Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children No.1) – Seanan McGuire
Everyone knows that sometimes, children get lost. And the ones who come back with strange stories about other lands, where they wore crowns and fought their enemies and fell in love…well, if they’re lucky, they find their way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where everyone is re-learning how to live in this world and hoping against hope they’ll find their way out again, back to the worlds that they now call home. Nancy knows that she belongs in the silence and shadows of the Halls of the Dead, not in this quick and waking place. But someone else is even more desperate for escape – and willing to bring death into the school to get it.
If you ever finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with an immense sense of frustration, this is the book for you. It takes on the genre of portal fantasy with the simple question: what happens when the children come home? With an asexual protagonist and a cast of diverse, unpredictable characters, Every Heart a Doorway is both a murder mystery and a sharp, intelligent overturning of some very familiar tropes. The next book in the series is Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is slated for release in June of this year.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Simon & Schuster, 2012
Aristotle – better known as Ari – is a boy defined by the things he doesn’t say. His family don’t talk about his father’s experience in the Vietnam War; they don’t talk about why Ari’s older brother is in prison, or why they seem so afraid that Ari will follow him there. Then Ari meets Dante, a boy who defines himself by talking about everything. He loves birds, poetry, art, words – and he loves being Ari’s friend. With Dante around, Ari finds himself beginning to unravel the mysteries that have kept him quiet for so long. Maybe eventually, Ari will even understand himself.
Aristotle and Dante is set during the 1980s and both main characters are Mexican; there’s a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of culture, family and identity woven through the novel, but never slowing it down. While very different characters, Ari and Dante are both vividly written and incredibly engaging. The rest of the cast, particularly the boys’ families, are equally well-rounded, with a wonderful warmth and realism. There was one moment that jarred me – without including spoilers, towards the end of the story Ari discovers something about his brother that I personally felt should have had a greater narrative impact. Overall, though, this is a beautiful story about friendship, love and truth. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s latest book is The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, published earlier this month.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, 2015
Sixteen-year-old Simon Spier likes to put on a show, but he prefers it when the drama stays on the stage. The only person in his life who knows he’s gay is Blue, his anonymous online friend, and the only one who knows Blue is gay is Simon. Their friendship is slowly evolving into something new when the wrong person finds out about the emails and Simon suddenly finds himself blackmailed into the role of reluctant matchmaker for the most annoying straight boy ever. He has to find a way to get out of this situation before he’s dragged any deeper into someone else’s disaster of a love life – and before it wrecks his own.
The premise makes this sound like a slightly darker book than it is. While Simon’s predicament is definitely treated as a serious one, Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda is overall a light-hearted, witty and sincere story and all its characters are written with a warmth and sensitivity that makes even the less likeable ones very well-rounded. Simon is a delightful protagonist – I was particularly charmed by the relationship he has with his sisters – and the question of Blue’s identity is given some good twists. Albertalli’s next novel, The Upside of Unrequited, is slated for release in April.
Summer Days, Summer Nights – ed. Stephanie Perkins
In the long hot stretch of summer, rules start melting in the sun. You might spot a lake monster when you go swimming, reconnect with the secret crush you’re almost (but not quite) over, resort to matchmaking for your oblivious friends, or maybe make plans to save a crumbling carnival. It’s possible time may stop altogether. Love is in the air and so is trouble.
This is the second in a pair of YA short fiction romance anthologies, the first being the winter-themed My True Love Gave To Me. It’s a pretty hardcover, with yellow edging on the pages contrasting against a blue cover, and I’m definitely the kind of reader who appreciates that kind of thing. Summer Days, Summer Nights is split fairly evenly between mainstream fiction and SF/fantasy stories, and while I didn’t find all of the stories very romantic, there’s a good mix of different types of couples, including QUILTBAG protagonists and a story with an autistic boy as one of the lead characters. My favourites include ‘Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail’ by Leigh Bardugo, ‘The End of Love’ by Nina LaCour, ‘A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong’ by Jennifer E. Smith and ‘The Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ by Lev Grossman.
Valor – ed. Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton
Fairylogue Press, 2015
What’s in a name? Maybe a secret, maybe a spell. In this anthology of fairy tale retellings, you’ll have to run fast to escape the masquerade, and hold onto your courage to break a terrible curse. Monsters are not always what they seem, love can be discovered in the strangest of places and a happy ending is all about where you choose to look for it.
Most of the stories in Valor are comics, though there are a few that are almost entirely text. As with all anthologies, some stories were stronger than others – there were a couple that just felt incomplete to me. My favourites included the charming ‘Bride of the Rose Beast’, the bittersweet romance of ‘Nautilus’ and the utterly delightful ‘Lady Tilda’. This collection has a refreshing emphasis on diversity and I was very pleased to see retellings of some more obscure fairy tales.
Swordspoint (Riverside No.1) – Ellen Kushner
Bantam Spectra, 2003
Originally published in 1987
In the city, the business of politics is carried out over chocolate, under fireworks, at dinner parties – but underneath the civilised banter lies a cut-throat reality. The nobility crush their rivals and take revenge through their proxies, the swordsmen, and no swordsman is more sought after than the famous Richard St. Vier. He lives in the squalid district of Riverside with his lover Alec, a fiercely argumentative young scholar, and keeps his distance from the quarrels on the Hill, even as he risks his life for them. Some acts of vengeance, however, go deeper than any sword.
It isn’t easy to write a blurb for this book. Having read the second one in the series first, The Privilege of the Sword, I had a vague idea of how this story would go, but the blurb on the back was so terrible it gave away pretty much the entire plot, so I advise avoiding any summaries for Swordspoint altogether. Richard and Alec are both abrasive, morally dubious characters whose relationship is very confusing even to themselves; in other hands this would have been quite a grim story, but Ellen Kushner has a delightfully dry, witty style and a gorgeous way with words. I found that Swordspoint is particularly suited to reading aloud. This copy also includes three short stories about Richard and Alec, which continue to flesh out the rich setting of the city. I will definitely be reading the third book in this series, The Fall of the Kings.
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel – Sara Farizan
Leila has so many questions. For instance, how does her sister Nahal effortlessly achieve perfection while Leila fails at the basics of science, sport and self-esteem? What should she say to Lisa, her childhood best friend, who seems to be retreating so deep into her shell that no one can follow? How is she supposed to tell her friend Greg that no, she doesn’t fancy him, because actually she has a crush on the glamorous new student Saskia…who maybe, just maybe, likes her? And is there ever going to be a good time to tell her parents she’s gay? There should be a manual for these things, but the only way for Leila to get answers is to take a chance and hope she’s right.
I saw this book recommended on Tumblr, and it was just as adorable as promised. Leila is awkward, uncertain and lovable; all the supporting cast were well-shaped and there were some unexpectedly hilarious moments. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel has its drama, but this isn’t an angsty book. While Leila’s sexuality is of course a big part of the plot, this being a coming of age story, it is not the sole focus and there are a variety of LGBT characters. This is Sara Farizan’s second novel. Her first is If You Could Be Mine.