It’s Spring Break 2009, and college freshman besties Dani and Zoe have made plans to meet up in New York City. Dani invites new friend Fiona along, and at first all is well. But if two is company, then three’s a crowd and soon Fiona’s worldly cynicism and snarky impatience begins to drive a wedge between Dani and Zoe. Especially after a budding flirtation between Zoe and Fiona blossoms into something more. Can this friendship be saved? Or is this newly formed threesome doomed to die on the vine? The Tamaki cousins have done it again in terms of subtly and sensitively bringing a very specific moment of growing up to universal life. As they navigate famous NYC landmarks and neighborhoods, Dani, Fiona and Zoe wrestle with how they are viewed and how they are viewing themselves, with those viewpoints changing from page to page, from conversation to conversation. So many familiar and charmingly awkward moments around identity, class and gender play out that between the triad that you won’t be able to stop smiling and nodding in recognition. As someone who lived in NYC from 1997-2021, I remember the city of 2009 very well, from the shopping at St. Marks to the giant Virgin sign in Times Square. It is all faithfully and beautifully replicated in this graphic novel–in three-color, double-paged spreads of lilac, cream and black. I miss that version of NYC, and deeply appreciated being transported back. And whether you are a rock solid New Yorker, or have only done the tourist route, I’m betting you will also be transported by Roaming.
Ahhh, thirteen! It is the best of ages (Finally a teenager! Finally some independence!) and the worst of ages (“What the heck is going on with my body?” “Why are my friends acting so weird?”) Author/illustrator Dan Santat sweetly and hilariously examines the ups and downs of thirteen in this graphic memoir of his first time overseas. Dan is a quiet kid who’s learned that the best way to survive middle school is to keep his mouth shut and his head down. Luckily, as someone who loves to draw and and dream, that’s not too hard. But when his parents decide he needs to broaden his horizons by taking a three week trip to Europe with some of his classmates the summer before high school, Dan is is forced out of his shell in a big way. Confronted by new sights, sounds, smells and feelings, at first Dan is overwhelmed by the sheer size of the world outside his small California town. Then after exploring Paris and climbing the Eiffel Tower, Dan not only finds his people (Braden and Darryl), but he begins to find his footing. When his camera dies, he turns to his sketch book and starts drawing all his first time memories. (Remember friends, in 1989 there weren’t any cell phones!) He even works up the courage to start talking to Amy, a cute girl from another school. But then Dan starts worrying about what will happen when he gets home. Will he still be the same old awkward Dan? Or can he be someone new?
This heartfelt memoir is packed with Santat’s specific middle school memories that will be universally true for anyone who is, or ever was, thirteen: Being embarrassed by parents. Being mercilessly teased by friends about someone you have a crush on. Feeling on top of the world when the person you like likes you back, and devastated when they don’t. In thrall to older kids who seem to know so much more, even though they are only a few years ahead of you. Discovering you’re stronger, cooler, smarter, kinder, braver than you thought. It’s all here, and no current or post adolescent will leave these pages without feeling seen. The author’s note, actual photos and acknowledgements will be especially delightful for Gen-Xers like me, who are Santat’s peers and remember this time very well (I was 16 in 1989. I KNOW. GAWD.) Please make sure to find this wonderful tome at your nearest library or bookstore ASAP! You won’t be sorry.
“I wish I had a normal name, like Jane or Chetna or Soo-hee. A name that at least looks like what I’m supposed to be.” Alejandra Kim (“Ale”) feels like she has spent her entire existence stuck between two worlds: between her “super-Korean face” and “super-Spanish first name”; between her Korean ethnicity and Argentinian culture; between her gritty Jackson Heights, Queens neighborhood and her bougie Manhattan private school. No matter where Ale goes, someone is either messing up her name or making assumptions about her background, or both. Now its senior year and eight months since her father died in a subway accident. Sad, confused and angry, Ale is just trying lay low and make it through until spring when college acceptances come in. She wants to go to Whyder, a small, exclusive private college in Maine where she hopes to finally reconcile the two sides of herself and stop feeling like an imposter in her own life. But when her white best friend Laurel starts a petition to remove a teacher who mocked Ale’s name, Ale is thrown into the middle of a politically correct firestorm that will force her to confront all the choices she’s made up to this point–and pick a side.
As a proud former Queens dweller (1997-2021) and long time faculty member in independent schools, I can say with complete conviction that author Patricia Park‘s heartfelt and often hilarious depiction of Ale’s two worlds is perfectly spot-on. Each page had me rolling my eyes in knowing recognition. Ale kept me laughing and crying with her insecure and snarky first person voice, and the full cast of secondary characters, from her overly earnest friend Laurel to her pragmatic cousin Michael, were so engaging that they could have each had their own novel. Ale’s story is for everyone, but especially for anyone who has ever felt like a stranger to their own history. Do not miss this smart, funny novel coming to a library or bookstore near you this February!
Thank the gods of mystery and mayhem, Stevie Bell is back! Spoiler alert: If you have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Stevie, she is the shining detective star of four previous mysteries: Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair, The Hand on the Wall and The Box in the Woods. While you CAN read Nine Liars as a stand alone, your reading experience would be much enhanced by starting with Truly Devious and reading your way through all of Stevie’s preceding marvelous misadventures in investigation (which I have had the great fortune to review elsewhere.) In this fifth offering, Stevie is morosely schlepping her way through senior year at the eclectic Ellingham Academy, trying to work up enthusiasm for anything other than detective work. What makes matters worse is that her brilliant boyfriend David is studying abroad this semester in England, leaving Stevie not only bored but a little bit heartbroken as well. That’s why she jumps at the chance to visit him for a week of cultural study in London, which naturally also includes getting involved in a double-murder cold case. (MJ fans will recognize the familiar London backdrop as the setting for her supernatural series, Shades of London) When David’s friend Izzy implores Stevie to look into a double axe murder that took place while her aunt, along with her eight artsy college friends, were staying in famous British country house back in 1995, Stevie can’t resist. After all, “Once you start thinking about murder by axe, you tend to keep thinking about murder by axe.” Soon she is embroiled in a web of lies and deceit as she slowly realizes that the murderer is among the seven surviving friends. Can she identify the killer before they strike again? This latest addition to the series is just as absorbing and intriguing as its predecessors, as each one more firmly establishes Stevie Bell as the reigning YA sleuth of the century! As you can tell, I’m a BIG fan and I know you will be too after checking out Nine Liars from you local library or bookstore.
Like in 2021: same old story. I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, so here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2021. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year (and some were reviewed other than here). And while I love all my Top Five, I have to say that my tippy top favorite was All My Rage. If you only read one YA book as we pass into 2023, please make it this one! Click on the titles to go right to the reviews.
With candy-colored hues and deconstructed panels, creator Rachel Smythe brings the first part of her popular webtoon Lore Olympus to the full-color print page. In a modern metropolis where the Greek gods run high power businesses, drive cool cars and party in slick nightclubs, young goddess Persephone is a cotton-candy colored country mouse. Sheltered by her protective mom Demeter, she has little understanding of the politics, gossip and corruption of the big city. Luckily she has worldly Artemis to show her around her first grown-up party. It’s there she is spotted by Hades, who’s undone by her otherworldly beauty. After a series of godly misunderstandings, Persephone ends up spending the night on Hades’ Underworld sofa and charming his vicious dog Cerebus. In short order they are both smitten, but unsure how the other deity feels. Complications of both the godly and mortal ensure, ending in an emotional mess of a romantic cliffhanger. If you were one of the many devoted fans of Circe by Madeline Miller or Lore by Alexandra Bracken, then you are sure to fall deeply in love with Lore Olympus! And if you can’t wait to find out what happens next, Vol. 2 & 3 are available now 🙂
Have you ever felt like you woke up in the wrong body? That’s how M feels, except she KNOWS it’s the wrong body: suddenly she exists when only a moment before she felt nothing at all. When she opens her eyes for the first time, she is told by her creator, Dr. Frances Ai, that she is Maura–Frances’s sister, who died in a lab accident. Frances was able to work her scientific magic to bring Maura back from the dead–except, despite being in her body, M doesn’t remember being Maura at all. Luckily, Maura still exists as a ghost, appearing to M through mirrors, instructing her on how to act and what to say, so that M can convince Frances that she has Maura back. But Frances knows something is wrong, and M does too. How can she truly enjoy being alive when her life is not her own? And if she tells Frances the truth, will the doctor make good on her claim to take M apart and start over? This character-driven, Frankenstein-adjacent take on self and sisterhood is moody, broody and deeply felt. M’s painful realization that it isn’t enough to just be somebody, that she must be herself no matter what, will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like they were stitched up in the wrong skin. Debut author/illustrator Talia Dutton‘s sweeping black, white and deep teal tones and classic comic style effectively portray Frances’s determination, Maura’s verve and M’s shifting sense of self. M might be for monster, but it’s also for marvelous.
Maeve is about to turn 18, and her greatest wish is to attend Furlympia, a furcon where she can finally fully realize her inner fursona–MauveCat, “a cozy warm pink and fuchsia striped” cat “with shining amethyst eyes,” and connect with her dozens of online furry friends IRL. There’s only one thing standing in her way: her compulsive and controlling mom. After her grandmother died of cancer, Maeve’s mom turned her grief into hoarding. And when her dad couldn’t take it anymore and her parents divorced, Maeve decided to stay with her mom to try and keep the unrelenting piles of “Stuff” at bay. But she’s slowly being smothered by her mom’s anxiety and the mounds of laundry, junk mail, shopping bags and dollar store gadgets that seem to multiply daily, no matter how many bags of trash she hauls to the curb. Now her guilty dad has offered her the ultimate graduation present: a fully paid trip to Furlympia, complete with hotel room and spending money. All she has to do is find and ride and figure out a way to convince her mom to let her go. But when her mom says no, Maeve decides to go anyway, never imagining that the fallout might be way more than either she or MauveCat are emotionally equipped to handle.
This deceptively cute looking read is actually a fascinating and informative glimpse into furries and hoarders, two diametrically opposed communities that each have their own sets of rules and norms. One is a healthy communal expression of fandom, inner peace and joy, the other a solitary disorder that causes fear and anxiety. Author Jessica Kara digs into both fearlessly, and the results are furtastic. As a veteran conference goer myself, I absolutely loved the descriptions of the furcon, and connected immediately with the gratifying feeling of being surrounded by many of my own people (in my case, librarians). Do not let this MauveCat get away, pick up a copy of Furry Faux Paw TODAY! (Posted with abject apologies for the puns and bad rhymes:)
High school history nerd Gabe’s summer job leading the Island Ghost Tour at Island Amusements in Toronto has been pretty boring so far. Long hours in the sun entertaining tourists? Check. Bratty kids who interrupt his stories? Check. But when real ghost Rebecca Strand materializes and tells him she is the murdered daughter of a lighthouse keeper who was also killed by a vengeful ghost named Viker who’s planning nothing less than world domination, his summer takes a sharp left turn into the supernatural! After Gabe and his band of corporeal friends sign on to help Rebecca, they are quickly thrown into a paranormal adventure of the creepiest order, including grave robbing, seance stealing and ghost blasting. But the bloodthirsty Nicholas Viker, who fortifies his strength by consuming other ghosts, keeps foiling their best efforts and won’t rest until he’s swallowed Rebecca whole and drained the life out of Gabe. Does this scrappy band of buddies stand a chance against one of the greatest evils the world has ever seen? This rollicking occult thriller is chock full of the humor, the black arts, and fascinating facts from Canadian history, with a little romance tossed in just for fun. Nicholas Viker is the scariest ghost since Naughty John, and I couldn’t stop turning pages to see if he was successfully vanquished. Ignore the overly tween-y cover and get this one ASAP from your local bookstore, e-reader or library.
Seventeen year old Maya Gera has a love/hate relationship…with garlic. On the one hand, she’s the heir apparent to her Punjabi family’s California garlic farm, a role she’s been groomed for all her life that will guarantee her family’s future legacy and success. On the other hand, garlic, or rather, an agricultural summer course at Rutgers is what’s standing in the way of her realizing her secret dream: an internship at Fierce magazine, “…my bible, my roadmap, my lifelong guidebook” since she was ten. So what does Maya do? Simple! Ditch ”cow camp,” take the internship, and become the journalist she was always meant to be! But Maya discovers it’s not that easy to follow her dreams when it involves lying to friends and family and juggling the hearts of two very different boys who are utterly resolved to win her love and affection. To make matters even more complicated, Maya accidentally-on-purpose is hired on as an assistant editor, NOT an intern because her mentor mistakenly took her for a twenty-something! Whoa. With new obstacles popping up everyday, including a racist boss and a team of mean girls back on the farm who are determined to take her out, Maya has her hands full. Can she pull off the cover story of year while still maintaining the fiction that she has it all under control? Maya may be at her breaking point, but whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and Maya is determined to make her voice, and the voices of all the brown girls she knows and loves, recognized and heard.
This delightful rom-com delves deep into two fascinating worlds that I didn’t know much about: the “Desi farmer” culture in California: ”…dozens of agricultural empires run by old-school Punjabi families, each with it’s own legacy and legend,” and New York City’s cutthroat world of magazine production. As an Indian-American entertainment writer who worked for People and Teen People magazine, Sona Charaipotra (who, full-disclosure, I took a fantastic writing workshop from) knows these cultures inside and out, and layers this tricky love triangle with loads of sensory detail from both settings, until readers can smell the manure and cardamom pods, and feel the adrenaline-fueled tension of the Fierce conference rooms. I loved every late-night-in-the-city-delicious-Indian-food-description minute of it! Get this beach-bag requisite title ASAP from your local library or bookstore.
Grace Welles doesn’t see the point of making friends. It’s easier to cultivate jerks. “When people were trying to be nice, there was everything to lose; when they were already assholes to begin with, there was nothing you could say to ruin it. Less pressure. Far more freedom.” She’s not a girl’s girl or a guy’s girl, she’s only out for herself and she likes it that way. Until she meets Wade. She had no idea when she launched a rock at a bully who was about to kick Wade’s butt with her trusty slingshot that she had just saved the love of her life. Wade’s soft where she’s hard, matches her insult for insult and thinks she’s smart. And pretty. Grace is undone. Her whole philosophy of love and how it turns people into idiots has been literally shot down–with her own weapon. “…ever since I’d known him, Wade had been this beautiful and I haven’t even noticed. And now that I did notice it, everything in my body began to hurt all at once. Full blast, like a fire alarm.” Now she’s the idiot. And she likes it. But Grace being Grace has to ruin things. And she does, spectacularly. But how can she move on after being irrevocably changed? Grace is different person, and she’s not sure who that person is, or if she likes her. But hey, there’s no time like the present to find out.
This delightfully aggressive anti-romance-romance is a bold pirate ship in a sea of silly, sappy love stories. Grace is an angry, awesome, wholly unlikeable potty mouth that I instantly adored because she swears like a sailor and never plays it safe, often to her own detriment. Man, I love a train wreck who makes good! Nothing much happens in this novel plot-wise except Grace’s tremendous character growth from a baby brat into a semi-functional teenager, and yet I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I finished this novel during a sick day home in bed where I paired it with a re-watch of Ghost World and the combo was *chef’s kiss.* Do yourself a favor: ignore the terrible cover and check out amazeballs artist Mercedes Helnwein‘s blisteringly funny and tragic American debut from your local library or indie bookstore.
Serene Li is super frustrated. She loves being an intern at her mom’s self-named fashion label, LILLY LEE, and can’t wait to start designing clothes of her own. But her mom’s investors insist on watering down Lilly’s designs, calling them “too ethnic” and urging Lilly to sell to a bigger label so they can reap big profits. All Serene wants is for her mom to stand up to the investors so that she can finally be the international sensation Serene knows she is! But then Lily is diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly Serene isn’t just fighting for her mom’s vision, she’s fighting for her life.
Lian Chen is super frustrated. Ever since his family moved to California from Beijing, his mom won’t get off his back about becoming an engineer. She lectures and texts him day and night about his grades, and wants him to take an early admission test to get into MIT while he’s still in high school. Which would be fine–except Lian could care less about engineering. His true love is stand-up comedy, and he’s determined to make his onstage dreams a reality. But he’s terrified to tell his parents the truth, especially since he knows the reason his mom is so hard on him is because she lost her own florist business in China, and will do anything to assure Lian’s success in the United States.
When Serene and Lian meet cute in an after school Chinese club, sparks don’t exactly fly–at first. But as the two begin to share their secret hopes with each other, they become each other’s lifelines, and then, something even more. But Serene’s mom is still dying, and Lian’s mom is still a tyrant. Can true love help Serene and Lian overcome their family obstacles and set them on the path to making their dreams come true? Fans of Project Runway, Next in Fashion or Standing Up will adore this sweetly sad/funny romance full of good vibes and flirty banter that is destined to be THE YA book of the summer! Out this month, be sure to snag a copy for your beach bag from your local library or bookstore.
In 2014, this book by criminally awesome mastermind E. Lockhart came out and I was blown away and unable to reveal a single thing, because to say anything was to spoil everything. Now the prequel to this book has come out (or will come out May 2022) and I am AGAIN blown away and AGAIN, can say very little because this deliciously nasty little package is just one big SPOILER. What I can say is that if you loved Liars, you will love this. What I can say is that this prequel delves into the teenage pasts of Cady’s mom (Penny) and her two sisters (Carrie and Bess) and that this story is eldest sister Carrie’s. What I can say is that Sinclair family’s curse didn’t start with Cady and likely doesn’t end with her either. Here in Carrie’s story of where it all began to go so wrong there is love, madness, corruption, addiction, loyalty, fear and doubt. So much doubt. Carrie will tell you “On the outside, I am gray-eyed and butter blonde…I have the confident walk and good shoulders of an excellent softball player…I fix my sister’s problems. Those are the qualities anyone can see.”
“But my insides are made of seawater, warped wood and rusty nails.”
Now an adult, Carrie is tormented by what happened the summer she was seventeen, when she met a gorgeous, careless boy while still in mourning for the person she loved best. Her entire life has been colored by the secrets created and the betrayal committed that summer, secrets that can never be told and betrayals that can never be forgiven. Once you see the tragic connections that tie Cady and Carrie’s stories together, you can never unsee them. These are lies that bind.
Run, don’t walk to pre-order this monstrous gem that’s coming your way 5/3/22.
Noor and Salahudin are two Pakistani teenagers who live in Juniper, California, a small military town on the edge of the Mojave desert. Noor is a straight A student who works part time in her uncle’s liquor store and has dreams of becoming a doctor. Sal helps his parents run a small motel and fills his journal with stories and poems. Pulled together by their small immigrant and Muslim community, they were best friends–until Noor admitted to Sal six months ago that she was falling in love with him. Sal, worried that Noor’s feelings would ruin their lifelong friendship, pulled back and the two have barely spoken since. But they need each now other more than ever. Noor’s mean, petty uncle is doing everything he can to block her escape to college and keep her working in the liquor store, while Sal’s mother is succumbing to untreated kidney disease as his father drinks to escape. The bills are piling up and Sal doesn’t know what to do. When he is offered an illegal way to get out from under his family’s crushing debt, Sal takes it, even though it means lying to Noor and undermining their fragile new relationship. Every choice Noor and Sal are presented with seems to result in a dead end. As Noor says to Sal, “…it feels like too much. I think about the shit we’ve read in school. Those books all about one problem. A kid who’s bullied. A kid who’s beaten. A kid who’s poor. And I think of us and how we’ve won the shit-luck lottery. We have all the problems.” Can Noor and Sal survive in a world where the odds are stacked against them? Maybe–if they can learn to truly trust each other and their faith.
Sabaa Tahir’s searing, gritty novel poignantly highlights the injustice of racism and poverty while celebrating the strength and resilience of youth, family and faith. It’s also a breathtaking love story. Noor and Salahudin, who take turns telling their devastating version of the American Dream in alternating chapters, are unforgettable characters who are as instantly iconic as Ponyboy and Cherry, Eleanor and Park, Hazel and Gus or Maddy and Olly. While the main characters’ titular rage is palpable and their circumstances dire, there is a nugget of hope in the form of Sal’s mother Misbah, who’s loving, lyrical voice glows in short vignettes. And Noor’s running playlists of alternative songs and bands will be deeply appreciated by lovers of grunge and rap alike. Destined to be one of the biggest YA novels of the year, you will want to use all your power to nab a copy of All My Rage, coming to a e-reader, bookstore or library near you March 2022.
Like in 2020, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, so here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2021. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy new year! May 2022 be Y/OUR year!
Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt
Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia