YA Science Fiction

HOW TO DATE A SUPERHERO (AND NOT DIE TRYING) by Cristina Fernandez

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

In a world of superheroes, Astrid Rose has the most boring superpower: an extreme ability to schedule every last second of her time. Technically it’s not a real superpower, like the ones of the figures in capes and spandex who fly around New York either saving or terrorizing the citizens, depending on their moral persuasion, but as a premed Cornell student, it is a very useful ability When she learns that Max, the guy she’s been dating, who she’s known since their freshman year of high school, is the legendary Kid Comet, however, her perfectly planned sophomore year suddenly shatters.

After a nasty run-in with Kid Comet’s nemesis, Astrid gets inducted into a special program for significant others of superheroes, a “prevenge” course designed to prevent the need for the superhero to seek revenge for their loved one’s senseless murder by teaching the significant other survival skills. Astrid doesn’t have time for this program, especially once someone starts sabotaging her lab samples and threatening her internship and her grades. Meanwhile, Max keeps blowing off their dates for admittedly important reasons (like saving lives), and even as she grows to love him more deeply, she grows to wonder whether she’s cut out for this relationship. When a supervillain starts stealing samples from Astrid’s lab, she and Max will both be swept up in a dangerous plot, and Astrid will have to decide what she’s willing to sacrifice: her time? her love? her career? Or maybe even her life…

Set on a college campus, this book exists in that “New Adult” space that has great appeal for both teen young adults and adult young adults (as well of some of us who are even older than that!). The narrative voice hooked me immediately (third person present tense with a tongue-in-cheek vibe that kept reminding me of Slaughterhouse Five, although the subject matter is very different). In the tradition of most great Sci-Fi, Fernandez uses her hard Sci-Fi world as a lens to explore real world issues, in this case, the uncertainty of love and commitment, the fragility of human existence, and how to stop existing and truly live in a dangerous and frightening world. I am head-over-heels for this book, and if you love both Sci-Fi and Rom Coms, you will be too!

NO BEAUTIES OR MONSTERS by Tara Goedjen

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

Riley is dreading moving back to the desert town of Twentynine Palms to all the traumatic memories they left behind when they left four years ago. She knows her mom doesn’t get to pick where she’s stationed, but it feels like they’re coming back because her estranged grandfather has died. Like now it’s safe.

But there’s nothing safe about Twentynine Palms. Riley’s former best friend has become the latest in a long list of people who have disappeared, and her grandfather for some reason has photographs of all of them in his basement, along with audio tapes that seem to have recorded the memories of local murderers, including a teen named Ethan who is terrorizing the community. And if her grandfather’s possible involvement in this dark mystery weren’t bad enough, Riley has terrifying gaps in her own memories–and a vision of herself covered in blood…

Sitting squarely at the intersection of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and thriller, this suspenseful, chilling novel will delight fans of STRANGER THINGS. The unrelenting pacing and unreliable narrator make it difficult to put down, and although I noticed a few I consistencies in the sci-fi, it didn’t really bother me because of the fantasy/horror vibe. I would definitely recommend this one to fans of the speculative genres and I’d put it on any STRANGER THINGS read-alike list!

#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* 


More:

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.

ANY SIGN OF LIFE by Rae Carson

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

When Paige wakes up, her first thought is that she’s missing basketball practice. Her mom probably hoped she’d oversleep and would say she shouldn’t be overdoing it while recovering from the flu. She apparently brought home a ton of IV bags from the hospital and hooked Paige up to all of them to keep her hydrated. It’s weird, though, that all the bags have run dry. And that she’s so thirsty that her first sip of water makes her vomit.

And then she finds the corpses.

Paige’s whole family is dead. Everyone on her street is dead–possibly everyone in Ohio. That flu that was going around wiped everyone out in less than a week. But Paige remembers the Covid-19 pandemic that happened less than a decade earlier. That virus didn’t even come close to this death toll. Is it even possible? Paige goes in search of supplies, aware that her mom’s last wish as she daisy-chained those IVs together was that Paige would live. But when she meets another survivor, a fellow teen athlete named Trey, she learns that her suspicion was correct. The virus wasn’t a coincidence. And the aliens that created it will stop at nothing until all the humans are eradicated…

Before I get to my effusive praise, I want to note that this book won’t be for every reader–at least not right now. For many readers, a book about an alien virus that wipes out 99.999% of humanity will be far enough removed from the reality of our current pandemic that it will allow them to work through some of the emotions and experiences of our real world in the fantastical extreme of the story. But for some teens, especially those who have recently lost loved ones to Covid-19, the wounds will be too raw and too deep. Early in this story, the protagonist abandons the corpses of her family, compartmentalizing her grief and focusing instead on survival. But for readers in mourning, this difficult shift and the constant presence of corpses–and reminders of the people they used to be–might be unduly upsetting. So I would hesitate to recommend this book to a teen who has lost someone during the pandemic.

That caveat aside, this book is excellent. The action and suspense starts on page one and builds to a thrilling climax, but what really elevates the story beyond a basic alien war is the constant search for–and discovery of–meaning in a post-apocalyptic world. The survivors aren’t just fighting for their lives; they are fighting to build something new and to preserve the memories of everyone who perished. It is truly a fight to preserve humanity rather than individual humans. The characters are nuanced, the moral quandaries complex, and the story riveting from the first sentence. I highly recommend this to fans of sci-fi, dystopias, and thrillers/suspense.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

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Ambrose can’t remember the launch. He knows he’s on a spaceship bound for Saturn’s moon Titan, tasked with rescuing his sister, Titan’s only colonist. But he can’t remember the launch.

And he certainly doesn’t know why he was in a coma.

The ship’s OS assures him that he will recover and have plenty of time to finish all of the necessary maintenance on the ship to prepare for their approach to Titan–especially since the ship has a second spacefarer. Another surprise. When he meets Kodiak, the surly and infuriatingly attractive spacefarer from Dimokratía, Earth’s most backward, sexist, and homophobic country, Ambrose suspects he would be better off alone. But that’s before Ambrose discovers blood smeared on a panel in the engine room, blood that OS claims to know nothing about but which Kodiak is able to date to 5,000 years in the past–a time before the ship could have possibly existed. As they work to unravel the mystery, trying to somehow hide from OS’s constant surveillance, Kodiak and Ambrose quickly realize they will have to put mistrust and national rivalries aside if they want to survive.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US is both 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque sci-fi and YA queer romantic suspense. If you thought you only liked one of these genres, think again. This book will change your mind. It is both true to the classic tropes of each genre and somehow fresh and inventive in their application. It has humor and heart, gnarly moral situations and thrilling action, devastation and hope. This summer has seen a wealth of exceptional YA releases, but this one really stood out to me. It will be tricky to use in book clubs because there is sex, but I will definitely be recommending and displaying it. If you are a fan of either YA sci-fi or romantic suspense, this novel is a must-read!

The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer

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!)

SWITCH by A.S. King

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Time stopped on June 23, 2020. The world never stopped. The sun still rises and sets. People still wake up, go to school, come home. But the clocks and stopwatches and oven timers don’t move. Time no longer exists.

For two hours at the start of each school day, teenagers are tasked with brainstorming solutions to this problem. Tru is pretty sure she knows the cause. As with most global crises, it’s people who caused it–people who didn’t care enough about each other. Tru is an expert in the evils of humanity because she spent most of her life living with a bomb, the sister she hasn’t spoken to since she moved out. Sister left Tru’s family in tatters, her mom gone, her brother on edge, her father at the brink of insanity, turning their whole house into a series of plywood boxes, shutting off from one another and covering up the mysterious switch in the wall that no one’s allowed to touch. But just as her father spends his days pounding nails in, Tru spends her nights pulling nails out. And when Javelin throwing on the track team gives her an outlet for the incredible, almost superhuman energy that’s been building inside her, Tru realizes the solution. If a lack of human empathy cause the problem, only a swell of human emotion can break them out. And Tru is going to be the one to flip the switch.

Another stunning, powerful literary novel from A.S. King. Though the novel is slim, it is dense with poetry and heavy thematic content. This is one to savor. The sci-fi of this poetic book is unveiled symbolism for the brokenness of Tru’s family as they resist healing and connection, and I would therefore recommend it to fans of contemporary fiction and literary fiction–both teens and adults.

Switch by A.S. King: 9780525555513 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

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Vivian is going to survive. Allie knows it. Because that’s what happens in all horror movies. The strong, determined, fearless girl survives. Because she has to. But the basket case? The girl who’s barely holding it together; the girl who only signed on to come to fat camp because she was so broken up about her rich best friend’s rejection that she chased her all the way to the middle-of-nowhere-Arizona in a sad attempt to humiliate her; the girl who looks at the other five teenagers around her and sees not the only five humans still alive to fight the zombies that have overrun the camp but the characters they would be in the horror movie of their life: Action Girl, the Nerd, the Jerk, the Jock, the Outcast–and the Basket Case, Allie, who will be the first to die.

Indulge my nerdiness for a moment because I want to talk about how brilliantly crafted this book is. I will admit I was skeptical when I picked it up, because six first person narrators? Really? But it worked because of the way it was crafted. This novel is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at fat camp. If you have not seen NOTLD, it is not only a classic horror film, it is social commentary featuring athletic zombie-like creatures (that do not follow the “rules” of proper zombies). The social commentary elements are woven in through a cast of archetypal characters and a brilliant, perfect ending that I won’t give away here.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT is intentional and self-aware in how it mimics and updates NOTLD, even down to the character archetypes. It starts out with a list of the characters and the likelihood that each will survive which makes it really easy to keep track of who each of the narrators is and to get a handle on each of these characters even though they’re sharing “screen time” with so many other people. The social commentary in this one, as you can probably tell from the premise, focuses on how society devalues fat people–even to the point that death is sometimes perceived as preferable to fatness. There is a disclaimer at the front of the book for anyone who might find this material triggering. For me as a reader, though, I felt like the absurd, satirical tone of the book both “lightened” the dark reality, making it palatable and even fun, and made the darkness even darker, when you think about how the over-the-top horror story has a substantial foundation in reality.

So maybe it’s my love of NOTLD, or my love of satire, or my love of YA SFF, but I was incapable of putting this book down. It was such a thrill! Highly recommend it to others who enjoy these kind of satirical SFF stories!

Amazon.com: Eat Your Heart Out (9780593204825): deVos, Kelly: Books

GEARBREAKERS by Zoe Hana Mikuta

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Sona let the military carve out nearly every human part of her body, replacing them with gears and wires that will allow her to pilot the elite Valkyrie weapons, the mechanized gods that support Godolia’s repressive government regime. But Sona had a reason for joining. Because the only way to bring down a god is from the inside.

Eris knows the only way to bring down a Valkyrie is by getting inside it, taking it apart one gear at a time. But when one of the pilots approaches her, offers to help her bring down Godolia, she hesitates. After all, these mecha pilots are the reason the tyrannical government has been able to persecute and murder her people. And the only thing more dangerous than forming an alliance would be if the elite mecha warrior and the renegade scavenger fall in love…

An inventive, fast-paced YA sci-fi that felt to me like an LGBTQIA+ Pacific Rim x The Force Awakens. This will be a winner with sci-fi fans!

THE DISASTERS by M.K. England

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Nax Hall can’t believe he flunked out of the Academy.  He has been planning this for years–to become a pilot, leave Earth, and head out to the Colonies to start a new life.  He should have been top of his class, but instead he is sitting with the other handful of rejects, waiting for the shuttle that will take them back to Earth.  But as their shuttle is arriving, a group of terrorists invade the space station.  Nax and the other three rejects barely make it onto the shuttle and escape before the terrorists deplete the space station of oxygen.  With everyone else at the Academy dead and a terrorist ship on their tail, Nax and the others make the jump to the colonies where they learn that no one knows of the attack.  In fact, whoever orchestrated the assault has claimed that Nax and his companions are wanted fugitives.  As the only ones who know the truth, it is up to this misfit band of strangers to pull together and figure out the terrorists’ plan while there’s still time to save the world.

Billed as “Guardians of the Galaxy meets the Breakfast Club,” this novel is a thrilling start to a new sci-fi series.  An action-heavy plot is balanced by the deep and nuanced characters and rich world-building.  I highly recommend it to sci-fi fans!