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book review

Like It Never Happened
By Emily Adrian, Dial Books, 368 pages, $20.99

Is there a better time than adolescence for crazy pacts? In Toronto writer Emily Adrian's first novel, Rebecca and her high school drama-kid clique pledge to never date one another. Predictably, this lasts about 70 pages. But far less predictable is the bumpy trajectory of Rebecca's new-found relationship with her friend Charlie, the reappearance of her prodigal older sister and hints of scandal around her closeness with a drama teacher. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the life of an ingenue, but unlike most two-dimensional leading ladies that seemingly "have it all," Rebecca is quietly frustrated, wry and supremely likable. Adrian writes with a light but perceptive touch, favouring realism over melodrama and creating a comfortably compelling read worthy of comparisons to YA royalty Sarah Dessen and Sara Zarr.

5 to 1
By Holly Bodger, Knopf, 256 pages, $20.99

Forced love matches are common in dystopian YA. This is not surprising since most young readers can easily empathize with the horrors of a love match gone wrong. In this vein, Ottawa author Holly Bodger brings readers a wholly captivating premise: It's 2054 and single-child policies have led to boys outnumbering girls 5 to 1. The solution? A Bachelorette Battle Royale where teen boys compete for a wife. Chapters alternate between a young bride-to-be in verse and an underdog male competitor in prose. The stakes remain low, however, as the danger of losing the "Husband Olympics" never looms too large. Rarely straying into unexpected places, this novel leans too heavily on the hook of its gender divide premise; but there is certainly enough here for teens who like their romance served with a side of societal collapse.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
By Stephanie Oakes, Dial Books, 401 pages, $20.99

Be prepared. This one is a serious gut-twister. Minnow Bly is 17, has grown up in a secluded religious cult led by a madman and has had her hands deliberately chopped off with a hatchet. After escaping the cult in the midst of a fire, Minnow commits a brutal assault and finds herself in juvenile hall, refusing to admit to her counsellor (or the readers) what really happened. Stories like this can easily devolve into a laundry list of crazy, but Oakes uses graphically violent scenes purposefully to show Minnow's gritty resilience. What's more, the unravelling of the mystery and the timing of the revelations is masterful, culminating in an explosively rewarding ending. Unflinching, unrelenting and visceral, this one has undeniable adult crossover appeal.

I am Princess X
By Cherie Priest, illustrations by Kalie Ciesemier, Arthur A. Levine Books, 256 pages, $21.99

Princess X is a converse-clad, katana-wielding heroine invented by childhood best friends May and Libby. When Libby dies in a car crash, so does the fictional superhero. But a few years later, Princess X mysteriously shows up in a popular Web comic. How could a dead girl's ideas come back to life? Ninety per cent text and 10 per cent comics, this is the genre-bending story of May's quest to learn the truth behind Libby's death and Princess X's baffling reappearance. Delicious twists and turns make up this tightly focused tale of sleuthing, hacking and friendship – even after May partners with Patrick, her tech-savvy neighbour, not a mite of flirtation clouds the plot's trajectory. Don't let the pink on the cover fool you; this is a staggeringly original thriller that should find a wide audience.

A Book of Spirits and Thieves
By Morgan Rhodes, Razorbill, 368 pages, $24.99

Morgan Rhodes burst on to the scene in 2012 with Falling Kingdoms, the first in her New York Times bestselling fantasy trilogy. Her latest, a companion book to her trilogy partly set in the same magical world of Mytica, is a compulsively readable, epic time-travel soap opera. Three different narrative perspectives are linked by one mysterious book as the plot alternates between secret murderous societies in present-day Toronto and the land of Mytica, where goddesses, witches and enchantment are a way of life. The action never slows, the characters are enjoyably archetypal and the fantasy elements are slick and accessible; even teens that normally balk at all things witchy and wizardly will be won over by this one's blockbuster feel and easy, poppy prose.

More Happy Than Not
By Adam Silvera, Soho Teen, 304 pages, $18.99

Aaron Soto lives in a world where people can pay the Leteo Institute to erase their memories. After a tough life in the Bronx projects, his father's suicide and confusing feelings for his friend Thomas, Aaron has a lot he would like to forget. This impressive debut has a distinct Outsiders vibe; Aaron's motley, scrappy gang of male pals divide their time between fighting, being choked with emotion (moist eyes abound) and speaking in "Stay golden" type clichés that can borderline on saccharine. But it totally works. It works because Silvera ensures that the novel's dystopian elements take a back seat to genuine emotion and deep personal struggle (and throws in a hugely rewarding, whiplash-worthy twist in the last third of the novel). A bold, inventive, raw look at male sexuality in an irresistible sci-fi package.