YA – Rules for Being a Girl

Bushnell, Candace, and Katie Cotugno. Rules for Being a Girl. Balzer & Bray. 2020. 304 p. $19.99 978-0-062-80337-5. Grades 10-12.

For Marin and best friend Chloe, life is going well. They co-edit the school paper together, they’re top students, and they have family support to head for the colleges of their dreams.  Their English teacher, Mr. Beckett, “Bex,” is seriously intelligent and cool, and treats students as equals with funny stories and insightful classes. Bex goes too far and comes on to Marin (he kisses her), leaving Marin shocked into silence. Had she encouraged him?  Why didn’t she anticipate that? What should she do now? She tries to act as though nothing happened, and Bex attempts a “re-set” of their relationship, saying it was an accident, and blaming her. When Marin finally tells Chloe, Chloe believes Marin is either lying or at fault.  Next, when Marin tells her principal, she is told she must have misunderstood and a full investigation will have to be done, since it’s her word against Mr. Beckett. Quickly, everyone’s talking, joking, or blaming Marin, her English grades dive, and the worst knife of all is that Marin fails to gain acceptance to her dream university due to the incident (and alumnus Mr. Beckett’s tip-off to university staff). Her world has exploded, and Marin is struggling against demeaning comments and, suddenly, it seems, all of the ridiculous assumptions people make about girls and women. Finally, Chloe reveals that Mr. Beckett had pulled her into a relationship in the fall, and Marin’s truth devastated her. Together, they publish an open letter to staff and students in the school newspaper, asking for any others to come forward. They do, the girls are finally believed, and Mr. Beckett is dismissed without investigation.

THOUGHTS: The characterization of Marin seems contradictory–she is both incredibly intelligent and mature, unbothered by peer reactions, yet initially unaware of–or unbothered by–even the simplest of girl stereotypes. As long as the stereotypes didn’t ‘hurt’ her, she was living a golden life. Bushnell and Cotugno present only a semi-realistic version of a school setting (the school’s actions on the allegations are poorly researched), and she gives a far-too-tidy, happy ending–including enlightened boyfriend–for Marin.  This book would be stronger if Mr. Beckett had not been a teacher, but a family friend or a boss, and if Marin’s cultural and social awareness matched her intelligence.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Scavenge the Stars

Sim, Tara. Scavenge the Stars. Disney Hyperion,  2020. 978-1-368-05141-5. $12.99. 377 p. Grades 9-12.

“To inherit the sky, you must first scavenge the stars.” In this retelling of the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Amaya has been living on a ship called The Brackish for years. She became indentured after she was sold by her family to work off a debt. It’s a rough life, and like the other “water bugs” that share her fate, she’s counting down the days until she’s free. Their cruel captor and captain renames each indentured child, and on his ship, she’s known only as Silverfish. After rescuing a man from drowning, she hopes she will be rewarded with riches. Instead, he makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Meanwhile, Cayo Mercado is trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his father after getting into debt from gambling. He starts working at the family owned shipping company, but when his sister comes down with ash fever, his choices are limited, and he winds up back in the life he tried to leave behind. Unknowingly, Amaya and Cayo’s lives become intertwined, and both characters must untangle a web of secrets and lies to reveal the surprising truths about the people they thought they knew and trusted.

THOUGHTS: This book was fantastic! I was hooked from the very beginning to the last page. It’s full of twists and turns, secrets and betrayals, and characters fueled by revenge and justice. As in The Count of Monte Cristo, the classic novel this book is loosely based upon, revenge is never as simple as it seems, and no one can really be trusted.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Of Curses and Kisses

Menon, Sandya. Of Curses and Kisses. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-41754-0. 361 p. $18.99. Grades 6-12. 

Princess Jaya Rao, heiress to India’s last royal family, has always put duty first. Young Indian women should conform, they should not cause a scene or do anything like fraternizing with boys or using foul language that would hurt the family’s image. When her younger sister Isha is pictured in tabloids drinking and kissing a mechanic, the family’s name is in jeopardy. Jaya and Isha leave for Aspen to an elite boarding school called St. Rosetta’s to try and let the whole thing blow over. The thing is, St. Rosetta’s is currently the school of Grey Emerson, or Lord Northcliff, of the family with which the Raos have been feuding for generations. Jaya knows that Grey leaked the photos to ruin their family, and now she knows just the way to get back at him: make him fall in love and break his heart.

THOUGHTS: An artful Beauty and the Beast retelling done only the way Sandhya Menon can. Get a glimpse into the life of the aristocracy, traditions and all, and learn how to let yourself be happy.

Fantasy (Realistic, Fairytale)          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

YA – Havenfall

Holland, Sara. Havenfall. Bloomsbury,  2020. 978-1-547-60379-4. $18.99. 305 p. Grades 7-12.

“To everyone who’s ever felt like they don’t have a place.” Maddie is an ordinary teenager who lives extraordinary summers at Havenfall, a Colorado inn that connects different realms: Earth (Haven), Bryn, Fiordenkill, and formerly, Solaria. The inn is run by her Uncle Marcus, and someday, Maddie hopes to take over as the innkeeper. Still traumatized by the unsolved death of her brother, which was blamed on her mother, Maddie is looking forward to her summer escape in Havenfall. However, after briefly reuniting with her uncle and beloved Fiordian soldier, Brekken, things start to go horribly wrong. Maddie awakens on her first morning to chaos: Marcus has been hurt, Brekken has disappeared, and someone has been murdered by a Solarian creature, although the door to that realm is supposed to be sealed. Suddenly, Maddie finds herself in the position she’s always wanted, but without the guidance of her uncle or best friend. On her own, Maddie must untangle the secrets and betrayals lurking around every corner and decide who she can really trust: a mysterious newcomer, or the powerful delegates of the realms she’s known for years?

THOUGHTS:  This was a refreshing, new fantasy read for me! Although it’s mainly described as a contemporary fantasy, it’s also a mystery which helps to draw the reader into the story. By the end of the novel, there are still many questions that have not been answered, which left me feeling like I needed to know more. Holland also gives her readers a glimpse into three fantastical worlds, and I’m hoping she expands upon these realms in her follow up novels to Havenfall. There is still so much of this magical story left to tell.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley 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 – Love & Olives

Welch, Jenna Evans. Love & Olives. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-44883-4. $18.99. 352 p. Grades 7-12. 

On the outside it appears that Liv has everything figured out, but inside she’s struggling with a few things. For one, her long time high school boyfriend Dax just graduated, and he wants Liv to follow him to Stanford. She hasn’t found the right way to tell him that her heart is set on RISD, and anyway she might not even get in (and still has one more year). When a beat-up postcard for Liv arrives days before Dax’s senior trip – which Liv is supposed to go on – Liv feels her perfect outside begin to crumble. Dax doesn’t know this side of Liv. At her mom’s insistence, Liv is headed to Santorini, Greece to spend some time with her father, whom Liv hasn’t seen since she was 8. Since she hasn’t heard from him in years, Liv has many conflicted emotions about seeing her father again. Why after all this time does he think they can have a relationship. But Liv’s father’s love of Atlantis was a connection the two of them shared during her childhood, and an exciting special project helps them begin to reconnect after all those years. His persistent assistant Theo is a great buffer between the awkward moments, and Theo helps Liv experience Santorini. His good looks are a great distraction too, and as they work together and become friends Liv begins to question some of the choices she’s made in her own life. The clock on her visit is ticking, though, and Liv isn’t sure she can count on her father. Is their relationship beyond repair, and can Liv move on beyond her childhood broken heart?

THOUGHTS: Set among a gorgeous backdrop with detailed descriptions of Santorini, readers will fall in love with Greece. Liv/Olive/Kalamata/Indiana Olive has a lot to learn about herself, and readers will be rooting for her from the beginning. With a strong cast of characters and a little bit of mystery and romance, this book will be a hit among middle and high school students.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Midnight Sun

Meyer, Stephenie. Midnight Sun. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-316-70704-6. $27.99. 672 p. Grades 7-12.

Stephenie Meyer puts a twist on her bestselling novel, Twilight, by giving us Edward’s side of the story. Edward Cullen is a vampire living with his family in the rainy town of Forks, WA, trying to blend in with humans as much as he can. However, the arrival of the new girl, Isabella Swan, changes everything. Edward and his family do not hunt humans and exist instead on a diet of animal blood, but when Edward smells Bella, he has an overwhelming desire to kill her, fearing he will lose control for the first time in decades, causing his family to move to a new location yet again. When staying away from Forks doesn’t work, he returns to school and attempts to ignore her presence, but when Bella faces danger, he unintentionally becomes her protector. Against his better judgement, Edward decides to get to know this intriguing and closed off  human but struggles to control his conflicting feelings of falling in love and pushing her away to protect her from himself. With Edward’s immortal ability to read the minds of those around him, readers are able to examine the thoughts of the majority of the characters within the novel, opening up the world of Forks, WA, and the minds of the vampires that have chosen the town as their home.

THOUGHTS:  I love that Midnight Sun gave readers more information about Edward’s past, as well as the rest of the Cullens, and it was interesting to read about Edward’s struggles with Bella from his perspective. I don’t think readers realized just how dangerous he was to her by simply reading Twilight. Readers trust Bella’s perception that he would never really hurt her, but there were many close calls when reading each scenario and interaction from Edward’s side of things. The pomegranate on the front of the novel can be a great discussion topic since it  resembles a human heart, and the juicy pomegranate also looks as if it’s dripping blood. However, it also has a more symbolic presence throughout the story because Edward compares himself to Hades and Bella to Persephone. As she grows closer to him and accepts him for who he is, it’s as if she’s eating the seeds of the pomegranate, making it so much harder for her to go back to her world. Both old and new fans of Twilight will love this darker side of the story!

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Kind of a Big Deal

Hale, Shannon. Kind of a Big Deal. Roaring Brook, 2020. 978-1-250-20623-7. 400 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Back in high school, Josie was kind of a big deal. A talented actress, she left school early to take Broadway by storm. Only, it didn’t quite work out the way it was supposed to. Now, a Broadway failure with monumental credit card debt, she’s living in Missoula, Montana, working as a nanny and trying to recapture that magnificent life she remembers, back when she was a big deal. After impulsively purchasing a romance novel one day while taking her adorable charge, Mia, to the park, Josie opens the book (the first she’s read since The Scarlet Letter in school) and shortly finds herself experiencing the plot from inside the story. A la The Wizard of Oz, the story is peopled with individuals she passed around town: customers in the bookstore, the sales clerk, individuals in the park. Josie is both fascinated and terrified by the experience: she likes the take-charge person she is in the story, but struggles to get back to reality and make sure Mia is safe. But the adventure is addictive, and once Josie finishes reading the first book, she’s back for more. As Josie genre-jumps, the experiences work as bibliotherapy, assisting her in assessing her life, and realizing she needs to move on from high school, and let her supportive best friend and her boyfriend move on as well. But, it turns out, the creative muses are not done with Josie, and when she gets wrapped up in one book too many, she will need to rely on all the skills and knowledge she has gained to save herself, as well as others trapped in the world of stories. Hale presents a delightful YA story. Josie is an appealingly sweet character, and her journeys inside the books will be amusing to any reader. Like Josie’s book hopping episodes, the plot refuses to stand still, continually twisting in another direction until the surprise ending. While Josie is on the cusp of adulthood, the book is refreshingly free of sex, profanity, and other vices. Like on the stage, Josie is the star, and she is all the story needs. Readers will cheer for her to realize she is a big deal, in the story of her own making.

THOUGHTS:  Hale’s YA entry is a bubbly read with a deeper message. Dedicated readers will enjoy the genre spoofs (the dystopian ordeal is far and away the best segment), but it will be interesting to see if students not yet through high school can relate to Josie needing to walk away from those years and move on. I hope so! I want more Hale YA books.

Fantasy (Realistic)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Fable

Young, Adrienne. Fable. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-25437-5. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Four years ago, the day after a storm wrecked his ship and drowned his wife, Fable’s father, legendary sea-trader Saint, abandoned his 14-year-old daughter on the barbaric island of Jeval, leaving her to fend for herself on the brutal colony. Because she inherited her mother’s abilities as a gem sage, someone who can communicate with jewels, Fable survived as a dredger, mining gems from the sea, and making enough money to eventually purchase passage off the island, find Saint, and claim her place with his crew. But once she forces her way onto a trading ship, the Marigold, she wonders what secrets the small, young crew are keeping, even while being drawn in by their tight bond. When Saint refuses her appeal, sending her away with an unexpected inheritance, Fable has nowhere to turn but back to the Marigold and hope they will take her in. This lyrical novel, packed with adventure, quickly grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Fable was raised on the sea, and she inherently loves being on board a ship. Young vividly conveys the routine of sailing a ship and the rhythm of the sea. Her world building is exquisite, and the port towns come alive, in their grandeur and squalor. Her characters are finely limned, and the hint of romance will satisfy. However, Fable has a flaw of always pushing the limit, and eventually she pays for a momentary slip, leaving readers hanging, awaiting the sequel.

THOUGHTS: This novel should find a wide audience, pleasing both action-adventure and romance fans.

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – It Sounded Better in My Head

Kenwood, Nina. It Sounded Better in My Head. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-21926-8. 260 p. $18.99. Grade. 8-12.

Natalie had a good grip on her life until her parents jovially announce they’re getting a divorce. They’ve known this for months but waited until the Christmas holidays and high school graduation (which coincide in Australia, where the book was first published). A rarity for literature, Natalie has a great relationship with her parents and is devastated by the news and hurt by their deceit. She turns to her support network, her best friends Lucy and Zach. But since they started dating, Natalie sometimes feels like a third wheel. Having suffered through severe, scarring acne during puberty, Natalie has a shattered self image and has not dated. At a party, she connects with Alex, Zach’s older brother, but quickly convinces herself Alex’s interest was an act of kindness perpetrated by Zach. But an accidental case of musical bedrooms at a beach house over New Year’s brings Natalie and Alex back into close proximity, and as they talk they again feel a positive connection. However, Natalie’s lack of confidence and poor self image quickly threaten to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. This engaging book covers a topic not discussed in YA literature, the trauma of severe teen acne, and the scars it leaves, both physical and psychological. Natalie is a bright teen with caring parents and friends, but the long term effects of her acne are evident in her image, (styling her hair to cover which side of her face looks worse) confidence, and self-worth. American readers will need to translate Australian terms and references but will recognize themselves in the three friends as they shakily navigate through the next phase in their lives.

THOUGHTS: A welcome addition to YA realistic fiction collections. While some characters have sex off-page, Natalie and Alex discuss the issue and decide they are not ready.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD