YA – Not My Problem

Smyth, Ciara. Not My Problem. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-95714-6. $17.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

Aideen Cleary has problems. She’s not doing so well in school, her best friend Holly has been drifting from her for the last couple years, and her mom’s occasional drinking binges that make her unfit to parent have Aideen worrying that social services will come knocking on their door any day now. But when she catches her enemy, Meabh Kowalska, throwing an embarrassing hissy fit in the locker room at school, she sees an opportunity to focus on someone else’s problems for a change. Aideen thinks over-achieving Meabh’s problem of just finding more time in her schedule is an easy problem to fix, but Meabh insists on a fool-proof solution. So she asks Aideen to push her down a set of stairs in exchange for a favor she can call in at any time. Though Aideen hesitates at first, given their history, Meabh is pretty easily able to convince Aideen to give her a good shove. Meabh’s ankle effectively sprained, the problem seems solved. Except for the witness to it all, a classmate named Kavi, who swears to secrecy but sees potential in the exchange he just witnessed. The next day, he brings Aideen a friend of his in trouble and asks her to help solve the problem, much like she did for Meabh yesterday. Thus begins Aideen’s semester of stunts, shenanigans, and some new relationships. Aideen’s life might be spiraling out of control, but fixing others’ lives and collecting favors in return seems like a good deal for her. For now.

THOUGHTS: Aideen is foul-mouthed but laugh-out-loud funny in this sophomore novel from the author of last year’s The Falling in Love Montage. Some Irish colloquialisms might trip up teen readers here and there, but it’s part of the experience of reading this story set in Ireland. A story with romance though not necessarily a book I’d classify as romance, I highly recommend this book for YA collections looking to add  LGBTQ+ representation. Aside from a couple sentences mentioning Aideen’s coming out at a young age as difficult, the characters in this book are, as Aideen says, “super woke,” so this book is not about Aideen’s struggles coming out or dealing with bullying because she identifies as lesbian. Her fading friendship with Holly and budding new friendship with Kavi takes just as much (if not, more) of the narrative as her slow-burn enemies-to-lovers relationship with Meabh. Aideen’s complicated relationship with her mom and her mom’s alcoholism and poverty also dominate much of the narrative. While cliche, it’s definitely accurate to say this book has a bit of everything.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – The Box in the Woods

Johnson, Maureen. The Box in the Woods. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-063-03260-6. 383 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

In July of 1978, Sabrina Abbott was breaking the rules, something this too good girl had never done. She and her friends paid dearly. Student sleuth Stevie Bell, known for solving the unsolvable Ellingham Academy case is home for the summer, working the second shift at the deli counter of her town’s local grocery store in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Desperate for her next case – or something more interesting than thinly sliced meat and cheese – Stevie receives an email referencing Camp Wonder Falls, and Stevie being Stevie knows this is the Camp Wonder Falls with the box in the woods murders. The email’s sender, Carson Buchwald, knows of Stevie’s talent for crime solving, and he wants to give Stevie full access to the camp, now known as Camp Sunny Pines, in exchange for her help in creating a true-crime podcast/documentary. Stevie and her friends will be counselors at camp, but Stevie really will focus on the case. Of course, her parents never will let her go for a decades old murder investigation, so Stevie has to get creative. Once at camp, Stevie enjoys time with her friends and barely tolerates the outdoors, but having real life family members of victims is harder than Stevie thought. Then an eerie message appears on Stevie’s bedroom wall – much like the one at Ellingham – and Stevie realizes not everyone is happy with Carson’s plan to  drudge up buried memories. Someone definitely doesn’t want the truth to surface, but that’s never stopped Stevie before.

THOUGHTS: Fast-paced and twisty, this thriller/mystery works best if you have the context of the series, but it can be read as a stand alone. A must purchase for high schools where mysteries are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Stevie Bell is back. With the Ellingham mystery solved and summer in full swing, Stevie’s life has returned to “normal” until she receives an email from Carson Buchwald, owner of Camp Sunny Pines in Massachusetts. Previously Camp Wonder Falls, where four gruesome murders happened in July 1978, Carson wants Stevie’s help to solve the “Box in the Woods” murders for his podcast. Stevie is intrigued by the request and accepts a position at the camp, along with Nate and Janelle, so that she can investigate the murders further. As Stevie learns more about the murders, she realizes that the town, and those who were there in 1978, are not sharing the whole truth. While she delves into the details and ultimately figures everything out, Stevie must also deal with David and her relationship, whatever it may be, with him.

THOUGHTS: Told through alternating chapters of present day with Stevie and flashbacks to July 1978, Maureen Johnson adds another delightful mystery to her repertoire. The only downside to this stand-alone is that I wish it weren’t a stand-alone. Stevie Bell is a fantastic character who is the perfect 21st Century detective. Readers want (and need) more of Stevie, Nate, Janelle, and David.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

YA – Sweet & Bitter Magic

Tooley, Adrienne. Sweet & Bitter Magic. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-534-45385-2. $19.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

It is Tamsin’s seventeenth birthday, a day which is supposed to bring a monumental life choice: Stay Within and serve the coven of witches in which she’s grown up, or leave them to go Beyond and live with common folk. Tamsin’s fate was already decided for her five years ago though when, after practicing dark magic to try to save her twin sister from death, she was banished from Within and cursed to never again feel love. Now she spends her days healing the common folk’s ailments and taking some of their love as payment, just so she can feel SOMETHING, for as long as that little bit of love lasts. Wren spends her days peddling eggs at the market and caring for her father. Everything she does is for him – including keeping her magic a secret. Wren realized at an early age that she is a source – she houses pure magic and would be very valuable to the coven – but magic tore her family apart when she was young, and so Wren keeps this secret from her father. A chance encounter with Tamsin at the market one morning changes all of that. As a plague born of dark magic spreads throughout their village afflicting her father, Wren reveals her talents to Tamsin in hopes that she’ll take her on the hunt for the source of the plague. Tamsin says she’ll hunt the witch responsible – only if Wren offers her love for her father in return. Wren agrees, and thus begins their journey to Beyond, a dangerous journey filled with twists and secrets and a romantic tension almost as dangerous as the dark magic they’re hunting.

THOUGHTS: Though many of us living in 2021 may not want to read a book involving a plague, this is a magic-induced plague, so it feels just escapist enough to not be particularly upsetting; it feels more like a dark spell being cast. It’s also an excellent addition to YA fantasy collections because in a genre flooded with series and duologies, this is a rare standalone, perfect for readers not looking to commit to reading several books.

Fantasy (Witches)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Cool for the Summer

Adler, Dahlia. Cool for the Summer. Wednesday Books, 2021. 978-1-250-76582-6. $18.99. 255 p. Gr. 9 and up.

Larissa Bogdan returns to her New York suburb school on the first day of her senior year after a whirlwind summer in the Outer Banks, and before she even heads to her first class, her obsessive crush for years, popular football player who never knew she existed, Chase Harding, saunters over to her locker and suddenly starts talking to her. He claims she looks different, and so does her best friend Shannon. She’s got a new haircut and a tan, sure, but her fresh glow is more likely coming from within. Afterall, she just had an unexpectedly amazing summer-long fling with Jasmine Killary, her mom’s boss’s daughter who she shared a house with over the summer. But now out of nowhere, Chase Harding seems interested in her, and before she can even process it, who walks into her school but Jasmine. They haven’t spoken since the last night they spent together in the Outer Banks. Larissa can’t figure out why she’s suddenly going to her school, or why she’s pretending not to know her, and there’s no time to dwell on it while Chase Harding is flirting with her and asking her out. Larissa SHOULD be on Cloud Nine dating Chase, but everywhere she goes, there’s Jasmine, reminding her of last summer. How can she enjoy finally dating Chase, the boy of her dreams since middle school, when she can’t stop thinking about Jasmine?

THOUGHTS: Told in an alternating timeline from the present to the previous summer, readers follow Larissa along in the present while also seeing her summer with Jasmine unfold in the past tense. This is a laugh-out-loud yet also emotional story of love and self-discovery. A good addition for YA LGBTQ collections as Larissa thinks she is bisexual, but she’s still figuring herself out and doesn’t necessarily ascribe to a label by the story’s end, which is an important thing for young readers to see.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – The Girls I’ve Been

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been. Putnam, 2021. 9780593353806. $18.99. 356 p. Grades 9 and up.

Two armed men enter a bank in a sleepy rural California town assuming they’ll find the bank manager and easily coerce him into taking them to their target – a safe deposit box. The manager hasn’t arrived yet though, and who they DO find is teenager Nora O’Malley. She’s not just any teenage girl. She’s not even Nora O’Malley – depending on how you look at it. Nora spent most of her life playing the roles of different girls with her con-artist mother until her half-sister extracted her from the situation four years ago. As she tries to adjust to a “normal” life and put her past behind her, her biggest problem has been the current awkwardness between her and her ex-boyfriend but now best friend Wes because she’d been lying to him about her new relationship with their other friend, Iris. Thrust into a serious hostage situation with her friends, Nora is forced to resurrect her old identities if she wants any chance of getting them out of this alive.

THOUGHTS: A wild page-turner for fans of the thriller genre. The well-crafted plot alternates from Nora’s past to the present, and it all ties together in the end. It also tackles domestic abuse from multiple angles as all of the three teenage main characters have struggled with it in some form.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Legendborn

Deonn, Tracy. Legendborn. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020. 978-1-534-44160-6. $18.99. 498 p. Grades 9 and up.

Briana Matthews tries to get her life together after the tragic and sudden death of her mother, but she does not get off to a great start. On the night before classes in the Early College program at UNC Chapel Hill, she and her best friend Alice attend a cliff-jumping party at a quarry off-campus. There, she encounters Selwyn Kane and experiences odd sensations at his touch, sees Selwyn and another girl destroy a fiery silver mass floating above a drunken fight that breaks out, and overhears bits of mysterious conversation: mentions of magic, King Arthur, and Legendborns. She also has the strange sensation that Selwyn is trying to erase her memory of the sight of the fiery mass that night. When the cops show up to break up the fight, though, Bree has more important things to worry about now that the Dean is threatening to throw her out of the program. She is granted a second chance… and a peer mentor to keep her out of trouble. Turns out that Nick Davis, her peer mentor, only brings more trouble. While walking together on campus, Nick and Bree are attacked by a green-lit wolf-like creature, similar to the one she saw the other night with Selwyn, and Bree is unwillingly pulled into a secret world of which Selwyn and Nick are members. Though she’d love nothing more than to move on from these strange events, memories from the days after her mother’s death start resurfacing, and Bree comes to the startling conclusion that answers to mysteries surrounding her mother’s death might be found within the world of the Legendborn. Now, Bree must decide if joining the Legendborn at the brink of a war is worth finding the answers she seeks.

THOUGHTS: The first book in a series, this urban fantasy puts a new, modern spin on the Arthurian legend with a contemporary setting and characters and by interweaving African American spiritual traditions into the magic. Deonn has created a captivating world and mythology that fantasy readers will surely love. She also tackles serious issues such as grief, trauma, racism, and sexual violence throughout the book. This is a must-have for YA Fantasy collections.

Fantasy          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Who I Was With Her

Tyndall, Nita. Who I Was With Her. HarperTeen, 2020. 978-0-062-97838-7. $17.99. 385 p. Grades 9 and up.

Corrine Parker arrives at school one morning to overhear her cross country teammates talking about how their rival school’s team captain, Maggie – who happens to be Corrine’s girlfriend – died the previous night in a car accident. This is tragic enough on its own. But Corrine is not out, and she and Maggie were dating in secret. This means Corrine can’t even genuinely express her grief when she hears the news or talk to anyone about it. Living in a conservative area of North Carolina, Corrine never felt ready to come out to anyone, so she feels she can’t talk to her divorced parents – especially her alcoholic mother – or her best friend Julia. The only person she can talk to is Dylan, Maggie’s older brother and the only other person who knew the two were dating. And even Dylan is not an optimal confidant – he and Corrine had a rocky relationship while she was dating his sister. What Dylan does do for Maggie is introduce her to someone else to talk to: Elissa, Maggie’s ex-girlfriend who she dated prior to Corrine. It’s complicated even to talk to Elissa, though. Why hadn’t Maggie ever mentioned her? Why did Dylan have a good relationship with Elissa and not her? And why does she find herself starting to feel an attraction to Elissa?

THOUGHTS: This is not a typical coming out story given the circumstances. The complexities of Corrine and Maggie’s secret relationship and Corrine’s struggles to deal in the aftermath of Maggie’s death are told in an alternating timeline format back and forth from their year-long relationship prior to the accident to the present months following her death. It’s also a very unique grief story as Corrine struggles with it primarily on her own, so it understandably gets messy at times. The novel also touches on addiction, college admissions pressures, and asexuality through subplots and supporting characters. Overall, recommended addition to collections where the demand for LGBTQIA+ literature, particularly bisexual protagonists, is high.

Realistic Fiction                              Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA Series Continuation – See How They Run, Embassy Row Bk. 2

SeeHowTheyRun

Carter, Ally. See How They Run. New York: Scholastic Press, 2015. 978-0-545-65484-5. $17.99. 323p. Gr. 7 and up.

It’s time for the lady librarian assassins, at least that’s what Grace Blakely thinks after learning of a secret society of Adrian women formed at the inception of Adria and still in existence today.  Women who shoot powerful men (i.e. Ms. Chancellor) to protect secrets; secrets of the past, secrets of the present, and secrets that have been lost to history.  Grace’s mom, Caroline, had been a member of the society prior to her death, a death Grace can’t live down since she caused it.  Now, it’s Grace’s turn to carry on the tradition of Adrian women to protect their land, their country, their men, and their secrets.  In the follow up to All Fall Down, book 1 of Carter’s Embassy Row series, Grace Blakely finds herself two weeks after learning the truth of her mother’s death.  As she deals with the mental exhaustion of her realization, her brother, Jamie, and his friend, John Spencer (Spence), from West Point, arrive.  Grace knows this is not a friendly visit, but welcomes her brother home.  That is until Spence kisses Grace, Alexei witnesses it, fights Spence, and the next morning Spence’s body washes up on the shore of Valencia.  Now it’s up to Grace and her motley crew of friends: Lila and Noah, the Israeli and Brazilian ambassadors twins, Rosie, the German ambassadors daughter, and Megan, daughter of a US embassy worker, to clear Alexei’s name and find Spence’s actual killer.  But, as with everything from her past, Grace quickly learns that things aren’t quite so easy, and perhaps, Spence was never the intended target. THOUGHTS:  Carter’s follow-up lacks in some basic developmental areas, but overall will keep readers interested and wanting more, especially at the end (which is somewhat predictable, but still entertaining).

Realistic Fiction; Mystery       Erin Parkinson, Lincoln JSHS, Ellwood City

I loved Ally Carter’s Heist Society novels because, although they all connected, they could also all stand-alone.  A reader needn’t read them in order to understand what is happening and keep up with the story (although it doesn’t hurt).  With Embassy Row, I feel like Carter lost something, some of her Heist Society magic.  First, the books have to be read in order, and readers will probably need to re-read each text before the next one because of the cliff-hanger endings (or at least the final chapters).  I understand that “cliff-hangers” are important to series, but they aren’t a requirement, and I think Carter could have done amazing things with this new series, much like she did with Heist Society, if she would have tied things up a bit better.  Ending a novel doesn’t take anything away from it.  Second, Carter’s timeline is too condensed to be believable.  Two weeks ago Grace finds out she was the cause of her mother’s death (no spoilers here – read All Fall Down to find out how).  Now, she’s in the midst of a secret society, her brother is back, his friend from West Point washes up dead on the shores of Valancia, and her best friend and his is wanted for killing a US citizen.  Too much too fast Ally Carter.  If it was six months later or a year, sure, I’d believe it, but not two weeks later.  Thus the “realistic” part of realistic fiction goes away.  Third, Grace herself as the narrator is irritating.  She is selfish and whiny; get over it.  Yes, your mother is dead; that’s awful, but quit making everything about you and what happened to cause her death.  This is part of the reason why the setting of the novel bothers me so much.  Give Grace time to heal before the next novel and next death.  Finally, fill in the holes and don’t make the ending so predictable.  There are way too many holes with the history of Adria and the society.  Take some of the random pages of description and use them to explain what’s going on.  Also, Dominic…just explain something with him and why he’s following Grace.  It’s creepy without an explanation.  Overall, See How They Run is exciting at the end, but not nearly as fullfilling as All Fall Down was through the entire novel.  I liked the idea of the secret society, but apparently I need Dan Brown to write that portion for me to be intrigued.  Hopefully, book three will not disappoint (and tie everything together).
One final note, why is it recently second books in series aren’t nearly as good as books one and three?  

I’m Glad I Did

gladidid

Weil, Cynthia. I’m Glad I Did. New York: Soho Teen, 2015. 978-1-61695-356-0. 264p. $18.99. Gr. 7 and up.

Justice Jeanette “JJ” Green was born into a family of lawyers and is expected to follow in her parents footsteps, but JJ is not interested in law.  She dreams of being a songwriter!  As a teenage girl in 1963, this is no easy task.  JJ manages to land a job in the music business as a secretary thanks to her estranged Uncle Bernie.  JJ meets Luke in the Brill Building elevator.  He becomes her song-writing partner, and maybe something more?  Can they write a song and record a demo by summer’s end?  Or will JJ’s dreams of working in the  music business be over?  JJ gets the chance to record a demo with Dulcie Brown, a legendary singer who has fallen on hard times and is working as a custodian in the building.  I’m Glad I Did has secrets, a tragedy, hidden identities, and a mystery.  This book will keep you reading to find out what happens to all of the characters.

Historical Fiction    Rachel Gutzler, Wilson High School
JJ is a great character.  She is smart, driven, and follows her passion for songwriting.  I always look for books that have music as a theme, and music was central to this book.  I particularly enjoyed the cultural references of the early 60s and the knowledge that the author had of the recording industry.  Cynthia Weil, although she is a first time YA author, was a songwriter at the Brill Building in the 1960s, and the story seemed very authentic because of her knowledge. It took a little while for the mystery/event to occur, so I kept reading, thinking that something bad was going to happen, but the story really picked up pace during the last half of the book and kept me very interested right up to the end. Great job to this first-time author.

Going Rogue…an Also Known As novel

goingrogue

Benway, Robin. Going Rogue (Also Known As Book 2). New York: Walker Books, 2014. 978-0-8027-3604-8. 306p. $17.99. Gr. 8+.

Maggie Silver, seventeen year old international safe-cracker, has finally settled into a “normal” life in Manhattan.  She has a best friend, Roux, a boyfriend, Jesse Oliver, and is thinking about her future (and the SATs) when her parents are accused of stealing from the Collective, the international spy/Robin Hood-ian organization they have devoted their lives to.  With her parents under suspicion, it is up to Maggie to figure out who is framing her family and bring them down without anyone finding out (because her parents would totally freak out if they knew).  As Maggie pieces together the clues, she employs Angelo, forger extraordinaire and life-long friend and ally of her family, to help with the case.  What Maggie doesn’t anticipate is that by trying to hide her investigation she ends up entangling her family, best friend, and boyfriend into the Collective’s maniacal plot.  It is up to Maggie now to save her friends and family, while figuring out what’s happened to the Collective.

Going Rogue is a great addition to a YA collection.  Maggie is an entertaining female protagonist who readers will easily identify with because of her relationships with Roux, her best friend, and Jesse, her boyfriend.  These three, although involved in an international crime-solving exploit, still struggle with emotions associated to growth and maturity.  Going Rogue is a very quick, fun mystery, along the lines of Ally Carter’s Heist Society.  I can’t wait for Maggie’s next adventure.

Mystery    Erin Parkinson, Lincoln JSHS, Ellwood City