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 2023. Reviews are listed in order of publication, January through December. Synopsis are written by Jessica unless otherwise noted. Scroll down for the complete list or click or tap the following links to directly visit a section. CONTEMPORARY • FANTASY • SCIENCE FICTION • ADVENTURE/MYSTERY • GRAPHIC NOVEL • HISTORICAL FICTION
THIS TIME IT’S REAL, by Ann Liang, Scholastic Press, Feb. 7, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
When 17-year-old Eliza Lin’s essay about meeting the love of her life unexpectedly goes viral, her entire life changes overnight. Now she has the approval of her classmates at her new international school in Beijing, a career-launching internship opportunity at her favorite magazine…and a massive secret to keep.
Eliza made her essay up. She’s never been in a relationship before, let alone in love. All good writing is lying, right?
Desperate to hide the truth, Eliza strikes a deal with the famous actor in her class, the charming but aloof Caz Song. She’ll help him write his college applications if he poses as her boyfriend. Caz is a dream boyfriend — he passes handwritten notes to her in class, makes her little sister laugh, and takes her out on motorcycle rides to the best snack stalls around the city.
But when her relationship with Caz starts feeling a little too convincing, all of Eliza’s carefully laid plans are threatened. Can she still follow her dreams if it means breaking her own heart? —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
This Time It’s Real is a bright read that you won’t want to put down. Author Anna Liang’s comfortable tone pairs flawlessly with this genre.
Told from Eliza’s point of view, readers are immediately immersed in a world of knowns and unknowns. Eliza’s family moves every couple of years, and she hasn’t lived in China in 12 years. Through her eyes, readers get to experience the land she rediscovers.
This Time It’s Real is a pitch-perfect rom-com that calls to mind works by Meg Cabot and Jenny Han. It’s light-hearted, sweet and a great escape. I read it in one sitting, and I can’t wait to discover more from this author.
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A LANTERN, by Gloria Chao, Viking Books for Young Readers, Feb. 14, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Liya and Kai had been best friends since they were little kids, but all that changed when a humiliating incident sparked The Biggest Misunderstanding of All Time — and they haven’t spoken since.
Then Liya discovers her family’s wishing lantern store is struggling, and she decides to resume a tradition she had with her beloved late grandmother: secretly fulfilling the wishes people write on the lanterns they send into the sky. It may boost sales and save the store, but she can’t do it alone . . . and Kai is the only one who cares enough to help.
While working on their covert missions, Liya and Kai rekindle their friendship — and maybe more. But when their feuding families and changing futures threaten to tear them apart again, can they find a way to make their own wishes come true? —Synopsis provided by Viking Books for Young Readers
Feuding family love stories have been around for a long time — Romeo and Juliet, anyone? So, to make a story stand out in this genre, authors have to find something unique. In the case of When You Wish Upon a Lantern, it’s secretly granting wishes.
It’s a premise that not only works, but feels believable and achievable.
Author Gloria Chao’s writing has an almost cinematic feel to it. You can practically see the lanterns floating across the screen. And the book’s beautiful cover truly helps set the tone.
There’s a kind of innocence to When You Wish Upon a Lantern that will appeal to readers who are looking for a “chaste” romance. It’s gentle and sweet, and Liya and Kai are charming.
I KICK AND I FLY, by Ruchira Gupta, Scholastic Press, April 18, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
On the outskirts of the Red Light District in Bihar, India, 14-year-old Heera is living on borrowed time until her father sells her into the sex trade to help feed their family and repay his loans. It is, as she’s been told, the fate of the women in her community to end up here. But watching her cousin, Mira Di, live this life day in and day out is hard enough. To live it feels like the worst fate imaginable. And after a run-in with a bully leads to her expulsion from school, it feels closer than ever.
But when a local hostel owner shows up at Heera’s home with the money to repay her family’s debt, Heera begins to learn that fate can change. Destiny can be disrupted. Heroics can be contagious.
It’s at the local hostel for at risk girls that Heera is given a transformative opportunity: learning kung fu with the other girls. Through the practice of martial arts, she starts to understand that her body isn’t an object to be commodified and preyed upon, but a vessel through which she can protect herself and those around her. And when Heera discovers the whereabouts of her missing friend, Rosy, through a kung fu pen pal in the US, she makes the decision to embark on a daring rescue mission to New York in an attempt to save her. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
I Kick and I Fly is one of the hardest, most inspiring young adult reads you’ll come across. The topic is not easy. The treatment of girls and women will make you want to scream. Yet, you’ll finish the novel better off than you were before starting it.
The book is fiction but is inspired by Ruchira Gupta’s experience making the Emmy-award winning documentary, The Selling of Innocents, an Emmy award winning documentary about sex-trafficking from Nepal to Mumbai, India. Most of the events in this book are inspired by real people, places and events, Gupta explains in her letter at the end of I Kick and I Fly.
Gupta’s prose is smooth and comfortable. She tackles a very complicated topic with heartfelt care. Though she never goes into explicit detail, the stakes are clear. I Kick and I Fly is an intense and heartbreaking read that will resonate with readers long after finishing it.
WHERE YOU SEE YOURSELF, by Claire Forrest, Scholastic Press, May 2, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
By the time Effie Galanos starts her senior year, it feels like she’s already been thinking about college applications for an eternity ― after all, finding a college that will be the perfect fit and be accessible enough for Effie to navigate in her wheelchair presents a ton of considerations that her friends don’t have to worry about.
What Effie hasn’t told anyone is that she already knows exactly what school she has her heart set on: a college in NYC with a major in Mass Media & Society that will set her up perfectly for her dream job in digital media. She’s never been to New York, but paging through the brochure, she can picture the person she’ll be there, far from the Minneapolis neighborhood where she’s lived her entire life. When she finds out that Wilder (her longtime crush) is applying there too, it seems like one more sign from the universe that it’s the right place for her.
But it turns out that the universe is full of surprises. As Effie navigates her way through a year of admissions visits, senior class traditions, internal and external ableism, and a lot of firsts — and lasts — she starts to learn that sometimes growing up means being open to a world of possibilities you never even dreamed of. And maybe being more than just friends with Wilder is one of those dreams… —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
Most people don’t ever question opening a door or walking up steps. A path — paved or unpaved — is just another way to get somewhere. But for someone in a wheelchair, these are all obstacles and considerations that must be taken into consideration before leaving the house.
Where You See Yourself makes this all abundantly clear through the eyes of Effie, a girl with big dreams. Through Effie, readers are quickly introduced to the frustration that a lack of accessibility brings.
Forrest’s writing is strong and assured and has an authenticity to it you won’t find in other places. Her pacing is spot on, and her YA voice rings true. Where You See Yourself is the perfect mix of swoon-worthy romance, self-acceptance and the meaning of friendship. It’s a must-read YA.
ALL ALONE WITH YOU, by Amelia Diane Coombs, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, July 25, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
Eloise Deane is the worst and doesn’t care who knows it. She’s grumpy, prefers to be alone, and is just slogging through senior year with one goal: get accepted to USC and move to California. So, when her guidance counselor drops the bombshell that to score a scholarship she’ll desperately need, her applications require volunteer hours, Eloise is up for the challenge. Until she’s paired with LifeCare, a volunteer agency that offers social support to lonely seniors through phone calls and visits. Basically, it’s a total nightmare for Eloise’s anxiety.
Eloise realizes she’s made a huge mistake — especially when she’s paired with Austin, the fellow volunteer who’s the sunshine to her cloudy day. But as Eloise and Austin work together to keep Marianne Landis company, something strange happens. She actually…likes Marianne and Austin? Eloise isn’t sure what to do with that, especially when her feelings toward Austin begin to blur into more-than-friends territory.
And when ex-girlfriends, long-buried wounds, and insecurities reappear, Eloise will have a choice to make: go all in with Marianne and Austin or get out before she gets hurt. —Synopsis provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
All Alone With You is a book about relationships. Romantic relationships. Friendships. Family relationships. And getting to know yourself.
Eloise is grumpy and sarcastic and imperfect. She feels real. Austin is bubbly and friendly and plays in a band. He enjoys helping others, and doesn’t mind being the center of attention.
When these two seemingly polar opposites come together, magic happens. As Austin pushes Eloise out of her comfort zone, they both learn there are risks and rewards for their actions. And though Eloise is the storyteller, you see growth in both of them.
Author Amelia Diane Coombs writes with raw honesty. In her hands, there’s substance. Even little moments with Eloise’s sister are treated with care, filling up the edges of the story and creating a compelling whole.
SWIMMING IN A SEA OF STARS, by Julie Wright, Shadow Mountain, Aug. 1, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
Addison is no stranger to feeling stressed, insecure, and sad. Her therapist recommended she keep a journal to help her understand those feelings better, which she really needs today. It’s her first day back to school, several weeks after she survived her suicide attempt. She knows there are rumors about why she did it: A lousy home life? Bullying? Heartbreak? None of them are true, but it doesn’t matter because Addison still feels like she’s drowning. She still holds secrets she’s not ready to share.
During the school day, Addison encounters four other students struggling with their own secrets.
Swimming in a Sea of Stars is a novel about how we’re all interconnected, like the stars in the night sky that form constellations and map out the universe, and if even one star goes missing, the effect is profound. —Synopsis provided by Shadow Mountain
Swimming in a Sea of Stars has two underlying messages — you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors and small acts of kindness can have big impacts.
Wright is a seasoned writer. Her prose is smooth and her premise sound. As she takes you through 24 hours with these teens, you find yourself wanting to know more, anticipating new elements within each of their intersecting stories.
Swimming in a Sea of Stars tugs at your heartstrings and really makes you think about the people you interact with. It’s a good read for teens and their parents.
TILLY IN TECHNICOLOR, by Mazey Eddings, Wednesday Books, Aug. 15, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
Tilly Twomley is desperate for change. White-knuckling her way through high school with flawed executive functioning has left her burnt out and ready to start fresh. Working as an intern for her perfect older sister’s start up isn’t exactly how Tilly wants to spend her summer, but the required travel around Europe promises a much-needed change of scenery as she plans for her future. The problem is, Tilly has no idea what she wants.
Oliver Clark knows exactly what he wants. His autism has often made it hard for him to form relationships with others, but his love of color theory and design allows him to feel deeply connected to the world around him. Plus, he has everything he needs: a best friend that gets him, placement into a prestigious design program, and a summer internship to build his resume. Everything is going as planned. That is, of course, until he suffers through the most disastrous international flight of his life, all turmoil stemming from lively and exasperating Tilly. Oliver is forced to spend the summer with a girl that couldn’t be more his opposite―feeling things for her he can’t quite name―and starts to wonder if maybe he doesn’t have everything figured out after all.
As the duo’s neurodiverse connection grows, they learn that some of the best parts of life can’t be planned, and are forced to figure out what that means as their disastrously wonderful summer comes to an end. —Synopsis provided by Wednesday Books
Tilly in Technicolor is a beautiful read. It’s told through the alternating viewpoints of Till and Oliver, and each of them is delightful in their own way.
Tilly sees the world in words. Oliver sees the world through color. When Tilly and Oliver’s worlds collide, magic happens. They understand but don’t understand each other, and make mistakes in only a way that they can.
In Tilly in Technicolor, author Mazey Eddings has created a cinematic love story that comes to life from the very first page. Her prose and way of looking at things is simply lovely. Even in the moments of frustration and despair, Eddings brings a lightness that truly makes this book a joy to read.
GATHER, by Kenneth M. Cadow, Candlewick, Oct. 3, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
Ian Gray isn’t supposed to have a dog, but a lot of things that shouldn’t happen end up happening anyway. And Gather, Ian’s adopted pup, is good company now that Ian has to quit the basketball team, find a job, and take care of his mom as she tries to overcome her opioid addiction.
Despite the obstacles thrown their way, Ian is determined to keep his family afloat no matter what it takes. And for a little while, things are looking up: Ian makes friends, and his fondness for the outdoors and for fixing things lands him work helping neighbors.
But an unforeseen tragedy results in Ian and his dog taking off on the run, trying to evade a future that would mean leaving their house and their land. Even if the community comes together to help him, would Ian and Gather have a home to return to? —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
Gather is a 2023 National Book Award Finalist and for good reason. This debut YA novel reads like it was written by a seasoned writer. And it’s one I read start-to-finish in one day.
The story unfolds from Ian’s point of view. As he relates what happens, his first-person narrative bounces from time to time, topic to topic in a way that feels completely natural — adding context where needed.
As Ian works through everything, he gains a true sense of community and friendship. He begins to realize his own value not only to himself but to those who surround him.
Equally exceptional is author Kenneth M. Cadow’s exploration of the land and Ian’s ties to it. The history. The ability to live off of it. Self-sustainability. And the pure joy of being one with nature shine through.
THE SEARCH FOR US: A NOVEL, by Susan Azim Boyer, Wednesday Books, Oct. 24, 2023, Hardcover, $21 (young adult)
Samira Murphy will do anything to keep her fractured family from falling apart, including caring for her widowed grandmother and getting her older brother into recovery for alcohol addiction. With attendance at her dream college on the line, she takes a long shot DNA test to find the support she so desperately needs from a father she hasn’t seen since she was a baby.
Henry Owen is torn between his well-meaning but unreliable bio-mom and his overly strict aunt and uncle, who stepped in to raise him but don’t seem to see him for who he is. Looking to forge a stronger connection to his own identity, he takes a DNA test to find the one person who might love him for exactly who he is―the biological father he never knew.
Instead of a DNA match with their father, Samira and Henry are matched with each other. They begin to search for their father together and slowly unravel the difficult truth of their shared past, forming a connection that only siblings can have and recovering precious parts of their past that have been lost. —Synopsis provided by Wednesday Books
The Search for Us is one of those novels that sort of sits with you as you read it and after completion. Everything about the circumstances Samira and Henry find themselves in is messy and complicated and makes perfect sense in this sort of senseless world.
In The Search for Us, author Susan Azim Boyer has crafted a compelling character study that is hard to put down. It feels deeply personal, and it’s easy to connect with her protagonists. The ending does feel a bit too “clean” for a lack of a better word. I wasn’t expecting this messy thing to feel quite so wrapped up, but that wouldn’t stop me from recommending it.
SONG OF SILVER, FLAME LIKE NIGHT (Song of the Last Kingdom), by Amélie Wen Zhao, Delacorte Press, Jan. 3, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
Once, Lan had a different name. Now she goes by the one the Elantian colonizers gave her when they invaded her kingdom, killed her mother, and outlawed her people’s magic. She spends her nights as a songgirl in Haak’gong, a city transformed by the conquerors, and her days scavenging for what she can find of the past. Anything to understand the strange mark burned into her arm by her mother in her last act before she died.
The mark is mysterious and no one but Lan can see it. Until the night a boy appears at her teahouse and saves her life.
Zen is a practitioner — one of the fabled magicians of the Last Kingdom. Their magic was rumored to have been drawn from the demons they communed with. Magic believed to be long lost. Now it must be hidden from the Elantians at all costs.
When Zen comes across Lan, he recognizes what she is: a practitioner with a powerful ability hidden in the mark on her arm. He knows that if there are answers, they lie deep in the pine forests and misty mountains of the Last Kingdom, with an order of practitioning masters planning to overthrow the Elantian regime.
Now the battle for the Last Kingdom begins. —Synopsis provided by Delacorte Press
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is a rich new YA fantasy that draws from Chinese mythology. Author Amélie Wen Zhao’s rich prose immediately immerses you in a different time and place. Zhao is equal parts world-builder and character developer. She strikes the perfect balance between the two, creating a fully-fleshed read.
At the center of Song of Silver, Flame Like Night are Lan and Zen, seemingly disparate characters who perfectly balance each other. Lan is a bright force in and of herself. From the beginning, she captures interest. She’s the more accessible of the two. Zen is more closed off, and it takes a bit longer to warm to him. Strong supporting characters help to fill out this grand world.
Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is a fast-moving and compelling YA fantasy that you won’t want to put down. I’m excited to see where Zhao takes things in the sequel.
DAMSEL, by Evelyn Skye, Random House Worlds, April 18, 2023, Hardcover, $28 (young adult/ new adult/ adult fiction)
Elodie never dreamed of a lavish palace or a handsome prince. As she grew up in the famine-stricken realm of Inophe, her deepest wish was to help her people survive each winter. So, when a representative from a rich, reclusive kingdom offers her family enough wealth to save Inophe in exchange for Elodie’s hand in marriage, she accepts without hesitation.
But as Elodie undertakes the rituals to become an Aurean princess, doubts prick at her mind as cracks in the kingdom’s perfect veneer begin to show. Too late, she discovers that Aurea’s prosperity has been purchased at a heavy cost — each harvest season, the kingdom sacrifices its princesses to a hungry dragon. And Elodie is the next sacrifice.
This ancient arrangement has persisted for centuries, leading hundreds of women to their deaths. Forced to fight for her life, this damsel must use her wits to defeat a dragon, uncover Aurea’s past, and save not only herself but the future of her new kingdom as well. —Synopsis provided by Random House Worlds
Based on a screenplay by Dan Mazeau, Damsel is a collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Evelyn Skye and the team behind the upcoming Netflix film Damsel (2024), starring Millie Bobby Brown.
Skye does a good job setting the tone. You immediately feel the desolation in Inophe and the hope that comes from seeing the lush lands of Aurea. There’s a lot of foretelling early on, and that feels like the result of adapting a screenplay. The book probably would have been more than 368 pages without those constraints.
That said, Skye manages to create a real sense of place, particularly in the caves where most of the action takes place. The oppressive claustrophobia, isolation and heat radiate off the page. Damsel is a fast-paced, cinematic novel that reads a bit like a fractured fairy tale/ This fantasy should appeal to readers now, and a new group once the movie premieres.
Note: Damsel is not specifically written for young adults, but Elodie and her sister are the right ages to appeal to a YA audience. Content is on-par with a PG-13 rating with violence being the main reason.
HER RADIANT CURSE (Legends of Lor’yan), by Elizabeth Lim, Knopf Books for Young Readers, Aug. 29, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
Channi was not born a monster. But when her own father offers her in sacrifice to the Demon Witch, she is forever changed. Cursed with a serpent’s face, Channi is the exact opposite of her beautiful sister, Vanna — the only person in the village who looks at Channi and doesn’t see a monster. The only person she loves and trusts.
Now 17, Vanna is to be married off in a vulgar contest that will enrich the coffers of the village leaders. Only Channi, who’s had to rely on her strength and cunning all these years, can defend her sister against the cruelest of the suitors. But in doing so, she becomes the target of his wrath — launching a grisly battle royale, a quest over land and sea, a romance between sworn enemies, and a choice that will strain Channi’s heart to its breaking point. —Synopsis provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers
One of the best things about Lim’s writing is her ability to drop you into an unknown world and make you feel at ease. Her world-building is on point and works seamlessly with her characters. And Her Radiant Curse is very much a character-driven fantasy.
The story unfolds from Channi’s point of view. Channi has a single-minded purpose — kill the witch and save her sister. Channi is cunning and bold. She’s imperfect and a bit dark, and you want things to work out for her.
THE FOREST GRIMM, by Kathryn Purdie, Wednesday Books, Sept. 19, 2023, Hardcover, $20 (young adult)
The Midnight Forest. The Fanged Creature. Two fortune-telling cards that spell an untimely death for 17-year-old Clara. Despite the ever-present warning from her fortune-teller grandmother, Clara embarks on a dangerous journey into the deadly Forest Grimm to procure a magical book ― Sortes Fortunae, the Book of Fortunes ― with the power to reverse the curse on her village and save her mother.
Years ago, when the villagers whispered their deepest desires to the book, its pages revealed how to obtain them. All was well until someone used the book for an evil purpose ― to kill another person. Afterward, the branches of the Forest Grimm snatched the book away, the well water in Grimm’s Hollow turned rancid, and the crops died from disease. The villagers tried to make amends with the forest, but every time someone crossed its border, they never returned.
Now, left with no alternative, Clara and her close friend, Axel ― who is fated never to be with her ― have set their minds to defying fate and daring to accomplish what no one else has been able to before. But the forest ― alive with dark, deadly twists on some of our most well-known fairy tales ― has a mind of its own. —Synopsis provided by Wednesday Books
The Forest Grimm takes those familiar fairy tales you know and turns them upside down. Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood all make an appearance, and they’re all delightfully dark and twisted.
Author Kathryn Purdie deftly intermixes familiar tales with her own imagining, creating something entirely new. Her pacing is solid and there are some nice surprises in store
The Forest Grimm is a fast-moving adventure, mystery, fantasy and romance all mixed into one. The book ends with a big twist, and I’m excited to see where Purdie takes the story next.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (A Hunger Games Novel), by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press; Reprint edition, Sept. 19, 2023, Paperback, $16.99 (ages 12 and up)
Ambition will fuel him. Competition will drive him. But power has its price.
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.
The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
Scholastic has released a move tie-in version of bestselling he Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes in advance of the feature film from Lionsgate, which will open Nov. 17. The book is a prequel to Susan Collins’ Hunger Games series.
THE SCARLET ALCHEMIST, by Kylie Lee Baker, Inkyard Press; Original edition, Oct. 3, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
Zilan dreams of becoming a royal alchemist, of providing for her family by making alchemical gold and gems for the wealthy to eat in order to stay young forever. But for now, she’s trapped in her impoverished village in southern China, practicing an illegal form of alchemy to keep food on the table—resurrecting the dead, for a price.
When Zilan finally has the chance to complete her imperial exams, she ventures to the capital to compete against the best alchemists in the country in tasks she’ll be lucky to survive, let alone pass. On top of that, her reputation for raising the dead has followed her to the capital, and the Crown Prince himself seeks out her help, suspecting a coming assassination attempt.
The more Zilan succeeds in her alchemy, the more she gets caught in the dangerous political games of the royal family. There are monsters lurking within the palace walls, and it’s only a matter of time before they—and secrets of Zilan’s past—catch up with her. —Synopsis provided by Inkyard Press
The Scarlet Alchemist is a dark fantasy that grips you from its first grisly chapter all the way to the end. And make no mistake, if you are squeamish, this book may not be for you. It is full of blood and death and dark magic and resurrection and violence. But it’s also full of love and heart and the desire to do good.
Set in an alternate Tang Dynasty China, The Scarlet Alchemist follows Zilan, an orphan who has been raised as a daughter by her aunt and uncle. She’s a skilled alchemist who dreams of moving to the capital with her cousins where they’ll become royal scholars and she’ll become and royal alchemist.
Author Kylie Lee Baker is an excellent storyteller and worldbuilder. She seamlessly combines the two, never straying too far down the other’s path. Her writing is smooth and her ability to get into Zilan’s head is commendable.
WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS, by Isabel Ibañez, Wednesday Books, Oct. 31, 2023, Hardcover, $20 (young adult)
Bolivian-Argentinian Inez Olivera belongs to the glittering upper society of 19th century Buenos Aires, and like the rest of the world, the town is steeped in old world magic that’s been largely left behind or forgotten.
When she receives word of her parents’ deaths, Inez inherits their massive fortune and a mysterious guardian, an archeologist in partnership with his Egyptian brother-in-law. Yearning for answers, Inez sails to Cairo, bringing her sketch pads and a golden ring her father sent to her for safekeeping before he died. But upon her arrival, the old world magic tethered to the ring pulls her down a path where she soon discovers there’s more to her parent’s disappearance than what her guardian led her to believe. —Synopsis provided by Wednesday Books
Author Isabel Ibañez’s ability to transport readers to 19th century Egypt is commendable. All five senses are awakened by her scene building. You really feel as if you’re walking through the bazar, eating the sweets, floating on the Nile and entering ancient Egyptian ruins.
And then there’s Cleopatra. Ibañez makes you feel as if the last pharaoh of Egypt is sitting right in front of you. In Ibañez’s world, the magical elements that bring Cleopatra to life feel right and real.
What the River Knows is an immersive read with a few twists you’ll see coming and a whole bunch that will knock you off your seat. With a beautiful cover and magical mystery, this historical romance is the whole package. I can’t wait to read its sequel.
ALWAYS ISN’T FOREVER, by J. C. Cervantes, Razorbill, June 6, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
Best friends and soul mates since they were kids, Hart Augusto and Ruby Armenta were poised to take on senior year together when Hart tragically drowns in a boating accident. Absolutely shattered, Ruby struggles to move on from the person she knows was her forever love.
Hart can’t let go of Ruby either…. Due to some divine intervention, he’s offered a second chance. Only it won’t be as simple as bringing him back to life—instead, Hart’s soul is transferred to the body of local bad boy.
When Hart returns to town as Jameson, he realizes that winning Ruby back will be more challenging than he’d imagined. For one, he’s forbidden from telling Ruby the truth. And with each day he spends as Jameson, memories of his life as Hart begin to fade away.
Though Ruby still mourns Hart, she can’t deny that something is drawing her to Jameson. As much as she doesn’t understand the sudden pull, it can’t be ignored. And why does he remind her so much of Hart? Desperate to see if the connection she feels is real, Ruby begins to open her heart to Jameson—but will their love be enough to bridge the distance between them? —Synopsis provided by Razorbill
Always Isn’t Forever is one of those books you sort of fall in to and don’t come up for air until finished. J. C. Cervantes’ narrative is compelling. Her protagonists are likeable. And the idea that someone might be able to come back from the dead is one that will resonate.
Always Isn’t Forever is not just a love story, though. Cervantes explores grief on a number of levels — the ones who are left behind. The loss of your own life and memories. The impact on a larger community. Combined with the romance elements, it really works. Always Isn’t Forever is a strong YA romance that reads almost cinematically. It’s a good option for those who really want to hone in on relationships.
THE PRINCE & THE APOCALYPSE: A NOVEL, by Kara McDowell, Wednesday Books, July 11, 2023, Paperback, $12 (young adult)
Wren Wheeler has flown 5,000 miles across the ocean to discover she’s the worst kind of traveler: the kind who just wants to go home. Her senior-year trip to London was supposed to be life-changing, but by the last day, Wren’s perfectly-planned itinerary is in tatters. There’s only one item left to check off: breakfast at The World’s End restaurant. The one thing she can still get right.
The restaurant is closed for renovations ― of course ― but there’s a boy there, too. A very cute boy with a posh British accent who looks remarkably like the errant Prince Theo, on the run from the palace and his controlling mother. When Wren helps him escape a pack of tourists, the Prince scribbles down his number and offers her one favor in return. She doesn’t plan to take him up on it ― until she gets to the airport and sees cancelled flights and chaos. A comet is approaching Earth, and the world is ending in eight days. Suddenly, that favor could be her only chance to get home to her family before the end of the world.
Wren strikes a bargain with the runaway prince: if she’ll be his bodyguard from London to his family’s compound in Santorini, he can charter her a private jet home in time to say goodbye. Traveling through Europe by boat, train, and accidentally stolen automobile, Wren finds herself drawn to the dryly sarcastic, surprisingly vulnerable Theo. But the Prince has his own agenda, one that could derail both their plans. When life as they know it will be over in days, is it possible to find a happy ending? —Synopsis provided by Wednesday Books
Even though the apocalypse genre has pretty much been covered, everything about The Prince & the Apocalypse just works. And works in a way that you can see it play out cinematically. It’s a fast-paced high-stakes rom-com that covers all the bases.
The ending of The Prince & the Apocalypse is so unexpected that the thought of it being a standalone is kind of infuriating. Pretty please, Kara McDowell, write a sequel.
STARS AND SMOKE, by Marie Lu, Roaring Brook Press, March 28, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
Meet Winter Young – International pop sensation, with a voice like velvet and looks that could kill. His star power has smashed records, selling out stadiums from LA to London. His rabid fans would move heaven and earth for even a glimpse of him – just imagine what they’d do to become his latest fling.
Meet Sydney Cossette – Part of an elite covert ops group, Sydney joined their ranks as their youngest spy with plans to become the best agent they’ve ever had. An ice queen with moves as dangerous as her comebacks, Sydney picks up languages just as quickly as she breaks hearts. She’s fiery, no-nonsense, and has zero time for romance – especially with a shameless flirt more used to serving sass than taking orders.
When a major crime boss gifts his daughter a private concert with Winter for her birthday, Sydney and Winter’s lives suddenly collide. Tasked with infiltrating the crime organization’s inner circle, Sydney is assigned as Winter’s bodyguard with Winter tapped to join her on the mission of a lifetime as a new spy recruit. Sydney may be the only person alive impervious to Winter’s charms, but as their mission brings them closer, she’s forced to admit that there’s more to Winter Young than just a handsome face . . . —Synopsis provided by Roaring Brook Press
Stars and Smoke is a wild ride from beginning to end. This dual point of view book is smart, fast and full of action.
At the center of Lu’s story are Winter and Sydney. The two are as opposite as possible, and that’s a great setup for this sort of book. Both characters are extremely well written and their inner thoughts and emotions are well explored. Though I finished feeling as though I knew Winter better than Sydney, leaving her with a little mystery fits well with her position as a spy.
Lu’s pacing is superb, and the world she’s created is believable. Her cinematic setting is easy to get lost in.
Stars and Smoke is a fast-cased action/thriller that you won’t want to put down. I can’t wait for the sequel.
ENOLA HOLMES AND THE MARK OF THE MONGOOSE, by Nancy Springer, Wednesday Books; Media tie-in edition, Sept. 5, 2023, Hardcover, $20 (young adult)
In May of 1890, Enola Holmes is finally fully on her own and, no longer hiding from her older brothers Sherlock and Mycroft, attending classes and occasionally pursuing her chosen profession as a scientific perditorian, a finder of lost things and people.
Wolcott Balestier, the representative of an American book publisher, arrived in London on a singular mission — to contract with English authors for their latest works. When Balestier disappears on the streets of London one day, his great friend — Rudyard Kipling — bursts into Enola’s office looking for help in finding him. Brash and unwilling to hire a young woman, instead he turns to Sherlock Holmes. Convinced that evil has befallen Balestier, at the hands of rival American publishers who pirate the works of English authors, he sets the elder Holmes on the trail.
But Enola is not one to accept defeat, especially not to her brother, and sets off on her own – determined to learn the truth behind the disappearance of the young American. The redoubtable Enola is determined to do just that, even if it means working with her brother Sherlock! —Synopsis provided by Wednesday Books
As with the other books in the series, Enola is the star and Sherlock is a supporting character. Here, Enola is the storyteller. She tells you everything you need to know in her conversational, and a touch snarky tone. She’s sitting next to you, recounting her tale with spark and joy.
All of the books in this series follow a similar format, and Enola Holmes and the Mark of the Mongoose is no different. Readers will enjoy the mysteries built on mysteries and the inevitable scrapes that Enola gets into. The pacing is quick, the vocabulary grand and the adventures enticing.
THE ROSEWOOD HUNT, by Mackenzie Reed, HarperTeen, Oct. 31, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
Lily Rosewood has lived with her grandmother since her dad’s death a year ago. She and Gram have always been close—Gram’s role as chair of their family’s luxury coat business has inspired Lily’s love of fashion, and Lily hopes to follow in Gram’s footsteps one day.
Then Gram dies suddenly, and Lily’s world is upended. Gram’s quarter of a billion-dollar fortune is missing, and Lily has been banned from the manor she and Gram shared.
But Gram has always loved games, and even in death, she still has a few tricks up her couture sleeve. When Lily and three other seemingly random teens get letters from Gram sending them on a treasure hunt around Rosetown, they hope the fortune will be the reward. But they’re not the only ones hunting for Gram’s treasure, and soon the hunt becomes more dangerous than they ever could have imagined. —Synopsis provided by HarperTeen
The Rosewood Hunt has a definite Inheritance Games vibe. It’s a romance wrapped in an adventure wrapped in a mystery.
The Rosewood Hunt is full of twists and turns, clues, adventures, and a bit of romance. It’s a fast-moving read with enough plot twists to keep readers’ interest. The book is a standalone novel, which allows for instant gratification.
ENLIGHTENED, by Sachi Ediriweera, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Sept. 26, 2023, Paperback, $13.99, Hardcover, $22.99 (young adult)
Prince Siddhartha lives in a beautiful palace in the heart of Kapilavastu. His father, the king, ensures that he has the best of everything—he just can’t go outside. He is locked up away from the city, away from anything that might cause him pain. He knows nothing of illness, aging, sorrow, or death, yet Siddhartha feels the pain regardless, and it instills a burning curiosity to understand the world outside—and the nature of human suffering.
Based on the life of the real man who was known first as a prince, then as a monk, and now as the Gautama Buddha, Enlightened is about one boy’s quest to learn the truth that underpins our endless struggle against suffering—and in understanding, break the cyclic existence that perpetuates it. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Enlightened, quite honestly, brings the story of Siddhartha to life. In particular, the complexities of suffering and attaining enlightenment become accessible. And the overall story draws you in.
Author/illustrator Sachi Ediriweera achieves this with simple and engaging text and crisp linework. His choice to utilize blue watercolor-style backgrounds and single-color accents of brown and orange call attention to the action and eliminates distractions.
How to Draw a Graphic Novel, by Balthazar Pagani , Marco Maraggi, Otto Gabos, Thames & Hudson, Nov. 14, 2023, Paperback, $19.95 (young adult)
How to Draw a Graphic Novel is structured as a series of short art courses that combine technical advice with creative inspiration. Written by graphic novel producer Balthazar Pagani, the book includes lessons in how to construct a narrative, develop characters, and design settings, as well as the basics of printing, binding, and digital-file setup.
Each lesson is supported by striking illustrations by graphic novel artist Marco Maraggi, with professional art tips delivered in the style of a graphic novel by renowned Italian cartoonist and comics lecturer Otto Gabos.
The book also includes biographies of cult creators and a recommended reading list of famous graphic novels and comic books both past and present. —Synopsis provided by Thames & Hudson
How to Draw a Graphic Novel gives readers a comprehensive look from beginning to end of how a graphic novel comes to fruition. Engaging, accessible text is paired with bright, informative illustrations.
QUEEN BEE, by Amalie Howard, Random House Children’s, Joy Revolution, April 4, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Lady Ela Dalvi knows the exact moment her life was forever changed — when her best friend, Poppy, betrayed her without qualm over a boy, the son of a duke. She was sent away in disgrace, her reputation ruined.
Nearly three years later, eighteen-year-old Ela is consumed with bitterness and a desire for . . . revenge. Her enemy is quickly joining the crème de la crème of high society while she withers away in the English countryside.
With an audacious plan to get even, Ela disguises herself as a mysterious heiress and infiltrates London’s elite. But when Ela reunites with the only boy she’s ever loved, she begins to question whether vengeance is still her greatest desire. —Synopsis provided by Random House Children’s Joy Revolution
Queen Bee is billed as an anti-historical Regency-era tale that’s Bridgerton meets The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s an excellent comparison, though I’d also throw the television show Revenge in there as well. It’s a great mashup of the feel of the three, but written for a YA audience.
In Queen Bee, author Amalie Howard has created a believable world built on history but with a number of twists. You immediately feel at home in her world, and her own imaginings are grounded and feel natural.
Queen Bee is a fast, entertaining read that brings all the things people love about Regency fiction together with modern sensibilities. It’s great fun to read, and I hope the author is planning more in this genre.
SNOW & POISON, by Melissa de la Cruz, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, April 18, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Known as Snow White, Lady Sophie has led a sheltered life in the mountains of Bavaria. Until now. Her father, the widowed Duke Maximilian, is at last remarrying, and on the day of his historic wedding, Sophie is making her high-society debut.
At the ball, Sophie charms the dashing Prince Philip, heir to the Spanish throne. But as Philip and Sophie start falling deeply in love, the king of Spain loses his temper. His wish is that Philip would marry a princess. And now, his command is Sophie’s death.
In a quest for survival, Sophie seeks refuge in the home of seven orphans, the counsel of a witch, and the safety of her blade. With the looming threat of war upon her duchy, Sophie must ponder: Can she do right by her home and honor her heart’s desire? —Synopsis provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Snow & Poison was almost everything I was hoping a historical reimagining of Snow White would be. Factual elements are layered with imagined, creating a believable world that feels both familiar and new.
The female dynamics throughout Snow & Poison are particularly interesting. Though society gives them little power, these women use what they can to their advantage, even if that means becoming an “evil witch/queen” or submissive daughter.
At 288 pages, Snow & Poison is a fairly short young adult read that moves quickly. I read it cover-to-cover in a few hours. It’s a strong reimagining with nods to previous variations that will have readers smiling.
BUFFALO FLATS, by Martine Leavitt, Margaret Ferguson Books, April 25, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
Seventeen-year-old Rebecca Leavitt has traveled by covered wagon from Utah to the Northwest Territories of Canada, where her father and brothers are now homesteading and establishing a new community with other Latter-Day Saints. Rebecca is old enough to get married, but what kind of man would she marry and who would have a girl like her — a girl filled with ideas and opinions? Someone gallant and exciting like Levi Howard? Or a man of ideas like her childhood friend Coby Webster?
Rebecca decides to set her sights on something completely different. She loves the land and wants her own piece of it. When she learns that single women aren’t allowed to homestead, her father agrees to buy her land outright, as long as Rebecca earns the money — 480 dollars, an impossible sum. She sets out to earn the money while surviving the relentless challenges of pioneer life — the ones that Mother Nature throws at her in the form of blizzards, grizzles, influenza and floods, and the ones that come with human nature, be they exasperating neighbors or the breathtaking frailty of life. —Synopsis provided by Margaret Ferguson Books
The first chapter of Buffalo Flats sets the tone for what is a beautifully refreshing look at settler life in frontier Canada. And it does so through the eyes of someone who holds her faith dear but nudges the boundaries of societal dictates.
Author Martine Leavitt is a master storyteller. I particularly admire her ability to create a true sense of Rebecca’s Latter-Day Saint (aka Mormon) faith while keeping it accessible to all readers. It’s so interwoven into Rebecca’s life that it just is. And that’s what moves it out of a niche novel into the mainstream.
Buffalo Flats is a fantastic historical YA inspired by true-life stories. It’s a lyrical read that sweeps you away and begs to be read in one go. It’s one of my favorite YA reads as of late.
Copyright © 2023 Cracking the Cover. Unless otherwise noted, all books — digital and physical — have been provided by publishers in exchange for honest and unbiased reviews. All thoughts and opinions are those of the reviewer.