Adam Selzer brings life (and undeath) to the suburban Midwest with his young adult books set in Cornersville Trace, a fictitious neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, where the fantastic is not quite impossible. Selzer’s latest novel Play Me Backwards is a story of reinvention through satanic machination, only in the Trace, Satan isn’t a horned demon; he’s a teenage burnout.
Before his girlfriend moved to England, Leon enjoyed his life as a quasi-intellectual, roguish guy wrapped in adolescent love. Four bleak years later, Leon is realizing he has come unraveled. His grades are so bad that he might not graduate, his girlfriend Paige is only with him because she hates being alone and his job at the Ice Cave sucks because the place is a den of teenage lechery and nobody should ever buy ice cream there. At least he gets to work with his lifelong best friend and fellow underachiever Stan, who it turns out might actually be Satan. His folks just dropped the first “A” so he could go to private school.
Stan gives Leon some otherworldly advice as a pick-me-up: Listen to Moby-Dick on audiobook, seek out an elusive flavor of frozen slushee called “White Grape” and do whatever else the Dark Lord may require. Leon and Paige spend their free time driving from convenience store to gas station buying frozen drinks and changing CDs, which turns out to be pretty fun. Stan’s infernal intervention gives Leon hope that he could shape up and make something of himself, but doing so means leaving the teenage debauchery, Satan-worshipping and his former self behind.
Shamelessly allegorical and unabashedly funny, Play Me Backwards is great for readers who enjoy young adult fiction or alternative culture. Leon also appears in Selzer’s 2007 debut novel How to Get Suspended and Influence People.
"Distinctive" is the word I would use to describe Scott Westerfeld’s previous books, and his latest young adult novel Afterworlds is no different. With alternating chapters and the combination of two genres, Afterworlds is a unique work of fiction.
As the book opens, Darcy has graduated high school and deferred college to pursue a writing career in New York. She has sold her debut novel and signs a book deal for $300,000. As an 18-year-old girl in New York City, Darcy is exploring what it means to be an independent adult, discovering her own sexuality and learning the art of book publishing.
In the alternate chapters, we see how Darcy’s life affects her writing. Lizzie, Darcy’s protagonist, is caught in a terrorist attack. The trauma forces her into the Afterworld – the place where people go when they die. While there, she meets a captivating young man who helps her evade the terrorists and return from the Afterworld unharmed. It’s after this traumatizing event that Lizzie finds she is able to walk in two worlds and is blessed and cursed with a macabre gift that she can’t just give back.
Half of this book is realistic fiction and coming of age story about an emerging writer. The other half is a paranormal romance. At times Afterworlds is similar to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; other times it can be likened to Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. This is a peculiar combination that mixes surprisingly well.
Katherine Howe’s first teen novel Conversion follows in the footsteps of her adult novels, as it deals with the paranormal, with witches and witchcraft. Conversion switches perspectives—from modern day St. Joan’s Academy, an elite, all-girls private school, to 17th century Salem Village—as Howe tells the story of two girls, Colleen Rowley and Ann Putnam Jr., who are linked despite growing up centuries apart.
The majority of the story is Colleen’s, a high school senior whose greatest desire in life is to be class valedictorian and attend Harvard. When Colleen returns to St. Joan’s for the last semester of her senior year, things take a drastic turn, as her classmates begin falling sick. Initially, the media blames a vaccine for the odd tics that the girls develop, but as more and more St. Joan’s girls succumb to the mystery illness, Colleen and others begin to question the diagnosis. Meanwhile, Howe weaves in chapters of Ann Putnam Jr.’s confession of her involvement in the Salem witch trials, drawing parallels between the two stories.
Longtime fans of Katherine Howe will enjoy this new teen title, while those new to Howe’s books, looking for a book with a paranormal twist, will enjoy Conversion. Loosely based on a real story of teenage girls falling sick at a New York high school and Ann Putnam Jr.’s real accounts of her involvement in the Salem witch trials, Conversion is based in reality. Howe adds her signature paranormal elements that make the reader question everything.
High school author, Amy Zhang’s first book Falling into Place is filled with twists and turns, taking readers inside the head of high school student Liz Emerson and some of her closest friends. Liz is an unlikable character, a mean girl who has decided that she is going to take her own life, making it look like an accident by driving off a cliff. The book goes back and forth between before and after the crash, unravelling the mystery of what led Liz to such a drastic choice. Before starting Zhang’s book, read what she had to tell Between the Covers about her first novel.
Between the Covers: The book shifts back and forth between before and after Liz’s crash, how did you handle writing a book that shifted in time so frequently?
Amy Zhang: Lots and lots of outlines. I drew diagrams and color-coded and made charts before I started writing, I did it again while I was writing, I did it before I revised, I did it after I revised and revised again. The last chart had something like seven colors on it for all of the different “time zones” of the book, and it reached from ceiling to floor when I hung it up.
BTC: Liz is such a complex character, where did you draw your inspiration for her struggles?
AZ: I guess when I thought of Liz, the characteristic that stood out was her loneliness. One of the first things I saw when I first began outlining the book was the image of her sitting in her closet on the night before her suicide attempt, and that isolation is what made me understand her. You’re always isolated as a teenager. You feel alone in your thoughts, as though you’re the only one to ever think, really think—you’re afraid to have the opinions you’re developing and you’re afraid to share them. You also feel sort of isolated in time, because you’re not thinking about consequences. You only exist in the moment. I think high school can be one of the loneliest places in the world. For me, being alone was sort of at the heart of Liz’s character, and her other struggles all stemmed off of that in some way. Liz, Kennie and Julia were all hiding some really serious issues, but it was pretty easy for me to relate because it was my reality. I think a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew what their kids were really going through every day, and what they feel the need to hide.
BTC: Were you able to draw on your experiences in high school to write about Liz’s high school experience?
AZ: Definitely. The scenes that stand out are Liam’s, which were especially hard for me to write. My school has this horrible tradition of voting people on to dance courts as jokes, and I remember sitting in class and hearing courts announced and just kind of wincing every time. And how do you stop something like that? I was pretty average in high school—I was never really bullied, and I hope I never bullied anyone like Liz did. I had great friends and great teachers, but up until junior year or so, I never really thought about the fact that I sat around a lot. I watched a lot of crap happen and I didn’t do much to stop it, except push a pencil around, and Falling into Place is an apology for that.
BTC: What is your writing process like, as a younger writer who’s still in school?
AZ: Late nights, early mornings, and enough coffee to drown out desire for sleep until the book is done. I write a lot during summer, and, um, during school. At least half of my notes for Falling into Place were scribbled in the margins of my physics notebook. I guess it really just comes down to making a schedule and sticking to it. I have a jar of chocolates on my desk to bribe myself when I need to — one piece per thousand words!
BTC: Who are some of your influences as a writer?
AZ: Music is a pretty heavy influence on my writing—before I start a project, I put a lot of effort into tailoring a playlist. For Falling into Place, it was a lot of Bon Iver, Imagine Dragons and Keane. For my current project, I actually have two: one of classical music, and one of mostly Birdy, Regina Spektor, Iron & Wine and Vincent James McMorrow.
For Falling, though, I think my biggest influence was the death of a classmate during my junior year. For my grade in particular, I think that was the moment we started realizing that we weren’t invincible, and all of the emotions from that were very influential while I wrote the book.
BTC: This is your first book; do you have anything else planned?
AZ: I’m currently working on a project tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl who’s trying to make the entire world fall in love with her.
Stephanie Perkins, the author of Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door returns with her third and final novel in the series, Isla and the Happily Ever After. This heartwarming new romance follows Isla and Josh from their homes in New York City to their boarding school in Paris, as they look for their happily ever after.
Isla has been in love with Josh from afar for ages, and when they bump into each other in New York City during the summer vacation before their senior year of high school, she hopes this is her chance with her crush. But when they return to the School of America in Paris, fondly known as SOAP, everything is just as it always has been. Josh is distant and secretive, and Isla feels awkward every time he’s around. She doesn’t give up hope, and when she discovers that Josh returns her feelings, she must learn how to deal with her new reality of happily ever after. Ultimately, Isla and the Happily Ever After is a book about knowing yourself as much as it is a romance.
Isla and the Happily Ever After is a romance that fans who have been reading Perkins for years will devour, and new fans will enjoy just as much. Having read Perkins’ other novels adds something extra to the reading experience, but Isla and the Happily Ever After can be read alone as well. Anna and St. Clair, and Lola and Cricket each have brief, yet wonderful appearances, but this novel is truly Isla and Josh’s story. With Perkins’ wonderful descriptions of New York and Paris, readers will feel like they’ve traveled the world with Isla.
Cole is a top-ranked student whose main focus throughout high school has been getting into an Ivy League school. But he’s been distracted lately ever since girlfriend Winnie dumped him for jock Josh. As Josh and his band of morons continue their routine harassment and Winnie only looks at him with scorn, Cole’s best friend Gavin convinces him to exact revenge. Wickedpedia by Chris Van Etten is the terrifying story of what happens when online retaliation goes horribly awry.
Following success pegging Josh as a plagiarizer and getting him kicked off the soccer team, Gavin and Cole set their sights even higher. The duo create Wikipedia pages for Josh, Winnie and the rest of their cronies with the intent of ruining their lives. Josh is first and his page is filled with crazy lies capped with the gruesome details of his death. When Josh dies in a freak accident identical to that imagined by Gavin and Cole, the pair drop any future Wikipedia fun and games. But why are articles about classmates’ grisly deaths still being created? And more importantly, who is making them come true?
When Cole finds a Wikipedia page created for him which includes a date of death, he knows he has one week to find the murderer’s identity or his fate will be the same as his classmates. This fast-paced, suspenseful tale reads like a good horror movie, but it's not for the squeamish. Wickedpedia marks the return of the popular Point Horror series with a focus on online misdeeds. Other titles include DeFriended, Identity Theft and Followers. These contemporary creep-fests are perfect for fans of R.L. Stine and Caroline Cooney.
Mexico City author Adi Alsaid ties together the stories of five distinct young people in Let’s Get Lost, his much-buzzed about, captivating road trip novel. Using an unconventional but ultimately wholly satisfying structure, the author first introduces us to Hudson, a young man in Vicksburg, Mississippi, who seems to have his life planned out. But then a carefree, plainspoken 17-year-old named Leila appears in her red car (with red interior) at the repair shop his father owns. Everything in Hudson’s life changes after spending a few short hours with Leila.
And this is ultimately Leila’s story, which the reader is told in bits and pieces as she meanders toward her ultimate destination of seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska. In Kansas City, she encounters Bree, a shoplifting runaway with a dark backstory; later in the Twin Cities, Leila saves Elliot from what could have been a life-ending decision on his prom night that didn’t go as he’d planned. On the way northwest to Alaska, Sonia needs Leila’s help after circumstances set into motion an international comedy of errors involving wedding rings, Mounties and Tim Horton’s donuts. Finally, Leila reaches Alaska, and the reasons for her bittersweet need to see the Northern Lights become as brilliantly clear as the Aurora Borealis itself.
Let's Get Lost brims with young people on the cusp of discovering their potentials, which makes it a great read for teens looking for inspiration in their own lives. It will also appeal to adults with a sense of longing for open-ended days free of responsibility, when life’s options seemed limitless.
Imagine willingly telling strangers on the Internet your deepest, darkest secrets and letting them give you an assignment that you have to complete to protect your secret — that’s what Tabitha decides to do in Corey Ann Haydu’s Life by Committee. Tabby feels like her life is falling apart after her best friends abandon her and she kisses someone else’s boyfriend, a boy that she’s been flirting with online for months. When she’s given a used copy of The Secret Garden filled with someone’s thoughts on the book and a website link handwritten in the back everything changes. Intrigued by the website, “Life by Committee,” and frustrated with how things are going in her life, Tabby decides to join the group, which requires members to provide one secret a week and then perform a task to keep the secret safe.
As Tabby joins the website, she’s pushed outside her comfort zone again and again by group members as she reveals more secrets. As time goes on, she begins pushing away her only remaining friend and her parents as she becomes wrapped up in the website and the assignments they give her. Only when the assignments begin to go too far does Tabby begin to question her choices.
Haydu’s Life by Committee is a strong second book after her memorable debut novel OCD Love Story. Again Haydu has written about a character who is flawed, and all the more interesting because of it. Tabby makes some cringe-worthy choices and many mistakes throughout Life by Committee, making her a realistic, relatable character. Readers who enjoy Haydu’s books can look forward to two new titles set to be released in 2015.
Canadian cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki team up on This One Summer, a swirling, breathtaking graphic novel that recounts the time in a girl’s life when childhood innocence comes to a crashing end. Rose, an only child, goes to cottage country north of Toronto every summer with her parents. There, they meet up with another neighbor family, including Windy, who has been Rose’s slightly younger playmate for years. Windy, too, is an only child, and the two find themselves quickly reacquainting and sharing their days together. But Rose’s adolescent leanings, coupled with tension between her parents, mean that this summer will be different.
Jillian Tamaki’s purple-blue ink illustrations perfectly capture the churning, confusing and sometimes somber moodiness that Rose endures as the events of the summer pass. From carefree days splashing in the lake and watching slasher DVDs with Windy to dealing with her parents’ marital breakdown, Rose’s progression is clearly defined. Her first crush, on a convenience store clerk (who has troubles all his own), is well-depicted in all its unrequited awkwardness. Mariko Tamaki’s words are equally effective, as many older teens and adults will see their own lives in the thoughts and actions of the young friends. Frank language and mature topics such as depression and pregnancy are handled carefully but without patronizing to the intended age of the readership. Particularly successful is the way the Tamakis choose to tell the tale — without judgment or outspoken morality. The bittersweet conclusion is open-ended and purposely lacking forced resolution, showing that adolescence — and life itself — is a continuum that will go on long past that one summer.
Former intelligence officer Amber Lough is trying her hand as an author of young adult fantasy with The Fire Wish. The backdrop for this book is the Middle East in a time full of mysticism and intrigue. The humans live in and around Baghdad while the jinni population inhabits a sprawling underground cavern.
The chapters of this novel alternate between two 16-year-old girls, Zayele and Najwa. Zayele’s father arranged for her to marry Kamal and become a princess of Baghdad, but the prospect of living this sheltered existence seems stifling to her free-spirited tendencies. In what seems like another world, Najwa is weighed down with responsibility and, while she is ready to rise to the occasion, she finds her abilities suppressed by the elders in her community. Both girls are caught in a war between the jinni and the humans. When the desperate Zayele makes an impulsive wish, it forever alters both of their lives and connects them in ways they never thought possible.
The Fire Wish is the first installment of Lough’s new series, and this dual perspective, fast paced fantasy contains everything from action and adventure to romance. Fans of Cinda Williams Chima’s The Demon King will surely find this book just as magical.