Summer reading is a special sort of experience: late evenings on the lawn with sun-warmed pages and grass tickling your legs or sweltering days in the shade of a beach umbrella, trying to keep sand from the folds between pages. Although I tend to prefer the curled-up, cinnamon-scented reading of Autumn, I certainly love to complete a novel or two in these sunshiny months.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
A stand out from this year’s reads is Wilder Girls by Rory Power, a horror novel that feels like the brilliant baby of Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, The Thing dir. John Carpenter, and Black Hole by Charles Burns, all wrapped up in the YA trope of the private New England High School. It depicts the lives of Hetty, Reese, Byatt, and the remaining students and staff of Raxter School for Girls eighteen months into quarantine for a horrible disease that’s spread throughout the island. The disease has unique pathological features for each person it infects, for Hetty a bleeding eye, for Reese scaled skin, for Byatt an extra spine. But it always leads to a slow, horrible death. The girls are not sure how much longer they will last, especially with infected animals and plants lurking just outside school gates, when Hetty is placed on the team that receives supplies from the CDC and Byatt goes missing. Now, Hetty and Byatt must uncover the truth of the island to save Byatt and fight to survive even more than they already have.
The novel manages to be both fast-paced and elegantly written, with visceral descriptions that truly show how terrifying the ordeal is, from the island’s isolation to the disease’s intimate invasion of the human body. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle some grotesque imagery and harrowing situations the read will be well-worth your time. Seriously, this is THE book to put on your TBR list for the spooky season if you haven’t read it already.
This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura
Another phenomenal novel I’ve read this summer is Misa Sugiura’s This Time Will Be Different, which effortlessly combines real-life history/race relations (the consequences of the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps during World War 2), teenage drama, and flower language. CJ Katsuyama is a Silicon Valley teenager struggling to find her place among all the “#winners” (extremely talented students with internships and extracurriculars galore) at her school. Her only real passion is working at her aunt Hannah’s flower shop, Heart’s Desire, which has been in their family since her great-grandfather purchased it back from the McAllisters, who had purchased it from them before the Katsuyamas were sent to an internment camp as a result of the racist “Yellow Fever” movement sweeping the nation then. However, when Heart’s Desire is no longer financially viable, CJ and fellow flower shop assistant, Owen, will have to find a way to use their community and school to fight for its survival.
The novel takes a while to break free of the tropes and beats of realistic YA fiction, but once it does it is excellent, driven by character growth and meaningful exploration of intersectionality, systemic oppression, and womanhood. It is clear that Sugiura put an incredible amount of care and research into discussing these issues, though the novel rarely gets excessively preach-y, instead allowing the characters to reach certain perspectives through the context of the plot. In addition, there is much nuance in the characters themselves, who begin as archetypes but are intentionally developed over the course of the story. Ultimately, This Time Will be Different is a go-to coming of age novel that I wish I had had when I was a teenager.
All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil
My last major YA read this summer was All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil. The novel tells the story of Xochi, a seventeen-year-old working as a governess for Pallas, a bright twelve-year old living in a luxurious Victorian mansion in San Francisco with her eccentric Rockstar family. On the night of the Vernal Equinox, after a wild afterparty at the mansion, a night wandering the hills, and a spontaneous tongue piercing, Xochi spends time with Pallas in her attic bedroom. The two decide to perform a made-up ritual for fun, and accidentally summon a pair of ancient beings who are now bound to avenge the wrongs of Xochi’s past, a past she has run from and tried to forget. Now, she must face this past and the people who have hurt her.
This is a novel that, despite its brightly colored cover and fantastical premise, is dark and gritty, though not always in a good way for YA. Indeed, the book skirts the border of YA and adult fiction with clear drug use, sex, and violence; it’s at a minimum meant for a 17+ year old audience. There are also some problematic aspects to the story, such as the inappropriate romance plot between a minor and an adult, that feel incongruous with the main messages of the novel. However, the novel does address healing in a way that feels very genuine, and the writing and magical realism places the story in an enchanting world all its own. Moreover, the imagery is gorgeous from the grungy bars to the mystical summoning. In the end, it’s far from a perfect novel, and any curious reader should be wary of the content warnings, but it is a diverse, interesting read if urban fantasy is your thing.
There are still a few more reads I’m hoping to get to before the summer ends. In particular, I want to check out Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, which promises a murder mystery full of royal intrigue and forbidden magic. I also hope to read We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, which centers around a romance between a criminal fighting to save her people and an assassin sent to kill her.