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Those Girls

Lauren Saft. Little, Brown/Poppy, $18 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-40366-5

Junior year is starting, and Alex is auditioning for a band, Mollie is taking Plan B, and Veronica is flirting with everyone, teachers included. The three are long-time best friends, but backbiting, secrecy, and trashing are the norm for them; Alex and Mollie have no problem calling Veronica a “slut” to her face, and Veronica is dating Alex’s crush and hooking up with Mollie’s boyfriend. Debut author Saft can be funny, but it isn’t evident how she really feels about the snobbish, drugs-and-alcohol-infused, joylessly sexualized culture she’s portraying. No one is happy, yet the awfulness is normalized in a way that makes an alternative hard to imagine. The girls switch off as narrators, and Saft wants readers to root for them, but it’s not easy (Alex is the most multidimensional, while Mollie and Veronica are reduced to snide and bewildered). It gets even harder when Mollie and Alex do something cruel and dangerous, then essentially get off scot-free. The act is something of a wake-up call about the results of deceiving themselves and others, but it’s too little, too late. Ages 15–up. Agent: Kirby Kim, Janklow & Nesbit. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Grunge Gods and Graveyards

Kimberly G. Giarratano. Red Adept (redadeptpublishing.com), $5.99 e-book (303p) ASIN B00KPBSGA0

Part ghost story, part mystery, this atmospheric piece set in 1996 combines teen angst with small-town dynamics and a touch of urban legend. High school senior Lainey Bloom is in mourning for Danny Obregon, the boy she loved, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident over the summer. She’s also contending with bullies (including Danny’s ex), an unsympathetic school administration, and a perpetually busy widower father. While Lainey’s life spirals into confusion, Danny’s ghost appears, asking her to help figure out who killed him. As they investigate Danny’s death, romance continues to bloom between girl and ghost, and they discover that the truth is almost fatally complicated. Giarratano makes a solid debut, though she takes a kitchen sink approach to her plotting and worldbuilding: Lainey’s life takes on the qualities of a soap opera, with everything going wrong at home, at school, with her friends, and so on. What proves overwhelming for the protagonist risks feeling excessive for readers. Nevertheless, the mix of murder mystery and supernatural love story makes this an entertaining if unfocused read. Ages 14–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

Stephanie Oakes. Dial, $17.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8037-4070-9

A harrowing opening scene immerses readers in 17-year-old narrator Minnow’s trauma, as she responds to a perceived threat with astonishing brutality, while carrying the skeletal remains of her own amputated hands. Minnow was five when her parents followed Prophet Kevin into the wilderness to found a rustic commune of Kevinians, who worship the God Charlie and obey prophesies divinely dictated to Kevin, such as, “It is my Commandment that ye do again this task, with Minnow, daughter of Samuel, for she be in need of spiritual intervention of the kind that marriage provides.” The narrative weaves between the hellish prison of the past that Minnow longed to escape and the juvenile prison she enters, which becomes an unexpected haven where she learns to read, make friends, and “think about the universe, and the earth, and the stars.” As Minnow recounts both shocking cruelty and acts of kindness—most movingly from her one friend outside the commune, the boy she assaulted, and her “lifer” cellmate—suspense, dread, and hope intermingle in Oakes’s charged, page-turning debut. Ages 14–up. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (June)’

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea

Jonathan David Kranz. Holt, $17.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62779-050-5

Twin tragedies link two teens working at a boardwalk amusement park: Rachel and Ethan both recently lost their brothers to deadly accidents. Rachel is eager to know the truth behind her brother’s fall from a roller coaster, and in unraveling the mystery she uncovers an insidious undercurrent of corruption in Sea Town that points to answers in the death of Ethan’s brother, Jason. Alternating between entries in Jason’s journal and chapters that focus on the surviving siblings, debut novelist Kranz presents a disjointed plot, populated by characters that are, at best, opaque and, at worst, props (readers learn that Rachel’s brother, Curtis, had Down syndrome, but he has little else in the way of an individual narrative). Kranz’s wordplay, like the title itself, has a poetic quality, with details evoking the gritty life of resort-town residents, but the story tries too hard to retain an aura of mystery—Jason’s journal entries show up long before Ethan discovers the book itself, and it isn’t clear Jason is writing them until well into the book. Ages 14–up. Agent: Marcy Posner, Folio Literary Management. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Night We Said Yes

Lauren Gibaldi. HarperTeen, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-230219-9

Best friends and recent high school graduates Ella and Meg both dated members of a small “pop punk” band: Ella had an intense fling with bassist Matt, who later skipped town, while Meg has been on-again, off-again with lead singer Jake. When Ella unexpectedly runs into Matt six months after he vanished, she is both excited to see him again and angry that he left without saying goodbye. Gibaldi’s debut draws its title from a night these four teens spent together, during which they agreed to try every (reasonable) idea that one of them suggested. Ella and Matt decide to relive their “night of saying yes,” and Gibaldi’s chapters, written from Ella’s point of view, shift between the first night and the current one, one year later. However, the anticlimactic original night consisted mainly of drinking on the school’s roof and going swimming before it fell apart, and the second night follows a similar trajectory. While it’s an appealing structure and premise, the plot winds up feeling a bit thin. Ages 14–up. Agent: Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Like It Never Happened

Emily Adrian. Dial, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-5254-2823-7

There’s more drama offstage than onstage for high-school thespian Rebecca Rivers in this sharp-witted debut novel, which traces several crises in her junior year. First, there is the issue of Rebecca breaking her pact with her small circle of actor friends by becoming romantically involved with a boy within the group; then Rebecca’s estranged older sister, Mary, suddenly returns home to announce her engagement to a professional golfer. But most traumatic of all are the false rumors being spread around school that could destroy both Rebecca and the entire drama department. Balancing masterful comedic timing with a thoughtful presentation of controversial topics, first-time novelist Adrian’s writing brims with authenticity and compassion. Highly visual scenarios, such as Rebecca’s parents’ awkward reunion with their rebellious-daughter-turned-mainstream-fiancée, are priceless (“Mom was pretty desperate to meet the fiancé, whereas Dad was content to watch old recordings of Jeffrey’s most crucial golf moments”), and the messages about peer, teacher, and family relationships are evergreen. Readers will easily relate to Rebecca, who combats many obstacles without losing her passion for the stage. Ages 14–up. Agent: Susan Ginsburg, Writers House. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Leaves Falling

Sarah Benwell. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4814-3065-4

A Kyoto teenager diagnosed with ALS connects with two new friends and weighs how to approach his imminent death from the neurological disease in Benwell’s resonant debut. Benwell laces her story with references to the evanescent and ephemeral: the fleeting fame of a popular band, the changing colors of autumn leaves, and the stars in the night sky (“So many of them will be burnt and gone before we even notice them,” Sora’s grandfather tells him during a visit in the countryside). Sora, with a heightened awareness of his mortality, notices them, and readers will, too. Sora’s fears of losing control of his degrading body and the burden he is placing on his single mother are equally evident in his measured, even cerebral narration; his relationship with his devoted mother, who can barely discuss Sora’s condition with him, is one of the novel’s most tender threads, along with Sora’s mutually rewarding new friendship with Kaito and Mai. It’s a memorable and haunting story of a boy’s determination to seize control of the limited time he has left. Ages 14–up. Agent: Gill McLay, Bath Literary Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Sweet

Emmy Laybourne. Feiwel and Friends, $17.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-05519-4

Seventeen-year-old Laurel is on the famous “Cruise to Lose,” thanks to her best friend Vivika. Despite a ship packed with famous celebrities—including former child-star Tom Forelli—and affluent passengers eager to try a revolutionary new sweetener, Solu, Laurel doesn’t feel pressured to shrink her size-14 body. Switching perspectives between Laurel and Tom as the seven-day trip progresses, Laybourne (Monument 14) introduces multiple characters who range from Timothy Almstead, the conniving CEO of Solu, to Jaideep, a waiter who becomes a life-saving ally. Passengers’ miraculous weight loss turns deadly as the sweetener induces an addiction so intense that fights, debauchery, and cannibalism soon follow. Scared for skeletally thin Vivika and even more frightened at the prospect of Solu’s global release, Tom and Laurel battle zombielike addicts to warn others about its effects. Some oversimplified dialogue and lackluster descriptions aside, Laybourne delivers a candy-coated horror novel that alternates between increasingly violent scenes and Laurel and Tom’s poignant romance. Though the message is plain—love yourself as you are—the ramifications of not doing so are terrifyingly clear. Ages 13–up. Agent: Susanna Einstein, Einstein Literary Management. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Sugar

Deirdre Riordan Hall. Amazon/Skyscape, $9.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-4778-2938-7

Hall, author of the self-published Follow Your Bliss series for adults, presents the story of 17-year-old Sugar Legowski-Garcia, whose abusive home life, compulsive eating, and lack of self-esteem threaten to bury her. Sugar and her family all suffer from obesity. They inhabit a dilapidated house in a “forgotten corner of New Hampshire” where Sugar’s bedridden mother, who weighs more than 500 pounds, treats Sugar like a servant, and Sugar’s brother, Skunk, is cruel and physically abusive. Taunted at school as much as she is at home, Sugar is consumed by shame and despair until a boy named Even, who has his own family problems, comes to town. Even provides needed distractions, adventures, and encouragement until tragedy strikes, pushing the story into melodrama. While the dialogue can be schmaltzy and the messaging heavy-handed (“We’re both stuck, with nowhere to go, and no way to get there”), Sugar’s character has depth, and her unhappiness and determination to conquer it are realistically portrayed. Readers will sympathize with Sugar and understand her struggle to reach her full potential. Ages 13–up. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Proof of Forever

Lexa Hillyer. HarperTeen, $17.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-233037-6

Zoe, Tali, Luciana, and Joy are jaded former best friends from summer camp, each with their own hang-ups and heartaches. One night they converge at a camp reunion, wondering where their friendship went wrong, and are mysteriously transported back to their 15-year-old selves. With one week of camp left, the girls must figure out how to return to the present day. In her first novel, Hillyer, a co-founder of literary development company Paper Lantern Lit, employs the simplicity and levity of a time-travel device to contrast the then and now of her four protagonists, adding a dose of humor to some of the heavier moments of this story—Joy’s secret, Zoe’s uncertainty about her sexuality, Tali’s long-harbored anger, the pressure Luciana feels to be a “good girl,” and the loves and losses each girl faced (and now face again) at camp. While the novel’s ending is somewhat rushed, Hillyer’s third-person narrative is fluid and layered with emotion, sensitively describing the friends’ second chances at a variety of firsts and the strengthened bond they share. Ages 13–up. Agent: Stephen Barbara, InkWell Management. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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