Updated: Oct 9, 2021
by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
This week's episode focuses on some YA Lit Recs, which made me think back on my reading over the course of 2021 so far. As I started making lists of my favorite YA reads, I noticed that I've actually read several books that are just perfect for Pride Month. If you're looking to do some intentional celebrating of Pride this month, here are some of my 2021 reads I'd definitely recommend. (For each one, I'm sharing the reviews I posted on IG.)
Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé's Ace of Spades (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
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 is available for purchase.⠀
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.
Dahlia Adler's Cool for the Summer (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books for the digital ARC of Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer in exchange for an honest review. The book is available for purchase.
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.
Becky Albertalli's Kate in Waiting (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
I'm so glad to have read Becky Albertalli's Kate in Waiting with @marychasewrites as part of the #totallyteenbuddyread. For me, this one lived up to each of Albertalli's other YA books (all of which I've loved!).⠀
This one is definitely about romance—as Albertalli's books are—but it's also about friendship and families and learning to define oneself. It's about cliques and bullying and the joys of belonging.⠀
Kate and Anderson are best friends from way back. They are always together: they both love theater, they share an extended friend group, and they always have crushes on the same guys. Somehow, that works for them because neither is anywhere close to actually getting a boyfriend. Well, it works until Matt.
Matt is their joint crush at a summer program who they're (mostly) content to pine over and then leave behind in longing with the change in seasons. But then Matt transfers to their school, and suddenly, they're not as content to crush on the same boy. Each feels closer to Matt at different times for different reasons (one has a class with him that the other doesn't; one gets paired up with him in the musical), and Kate and Anderson start noticing that this crush doesn't so much feel like something they're doing together.⠀
I don't always like Kate and Anderson, but I do like that Albertalli makes them imperfect and real. Our perspective here is Kate's, and she's generally a good kid, but she does make some decisions that are not great, and she makes some unfair judgments about people because of who their friends are without considering the people as individuals. All of this felt (to me) like things we do as real people, and I think Albertalli does a great job helping the reader to understand these characters even if we don't always agree or approve of what they do. We watch them grow and come to understand themselves and each other better.⠀
I could go on, but I'll leave the plot there. I'll just say again that I loved this book, and I loved our discussion about the book, and I'm now resolved to go back and finish Albertalli's backlist (I think I only have a book or two left).
Sophie Gonzales's Perfect on Paper (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Wednesday Books RC of Sophie Gonzales’s Perfect on Paper in exchange for an honest review. The book is available for purchase.
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.
Adib Khorram's Darius the Great Deserves Better (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
Adib Khorram's Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Amazon | Bookshop.org) was one of my top reads of 2019, so I was thrilled when we chose it as a Book Club pick for the podcast (Be sure to check out episode 159!). I read it again and loved it just as much (maybe more?) the second time through. When I learned that Khorram was releasing a sequel, I was—as I always am when sequels to things I love are announced—both incredibly excited AND incredibly nervous. Can the magic of the first thing happen again? In this case, yes . . . and no.⠀
First, let me just say that Darius the Great Deserves Better is AMAZING, and I loved it just as much (I think?) as I loved book one. But it's really, REALLY different from the first book as well. Darius the Great Is Not Okay is all about the ways that Darius finds himself, figures out who he is as a son and a friend and a grandson and a brother, when his family visits his grandparents in Iran.
This book is really focused on how Darius is going to continue that journey . . . and that continuation is really important. Most of us are constantly in the process of figuring out who we are: it's not like there's an end date when we know who we are and then never have to think about it again. And that's what we see with Darius. This is a while after his family's return from Iran, and Darius has come out and now has a boyfriend. He's working in a tea shop (his dream!). He's on the soccer team—something that was only possible after the confidence boost of his friend Sohrab, who he met on his trip. He's still in touch with Sohrab, he's more connected with his grandparents, and his relationship with his dad has continued to grow.⠀
Darius the Great Deserves Better picks up the focus on bullying that we see in the first book, but we also see Darius beginning to understand more how to deal with such mistreatment. His friendship with Sohrab helped him to understand how to make *new* friends, and that affects him, too. This is just a beautiful novel that doesn't repeat the magic of Darius the Great Is Not Okay but instead finds a new and different kind of magic. Do yourself a favor and read both of these books.
Darcie Little Badger's Elatsoe (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
5 Things about Darcie Little Badger's Elatsoe:⠀
1. Magic here is just a part of the world. From page one when we meet Elatsoe's dog Kirby, whose spirit she resurrected after his death, Ellie's world is both grounded in reality and anchored in magic and myth. The stories of Ellie's ancestors, the legends who live next door (like vampires and witches and spiritual leeches), and the hope and menace of Ellie's connection with the spirit world are all around her.⠀
2. One of my favorite things is the way that Ellie's parents' stories about her ancestors become the cautionary tales that so many parents of teenagers share. (My dad was famous for this, for sharing stories about what happened when a teenager in a neighboring town tried to fit too many people in her car or tried to drive when it had just started raining.) For Ellie, these stories more often center on what happened when her six-greats-grandmother had to fight a monster, but the feeling is the same.⠀
3. Ellie is asexual, a part of her identity that is included matter of factly into the narrative with no fanfare. Relationships and people here are diverse, and it's all presented just a part of who people are, whether that's the fiance of a vampire, in a love affair with someone dead, or gay.⠀
4. The book deals beautifully with grief. One plot is Ellie trying to accept and move past the death of her cousin while also trying to investigate what happened (on the night of his death, he speaks to Ellie, so she knows that something out of the ordinary occurred). Ellie knows that death, for humans, should be final—she can't bring him back the way she did Kirby—but every part of her yearns to resurrect the spirit of this person she loved.⠀
5. Ellie's friendship with Jay is one of my favorite parts of the book: it's supportive and and kind and generous, and they are so fun to watch with each other as they work to help the other with the difficulties they're facing.⠀
Oh, and one more: this is going to be on of our Book Club picks in the fall!
Malinda Lo's Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
I admire so much authors who excel in different genres—they're just plain good writers. With Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Malinda Lo confirmed for me that she is an amazing writer. (I mean, I already knew, but this book is FANTASTIC.)⠀
Previously, I'd read Lo's fantasy retelling of Cinderella, Ash (Amazon | Bookshop.org), and her sci fi novel Adaptation (Amazon | Bookshop.org). Last Night at the Telegraph Club is historical fiction, set in 1950s Chinatown. For most of the novel, we're following Lily Hu, a seventeen-year-old girl who feels as if her life doesn't quite fit. She has friends, and she has a family she loves, but she also doesn't feel as if anyone truly knows her. She is, however, beginning to understand herself more, but in secret. At school, Lily begins to become closer with an acquaintance, Kathleen Miller, and together, they take a big step and go together to the Telegraph Club, a lesbian bar in a part of town Lily isn't supposed to enter. It's there that Lily finally feels as if people truly know her and that she may, at last, know herself, too.⠀
The novel addresses the ways that Lily's other relationships change as a result of her decisions. Periodically, the book flashes back to other characters' stories: when her parents first met or when they realize that they won't be moving to China, as planned. Lo includes a historical timeline that also features important events in Lily's family's lives. Because of her family's country of origin, they come under suspicion at one point as Communists, another type of prejudice with which Lily must contend.⠀
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is an amazing YA work of historical fiction, a beautiful coming of age story with a compelling, nuanced protagonist and vivid supporting characters. It absolutely swept me away.⠀
This is a perfect read for the #unabridgedpodreadingchallenge!
Aiden Thomas's Cemetery Boys (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
Aiden Thomas's Cemetery Boys was my first five-star read of the year. Wow. I had read some great reviews but had NO idea how much I would love this book.⠀
Yadriel's family is part of a Latinx community of brujas and brujos who destiny is drive by gender: brujas have one role to play and brujos another. Yadriel, a trans boy, yearns to join the line of brujos but faces misunderstandings and a lack of acceptance from those in charge.⠀
Yadriel and his cousin and best friend Maritza conspire to perform the ritual that will allow Yadriel to step into his role: he hopes that once his family sees that he was blessed as a brujo by the goddess of death, they'll accept the truth about who he is. After the secret ceremony, in an attempt to help the brujos with their investigation of a mysterious disappearance, Yadriel accidentally summons the spirit of Julian Diaz, a troublemaker at his school. Now, he and Maritza have to help Julian accept his death so they can free his spirit; they're still trying to help with the investigation; and they have to continue to keep Yadriel's secret until the best time to reveal what happened.⠀
These characters are so vivid, and Thomas provides a sense that this magical world really could exist alongside our own. He beautifully describes the traditions of Yadriel's family, and he shows the love Yadriel has for his dad, his brother, and his deceased mother (the only one who truly understood him. I felt powerfully the way he yearns for this family's acceptance and, beyond that, their approval. ⠀
This is one of those books that's tough to describe because its magic goes beyond a list of characters or a description of what happens. The things that make it beautiful lie in the storytelling and the vivid sense of Yadriel's character. (This would also make a great pairing with Molly Ostertag's The Witch Boy trilogy, a graphic novel series aimed at a younger audience. It also focuses on a community in which people's destiny is controlled by gender—boys are shapeshifters, and girls are witches—until one boy changes things.)
(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)
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