian at school.  The kid looks so different!  His new guardian never responded to any of his mom’s requests to check up on him.  It is so wonderful to see him again!  Except that something seems wrong.  As the year progresses, Adam realizes that something very dark is happening in Julian’s life, and he will have to make a choice between protecting Julian’s privacy and reaching out to help.

Through this dark tale of an abusice guardian, readers can see the warning signs of abuse, the wrongness of a child blaming himself for being abused, and the importance of speaking up about suspected abuse, even at the risk of losing a friendship.  Recommended for realistic fiction readers who can handle some disturbing subject matter.

FIRE COLOR ONE by Jenny Valentine

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Iris knows why her mother and Lowell moved them all to England.   They said it was because of her arson charges, but Iris knows it’s really because they ran out of money and need to come crawling back to her filthy rich dad, Ernest, who abandoned them so long ago that Iris doesn’t even remember him.  When they find out Ernest is terminally ill with only months to live, Iris’ mom is ecstatic.  Soon the fortune will be theirs!  At Ernest’s request Iris, her mom, and Lowell all travel to visit him at his estate.  Iris is stunned by Ernest’s art collection.  But everything seems to remind her of her best friend, Thurston, who was a New York performance artist and whom she will never see again.  Or get to apologize to.  She expects to get an apology from Ernest, but soon learns that her mother’s side of the story may not be the whole truth.  With only a few weeks to develop a relationship with the father she has never known, and to figure out her relationship with the mother who has deceived her, Iris knows healing can only come from two things: fire and art.

Rich in imagery, this novel explores the relationships of a dysfunctional family and eccentric friends with an endearing protagonist whose only means of release and escape is lighting fires.  The book will find its audience with teens who enjoy realistic fiction and literary fiction.