Heather Seggel

Delight the teenager on your holiday list with a fabulous graphic novel or gripping true story guaranteed to make them swoon, giggle or gasp.

The Girl From the Sea

For the reader who longs to be carried away on the waves of a fantastical story

In The Girl From the Sea, author-illustrator Molly Knox Ostertag blends myth and realism to create a story about the things we’d rather keep submerged—and what happens when they surface with a splash.

Morgan Kwon is 15 and part of a power clique at her high school that serves as a frothy diversion from her unhappy family life. She’s just biding her time until she can move away from her small island town and finally come out as gay. 

One rainy night at the rocky seaside cliffs that are her favorite place to sit and think, Morgan slips on the wet stones and falls into the water. She’s rescued by a mysterious girl named Keltie, who is kind of cute, really, and an awfully powerful swimmer, but the instant connection between them threatens all the secrets that Morgan’s been carefully concealing from her friends and family. 

Ostertag (The Witch Boy) is an expert at conveying complex emotions and subtly shifting the mood from one panel to the next. Morgan is part of a group text message thread with her friends, which  includes numerous invitations that Morgan declines, at first because of her feelings of loneliness and depression, and later because Keltie is clearly not welcome among the group, even as she and Morgan are tentatively falling for each other. Ostertag initially depicts Morgan’s home life with her stressed mom and angry little brother in stark, silent scenes, but as secrets come to light and Morgan’s family reach out to one another, there’s a warmth to their time together that lifts off the page.

This graphic novel’s narrative flows so smoothly that you might find yourself reading it in one big gulp, and its resolution is bittersweet but hopeful. The Girl From the Sea is a wistful romance that will catch readers by the heart.

—Heather Seggel


For the reader who has always suspected there was more to their parents than meets the eye

“¿Qué está pasando?” Early in her graphic memoir, Passport, author-illustrator Sophia Glock writes that this phrase—which means “what is going on?”—is her mantra at the Spanish-language immersion high school she attends in Central America. The phrase is a lifeline as Glock navigates the usual challenges of teenage life, but it takes on another meaning when Glock discovers that she is the daughter of CIA agents who have been keeping her in the dark. 

Growing up, Glock lived all over the world because of her parents’ ambiguous “work.” What work is that, exactly? She has no idea. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she receives. Just keep your head down, her parents tell her. Stay safe, and if you can, why don’t you let us know what your friends’ parents do for a living?

When Glock reads a letter that her older sister, away at college, wrote to their parents, the blanks in her life begin to fill in, though she is too afraid to confront her parents directly. Instead, like any frustrated teen, she exercises her autonomy and starts telling lies of her own. Boys, girls, drinking and partying abound while Glock travels through the gauntlet of adolescence and the tension between her ever-accumulating little lies versus her parents’ one big lie threatens to boil over.

Glock’s depictions of quiet yet consequential moments, such as when she ponders the choices her parents have made, are especially spellbinding. Her sparse, restrained art style evokes the feeling of a memory play, a recollection both real and ethereal. She renders the entire book in only three colors: shades of a reddish pink, a cold blue and white. Her characters aren’t always easily distinguishable from one another, and while that can cause some confusion in the story, the overall effect is satisfying. After all, how much does Glock really know about the people around her? ¿Qué está pasando? In her author’s note, Glock concedes as much. ”These stories are as true as I remember them,” she writes. The CIA’s publication review board nixed some of the particulars of Passport before it was published, which makes the details that did end up in the book all the more dramatic.

A deceptively spare graphic novel chock-full of depth and beauty, Passport is an unusual coming-of-age memoir that’s totally worth the trip. 

—Luis G. Rendon

★ The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

For the reader who loves spooky castles and fears no gothic terror, not even marauding zombie bunnies

Haley is so exuberantly dedicated to gothic romances that her exasperated teacher orders her to stop writing book reports on Wuthering Heights (and no, she cannot do an interpretive dance about it instead!). After school, Haley sets out for home in the rain, and lo! As she stands on a bridge, dramatically sighing, she sees a man struggling in the dark waters below. She dives in to rescue the floundering fellow, conks out after her exertions and awakens abed in Willowweep Manor, attended by a dour housekeeper named Wilhelmina. Have Haley’s period-piece dreams come true? 

Turns out, Haley has indeed been inadvertently catapulted into a world much like those in her beloved books. There’s a castle (complete with “baleful catacombs” and an on-site ghost) and verdant moors, as well as three handsome brothers—stoic Laurence, brooding Montague and vacuous Cuthbert—who took her in after she saved Montague from drowning.

But Haley soon discovers another side to Willowweep. It’s a gasket universe, a liminal space between Earth and an evil dimension laden with a substance called bile that destroys everything in its globby, neon green path. Can Haley help the brothers fend off the encroaching forces of darkness before it’s too late? 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is a hoot right from the get-go, but when everyone bands together to defend the manor, author Shaenon K. Garrity’s tale becomes ever more hilarious and exciting. Humorous metafictional quips fly hither and yon as the characters take up arms, squabble over strategy and realize they’ve got to break a few rules (and defy a few tropes) if they want to prevail. 

Christopher Baldwin’s art is full-bore appealing. He has an excellent command of color: Brooding browns underlie characters’ stress while sky blues highlight Haley’s growing confidence. Facial expressions are little comedies unto themselves, including horses who side-eye Cuthbert’s silliness, and slack-faced bile-addled bunnies who adorably chant “Destroy.” 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor celebrates and satirizes a beloved genre while encouraging readers to defy the rules and become the heroes of their own stories.

—Linda M. Castellitto

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.

Not one, not two, but all three of the books in this month’s cozy column received starred reviews!

Mango, Mambo, and Murder

Miriam Quiñones-Smith has just relocated from New York City to tony Coral Shores in Miami. A former food anthropologist, she lands a gig teaching Caribbean cooking on a morning show and works to grow a social circle, but at her very first meeting of a women’s club, one of the attendees keels over. Mango, Mambo, and Murder has everything you look for in a cozy mystery but also feels like a breath of fresh air. Author Raquel V. Reyes fills this story with details that make it feel real, despite there being a character named Sunny Weatherman. Cuban American Miriam and her family, friends and co-workers are well-rounded personalities whom readers will be eager to learn more about. Miriam’s attempts to find a killer take her to strip malls filled with questionable folk healers and incredible restaurants serving Cuban American standards like ropa vieja and pollo a la plancha. Reyes incorporates Spanish into characters’ dialogue throughout, adding authenticity, while subtly providing context so that readers who aren’t Spanish speakers won’t miss a beat. Dig into this inviting, suspenseful feast for the senses.

★ The Man Who Died Twice

It’s impossible to single out any one feature that makes The Man Who Died Twice such an absolute treat. The plot is a crackling mystery: Septuagenarian retiree and amateur sleuth Elizabeth gets a coded message from someone in her past asking for help, as he’s stolen a lot of diamonds from some very angry people. When two people are killed, the hunt is on for the killers and the diamonds. English TV presenter and comedian Richard Osman creates real magic with his characters. They are frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious but also entirely real and three-dimensional. There’s also dogged police work, tradecraft most devious, a lot of cocaine and those diamonds. If possible, this sequel is even better than the Osman’s charmer of a debut, The Thursday Murder Club. This series is both a load of fun and an ode to how the power of friendship is important throughout one’s life but especially during the final stretch. Don’t miss it.

★ Seven-Year Witch

Seven-Year Witch finds Josie Way settling into life as a librarian in rural Wilfred, Oregon, and deepening her powers as a witch, thanks to letters left to her by her grandmother. The old mill in town is set to be turned into a lavish retreat center, but rumors that the site is cursed raise local hackles, especially when the disappearance of one of Wilfred’s inhabitants is followed by the discovery of a bloody weapon. Josie’s love interest, FBI agent Sam Wilfred, returns to town, but things between them are complicated by the news that he’s married with a baby. Author Angela M. Sanders uses the eerie atmosphere to great effect and also plays with the assumed charms of a small town. For example, the locals lose some of their warmth when there’s a killer in their midst. Josie’s witchcraft plays into solving the mystery, but the story feels realistic overall. Full of false leads and truly surprising reveals, this terrifically plotted mystery is hard to put down.

Not one, not two, but all three of the books in this month’s cozy column received starred reviews!

On June 1, 1921, a mob of white people descended on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street.” They killed hundreds of Black residents and bombed, burned and otherwise laid waste to a neighborhood that spanned 35 blocks. In Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, author Brandy Colbert recounts this history for teen readers and shows how its echoes continue to reverberate today.

As she does in her middle grade and young adult fiction, including the Stonewall Award-winning Little & Lion, Colbert draws readers in with richly detailed settings, and she describes Greenwood with vibrant imagery. Its Black residents built their own economy from the ground up. They could not freely choose where to spend their money in the wider region, but as it recirculated within Greenwood, it created a booming business community. Colbert captures a sense of lively growth that makes the neighborhood’s eventual destruction hit home with visceral impact.

Poor white Tulsans' feelings of grievance and jealousy were factors that led to the massacre, and some local media outlets escalated tensions through false, inflammatory reporting. As the violence spread, the police and the National Guard aided white vigilantes by imprisoning Black residents in internment camps. A grand jury investigation later blamed Black men for inciting violence when they had actually been trying to stop it.

Colbert’s meticulous research holds the book together. Informative sidebars add vital context and will help readers make sense of an almost incomprehensible crime that was driven by white supremacy. A chilling postscript explores efforts to bury this history and the ongoing resistance to its revival. Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.

Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.

Elizabeth Bertelsen’s life is not sheltered—far from it, in fact. Growing up Mormon during the late 1870s means she is close to the land, to matters of life and death and to the complex dynamics of a polygamous household. But Elizabeth has quite literally set her sights on the stars; she hopes to become an astronomer at a time when women studying science is tantamount to witchcraft. Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars blends fiction and fact to create an adventure that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

It all hinges on a solar eclipse, the first that the Western states will experience in almost a hundred years. When Elizabeth finds herself close to the path of totality (the area on Earth where the moon will completely block the sun), she’s willing to make major sacrifices to be there to witness it. Chapters count down the days and then the hours to the eclipse, which keeps a sense of urgency bubbling as Elizabeth makes new friends and begins a tentative romance. A brother and sister whom she meets after a train robbery offer support as well as a chance for reflection; some of Elizabeth’s assumptions about them are based on the color of their skin, and she’s surprised to learn that their family makes assumptions about Mormons in a similar fashion.

Beyond the Mapped Stars offers a portrait of a diverse American West that’s filled with promise, but it does so with honesty about where and from whom much of that promise was stolen. If that seems like a modern flourish, Eves makes a strong case for its basis in historical fact in her author’s note, while also revealing a deeply personal dimension to the story.

The whole novel takes place amid a six-week journey by train, carriage and on horseback, during which Elizabeth finds her courage, makes mistakes and learns from them. It’s a thrill to travel alongside her. Faith, family, race and gender are the earthly concerns that draw her down from the clouds, but as Eves expertly incorporates them into Elizabeth’s life-changing summer, Beyond the Mapped Stars takes flight and soars.

Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars blends fiction and fact to create an adventure that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

Good company, beautiful scenery, false pretenses and uninvited guests make for nerve-rattling, riveting armchair travel in these two thrillers.

At the beginning of Kimberly McCreight’s Friends Like These, five friends reunite for a bachelor party in the Catskills. The sixth member of their group, Alice, died by suicide in college, and they’ve kept secrets about the events surrounding her death ever since. But the trip has a more serious purpose that’s yet another secret to keep: The group plans to hold an intervention to convince one of their number, Keith, to check into rehab.

But when the weekend is over, someone is missing, someone is dead and Julia Scutt, a local detective, is tasked with prying the truth from people so insulated by privilege, they’re shocked to find themselves affected by anything, let alone a tragedy of this caliber. And Julia has a tragedy in her own past that may be clouding her judgment.

The community where the party’s host, Jonathan, owns an opulent country house is in an economic slump, which results in a tense dynamic where “weekenders” like this group are both hated and needed. It can be hard at first to distinguish the individual members of the clique; the specifics of their relationships and connections could fill a wall chart with connecting strings. But their collective self-absorption makes it that much more satisfying when some comeuppance is finally distributed.

An intricate resolution involves performance art, the mafia, armchair detectives addicted to true crime podcasts and three big twists. (The third is a doozy.) As each character narrates their version of events, new pieces of information bring you closer to the truth . . . if only there weren’t so many lies mixed in. The false leads and big cast of characters make Friends Like These an entertaining puzzle. Take this book on your vacation and be glad you’re not on their vacation.

Getaway drops three women, two of them sisters, into the Grand Canyon for some adventurous hiking and unforeseen terror. Sisters Imogen and Beck have made the trip before with their family, but in the intervening years, Imogen suffered two major traumas that have turned her focus inward. Beck hopes the trip will restore her sister’s courage and also help mend Imogen’s rift with their mutual friend Tilda, a less experienced hiker who waits until they’re well into the hike to tell them as much. That would be bad enough, but soon all three women begin to have the sneaking suspicion that they are not alone on the trail.

Author Zoje Stage (Baby Teeth) gives this horror-tinged thriller emotional depth through a careful layering of big themes and tiny details. Stage has hiked the Grand Canyon herself, and her characters’ descriptions of the hike have an immersive, absorbing effect. The violence in this novel is truly frightening, more so because of how it contrasts with the beauty of the canyon’s vistas, sounds and silences.

Something as insignificant as a sliver of granola bar wrapper in an unexpected location can actually mean a great deal, but only if the people you’re traveling with and counting on listen to and believe you when you point it out. When there are three people in a challenging setting, two are almost always aligned while the third feels left out, and that can shut down communication and make it difficult to solve problems. Empathetic Imogen has the sense that she knows what’s really going on and how best to help, but there’s a chance her compassion is blinding her to how dire their situation really is. 

Getaway plays with shifting loyalties, old hurts and the potential for reconciliation in a way that’s emotionally affecting but never slows down the plot. A truly devilish thriller, it balances gut-twisting suspense with heartfelt connection. 

Good company, beautiful scenery, false pretenses and uninvited guests make for nerve-rattling, riveting armchair travel in these two thrillers.

You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit tired of the unreliable narrator, a character that is practically inescapable in the mystery and suspense genre. But even if you think you’re out, the slippery protagonists of these two thrillers will reel you right back in.

It’s natural to be wary of the main character in Rabbit Hole. Alice Armitage is currently enduring an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital and is very upfront about her PTSD, memory lapses and tendency toward misbehavior on the ward. But when a fellow patient is found dead, Alice’s training kicks into gear. Previously a police officer—or so she says—Alice launches an independent investigation of the crime, developing a theory of the case that’s both overly complicated and entirely plausible. When the suspect she’s laser-focused on is also killed, the tightening spiral of this story spins off its axis, taking Alice’s grasp of reality with it.

It’s an audacious move to open a story by essentially waving a red flag and pointing to the unreliability of the main character, but Alice is consistently intriguing, vacillating between lucid, analytical thinking and temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. Mark Billingham, author of the bestselling Tom Thorne mystery series, gives Alice a cocky confidence that Rabbit Hole peels away at every turn. One minute she’s wisecracking about her fellow patients and their diagnoses, certain they belong inside while she’s the voice of rationality. Then her father comes to visit, and the exchange is so crushingly awkward that her jokes fail to hide how serious her situation is.

Descriptions of the hospital and its residents are fairly bleak with lots of dark humor. Patients might be friends, but friendship can quickly turn antagonistic and even violent for any reason or none at all. What begins as the story of a maverick cop lands some distance from that premise, will leave you rethinking everything that was said and done along the way to the novel’s surprising and poignant ending.

After finishing Louise Candlish’s The Other Passenger, I patted myself down to be sure my wallet was still accounted for. This gorgeous, meticulous nail-biter is a smooth work of narrative criminality. Here are the basic facts: Jamie has just ridden the ferry to begin an average workday when two police officers stop him. His friend and fellow commuter Kit is missing, and Kit and Jamie were seen fighting the night before Kit’s disappearance. Jamie swears he knows nothing of Kit’s whereabouts, and from there things get very stressful very quickly.

Through a series of flashbacks, Jamie explains how he and his partner, Clare, and Kit and his wife, Melia, became close friends, a complex foursome full of hidden resentments and deep financial grievances. There’s extramarital sex and the potential for a payday that’s too big to resist. The heady feeling that comes with doing the wrong thing and getting away with it falls apart spectacularly when consequences come into play; the shame and regret feel like gut punches when they land.

Key to all this drama is Melia. Clare was the first to befriend her, only to later observe that a preference for being called “Me” might signal a hint of narcissism worth watching out for. False leads and feints recall The Usual Suspects and will keep the reader hyperalert, bordering on paranoid. Music figures into the story as a layer of commentary that also builds atmosphere: In a scene where Melia dances with a girlfriend, the lyrics of the Lana Del Rey song that’s playing add a sinister undertow. 

Candlish never lets the tension slacken as deep discussions of income disparity, aging, love and loss keep readers’ loyalties shifting between characters. There’s the potential for at least one character, perhaps more, to appear in another novel. It would be thrilling to see them again. The villains in The Other Passenger are never held at arm’s length. We care, even as their ordinary lives turn monstrous. 

Don’t trust—or turn your back on—these narrators.

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