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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Iowa High School Award Winner 2020-21

Genre: Realistic Fiction

# of Pages:  234

Marin ran away to college after a terrible tragedy befell her and she hasn’t told anyone about it, even her best friend Mabel.  Despite her effort to outrun her past, however, Mabel has come to visit Marin in her dorm over Christmas break.  Mabel is determined to find out why Marin ran away and if there is any way to rekindle their friendship.  As the weekend goes on Marin begins to face the terrible truth she ran from, but she also begins to realize that she is going to have to face her past eventually.  Can they be as close as they once were?  Can Marin learn to deal with her reality as it is?

Fans of John Green will enjoy this title.  The characters are vivid and the plot is revealed at an appropriate pace.  Many difficult issues are discussed so readers looking for lighter reads will probably want to keep looking.  This has been named an Iowa Award Winner for next year.

 

Run, Hide, Fight Back by April Henry

Genre:  Suspense

Told from multiple viewpoints, six teenagers struggle to survive when masked men open fire in a shopping mall at Christmas time.  Grace, watched in horror as her mother became the first victim.  Miranda had been looking for ways to earn extra cash to support her new habit.  Javier had been working as a janitor in the cafeteria.  Amina had been working retail in a local clothing shop.  Cole was near the food court when the shooting happened and tried to get as many people as possible into a local store before the metal grate closed.  Finally, Parker had been reluctantly babysitting his little sister while messing around with his friends and lost track of her in the chaos.  He finds himself in the middle of the action while trying to find her.  All of these teenagers come from different backgrounds and have different issues to deal with, but ultimately they all have the same goal of survival.  They come up with a plan for how to help the hostages, but not everyone will make it out alive.

April Henry has once again created a fast paced suspenseful novel in which the characters are engaging.  Reluctant readers will enjoy this title as it is full of action and very little downtime.  The ending does contain a few surprises, but most are set up throughout the story and should not be a huge surprise.  A very entertaining read.

This is Not the End by Chandler Baker

Genre:  Realistic Fiction apart from one futuristic element

376 p.

Lake Devereaux survived the car accident that killed her best friend and her boyfriend.  She has less than a month until she turns eighteen, at which time she can resurrect one person, but only one.  To make matters worse, she had already promised her resurrection to someone else who isn’t even dead yet. Everyone is pressuring her to use her resurrection for their personal family member and she is getting frustrated and overwhelmed.  Then, after therapy she meets a boy from her past who does not care who she chooses and therefore she sees him as someone she can confide in. He has strong feelings against resurrections, though, which makes their relationship difficult.  Who will Lake choose?

This book manages to set up a premise that seems totally believable and yet impossible for Lake all at once.  Her relationship with her brother, boyfriend, and best friend are all described in avid detail as you see why she is struggling so hard with this resurrection decision.  The periphery characters are also well described and their motivations are all understandable.  The ending will surprise most readers, but not in the way they will probably think.  The book manages to sustain a very interesting premise throughout the entire book.

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

# of Pages: 356

Sylvie, Vincent, Jules, and Sam are all lured to a late night escape room they believe to be mandatory for team building at their lucrative investment firm.  All of them have places they’d rather be, but after losing two major clients recently they are all concerned about their positions going forward.  Once they arrive, they soon get stuck in the elevator in the abandoned building and they quickly find a few clues that makes them realize the elevator is actually the escape room.  It’s very hot and dark, however, so they struggle to find clues.  They soon realize that there is no getting out of here unless they find their own way out and each clue reminds them of what they have given up and who they have hurt on their way up the corporate ladder.  Who is behind the escape room and will these four escape alive?

The person behind the escape room becomes clear fairly quickly in the story, but the why and the how take awhile to unfold.  Each of these people has a complicated backstory and it takes awhile for everything to come out.  Fans of mysteries such as The Woman in the Window and the Woman in Cabin 10 will enjoy this fast paced, high energy mystery story.  Even once the reader figures out who is behind the escape room, there are still many surprises ahead.

Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Romance

# of Pages: 282

2019 Iowa High School Book Award

Morgan has become increasingly frightened to leave her apartment ever since the mass shooting at her high school.  It’s gotten to the point where she can’t even step outside her apartment door without everything starting to go fuzzy.  When Evan moves in next door she begins to want to explore the outside world again.  She misses her friends and her swim team and she hates the burden she’s put on her single mother and brother.  Her father is largely absent and isn’t much of a role model when he is in the picture. With the help of her therapist, Morgan must make the choice to fight her fears or else she may never leave her apartment again.

This book truly helps readers see what it would be like to be agoraphobic.  Morgan’s fears and her subsequent fight to get better are not portrayed as easy or trivial in any way.  As the story goes on, Morgan is also forced to see that others were also negatively challenged by the shooting, but have struggled in other ways.  It’s also nice to see how Morgan’s family copes and remains relatively happy and supportive of each other despite all that they have been through and the fact that they are not rich.  Evan is a fun character for Morgan to interact with, but ultimately this is Morgan’s story to tell.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Genre: Realistic Fiction

# of Pages: 286

2019 Iowa Book Award Winner

Aza is a high school girl with many phobias in life, specifically that she will come in contact with a germ that will ultimately kill her.  She is constantly thinking about different diseases and risks she could encounter on a daily basis and this constant focus on her mortality has made her a bit of an outcast in her high school.  She does have one best friend, Daisy, who loves to write Star Wars fan fiction and seems to have Aza’s back at all times. When a local millionaire is charged with several crimes and disappears before he can be arrested, Daisy and Aza dream about what they would do with the $100,000 reward money for anyone who can provide information on his whereabouts.  When Aza was young, she was friends with the millionaire’s son, Davis.  They decide to contact him again in the hopes of learning where his dad is so they can collect the reward money.  He quickly sees through their plan, but reuniting with Aza turns out to be pretty great as she and Davis become close.  Whenever she gets too close, however, her mind spins out of control and she has to leave to collect her thoughts.  Can Aza overcome her own thoughts in order to get close to the boy she cares about?  Can Aza and Daisy find out what happened to Davis’s father?  Is Daisy as good of a friend as she thinks she is to Aza?

This book has gotten a lot of attention because it portrays Aza’s condition in a realistic light so that others can understand what it would be like to live like that. All of the characters are well developed and it’s easy to understand their motivations and desires.  The mystery of what happened to Davis’s dad is what gets the story going, but ultimately this story is about the characters and how they are all trying their best to deal with their individual issues and get through high school.  Fans of John Green will devour this title.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Genre: Realistic Fiction

372 p

2019 Iowa High School Book Award

Dill Early, Jr. is struggling in his town where he is now famous for being the son of the preacher who was convicted of having child pornography on his computer.  He and his mom are struggling under all the legal bills and he doesn’t see how he can ever really get out of this small town.  Lydia, his sarcastic friend, is also a bit of an outcast because she refuses to conform to traditional norms.  She has a fashion blog where she showcases unique stores all around their area and encourages everyone to be themselves at all costs. Their other friend, Travis, is a large red haired senior who loves a fantasy book series and often carries a staff with him.  The three of them are often ridiculed in their community and if they didn’t have each other to lean on their lives would be truly miserable.  Lydia, at least, has very supportive parents at home who are not living hand to mouth and can afford to spoil her a bit.  Dill and Travis, on the other hand, have parents who do not seem to like who they are very much and keep trying to change them.  All three of them have aspirations for after high school but do they have the courage to go for them? Do they have the strength to break away from the expectations that have been set for them?

This powerful story gets more and more powerful as it goes on.  The character development is so well done that the reader really feels like he or she knows these people and is living alongside them.  There are many issues these teenagers are dealing with that seem especially unfair for people so young, but these situations exist all over America and it’s time we all start addressing it.  Travis and Dill feel like they are trapped and have no way out of the life set for them by their parents, while Lydia is counting down the days until she can leave this town far behind. In the end, they all must find the courage to do what they need to in order to not only survive, but thrive in their own lives.

 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Genre:  Realistic Fiction

# of Pages: 306

2019 Iowa High School Book Award

Will lives in a tough neighborhood where there are many rules that everyone just knows.  One of these rules is to never talk to police and to avenge killings yourself.  When Shawn, Will’s brother, is gunned down in their neighborhood he knows that according to the rules it is up to him to avenge Shawn by killing the person who shot him.  Will gets in the elevator with his brother’s gun and on each of the seven floors down a ghost of someone who knew Shawn gets in to tell him some information he needs to know before altering the course of his life with a huge action.

Written in poetry format, this story immediately pulls in the reader because it’s so easy to understand Will’s plight.  He doesn’t want to kill anyone but feels like he has to because of the code of the neighborhood and in order to prove that he cared about Shawn, who had done a lot for him since their dad died by gunfire.  As he begins meeting these ghosts of people who used to live in the neighborhood Will realizes that everything is not always as it seems and he might need to rethink any drastic actions.  A powerful story that is highly recommended for everyone, but especially reluctant readers.

The End of Our Story by Meg Haston

Genre: Romance

280 p.

2019 Iowa High School Award Winner

Bridge and Wil were very close until Bridge did something that Wil did not think he could bring himself to forgive.  It has been months and Bridge is still struggling without Wil and his family’s influence.  When she runs into Wil, his new girlfriend, and his dad at the grocery store his dad urges her to make things right with Wil.  She argues that it’s Wil who doesn’t want to have a relationship with her but he argues back that she needs to mend the friendship if nothing else.  Shortly after the town is shocked by the news that Wil’s dad has been murdered by an intruder and Bridge knows that it is her job to comfort Wil and his mother at this time.  Eventually, they begin to grow closer as Wil struggles with the aftermath of this attack, but is he being completely honest with Bridge?  Do they really have a future together or are they just looking for familiarity during a tragedy?

The relationship between the two main characters is very complicated, as many relationships are, despite both Wil and Bridge’s desire that it be easy and simple.  Bridge is trying to make up for a mistake she made and is desperate to get back in Wil’s good graces, but Wil has demons to overcome himself.  They are both facing many difficult decisions as they enter their senior year and it understandably causes some tension and anxiety with those around them.  They lean on each other to help them through these confusing times, but often find that without total honesty and trust nothing really matters.  Recommended for fans of conflict romances.

 

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

# of Pages: 556

Genre: Fantasy

2019 Iowa High School Award Winner

Nova lives in a world where some people have a super power that they were either both with or acquired at some point.  When she was young the Anarchists were superheroes trying to protect the rights of other superheroes by overthrowing the government that was oppressing them.  This led to chaos and another group of superheroes called the Renegades then rose up to fight the Anarchists.  Nova and her dad both had super powers and her dad believed that if they ever needed help the Renegades would come to their aide. However, when an assassin comes to their door Nova is forced to watch as he kills her mother, father, and baby sister.  The only reason she survives is because she’s able to put people to sleep when she touches them.  She ends up joining the Anarchists since the Renegades were nowhere to be found when she needed them.  She believes they have grown too powerful and need to be taken down, which is why she joins them when she’s old enough in order to learn what their weaknesses are.  As she begins working with her team, however, she realizes that you cannot blame an entire group for the sins of a few.  Should she remain loyal to the Anarchists who took her in when she had no one or truly become a Renegade who vows to protect the city at all costs?

The first in a series, this story is unique and engaging and puts a fresh spin on the idea of super heroes. Nova and her team captain, Adrian, both have secrets and desires to help the city improve, but they go about it in different ways that if found out could get them in big trouble.  The secondary characters are all developed and memorable so that the reader can truly differentiate between all of the superheroes and their many different, unique powers.  Highly recommended for anyone who likes a good adventure story.

Saving Red by Sonya Sones

# of Pages: 440

Genre:  Poetry

Molly has suffered a traumatic event that has left her with a support dog to comfort her anxiety, but it takes awhile before she shares what that event is.  In the meantime, she has lost all of her friends and is struggling in school, which is why she’s out doing her community service hours on the last day of the deadline.  The only option she has is to participate in the homeless count, which is when the city sends volunteers into the city to count the homeless population so they know how much relief to budget for the coming year.  She is struck by how many homeless people there are in her community, but it hits her especially hard when she meets Red who appears to only be a couple years older than her.  She decides to try and help Red reunite with her family before the holidays, but it is much more difficult and complicated than she thought it would be.  Can she help Red reunite with her family before it’s too late?  Can she help her own family heal and move on after what happened to them last year?

Even as a fan of Sonya Sones’ books this is one of her best.  It delves into the issues of mental illness, homelessness, and teen anxiety which are all issues that young adults need to hear more about as these issues effect everyone at some point.  Red and Molly are great characters that readers naturally want to learn more about and spend time with.  The ending is satisfying, even if it doesn’t answer every question, because life isn’t always easy as both Red and Molly are very aware of.  Highly recommended

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

# of Pages:  403

2019 Iowa High School Award Winner

Canaan is meant to be a perfect city in which people live in peace and harmony without the distraction of technology, money, or competition.  Every twelve years the town breaks into chaos and then their memories are erased.  The only way they know who they are is by reading the book that is tied to them at all times.  Nadia did not forget her memories during the last forgetting and therefore knows some of the things people chose not to include in their books, including people, they hoped to forget.  She has no idea why she didn’t forget her memories, but it definitely didn’t make her life any easier since her mother and sister treat her like she doesn’t belong in their family.  Meanwhile, Nadia has begun slipping over the walls of the town in search of food, answers, and adventure.  She is caught by the glassmaker’s son and he demands she take him with her.  As they explore outside the walls they learn there are many things about how their town was set up that no one ever passed down, despite her suspicions that not everyone is losing their memories every twelve years.  Will anyone ever believe them about their discoveries?  Will it be enough to save them from this terrible fate of forgetting who you are every twelve years?

This story has a dystopian feel similar to The Giver, The Testing, and Matched.  It takes awhile to fully invest in Nadia and her quest to find answers about her town.  Once she begins finding answers the book’s pace picks up and takes off while many obstacles rise up to try and stop her from sharing the truth of their existence with others.  The main characters are well developed and everyone’s motivations and actions are adequately explained by the end.  Readers who enjoy these dystopian books will be curious for more, but it isn’t quite as engaging as some of the other titles in this genre.

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

Image result for the perfect couple

Genre: Mystery

# of Pages:  471

When tragedy strikes at an upscale Nantucket wedding, everyone is shocked and horrified for the poor couple who will have to postpone their wedding.  The bride had discovered the body of her maid of honor in the early morning hours the day of the wedding and had become so upset that she had to be sent to the hospital.  When the police begin investigating, however, they find out that not only did the couple have a few secrets but so did the entire wedding party, including the maid of honor herself.  Is it possible this was not an accident?  Will they ever be able to recover from such a terrible event?

Fans of mysteries will love this fun, fast read.  Celeste is dealing with the breast cancer diagnosis of her mother when she meets the man of her dreams, Benji.  Benji comes from a very wealthy family who never has to worry about anything and Celeste is swept up in the excitement of his lifestyle, but is he really the right man for her?  Meanwhile, her best friend and maid of honor, Merritt, has been seeing an older married man and is also questioning her life choices.  Will she be haunted by her past choices forever?  Benji’s parents and Celeste’s parents have secrets of their own too that they are hoping won’t spill out before the wedding.  In all this craziness how are detectives supposed to find out what truly happened?

Two Dark Reigns by Kendare Blake

Image result for two dark reigns

Genre:  Fantasy

# of Pages:  447

In the third installment of the Three Dark Crowns series, Katherine is struggling to maintain her newly crowned kingdom because the mist has begun acting strangely and she doesn’t know what it means.  Meanwhile, Arsinoe and Mirabella are on the mainland trying to find their place in a new world.  Arsinoe begins having nightmares about a Blue queen from the past and she thinks they are a message that she needs to return to the island.  Jules has found a group of people who believe her to be the rightful queen due to her powers and agrees to go along with their mission as long as it means that Katherine is overthrown.  She is still afraid of her powers, but knows she cannot hide from them forever.  She also knows she needs to make peace with what she is and not feel guilt or anger about it anymore.

The characters continue to development and it’s easy to see all of their viewpoints, which can be challenging with so many main characters.  The flashbacks to the Blue Queen help show how the story came to this critical point.  This installment carries on where the second one left off and will engage fans of the series, but it is a little disappointing that very little is really resolved during this book and instead more problems arise.  Readers will be looking forward to what I’m sure will be a very dramatic conclusion.

Ash Princess by Lauren Sebastian

ash princessTheodosia was forced to witness her mother, the queen’s, brutal murder at the hands of the man forcibly taking over their kingdom.  For some reason, the Kaiser who now rules the kingdom has kept her alive all these years, but he has forced her to take on a new name (Thora) and endure countless beatings and ridicule in order to learn her place.  Whenever her people would rebel in any way he would order Theodosia to be publicly beaten so that she could pay for the sins of her people and he would force her to wear an ash crown in order to mock the fact that her mother was the fire queen.  By the time she is 16 he feels confident he has broken her spirit, but he still has three guards watch her 24/7 to make sure she doesn’t get any treasonous thoughts.  Her best friend, Cress, is the daughter of the Kaiser’s right hand man who actually murdered her mother.  She is very friendly, but Theodosia wonders if she can truly trust anyone in this terrible place that used to be her home.  Then, she is made aware of allies in her castle who are willing to give up everything for her and she realizes that she does have the desire to fight for her kingdom and take it back for what remains of her people.  The only question is can her and her meager supporters really defeat a man who has made it his mission in life to destroy kingdoms mercilessly? Can they outsmart a man who always seems to be two steps ahead?

This book captivates the reader right from the beginning and definitely depicts how hopeless Theodosia feels during this terrible ordeal.  Yet as bleak as life is for her she never stops plotting her revenge and jumps at the chance when it is presented to her even though she knows it is risky and dangerous. There are no easy paths for Theodosia and her conspirators, however, and she must live with the consequences.  Fans of the Red Queen and Red Rising will enjoy this title.


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