11 Can’t-Miss YA Releases from the First Half of 2015

Best YA of 2015 so farThese are the truths that keep me up at night: It’s easy to let great books fall through the cracks, and it’s impossible to read everything worth reading. To avoid undue panic/reprehensible gaps in your bookshelf that will slowly come to haunt and mock you like Poe’s raven, be sure to read every single book on the list below, some of the best young adult releases of the year so far. Be warned: this subjective list omits my own shameful haven’t-yet-reads of 2015, including such top-of-my-TRL titles as Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and Lamar Giles’ Endangered. (I have but one pair of eyes, and occasionally stop reading in order to eat guacamole.) But enough disclaimers—to the books:

More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera
Believe the hype around this breakout debut. It’s set in the Bronx projects, in a recognizable summer world of street games and comic books, crappy part-time jobs and family strife. But lurking at the story’s edges is the Leteo Project, offering the grieving and the guilty a seemingly perfect fix: a memory-altering (or erasing) procedure that allows them to move forward with their lives after trauma. Aaron Soto, who has a girlfriend who loves him and a new male best friend he’s falling for, dreams about getting the procedure to help him forget he’s gay, but complications lurk that will blindside him and crush your heart like a paper lantern.

The Winner’s Crime, by Marie Rutkoski
Book two in Rutkoski’s epic trilogy, which opened with 2013’s The Winner’s Crime, is so gorgeously imagined, so breathlessly plotted, and so deeply felt I may or may not have sent out an inappropriately early SOS request for a copy of book three (which I did not receive). The trilogy is set in an Ancient Rome–influenced world where Kestrel, a general’s daughter and member of the Valorian upper class, falls in love with Arin, the Herrani slave and rebel she purchased in a moment of misplaced mercy. In book one they circle each other under the increasingly suspicious watch of Kestrel’s fellow Valorians, till an act of rebellion by one and self-sacrifice by the other tears them apart. In book two, they’re back on separate sides of a seemingly unbridgeable divide. Kestrel’s among my all-time favorite heroines, a strong-willed, practical girl with a strategic warrior’s mind and a pacifist’s heart. You’ll swoon every time she and Arin share a page.

Under a Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee
If your only experience with the Oregon Trail is the video game in which your family keeps dying of cholera, you need this book. If you love ballsy, tough-as-nails girl protagonists, you need this book. If you like adventure stories of any stripe, yes, you need this book. During the Gold Rush days in a bustling Missouri town, recently orphaned Chinese American teen Samantha commits an accidental but righteous crime. She and new friend Annamae, an African American slave, dress as boys and flee, setting off on a dangerous trek along the Oregon Trail. Falling in with a trio of cowboys both helps and complicates their journey, and the integration into the story of the girls’ background and beliefs and Lee’s impeccable research make it unputdownable.

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Bone Gap is a dense, weird, magical realistic fairy tale about a girl whose beauty makes her a target, and a boy whose sight works differently from everyone else’s. It’s about the dangers and delights of seeing and being seen. It alternates between the contemporary small town where teenaged Finn has been raised by his stoic older brother, Sean, since their mom skipped town, and the enchanted hinterland where Sean’s girlfriend, Roza, is being held by a terrifying figure out of fairy tales. Enigmatic Roza washed up on the boys’ property after some mysterious trauma, and both fell in love with her in their own way. When she’s kidnapped by the man she was running from, Finn is the only witness, and his inability to save her haunts him. With the help of a bee-eyed girl and his slow discovery of his own strengths, he sets out to bring Rosa home.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
This first-love story about two boys who meet on a high school Tumblr and fall in love through anonymous emails is joyful, immensely satisfying, and so quotable you’ve got to read it with a stack of Post-its. Simon knows his family and friends will be cool with him being out, but he isn’t quite ready to test the theory…until classmate Martin sees an email he shouldn’t, jeopardizing both Simon’s privacy and that of “Blue,” his correspondent and crush. The threat of Martin blabbing, and the price of his silence—he wants to get in good with Simon’s pretty friend—provide impetus to the story, but the larger focus is on Simon’s quest to identify Blue, pick the right time to come out, and try to grow into the person he’s meant to be. In closing: SQUEEEE, read this book, you’re going to love it.

Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older
Older’s supernatural thriller is deeply, deliciously rooted in its setting, a contemporary Brooklyn thrumming with life, diversity, and strangeness. It follows Bed-Stuy teen Sierra from surviving a walking dead attack at a summer party to discovering and claiming her dangerous birthright, as a manipulator of spirits who gain life through her street art. In between painting murals, running from beasties, and unraveling the rules of an ancient supernatural order, Sierra sits down for a makeover from her BFF, worries (just a little) about her belly ponch, and dances around the possibility of a gifted boy who might be worth her while. With voice for days and a heroine you just can’t quit, this one’s a must-read.

The Game of Love and Death, by Martha Brockenbrough
In this shape-shifting, gorgeous novel, Love and Death—in the forms of a dapper man with a fever-inducing touch, and an uncanny woman who hungers for souls—run a high-stakes game, in which Death has always won. Each chooses a human player, creating a couple that will either choose love, and therefore life, or separation, and death. Previous players have included Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Romeo and Juliet—and now Flora, an African American pilot and jazz singer, and Henry, a white musician and errant foster son to a rich newspaperman, are thrown into the ring. Love and Death take on human shapes and insinuate themselves into the story, as Flora and Henry must decide, in the face of terrible obstacles, whether to choose each other. The book gets better with every page.

The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh
Ahdieh’s lush, immersive series opener starts with a familiar tale: a girl, Shahrzad, has married a ruthless king. He’s murdered a string of previous wives on their wedding nights, and Shahrzad’s only chance at staying alive is to weave stories so compelling he has to keep her around to hear the rest. But in this riff on The Thousand and One Nights, she just wants to stick around long enough to kill him, as vengeance for her best friend, one of his many dead brides. Once Shahrzad has won herself a bit of time, she begins to explore the palace—and to fall reluctantly in love with her tortured spouse. The book unfurls like a flying carpet to include a retelling of Aladdin, a deadly love triangle or two, and a magic system I’m dying to see more of. You’ll start fiending for book two before you’ve read the final page.

I’ll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios
In a flyspeck town full of dead-end lives, Skylar is determined to make college her escape route—until, the summer after senior year, her mother’s job loss puts her future in peril. It becomes even harder to leave when, while working at oddball motel the Paradise, she starts falling for coworker Josh, an Afghanistan veteran and amputee. Demetrios vividly evokes the comforting, choking rhythms of small-town life and the complications of early love, and she pulled me so deeply into Skylar’s head I found myself suffering from serious empathetic distress. I think this is what people who are better at gifs than me call “all the feels”? Yes, that’s what this is.

Making Pretty, by Corey Ann Haydu
This book, about a teen girl struggling to stay close with her sister as growing up conspires to drive them apart, is a million love stories rolled into one. Montana has a wild, intriguing new best friend, a boy she’s falling for too fast, and a heady adoration of her NYC home. But when sister Arizona breaks their pledge to never have plastic surgery—a response to their surgeon father’s disdain for natural beauty—it’s the beginning of a rift between them, widened by Montana’s bond with new bestie Karissa and boyfriend Bernardo, as well as their perpetually remarried father’s latest relationship. Montana tries to locate the core of herself over the course of one hot, tempestuous summer, in a story that’s as heady and addictive as cold coffee. I’ve rarely read a more accurate depiction of what it feels like to be 17.

All the Rage, by Courtney Summers
This enraging book should be required reading for teens entering those perilous years when adults can no longer serve as their last line of protection. Romy Grey is in a quiet hell following her rape by one of her small town’s most beloved boys, betrayed by her best friend and relying on nothing more than red lipstick and nail polish to armor herself against the gauntlet of cruelty she walks each day. There are small mercies in her life—a boy who cares for her, and knows that no is no; a newly happy home life after the departure of her deadbeat dad—but Summers makes sure we know there’s no such thing as an easy fix following such a complete violation.

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