Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Crown Books for Young Readers for the digital ARC of Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on August 10, 2021.
Like his earlier, brilliant The Serpent King (like this book, a five-star read for me!), Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light begins with a strong sense of place, set firmly in the Appalachian town of Sawyer, Tennessee. Cash Pruitt is sixteen and, above all else, loves his Mamaw and Papaw, who raised him after his mother’s death, and his best friend Delaney Doyle, a genius. Cash and Delaney were first drawn together as the children of addicts, and now each offers a safe place for the other.
Delaney has gained some moderate fame in the scientific community after discovering a mold that kills bacteria and that shows great promise for the healthcare industry. When she’s offered a full ride to a private boarding school, she’s desperate to escape her circumstances, but she doesn’t want to do so alone. So, she convinces the school to also provide a full scholarship for Cash.
Cash is torn between his friendship and his loyalty to his grandparents, particularly Papaw, who is dying slowly of emphysema. Ultimately, though, they convince him to grab this opportunity, and so he and Delaney move to Connecticut and become students at Middleford Academy.
Those are the bare outlines of the plot, but they don’t reveal what makes this book special.
First, Zentner is an absolutely beautiful writer, and the book is filled with gorgeous prose as Cash works through who he is and who he wants to be and how to stay true both to himself and to those whom he loves.
Beyond the writing are the characters. The tenderness between Cash and Papaw is one of my favorite things—they love each other so much, and that love is beautiful and heartbreaking and present on every page of the novel. Delaney is brilliant and strong and also fragile, someone who has survived abuse and neglect and is now ready to step into her full potential, but not alone. Watching the way the all support and challenge each other is a lovely, moving reading experience.
Cash is so smart and so sensitive, but he’s also a teenager, one who has left his family and his hometown to step into another world filled with rich people who’ve lived lives he can hardly imagine. He’s not naive, just inexperienced, and so he’s fully aware of the risks that he’s taking while also hoping to make those he loves proud.
I can’t recommend In the Wild Light enough. Just be sure to have a box of tissues by your side. This book earns every tear.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Macmillan for the digital ARC of Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, June 1.
I wasn’t very far in Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades when I started to realize that something really strange was happening with the characters. Some of the pieces of this YA novel are familiar from other books about the power of privilege and the difficulty of navigating systems of power as an outsider, but other parts are wholly original.
There’s a predominantly white private academy with a few key student honors for Senior Prefects. The narrative focuses on two students, the only Black students in their grade: Chiamaka Adebayo who has been forging a path to the top of her class, of the social scene, of every extracurricular, since she was a freshman; and Devon Richards who tries to stay as invisible as possible, banking on his talent as a musician to pave his way (and his family’s way) out of poverty.
On the first day of their senior year, they attend the opening assembly with a new headmaster and find out the prefects. It’s no surprise that Chiamaka is named Head Prefect, but everyone is shocked when Devon receives one of the other Prefect spots. This is not part of the plan, and this initial contrast between Chiamaka’s confident acceptance of what she sees herself as being owed and Devon’s complete shock was immediately compelling.
Chiamaka is surrounded by people, but they’re not really friends (at least mostly). Instead, she has a series of transactional relationships that help her to maintain her popularity—maybe her “popularity”—while doing the same for them. The one exception is Jamie, her absolute best friend . . . and the guy she’s had a crush on forever. Finally, she thinks it’s time for them to define their relationship differently. Devon, conversely, is a loner. He has one person, Jack, who has been his friend for a long time, but lately, that friendship seems to be based more in memory than in reality. Àbíké-Íyímídé develops these characters effectively as she shows how they are both so alone but in different ways.
Clearly, Chiamaka and Devon are complete opposites. The only things they have in common are their race AND that they each have secrets that could ruin all of their plans. So when someone who goes by the moniker Ace of Spades starts sharing those secrets with the entire student body, Chiamaka and Devon are drawn to each other for support and to work together to solve the mystery.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which earns its comps to Get Out. It took me a few chapters to be pulled in completely, but once the plot started unfurling, I couldn’t wait to pick up this book, which was just wild. Àbíké-Íyímídé writes the book in chapters that alternate between Chiamaka’s and Devon’s points of view, which amped up the suspense as I tried to piece together the real story behind the sabotage. The author addresses issues of race, sexuality, privilege, and class, all while developing two complex characters and a thrilling plot.
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Delacorte Press for the digital ARC of Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, June 1.
Since her first novel, Everything, Everything, which I devoured in one sitting, Nicola Yoon has been an auto-buy author for me. I was therefore thrilled to get an early peek at her upcoming release Instructions for Dancing, which met my (very) high expectations.
The book opens with Evie Thomas’s broken heart. Her parents’ marriage has ended, eradicating her idealistic view that some love is forever. She takes steps to remove all forms of her former foolishness from her life, including getting rid of all of the romance novels, which used to anchor her avid reading. She wants no reminders of the depths of her disappointment.
While she’s donating her books to a Little Free Library, she meets a mysterious woman who gives her a book called Instructions for Dancing. She returns home, feeling lighter without the romance books, but Evie soon discovers a strange new ability: she sees—randomly, it seems—the entire course of couples’ relationships, including their inevitable endings. While she doesn’t understand exactly what magic is happening, these endings of beautiful love stories, one right after another, reinforce her disbelief in love.
One of Evie’s best friends encourages her to do something to figure out what’s happening: he identifies the LFL lady as the source for Evie’s new power and advises her to go to the dance studio, La Brea Dance, where Instructions for Dancing originated. It’s there that Evie meets X, the grandson of the studio owners, and gets swept up in his grandparents’ efforts to save the studio through an amateur ballroom dancing competition. So, Evie and X are learning to dance—together—and getting to know one another.
Oh, I loved this book so much. Evie is just a fabulously layered character, one whose fears and fragility about love are understandable. X also knows loss, which has affected his own outlook on life and on risk taking in a different way from Evie. As they come to understand what has made the other feel the way they do, their closeness shapes the way they move forward together.
This book made me laugh, and it made me ugly cry; I love a dancing competition, so I was a sucker for watching Evie and X’s journey toward being a couple both on the dance floor and off. The secondary characters—Evie’s family, their ballroom dance teacher Maggie, Evie and X’s friends—are richly drawn, and the way they both support and challenge Evie and X is just brilliant. Instructions for Dancing moved Nicola Yoon even higher on my list of auto-buy authors.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, May 11.
Lara returns to high school after a summer break away in the Outer Banks to her dream-come-true: Chase Harding is noticing her. She’s had a crush on him forever, and though he’s always been friendly and kind (one of the qualities she most admires about Chase), he’s never really noticed her before.
She’s thrilled. Really. She and her three best friends giggle and scheme, reveling in one of their own getting her wish.
But then Jasmine walks into her school, and Lara is taken back to summer and to the friendship—and maybe more?—she had with Jasmine.
It’s a great, compelling setup, but nevertheless, I was a little bit worried that I wouldn’t love this one. I wasn’t sure I could empathize with Lara or dig into the love triangle. But Adler masterfully shifts back and forth, unveiling both the story of Lara and Jasmine’s summer AND the journey through Lara’s year at school when she tries to navigate what happens when your dream isn’t so dreamy anymore.
I thought these characters were compellingly flawed, and I genuinely liked the complexities of Lara’s friends, of Chase, and, of course, of Jasmine. Lara’s working through of her identity is all-too-believable, and I appreciated that Adler didn’t provide easy answers to who Lara should be. Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer is a strong, thoughtful YA romance that breaks the mold of anything I’ve read lately.
Thanks to partner NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Sophie Gonzales’s Perfect on Paper in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, March 9.
Darcy Phillips, the protagonist of Sophie Gonzales’s Perfect on Paper, is a more-mature-than-usual high school junior . . . but she’s still a teenager. She uses her need to stay late after school with her teacher mom as a way to manage her thriving advice letter business: people put their questions into Locker 89, Darcy does some research, and she emails her well-informed advice. Her business is top secret: only her sister, Ainsley, knows about it. And then, one day, Alexander Brougham, leaving swim practice, catches Darcy retrieving letters from the locker. It turns out that Brougham wants advice in resurrecting his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and he’s willing to blackmail Darcy into helping him.
In addition to Locker 89, Darcy has a lot going on: she has a long-term crush on her best friend, Brooke; she’s invested in keeping strong the Queer and Questioning Club that her trans sister Ainsley started; and now she not only has to answer the Locker 89 letters but also deal with Brougham’s issue so that she can keep her identity a secret.
Darcy has to navigate SO many issues in this book: she’s keeping secrets from almost everybody, has made decisions she regrets, and—when she starts to have feelings for a boy—worries about what it means for her bisexual identity. Her mom is incredibly busy, so Darcy doesn’t feel as if she can bother her with her problems, and Ainsley is supportive but also in college, so she’s a bit removed from the high school scene.
Gonzales incorporates all of these details into her narrative with grace, weaving them seamlessly into the narrative. Darcy is a great character—fun and funny and flawed, but also vulnerable. I love the way that the author also put Darcy’s relationships at the forefront of the story: her sibling relationship with Ainsley, her friendship with Brooke, as well as (of course) her romantic relationships.
Perfect on Paper is an excellent YA novel that balances romance with all of the other concerns teenagers have to deal with. Gonzales handles all of this while crafting a beautiful, moving, and quite funny story.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Gallery Books for the digital ARC of Marissa Meyer’s Instant Karma in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, November 3!
Marissa Meyer is an auto-buy author for me. I absolutely love her fairy-tale inspired Lunar Chronicles series and stand-alone novel Heartless, and her original take on superheroes in the Renegades trilogy is amazing. So, when I saw that she had a YA rom-com coming out, I instantly requested it.
Instant Karma is so much fun. It has a clever premise: sophomore Prudence Daniels has had a frustrating last day of school plagued by an unreliable partner and a low grade on their final project. So, she’s thrilled to go out with her twin brother Jude (yes, all five kids in Prudence’s family are named after songs by The Beatles) and her best friend Ari for a relaxed evening and some karaoke. After Prudence takes a bad fall and passes out, she wakes up with a strange new ability: she can make karma strike in the moment.
Prudence, who has a strong sense of responsibility and of right and wrong, has no patience for people who defy rules. So, if someone is putting gum under their table or not picking up their dog’s poop or just being unkind, Prudence is thrilled to have the ability to make sure that person suffers, just a little bit.
She can’t however, totally enjoy her new ability because she’s still trying to bring up that final grade. And, since her science teacher is (in Prudence’s eyes) totally unreasonable, he insists that teamwork is the one skill she most needs to learn. She’s still stuck, therefore, with unreliable partner Quint . . . who may not be quite the person she thought he was.
Meyer’s touch with magic is light here, but this book is a perfect addition to her catalog of YA books. I love the array of characters who round out Prudence’s life, and Prudence herself (while sometimes frustrating in her lack of self awareness) is a nuanced, thoughtful character. This book is perfect for anyone wanting a sweet, fast-paced read with an emphasis on first love . . . and lots and lots of Beatles references.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley and Disney-Hyperion for the digital ARC of Julie C. Dao’s Broken Wish in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, October 6, 2020.
Julie C. Dao’s Broken Wish is the first in a series of four YA novels spanning generations of a cursed family. (The authors are heavy hitters: Dhonielle Clayton, L. L. McKinney, and Jennifer Cervantes will round out the series.)
I requested this one because it has so many elements I love, including witches and magic and romance. The Grimms appear, and so do magic mirrors and wishing wells. It’s a beautiful tribute to folklore and fairy tales.
The book begins with a familiar story: a couple moves into a small cottage in 1840s Germany. The wife, Agnes, befriends a neighbor through baskets and gifts and written notes but hesitates to pursue the friendship because of rumors her husband Oskar has heard. Eventually, though, the two women meet and solidify their friendship, and the solitary woman, Mathilda, offers to help Agnes with her dearest wish, to have a child. She only asks in return that Agnes maintain their friendship.
Oskar, however, is opposed--he’s been an outcast before and wants to escape that fate. So Agnes lies to Mathilda and breaks her promise, despite the fact that Mathilda succeeds in helping her fiend. Agnes does indeed have a daughter. Agnes’s dishonesty and betrayal begins the curse.
The narrative picks up with the couple’s daughter, Elva, who has a strange magical ability and no knowledge of her parents’ history. Her parents have stayed true to their desperation not to be outcasts and have trained Elva to hide her magic from everyone, which she does . . . until she falls in love.
Broken Wish is a lovely novel, filled with all the magic a lover of fairy tales could want. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I think it’s perfect for YA readers (and some middle-graders!). I cannot wait to read the rest of the series.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Roshani Chokshi’s The Silvered Serpents in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.
***PROCEED WITH CAUTION: SPOILERS FROM BOOK ONE, THE GILDED WOLVES, APPEAR.
Roshani Chokshi’s The Silvered Serpents focuses again on the crew of Séverin as they come back together for another heist. After being driven apart by the loss of one of their own in book one, their trust has been fractured. Séverin is desperate to find The Divine Lyrics, a book that can make him a god, able both to protect his friends and to become impervious to being hurt by them or by their loss. Laila, too, wants to find the book--she believes it’s the only thing that can keep her alive. Enrique is desperate once again to prove himself: he has lost confidence since separating from his friends, unable to make his mark as an academic. And Zofia is ready to quit so she can be with her dying sister . . . until Séverin convinces her otherwise.
As in The Gilded Wolves, the strengths here for me are the diversity of the group, who each come from different races, different countries, different classes, and different religions. Their disparate talents and ways of thinking mean that they can each contribute a unique strength to the group--and, of course, their magical talents are different, as well. The world here is one of a series of magical houses, unified in asserting their own superiority but also in competing against each other for new treasures and wealth and prominence, and each of the protagonists wants (or needs) something from the ruling class who runs the houses.
There’s a cinematic quality to so many scenes within the novel--I love the different locations that Choskhi imagines so beautifully--and I like each of the characters and the personal challenges each is undergoing, as well. Shifting between the four points of view works well for me. I did wish for more from Séverin’s sections. I empathized with his grief, which has made it difficult for him to interact with his friends the way he used to, but I didn’t completely believe the personality change he underwent, and I wanted more from his chapters, which were my least favorite. I found Laila, Enrique, and Zofia each to be more believable and more nuanced.
Overall, Roshani Chokshi’s The Silvered Serpents is a compelling story, a worthy sequel to The Gilded Wolves.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Kristina Forest’s Now that I’ve Found You in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.
Evie Jones thinks she’s figured out her life. She has an amazing best friend; is launching her movie career with a much-praised director; has a sponsorship deal with a Black hair care company that she loves; and is following in the footsteps of her grandma, Gigi, the glamorous Evelyn Conaway, a Hollywood actress whose real life garnered her as much attention as her acting.
Then, Evie makes a mistake--a big mistake. She trusts the wrong person, and a viral social media post leaves her friendless and floundering. Only the hunger of the film industry--and the public--for an appearance by the reclusive Gigi gives Evie hope that she can save her dream.
Three months after Evie’s defeat, she’s in New York, banking on her grandmother to help her recover the potential that Evie had only begun to realize.
Kristina Forest’s YA novel Now that I’ve Found You is fast paced and engaging. I found Evie to be a flawed protagonist who earned my empathy from the beginning. At times, she acts in ways that are unappealing, but Forest makes sure that the reader always understands why she’s doing what she does: there are reasons that she has a hard time trusting people. Watching Evie’s coming of age arc, in which she’s trying to determine who she is, what she wants out of life, AND why she wants it, is compelling. I couldn’t put this book down until I knew what happened with Evie.
There’s romance here, too, with a young man named Milo who Gigi has befriended. Evie, counting on having Gigi all to herself, feels a lot of resentment toward Milo, but she’s also drawn to his passion for his art as she watches him try to move his band from hobby to career.
Forest uses multiple genres to weave in the story of Gigi’s lifelong love story with James Jenkins, her three-time-ex-husband, another actor. The parallels between Evelyn’s life and Evie’s story are beautiful, and the mystery of why Gigi ended her marriage with James and has refused to speak to him for 20 years is an intriguing thread woven through the book, another element that kept me reading. I love stories that feature Old Hollywood, and the beauty of Gigi and James’s first movie together being the first all-Black romantic film brings in a riveting touch of movie history.
Now that I’ve Found You is an excellent book for teenagers (and for adults!), one that balances the lightness of romance with the seriousness of determining one’s path in the world. I will absolutely be reading Forest’s debut, I Wanna Be Where You Are, and looking forward to her next book.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Adrienne Kisner’s Six Angry Girls in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.
Adrienne Kisner’s Six Angry Girls contains multitudes: mock trial and anatomical knitting (yes, that’s a thing) and high-school Drama and high-school drama and love and FEMINISM. This YA novel alternates between two high school seniors’ perspectives. Raina is a dedicated actor and president of the Drama Club until her long-time boyfriend, Brandon, breaks up with her in an incredibly callous way. The dissolution of their relationship makes her realize that she was in drama for all of the wrong, Brandon-centered reasons. Millie, the other protagonist, has been a part of the mock trial team since her freshman year and has earned some time in the spotlight. And then, a coup (led by Brandon!) means that she can’t be a part of the competition team anymore.
Cast adrift, Raina and Millie find each other and begin their own, all-girls, mock trial team. They bring along with them a diverse group of others who have been cast out of the mainstream for a variety of reasons, some superficial and some related to their very identity.
They are, of course, also dealing with other problems: Millie faces increased responsibilities because her mom divorced her dad, and now Millie has picked up entirely the role her mom played around the house. Raina had banked all of her hopes for college on drama; now that she’s not in a play, what does that mean for her super-planned future? She’s also still recovering from the loss of her relationship and, in search of somewhere else to devote her energy, joins a politically-focused knitting group.
I liked so much about this novel. Raina and Millie are strong young women who are also believably flawed. Each is trying to figure out who she wants to be: Raina is moving on from a romantic relationship, and Millie--who identifies as homosexual and asexual--is moving into one . . . maybe. There is an important message of activism here and of when (and in what situations) it’s important to stand up for what you believe, even if it means giving up something that meant a great deal. Early on, I did think the pace dragged--I was interested but not compelled to read. But as the book continued, I was captured by the journeys of these characters as individuals and as part of a team that they are determined to make work. Six Angry Girls would be a great novel for teens--it’s an inspiring story of being cast aside and fighting for what’s right and for what matters on their own terms.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.