YA Mystery

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

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!

THE RED PALACE by June Hur

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

Hyeon worked her whole life to become a palace nurse. It wasn’t an easy path for her, especially without the support of her father, a prominent justice who barely acknowledges her and her mother, who was once his concubine. Hyeon’s success as a nurse and rise to the prestigious palace position was largely thanks to her mentor, Nurse Jeongsu.

But when a massacre at the student hospital leaves four women dead, Nurse Jeongsu is arrested under suspicion of murder. And when an anonymous pamphlet circulates accusing the Crown Prince of the murders, Hyeon realizes two terrible truths: first, that Nurse Jeongsu will be convicted and executed to divert suspicion from the Palace, and second, that Hyeon herself has unwittingly provided the prince with a false alibi by claiming to treat his illness that night. She knows she must investigate the massacre herself if she has any hope of saving her mentor from execution, even when it means defying her father and forming an unlikely alliance with the young and unconventional police inspector who seems to respect her, despite her being a woman and a commoner, but who has the power to destroy her life–or maybe break her heart. But Hyeon will risk her heart, her job, and her father’s disapproval to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, with so many bloody secrets hidden within the Palace walls, the truth may cost her life.

Suspenseful, romantic, and rich with the fascinating history of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, THE RED PALACE is perhaps my favorite June Hur novel yet! She seamlessly weaves together the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in her family and her society with a based-on-a-tragic-true-story murder mystery–plus, a swoon-worthy romance that delighted my historical-romance-loving heart. I highly recommend this novel for any YA collection and to any teen and adult fans of historical mysteries.

ALL THESE BODIES by Kendare Blake

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Michael was there when the found the bodies, his friend Steve and his parents dead in their living room and drained of blood. He was there when his father arrested Marie Catherine Hale, the fifteen-year-old girl, the only thing drenched in blood in the otherwise sterile crime scene. Marie insist she’s innocent of the murders–and the other nine murders that spanned the midwest that summer of 1958. But she has a story to tell, a story that would prove her innocence if only someone would believe her, and Michael is the only one she will talk to. With a eager prosecutor clamoring for her execution, Marie begins a tale that is as horrifying as it is impossible. Is she the liar the prosecutor claims she is? And who will she be when all of the secrets finally float to the surface.

This slow-boil, noir mystery has an excruciatingly pacing and an eerie atmosphere that will keep your spine tingling from page one. It’s not for readers who need fast action but rather for those of us who relish a gradually unfolding, suspenseful mystery with a touch of the otherworldly. This one is for fans of the gothic and the noir, a great book to curl up with on a cold, dark night.

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


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ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

DARK AND SHALLOW LIES by Ginny Myers Sain

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Elora can’t be dead. Grey won’t accept it. When she steps off the boat back into her small bayou hometown, she’s immediately surrounded by the missing posters with her best friend’s face. She’s not the first of the Summer Children to be lost. Two of the ten children who were born in the same year died almost a decade ago, a double murder shrouded in secrets. But Elora is missing, not dead, and Grey is going to find her.

But as soon as Grey is back home, visions begin to plague her–visions of Elora fleeing from a shadowy madman who’s determined to kill her. Grey is the only one of the Summer Children who never developed supernatural abilities. There are times she wished she was a psychic like her mother, or an empath like her crush, Hart, but now she hopes that the visions only dreams, not a true window into a deadly past. That hope dies, however, when a stranger shows up in town–another Summer Child that no one knew about–and the dark undercurrents of the bayou rise to the surface. The only way this many secrets can exist in a town of psychics is if everyone only tells part of the truth…

World-tilting twists and an eerie, immersive atmosphere guarantee a gut-plummeting ride in this YA Mystery-Horror hybrid. Though it takes a few chapters to acclimate to the number of important players and their various superhuman abilities, the volume of characters and secrets makes the mystery that much more difficult to unravel. Suspense junkies won’t want to miss this stellar debut!

YOU’RE SO DEAD by Ash Parsons

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Plum’s older sister Peach Winter barely speaks to her anymore. She’s not doing it to be cruel. It’s just that since her business as an influencer took off, she hasn’t had much time for anyone. Especially not a baby sister who’s going nowhere back in her hometown in Alabama. But when an invitation to an exclusive festival on a private island gets delivered to the wrong P. Winter, Plum finally has a chance to go somewhere–even if it’s just for a weekend.

As soon as Plum and her two best friends show up on the island, though, they realize something is wrong. There are no famous people–just a handful of low level internet personalities. There is no entertainment. There’s barely even any food.

And then the murders start…

The mystery-thriller plot of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE meets the comic ridiculousness of CLUE in this new YA thriller. Don’t get me wrong–this is a murder mystery and the serial killer will keep you on the edge of your seat–but what makes this novel work is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The premise is over-the-top, but not unrealistic given the over-the-top reality of private-island-festivals and Influencer culture, and there is always a thread of humor, or a comment on the absurd extravagance of the murder’s pageantry, even at the most tense moments. It’s not true farce (like EAT YOUR HEART OUT), but it’s a heart-pounder that will also make you laugh (+ a warm-fuzzy friendship subplot). I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t need their thrillers to be dark.

Amazon.com: You're So Dead: 9780593205129: Parsons, Ash: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

LIES LIKE WILDFIRE by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

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

Hannah is looking forward to college and to pursuing a career in criminal justice like her father, the sheriff. But when she and her friends accidentally start a forest fire during a day trip to a California mountain lake near their home, suddenly she needs to use her knowledge of the legal system not to solve a crime but to get away with one.

Hannah wasn’t the first to lie (that was Violet) but Hannah is the one who badgers the other four to keep the lies going. She knows her father. He didn’t balk at putting her mom in prison for the drunk driving accident that killed a person. Hannah and her friends have killed 3–and counting. Starting a forest fire, even accidentally, can be a felony with almost a decade of prison time. Her dad can never find out that the five of them were anywhere near the fire’s origin. But as homes are destroyed, more people die, and evidence starts to surface, lies might not be enough to keep them out of jail or save their lifelong friendship. Especially if someone breaks the pact and tells the truth…

This novel is divided into two halves, the first a disaster story, the second a straightforward thriller. The theme of loyalty vs. honesty unites both parts of the novel, but the thematic threads really serve the fast-paced plot which is the main drive, appeal, and strength of the novel. Pick this one up for a teen who loves heart-pounding thrillers with well-intentioned characters making abysmal choices.

Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

14 WAYS TO DIE by Vincent Ralph

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Ten years ago, Jessica’s mother was the first victim of the Magpie Man. If the police were better at their jobs, maybe she would have been the last. But instead, every nine months another victim was taken. He’s killed thirteen women and never left a single clue at the crime scene. But Jess knows he’s left clues somewhere. He’s someone’s boyfriend or brother or husband or son. Someone knows something.

With four months to go until the next murder, Jessica signs up for an Internet reality show which will live stream her life from 7 a.m. to midnight. The show’s producers probably think they’re going to exploit some fame-hungry teen with a tragic past and an emotional relationship with her broken father. But that isn’t anywhere near the truth. Jessica isn’t here for the fame. She’s here to catch a serial killer.

This YA thriller is everything the title suggests: a fast, edge-of-your-seat, OMG-why-are-you-taunting-the-serial-killer?!?! murder mystery. It is heart-pounding fun, pure and simple. Perfect for fans of Karen McManus and Holly Jackson.

Amazon.com: 14 Ways to Die (0760789304286): Ralph, Vincent: Books