Category: Young Adult

I Wish You All the Best

Cover image for I Wish You All the Bestby Mason Deaver

ISBN 978-1-338-30613-2

“Everything looks so bright and new and put together. Like everything here has a place and that’s exactly where it belongs. And I’m the extra piece that doesn’t fit in.”

It is New Year’s Eve, and Ben has finally worked up the courage, with a little help from their best online friend, Mariam. They are going to tell their parents that they are nonbinary. But they never expected to find themself barefoot on the winter streets after their parents throw them out when they won’t take it back and pretend that it was all a joke. Fortunately, Ben’s estranged older sister Hannah is willing to take them in, and Ben has to start their last semester of senior year at a new high school where Hannah’s husband is the chemistry teacher. But they decide not to come out at the new school, a decision that is made even more complicated by Ben’s growing feelings for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan.

Despite its centrality to the story, the romance between Ben and Nathan is quiet and slow moving. Honestly, Ben’s mental energy was so tied up in recovering from trauma and trying to figure themself out that they just didn’t seem like they had a lot of mental bandwidth for a romantic entanglement. That said, Nathan was a vibrant, joyful character, and I could totally see Ben becoming wrapped up in his light and energy, and becoming extremely invested in keeping his good opinion. The possibility of a deeper relationship feels more tangible by the end of the book, but of course it is hard for two people to truly connect when one of them is keeping a big secret that is like a wall between them.

One thing that I Wish You All the Best does really well is highlight just how unnecessarily gendered language can be in small, quotidian ways that creep into everything. From binary checkboxes on forms, to endearments like “little bro” or “dude” and “my prince,” gendered language is a minefield that is slowly killing Ben with a thousand thoughtless cuts. There are dozens of cringe inducing moments where Ben is casually misgendered because they can’t face coming out at their new school after being brutally rejected by their parents. It only hurts the more because these are people who would not deliberately harm Ben, but simply do not know better because this is just normative language.

I love sibling stories, so I was really interested in the relationship between Ben and their sister Hannah. The history of family abuse and their age difference makes their interactions at once loving and fraught. Ben’s arrival on her doorstep resurfaces Hannah’s own traumatic history with their parents, and emphasizes the differing traumas of the one who left, and the one who was left behind. I liked the way their sibling bond grew over the course of the book, especially once Ben got up the courage to openly confront their feelings of abandonment and betrayal. I would have enjoyed exploring this more, as well as Ben’s online friendship with Mariam Haidari, the YouTuber whose videos helped Ben figure out their identity. Together, Hannah and Mariam represent Ben’s past and future, and the hurdles they will have to overcome in order to get there. I would recommend this as a quiet contemporary about relationships and acceptance.

Most Likely

Cover image for most likely by Sarah Watson by Sarah Watson

ISBN 978-0-316-45475-9

“For Logan, this extra work resulted in first-place medals and broken records. For CJ, it barely made her middle of the pack.”

Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha have been best friends since the summer before kindergarten, when they met at the Memorial Park playground. Now, as they enter their senior year, the park is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with an office building, and the girls will never get their chance to add their names to the jungle gym where graduates have carved their mark for generations. Now, in addition to the stresses of SATs and college applications, the four friends must fight to save the place where they met, and preserve the playground for the next generation. But what the girls don’t know is that one of them is destined to become the first woman elected President of the United States. This is her origin story.

Most Likely opens on Inauguration Day 2049, as the first woman elected to be President of the United States waits next to her husband, and prepares to take the oath of office. A couple quibbles up front; let’s hope that it doesn’t actually take another thirty years for a woman to be elected president. And let’s hope that she doesn’t feel the need to take her husband’s name for the sake of “tradition” and political expediency. However, in the case of the structure of this book, having the President Elect introduced to us by her husband’s surname preserves the mystery of which of the girls is destined to find herself looking out from The Capitol on a cold January morning in 2049, making it a logical stylistic choice.

Each with their own hopes and dreams for the future, any one of the four young women might actually be destined for America’s highest office. Ava dreams of applying to art school, but doesn’t know how to tell her adoptive mother. She struggles with her depression as she toys with the idea of finally finding her birth mother. CJ desperately wants to go to Stanford, but she just can’t seem to get her SAT score high enough. However, a new volunteer gig at sports program for kids with disabilities might just round out her application. Jordan runs the school paper and dreams of a career in political journalism, but she can’t get the city councillor who is sponsoring the office development that will destroy the park to give her the time of day, let alone a proper interview. Martha is the only one who still lives in the rundown neighbourhood around the park where they met. Perhaps the smartest of them all, she can’t figure out how she is going to pay her way through college, even if she does get into her dream school, MIT.

Most Likely is a book mainly about friendship and how it shapes us, but one that does put a bit more emphasis on the romantic subplot than I might have liked. Because we know the surname the President has taken in the prologue, once we meet the boy with that last name, the reader is watching his romantic choices with a careful eye. Watson has backed herself into the unenviable task of trying to set up a viable potential romance with any one of the four girls, without creating any kind of rivalry for his affections in order to maintain the suspense of her plot. As the end of the book approached, I was rooting for one girl to become President, and a totally different one to get the guy, so I still have to hand it to Watson for managing to end this in a way that left me satisfied.

An Enchantment of Ravens

Cover image for An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogersonby Margaret Rogerson

ISBN 978-1-4814-9758-9

“No one used their birth name in Whimsy. To do so would be to expose oneself to ensorcellment, by which a fair one could control a mortal in body and soul, forever, without their ever knowing—merely through the power of that single, secret word. It was the most wicked form of fairy magic, and the most feared.”

Although she is only seventeen, Isobel is the best painter in generations, and her Craft is coveted by all the fair ones who visit the artisan village of Whimsy to purchase human artistry. While the fair folk are masters of glamour and enchantment, they cannot truly create in the manner of mortals, but their appetite for human Craft is insatiable. So great is Isobel’s talent that rumour has it she will one day be invited to drink from the Green Well, and become a fair one herself—though it would mean losing her Craft forever. That dreaded possibility seems more real than ever when one day Isobel’s regular patron Gadfly announces that she can expect a visit from the Autumn Prince. Painting Rook proves to be an unexpected challenge; there is something about his eyes that Isobel can’t quite seem to capture, and worse, she finds his company dangerously captivating. In an unguarded moment, Isobel realizes that what she has been seeing in Rook’s eyes is a sorrow deeper than any expression of emotion she has ever seen from a fair one. When Isobel’s masterpiece is revealed before the entire Autumn Court, the weakness that has been painted plain for everyone to see is on display for all of Rook’s enemies and rivals. Refusing to let this insult stand, Rook spirits Isobel away to his Court to stand trial, presumably accused of fomenting rebellion amongst his courtiers.

I have to admit that I was a bit dubious about the premise of this book, particularly the trial,  which is how I ended up reading Sorcery of Thorns first, even though it is Margaret Rogerson’s second book. In the end, however, I was captured by the world Rogerson has created here. The village of Whimsy exists in a place between Faerie and the human World Beyond. It is a liminal space of perpetual summer, where human artisans exist to serve the capricious whims and ravenous appetites of the fair folk. They are paid in carefully negotiated enchantments, and the knowledge that the best among them may be offered the chance to visit the Green Well. But if they do not negotiate carefully enough, they may find that they pay the price, whether that is becoming unable to speak words that begin with vowels, or losing their very lives. And there are other dangers to living so close to Faerie; Isobel’s parents were killed by wild fae creatures that escaped the Wild Hunt and came out of the woods into Whimsy when she was a little girl.

We never do venture into the World Beyond, so the other half of Rogerson’s story takes place in Faerie, where we visit the realms of the Spring, Summer, and Autumn courts. For time untold, the courts have been ruled over by the Alder King of the Summer Court. But as they traverse the Summerlands on their way to the Autumn court, it becomes apparent to both Rook and Isobel that decay has taken root in the heart of the realm. Soon Rook is worried that Faerie has worse to fear than a rebellion in the Autumn Court. When their journey becomes unexpectedly dangerous, they seek refuge in the Spring Court, where Isobel hatches a clever plan that will perhaps save Rook’s reputation, and her own life.

Amongst the side characters, I particularly enjoyed Gadfly and his niece, Lark. Gadfly is an elder fae, accustomed to dealing with mortals, but in meeting Lark we catch a glimpse of the raw power and impetuousness of a nearly immortal being who has yet to truly grasp mortal fragility. I was also intrigued by Aster, the only fair one we meet who was once mortal. In her time, Aster was an acclaimed writer, but gave up wordsmithing when she drank from the Green Well and joined the Spring Court. Altogether, they make up the cast of this fantastic, standalone adventure into the heart of Faerie.

You might also like The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Dark and Deepest Red

Cover image for Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-16274-8

 “Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. Until they came for us.”

Strasbourg, 1518: A plague of uncontrollable dancing sweeps through the independent city of Strasbourg, rousing suspicions of witchcraft and demonic activity. Lala and her aunt Dorenia have been living in the city since Romani were driven out of neighbouring countries by order of law. The laws eventually came to Strasbourg as well, but the two women have lived quietly, hiding their true ethnicity behind rumours of illegitimate descent from an Italian lord. But when rumours of witchcraft begin to swirl in earnest, the unspoken suspicions of their neighbours loom large. In the present day, Emil and Rosella live in Briar Meadows, a town that is entirely normal fifty one weeks out of the year. But every autumn, the glimmer arrives and settles over the reservoir, precipitating unexpected events that fade as quickly as the autumn leaves. This year, it is the legendary red shoes made by Rosella’s family that seem to have become truly magical, but Rosella worries that the taint of witchcraft will haunt her family long after the glimmer fades. Meanwhile, Emil tries to understand the connection between the glimmer and a family legend about long ago ancestors who were tried for witchcraft after a dancing plague swept through the region.

In their fifth book, Anna-Marie McLemore turns their talent for magical realism to the realm of fairy tales, and history, combining Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” with the documented la fièvre de la danse that ensnared the city of Strasbourg in 1518. In their Author’s Note, written from the city of Strasbourg in 2018, McLemore notes that there is no known connection between the two, but they “still wonder if perhaps Hans Christian Andersen had, at the back of his mind, a little piece of history that mentions red shoes, and an Alsatian city gripped by dancing as though it was a plague.” In Dark and Deepest Red, McLemore makes the suspected connection explicit, casting Emil as a descendant of the women who were accused of causing the plague.

Dark and Deepest Red is structured around three alternating narrators, beginning with Rosella, whose family, the Olivas, are known for their exquisite handmade shoes. Next is Lala, who goes by Lavinia outside her family, because it is essential that they hide their Romani heritage. Finally, we have Emil, a modern day Romani boy who has supressed his heritage in order to fit in. Briar Meadows has a touch of magic, true, but it is not otherwise so accepting of things that are out of the ordinary. Emil’s parents are scholars, and their family history is well-researched and documented, but Emil doesn’t really want to know the stories his parents have so painstakingly saved for him. The chapters alternate in quick succession, and indeed this might be the book’s greatest weakness; while it keeps all of the plots moving, it also means that the reader never has time to really settle in and connect with one character.

Dark and Deepest Red orbits around two central romances. Lala has long been in love with Alifair the orphaned trans boy who appeared mysteriously appeared out of the Black Woods one day when they were both still children. He has since become her aunt’s apprentice in their dyeing and ink-making business, his uncanny talent for slipping among wasps unstung further adding to his mystery. But Lala constantly worries that if she and her aunt are exposed as Romani, Alifair will be tainted by association. Emil and Rosella were friends when they were children, finding a unique bond in the fact that they didn’t quite fit in among the other children of Briar Meadows. But they slowly grew apart, until the dancing shoes bring them back together unexpectedly. Rosella tries to hide her affliction, desperate for the glimmer to pass, while Emil’s denial of his heritage means that unbeknownst to them both, he may hold the key to the answers Rosella seeks. Only together can they solve the problem. The two relationships mirror one another, showing how secrets complicate our every attempt to connect.

While this book has much of the magic of McLemore’s previous reads, and deals with many of the same issues, the structure makes it difficult to sink into and revel in that magic in quite the same way as The Weight of Feathers or Wild Beauty.

You might also like When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Chosen (Slayer #2)

Cover image for Chosen by Kiersten Whiteby Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-5344-0498-4

 “Leo loved me, betrayed us, saved us, and then died, and I can’t be sad without being mad or mad without feeling guilty or guilty without feeling exhausted.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. It was an inheritance she never wanted; as the daughter of Watchers, she never asked or expected to be chosen. But she has chosen to use her powers for good, setting up the Watchers’ crumbling Irish castle as a sanctuary for non-violent demons who were trapped on Earth when the doorways closed. Yet despite believing whole-heartedly in this mission, Nina finds herself fighting the violent impulses of a Slayer, tempted to react to everything with anger and force. And although the infernal realms are closed, those who remain on Earth may still pose a threat, and Nina must decide who to save, and who to save humanity from.

With the Watchers Council decimated, Nina, Rhys, and Imogen take up the mantle of reorganizing the ancient institution for the next generation. Leo is gone, and Artemis and Honora have struck out on their own, unable or unwilling to accept Nina’s vision for the future. Artemis can’t quite come to terms with the fact that her twin sister, the gentle girl who wanted to be a healer, was Chosen, while Artemis, who trained all her life, will never have the power of a Slayer. In fact, now that magic has gone out of the world, she may never have any power at all. This conflict comes to be at the heart of Chosen, the second volume in Kiersten White’s Buffy spin off series. Artemis’ lust for power is not abated by the passing of magic, while Nina’s fear of and distaste for her own power complicates every choice she is faced with. Nor can Artemis accept her sister in any role other than the one she—and all the other Watchers—cast her in. Family, sisterhood, and having a choice versus being chosen are at the heart of this story.

As with the previous installment, Chosen focuses on the younger generation of Watchers, but also features cameos from beloved characters from the original series. Buffy and Faith feature in Nina’s Slayer dreams, while a certain popular werewolf makes an unexpected appearance in London. As with the previous installment, White captures the dialogue and banter well, balancing the darker themes with the pithy one liners, as when an exasperated Nina exclaims, “We don’t have time for an apocalypse… Maybe pencil in an apocalypse for May. It seems like a nice spring activity.” That said, Chosen wraps things up in a way that suggests this might be a duology, but there is still room here for further stories if the publisher decides to continue.

You might also like Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3)

Cover image for The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-31042-0

 “I keep my head down, as I probably should have done in the first place. And if I curse Cardan, then I have to curse myself, too, for being the fool who walked right into the trap he set for me.”

As a mortal struggling to survive in the brutal realm of Faerie, Jude Duarte made a desperate bid to hold on to power by marrying the High King Cardan. But now Cardan has disavowed her, and Jude is banished to the mortal realm, while war brews back in Elfhame. Eldred’s former High General Madoc continues to rally troops to his cause, including the smith Grimsen, the fae who forged the Blood Crown in the first place, which is the key to the Greenbriar succession. Jude tries to convince herself that the war is no longer her problem, but when her twin sister Taryn knocks on her door for help, Jude will find herself drawn back into the deadly politics of the fae.

The prophecy that alienated Prince Cardan from his father, the former High King Eldred, lies at the heart of the final installment of Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air trilogy. On the day of the prince’s birth, the court astrologer Baphen spoke a dark warning. “Prince Cardan will be your last born child… He will be the destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne… Only out of his spilled blood can a great ruler rise, but not before what I have told you comes to pass.” Now, through Jude’s ambition and trickery, Cardan sits on a throne that he never expected to occupy, unsure if he can command the loyalty of the courts that make up his kingdom. Certainly Madoc is still bent on war, and seizing power for himself, whatever the cost to the realm.

Meanwhile, the three sisters are all faced with the darker side of what it means to love the fae. Having gotten her wish and married into the Court with her wedding to Locke, Taryn now lives with the daily reality of marriage to the cruel trickster who played her against her twin sister. Vivi continues to pay the price for having used magic to deceive her mortal lover, Heather, to hide her true nature, and the fallout of the eventual revelation of the truth. And Jude, of course, is still grappling with her feelings for Cardan, somehow still in love with the man who denied her and banished her from her home. If they are ever to be reunited a balance of power must be struck, but trust does not come easily to two people who have hurt each other so relentlessly. The power dynamics of interpersonal relationships are just as key to the series as the power dynamics of the Faerie court at large.

It is hard to say much more about the conclusion of this series without heading deep into the realm of spoilers. Holly Black continues her nuanced exploration of power, and what we will do to keep it, and how that desire can poison our relationships if abused. Under Madoc’s tutelage, and informed by her mortal weaknesses, Jude has been accustomed to seizing power by whatever means necessary. But some power cannot be seized, but can only be granted by willing consent. When it comes to dark, twisting, intricately plotted faerie tales, Holly Black is the true Queen of Faerie.

You might also like  The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Deadly Little Scandals (Debutantes #2)

Cover image for Deadly Little Scandals by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-3680-1517-2

 “I couldn’t forgive my mom for deceiving me, but every day, I got up and let Aunt Olivia and Lily and John David go about life like normal. It was hard not to feel like the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.”

Last year, Sawyer Taft became a debutante, infiltrating the high society world her mother left behind, for the sole purpose of finding her biological father, the man who was responsible for the teen pregnancy that got Ellie Taft disowned. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her grandmother Lillian Taft was also offering Sawyer a trust fund that would more than pay her college tuition. But the family secrets she uncovered ended up being more than Sawyer bargained for, and the revelation of her birth father’s true identity threatens to destroy the family she has only just regained. So when her cousin Lily convinces her to participate in the pledge process of an elusive secret society composed solely of women, known as the White Gloves, Sawyer throws herself into the distraction. After all, these well connected women from her mother’s world might just have the answers to the unsolved half of Sawyer’s mystery—what happened to the other girl who got pregnant at the same time as Ellie, and where is her baby now?

After the events of Little White Lies, Sawyer is still grappling with the revelation that her Uncle JD, Aunt Olivia’s husband, and Lily’s dad, is her dad, too. Her mother had long led her to suspect that Senator Ames was her real father, but the events surrounding his downfall and arrest led to the awful truth. Sawyer can’t bring herself to tell Lily and Aunt Olivia what she knows, but the fact that her then twenty-three-year-old uncle slept with her then eighteen-year-old mother, who was deliberately trying to get pregnant as part of a pact with two other girls, has threatened to bring Sawyer’s world crashing down around her, and challenged everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. To be honest, the revelation of the pregnancy pact from book one continued to squick me out in book two, and the fact that Ellie was technically of age didn’t make the situation feel any less icky. Sawyer is similarly disturbed, and becomes increasingly desperate to find the one other child in the world who came into existence the same way, and might be able to relate to her plight. But her mother’s friend Ana proves elusive, and her child even more so.

Like the previous volume, the main part of the story is intercut with flash forwards, which feature Sawyer and Sadie-Grace trapped at the bottom of a hole, waiting for the drugs that are immobilizing them to wear off. The main part of the action takes place over the course of a summer, which the Taft family spends at their summer home on Regal Lake. Lily, Sawyer, Sadie-Grace and Campbell are all trying to pledge the White Gloves, but only eight new girls will be chosen. However, Deadly Little Scandals incorporates a third timeline as well. Set twenty-five years earlier, it features the parents of many of the main characters, in the summer after Edward Taft’s death, and before their senior year of high school. Jennifer Lynn Barnes carefully balances the three intertwining parts to a twisty conclusion, as old secrets finally come to light.

After spending Little White Lies carefully building up Sawyer’s friendships, and rebuilding her extended family, Barnes threatens to tear it all down in Deadly Little Scandals. The “perfect” family that Sawyer found a place in against all the odds isn’t so perfect after all, but Sawyer is afraid to be the one who causes it to implode, even as her secret festers. She despises her mother for keeping the secret for so long, but somehow ends up joining in keeping it from the people it will affect most. It is challenging to top the revelations of the first volume, but Barnes delivers, even as the plot twists often stretch credulity. Nothing can be taken for granted, but at the same time Deadly Little Scandals remains a great romp through the world of debutantes and secret societies.

You might also like The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

On the Come Up

Cover image for On the Come Up by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 9780-06249856-4

 “Ever since that boy got killed, my heart races whenever I see a cop. I could’ve been him, he could’ve been me. Luck’s the only thing that separated us.”

Bri Jackson is Garden Heights royalty, thanks to her father, the late great rapper Law, whose star was rising when was gunned down when she was four. Bri dreams of being a rapper, but she wants to stand on her own feet. After all, her dead father didn’t teach her anything about rapping; he’s dead. But when Bri’s Aunt Pooh finally gets her in the Ring for her first rap battle, she finds herself facing off against Milez, the son of her father’s former manager, Supreme, with whom he had a falling out before his death. Bri wants to rap on her own terms, but the neighbourhood, and the world, have their own preconceived ideas about who she is, and she will have to face up to family history in order to fulfill her dream.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s sophomore novel, following The Hate U Give, which has become a perennial presence on the YA bestseller list. Originally scheduled for publication in June 2018, On the Come Up was pushed back and released on February 5, 2019. In the meantime, Thomas was caught up in the whirlwind of having her debut novel adapted for the big screen. However, the wait was well worth it, as Thomas has delivered a solid follow-on that is set in the same world, and even the same neighbourhood, as The Hate U Give, but with a distinct protagonist and narrative voice.

One the Come Up takes place in the aftermath of the riots occasioned by Khalil’s murder in The Hate U Give. Bri is from the same neighbourhood, though she is bussed out to a magnet school for the arts in a middle-class neighbourhood. She and her other black and brown classmates are often targeted by the school’s security guards, a situation they have become less tolerant of as the protests resulting from Khalil’s death raise their social awareness and cause them to consider taking action. Bri lights a spark when she writes a song about a violent encounter with the guards, and how she is perceived by the world for being a black girl.

As in The Hate U Give, On the Come Up highlights a complex family dynamic that strengthens the surrounding story. Bri’s mother is a recovering addict studying to be a social worker. Her older brother Trey has finished his degree, and wants to go to grad school, but he is working in a local pizza shop to help his mom make ends meet, and get Bri through school. With an entrepreneurial spirit, Bri decides to sell candy out of her bag at school, a situation which leads to a rumour that she is a drug dealer, like her Aunt Pooh, a member of the Garden Disciples gang. Although Bri has always wanted to rap, her urgency is heightened by the knowledge that if she could just make it in the music industry, her mother wouldn’t have to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food in the fridge. She also has to struggle with her relationship with Pooh her aunt, and Pooh the drug dealer, a woman who is her number one supporter when she is around, but who disappears for days on end when “business” arises. And when Pooh disappears, Supreme comes knocking.

On the Come Up is largely told in prose, but contains a number of Bri’s raps and rhymes, including the full song that catapults her to infamy when the public chooses to take her verses and interpret them in the worst way possible. However, she rhymes almost instinctively, turning her daily experiences into little bits of verse that she jots down in her notebook for later use. Thomas strikes a nice balance between the two, and shows off her solid grasp of both in the process. The result is an immersive story that will drag you head first back into Starr and Bri’s world, even though their paths never cross.