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Review: YA fiction from Alan Cumyn, Karen Bass, Tim Federle and more

The Hill

By Karen Bass

Pajama Press, 254 pages, $14.95

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The hills are ripe for horror: Wes Craven's hills had eyes, and Karen Bass's is home to a supernatural serial hunter drawn from the Cree legend of the Wihtiko. When Jared's plane crashes in the Alberta wilderness, he is saved by a Cree teenager named Kyle. It's a triple-edged survival story with Jared and Kyle facing down their cultural differences, the elements and the scary Wihtiko. Translating an oral legend into a novel is a pacing challenge and this story certainly could have benefited from fewer scenes of bushwhacking and verbal sparring. Though it feels long, this Hatchet meets Lost tale is presented in a way that's suitable for the younger end of the YA spectrum. And, really, it's impossible to stop reading to see if anyone gets eaten.

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

By Alan Cumyn

Atheneum, pages, $23.99

Yes, this novel is about a literal hot pterodactyl boyfriend. Shiels is an overachieving, fiercely perfectionist high school class president who can't get her mind off Pyke, the new pterodactyl student attending Vista View High. His language skills are rudimentary, but his charisma is through the roof, with the entire student body instantly fascinated and devoutly protective of him. This novel is not a gag – it's both satirically brilliant and genuinely captivating. Millions of readers were willing to accept – in all seriousness – a sparkling vampire as a romantic lead. So why not a dinosaur? But Cumyn is never explicitly mocking and, therefore, keeps us fully immersed with the weird, darkly sexy taboo premise right up until the profoundly satisfying and nutty ending. This is a terribly strange experiment gone terribly right.

The Great American Whatever

By Tim Federle

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Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $23.99

Quinn Roberts is dealing with the death of his older sister, coming out and a dream to leave Pittsburgh to be a screenwriter. He's sad but not jaded. Quinn alternates between insanely hilarious observations of real life ("a bunch of girls go 'Aww, Josh!' like he just admitted he's not actually a human guy but in fact fifteen puppies in a tank top") and an insanely hilarious fantasy life in script format. Mixed in is some palate-cleansing honesty ("We didn't care that he was gay. We made fun of Rory because he is annoying") and a generous pinch of "The sun'll come out tomorrow" style optimism. It is just the right mix, avoiding the traps of the perma-sardonic emo YA hero and the after-school special brand of didacticism. It's fizzy fresh, boisterous, laugh-a-hole-in-your-pants funny and, ultimately, a big dose of genuine hope.

Girl in the Blue Coat

By Monica Hesse

Little, Brown, 301 pages, $21.49

Seventeen-year-old Hanneke works the Black Market in 1943 Amsterdam, collecting and delivering goods and groceries that are strictly rationed or contraband during the Second World War. The stakes skyrocket when she is asked to solve the disappearance of a Jewish girl in hiding who, in pure Sherlockian style, has seemingly vanished from a house that is locked from the inside. Because of the time period and the plucky female heroine, comparisons to the likes of Ruta Sepetys or Elizabeth Wein seem inevitable. But this story stands out because it is a big, gorgeous, satisfying wallop of a mystery. The dots keep on connecting well past the point of the seeming climax and Hesse forgoes every predictable plot path in favour of shocking but satisfying resolutions – a jigsaw puzzle laden with brilliant bombshells.

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear

By E.K. Johnston

Dutton, 243 pages, $23.99

Ontario author E.K. Johnston has a seemingly limitless range. She is proving to be the Meryl Streep of YA, covering dragons and Canadian energy politics (in the same books), Scheherazade and, now, sexual assault. Hermione is the cheerleading team captain who is drugged and raped at an intensive cheerleading camp. This is realistic fiction at its best because Hermione's life is so tangible, relatable and familiar. It's not rape that makes Hermione's story compelling – it's Johnston's on-point portrayal of being 17. So, when the rape happens, we can't help but live it with Hermione in the moment. Her story twists and turns as the investigation unfolds and it all culminates in some gasp-worthy final pages. But ultimately, Johnston has created a heroine that is both a person and a survivor – not just the latter.

Burn Baby Burn

By Meg Medina

Candlewick 320 pages, $24

The summer of 1977 in New York was a steamy, creepy time filled with arson, the Son of Sam murders, a massive blackout and scorching temperatures. Setting a coming-of-age story against this backdrop is irresistible, with tension coming from all angles for Nora, a high school senior. Living in a poor, single-parent home, Nora has to share a room with her increasingly psychopathic younger brother, worry about a serial killer and negotiate gender and racial tensions as a young Latina woman with aspirations to pursue a career in construction. This is no Boogie Nights, in the sense that the sex and substances are mostly kept off-camera, but the novel succeeds in being realistically unnerving without being gritty. It has the benignly seedy glamour of a too-orange Instagram filter, and that's a good thing.

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