YA Realistic Fiction

THE MARVELOUS MIRZA GIRLS by Sheba Karim

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Noreen’s high school graduation isn’t exactly how she pictured it. I mean, in some ways it was exactly what she’d imagined–parents getting teary-eyed over cliche speeches about achieving your dreams, as if achieving dreams were actually plausible. More of her classmates would be hit by buses than win a Nobel Prize. Most of life is out of their control. Case in point: Noreen’s aunt should be here, but instead she’s in her grave.

When Noreen’s mother is offered an year-long work opportunity in India, Noreen thinks that maybe this is what they need to start processing their grief and for her to sort out her life and get past her writer’s block. After all, that’s what white people do, right? Go to India to find themselves? But the first person she finds in India is Kabir, a boy who’s off the hotness index and immediately becomes a friend (and dare she hope something more?). But when Kabir’s father is MeTooed, Noreen is forced to examine her beliefs about love, loyalty, and family as she realizes that finding “herself” depends a lot on finding her place in relationships with those she cares about.

How refreshing to find an exploration of grief and complex moral issues in the form of a laugh-out-loud rom com! Noreen’s voice is a delight to read and the heavier themes are woven through the narrative poetically in a way that never dragged me down and kept me thinking long after the book ended. Highly recommend to fans of YA contemporary fiction!

Amazon.com: The Marvelous Mirza Girls (9780062845481): Karim, Sheba: Books

LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

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

It took Natalie years of hard work to win Female Artist of the Year at the People’s Choice Awards. Not just work on her songs, all of which she writes herself, but work on her image. You don’t get the privilege of making art in LA without first cultivating your fame. Natalie hates all of it–from straightening her hair to eliminating every trace of her Brazilian accent–but she understands that it’s necessary.

Unfortunately, Natalie’s People’s Choice experience goes wrong almost immediately. First, an obscure British actor tries to make small talk and ends up implying that Natalie is a shallow diva. Then (and much more disastrously) her boyfriend dumps her–in front of the paparazzi. In the viral Internet firestorm that follows, Natalie realizes there’s only one way to fix this PR nightmare: she needs to distract the press with a new boyfriend. Her PR team draws up the paperwork for a contractual fake-boyfriend–a media stunt to help both their careers. But the sap they choose is the same British actor who insulted her at the People’s Choice Awards. As Natalie and William get to know each other, the initial awkwardness of their arrangement falls away, and Natalie finds herself feeling something more than annoyance toward him. Maybe even something more than friendship. And even more disturbing than the realization that this fake relationship might result in very real heartache, is the realization that William might be right to criticize her PR-focused choices. Is it possible there is another way–a better way–for Natalie to get her songs heard?

The jacket summary of this novel did not prepare me for how grounded, principled, relatable, and frankly inspiring this teen pop star would be. I picked it up thinking I’d just be reading it in order to recommend it to the teens I work with, but I couldn’t put it down because I was personally enthralled by the characters and their love story. Though it is very much within the YA sphere, LIKE A LOVE SONG has crossover appeal for the New Adult audience. I highly recommend this one to fans of RomComs, especially with the fake-dating trope!

Like a Love Song by Gabriela Martins

DEAD WEDNESDAY by Jerry Spinelli

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

Perfect Day.

Worm murmurs it on the bus–not loudly; he’s shy, after all–but soon it’s picked up by the rest of the eighth graders as their mantra and their cheer. It’s the second Wednesday in June, “Dead Wed” in Worm’s small Pennsylvania town, a day that school administrators designed to scare the eighth graders out of future reckless behavior but that every eighth grader knows as the day they can get away with anything. In homeroom, they will each receive a black shirt and a card with the name and picture of a teenager who died in PA last year as a result of preventable car accidents or dangerous stunts–and from that moment, every eighth grader will be “dead.” No teacher can acknowledge their presence, not even to stop them from walking out of school if they feel like it. Perfect Day.

But Worm’s perfect day veers off course almost immediately when the dead girl from his card, Rebecca Finch, starts showing up in real life. He’s the only one who seems to be able to see her or speak to her, although she’s 100% real and tangible. Becca doesn’t know how she ended up back on Earth, but she’s positive it has something to do with Worm. She’s here to save him–because let’s face it, Worm hasn’t really been living. As Mean Monica once announced, he needs to get a life. As Becca drags Worm on an impulsive jaunt around his hometown, Worm starts to realize that there is more than one way to “be bold” and that maybe Becca needs some saving of her own.

This novel is exquisite. It exists somewhere between middle grade and YA, between fantasy and realistic fiction, but the book is full of betweens. Becca is caught between life and death, Worm between middle school and high school, childhood and adulthood, responsibility to his parents and individuality, a desire to be noticed and a desire to fade into the background. The narrative is masterfully woven, sending readers on an undulating emotional journey that builds to its climax so subtly that it is both unexpected and grounded. There is humor, realistically cringe-worthy teen interactions, and true heartache (warning to parents: this may upset you more than it will your kids), and Worm’s personal journey is authentic and meaningful. This book is a must-read for middle schoolers and an excellent pick for M.S. book clubs.

Dead Wednesday: Spinelli, Jerry: 9780593306673: Amazon.com: Books

SUNNY SONG WILL NEVER BE FAMOUS by Suzanne Park

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Sunny doesn’t get why all the adults in her life are so hung up on get social media accounts. After all, it was her mom who got her into posting videos in the first place, after turning toddler-Sunny into a viral, Gangnam Style-singing sensation. And Sunny has enough followers of her own now that she’s been able to monetize her sites and earn some money for college (and, okay, vintage clothes).

But when Sunny takes her top off, not realizing she’s still live-casting a cooking video (#brownieporn), she finds herself shipped off to “digital detox” camp in Iowa. On a farm in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by other so-called social media addicts who are as reluctant to be there as she is, Sunny is desperate to get back online. But when she starts connecting with the cutest boy in camp, she starts to wonder if maybe there is something to be said for being social without the media.

A cute, light rom-com featuring a Korean American protagonist, SUNNY SONG WILL NEVER BE FAMOUS invites readers to think about the “why” behind their social media usage. Are we online for the fame or attention of follows and views? Or are we there for the connections and relationships we can form? I’d recommend this one to YA contemporary readers, especially those looking for a fun beach-read type book.

Amazon.com: Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous (0760789293962): Park, Suzanne:  Books

AN EMOTION OF GREAT DELIGHT by Tahereh Mafi

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In just a year, Shadi’s life has been upended. Since her brother died, her mother has unraveled. Her father is in the hospital, likely to die, and Shadi can’t even pretend to be sad about it. Her sister only speaks to her to pick a fight. Her best friend hates her. And worst of all, her country has gone to war with Iraq, and though her family doesn’t come from Iraq, because Shadi wears hijab, her entire community seems to blame her for the tragedies and consequences of 9/11. As Shadi shuffles through her life, trying to keep her head down and to keep her grief at bay, her ex-best friend’s brother suddenly reappears in her life, and her delicate balance collapses. She will finally have to confront the traumas in her life and process the heartbreak that preceded it all.

A story of love, family, heartbreak, and forgiveness, this recent-historical novel will appeal to readers of YA contemporary fiction and difficult, gut-wrenching romances. The poetic prose elevates what would already have been a beautiful narrative into something truly exquisite. I highly recommend it to YA readers and book clubs.

RADHA AND JAI’S RECIPE FOR ROMANCE by Nisha Sharma

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Radha was one dance away from winning the international kathak dance championship when her world turned upside down. Her mother was having an affair with one of the judges. Not only did that call all of Radha’s dance achievements into question, but it meant that her family was breaking up. Life as she knew it was over.

After a difficult semester dealing with her parents divorce, Radha and her mother move from Chicago to New Jersey. Radha’s mother agrees to pay for her college tuition next year, under one condition: that Radha enroll and complete all of the requirements for a dance track at a prestigious performing arts high school. Radha agrees, but secretly plans to find a way out of the performance requirement. She lost all her dance joy last winter when everything fell apart. But Radha didn’t count on meeting Jai, a skilled Bollywood dancer with a heap of his own family drama. As Radha and Jai’s friendship deepens, they each realize that the decisions they each thought were best for themselves and their families might put their relationship in jeopardy. Can they overcome the obstacles to connect with their inner joy–and each other?

A sweet, fun romance with a healthy dose of drama and heart. Relationships are key as Radha learns to relate to both of her parents individually while Jai learns to accept his family’s support and let go of his need to take care of everyone around him whether they want it or not. A great pick for fans of contemporary YA romance.

Amazon.com: Radha & Jai's Recipe for Romance (9780553523294): Sharma,  Nisha: Books

FAKING REALITY by Sara Fujimura

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Dakota knew it would be a horrible idea to tell Leo she was in love with him. So then why did she do it? And in the walk-in fridge of his family’s Japanese restaurant–could she get any more ridiculous? Fortunately, the cameras that usually follow her family around for their HGTV reality show aren’t allowed in the Matsuda’s restaurant. The last thing she needs is another public humiliation like last year’s Homecoming.

But Leo’s rejection is just the start of Dakota’s problems. The reality show is in its last season, and the producer wants to give America’s DIY Princess a televised Sweet Sixteen bash. The catch: she’ll need to audition actors to play her date. Could this be the opportunity Dakota needs to get over Leo before their summer trip to Japan? Or will it be yet another humiliating disaster?

I loved the voice and cast of this adorable YA romance. Dakota is a quarter Japanese and Fujimura incorporates Japanese culture and language seamlessly throughout the narrative. I also appreciated the “reality diva” twist: that Dakota stars in an HGTV show where she gets to renovate houses and other building projects. You don’t expect a “TV princess” to show up in steel-toed work boots, and it is awesome. The gradual build of the romance was actually less engaging for me than Dakota’s personal growth, wrestling with issues of privacy and agency and the pros/cons of being a ratings success. Highly recommend to fans of fun, hopeful, but thought-provoking YA contemporary fiction!

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

Faking Reality (9781250204103): Fujimura, Sara: Books - Amazon.com

HURRICANE SUMMER by Asha Bromfield

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Tilla doesn’t want to spend the summer in Jamaica. She’s not nervous about hurricanes, like her mother. The source of Tilla’s anxiety is her father who she hasn’t seen in over a year–and who she hasn’t forgiven for abandoning her family.

But when Tilla and her little sister arrive in the Jamaican countryside, she finds even more cause to worry. Her father is out of town for weeks and her aunts, uncles, and cousins do their best to make her feel unwelcome. It seems like everything about her is wrong on the island: her poor command of Patois, her “mod” Afro, the clothes she wears, the fact that she has had the opportunity to go to school–all of it brands her as a rich foreigner. The only bright spot is her friendship with her cousin Andre, who also faces discrimination from the family since his skin is darker than everyone else’s. As Tilla struggles to fit in and to find some sort of relationship with her father, the casual bullying of her extended family takes a dark turn, leading Tilla to question her identity and self-worth.

HURRICANE SUMMER explores some of the same themes as THE POET X (family, religion, the sexualization of girls) but in a heavier, more dramatic way. There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel warning of sexual violence, and I appreciated the heads up as the story turned darker. That said, while this novel is not brimming with hope, Tilla’s strength and her refusal to break under the bullying–or to let the bullies break Andre–kept me going through, and I’m still thinking about the issues it raised days later. Also, the immersive world-building of summer on the island is thrilling. For readers who enjoy darker contemporary YA, especially about dysfunctional families, this is one that you’ll want to grab!

Amazon.com: Hurricane Summer: A Novel (9781250622235): Bromfield, Asha:  Books

THE BOY WHO LIVED IN THE CEILING by Cara Thurlbourn

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Freddie never intended to stay at the Johnson’s house. He snuck in while they were on vacation, just intending to shower and get warm for one night before going on his way. He even put his last two pound coin in their savings jar to pay for the water he used. But when the family comes home early, Freddie panics and hides in the attic. Days turn into months and as Freddie gets increasingly invested in the lives of the family below him–especially the teenage daughter, Violet–he begins to influence their lives in positive ways.

This story about friendship and belonging was a pleasant, light read. The suspense over whether (or rather when) Freddie would be discovered and questions about his past and the family’s secrets added enough intrigue to keep me turning pages. The book did fall short for me in voice and intensity. At the start, the voice felt young (I actually wondered for a few chapters if it was middle grade) and although Freddie experiences panic attacks, I didn’t believe them–didn’t feel them through the writing. For this reason, when the truth about his past was revealed, it came as a shock and didn’t seem grounded in the emotions of the first 80% of the novel. Despite these shortcomings, I’d recommend it to readers looking for a sweet friendship story.

The Boy Who Lived In The Ceiling: Thurlbourn, Cara: 9781079135008:  Amazon.com: Books

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon

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Evie used to love romance novels. But that was before she caught her dad cheating on her mom. As she brings a box of her once-beloved books to the library to donate, she’s stopped by an old woman who offers her a weather-beaten copy of a ballroom dance manual in exchange. And on the way home, Evie is horrified to discover that the woman gave her something else, too: the ability to see the future.

Not just any future. Whenever she sees a couple kiss, she gets a vision of the heartbreak that awaits at the end of their relationship. Desperate to cure herself, she goes to the ballroom dance studio listed in the back of the old book. But instead of finding the woman who cursed her, she meets X, an aspiring rock star who basically checks every box on the stereotypical perfect hero of a romance novel list. As Evie and X become dance partners, then friends, Evie wrestles with the question: is love worth a future broken heart?

A truly exceptional, must-read YA romance! There are too many strengths to list, so I’ll stick with a few of my favorites:

First, these characters breathe. All of them are so alive, so real, so packed with genuine human emotions and motivations. No secondary character is neglected.

Second, this is a romance about heartbreak and loss (don’t worry, there’s an HFN) but it also made me laugh out loud. As with the characters, the plot and prose are packed with the full range of human emotion.

Third, there is a chapter where the narrator summarizes a bunch of romance novel tropes, and it is amazing.

And finally, this sentence: “Sometimes I think love is the reason language was invented.”

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

Amazon.com: Instructions for Dancing (9781524718961): Yoon, Nicola: Books