CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

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As soon as Cline finds out about the singer-songwriter workshop for young people, she knows she has to do it. Unfortunately, two things stand in her way. First, the workshop costs $300, money her family definitely does not have. And second, her mom said no–not just no to the workshop, but no to Cline pursuing a future in the music business, period.

But when a job opportunity falls into Cline’s lap and her grandmother (who is just as much a guardian as her mom, really) offers to advance her the application fee and sign her permission form, Cline takes it as a sign. She is meant to do this workshop. As the honesty of her songwriting leads to Cline write a love song to a girl, however, her world begins to shift. It turns out not everyone is willing to accept Cline for who she is, even people she thought really cared for her. As Cline moves closer to the public debut of her song, and closer to her songwriting partner, Sylvie, will she have the courage to be true to herself?

From the plucky protagonist who won’t give up on her dreams, to the complex mother-daughter relationship, to the sweet glimpse of puppy love between two queer young people–there is a lot to love in this middle grade novel. At the start of the book, Cline already knows she likes girls romantically–and that’s just who she is–but questions of tolerance, how and when to come out (and to whom), and emotional safety run throughout the story. Queer tweens will resonate with and take courage from Cline’s experiences, especially the encouragement she gets from allies to take care of her own mental health and take the distance she needs from hateful people and institutions, and all readers will root for her in her relentless pursuit of her artistic dreams. A must-buy for library collections, I highly recommend this novel to all middle grade contemporary fiction fans and to middle grade book clubs.

YOU CAN GO YOUR OWN WAY by Eric Smith

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Adam throws all of his energy into keeping his family’s pinball arcade up and running; it’s his way of preserving his dad’s memory. But with finances tight, his mom is starting to give up hope and talk about finally giving in to the esports cafe that wants to buy them out. The esports cafe that is owned by Whitney’s dad.

Although they were once best friends, Whitney has barely spoken to Adam since his dad died, and although Whitney’s mom also owns a shop in the old city center by the pinball arcade, her dad represents everything Adam hates–the destruction of classic culture in favor of sleek new technology and of course, money. But Whitney has problems of her own and when an act of vandalism throws them into each others’ paths again, their reluctant reunion will force them to acknowledge the past and confront the obstacles that are keeping them from defining their own futures.

Romantic, funny, and heartwarming, this YA contemporary has a perfect blend of fun and emotional depth. The pinball background and general ’80s nostalgia creates a delightful atmosphere, and I found myself longing to be part of the Old City shop owners’ community with their wonderful, hilarious camaraderie. I highly recommend this to fans of YA contemporary fiction and YA rom coms.

SKIN OF THE SEA by Natasha Bowen

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When Simidele plummeted from the slave ship into the ocean, she expected to die. She did die. But the goddess Yemoja remade her as a Mami Wata–a mermaid–and tasked her with collecting the souls of those who died on the ships, helping them toward their next life. Simi wishes her mission could be expanded to do more, to sink the ships and punish the slavers, but the Creator has strictly forbidden any interference with the mortals.

But when a living boy is thrown into the ocean, Simi can’t bear to watch him drown. She breaks the decree, pulling the boy to safety and hoping that none of the gods will notice. Unfortunately, by saving the boy she has stumbled into an ancient power struggle between the Creator and the trickster god, Esu. If she is to have any hope of saving the Mami Wata, she will have to journey with the boy she saved to find his twin siblings who were blessed by the gods and a pair of rings with the power to connect her directly to the Creator. But Simi will only survive the journey if she can keep herself from falling in love.

This book has a classic structure (magical heroine goes on a quest with the boy she secretly loves to defeat a powerful villain) and yet it feels fresh and exciting. Not only does it draw from the wealth of underrepresented West African folklore, but the incorporation of the real and terrible history of the enslavement of African people gives the novel a grounded quality you might not expect from a story of mermaids and gods. Bowen consciously weaves in West African culture, including mathematics, art, and gender politics, ensuring that her characters and the unnamed people on the slavers’ vessels are defined by their own rich and diverse identities, not by slavery. This excellent book is a must-read for YA Fantasy fans and an excellent addition to any public library or high school collection.

DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN by Carolyn Ferrell

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In 2008, the BOSS MAN kidnapped three Black girls and spent the next ten years raping, torturing, aborting, and brainwashing them. Though two of them (and the infant daughter of the third) eventually break free, the trauma of captivity winds its way into their pasts and futures, coloring all of the smaller traumas of their childhoods with abusive or controlling parents and the blossoming possibilities in their future relationships with siblings, counselors, and friends. And as they sort through their memories and emotions to find the truth of what they experienced and who they are, the two survivors are always searching for the truth of what happened to Jesenia, the one who always gave them hope but who didn’t walk out of the house with them on the day of their freedom.

This novel is heavy, both in its subject matter and its experimental literary style. The poetic vignettes, often stream-of-consciousness, appear out of chronological order which creates a unique atmosphere. On the one hand, the jumbled puzzle pieces of the story and the constant effort of picking apart poetry and fantasy from reality prevented me from being fully immersed in the story. On the other hand, the disjointed confusion was an immersion of its own, a sharing in the main characters’ experience of their trauma, unsure of what happened when, what was real and what was imaginary. And the use of fantastical imagery for rape and torture somehow made those moments more graphic and disturbing than a more grounded account would have. Though a thread of mystery runs throughout the novel, this story is neither a mystery nor a thriller. It is a poetic exploration of trauma that will not be for everyone. But for readers who are looking for something to sink into, a story that will challenge them mentally and emotionally and stay with them long after they put the book down, I would recommend DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN.

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!