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Review: New YA books from Trilby Kent, Owen Matthews, Jane Ozkowski and others

Girl Mans Up

By M-E Girard

HarperCollins, 384 pages, $19.99

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Gender is weird. It reaches peak weirdness in adolescence and M-E Girard's stellar debut novel captures the complexity of it all. Sixteen-year-old Pen lives in a Toronto suburb with her Portuguese parents and older brother. She's crazy lovable in her normalcy: She's obsessed with video games and "douche" is an integral part of her vocabulary. This is the story of her increasingly complicated world: cutting her hair, falling for another girl and navigating male friendships with her tough but warm soul. It's an unassuming coming-of-age story about gender and sexuality that barely mentions labels, has no agenda and takes unexpected but genuine turns. It's also a universal story because we're all striving for the place where we can confidently say, as Pen does, "I don't feel wrong inside myself."

Once, in a Town Called Moth

By Trilby Kent

Tundra Books, 220 pages, $21.99

Ana grew up in a small Mennonite colony in Bolivia, raised by her father after her mother left under mysterious circumstances. But now, Ana's father is moving them to Canada, supposedly to find her mother. While these mysteries bubble beneath the surface, the beauty of this book rests in its contemplative, immersive portrayal of the newcomer experience. Trilby Kent writes in delicate whispers, keeping us entrenched in the strangeness of a new place. Ana experiences all sorts of emotions in her new Toronto home – numbness, awe, longing, sadness, joy – and even Kent's description of her reaction to the taunts of her jerk classmates is quietly wise: "Most of their references meant nothing to her, and that somehow made it worse." It's not often that a book is this good and this needed.

The Fixes

By Owen Matthews

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HarperTeen, 515 pages, $21.99

Owen Matthews's second book is part The Bling Ring, part Gossip Girl and part The Talented Mr. Ripley. There's thieving rich kids, a social-media mystery, a closeted hero and some boat violence. After graduating high school, Eric meets Jordan, the sexy, rich mastermind behind a group called the Suicide Pack, a teen threesome that commits petty crimes to document on social media. Eric joins the pack, drops his good-boy persona and pines hard for Jordan. Despite easy comparisons to other stories, Matthews's snarky, snippet-sized writing style sets this one apart; chapters range from a couple of sentences to a couple of pages, so it's insanely readable. Slick and effortless, this is a literary bag of chips you eat standing up at 10 p.m. in the kitchen; once you start, you won't be able to stop.

All We Have Left

By Wendy Mills

Bloomsbury USA, 368 pages, $21

Alia is a 16-year-old Muslim stuck in one of the towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Jesse is living in 2016, coping with her broken family that never recovered after her older brother died in the attacks. Jesse's father's grief has turned to anger and racism, influencing her in a dangerous direction. This is the story of how Alia and Jesse's lives are linked and the dual perspective makes for a consuming read. Finding the answers to big questions obviously propel this novel: How are they connected? Does Alia survive? But both characters also ask the deeper questions that teens living in both decades would ask – not just about the terror attacks, but also about being a young Muslim in the United States. No retrospective voyeurism here – just a search for understanding and healing.

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Watching Traffic

By Jane Ozkowski

Groundwood Books, 192 pages, $16.95

Unlike most stories about teens living in small towns, Emily is not itching to break free. After graduation, she is content to stay while her friends prepare to move away. Despite losing a mother to suicide and living with a loving (but questionably sane) grandmother during her formative years, Emily is not damaged. She's mellow, but eccentric. Bright, but not career-driven. She finds beauty and symbolism in all parts of her small world, from the dumping grounds to the perpetually intrusive highway noise. The first-person narrative is dominated by the imagery and random imaginings that float through Emily's head and while there is certainly some drama, it never tumbles into dramatics. An affirming, realistic portrayal of a smart girl being totally present in her uncertainty and embracing it without judgment.

When They Fade

By Jeyn Roberts

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 352 pages, $23.99

Paranormal remains a four-letter word in YA following the huge boom, but here's an irresistible hodgepodge plot with ghosts, romance, a serial killer and Woodstock. Tatum lives in the present day, terrorized by bullies. Molly has lived in a static afterlife since her murder in the 1970s, occasionally "fading" back to life as a prophesying hitchhiker ghost. When the teens meet on the highway, their stories converge and both end up in dire situations (yes, these exist in the afterlife, too). But this is benign terror. All the characters are perpetually wide-eyed with surprise, repeatedly ignoring warnings of doom. More problematic are the details of Molly's brutal murder, held off until the climax for a big reveal that feels unpleasantly sadistic. Still, it's a supersized urban legend that will sate those fall guilty/ghostly cravings.

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