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Review: New YA books from Susin Nielsen, Elly Blake, Robin Roe, Lesley Livingston and others

Frostblood

By Elly Blake

Little, Brown, Books for Young Readers, 376 pages, $23.49

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Ontario author Elly Blake's debut is an elemental fantasy in which warring factions of humanity – Frostbloods and Firebloods – battle for power. With the Frostbloods currently holding the throne, 17-year-old Ruby finds herself in mortal danger when her Fireblood nature is discovered by the icy ruling class. This temperature dichotomy seems too simple to carry a quality novel, but Blake skillfully levels up from climatic to climatic. Ruby has to repeatedly fight for her life in some intense arena battle scenes, while also fighting a strange, dark urge to keep killing that she can't seem to stop. As a campy bonus, she predictably finds herself in a romance with a Frostblood, which results in some passion metaphors of the burns-so-good variety. A fun, effortless first instalment in a new series with a high PoP (probability of popularity).

A List of Cages

By Robin Roe

Disney-Hyperion, 320 pages, $18.99

Fourteen-year-old Julian has had an unimaginably hard life. His parents died tragically and, after briefly staying in a loving foster home, he has had to survive horrific abuse from his permanent guardian. School offers no respite, with cold, impatient peers and teachers. Hope seems to come in the form of a reunion with his old foster brother, Alex, now a senior in high school. But although Alex is magnetically kind and warm, Julian may be too far gone to save. This is ultimately a story of incredible resilience, but also an example of an author exercising impressive restraint and balance. Robin Roe includes just enough disturbing detail for us to ache for Julian, but not so much that he becomes one-dimensional. Emma Donoghue has praised this one, so be prepared. Moments of true hopelessness in books for young people are rare. But they're here.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team

By Steve Sheinkin

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Roaring Brook Press, 288 pages, $27.99

Love football? Excellent. This is the book for you. Hate football? Excellent. This is the book for you. Three-time U.S. National Book Award nominee Steve Sheinkin achieves the near-impossible with his eighth non-fiction book for teens: He makes the origins of contemporary American football compelling and accessible to all. He tells the story of the near-miraculous accomplishments of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team and how, starting in 1907, they beat all the odds to eventually dominate the Big Four teams in the college football circuit (the NFL didn't start up until 1920). But it's more than just gripping game narratives and jaw-dropping feats of athleticism. Sheinkin also explicitly deals with the historical context, discussing issues of racism and cultural appropriation. Forget the young-adult label – Sheinkin is for everyone.

The Valiant

By Lesley Livingston

HarperCollins, 384 pages, $19.99

There's no definitive evidence that female gladiators existed, but the mere possibility that there were women fighting to the death at the pleasure of Julius Caesar is enough for established historical-fantasy writer Lesley Livingston. Fallon is a Celtic princess who longs to carry on the fighting legacy of her dead older sister, but when she's kidnapped by slave traders, her true mettle is tested. Livingston imagines a robust female gladiatrix circuit with ruthless fighters drawing plenty of blood. She also makes the most of her speculative premise, showing readers all the big-ticket historical attractions; there are private meetings with Cleopatra, hedonistic Roman house parties, crazy chariot manoeuvres and even a little bit of cannibalism. It's not quite history – it's more like history reflected in a funhouse mirror. And it's a bloody good time.

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Optimists Die First

By Susin Nielsen

Tundra Books, 228 pages, $21.99

Governor-General's Literary Award winner Susin Nielsen is a master at placing normal teens in relatable situations that are both uproariously funny and strikingly tender. The premise of her new book stays true to form. Sixteen-year-old Petula has been anxious, fearful and full of sorrow since the death of her young sister. Jacob is outgoing, positive and seemingly carefree. But when they fall in love, there's a darker reality behind their odd-couple shtick. Nielsen's past work proves she has the chops to emotionally hammer readers with genuine emotion, but her latest doesn't quite get there. The pacing and conflict resolution are lightning-quick so there's little time to touch the heartstrings, let alone tug on them. This might feel like Coles Notes Nielsen to some, but megafans will likely still cry, laugh and repeat.

Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case

By Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Chronicle Books, 260 pages, $29.99

Only days after getting married in 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested in Virginia for miscegenation; Richard was white and Mildred was black. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, it took nine years for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn their convictions. Touted as a "documentary novel," Patricia Hruby Powell combines narrative verse with non-fiction. Although it's easy to power through the smooth, evocative poetry detailing all the beauty and struggle of Mildred and Richard's love story, this is an impeccably designed book that should be savoured. Shadra Strickland's visual-journalism illustration style comes to life in a vintage, muted colour palette of lavender, violet yellow and brown on uncoated pages that also incorporate photographs, quotations and primary source documents. It all blends together into an immersive, sensory experience that feels more like a museum exhibit than a book.

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