The Words We Keep: A Review

The Words We Keep by Erin StewartThree months after the Night on the Bathroom Floor, high school junior Lily Larkin feels like her life is falling apart. Because it is.

On the Night on the Bathroom Floor Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Alice hasn’t been home since. And Lily has been struggling to fill all of the Alice-shaped gaps she left behind.

If Lily can do enough at home, get good enough grades at school, make it to State in track, get into UC Berkeley, and keep doing everything right it will all be okay. Her family needs a win and all Lily has to do is keep winning.

Except Lily feels like she’s starting to lose it. She’s uninspired, overwhelmed, and struggling to hide all of it from her family and her friends.

When she’s partnered with a new student who knows all about the Night on the Bathroom Floor, Lily is worried Micah Mendez will reveal all of her family’s secrets. Instead, he might be the one person who can help Lily find her way back to herself in The Words We Keep (2022) by Erin Stewart.

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Lily and her family (and most secondary characters) are presumed white. Micah is Mexican American.

The Words We Keep is Stewart’s second novel and I wish I could recommend but I can’t. Read on for a discussion of some of the issues I had with this book including spoilers:

Continue reading The Words We Keep: A Review

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly JacksonEveryone in Fairview, Connecticut knows the story of Andie Bell–the pretty, popular high school senior who was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, before he killed himself as the evidence against him mounted.

Five years later, the town is still haunted by the tragic deaths and the mystery that still surrounds the case.

Pippa Fitz-Amobi remembers Sal Singh and has never believed he could be capable of murder. Now a high school senior, Pip plans to prove it by investigating the Bell case herself for her senior project.

With access to case files, Andie’s best friends, and Sal’s younger brother Ravi, Pip has all of the pieces she needs to solve this puzzle. But as she gets closer to the truth, Pip realizes that some people don’t want the truth to be uncovered. And they’ll do whatever is necessary to stop Pip from solving this case in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (2020) by Holly Jackson.

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A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is Jackson’s first novel. It’s worth noting that the novel was originally published (and set) in the UK before being moved to Connecticut for the American editions although the story and characters still feel very British. Pip is white (her step-father is Nigerian and her younger brother is biracial), Sal and his family are Indian.

With suspect and witness interviews, case ephemera, and Pip’s engaging project logs between chapters, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is fast-paced and leaves plenty of room for readers to solve the case alongside Pip (possibly even before Pip depending on their own familiarity with mystery tropes).

Jackson subtly amps up the tension as Pip gets closer to the truth and realizes that there might be bigger consequences (and dangers) to her investigation that passing or failing her senior project. While Pip makes some bad decisions inherent to amateur investigators (always bring back up!), the story is engaging enough that Pip’s false starts are barely noticeable as the full scope of the case begins to unfold.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is a fine addition to any YA mystery collection. Fans of true crime podcasts in the vein of Serial will be well served by the audio production which features a full cast recording with Bailey Carr acting as Pip.

Possible Pairings: Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, You’ll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, Sadie by Courtney Summers

Admission: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“An important part of growing up is letting yourself see the world as it truly is, even if you don’t like what you see or your own complicity in it.”

Admission by Julie BuxbaumChloe Wynn Berringer has always known she’d have a bright future. It’s one of the perks of being Chloe Wynn Berringer.

She’s been accepted to her dream college. She’s going to prom with the boy she’s had a crush on since middle school. She has the perfect best friend, Shola. Even her mom, a longtime B-list celebrity might be getting a long overdue comeback.

Then the FBI knocks on her front door with guns drawn and Chloe realizes that her carefully curated world isn’t as picture-perfect as she thought.

Now Chloe’s mom is under arrest as part of a huge college admissions bribery scandal. One that Chloe didn’t know about even if it apparently helped guarantee her college spot.

Facing possible charges herself, abandoned by her best friend and her boyfriend, Chloe is the face of a crime she barely understands. Chloe knew that her parents were being weird about her college application process. Of course she did. but does that means she knew what they were doing? Does it mean that she needed them to cheat for her? Or that she wanted them to do it?

After years of taking so much for granted, Chloe isn’t sure who she’ll be when all of the easy pieces of her life are stripped away but she’s going to find out. Whether she wants to or not in Admission (2020) by Julie Buxbaum.

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If the plot of Buxbaum’s latest standalone contemporary sounds familiar, that’s because it’s inspired by the actual college admissions scandal involving real life celebrities including Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and William H. Macy among others that broke in 2019. The story alternates between Chloe’s present–starting with her mom’s arrest–and flashbacks to the year leading up to the explosive fallout from the scandal. Chloe and her family are white and the story is set in the same world as Buxbaum’s other contemporary YAs.

Throughout Admission Chloe explores both her complicity in the events as well as the embarrassment she carries that her parents felt they needed to go to such lengths to get her into college. As Chloe learns, there are no easy answers–particularly once she begins to understand the harm her parents’ actions (and her own inaction) can have for students unable to bribe their way into a school. This aspect of privilege is carefully explored through the deterioration of Chloe’s relationship with Shola–her Black best friend waiting for scholarship and financial aid results before choosing a school. (Shola is waitlisted at the school where Chloe is “accepted” thanks to her bogus application.)

Admission delves beyond the salacious details and, often, absurdity of the actual college admissions scandal to offer a story with more nuance and complexity as the scandal is explored from the inside out. By the end of the novel, Chloe’s easy life is torn apart but it leaves room for something to grow in even stronger as she learns more about what it means to stand on her own merit for the first time.

Possible Pairings: Off the Record by Camryn Garrett, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe

A Lesson in Vengeance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Regret always comes too late.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria LeeAfter a year away, Felicity Morrow hopes to keep a low profile at Dalloway School while she completes her senior year. Then she’ll never have to think about the prestigious boarding school or what transpired there ever again.

Being back at Godwin House feels wrong for so many reasons but especially because her girlfriend Alex is dead and won’t ever return.

Still grieving, still haunted, Felicity doesn’t know what to expect from her new housemates, especially the enigmatic Ellis Haley. Everyone knows Ellis. Everyone has read her prodigious debut novel while eagerly awaiting her sophomore effort. As much as Felicity is drawn to Ellis–as much as everyone is drawn to Ellis–Felicity balks at the cult of personality the writer has erected around herself.

Ellis is drawn to Dalloway, and particularly to Godwin House, because of its bloody history. Like Felicity herself, she’s fascinated by the story of the Dalloway Five–the five students who all died under mysterious circumstances with accusations of witchcraft hanging over them.

Everyone knows magic isn’t real. After what happened last year, Felicity needs magic to not be real. But as Ellis draws her back to the school’s dangerous not-so-hidden, arcane history Felicity will have to decide if she has the strength to face the darkness festering at Dalloway and in herself in A Lesson in Vengeance (2021) by Victoria Lee.

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A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone novel. Felicity and Ellis are white with secondary characters adding more diversity and brief conversations of the history of segregation and exclusion inherent to elite boarding schools like Dalloway.

This novel is an ode to all things dark academia with vivid descriptions of Dalloway’s ivy-covered glory, brittle winters, and its gory past. Lee also carefully subverts the genre using both Felicity and Ellis’ queer identities to inform the story. Pitch perfect pacing and careful plot management further help this story pack a punch.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a clever, suspenseful story filled filled. Come for the satisfying mystery and evocative setting, stay for the moral ambiguity and plot twists.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Night Migrations” by Louise Glück, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Malleus Maleficarum, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, “The Shroud” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dear Life by Alice Munro, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

You’ll Be the Death of Me: A Review

You'll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManusIvy Sterling-Shepard, Cal O’Shea-Wallace, and Mateo Wojcik were inseparable in middle school after cementing their friendship on the Best Day Ever when they skipped out on a class field trip in Boston to have an adventure of their own. Now in their senior year of high school they barely speak; they all have bigger things to worry about.

Ivy has always been an overachiever. How else can she prove that she can keep up with her legit genius younger brother? How else can she recover from the fallout after his latest, brutal joke? Unfortunately, instead of pulling out a stunning victory at the student council election, Ivy loses. To the class clown. “Boney” Mahoney.

Mateo is too exhausted to worry about what’s going on with his former friends. His family’s business just failed. He’s working two jobs to help out plus school. His mother is rationing her meds for her rheumatoid arthritis because the co-pay is so high. And his cousin Autumn is . . . not making good choices as she tries to help the family struggle along as best she can.

Cal is in love. But he’s also lonely. He has been for a while, if he’s being honest. And being stood up again doesn’t help that at all.

When all three of them arrive at the school parking lot at the same time, late, it feels like a second chance. Maybe they can skip class and recapture whatever it is they lost along the way.

The trio’s attempt to recreate the magic of the Best Day Ever quickly becomes the Worst Day Ever when they follow another classmate to a mysterious meeting. And witness his murder.

Worse, Ivy is soon the prime suspect. Mateo has a dangerous connection to their dead classmate. And Cal is hiding something from everyone–something that could have deadly consequences.

All of them have their own motives for staying together and figuring out what happened. Now they have to figure out if they also have their own motives for murder in You’ll Be the Death of Me (2021) by Karen M. McManus.

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You’ll Be the Death of Me is a perfectly paced mystery set primarily over the course of one frantic day. Chapters alternate between the three main characters Ivy who is white, Cal who is white and has two dads, and Mateo who is Puerto Rican and Polish. Mateo’s cousin Autumn was orphaned as a child and lives with Mateo and his mother. Interludes from other characters add dimension to the story by providing different viewpoints this is otherwise closely focused story.

McManus packs a lot into this story as all three characters are hiding things from each other. These secrets are expertly teased out as the novel progresses and builds to its jaw dropping conclusion. None of the protagonists here are perfect–bad choices are made by all throughout the novel. Both their growth and the novel’s intense readability are testaments to McManus’ considerable talents as an author.

You’ll Be the Death of Me is an utterly engrossing page turner filled with unexpected twists, humor, and unexpectedly compelling friendships (and even some romance). Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Sunkissed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sunkissed by Kasie WestAvery’s expectations for her summer vacation are low. Her college professor parents always make summer vacations an event but now, the summer before her senior year, Avery’s parents are more determined than ever to have a summer full of family bonding. Unfortunately that means a summer at a hokey family camp. Without WiFi.

While Avery mourns her now inaccessible playlists, she relishes the chance to completely unplug and avoid her best friend–the one who betrayed her right before they left. Watching her younger, extroverted sister struggle without access to all of her social media accounts is an added bonus.

The summer starts to look up when Avery meets Brooks–the aloof frontman for the camp’s band. Who tells Avery that all of the camp’s guests are hopeless snobs before he realizes she is, in fact, one of those guests.

Despite a disastrous first meeting, circumstances keep bringing Avery and Brooks together while giving Avery a chance to step out of her comfort zone. After years of curating the perfect playlist for every occasion, this summer could be Avery’s chance to write her own song–and sing it center stage in Sunkissed (2021) by Kasie West.

Find it on Bookshop.

If the plot of West’s latest standalone contemporary sounds a lot like the film Dirty Dancing, that’s because it is. Sunkissed offers an aged down, somewhat sanitized version of the film where the main characters connect while preparing for a battle of the bands contest instead of a dancing showcase. The family camp here feels a bit less plausible and is, notably, not a destination for Jewish families as was the case in the film.

Avery’s first person narration is breezy and immediately draws readers into her story. She is also an extremely introverted and conflict averse character, making it painfully clear to readers early on that her problems could largely be resolved with some honest conversations–all of which Avery avoids for most of the book.

West brings her ususal skill to writing swoony banter and characters with chemistry even if, at times, the story seems to be shoehorned into the Dirty Dancing style plot. Where this story really shines is in watching Avery and Brooks connect as they ultimately push each other to strive for their goals–things neither was willing to fight for until their fateful meeting.

Sunkissed is a summery romance filled with characters who love music and are learning to dream big.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous by Suzanne Park, Love Songs and Lies by Jessica Pennington, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker, Dirty Dancing

*An advance eARC of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Cousins: A Review

The Cousins by Karen M. McManusThe Story family always lived by one simple rule: family first, always.

That was before the family matriarch mysteriously disinherited and banished all of her children from the family estate on Gull Cove Island with nothing but a letter saying, “You know what you did.” Now cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah barely know each other. They’ve never met their infamous grandmother.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar with the Story family reputation: glamorous, mysterious, and just a little bit tragic. It doesn’t mean they aren’t just a little bit curious when their grandmother reaches out inviting the cousins to work at a local resort for the summer and reconnect. They soon realize the letters they received are a far cry from the real grandmother they find when they arrive on the island.

Everyone in the Story family has secrets but there’s something seductive about family secrets and the way they can become a part of you until exposing them feels just like losing part of yourself. After a lifetime of secrets surrounding their family history, Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah will have to uncover the truth to help their entire family move on in The Cousins (2020) by Karen M. McManus.

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The Cousins is a standalone mystery. Chapters alternate between Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah’s first person narrations. Third person chapters interspersed throughout the story from Milly’s mother, Allison, in 1996 show the events leading up to the disinheritance. With the exception of Milly who is half-Japanese, the Story family is white. A few secondary characters are BIPOC and play small but key roles in the story.

McManus packs a lot into this slim, fast-paced novel as the cousins begin to collaborate to start putting together the pieces of their family’s troubled past. Aubrey, a guileless narrator eager to connect with her estranged family, is a fun contrast to calculating Jonah and shrewd Milly who have more complicated reasons for coming to the island.

The Cousins balances its multiple timelines and plot threads shifting viewpoints so the right character is able to present the right information to readers for maximum impact. Tightly controlled narratives and excellent plot management leave just enough breadcrumbs for readers to try to make sense of the Story family’s secrets along with the protagonists.

The Cousins is an utterly engrossing mystery filled with suspense, complex family dynamics, and three narrators that are as multifaceted as the mystery they’re trying to solve.

Possible Pairings: The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, Knives Out

Gravemaidens: A Review

Gravemaidens by Kelly CoonKammani dreams of becoming an accomplished healer–the position her father held before he failed to heal the lugal’s son and his family was cast down from the privileged class as punishment.

While her father drowns the shame of his disgrace and grief over his wife’s recent death with drink, Kammani manages the day to day work of treating patients. Her hopes of securing a better life for herself and her sister Nanaea are shattered when Nanaea is chosen for the dubious honor of becoming one of three sacred maidens who will accompany the ailing lugal into death.

While her sister only sees the opportunity to live briefly in luxury, Kammani knows becoming a sacred maiden is a death sentence. Determined to save her sister at any cost, Kammani embarks on a dangerous mission to sneak into the palace and try to heal the lugal before it’s too late in Gravemaidens (2019) by Kelly Coon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gravemaidens is Coon’s debut novel. It is the first book in a fantasy duology set in a non-western world with piecemeal nods to ancient Sumer, Rome, and possibly Egypt with human sacrifice and a powerful god known as the Boatman.

Clunky prose and world building that falls short in terms of explanations about the ritual of the sacred maidens or other cultural norms drag down this otherwise interesting premise. Anachronistic phrases and over-the-top similes further detract from the novel’s potential. Kammani’s first person narration is filled with strangely sexualized descriptions of other female characters, including her own younger sister, with numerous mentions of full and shiny hair, straight teeth, and “womanly curves.” Throughout the novel this sexualization is equated with the preternatural beauty that distinguishes each sacred maiden.

Secondary characters who stay true to stereotype for most of the novel gain more depth near the end suggesting fans may find more to appreciate in book two.

Gravemaidens is a problematic but intriguing story. Make of that what you will.

Popular Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

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The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Sherwood by Meagan Spooner, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

Field Notes on Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Look, this is what I do. I tell stories. And stories are magic. Trust me on this.”

cover art for Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. SmithHugo is used to being a minor celebrity in England–that’s what happens when you’re a sextuplet. He’s used to being grouped with his siblings at home, at school, and even in posts on their mom’s parenting blog. He’s used to having a girlfriend and he’s dreading what happens when he starts college with all of his siblings next year.

But then his girlfriend dumps him and suddenly a lot of the givens in Hugo’s life are up in the air. Like the trip he and his now ex-girlfriend were going to take across the United States after graduation. Hugo still wants to go, is actually looking forward to the chance to travel alone if he’s being honest, but there’s one problem: the tickets are all booked under the name of his ex, Margaret Campbell. Nontransferable. No exceptions.

Margaret “Mae” Campbell has just been rejected from her dream film program. Her dads assure her that her application film was perfect. And Mae can always apply again as a transfer student. But with her life in small town New York already feeling so tiny, she’s ready to shake things up. Enter Hugo’s post online looking for a Margaret Campbell to take his spare ticket in exchange for making this trip happen.

Traveling together is meant to be a simple business arrangement. But how can Hugo help but be drawn in when Mae starts recording footage for a film about love? And how can Mae not want to help Hugo figure out how to follow his own dreams when she finds out how much he wants to learn who he is away from his brothers and sisters?

Sometimes you only get one chance to get what you want. As they near the end of their trip, Hugo and Mae have to decide how much they’re willing to put on the line for their dreams–and each other in Field Notes on Love (2019) by Jennifer E. Smith.

Find it on Bookshop.

Set over the course of their whirlwind trip, Field Notes on Love alternates closer third person chapters following Hugo and Mae. Smith populates this story with a distinct and memorable cast of characters including Hugo’s large, boisterous family as well as Mae’s dads and her grandmother.

Hugo and Mae are excellent foils as they push each other to chase their dreams even if it means going outside of their comfort zones. Mae’s practical, savvy personality is a perfect contrast to Hugo who is more of a dreamer and still figuring out what he wants from life. Although both characters have very different visions for their future, Smith presents each course thoughtfully and honestly.

Field Notes on Love captures the strange intimacy of being forced into a small space with a person you don’t know and uses that starting point to build a fully realized love story that is effervescent and sweet. Field Notes on Love is the perfect story for anyone who’s ever wanted to take a vacation from their life, ever dreamed of making a big change, and anyone who has ever wanted that intangible something more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Dramatically Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon