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.

Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cori McCarthy

If you like the King Arthur legend, rebels against dictators, outer space adventures, or LGBTQ+ found families, you’ll probably like Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cori McCarthy, which reimagines King Arthur as a 17-year-old refugee girl, fighting a corporation’s stranglehold on the galaxy with the help of her brother, her maybe-girlfriend, their loyal friends, and a thousand-year-old backward-aging wizard.

Ari Helix has been on the run most of her life, ever since being forced to flee her home planet of Ketch. More recently, she and her adopted brother Kay have been trying to find a way to free their moms from a corporate prison planet, with no success. But then Ari meets Merlin – the actual Merlin of legend, who’s been aging backward for thousands of years as he tries to complete King Arthur’s story. Ari is the most recent reincarnation of the king, and it’s her destiny to wield Excalibur, defeat an ancient evil, and unite all humanity. Now-teenage Merlin sets out to train her for the coming battle, and tries to protect her from her smoldering passion for (who else) Queen Gwenivere. But their enemy, the Mercer Corporation, has a long reach and no mercy for rebellion…

This book has an absolutely breakneck pace and is extremely plot-driven – you never have to slog through angsty introspection or detailed scene descriptions, which makes for a breathtaking and addictive story where lots of things keep happening to hold your attention. But it can also feel a bit rushed, as in some places an event’s emotional consequences don’t feel fully explored because the plot’s too busy moving on. Luckily it’s also packed with humor and heart, keeping it light while engaging vital and heavy issues.

Queer inclusive and gender diverse, with strong chosen family bonds, the cast of characters will capture your heart and never let it go; alongside Ari’s romance with Gwen, Merlin himself finds a surprising attraction forming with Val, the Queen’s trusted adviser and brother of Ari’s old friend Lam, who uses they/them pronouns. It’s so refreshing to read a world where diversity and inclusion are the norm, with prejudice an unimaginable relic of long-forgotten systems.

Definitely check out this book if you like classic retellings with an inclusive, space-faring twist!

Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan

If you’ve ever wanted to read a classic book but can’t stand the long-winded scientific descriptions, there’s nothing like a modern retelling, preferably YA, to give it an inclusive and action-packed second life. In this case, middle-grade urban fantasy powerhouse Rick Riordan has written Daughter of the Deep as a skillful homage to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Welcome to Harding-Pencroft School, the science and technology high school that trains some of the world’s best scientists, diplomats, code-crackers, and naval warriors. It’s divided into four “houses” or focuses of study: House Dolphin, communication and cryptology experts; House Shark, warriors and leaders; House Cephalopod, engineers and innovators, and House Orca, experts in medicine, psychology, and memory. Ana Dakkar is a freshman in House Dolphin, about to undergo her end-of-year trials to determine if she has what it takes to continue her program. Harding-Pencroft is her only home after her parents died two years ago, leaving herself and her brother Dev, a House Shark senior, orphaned. Unfortunately, her trials do not go as planned as she and the rest of the freshman class witness a tragedy that plunges them all into a race for their lives – and for a once in a lifetime treasure. It turns out that they and their rival school, Land Institute, have been in a years-long cold war over the legacy of Captain Nemo (as made famous in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea) who, as it turns out, may not have been so fictional after all…

Rick Riordan fans will love his signature quirky, inclusive, tight-knit friend group that makes up the main cast of characters, and Star Trek fans will love their journey into the unknown under a tightly regimented chain of command. I loved how much of an homage it was to Jules Verne’s original, while at the same time adding a more modern perspective – including greater diversity and a more thoughtful engagement with mental health, trauma, and grief. In my opinion, Rick Riordan does a good job balancing exciting action and character development with a deeper message about the importance of science and oceanography.

If you like exciting adventures, undersea exploration, and compelling characters, or you still love Percy Jackson, you won’t want to miss this book.

The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

Genderqueer and genderfluid representation abound in this utopic LGBTQ read about the magical power of food to divide or unite people and communities, a book which doubles as a love letter to Austin’s LGBTQ scene.

In A.R. Capetta’s The Heartbreak Bakery, Syd (no pronouns, please, just Syd) is a baker finishing high school while working full time at The Proud Muffin, an invaluable community space/cafe. Syd also just got dumped, ending a relationship that had spanned both middle and high school. To cope, Syd does the only possible thing: baking. But when Syd’s Unexpected Brownies hit the cafe floor, something strange happens: every couple that has one breaks up. Messily and immediately. Including the owners of The Proud Muffin. Racked with guilt and fear of losing a great workplace and second home, Syd resolves to find the perfect recipe to fix each shattered relationship. And who better to help than Harley, friendly cafe delivery person – check the pronoun pin on Harley’s bag to find the day’s pronouns. As they chase down each customer and make magical bakes, Syd and Harley grow closer. But is new love and magical baking enough to save The Proud Muffin?

If you’ve seen my YouTube videos for the library, you know I am an unskilled but enthusiastic baker – so you won’t be surprised that I loved Syd’s detailed, helpful recipes that were included in the text. I also loved Syd’s determined, “I can fix this” attitude, and the descriptions of Syd’s “fashion recipes” as Syd tries to express a vague sense of gender through creative outfits. The book as a whole does a good job at showing the rich spectrum of gender and sexuality in a vibrant, hopeful queer community. There’s also some thoughtful examinations of how relationships grow, break and heal, and the bakes that accompany each feeling make the story a treat for all senses. Best of all, despite the serious topics it digs into, the tone of the book is gentle and kind, hopeful of the best outcomes for everyone.

If you like stories of new love, healing after heartbreak, learning lessons about growing up, and – most importantly – food, this is the book for you.

Five Total Strangers by Natalie Richards

A teen thriller that keeps ratcheting up the tension, in the midst of a blizzard Iowans will understand all too well, Five Total Strangers is a suspenseful tale of not-so-chance coincidences and danger that creeps in from every direction.

For Mira, nothing has ever been the same since her aunt died last Christmas – especially since she had to leave her grieving mom to go back to school across the country. Now, it’s Christmas again and Mira is desperate to get home and be there for her mom, but the weather isn’t cooperating. Her connecting flight was just grounded, so the only way to get home in time is to accept a ride from her charming seatmate and her friends. But once underway, Mira realizes that none of her fellow passengers know each other, and she just can’t shake the feeling that something sinister is going on – especially when their things start to go missing. And all the while, the roads just keep getting worse…

The genius of this book for me is the tug-of-war between logic and instinct, as Mira struggles between what her primal, gut-level feelings tell her about a situation and what her logical, civilized brain says. I thought this brilliantly captured what it’s like to be in a scary situation in today’s world, where we know the odds of danger and catastrophe are low…but never zero. The descriptions also vividly conjure up all the unpleasantness and otherworldliness of road travel, including car sickness, dingy rest areas, and dicey gas stations, all overlaid in this case with an unspecified menace, coupled with the frustrating uncertainty and powerlessness that comes with being young. Interspersed with the chapters are ambiguous handwritten notes which suggest nothing is as coincidental as it appears, and which help the tension build to a twist you probably won’t see coming.

Those who like thrilling, suspenseful mysteries, locked room mysteries (with a mobile twist), and vivid casts of characters (all hiding secrets) will want to try Five Total Strangers – if only to remind themselves why winter road trips are an absolutely terrible idea.

This book is also available on Overdrive.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

A light, quick read with small-town urban fantasy vibes, diverse representation, and a pacifist take on the good vs. evil struggle.

In Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, we meet Nova, a young witch who lives with her grandmothers in her hometown, working at their bookshop. She’s hard-of-hearing, skilled in magic, and passes the time with her non-magical, scientific best friend. But then she’s sent to check out a sighting of strange lights and a white wolf in the nearby woods. When she arrives she discovers the white wolf is not only real, but her long-lost childhood friend Tam. Non-binary Tam is on the run, from their family and from a sinister cult that has a nefarious use for werewolves in its quest to raise a demon. Nova and her grandmothers give Tam a safe place to stay, and much-needed allies against their mysterious enemies – and as time passes Nova and Tam’s friendship turns to romance. But the demon and the cult have to be dealt with, forcing both Nova and Tam to learn about trust and teamwork.

The wholesome atmosphere of this short graphic novel is a welcome respite, and the ultimate message of family and harmony with nature triumphing over darkness is a pleasing and hopeful read in 2021. Good interludes include scenes of Nova’s cultural heritage and her growth toward independence, alongside Tam’s healing from trauma and feeling at home with Nova’s family — and any scenes with Nova’s grandmothers. I appreciated reading a healthy, imperfect family dynamic, as well as casual representation of a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns.

Easily readable in one sitting, Mooncakes is recommended for lovers of magical realism, coming-of-age stories, and gentle reads.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

You might or might not remember, but I adore Karen McManus’ work, especially One of Us is Lying. I became interested in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson partly because it sounded similar in theme and character. If you like teen investigators or liked One of Us is Lying, you might like Jackson’s work too.

Here’s the story: Pippa has spent the last 5 years hearing about Andie Bell’s murder, and every time it’s the same story: her boyfriend Sal met her at night, killed her, hid her body, and within a few days was so overcome with guilt that he took his own life. But Pippa knew Sal, and she’s never quite believed it. When she gets a chance to do a senior capstone project on a topic of her choice, she jumps at the opportunity to investigate the case for herself, hoping to cast doubt on the official version. With help from Sal’s younger brother Ravi she digs into everything she can find, requesting records, interviewing Andie’s friends, and just generally turning over rocks that her suspects would rather she not look under. Slowly they put together a much darker picture of who Andie Bell was and why she died, and as anonymous threats arrive Pippa has to wonder if she’s taken on more risk than she can handle.

I liked this book a lot, for the skilled writing and the well-drawn characters; I rooted for Pippa, Ravi, and their friends and I mourned their losses along with them. I especially liked that Pippa had devoted friends, despite being the hardworking bookworm, and that she was compassionate as well as determined as she investigated such a sensitive topic. Jackson adds in realities of life, such racial prejudice, sexuality, blended families, and death. And, with no spoilers, the resolution was as unexpected as you’d want it to be after all that buildup. All in all, very effective, but at the same time it didn’t really compete with One of Us is Lying for my favorite YA mystery – mostly because Jackson stuck solely to one character’s perspective instead of alternating voices like McManus; as a writing style I prefer the breadth of viewpoints you get from an ensemble cast.

If you’re a mystery reader, a reader of young adult books, or a McManus fan like me, don’t miss out on A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, or its sequels Good Girl, Bad Blood and As Good as Dead, expected this fall.

The Remix: YA Retellings of Classic Novels

Chances are you’ve seen lists of “books everyone must read” or “books to read before you die”, or something similar. And it’s also pretty likely that you’ve tried to read some of these “essential” or “classic” books, only to find them dense and difficult. Books written in the 19th or 20th centuries often have a very different writing style than modern works, which makes it more challenging to get hooked and keep reading. My secret? I do my best to read the original, and then read a fantastic YA retelling. There are a lot of YA authors taking these iconic stories and making them accessible to modern readers so they get the story’s proper emotional effect. Here are two examples of what I mean.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is undoubtedly a classic. It has been referenced in plays, movies, and TV shows for years due to its universal themes of obsession, revenge, and their destructive effects. However, this book is also a classic example of a wordy 19th century writing style, and in my opinion Melville tells you way more about the technical aspects of whaling than you need to know. The point of this book for me is in Ahab’s obsession and its deadly effects for innocent bystanders like Ishmael and the rest of the crew. If you agree with me (or just don’t have time to wade through some five hundred pages) another way to experience this story is And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness. It retells the Moby-Dick story from the whale’s perspective: a pod of whales led by Captain Alexandra goes to war with the human Toby Wick, with devastating consequences for all concerned. It maintains the gravitas and the action of the original, but it makes some really effective changes. Among other things, it has beautiful illustrations and the perspective change really highlights the complicated ethical questions hinted at in the original. And it’s shorter, by a lot. Not an action-adventure reader? Not to worry, I have a romantic example too.

Jane Eyre is, to be fair, one of my favorite books even in its original form. The ordinary but strong-willed protagonist who determines her own fate and goes after what she wants is inspiring to me, and the writing style isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. However, for me the book spends the middle section of the book slogging through a fairly irrelevant subplot before returning to the main story, and I have some ethical concerns about Mr. Rochester – this is the main character’s fairly pushy love interest, who (spoiler alert) locks his mentally ill wife in the attic of his house and tries to marry the main character anyway. For these reasons I was delighted to discover Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne. It retells the Jane Eyre story with a few improvements – setting the action on a futuristic spaceship, keeping the story’s pace moving, and tweaking a few things to make the love interest less problematic.

These are just two examples of a great trend in YA literature – translating iconic historical works into modern terms so the story and its significance isn’t lost on present and future generations. There are plenty more I could highlight, including remixes of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, and lots of fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong, I love the new stories being written just as well, but there’s something special about rediscovering great stories (and their lessons) so many years later. More than that, I like looking at what gets changed, because it shows me how the world and its systems change over time to be more ethical, inclusive – or just more interesting!

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

As you might know by now, the things I love in books include: murder mysteries, retellings of iconic works, and ensemble casts. Recently I discovered that One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus ticks all three of those boxes! It’s a twist on the iconic movie The Breakfast Club, featuring a compelling murder mystery, and it features a dynamic and well-rounded set of characters. I devoured this book in a  a day or two, because it’s very compelling reading and I had to know whodunit.

The brain is Bronwyn: driven and Ivy League bound. The athlete is Cooper: a baseball player already being scouted by teams and colleges alike. The princess is Addy: the popular girl with the perfect boyfriend. The criminal is Nate: the drug dealer with a broken home and a bad reputation. These four find themselves in detention with Simon, who runs their school’s notorious gossip app and loves spilling everybody’s secrets. But before their punishment is over, Simon is dead and they’re facing a lot of tough questions. Their lives, and their secrets, will never be the same again.

One of my favorite things about this book was the character development. Rather than sticking to their typecast roles, these characters grow, change, and discover new things about themselves through the course of their ordeal. Nobody is quite who they appear to be, in both good and chilling ways throughout the story. It reminded me strongly of the new Jumanji movies in that a dangerous situation is brightened by unexpected friendships made along the way.

Even better – there’s a sequel! One Of Us Is Next is available now, and to my delight it doesn’t immediately put the same characters in danger, derailing all their personal growth and happy endings. Instead, secondary characters from the first novel (including Bronwyn’s hacker younger sister) step into center stage in the second, taking on a whole new mystery and a whole new set of secrets. If you like hopeful mysteries, teen books, great characters, or can’t get enough of The Breakfast Club, I recommend this author’s work whole-heartedly.