Each year, Cracking the Cover compiles a list of books that make great gifts. The following are young adult books published in and/or reviewed by Jessica in 2017. Scroll down for the complete list or click or tap the following links to directly visit a section. FANTASY / FAIRY TALE • CONTEMPORARY • ADVENTURE • HISTORICAL • NONFICTION • NEW ADULT • ACTIVITY BOOK
FANTASY / FAIRY TALE
“SPINDLE,” by E. K. Johnston, Disney-Hyperion, Dec. 6, 2016, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
“Spindle” is the story of Little Rose aka Sleeping Beauty, told by Yashaa, the son of a spinner who is exiled along with all the other spinners when the curse is pronounced. It is Yashaa who seeks to end the curse and it is he who becomes the hero of this unexpected story.
“Spindle” is a companion novel to “A Thousand Nights,” which is the retelling of “Arabian Nights.” The demon in both books is one in the same. That said, however, each book stands alone. I love Johsnston’s approach to this beloved fairy tale. Too often, the princess takes precedence, and while Rose is still a key player, Yashaa is the star. The story was familiar and completely new at the same time. The setting is also an unexpected surprise. Instead of taking place in a European setting, “Spindle” takes place in a more exotic location — based on Johnston’s description, I imagined a Persian or Arabian landscape.
DARK BREAKS THE DAWN, by Sara B. Larson, Scholastic Press, May 30, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
Dark Breaks the Dawn opens on Princess Evelayn’s 18th birthday. Her 18th birthday marks the day when the princess of Eadrolan, the Light Kingdom, can finally access the full range of her magical powers. And when she gains that access, her senses become sharper, and the energy that she draws upon feels infinite.
As much as Evelayn would like to celebrate, the princess can’t help but worry. Her mother, the queen, is on the warfront, battling King Bain and the Dark Kingdom of Dorjhalon. Bain wants control of both light and dark kingdoms, and he’ll stop at nothing until he reaches his goal.
While Bain’s plot works in part, forcing Evelayn to ascend the throne immediately, he fails to keep her from regaining the Light Kingdom’s full power. Evelayn has one chance to end this war, but to do it, she must master her magic, including her ability to shapeshift.
Sara B. Larson has created a complex and compelling world that should be applauded for its nuances. Sara’s prose refined and her pacing well balanced. Dark Breaks the Dawn offers adventure, magic, love, fairy tale and fantasy all mixed into one. But all that wouldn’t work if not for her well-developed characters, which make the novel worth reading.
FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, by Julie C. Dao, Philomel Books, Oct. 10, 2017, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns opens in a peasant village where 18-year-old Xifeng watches a procession carrying the Emperor’s new concubine to the palace. Though the young bride is lovely, Xifeng knows her own beauty is even greater. Xifeng also know her future lies within the palace walls, though her path will not be so straightforward.
For as long as she can remember, Xifeng’s aunt has dabbled in the dark magic — magic that seems to run through Xifeng’s veins. And it is within Guma’s cards that Xifeng’s majestic future unfolds. Guma is cruel, and Xifeng is desperate to escape her home and fulfill her destiny. So when Wei, the local sword smith begs her to leave with him, she agrees.
Despite Xifeng’s love for Wei, Xifeng knows she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. So Xifeng finds Wei a position in the emperor’s army. Xifeng earns a position as one of Empress Lihua’s ladys-in-waiting and moves into the palace. Xifeng’s new life is not easy, and if she wants to achieve her ultimate goal, she’s going to need help — even if that means embracing the darkness within her.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world that is mysterious, exotic and magical. Author Julie C. Dao’s world building is impressive. She makes you feel as if you are in the rooms of the palace, standing right next to Xifeng. The colors, smells and emotions are beautifully muted and bold at the same time.
ROSEMARKED, by Livia Blackburne, Disney-Hyperion, Nov. 7, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
Zivah has dreamed of becoming a healer, and now her chance has come. Celebrations are cut short, though, when Amparan soldiers fall ill with the deadly rose plague. Most won’t survive the plague, and of those who survive, most will be marked for death at a later date. Only a few will be umbertouched — immune to future threat.
Knowing the risks, Zivah gets to work. But even the best precautions aren’t foolproof. When Zivah emerges from the plague’s fever, she finds herself rosemarked — branded as one who can spread the illness and who is destined to die. Her only option now is to live a life of isolation.
Far from Zivah, Dineas escapes his Amparan captors. Permanently scarred by their torture, he seeks reunification with his tribe. Dineas is welcomed back with open arms, but he soon learns coming back has a price. Thrust together, Zivah and Dineas find themselves reluctant spies at the center of a plan that could rid their peoples of the Amparans for good.
Rosemarked’s main characters — Zivah and Dineas — are about as different as two people can be. Those differences both clash and compliment each other, bringing a healthy dynamic to the plot. And there are some fascinating things that have to do with memory throughout, and that really strengthens the characters along the way.
THE MIDNIGHT DANCE, by Nikki Katz, Swoon Reads, Oct. 17, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
Penny dreams of becoming a ballerina, and for good reason. The 17-year-old is one of the top students at Grande Teatro, a finishing school in Italy. Penny and 11 other girls are learning all the skills needed to be accomplished young women, but more importantly, they’re training to become the country’s top ballerinas.
Grande Teatro is unlike any school you could imagine. Located deep in the woods, the girls are a mystery to the outside world, only showing off their graces at their annual show. The girls aren’t the only mystery. Grande Teatro’s young master has firm control over the school and all who enter it.
Grande Teatro is the only life Penny has ever known, or at least that’s what she thinks. When memories from a different life start to prick at Penny’s consciousness she starts to think maybe she’s crazy. But as the memories become more frequent, Penny realizes something is very wrong at Grande Teatro and with the master who’s pulling all the strings. Time is running out, and Penny knows she’s just one slip-up from having her memory rewritten again. But with the help of a friendly kitchen boy she might have a chance to save herself and her friends.
Author Nikki Katz does an excellent job setting the mood — there were times when I had a physical reaction of chills or dread while reading it. Katz amps up the mystery with bursts of magical realism. While The Midnight Dance is a ballet book, it’s also not a ballet book. For those who love the art form, there’s a lot to love, but for those who don’t, never fear. The ballet elements serve as a framework for a much larger and more intense story.Return to Top
A LIST OF CAGES by Robin Roe, Disney-Hyperion, Jan. 10, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
At the center of A List of Cages are Adam and Julian. The two were brothers for a time, with Adam’s mom taking Julian in as a foster child. But then Julian went to live with his uncle, and life moved on.
Now Adam is in his senior year of high school, and he is an aid to the school psychologist. Things get complicated when the psychologist asks him to track down a troubled teen who can’t seem to make his way to her office.
The freshman is Julian, and Adam can’t wait to be reunited. But as they spend more and more time together, Adam realizes things aren’t as they should be. Julian is keeping secrets, and those secrets could be the undoing of both boys.
There are so many things from A List of Cages that keep this book in the forefront of your mind: 1) Robin Roe’s beautiful prose. Robin gracefully switches between Adam and Julian’s voices. You never once question whose head you’re in, and yet there’s a symbiotic thread that runs through both views. 2) Adam and Julian. These are two characters you immediately like despite their flaws. You want them to succeed and your heart aches equally for them. 3) The supporting cast. A List of Cages wouldn’t work without the friends and family that surround Adam and Julian. These characters are richly developed and add depth and context throughout.
PIECING ME TOGETHER by Renée Watson, Bloomsbury USA Childrens, Feb. 14, 2017, hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
At the center of Piecing Me Together is Jade, a black teen who thinks leaving her poor neighborhood is the only way she’s going to be successful. Jade grabs every opportunity that comes her way — a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and Saturday morning test prep opportunities.
Sometimes those “opportunities” and those who offer them come across as condescending rather than beneficial. When Jade receives an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls, aka black girls, she’s reluctant to join. But she can’t pass up the scholarship that comes with it. The problem is, Maxine, Jade’s mentor, may be black, but she doesn’t understand Jade. Going to the symphony and museums and meeting new people are great, but Jade likes her friends and her neighborhood despite perceived problems. What’s wrong, she wonders, with being herself.
Piecing Me Together is very much a story of race and how it is perceived. Even though Jade’s story isn’t one I (as a white woman) could personally relate to as far as race goes, Piecing Me Together touches on universal elements of friendship, self-discovery, body image and financial hardship. Author Renée Watson’s prose is as bold as it is inviting. Her insights on race, class and gender are poignantly told through raw emotion. Piecing Me Together is especially timely in our current political climate. I highly recommend it to teens and adults alike.
WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, by Sandhya Menon, Simon Pulse, May 30, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
When Dimple Met Rishi tells the story of two Indian-American teens — Dimple and Rishi — whose parents conspire to arrange their marriage.
Dimple Shah has her life planned out. She’s going to Stanford in the fall. After a few years, she’ll have her degree in engineering and will become a web developer. It’s a plan most parents would be proud of, but not Dimple’s. They would rather their daughter find the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Dimple thinks her parents have finally softened on the subject when they agrees to pay for a summer program for aspiring developers.
Rishi Patel has spent his whole life listening to how his parents met and fell in love. That’s what he wants, too. So when his parents tell him his future wife is attending the same summer program as him, he’s ecstatic. Rishi believes in tradition and is actually excited to be arranged. He might be a little too excited.
It’s not hard to jump to conclusions when a “husband” is suddenly foisted upon you. The same can be said for a rejection you never saw coming. Clearly, someone missed a memo or two on this whole arranged marriage thing. But the two are stuck with each other for the rest of the summer, and Dimple isn’t about to let this situation get in the way of her goals, even if that means falling for someone she’d never expect.
When Dimple Met Rishi is unexpected and funny and lovely. Author Sandhya Menon has created complex characters that make you want to root for them. She seamlessly bridges the culture divide, making her novel easily accessible for all readers. What makes this romance work is the quirky characters. Dimple and Rishi are both dorks, but dorks in different ways. The interplay between the two of them has you wanting things to work out from the beginning. When Dimple Met Rishi is everything good about contemporary YA romance. It’s imaginative, real, humorous and heartfelt. Most importantly, it’s authentic.
THE BORDER, by Steve Schafer, Sourcebooks Fire, Sept. 5, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
It’s a time for celebration — a quinceañera for Pato’s best friend’s sister. There’s laughter, music and wonderful food. Pato, Arbo, Marcos and Gladys slip away from the lights for a smoke and the celebration slips away, too.
In seconds, the sounds of gunfire have the teens scrambling for cover. Fearful for their family, the four return to the house only to find carnage. No one has been left alive. No one, that is, except the gunmen. The teens have been seen, and they have no choice but to run.
But where do you run to when the narcos are everywhere? When their pictures are plastered on the front of every newspaper? When the narcos are offering a reward so big no one could turn it down? Pato and his friends can’t stay in Mexico. That much is clear. To stay means certain death, but crossing the border can be just as deadly.
The Border is one of the most gripping YA novels I’ve read this year. Even if I had wanted to put it down, I couldn’t have. It’s that good. The opening chapters are fraught with terror. Author Steve Schafer does an excellent job setting the scene. It plays out cinematically, making you feel as if you are watching the events unfold right in front of your eyes. This same cinematic, almost visceral feel, continues throughout the novel, ending with the final pages.
YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR, by Mitali Perkins, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), Sept. 12, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
You Bring the Distant Near tells the stories of five girls/women over the span of three generations. Ranee, the oldest, is worried that her children are losing their Indian culture. Sonia is Ranee’s daughter who falls in love with an African-American friend. Tara is Sonia’s sister who is always acting, even though she’s never been on stage. Shanti is struggling to bring balance to a family divided by two cultures. And Anna, Shanti’s cousin, can’t understand why her family wants her to give up her Bengali identity.
There’s something about reading a book so well written that you feel at home with the characters and setting, even when in your real life, you have no reference point. That’s what happens with You Bring the Distant Near.
Author Mitali Perkins has the ability to bring readers of all backgrounds together. She builds her characters and their stories through context in such a seamless manner that you don’t realize you’ve been swept into her world.
I did not want to put down You Bring the Distant Near. I read my digital copy wherever I could sneak in a minute or two. There’s nothing over the top in this book. There are no battles or explosions. There are, however, simple moments as well as complex. It’s a story of sisterhood, friendship and family that you’ll want to read more than once.Return to Top
DAUGHTER OF THE PIRATE KING by Tricia Levenseller, Feiwel & Friends, Feb. 28, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
Seventeen-year-old Alosa is the daughter of the pirate king, and as such, she’s a deadly foe. The problem is, you usually don’t find that out until it’s too late. So when Alosa is captured by her enemies, they’re right to be cautious. But some are more careful than others. Riden, the first mate, can’t quite put his finger on it, but knows Alosa is up to something.
It turns out Riden is right. Alosa deliberately allowed her enemies to capture her. Now she has the chance to search their ship for an ancient hidden map that leads to a legendary treasure. But to get to the map, Alos must get past Riden, and he’s not about to go down without a fight.
Daughter of the Pirate King is what I imagine the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Princess Bride would come up with if they sat down together. The book features gallant heroes, evil masters, quirky sidekicks and more than one surprise. Daughter of the Pirate King is a fast-paced adventure full of action and romance with a little mystery thrown in for good measure. I’m excited to see where the author takes this story in the future.Return to Top
BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, by Rosalyn Eves, Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 28, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
Blood Rose Rebellion opens in an alternative Victorian England where magic and bloodlines mean everything. Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden would give anything to live in society, and at first glance, it appears she should be in the thick of it. Anna’s family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic. But Anna is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells, and so she lives on the fringe.
Anna’s life takes a drastic turn when she inadvertently breaks her sister’s debutante spell. With one misstep, Anna’s sister loses a chance at a good match, and Anna is exiled to her family’s native Hungary. Everything is different in Hungary. While the Luminate rule, they are not respected. When Anna meets Gábor, a handsome Romani who seems to have magic of his own, she can’t keep her curiosity to herself. And then there’s her ability to break spells. With no one around to hold her back, Anna begins to see her “defect” as a strength. In Hungary, revolution is coming, and Anna may just be the key to changing everything.
Rosalyn’s prose is equal parts understated and elegant. There are numerous of scenes, paragraphs and sentences where her restraint speaks more loudly than words ever could. There are a few predictable elements throughout Blood Rose Rebellion, though they were never a distraction. Blood Rose Rebellion relies heavily on history, so if you’re not a fan of historical fiction, this might be a harder read for you. I love historical fiction so that never bothered me. I also appreciated a lighter touch with the romantic elements. It helped me get to know Anna better, and I’m betting romance will be a larger presence later on in the trilogy.
DUELS & DECEPTION by Cindy Anstey, Feiwel and Friends (Swoon Reads), April 11, 2017, Softcover, $10.99 (young adult)
At the center of Duels & Deception is Miss Lydia Whitfield, an intelligent young woman who will one day inherit her family’s fortune. But because Lydia is a woman living in the Regency period, she’s not expected to make any decisions about her estate or fortune.
Before he passed away, Lydia’s father planned for everything, including the man she would marry when of age. Up until lately, Lydia has had no reason to question her father’s wishes.
Lydia is forced to rethink things, though, after she and Mr. Robert Newton, a young law clerk, are kidnapped. Someone wants Lydia’s fortune, and they don’t care if they destroy her reputation getting it. Luckily for Lydia, Robert is as quick thinking as she is. With his help, Lydia is able to keep her family’s name out of the rumor mills. But after all that effort, Lydia is left wondering if perhaps the future her father planned for her isn’t in her best interests after all.
Duels & Deception fits nicely into the modern Regency genre. Author Cindy Anstey’s writing is clear and easily accessible. You immediately feel at home in the world she’s created in part because of her prose and in part because of her characters. Lydia is immediately likable, pushing the “acceptable” boundaries for women in a time when reputation meant everything. Her wit and charm are equally matched in Robert. Robert wants to be good and proper, but he’s also practical with a good eye for the truth.
NOW I RISE, by Kiersten White, Delacorte Press, June 27, 2017, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Kiersten White’s And I Darken about Lada Dracul and her brother, Radu, took my breath away. Its followup, Now I Rise, is just as engrossing, if not more so.
In And I Darken readers are introduced to the Dracul siblings who have been abandoned in the Ottoman courts as a way to secure their father, Vlad’s, position as leader of Wallachia.
Lada and Radu move up in the ranks, befriending the sultan’s son Mehmed. Mehmed loves the siblings — Radu as a brother and Lada as something more — and wishes nothing more than they remain by his side forever. But Lada’s heart lies in Wallachia, and all she can think of is regaining the throne. Radu, on the other hand, can’t imagine life away from Mehmed, and the siblings part ways.
Lada returns to Europe to claim her title, but she has no allies. She has no throne. What Lada really needs is Radu’s diplomacy. But Radu made his choice. He chose Mehmed. Choosing Mehmed has its consequences, though. Mehmed has his eye on Constantinople, and he thinks that Radu might be the one to help him get it. Radu finds himself wishing for Lada’s strength and questioning everything he thought he knew. Lada, too, finds herself wondering how much she’s willing to sacrifice and for whom. And at the center of everything is Mehmed, pulling the strings and bending things to his will.
In Now I Rise, Lada continues to be cold and calculating, but there is also a softness that rears its ugly head every once and a while. Radu remains soft and sensitive, though there’s also a sharpness that develops during his time in Constantinople. The reason these infinitely flawed characters work is because of Kiersten’s writing. Her pacing is spot on and her prose is sharp. From the moment I picked up Now I Rise until the moment I finished, I was completely engaged.
MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery by Melanie Fishbane, Penguin Teen, April 25, 2017, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
Maud, by Melanie Fishbane, is a historical fiction YA novel based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s teenage years. The book opens when Maud is 14 years old. Maud dreams of college and becoming an author like Louisa May Alcott, but she worries those dreams will never come to fruition. Maud’s grandparents are strict, and her grandfather thinks women belong at home.
When Maud’s father suggests she might come to live with him in the West, Maud is elated, and her grandparents see it as a good way to get some distance and perspective. Life in the West is certainly different than Maud’s dear Prince Edward Island. Maud’s excitement is soon tempered by her stepmother’s plans for Maud’s future, and the sub-par education she receives in the town’s high school. Through it all, though, Maud finds friendship and a chance at love.
Though Maud is a fictional account of L.M. Montgomery’s life, author Melanie Fishbane worked hard to maintain as much of the historical integrity as her narrative would allow. I found myself utterly immersed in Maud, finding small moments in which to read just a few more pages. Melanie’s characterization of Maud made her as real as if she were the girl living next door. I finished the book feeling as if I really knew who L.M. Montgomery was.Return to Top
VICTORIA: Portrait of a Queen, by Catherine Reef, Clarion Books, Nov. 7, 2017, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord. Includes bibliography, notes, British royal family tree, index. —Synopsis provided by Clarion Books
While I haven’t had time to read Victoria in its entirety, I’m in love with what I’ve read so far. In fact, as I picked it up while writing this, I found myself getting lost in it once again. Forty-three pages later, I reluctantly put it down. The timing of this book is especially nice since the second season of PBS’s Victoria begins Jan. 14. This is a fascinating read that history buffs will adore.Return to Top
All That Makes Life Bright: The Life and Love of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Josi S. Kilpack, Shadow Mountain, Sept. 5, 2017, Softcover, $15.99 (young adult)
All That Makes Life Bright is a fictionalized look at Harriet Beecher and Calvin Stowe’s first 18 months together as a married couple. The novel opens the day of their wedding ceremony, Jan. 6, 1836, and while Hattie is excited, her sister Catharine is not. Catharine is worried Hattie will her identity as an individual. But Calvin fell in love with Hattie because of her mind. He loves that she is intellectual. He loves that she’s a writer.
At first, things are perfect and the two work to adjust to married life. Two months after their wedding, though, Hattie learns she’s pregnant and Calvin is called away on a European business trip. He must go, but won’t be back in time for the birth of their child. Alone and feeling overwhelmed, Hattie returns to her father’s home while Calvin is away.
Much to Harriet and Calvin’s surprise, Hattie gives birth to twin girls, Eliza and Harriet. Their growing family returns home, and Hattie realizes quickly how hard it is to run a household and care for two babies. Hattie’s writing takes a backseat to the mundane chores of a housewife.
She begins to lose herself, and when she tries to take back control, she begins to question her place in her husband’s heart. Calvin and Hattie’s temperaments clash more and more. Things come to a head when Hattie, pregnant with their third child, collapses. The twins aren’t even a year old, and Hattie can no longer cope. Only when Calvin realizes the scope of his wife’s sacrifices is he able to meet her in the middle.
Though All That Makes Life Bright is billed as a love story, and, based on the success of the Stowe’s marriage, I guess it was, it didn’t feel so much like a romance to me. Honestly, on multiple occasions, I found myself wanting to punch Calvin in the face. I get that different conventions were practiced during different time periods, but his complete obliviousness drove me batty. I did not expect myself to become so emotionally involved in All That Makes Life Bright. As I read, it was as if Josi had somehow accessed some of my deepest feelings. The mom guilt. Feelings of failure over the littlest things. Trying to balance it all. This is where All That Makes Life Bright rings true.Return to Top
A FAR, FAR BETTER THING TO DO: A Lit Lover’s Activity Book, by Joelle Herr and Lindsey Spinks, Running Press, Sept. 5, 2017, Softcover, $13.99 (young adult)
A Far, Far Better Thing to Do offers lit lovers 65 engaging activities to tease their brains and unleash their creativity, from word searches and mazes to crosswords, matching games, quizzes, and continue-the-story activities. —Synopsis provided by Running Press
Though not technically a young adult book, A Far, Far Better Thing to Do features many of the classics people read as teens. Among the activities, readers will find puzzles highlighting many authors including, Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott. Also included are coloring pages, connect-the-dots and quizzes.Return to Top