High school senior Brynn Gallagher has recently moved from Chicago back to her Massachusetts hometown, a welcome if difficult change. After a scandal in Chicago got her kicked off the student newspaper, Brynn is now starting over at her old private school, Saint Ambrose.
In an attempt to repair her reputation and impress college admissions officers, Brynn lands a coveted internship at “Motive,” a buzzy true crime TV show. Her first assignment is digging into the four-year-old unsolved murder of William Larkin, a Saint Ambrose English teacher whose body was discovered in the woods by three students.
One of those students is Brynn’s former best friend, Tripp Talbot, who ended their friendship in humiliating fashion. As the anniversary of Mr. Larkin’s death approaches, Tripp is still haunted by the lies he told, and he’s drinking more than ever.
The danger mounts when secrets from Mr. Larkin’s past collide with Brynn’s investigation. Brynn and Tripp are surrounded by suspects, including their own family members, and it begins to look like everyone at Saint Ambrose has a motive for murder.
Nothing More to Tell is another suspenseful page turner from bestselling author Karen M. McManus. In her signature style, McManus (One of Us Is Lying) never gives readers a moment to relax, drawing out suspects and secrets in rapid succession. As the clues build momentum, so will readers’ desire to plow through the novel to see how it all ties together.
However, the most compelling element of McManus’ storytelling is neither the crime nor the victim but the trauma of the survivors left behind. As Tripp drinks to numb his pain, Brynn makes sacrifices to help him, stoking both romance and healing between them. The novel’s well-rounded cast of supporting characters includes Brynn’s feisty genius of a sister; her uncle, who has a troubled Saint Ambrose connection of his own; and Regina, who owns the bakery where Tripp works and is a supportive breath of fresh air.
Brimming with twists and turns, Nothing More to Tell is a fine addition to the genre that McManus helped popularize.
The most compelling element of bestselling author Karen M. McManus’ latest thrill ride is neither the crime nor the victim but the survivors left behind.
Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have nothing in common except their goal of beating each other in a ruthless race to become valedictorian of Willowgrove Christian Academy, the best school in their small Alabama town. Chloe is a queer former Californian with two moms and a mean streak; Shara is the principal’s daughter and the de facto princess of Willowgrove. So when Shara corners Chloe in an elevator at school one day and kisses her, questions arise. Things get even stranger when Shara vanishes in the middle of prom, leaving the prom king without a queen and the school buzzing with rumors.
With weeks left until graduation, Chloe is determined to find Shara, but she’s not the only one looking. Star quarterback Smith Parker, Shara’s longtime boyfriend, and Shara’s next-door neighbor, bad-boy Rory Heron, have both been “kissed and ditched” like Chloe. With only the memory of vanilla-mint lip gloss and an increasingly convoluted string of clues to follow, the unlikely trio reluctantly band together to track down Shara—who may not want to be found.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler, the first YA book by adult romance sensation Casey McQuiston, brilliantly deconstructs many tropes common to teen novels published during the first decade of the 21st century, including popular yet troubled girls, outsider heroes and scavenger hunts, complicating them by incorporating queerness, religious trauma and a deep interiority. Likewise, Chloe, Shara, Smith and Rory push against the outlines of their archetypes. The result is a messier and more grounded take on contemporary YA fiction that will appeal to current and former teens alike.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is self-aware but not self-conscious, and it never condescends to its readers. McQuiston’s prose is quick, witty and referential, striking a balance between the wry way that characters speak in rom-coms and the way that real teenagers actually talk. McQuiston maintains the tone (and frequent absurdity) of the novels they’re emulating as their characters explore issues that teens have always faced. They handle trauma and its impact with nuance and sensitivity, and even tertiary characters feel dimensional.
Shara herself is the most impressive accomplishment here. As if anticipating comparisons to the oft-derided manic pixie dream girls of John Green’s novels, McQuiston takes an affectionate jab at Paper Towns early on: “Of course Shara cast herself as the main character of her own personal John Green novel,” Chloe thinks. Like the seekers in that novel, Chloe, Smith and Rory initially learn more about themselves and each other than about Shara. But as she does with many other elements in this novel, McQuiston twists this trope, going one step further than Green and peeling back Shara’s layers, revealing her to be deeply complicated—smart, insecure, gregarious, selfish and more. She’s clearly no one’s manic pixie anything, and her desperation to be found speaks to her sublimated desire to find herself.
In a letter included with advance editions of the book, McQuiston writes that “I Kissed Shara Wheeler started off as a feeling.” The book’s most potent impressions are also feelings: the rush of nerves before the opening night of the spring musical; the strange magic of driving familiar streets at night; your crush’s name appearing on your phone screen. I Kissed Shara Wheeler assures readers that although hurt is real, love is complicated and friends can let you down, the world is wide and nothing is impossible.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler, the first YA book by adult romance sensation Casey McQuiston, brilliantly deconstructs tropes common to early-2000s teen novels.
Allison Saft’s second YA novel, A Far Wilder Magic, is an enchanting fantasy tale about two young people, Margaret and Wes, who are drawn together in pursuit of a mythical fox purported to hold alchemical power. Throughout the story, Saft creates magic that feels astonishingly real. Here, she offers a deeper look at A Far Wilder Magic and explores how she gave life to the imaginary world of New Albion.
The idea for A Far Wilder Magic came to me in a glimmer of what felt like magic. For much of 2019, writing felt impossible. I’d recently finished revisions on what would become my debut novel, moved halfway across the country and was desperately trying to figure out what my next idea would be. I wrote a quarter of a new book and immediately trunked it. I despaired that I would never fall in love with a book again.
In writing circles, inspiration is often figured as a lightning strike, or else something that seizes upon you at 2 a.m. and refuses to let go. Now that I’ve gone through this cycle a few times, I’ve come to understand it as something that dwells beneath unturned stones. You have to go looking for it. In that fallow period in the months before I began outlining A Far Wilder Magic, I began searching for it in books.
I found it in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a delightfully odd book and easily one of my favorites. Few other books have managed to capture my imagination in the same way. I reread it every year, weeping inconsolably through the last 50 pages of my yellowing paperback edition.
And it isn’t just me. Every year, on the first day of November, thousands of people share the book’s first line on social media: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” TheScorpio Races possesses a powerful magic indeed, to compel its readership to treat the races like an event we can set our calendars by, and I was determined to understand the workings of the spell Stiefvater had woven.
During that 2019 read-through, what struck me most about the novel is that the most magical thing in it isn’t the mythical water horses or the race itself. It’s the atmosphere that informs every choice Stiefvater makes. It’s the way I feel when I close the book each time: like home is a place I have never been before. That was the most important lesson I carried with me as I set out to write A Far Wilder Magic: Magic isn’t a thing, it’s a feeling.
It was something of a revelation, since I most often find myself gravitating toward magic that works like science. In New Albion, where A Far Wilder Magic is set, magic is alchemy. In our (real) world, alchemists strove for purification and perfection. Among their goals were the transformation of base metals into gold and the distillation of an elixir for eternal life. Alchemy was a philosophical pursuit as much as it was a scientific one, and I wanted to capture both of these aspects when I put my own spin on it.
Just as real alchemists did, practitioners of magic in New Albion aim to make sense of the world, to demystify it. Industries have sprung up around alchemized goods, from cosmetics to fashion to military technology, and becoming a licensed alchemist affords social status and political clout. Yet as New Albion modernized, its inexplicable magic began to vanish. All but one of the mythical beasts have been killed, and the last one is hunted each year in a sporting event. When magic is a part of everyday life, when it is in itself mundane, an author needs to create a sense of wonder for the characters—and by extension, for readers—in other ways. That challenge, I think, was what drove me as I wrote.
I’d argue that the true source of magic lies in point of view. The details that a character notices allow me to conjure an entire world. My job as an author is to convince readers that there is magic in even the smallest things. To do this, I think about what associations my narrator attaches to a particular place. What memories does a particular smell awaken for them? What are their eyes drawn to when they step into a room? What gossip have they heard about another character?
Page by page, my setting and characters accrue meaning and texture and history. I can convince my readers that my protagonist is someone with a life, one that began before the reader and will continue after they close the book for the last time. Through the protagonist’s fears, desires and memories, the setting becomes a place the reader could visit, if only they knew the way. Books like that fill me with yearning that almost knocks me breathless, a nostalgia for something I’ve never had at all. That, to me, is far more fantastical than any alchemical reaction.
Sometimes I feel as though Margaret and Wes, the main characters of A Far Wilder Magic, are friends I could call. I carried them with me for months, imagining that they walked beside me and wondering how they would respond to the things around me. Envisioning the world through their points of view made me permeable to wonder in a way I’d never been before.
In a way, A Far Wilder Magic is an archive of the things I was enchanted by as I drafted it: the color of a wave when struck by sunlight; the humbling, silent enormity of the redwoods; the whisper of the wind through the grass; the view from a mountaintop; people, from their most insignificant, charming quirks to their immense capacity for kindness and cruelty. And maybe most of all, the things you notice about the person you love.
The title of A Far Wilder Magic refers to a specific line in the book: “Like this, she looks more wolf than girl, like some magic far wilder than alchemy runs through her.” Although Margaret and Wes initially dislike each other, in this moment, Wes sees something pass over Margaret’s face that renders her almost mythic to him. Throughout the book, he can’t stop noticing small things about her, all the little details that build to something unaccountable. Without even realizing it was happening, he’s fallen in love with her. The wildest magic in New Albion isn’t alchemy. It’s something more intangible.
Author photo of Allison Saft courtesy of Lisa DeNeffe.
YA fantasy author Allison Saft explains how she created alchemical wonders in A Far Wilder Magic.
Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes quartet is one of the most influential YA fantasy series of the past decade. In All My Rage, Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary realistic fiction.
All My Rage alternates between the perspectives of former best friends Salahudin and Noor. As the novel opens, both teens feel stuck in their small town of Juniper, which is surrounded by the Mojave Desert. Earlier in their senior year, Noor told Sal about the romantic feelings she’d been harboring for him, but Sal rejected her, and they haven’t spoken since.
Sal’s parents, Misbah and Toufiq, run a roadside motel that has seen better days. Misbah has been skipping treatments for her kidney disease, and Toufiq is drunk more than he’s sober. Noor’s uncle adopted her when she was 6, but he resents that raising her has meant deferring his own dream of becoming an engineer and wants her to take over running his liquor store when she graduates.
Noor’s been secretly applying to colleges and ignoring the texts from Sal’s mom asking when she’s going to visit so they can watch their favorite soap opera together again. Yet when Misbah’s health takes a turn for the worse, it’s Noor who’s in her hospital room to hear her last word: “Forgive.” Noor reconciles with Sal and the two grow closer while continuing to keep secrets from each other. As the truth comes to light, Sal and Noor must each decide what can—and should—be forgiven.
All My Rage takes the often cliched all-American trope of two young people who long to leave their small town behind and fills it with moral complexity and emotional heft. The book’s six sections each open with a stanza from “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle about grief and “the art of losing,” which Noor struggles to write a paper about for English class. Sal and Noor experience numerous losses, and Tahir excels at conveying how trauma and tragedy ripple outward, shaping even the lives of those who seem untouched by darkness.
Tahir explores weighty questions, such as how we can forgive someone for hurting us when they should have been protecting us, but she includes frequent moments of wry levity and solace, especially the comfort Noor finds in music and the Muslim faith she shared with Sal’s mother. All My Rage will likely make you cry, but it will definitely make you smile, too.
“If we are lost, God is like water, finding the unknowable path when we cannot,” Misbah tells Noor. Tahir’s invitation to join Sal and Noor on their search for such a path feels like a gift every step of the way.
In All My Rage, a novel about two teens desperate to leave their small town, Sabaa Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary fiction as she is at epic fantasy.
Olivia Prior has spent her entire life at the Merilance School for Independent Girls, a gray and loveless institution haunted by half-formed ghouls only she can see. Although the ghosts are unsettling, it’s actually the mysterious journal her mother left behind that keeps Olivia up at night. Filled with entries punctuated by ominous drawings in dark ink that suggest her mother descended into madness, the journal tells a strange story Olivia can’t untangle.
One day, a letter arrives at Merilance. It reveals that Olivia has living family members after all and summons her home to Gallant, her family’s estate. But Gallant has ghosts of its own, and within the sprawling house Olivia finds more questions than answers. A gate in the garden leads to a twisted world of dust and death, family portraits are missing from the halls, and one of Olivia’s cousins insists that she should leave Gallant while she still can. Yet no amount of secrets or nightmares can dissuade Olivia from claiming her place in the Prior family.
In her first YA novel since 2017, V. E. Schwab explores what it means to have a home and how a house can be a haven for one person and a prison for another. They juxtapose the pain of losing family with the pain of never knowing one, as characters struggle to preserve whatever scraps of love and comfort they manage to find.
Such fragile familial bonds stand in stark contrast to the macabre imagery of the world beyond the garden gate. When Olivia, who cannot speak and uses sign language, meets someone at Gallant who also signs, or finds traces of her mother’s life through objects in her bedroom, or shares a moment at the piano with her cousin Matthew, these moments carry real emotional weight. But as Olivia discovers more about her past and a connection to the darker side of Gallant, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to hold onto her newfound family.
In addition to its narrative text, Gallant incorporates reproductions of entries from Olivia’s mother’s journal, and dreamlike illustrations by Manuel Šumberac enhance the story’s moody atmosphere. The result is a cryptic tale of familial love and loss that’s perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Seanan McGuire.
In the city of Setar, the capital of the kingdom of Ardunia, Alizeh works her fingers to the bone all day cleaning the 116-rooms of Baz House, a noble estate. At night, she works on commissions as she tries to establish herself as a seamstress. She can only survive this exhausting schedule because of her supernatural strength and endurance. Alizeh is Jinn, and while Jinn and humans have coexisted for many years, Jinn are considered untrustworthy and are not allowed to openly use their magic.
Even among Jinn, Alizeh is extraordinary, with more reason than most to put up with the abuses of life among the servant class. She has been on the run since the death of her parents, and a noble house with a large staff and plentiful security is the perfect place to hide. Yet there are parts of Alizeh’s story that are unknown even to her.
Kamran, crown prince of Ardunia, is destined to succeed his grandfather as king. On a visit home from his military duties, Kamran notices a strange interaction between a street urchin and a servant girl, and fears the servant girl may be a spy from the rival kingdom of Tulan. His suspicions set in motion a series of events he cannot control as Alizeh becomes a wanted woman who is believed to be a significant threat to the king. Kamran’s conflicting principles—loyalty to his king and conviction that Alizeh is not a danger—draw him down a path to find out the truth for himself.
A retelling of “Cinderella” complete with an aspiring seamstress on a crash course toward a fateful royal ball, This Woven Kingdom masterfully incorporates influences from Persian and Muslim history, culture and mythology. Exceedingly powerful but not invulnerable, the novel’s Jinn are an intriguing addition to the YA canon of such figures. Setar is vibrantly evoked, and its wintry climate and snowy landscape set it apart from books with similar plots and themes.
The novel’s standout feature is its language. This Woven Kingdom is a fairy-tale retelling that actually sounds like a fairy tale: Its characters speak like they’re in one, using formal tones and sophisticated vocabularies. That is not to say the novel is devoid of levity. Indeed, the grandiosity of Alizeh and Kamran’s banter adds to the intoxicating sense of wonder and flirtation that marks their interactions.
Tightly paced, with a rollicking set of twists and revelations and a chaotic climax that leads straight to a whopping cliffhanger of an ending, This Woven Kingdom is an exceptional fantasy that blends its various influences to addictive effect.
Tahereh Mafi masterfully incorporates Persian and Muslim influences into this exceptional, addictive “Cinderella” retelling.
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