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book review

The Scorpion Rules
By Erin Bow, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 384 pages, $22.99

The world is being run by a maniacal sarcastic robot, global geography has been redrawn, and each of the world's new regions have sent one young person to Saskatchewan to be killed if their home government enters a war. Welcome to the craziest and best book you will read all year. Ontario author Erin Bow tells her story through protagonist Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy and her struggle to survive (in the most mind-blowing way possible) in the midst of an international hostage situation. This is so far above the bar set by other dystopias and it's as brutal as it is brilliant; prepare for the most taut, cringing, stomach-churning torture scene that will change the way you think about apples forever. An utter white-knuckler of a triumph.

Leading Lines
By Chantel Guertin, ECW Press, 216 pages, $11.95

The third instalment in Toronto author Chantel Guertin's Pippa Greene series is a lot like a new lip gloss – it's a seemingly superficial thing, but one that makes you feel so genuinely happy that it might not be that superficial after all. Pippa is a determined young photographer and the lovable everygirl who has just returned from a two-week photography workshop in New York to find some family and boyfriend drama. Like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's iconic Alice McKinley books, Guertin's series is a gentle, comfortable but captivating look into the life of a well-adjusted, self-reflective young woman. Effortless, light and rewarding, this is a series that readers could grasp starting with this third book, but it's worthwhile to get all three and get to know the bubbly, endearing, lovable Pippa from the beginning.

Diego's Crossing
By Robert Hough, Annick Press, 152 pages, $21.95

Established Canadian author Robert Hough takes his first stab at teen fiction in this slim tale about one boy's experience with the drug trade. Against his better judgment, Diego finds himself digging his brother out of a bad situation by carrying drugs over the Mexican border into the United States. It's a short narrative, bordering on a novella, with a steadfastly linear plot. And with the exception of some quick encounters with headless corpses and an overdose, it contains none of the brutality of the real Mexican drug cartels or the searing truthfulness of Deborah Ellis's Cocalero Novels. So-called "reluctant" readers may seem to be this book's only audience, but it's universally enjoyable in its small scope, wholly effective in evoking the hopelessness of a small town ruined by drugs and realistic in its open-ended conclusion.

By Julie Murphy, Balzer + Bray, 384 pages, $21.99

I'm fat. It's not a cuss word. It's not an insult. At least it's not when I say it." Those are the words of Willowdean Dickson, a Dolly Parton-loving, fast-food slinging Texas high-school student who tells it like is when it comes to her body. But she is thrown off her happy-go-lucky body image game when she starts spending time in the back of a popular boy's truck and beauty pageant mania takes over her small town. This is Murphy's second novel and it has heart and optimism to spare; admittedly, this may be frustratingly unrealistic for readers who have felt like they deviated from social norms and weren't able to draw on Willowdean's seemingly endless well of self-confidence and self-awareness. But like a movie musical, this story favours empowerment over realism and the result is just pure joy.

Everything, Everything
By Nicola Yoon, Doubleday Canada, 320 pages, $21.99

This novel from debut author Nicola Yoon was one of the most buzzed-about titles of the year. And, holy smokes, it's worth the hype. Eighteen-year-old Maddy has a rare immune disease that makes her "allergic" to the outside world, keeping her a prisoner inside her own home. But don't let sick-teen fatigue repel you. What sets Yoon's novel apart is that Maddy is never actually sick – it's the looming threat of illness that makes everything feel heightened, delicate and sensual, especially her blossoming relationship with the boy next door. The tone is never campy, but quietly profound, stoic and wry while still being both romantic and sad; think American Beauty meets Love Story with an ending that is both original and satisfying. MGM optioned the movie rights before publication so this is poised (deservingly) to be the next big thing.

Vengeance Road
By Erin Bowman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 336 pages, $24.50

YA westerns are a rare breed. And that's surprising. After all, they combine the enduringly popular and seemingly fail-safe tropes of survival and dystopia with young people trying to make it in a world of clashing races, gender inequality and trigger-happy villains. Erin Bowman has de-grandpafied the western in a major way with her suspenseful, galloping tale of 18-year-old Kate Thompson, who disguises herself as a boy to avenge her father's murder. Yes, True Grit comparisons are inevitable, but Bowman throws in several twists and turns that make this bloody roller coaster totally engrossing, suspenseful and fresh. Like Kate's kills (she makes her first one just nine pages in), Bowman's prose is quick and clean, leading to a wholly rewarding climax drenched in gunfire. This one will make any western haters shut pan pretty quick.