YA Contemporary Fiction

A DISASTER IN THREE ACTS by Kelsey Rodkey

Posted on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

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

Posted on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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.

YEAR ON FIRE by Julie Buxbaum

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

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

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

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

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

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

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

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.

WHEN WE WERE THEM by Laura Taylor Namey

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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.

REQUIRED READING FOR THE DISENFRANCHISED FRESHMAN by Kristen R. Lee

Posted on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

I deserve to be here.

Savannah has to repeat those words to herself every day–several times a day–just to remind herself that she hasn’t shown up at the wrong university. She’s one of only 100 Black students at the prestigious Ivy League school and her white classmates haven’t exactly gone out of their way to make her feel welcome. Hopefully, her mother is right that if she makes it all four years in this place, people will respect her degree more than they would have if she studied at an HBCU. But Savannah is starting to doubt it.

Savannah’s whole life has reinforced the reality that no matter what she does, some people will always assign her a label based on the color of her skin alone. And deserving to be somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be allowed to stay–whether that place is a pizza parlor or an elite university. So when a statue on campus is desecrated with blackface, Savannah is torn between wanting to speak out and fearing possible repercussions, especially since she’s pretty sure the racist behind the hate crime is a rich kid whose family has a long history at the school. But some things are too important to keep quiet about–even if they might cost your future.

This gripping, thought-provoking contemporary novel is a must-read! Although it is set on a college campus, the cliques, power dynamics, and constant struggle to find your niche and to balance school with life will be relatable to every high school student. Lee slams racist institutions with a blunt honesty that is refreshing, convicting, and guaranteed to get every reader thinking about how they will navigate the college environment and confront those injustices when they inevitably encounter them. I highly recommend this wonderful debut!

VINYL MOON by Mahogany L. Browne

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

It’s been five weeks since Angel’s mother sent her to the live with her uncle in Brooklyn, and Angel knows it’s her own fault. Her fault that she had to leave California. Her fault that her arm is in a sling. Her fault that Darius, the first boy who called her beautiful, the boy who loved her so much he couldn’t help but hurt her, is in jail.

Angel isn’t eager to share her past–or her guilt–with the other girls in her advisory class at her new school or with her teacher, however cool she might seem. But when she rediscovers the poetry of Maya Angelou, which she had loved to read until Darius tore up her book, the words of Angelou and soon other Black artists take root in her soul. And as she confronts the darkness in her past, she begins to open herself up to love: the love of a boy, the love of a friend, the love of her uncle, and most incredibly, the love of herself.

Exquisite poetry and prose intertwine in this uplifting novel about a Black trauma survivor finding herself through the powerful voices of BIPOC artists. Writers like Cisneros, Morrison, and Angelou influence both the character on her journey to becoming a musical artist and the style of narration, a combination of vignettes, poems, and conversations. Browne also surrounds her protagonist with a community of Black women and girls, each with her own developed identity and arc, who flesh out not only the world of the story but the message about the strength, resilience, ingenuity, and above all value of Black girls, despite how society teaches them that they don’t matter or can’t achieve. This book is an essential purchase for any YA collection and an emotional, uplifting literary read for teens and adults.