YA – Sisters of the Snake

Nanua, Sasha, and Sarena Nanua. Sisters of the Snake. HarperTeen. 2021. 978-0-062-98559-0. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Ria is a street urchin. A nothing that is just trying to survive and get out of this terrible town, away from where she is soon to be forced into the army. Princess Rian feels the same way, just slightly different. She is looking at the chance to be free to prove herself and her worth for her kingdom. When these two girls unexpectedly meet, they find out something shocking; they look identical! They decide they must be sisters… and each hopes to achieve something when they trade places.

THOUGHTS: A fun cultural fantasy novel. The first in a series, as this book ended on a cliff-hanger. The excitement for what happens next with these two magical sisters will pull at readers and have them wishing for the next novel!

Fantasy          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA – They’ll Never Catch Us

Goodman, Jessica. They’ll Never Catch Us. Razorbill, 2021. 978-0-593-11432-2. 330 pp. $17.99. Gr. 9-12.

Did Stella Steckler do something to Mila Keene? That’s the question at the heart of Jessica Goodman’s taut sports mystery set in New York’s Catskill Mountains. In Edgewater, the cross country team reigns supreme, and Stella is the star. Her main competitor is her younger sister, Ellie, who is more of a “people person” than Stella. In fact, Stella has a history of violence; she hurt another runner in an incident that is alluded to and fleshed out throughout the novel. But, after spending the summer at Breakbridge Elite Track and Field Center, Stella is back on a good path and clocking her best times yet. Ellie, meanwhile, is in a relationship with another runner’s boyfriend, and dealing with her complicated feelings about the abortion she had over the summer. When champion runner Mila Keene transfers to Edgewater High, both sisters are drawn to her kindness and ability to listen without judgment. When Mila disappears, the town is plunged back into its years as “Deadwater,” when three girls disappeared from the local resort’s running trails and were later found, murdered, with their shoelaces missing. The cases were never solved, and with a fresh missing person’s case, everyone is a suspect … and Stella isn’t the only one with secrets (and first place finishes) to protect. 

THOUGHTS: With chapters alternating between Stella’s and Ellie’s points of view, They’ll Never Catch Us is both a fast-paced mystery and a nuanced portrayal of sisters who fiercely protect each other’s secrets despite their deep mutual distrust. Fans of Karen McManus will run to this one!

Mystery          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Fire with Fire

Soria, Destiny. Fire with Fire. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0-358-32973-2. $17.99. 432 p. Grades 7-12.

Dani and Eden are sisters, and they have a secret: they come from a long line of dragon hunters and have trained to become slayers since they were young girls. Dani doesn’t take her duties as a slayer as seriously as Eden, but when she comes across a dragon and they become soul bonded, everything Dani thought she knew about her family’s legacy changes in an instant. Although Dani has a change of heart, Eden does not, and instead becomes mixed up with the sorcerers who use magic from dragons to fuel their own powers. Suddenly, the sisters are enemies, and each is trying to save the other from what they believe is a deadly situation, not realizing there is a more dangerous enemy threatening to destroy them both.

THOUGHTS: This is one of the first contemporary dragon fantasies that I’ve read, and I love that the book’s setting is rural Tennessee rather than a fictional land or kingdom. It’s a nice change from the many high fantasy dragon series, and I think readers will enjoy the relationship and sibling rivalry between Dani and Eden. Although they are dragon slayers, they are still sisters, and looking out for one another comes before all else. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Wings of Ebony

Elle, J. Wings of Ebony. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1534470675. $19.99. 368 p. Grades 9-12.

Rue has lived in Houston with her mother and half sister for her entire life, but when her mother is murdered outside of their apartment, the sisters are separated. Rue is sent to live with her father, who had previously been absent from her life. Not only is she forced to leave Houston, but discovers her father lives on the hidden island of Ghizon, a home for magic wielders. Rue discovers she has these magical abilities also, and although she makes some friends in Ghizon, she leaves on the anniversary of her mother’s death, hoping to catch a glimpse of her sister Tasha. However, Rue wasn’t supposed to leave the island, and her actions lead to violent consequences. Although Houston and Ghizon are on opposite sides of the world, Rue’s two homes collide, and it’s up to her to save her neighborhood and Ghizon from the violence and corruption that could destroy both.

THOUGHTS: Rue is a strong, African American female protagonist, whose motto is “make a way out of no way” and puts family above all. Wings of Ebony is the perfect blend of fantasy and contemporary, urban fiction, and I would recommend this title to fans of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Tomi Adeyemi. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – One of the Good Ones

Moulite, Maika, and Maritza Moulite. One of the Good Ones. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-14580-2. 384 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Teen YouTube activist and influencer Kezi Smith dies under police custody following her arrest at a social justice rally on her eighteenth birthday. Instantly immortalized as a martyr in the fight against police brutality, Kezi’s family is devastated by loss. While her pastor parents want to preserve and protect Kezi’s memory, sisters Happi and Genny look for a unique way to honor her. Embarking on the trip Kezi planned to take following an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, the sisters and friends Ximena (Kezi’s girlfriend) and Derek go on a journey to reconnect with the Smith’s African American family history and remember Kezi. Tormented by her broken relationship with Kezi, the trip is an opportunity for Happi to understand her older sister, who she feels like she didn’t truly know. Together they will learn more about Kezi, each other, and their family’s history. A surprising twist won’t shock careful readers, but the alternate time periods may challenge struggling readers.

THOUGHTS: This title examines what it means to be remembered and who gets to be called “one of the good ones.” Recommended for high school collections where social justice and social issue titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Forest of Stolen Girls

Hur, June. The Forest of Stolen Girls. Feiwel and Friends, 2021. 978-1-250-22958-8. 369 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Min Hwani and her younger sister, Maewol, were raised on the Korean island of Jeju, in the small village of Nowon. In 1421 (five years before the events of The Forest of Stolen Girls), Hwani and her father, a renowned detective, relocated to the mainland while Maewol stayed in Nowon as a shaman’s apprentice. During those five years, Detective Min returned to Jeju many times to try and crack the only case he ever failed to solve: the “Forest Incident,” in which his own daughters were found nearly frozen to death, near the body – a possible suicide – of a village girl. Hwani has no memory of the incident, and Maewol has only a fleeting recollection of a masked man. Indeed, the forest is a dangerous place for the girls of Nowon: thirteen of them have vanished over the years. And a year ago, Detective Min failed to return from his journey to Jeju; he has been declared dead, though his remains were never found. Now in possession of her father’s investigative journal, Min is desperate to locate her father and solve the mystery of his disappearance before she is recalled to the mainland and an arranged marriage. June Hur’s expertly crafted blend of clues, suspicions, memories, and suspects builds slowly but surely to a nail-biting boil.

THOUGHTS: The Forest of Stolen Girls is a gripping and deeply immersive historical mystery, depicting a time period and setting that will be new to many readers. 

Historical Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Mystery

MG – Last Fallen Star

Kim, Grace. Last Fallen Star. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05963-3. 336 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Riley loves her Korean family and community. Her parents are healers, part of the Gom clan, and Riley longs for the day she can join them, with her almost-twin sister, Hattie. Unfortunately, Riley, an adopted daughter, has failed to show an affinity with any of the five magical witch clans, let alone an indication she is a Gom. However, an offhand comment shows the girls an option, albeit a dangerous one: once Hattie is initiated into the clan, she can cast a spell to share her magic with Riley. But when the girls attempt the spell, truths are revealed that Riley and Hattie never imagined. An appeal to the clan goddess ends with Hattie’s life in peril and Riley pledged to locate the Last Fallen Star. Only she has no idea what it is, let alone where to find it. Luckily, Riley is blessed with a great friend in Emmett, a non-magical member of the Korean community who undertakes the quest with Riley. Along the way, Riley and Emmett locate the sixth witch clan, long outlawed from the other clans, and uncover the truth of the rift between them. This first book in a new series from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint delves into the fascinating world of Korean mythology. All characters are members of the Korean community in Los Angeles. Readers will love the intricacies of the witch clans, their associated skills, and patron goddesses. Riley is a spunky protagonist whose adventurous spirit and deep love for her sister keep the story moving. Kim writes with wit, and the story is often laugh-out-loud funny (the Gostr app to locate spirits is quite humorous). Riley discovers she has more friends than she realized, which is a comfort when she makes a startling sacrifice to save Hattie.

THOUGHTS: This enjoyable action adventure will please readers who cannot get enough of mythology-based series. Purchase where RRP books are popular. Delightfully, the main characters are thirteen years old, making the book potentially attractive for middle school collections.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Off the Record

Garrett, Camryn. Off the Record. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-984-82999-3. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Josie, a high school senior, film aficionado, and journalist, has had her heart set on Spelman College since middle school. She has a great resume and is just waiting for her official early decision acceptance notice. She’s also waiting to hear if she won Deep Focus‘s (her favorite major magazine) talent contest. Josie knows winning will help launch her journalism career. In the meantime, she owes Monique, her freelance gig editor from Essence magazine, an op-ed, but Josie’s anxiety is distracting her. Josie’s parents casually mention that they worry she’s putting all of her eggs in one basket. Josie thinks they just don’t get her, especially since her mom always is pushing her to try a new diet. They try to talk about the “hard time” Josie had in middle school after which Josie switched schools, but Josie insists she’s fine. Josie proves just how fine she is when she is selected as the winner of the Deep Focus talent search. The grand prize will send her on a five city tour for a new film with interview access to the cast and crew. Her parents aren’t so sure about this and only agree if Josie’s older sister Alice – home for winter break from Spelman – can be her chaperone. Alice reluctantly agrees, and Josie leaves for an experience unlike any other. Nothing, however, could prepare Josie for the story a young actress asks her to tell or the feelings Josie develops for the film’s teen star. Is Josie the right person to tell this story, and will it do more harm than good?

THOUGHTS: Readers will empathize with Josie as she struggles to overcome her anxiety and focus on the story she was hired to write. A must purchase for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

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