‘One of Us is Dead’ by Jeneva Rose

“She was a forgive-and-forget kind of person. I, on the other hand, always believed there was another option on the table. Forgive, forget, or fucking never let it go.”
― Jeneva Rose, One of Us Is Dead

The above quote perfectly summarizes Jeneva Rose’s novel, One of Us is Dead. This is a twisty piece of psychological fiction that tells the story of female friends and the manipulative behavior that runs rampant in their town. I enjoy reading novels that have multiple narrators, especially when some of them prove to be unreliable. This book gave me strong Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty vibes – rich women, close-knit neighborhood, and secrets galore.

Shannon used to be the queen bee of Buckhead. Her husband Bryce is a politician with big goals – eventually he would love to be president. Everything is perfect until Bryce hit a midlife crisis, dumped Shannon, and replaced her with a much younger woman named Crystal. Even though Crystal and Bryce are now married, Shannon is convinced that Bryce will come back to her and if not, she wants revenge.

Crystal is a young innocent woman from Texas who had no idea that Bryce was married when the two of them got together. She has no idea what she’s in for as she tries to make in-roads with the women of Buckhead. Don’t count her out though – Crystal’s past is not as innocent as everyone thinks.

Olivia believes she should be the one in charge in Buckhead. When she came to Buckhead five years ago, Shannon said something to her that Olivia took offence, setting the two women on a collision course of competition ever since. Olivia wants to take everything from Shannon. With Bryce effectively neutralizing Shannon’s power by divorcing her, Olivia isn’t afraid to pull out every nasty manipulative, backstabbing, and underhanded trick at her disposal, no matter the cost.

Jenny may not be one of the rich women of Buckhead, but the fact that she owns Glow, the most exclusive salon in town, means that Jenny knows all of her clients’ secrets and desires. She sees it all, remembers it all, and carries the ammunition she needs to take down whomever she chooses in the group, especially if they threaten her livelihood.

Seven Dirty Secrets by Natalie D. Richards

I live for the drama of a teen psychological thriller, and Seven Dirty Secrets by Natalie D. Richards is no exception.

One year ago, Cleo’s boyfriend Declan drowned during a river rafting trip with their friends. Even though she has a new boyfriend now and is waiting for a scholarship to Michigan State to become a forensic scientist, she’s never really been able to leave Declan in the past. This makes it all the more chilling when on her eighteenth birthday, she starts to receive a cryptic and vaguely threatening clues leading her on a scavenger hunt, one that’s increasingly all about her rocky relationship with Declan. All her friends deny their involvement, even her brother Connor, so it’s up to Cleo and her best friend Hope to chase down the clues, racing the clock to keep their secrets from getting out, and hopefully to find out just who’s behind this – friend, foe, or Declan himself.

This is a vividly drawn and fast-paced story, full of twists, flashbacks, and revelations of all kinds. It engages with issues of race, domestic violence, blame, poverty, and trust, but is also full of loving, supportive friendships and family relationships.

If you loved All Your Twisted Secrets, One of Us is Lying, or Five Total Strangers, you’ll love Seven Dirty Secrets by Natalie D. Richards.

This title is also available on Overdrive.

Loveless by Alice Oseman

Georgia has always assumed she’d find love. No, she hasn’t ever dated anyone, or kissed anyone, or had a crush on anyone, but that’s normal, right? It’ll happen eventually… right? It isn’t until she graduates from school and is about to go to university that she realizes how different she is from everyone else. Feeling panicked, behind, and alone, she decides to reinvent herself and become the kind of girl who’s a social butterfly, that falls in love and enjoys kissing. She enlists her roommate Rooney and her friends Jason and Pip in her quest, but it never starts to feel easier, to feel right. It’ll take time, soul-searching, and the help of Sunil, president of the Pride Society, to figure out what she wants and where she belongs.

Loveless by Alice Oseman is a great book for a lot of reasons, including its representation of people who have always been treated like they’re broken: introverts, asexuals, and aromantic people. Georgia is flawed and real as she struggles and angsts her way into self-acceptance and self-love, leaving some chaos and hurt in her wake. Oseman doesn’t shy away from showing Georgia’s culpability for that hurt, or the complicated process of making amends, not to mention the natural grieving process that comes with being different. In this and many ways (though I can’t vouch for the depiction of British university life) it’s a refreshingly realistic book. Despite the title, love is the thread that runs through the book – through Georgia’s friendships, Rooney’s relationship to Shakespeare, Pip’s cultural heritage, and Sunil’s feelings for the Pride Society.

For a fresh and educational coming-of-age with strong friendships, diverse characters, realistic portrayals of asexuality and aromanticism, and quick, addictive chapters, this is the best book you’ll read this year.

This title is also available on Overdrive.

My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham

YA feminist horror is one of my new favorite genres – there’s nothing like a squad of friends battling the forces of evil (and the patriarchy) in between classes. My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham is a Pretty Little Liars-style journey into peer pressure, manipulation, and gaslighting through a paranormal lens, and with a heartwarming sapphic love story to balance out the scares.

Finch has wanted to attend Ulalume, an elite private school on a remote and sinister peninsula, ever since she heard of it, despite the expense. Luckily her piano audition goes well, but scholarships are the least of her concerns when she and her parents are in a catastrophic car accident on the way home, after veering to avoid what looked like (though couldn’t have been) an eight-eyed stag in the road. Finch could have sworn she drowned when the car went in the lake, but she recovers, although finds herself changed – pale, cold, with a weak heartbeat. When she starts at Ulalume, more odd things start happening including strange new feelings for the local queen bee, Selena. But new love may be no match for what’s waiting for Finch in tunnels under the school…

I really enjoyed the romance between openly bi Selena and newly-out lesbian Finch. Their growth from enemies to friends to girlfriends is a realistic journey that is easy to root for, and Selena’s supportive advice as Finch fumbles through coming out is tender and respectful. In some ways the author prioritizes the romance over the horror plot, so readers will have to decide if a happy ending is worth a plot hole or two. The horror plot is an original take on the deal-with-the-devil or cult narratives, adding in an insightful element of gradual, insidious manipulation. The setting also contributes a Gothic atmosphere, complete with creepy forest, bleak lighthouse, and dank tunnels. In short, while some plot elements could be stronger, this female-centered ghost story compellingly asks what it’s worth losing to find the power and belonging you’ve always wanted.

A worthy addition to the realm of progressive horror novels, this is a good read for those who loved Plain Bad Heroines or other queer love stories where things go bump in the night.

This title is also available on Overdrive.

Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp

Sick of horror stories where able-bodied straight people are the only ones smart and strong enough to survive? Try Even if We Break by Marieke Nijkamp. This deeply inclusive YA thriller is a love letter to RPGs, a Breakfast Club vibe (with shades of One of Us is Lying), and a typical “remote-cabin-on-haunted-mountain” campfire story.

It’s been three years of high school since disabled goth Finn (he/him), cash-strapped game master Ever (they/them), autistic former athlete Maddy (she/her), hardworking “new money” Carter (he/him), and wealthy aspiring seamstress Liva (she/her) first started playing their role-playing game in the mythical land of Gonfalon. Once, the game made them inseparable. Now, they’re barely speaking, and all hiding secrets. Carter is bitterly resentful, Maddy is lost and desperate, Finn is consumed with anger and mistrust, Liva feels disrespected, and Ever is just desperate to keep the friendship going a little longer. They’ve gathered, one last time, at Liva’s mountain cabin to play an immersive game. But soon, strange things start happening, and then in the darkness, someone vanishes, leaving a pool of blood behind…

This book is priceless because of its effort to accurately and compassionately portray the lives of queer, disabled, and trans teens, through their own voices. Touching on chronic pain, the opioid epidemic, poverty, bullying, neurodivergence, and more, this is a thoughtful portrayal of a group of friends and how their circumstances can drive wedges between them. What this book does best is show the friends’ processing of trauma and secrets in order to get back to a place of trust and honesty. While slightly less effective, the thriller plot unravels at just the right rate to keep readers on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next and who’s behind it.

Both the frequent heart-to-heart talks and inconsistent serial-killer-stalking stretch the limits of believability to some degree and, combined, make for a somewhat anticlimactic ending, but as a pioneer of inclusion in the genre – and a nuanced portrayal of disability – this is a tour de force.  Recommended for fans of Stephanie Perkins’ horror work and Karen McManus’ multi-perspective whodunits.

This title is also available on Overdrive.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A classic story of love and friendship, sacrifice and resilience, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers also just happens to be located in a fantasical world of distant planets, casual space travel and aliens of every variety.

Lovelace is an artificial intelligence (AI) that has been transferred into a humaniod form (a “kit”) by an alien named Pepper. At first confused and disoriented (her previous work had been within the walls of a spaceship) she names herself Sidra. She quickly gains intelligence, but struggles to live in chaotic world without walls.

Jane 23 is an enhanced human bred to work in a factory sorting scrap. Her life is strictly regulated and anything outside of the factory is completely unknown to her. One day an explosion blows a hole in one of the walls and she sees sky for the first time. Consumed by curiosity, she goes back to see it again. Nearly caught by one of the Mothers (robot caretakers) she runs blindly, is chased by wild animals and is almost caught until a small shuttle in the massive scrap pile opens a door and helps her escape. The shuttle is run by Owl, an AI that lives in the ship.

Many years later Jane, with Owl’s help, escapes the planet and arrives in Port Cortisol, a busy international space port where she changes her name to Pepper and blends into the world around her. However she is haunted by the loss of the shuttle and her beloved Owl who had raised her as a true mother would and for whom she is always searching.

I would categorize this as a “cozy sci-fi”. There are no space battles or massive alien invasions wiping out civilizations. Bad things happen – witness the factory planet of enslaved girls – but there is a lot of good too. Many diverse aliens with many diverse forms co-exist, mostly peacefully and respectfully.  These stories quickly connect in interesting and satisfying ways. Friendships are formed, adventures are shared and the line between AI and humanoid blurs. The world building is intricate and well developed but never intrusive. A lovely and heartwarming novel.

The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Do you remember Anna’s excellent review of TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea? If you liked that book, or his newer Under the Whispering Door, you may want to try his young adult series, starting with The Extraordinaries – and followed up by 2021’s Flash Fire.

The Extraordinaries is set in Nova City, a city with an established set of superheroes (the titular Extraordinaries). Nick is their biggest fan, and is particularly obsessed with Shadow Star, a hero on the rise and constantly in the news. Writing fanfiction about Shadow Star is more enjoyable than real life, where he’s facing a new ADHD medication, an uncomfortable relationship with his ex (kind of) boyfriend, changes in his group of friends, and worries about his dad’s safety as a Nova City police officer. An attempted mugging foiled by Shadow Star makes Nick determined to be a hero too, and he drags his best friend Seth along for the ride as he chases down a spectacular destiny. But he’s got a lot to learn about what it really means to be extraordinary.

Klune is fantastic at putting a human face on a fantasy universe, without skimping on any of the breathtaking fantasy elements. In this case he shows just how wide a gulf stands between being a fan of superheroes and actually being one – to great humorous effect. Nick eventually brands himself the clueless comic relief, but he also has a great deal of emotional depth, including how his ADHD affects his sense of self-worth and self-efficacy, his lingering grief around his mother’s death, and his anxiety for his cop father’s safety. Overall, his story is one grounded in the discomforts and stupid mistakes that abound during the process of growing up, but overflowing with warmth and hope for brighter futures.

For a similar read I recommend Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari, Hero by Perry Moore, or All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner. Less superhero-focused, but with a similar emphasis the average-citizen perspective in a world of Chosen Ones, is The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.

The Woods Are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins

Perkins’ second horror offering strikes a much more menacing tone with grimly realistic depictions of predators – both human and animal – in a wilderness that has no mercy for the inexperience of new adulthood.

In The Woods are Always Watching, we meet Neena and Josie, high school best friends who are about to be separated when Neena goes away to college. As a last hurrah, Neena has insisted they go backpacking for three days in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just the two of them. But after they enter the forest and are cut off from all creature comforts and technology, their relationship quickly starts to unravel as they realize how ill-equipped they are for camping – and maybe, life in general – on their own. But as their mistakes, annoyances, and discomforts pile up, one slip-up plunges them into a gruesome cat-and-mouse game that they’ll be lucky to survive at all.

Full disclosure: I did not enjoy this book as much as its predecessor, There’s Someone Inside Your House, which had a more exciting, teen slasher movie vibe. This, on the other hand, reads like a 21st century Grimm’s fairy tale – a pastiche of Little Red Riding Hood, full of hard lessons and gore and the end of innocence. Where There’s Someone Inside Your House showed relationships growing and strengthening in the face of terror, The Woods Are Always Watching shows a friendship cracking under pressure, to never truly be the same again. Frankly, I came away a little depressed, reminded of the 2019 film Black Christmas which has a similarly bleak outlook for college-age women.

But while it may be less fun to read, the book rings with a frightening truth: that life and adulthood are hard, unpleasant slogs with real danger lurking around corners, and no matter how well prepared you think you are, you’re probably not ready for it — and you’re definitely too dependent on your phone. Which is not to say that Neena and Josie lack any intelligence or power over their fates; although terrified they learn, improvise, fight back, and face the truths they’ve been trying to avoid.

A survival story, a coming-of-adulthood story, an examination of friendship in transition, and a feminist parable, The Woods Are Always Watching is recommended for strong-stomached readers looking for an unflinching look at the realities of growing into a woman in today’s world.  Those who enjoy Perkins’ romances will want to look elsewhere, for there’s no sweetness here.

Out of Character by Annabeth Albert

Conventionally Yours captured hearts with its story of card gamers falling from hate to love, and now Annabeth Albert is back with its sequel, Out of Character, the story of a devoted card gamer and the former jock who once lost his trust – and who now might steal his heart.

Jasper Quigley is usually the ‘funny friend’, the third wheel or the comic relief. And frankly, it’s getting old. But he’s not so desperate as to be happy when his ex-best-friend comes begging for his help. Milo wasn’t there for him when he needed it most, and that’s not something Jasper ever wants to forgive. But Milo’s been conned out of his brother’s rare, expensive Odyssey game cards and only Jasper can help him replace them. Since Jasper also needs someone to help with his cosplay group’s visit to the children’s hospital, he figures they can make a deal which helps them both – but also keeps Milo at arm’s length. But the more time they spend together, the more he sees Milo’s regret over the past, and his desire to make things right.  And if their friendship can get a second chance, who’s to say love isn’t on the cards?

There was so much to love in this book. The characters were so distinct, with unique perspectives, that it was easy to tell everyone apart and get invested. As in its predecessor, this book touched on the full spectrum of abilities, from the chronically ill to learning disabilities, which was a refreshing and grounded take. I liked that this book focused on a very different angle than Conventionally Yours, so the reader gets introduced to a different side of fan culture, including its mainstream reception: Milo is embarrassed to be in costume in public, until he sees what a difference it makes to the kids at the children’s hospital to play with their favorite characters. I also thought Albert did a good job showing the many different anxieties and coming-out experiences that people have, depending on their family life and circumstances. It’s an excellent story of mutual respect and meeting each other halfway to make a real relationship work.

If you like card games, cosplay, a quest for redemption, or a romance with just enough drama and lots of heart, this might well be the book for you.

The Backstagers by James Tynion IV, Rian Singh, and Andy Mientus

Today I’ve got something to recommend for lovers of both prose chapter books AND graphic novels! The Backstagers, by James Tynion IV and Rian Singh, started out as a young adult graphic novel series, but then was adapted into middle grade novels of the same name by Andy Mientus, and both give you an avenue into a tale of high school theater as a gateway into fantastical realms.

Here’s the basics: a boy named Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, St. Genesius, and is pushed by his parents to join a club. First he considers joining drama club, only to discover that it’s much more exciting (and welcoming) being a backstager, the techs behind the scenes that make all the magic happen. Magic in this case is also meant literally: the backstage corridors lead into wild and unpredictable worlds of odd creatures, shifting passageways, and general mayhem. Jory jumps in feet-first and quickly bonds with the Backstagers crew: Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, Beckett, and two kindly senior stage managers. Together, it’s their job to keep the theater safe AND make sure the show goes on. It’s not an easy task, but the power of new friendship and budding romance is more than up to the challenge.

I started with the graphic novels, and I thought the art style was charming and the characters were diverse and full of personality. I’m very excited to read the prose novels and see this world fleshed out in more detail, with new adventures to experience. If you were a theater kid, have a devoted squad of friends, or loved either Stranger Things or Ouran High School Host Club, I recommend you try reading about The Backstagers (one way or another)!