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.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

A vital work of queer Latinx fiction, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is full of vibrant culture, real emotions, and the triumph of self-knowledge.

“This stunning debut novel from Thomas is detailed, heart-rending, and immensely romantic. I was bawling by the end of it, but not from sadness: I just felt so incredibly happy that this queer Latinx adventure will get to be read by other kids.” – Mark Oshiro, author of Anger is a Gift

The story centers on Yadriel, a trans boy from a family of brujx, a magical community that lives in a cemetery and takes care of the souls of the dead. Traditionally, brujas focus on healing and brujos help spirits cross over to the afterlife. Unfortunately for Yadriel, his family is very traditional and can’t really accept him as a boy and a brujo, although his magical abilities lie firmly in brujo territory, with no skill for healing. Since his mother passed away, Yadriel’s only sources of support has been his best friend Maritza, a vegan bruja, and his uncle Catriz, whose magic isn’t strong enough to use, and neither of them have been able to convince his father to give him his quinces coming-of-age ceremony, which would confirm his identity in the community as a full brujo. But Yadriel isn’t giving up – he performs the ritual himself, and tries to summon the spirit of his murdered cousin to prove he can release a spirit to the afterlife. Unfortunately, the summoning instead produces Yadriel’s classmate Julian, the resident bad boy who isn’t going into the afterlife without knowing exactly what happened and tying up his loose ends. Without many options, Yadriel agrees to help, only to find that the more time he spends with Julian, the less he wants him to leave. In the meantime, Yadriel and his family must still find out exactly how and why his cousin was murdered, all before Dia de los Muertos, Yadriel’s first chance to see his mother since her death.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and I appreciated the steady pacing that kept the plot moving and new revelations every few pages. The portrayal of the rich culture was fascinating and informative, and the characters and their relationships were realistic with emotional pathos. Moreover, the depiction of being trans in a conservative family was heart-wrenchingly real. I definitely think this is a groundbreaking work, and an excellent read for anyone who either identifies with or wants to build understanding for Latinx culture and/or trans identity.

ICYMI: 2021 Honorees from ALA’s Rainbow Round Table

Every year, the American Library Association (ALA)’s Rainbow Round Table (RRT) releases booklists which honor quality publishing on LGBTQ topics. The Rainbow Book List collects titles for children and teens, and the Over the Rainbow Book Lists (Fiction and Poetry, Nonfiction) collect titles for ages 18+. In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the three lists, released earlier this year.

Rainbow Book Listsee the full list here

The Every Body Book by Rachel E. Simon and Noah Grigni (juvenile non-fiction): an inclusive guide to bodies, gender, relationships, puberty, families, and more.

Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit by Lilliam Riviera (juvenile fiction): in the 1960s, a hotel detective in training investigates a missing swim cap during the filming of a movie at the hotel, with the help of many entertaining characters including her parents, a Hollywood megastar, the hotel’s official detective, and Goldie’s crush Diane.

Troublemaker for Justice by Jacqueline Houtman, Michael G. Long, and Walter Naegle (middle grade non-fiction): details the life of Bayard Rustin, a lesser-known figure in the civil rights movement whose work was repressed because of his sexual orientation.

Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass (middle grade fiction): a young figure skater sorts through gender identity while preparing for a big competition.

Queerfully and Wonderfully Made: A Guide for LGBTQ+ Christian Teens edited by Leigh Finke (YA non-fiction): a compassionate and informative guide to living an authentic and fulfilling LGBTQ life in Christian community.

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett (YA fiction): when her family plunges into sleeping sickness unexpectedly, Ekata finds herself thrust into the role of duke, marrying her brother’s warrior bride and struggling to wield her family’s magic and power.

Over the Rainbow Book List, Top 10 – see the full fiction and poetry list here and the non-fiction list here

Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America by R. Eric Thomas: a collection of biographical essays on being an outsider in many arenas of life.

Homie: Poems by Danez Smith: highlights the struggles of modern queer life and the ways they’re counterbalanced by the saving grace of friendship.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: an emotional novel about an African-American gay man coming to terms with his identity in the context of his university community.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri: a collection of stories highlighting the longing for home, representing a broad spectrum of characters and situations.

A History of my Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt: a memoir of coming-of-age in a First Nation community exploring memory, gender, shame, and more.

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels: the story of a man coming back to his hometown to live out the final days of his battle with AIDS.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir by Jenn Shapland: a chronicle of the author’s journey into the life and living spaces of noted author Carson McCullers.

What’s Your Pronoun: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron: a historical look at the evolution and usage of gender neutral personal pronouns, with recommendations for best and most sensible usage today.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: a story of queer women, historical and modern, and the eerie goings-on that threaten them all at an all-girls’ school.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen: a comprehensive look at the diverse world of asexual individuals and experiences, with insight into the ways asexuality can and should reform societal values around sex and relationships.

The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

Karen McManus has done it again; the author of best-selling One of Us is Lying has another addictive showstopper with The Cousins, released in 2020. This standalone book tells the saga of an estranged wealthy family and their dark secrets, through the eyes of the youngest generation. Cousins Jonah, Aubrey, and Milly don’t really know each other, and they’ve never met their wealthy and mysterious grandmother Mildred, because she disowned their parents long before they were born, for reasons unknown. Now, she’s invited the three teens to spend the summer living and working at her resort as a chance to get to know them better – or so she says. Their parents insist they go, eager for a chance to get back in their mother’s good graces. However, once they arrive, the cousins quickly discover nothing is as it seems, as their family’s many secrets start to come to light.

As before, McManus’ characters sparkle as realistic, well-rounded individuals, and the plot is mostly relatable, though shot through with drama and glamour. Aubrey is an athlete reeling from a family betrayal, Milly is chasing a glamorous life but struggling for her mother’s approval, and Jonah is angry about his plans for summer science camp being derailed…among other things. Despite their vastly different personalities, they forge a strong bond as they team up against the summer’s mysteries and dangers. What I really liked was the interspersed chapters set in 1996 and told from Milly’s mother Allison’s perspective; these chapters tell of the events leading up to the disowning of Mildred’s children, make Allison and her brothers real and relatable, and help the main plot build to its climax in an unexpected way. It’s unclear from the ending if a sequel will be forthcoming, but personally, I wouldn’t be opposed.

If you’re looking for a thoroughly modern YA mystery with an Agatha Christie vibe, or if you’ve loved McManus’ other mysteries, or both, I definitely recommend you try reading The Cousins.