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.

Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

If you like queer-inclusive stories of scrappy coming-of-age superheroes such as The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner, and Hero by Perry Moore, you may want to try the Not Your Sidekick series by C.B. Lee. I recently read the first volume, and it’s a fun YA story of longing for superpowers, landing mysterious (but well-paid) internships, navigating first might-be-mutual crushes, feeling like a disappointment to your parents, learning to distrust the government, and just generally missing what’s right in front of your face.

Jess is almost seventeen, and it looks like she’s never going to have superpowers. Most people manifest their powers by their seventeenth birthday, including Jess’ ultra-perfect sister Claudia, but despite testing herself on every potential power she can think of, Jess has got nothing. This would be a bummer even if her parents weren’t low-level superheroes Shockwave and Smasher, even if Jess wasn’t already the mediocre middle child between Claudia and super-genius Brendan. But Jess decides to make the best of it, and looks for an internship instead. She ends up working for a company owned by her parents’ villain nemeses, the Mischiefs, partly because she thinks it’s both rebellious and hilarious to work for her parents’ enemies, but mostly because she’s working with her longtime crush, Abby. Their growing friendship is great, but the longer she works there the more Jess starts to suspect there’s more going on underneath the surface – with Abby, at the internship, in her edited history textbooks, and with her suddenly elusive friend Bells. And where are the Mischiefs, anyway?

I recommend this to fans of The Extraordinaries partly because it’s a similar universe, and partly because Jess is very similar to Nick in her lovable cluelessness. Readers will probably start to suspect things long before Jess does, but they’ll root for her as she figures it all out – especially with Abby. Another great aspect of this book is the thoughtfully-assembled post-apocalyptic universe; the explanations of solar flares, WWIII, and societal restructuring, are plausible and well-sprinkled through the story. Some of the writing and dialogue comes off stilted at times, but the plot and messaging is on point.

The cast of characters, and society as a whole, is heartwarmingly queer-inclusive; Jess, her friends, and the school not only include the LGBTQ individuals, but bigotry is also notably absent in their experiences. All the same, this utopian vision has its share of social commentary – the Rainbow Club at Jess’ school is critiqued as primarily a clique of the school’s gay boys and their friends, which translates to issues in the real world with whose voices are heard and represented in LGBTQ spaces and media exposure. There’s also some racial and ethnic diversity; Jess’ Vietnamese and Chinese heritage is explicitly explored, and Bells’ family owns a Creole restaurant in honor of their Louisiana heritage.

If you want a light-hearted opening to a government-overthrowing superhero saga, don’t miss Not Your Sidekick. This first series installment is available through our Mobius interlibrary loan system, with its sequels through our Rivershare system.

You’ll Be the Death of Me by Karen McManus

My favorite author Karen McManus continues her winning streak with this Ferris Bueller-inspired mystery starring three estranged friends racing against time to discover why one of their classmates has been murdered. Quick-paced with relatable characters, You’ll Be The Death of Me is perfect for fans of mysteries, YA books, and of course McManus’ earlier work.

Ivy, Cal, and Mateo haven’t been close since eighth grade when they suddenly grew apart, but the day after the senior student council election they each find themselves desperate to recapture the spirit of their former friendship and adventures. Ivy just lost the election – badly – to the class slacker “Boney” Mahoney; Cal is trapped in a conflicted relationship that’s making him long for simpler days, and Mateo is exhausted from working multiple jobs to help his family. In an impulsive moment, they skip school together, awkward though it is with all that’s been left unsaid. But then they see the class slacker (and new president) also out of school, and decide to follow him. It may be the worst – and last – decision they ever make. Before they know what’s happened, Boney’s been murdered, Ivy’s a suspect, and if they don’t figure out what happened they’ll lose more than just their friendship.

If we’re being honest there’s too much tension right off the bat to really strike a Ferris Bueller vibe, but the echoes are there in the ways Mateo, Ivy, and Cal relate to each other – Ivy and Mateo’s unspoken attraction contrasts with Cal’s loneliness as an outsider, and they consistently drag each other into variously flawed decisions. Along the way some pretty serious conversations are had, and no one person or relationship will leave the day unchanged. There’s also a sibling/rival figure, a rogue teacher, and a race to beat the parents home (and keep them from finding out what’s really going on). In a way it’s Ferris Bueller if the story had been told from his sister Jeannie’s perspective, complete with a darker tinge and lots of unresolved feelings and secrets to resolve.

I loved how distinct the characters were, and how realistic their different problems were; and as usual McManus expertly shifts between their voices to round out all perspectives. The action is both propulsive and realistic for the characters’ age, and the bit of romance isn’t gratuitous but is entwined with the plot and character development. I also really appreciated the representation of positive, supportive, and involved parenting in several different styles.

If you like Karen McManus as much as I do, or just YA mysteries in general, this is definitely a book you won’t want to miss.

In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens

Did I just pick up this book because of its beautiful cover? Yes. Yes I did. But luckily it turned out to be as lovely a story as its cover.

In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens is a coming-of-age story, a romance, an imaginative fairy-tale-inspired fantasy, and a rollicking adventure. Tal is the fourth in line to the throne, and he’s on his coming of age tour around the kingdom. The kingdom is tense and war is threatened, which doesn’t help to ease Tal’s anxiety: he secretly has magic which he fears will be used as a weapon. Just as his tour is getting underway, his ship encounters a mysterious derelict with an abandoned prisoner inside – the mysterious Athlen. Athlen treats Tal more like a person than anyone has in a while, but before they can explore this connection, Athlen makes a shocking escape. When he reappears miraculously in a later port, Tal follows him, determined to get answers. And it’s not a moment too soon, as Tal is then kidnapped by pirates. He must escape if he wants to prevent a war, and he needs all the help he can get.

The familial love is on-point, messing with some stereotypes, the magic is captivating, and in my opinion the world-building is expert. In some fantasy novels, a page or three at the beginning of the story is taken up by explanations of what the world is and how it works and who the players are; in this case the story starts right up and details about the world are revealed gradually and organically, so that your picture of the world your in grows and gets colored in as you read. I found that very effective for keeping readers hooked and sharing just enough detail so things make sense as they’re happening.

One thing that struck home for me was that although Tal is unsure of himself, and a lot of decisions are out of his hands, he gradually takes more control of his life and decides what kind of person he’s going to be. I always love a story where a character forges their own path. I also thought the depiction of politics, and how complicated monarchy can be depending on your perspective, was a good nod to realism without being too dark. In short, hope is a theme running through most parts of the story – and the world needs more of that.

Sweet, exciting, and thought-provoking, this book is recommended for those who liked The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Pirates of the Caribbean, or similar fantasy adventure romps.

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.

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus

Another exciting YA mystery from the author of One of Us is Lying, 2019’s Two Can Keep a Secret is the story of cold cases, twins, secret family histories, and haunted houses which I read in exactly one day. It’s got echoes of Pretty Little Liars and There’s Someone in Your House, though more grounded in realism than either, and is most like A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder.

Ellery and Ezra are twins, just like their mother Sadie and her sister Sara were twins. When Sadie and Sara were high school seniors in Echo Ridge, Sara went missing and was never seen again. Sadie left town as fast as she could, settling in California. Now, Sadie’s in rehab, forcing high school seniors Ellery and Ezra to come to Echo Ridge for the first time to live with their Nana, Sadie’s mother. As soon as they arrive in town, they learn that Sara wasn’t the only one – five years ago homecoming queen Lacey disappeared, and her body was found in the local fright theme park. Her boyfriend Declan was suspected, but nothing was ever proven. As Ellery and Ezra settle in, making friends with Declan’s younger brother Malcolm, history chillingly starts to repeat itself as anonymous threats against Homecoming start to appear around town – and then one of the Homecoming Court goes missing. True crime buff Ellery and an implicated Malcolm scramble to uncover the culprit before it’s too late.

To be honest, this is very, very similar to A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder in premise: the smart quirky girl and the younger brother of the unjustly accused unite to solve a mysterious disappearance of the town golden girl. HOWEVER, McManus puts her own twists on it which makes this book stand apart. For one, Malcolm’s brother Declan is no saint, with a hot temper, secrets of his own, and a shaky history with Malcolm – this means that Declan’s innocence is nowhere near certain for most of the book. Secondly, Ellery and Ezra’s relationship with each other and their flawed mother adds dimension to the book; Sadie’s struggle with opioid addiction feels timely. Third, and maybe most importantly, the police play a much larger role in the investigation than Ellery and Malcolm. I really appreciated the realism of teens getting it wrong, repeatedly, while ‘the professionals’ (who amateur detectives love to dismiss) actually do their jobs and get it right.

Overall a solid, plausible, and compelling mystery with twists and revelations to keep you reading; LGBTQ representation in side characters and awareness of ethnic diversity (particularly the difficulty of being one of the only non-white families in town) are plusses. My only request would’ve been to flesh out the side characters more – Ezra and Malcolm’s friend Mia fade into the background where I would’ve liked them to stand alongside Ellery and Malcolm as equals. If you liked any of the YA mysteries listed above, or McManus’ other works, definitely try Two Can Keep a Secret.

Fence: Striking Distance by Sarah Rees Brennan

I don’t know much about fencing, but luckily you don’t need to in order to enjoy Fence: Striking Distance by Sarah Rees Brennan. Based on comics by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad, Fence tells the story of the skilled but disorganized fencing team at private school King’s Row as their coach tries to use a series of team bonding exercises to bring them together and enhance their effectiveness.

Aiden (flirt extraordinaire) hates the idea of team bonding, but loves Harvard (though he couldn’t possibly tell him that), so he tries to go along. Harvard (team captain) loves his team but isn’t so good at doing things for himself, so at Coach’s suggestion he tries to date. But he has no idea what he’s doing, so he asks Aiden for help – forcing them both to reckon with what their feelings really are. Freshmen Nicholas and Seiji are mismatched roommates and (according to Nicholas) also friends. For Nicholas, this means trying to measure up to Seiji’s last friend, fencing prodigy Jesse, in hopes that someday Nicholas and Seiji will be best friends – or at least fencing rivals. Seiji isn’t where he expected to be, not at King’s Row or in friendship with Nicholas. He’s not sure who he is or wants to be, but he knows he wants to be the best, at fencing and at teamwork (if he has to). So he’s going to do whatever it takes to be a good friend. Along for the ride is the fifth teammate, Eugene, who wants all his bros to get along.

The book didn’t actually include much fencing, but it did a great job showing each character’s perspective, making them each unique individuals with their own backgrounds and concerns. The best descriptor for all the characters is “oblivious”. They’re so oblivious it’s endearing; trying to do the right thing but failing to use basic communication skills leads the whole bunch on a comedy of errors that almost (but not quite) resolves by the end. Both characters and plot rely on stereotype and formula, but for me it was a restful experience. If you like character-driven sports stories, fencing, deep and adorable friendships, a bit of romance, and a lot of miscommunication, you might like this book as much as I did.

The original graphic novel series is also available to put on hold through our catalog and on Overdrive, and a sequel (Fence: Disarmed) was released in May and might be available soon through interlibrary loan.

Bloom by Kevin Panetta

As the summer gets rolling, you may want to read something restful, sweet, and nice to look at. If so, you might want to check out Bloom, a graphic novel written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau.

Bloom is the story of Ari, who’s been working in his family’s bakery in a small beach town since he was a kid. Now he’s graduated high school and is under pressure from his band to move to the city – and he’s desperate to go, if only to figure out who he is and what he really wants. Unfortunately, his family’s not on board, and shames him for his trying to leave when the bakery is struggling. At his wits’ end, he decides to hire a replacement, someone to do the work with his parents so he’ll be free to leave. Enter Hector, an easygoing guy in town for the summer to clean out his late grandmother’s house. He loves to bake as much as Ari wants to avoid it, and so Ari starts to train him in the rhythms of the bakery so he can take Ari’s place. But nothing’s as simple as it should be; things with the band are changing, putting his plans in jeopardy, and being with Hector is starting to remind Ari of the love that runs through his family’s business and joy that comes from baking. Before long it’s clear that his relationship with Hector could also bloom into love — if only Ari could get out of his own way.

The good things about this graphic novel are many. Readers are immersed in the act of baking and in Ari’s Greek heritage, with the addition of Hector’s heritage later in the story. The art style is simple but charming, with a simple color palette highlighting beautifully rendered scenery with floral accents. The portrayal of family love and friendship love is starkly realistic and truly heartwarming, with both Hector and Ari finding comfort among their loved ones along with discomfort.

For me, being a graphic novel affected character development and plot too much; a lot seemed to be implied through brief scenes and imagery that I would rather have had spelled out and explained. I’m also never totally hooked by angsty characters with unsupportive parents and/or toxic friends. But overall it’s a sweet story and a quick read, and all the baking imagery gives off some definite Great British Baking Show vibes for me; if this sounds like your kind of coming-of-age summer romance, give it a try!

Bloom is available in print and on Overdrive.

Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye

Date Me, Bryson Keller is a book whose premise sounds trivial (anybody else remember ‘Win a Date with Tad Hamilton’?) but which turns out to be poignant as well as quite fun. An uplifting story of fake dating, self discovery, identity, family, and how hard it is to be yourself when it might not be safe, I highly recommend it to readers of romance, YA, and gentle reads alike.

Kai Sheridan is an anxious mess, trying to navigate his senior year at a high-end prep school without revealing his deepest secret: he’s gay. Growing up in a religious family, he knows all too well how risky it is to ‘out and proud’; he’s just trying to get through to college, where he can finally be himself. Throwing a wrench in his plans is Bryson Keller, the school’s ‘it boy’: star of the soccer team and all-around nice guy who has frustrated his school’s entire female population by refusing to date in high school. Finally someone dares him to prove he’s really not interested by dating someone new every week for three months – with a few rules. The first person to ask him out each Monday morning is dating him until Friday, when each relationship must end. Bryson has to say yes, nothing physical can happen, and it definitely has to end on Friday. One very rough Monday morning, Kai gets carried away by his frustrations and does the unthinkable: he asks Bryson out. And then Bryson does something even more surprising (for Kai): he says yes. He’s even willing to ‘date’ privately to keep Kai’s secret safe. Over the course of a soul-searching week, Kai and Bryson grow closer and realize that while it may have started out fake, neither one wants their relationship to end. But Kai’s in the closet for a reason – can fragile young love survive when it’s no longer a secret?

I was really impressed with this book. The whole plot happens within a week or two, but it doesn’t feel too rushed. The romance is sweet, but balanced with some sobering realities about homophobia and religion. The author also does a good job representing ethnic diversity and the struggles that come with it: Kai and his sister discuss the unpleasant attention they get as mixed-race kids, and Kai’s best friend Priyanka faces cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Perhaps most refreshingly, Bryson is a sweet and supportive ally from the start, truly caring about other people and standing up for the marginalized. Despite the heavy subject matter, the book’s tone remains hopeful (if cautiously so) as Kai’s stressful realities and strained relationships are coupled with the wholesome flush of first love and the warm support of his friends. If you like realistic fiction, fake-dating romances, or young adult books about standing up to the haters of the world, this book may be for you.

Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Have you ever unexpectedly read a book in a day? You sit down with it, figuring you’ll just start it, and before you know it, you’re done? That happens to me a lot, especially with fiction and graphic novels, so I wasn’t too surprised when I read Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu from cover to cover in an afternoon. If you need a quick and lighthearted read, then I can’t recommend this book enough.

Originally published in 2018, this upbeat story follows Eric Bittle, dubbed “Bitty” by his teammates, as he starts school at Samwell University as part of the men’s hockey team. He navigates a much more challenging atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, including hockey that includes violent physical ‘checking’, of which he is deathly afraid. Luckily, his teammates are true friends – utterly supportive, relentlessly funny, and deeply appreciative of Bitty’s skill as a baker. Over the course of his freshman and sophomore years at Samwell, Bitty finds his place on the team and forges a strong bond (and an equally strong crush) on team captain Jack. But what happens when Jack and the others graduate?

I found this book completely adorable, with an endearing art style and lovable characters. The immersion into Canadian hockey culture was fascinating, and I appreciated that Ukazu didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details, giving just enough information to keep you engaged. I also really liked that the story was told in the form of Bitty’s video blog entries; this was a clever narrative tactic that worked perfectly for the graphic novel medium. However, I wasn’t always satisfied with how the scenes were fleshed out: a lot of backstories and events had to be inferred from context or brief mentions, or understood only after multiple throwaway lines. Especially in the case of romantic storylines, I just wanted more. Luckily, there was a lot of additional material after the story – bonus comics and Bitty’s Twitter feed – which helped add some details and context.

If you’re a graphic novel lover, reluctant reader, hockey fan, or are looking for a fluffy read about friendship, falling in love, and LOTS of baking, this book may be for you.