SECOND SLEEP by Diane Stanley

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When Max’s mother first disappears, his father assures him that she’s fine. The voicemail she left was kind of cryptic–helping a friend with a health thing?–but she said not to expect her to be in touch for a few days, so they shouldn’t be alarmed. Until they find her cell phone hidden in her bedroom.

In an attempt to keep the kids from worrying, Max’s grandma takes him and his sister up to a cabin by the lake where his mother spent her childhood summers. But the first night after Max goes to bed, something not exactly worrying but certainly confusing happens. He and his sister both wake up in a dream world–the lake, but somehow brighter and more exciting–where all the children who have ever visited the lake that particular week in August are playing together in what one girl calls the “collective now,” a reality where it is 1983 and 1995, and 2021 all at the same time. Once he’s gotten over his shock and begins making deep friendships with the other children, Max realizes that the dream world might be the answer to his problem. If he can find his mom in this reality, maybe he’ll figure out a way to find her in real life, too.

I’m kind of madly in love with this book. In some ways, it’s a quiet read, focused on heart-warming relationships. But the suspense of the missing mother and the mystery of the magical dreams add enough urgency to make it difficult to stop turning pages. And although the fantasy/sci-fi element runs into the usual unresolvable issues that crop up whenever someone travels back in time and befriends a parent, the mechanics of the time travel wasn’t really a concern for me–it’s not what the book is really about. I’d recommend this one to any middle grade reader who enjoys magical realism. It could also be a peaceful family read aloud at bedtime for upper elementary age kids.

GILDED by Marissa Meyer

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At Serilda’s birth, the god of storytelling gave her a gift, or so her father claims. She certainly has a reputation for telling the most marvelous stories–a reputation that causes all the villagers to distrust her and label her a liar. Unfortunately, she can’t stop herself from telling these lies, and on a fateful night of the full moon when the dark hunters pass through the veil to the land of the living, she tells a tale to the Erlking himself–a tale in which she can spin straw into gold.

Instead of slitting her throat as he might have done to an ordinary mortal, the Erlking whisks her away to his dungeon and gives her one chance to prove her ability. Serilda believes her life is over–until a boy appears in her cell. Neither dead nor living, the boy without a name feels strangely drawn to Serilda, and he happens to have the ability to spin straw into gold. But the Erlking will not be satisfied with a single demonstration of her professed powers, and as his demands increase, Serilda’s stories start to bring her closer to a dark secret about the Erlking and his court and the cursed boy that she is rapidly falling in love with.

No praise I can write here will do this book justice. Masterfully told and spun from many threads of rich German folklore, this novel is far more than a Rumpelstiltskin retelling. The world-building is immersive, luxurious, and chilling; the characters nuanced; the heroine delightful and surprising; and the dialogue modern without feeling out-of-place. Not only is this one of my favorite books of the year, but it is one of my favorite fantasies I’ve read in a long time. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

THE GRIMROSE GIRLS by Laura Pohl

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When Ella, Rory, and Yuki return to their Swiss boarding school, they are mourning the tragic death of their closest friend and roommate. Yuki has accepted the official police report: that the drowning was an accident or a suicide. But Ella and Rory aren’t so sure. And when their new roommate, Nani, finds a book of fairytales hidden in the back of a wardrobe, the girls have their first actual clue that something sinister happened. According to their friend’s notes, all of the “accidental” deaths at the school have corresponded to the unhappy ending of a fairytale–from the drowning of the Little Mermaid to the mauling of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. But the deaths are picking up in frequency, and not all of them seem quite so accidental anymore. And if the four friends don’t figure out the source of the curse and put a stop to it, they’re pretty sure one of them will be next.

Much of the fun of this murder-mystery-fantasy is sorting through the many fairytale parallels. The novel moves slowly at first (the main appeal at the start being the fairytale tie-ins), but the plot picks up dramatically in Part Two, at which point it is difficult to put down. There is also a heartening amount of LGBTQIA+ representation, including gay characters, a transgender girl, and an asexual protagonist. I’d recommend this title to high school readers who love twisted fairytale retellings.

SEVEN DIRTY SECRETS by Natalie D. Richards

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Cleo still has nightmares about the day Declan died. Some of it is the trauma of watching him drown. Some is the guilt. And maybe some of it is relief–that her ex died before his abuse killed her. But someone isn’t convinced that Declan’s death was an accident. What starts as a creepy scavenger hunt from a mysterious stalker quickly begins exposing secrets from the fatal camping trip. Is the stalker one of the five others who were there that night? Or was there another witness? One thing is for certain: Cleo has to play the stalker’s game. Because the stakes are high, and she can’t afford to lose anyone else…

Fast-moving and packed full of clues and suspects, SEVEN DIRTY SECRETS will satisfy teen thriller fans who love a mystery to solve. Well-founded twists and complicated characters add depth to the edge-of-your seat plot. A fun, quick read for YA thriller readers!

THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR by Amy Butler Greenfield

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When Elizebeth Smith accepted a job studying Shakespeare’s First Folio on a wealthy man’s estate, her primary motivation was to escape her domineering father’s household. But this unusual opportunity would set her life on a new and unexpected course. On the estate, she met fellow employee William Friedman and the two began collaborating on code breaking projects. Their partnership would become both professional and romantic, skyrocketing them both into positions as elite cryptanalysts for the United States government. Though William would become famous for heading the team that cracked the Japanese code machine “Purple” and for his role in the fledgeling NSA, Elizebeth’s contributions to her country were less celebrated and in some cases attributed to others–men, of course. But Elizebeth’s incredible work not only saved American lives in both World Wars but broke down barriers for women in intelligence work and pushed the boundaries of code breaking.

Spanning two wars and featuring colorful characters from eccentric millionaires to rumrunning gangsters, this true story at times feels like fiction. Though marketed to teens, adults will enjoy this fascinating biography just as much as younger readers. Greenfield is honest about holes in the historical record but still manages to uncover enough information to piece together a cohesive picture of Friedman’s secretive life and contribution to counterintelligence. Bits of code included in the text along with instructions for deciphering it add a beautiful interactive element to the book. I highly recommend this one to teens and adults alike!

THE LAST LEGACY by Adrienne Young

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When Bryn Roth turned eighteen, she was summoned back to the country of her birth to take her place in her powerful family. But she soon learns that her uncle’s methods of securing and maintaining their power are illegal, underhanded, and sometimes even violent. The first time she one of her uncle’s schemes deliberately puts her in danger, she realizes that she will need to find a way to make herself valuable to the family to avoid being used again.

Unfortunately, her uncle has other ideas of how she can be of use to him in his bid for a coveted merchant’s guild ring. And his plans keep bringing her into conflict with Ezra, the surly and infuriating silversmith that Bryn finds herself unwittingly drawn toward. As her uncle plots to sell her to an influential merchant in marriage, Bryn desperately tries to distance herself from the dangerous family politics by immersing herself in her late mother’s legitimate business. But when lies and betrayals come to light, Bryn learns that if she is to have any hope of a future independent from her uncle, she will have to embrace all the aspects of being a Roth.

Young returns to the cutthroat world of the FABLE duology for a story of political intrigue and forbidden love. Fans of FABLE and SKY IN THE DEEP may be surprised at the almost courtly start to this novel, as the well-bred, gown-wearing young woman arrives to take her place in her powerful family. But the story quickly gets underway with all of the grounded world-building and visceral story experience you can expect from Adrienne Young. The plot kept me guessing, the characters surprised me, and the romance threw me off-balance in the best possible way. This was one of my favorite books of the year. Highly recommend!

GUSSY by Jimmy Cajoleas

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Gussy knows never to open the gates after dark. It’s one of the first things she learned from Grandpa Widow when he trained her as a Protector: if you open the gates after the sun sets and the rites have been performed, the Great Doom could slip inside. But there’s a girl outside in the desert, and if Gussy leaves her out there in the middle of the hailstorm, she’ll be dead before morning. Gussy wishes Grandpa Widow hadn’t left, leaving these difficult decisions up to her. But then, there’s really only one choice. Gussy opens the gate.

At first, it seems like things are going well. There’s no sign of the Great Doom, and although the girl is a little odd–and determined to practice strange magic in Gussy’s house. But the mayor is acting oddly, and strange people are sneaking around in the dark. And when the first sinister signs of the Great Doom appear, Gussy will have to embrace her role as Protector and save the villagers–whether they want her to or not.

This charming story is both grounded and transportive, told through the quirky, confident voice of Gussy herself and set in a desert community where rituals and faith that would not be out of place in our world blend with the magic of the fantasy. Though the magic system itself isn’t revolutionary, the way it fits into the rich, unique world- and character-building makes it feel truly inventive. This novel is a wonderful choice for middle grade readers who love to be immersed in a fantasy world with characters they’d love to hang out with.

THE LAST GOODNIGHT by Kat Martin

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When they pull Kade’s estranged wife’s car from the lake, old wounds reopen. It’s been eight years since she was murdered, and the cops have given up on solving the case. But no matter how painfully their marriage ended, Kade can’t live knowing her killer hasn’t been brought to justice. Though his last attempt at hiring a PI went nowhere, he hopes new evidence from the recovered vehicle could revive the cold case. But he didn’t expect the PI to be a woman–an attractive and charismatic woman who makes him feel things he swore he’d never give into again.

Eleanor was eager to take the job at Kade’s ranch and confident that she could find his wife’s killer. But she soon realizes she made a mistake. She’s still confident she can find the killer, but she’s not confident she can resist her employer. Her lust is reciprocated and the two soon fall into a torrid affair. But as a mysterious enemy begins a violent assault on the ranch and Eleanor’s resolve to stay emotionally detached falls victim to Kade’s charms, she doubts either one of them will get out of this unscathed…

This suspenseful, lust-at-first sight romance will satisfy many fans of the genre. The majority of the tension and conflict in the plot comes from the external dangers while the relationship faces only superficial and easily-overcome obstacles. For romantic suspense readers who like their characters to have to fight as hard for their love and personal growth as they do to survive, this novel will fall short. But for readers who like a thriller plot with a hearty dose of steamy sex scenes, this new series-starter is a solid pick.

THE SWAG IS IN THE SOCKS by Kelly J. Baptist

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Xavier’s great uncle Frankie Bell is a legend. The man is seriously old, but he hasn’t slowed down one bit. He’s still traveling the country with his jazz band, making music and making history. And apparently, he’s decided it’s time for Xavier to step up his sock game.

The socks Frankie Bell sends are crazy–bright colors, wild patterns, the kind of socks that call attention to a person. And with his stutter, Xavier doesn’t usually like calling more attention to himself. But lucky things happen every time Xavier wears Frankie Bell’s socks. He finds money on the street, gets free ice cream, even catches the attention of eighth graders. That’s a really good thing because some of those eighth graders are members of the Scepter League, an elite group of young men built on the pillars of leadership, education, service, and character, and it’s Xavier’s goal to get inducted this year. But once school starts, the sock luck seems to run out. First, Xavier’s art elective gets canceled, and he winds up in sewing class where he is the one and only boy. Then, there’s the usual embarrassment of being pulled out of class for speech therapy. But when isn’t invited to join the League, Xavier finally realizes that the socks aren’t the problem. If he wants to catch the attention of the League, he’s going to have to step up more than just his sock game. He’s going to have to stop hanging back and start speaking up–start living Frankie Bell’s legacy. And socks are a great place to start…

A powerful story with a humorous and authentic narrative voice, THE SWAG IS IN THE SOCKS is a wonderful pick for middle grade readers and book clubs. Baptist challenges readers to stop putting people in boxes and to search for their own “thing,” even if that talent or interest isn’t socially acceptable. Between the humor and Xavier’s quest to join the League, there is plenty to keep young readers engaged and turning pages. A great addition to any middle grade collection!

ALL THE FEELS by Olivia Dade

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Alex is being punished. The showrunner for the wildly successful fantasy cable show Alex has acted in for the past nine years doesn’t even ask him whether the tabloid stories about a drunken bar fight are true (which, for the record, they aren’t…mostly). He just assigns Alex a babysitter. Lauren Clegg–or Nanny Clegg, as Alex prefers to call her–is joyless, unless she enjoys killing Alex’s joy, in which case she must be overflowing with well-disguised mirth. Because Nanny Clegg is in charge of making sure Alex doesn’t do anything fun or interesting (read: embarrassing to the production) for the next nine months until the final season of the show airs.

After leaving her job as an ER therapist, Lauren had been looking forward to a break. But when her mother asks her to do her cousin a favor, she can’t exactly say no–not without causing family drama–and so she ends up as the babysitter of a TV star who is by all accounts a wild, irresponsible party boy. Within a few days of knowing Alex, however, she begins to suspect that the tabloids–and her cousin–have gotten him all wrong. In fact, with the exception of some impulsive behavior stemming from his ADHD, Alex seems like a responsible and compassionate person. As their relationship develops from something purely professional into a real friendship, Lauren’s loyalties are tested. But it is Alex’s devotion to Lauren (surely just friendly devotion, right?) that ends up causing the next scandal, costing Lauren her job and Alex his career. With their professional relationship over and both of them steeped in guilt over the fallout, Alex and his one-time nanny will have to figure out how much sacrifice their friendship is worth–and whether friendship alone is really enough.

This hilarious, swoon-worthy, steamy romcom picks up the love story of two secondary characters in Dade’s bestseller, SPOILER ALERT, and if it’s possible, I think I liked this one even better(?!). Mostly because Alex, but also because the issues of self-worth and sacrifice were so powerful and accessible. Also, despite Alex’s occasionally juvenile sense of humor, the relationship was extremely mature: gradual to develop and always respectful, without the kind of lies and deceptions that often provide the tension in romance plots. I certainly enjoy lie/deception based suspense, but sometimes it’s nice to sink into a romance where the relationship is actually pretty healthy throughout and it’s the characters’ need for individual growth that creates the obstacles to their relationship’s success.

FYI, you do not need to have read SPOILER ALERT to read this one. You can read them in either order. If you have read SPOILER ALERT, you will notice that ALL THE FEELS has less fanfic but don’t worry: it still has plenty of amazing references to fanfic romance tropes (and, of course, pegging).