Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

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ENTER TITLE HERE
Written by Rahul Kanakia
(Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

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Just in time for back-to-school comes ENTER TITLE HERE from Hyperion. Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel examines the fierce competition for college admissions in a fresh, surprising, and funny package, with a bonus meta element for those of us readers who are also writing our own novels. The main character is Reshma Kapoor, a Silicon Valley high school senior who employs unhealthy and unsavory means to achieve her all-consuming end: admission to Stanford.

Reshma is convinced that her application — with its stellar grades but average-after-several-tries SAT scores — needs a hook in order to stand out in the admissions slush pile. She thinks she’s found her “in” when an essay she published in the Huffington Post earns her an email from a literary agent: “If you were to someday write a novel, I’d love to read it.” Boom, goal-oriented Reshma has a new aim: secure a contract with this agent, and write a novel to be under submission (or maybe even sold) in time for Stanford’s Early Action deadline.

And that novel is ENTER TITLE HERE. Or is it? I enjoyed the argument in my head as I read: is this really happening, or is this just for the novel? Reshma the narrator certainly encourages the confusion. She scopes out a brief synopsis in her head, epiphany and all, and then writes a “SEPTEMBER TO-DO LIST” of the experiences she needs to have to write the novel convincingly: make a friend, go on a date, attend a party, get a boyfriend, have sex. In the pages that follow, she sets about checking off each item. Oh, and this isn’t on her list, but no way is she going to loosen her grasp on her school’s valedictorian spot. She won it by hook and by crook, and keeping it is as essential to her plans (and her self-image) as writing the novel is.

You may have guessed by now that Reshma is not a very likable person. When she writes, for school assignments, newspaper articles, or her novel, she maintains two versions: an honest one and a pretty one. But when she meets people face-to-face, “…they start to hate me. That’s because when I speak, I find it hard to create a pretty version.” But even as we dislike much of what Reshma thinks, says, and does, we keep reading. Why?

For one thing, I was curious to find out which of her many enemies deserved the title. There’s her mother, who thinks Reshma should lower her sights from Stanford. There’s her “perfect” classmate Chelsea, who couldn’t possibly be as nice as she pretends to be. And then there’s Alex, Reshma’s Adderall supplier. Reshma blackmails Alex into being her friend (item number one on the TO-DO LIST) and then wonders if she can trust Alex to have her back. Meanwhile, will Reshma ever notice that George, whom her parents allow to live in the basement so he can go to a good school, consistently behaves like a real friend?

Kanakia keeps us rooting for Reshma, in spite of all her faults. We want her to figure out how to stop the train before the wreck. Her mother tries to help her, sending her to a therapist. As a writer, I found some of the funniest moments of the book occurring in Dr. Wasserman’s office. He’s not just a therapist; he’s also an unpublished novelist, and his line of questioning is familiar to any fellow striver: “…you’ve mentioned your agent…Who is she, if you don’t mind me…?” He has lots of advice for Reshma, but it’s never clear. Are the ideas for the novel, or for her life? Does Reshma imagine Dr. Wasserman’s decline into obsession with her plot line and character arcs? Or is he a horrible therapist but a pretty good editor?

I enjoyed ENTER TITLE HERE and recommend it as a work of evil genius that will be especially appreciated by students currently competing in the college admissions rat race. Their parents will like the novel too — though it may send some of them searching their kids’ backpacks for stray Adderalls.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

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OUTRUN THE MOON
Written by Stacey Lee
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

Outrun The Moon book cover

 

Ever since I finished reading Stacey Lee’s debut Under a Painted Sky, a YA novel following two girls escaping along the Oregon Trail, I’ve been hankering for more of Lee’s historical fiction, especially her lively and likable characters. In Outrun The Moon, out on May 24, Lee delivers, giving us Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s 1906, and the Chinese are restricted to a crowded corner of the city, but Mercy is determined to break out for the sake of her family, especially her overworked father and weak-lunged little brother. Mercy wants to change their destiny, but her mother warns that destiny is “like the moon. We can see it differently by climbing a mountain, but we cannot outrun it.” Or can they?

The story takes off — literally — as Mercy helps her lifelong friend and marriage prospect, Tom, with his hot-air balloon. Mercy’s mother is a revered fortune-teller who uses facial characteristics in her character assessments and predictions. You can imagine what happens when the daughter she calls “bossy cheeks” is left alone in the balloon for a moment, with the simple instructions, “Don’t touch anything.” The balloon seems to be collapsing, and Mercy will never sit still doing nothing if she thinks she can fix a problem.

And lots of problems are coming. If she can survive the hot air balloon, Mercy has a plan to win herself a scholarship to the best girls’ school in the city, but she may not understand the depth and breadth of prejudice against the Chinese. Dependable Tom is acting aloof. Ma has a chilling premonition — of her own death. Worst of all, it’s springtime in San Francisco. In 1906, that means the earth is about to crack open.

I love how Lee places many intermediate points of suspense along the story’s path, and I don’t want to spoil that suspense by telling any more about the book’s plot. But I can tell you that you will meet interesting young people of different backgrounds and prospects — and some crotchety older people, too. There will be leeches, and a mystical cow. There will be wisdom from Mercy’s fortune-telling mother, and from Mrs. Lowry, a Texan with a big ranch and a big personality. Food plays an important role, too, especially once disaster strikes; you may want to have some pasta available for the cravings you’ll get as you read. Chocolate, too.

I recommend this novel wholeheartedly. YA readers looking for strong, independent female characters will enjoy it. The book is also an excellent diverse read, giving an intimate perspective on the attitudes, injustices, and practical difficulties associated with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Finally, I recommend Outrun The Moon to my fellow historical fiction fans, and to anyone who’s ever left their heart in San Francisco.

Click here to see Lee’s book tour dates.
Visit Lee’s website to learn more about her here.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

 


Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

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EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING
Written by Nicola Yoon
(Delacorte Press; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

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⭐︎ Starred Review – School Library Journal

Madeline Whittier has read more books than you, but she hasn’t been outside her house for as long as she can remember. The protagonist in Nicola Yoon’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, Everything, Everything, lives an air-locked, filtered existence, with no outings and virtually no visitors, because she’s “basically allergic to the world.” She has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or “bubble baby disease.” While she could have grown to be a weird or bitter eighteen-year-old, it’s clear from the funny drawings and comments with which she annotates her life that she has remained sweet, optimistic and thoughtful.

Since Madeline’s father and brother were killed in an accident when she was a baby, Madeline and her mom are almost everything to each other. Then Olly moves in next door, with his all-black wardrobe, his parkour litheness, and his off-the-wall sense of humor. Madeline realizes she won’t really have everything unless she can leave her germ-free house and be Outside with Olly.

I enjoyed the unusual format of the book, its short chapters that don’t necessarily follow each other, the hand-written notes and drawings. Appropriate as well as charming, the format reinforces how Madeline feels about herself: “If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change.” Before Olly, her “life was a palindrome — the same forward and backward.”

That being said, eventually sequence matters, and the real “Book of Maddy” — Everything, Everything — is different if read backward. In the interest of not giving away too much, I won’t tell you the questions the book made me ask beyond “What would it be like to be a bubble-baby?” But rest assured Yoon’s novel provokes other thoughts as well, about the nature of love, and risk, and life itself.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

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SAINT ANYTHING
Written by Sarah Dessen
(Viking Books for Young Readers; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)

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Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
-A New York Times bestseller
-Kids’ Indie Next List Pick (Summer 2015)

Sarah Dessen’s many fans won’t need to be cajoled past the slow start of her new YA novel, SAINT ANYTHING (May 2015, Viking; $19.99). New Dessen readers, however, should know that the beginning is there to provide contrast, like the black-and-white opening of the Wizard of Oz movie. The detached vibe reflects how main character Sydney Stanford’s home life feels until she meets the Chatham family. The Chathams and their restaurant Seaside Pizza are full of warmth, acceptance, and music, and the pace of the book picks up as soon as the family appears. Layla Chatham becomes Sydney’s new best friend. Since she has a big sister who is a skating-star-turned-drug-addict, Layla understands what it’s like for Sydney now that her brother Peyton is in prison. Peyton was the Stanford family’s “Golden Child” before he drove drunk and crashed into a pedestrian.

Layla invites Sydney to join her group of friends, which includes her brother Mac. They all hang out at Seaside after school, eating pizza and practicing retro pop covers for an upcoming band showcase. Sydney feels herself falling for Mac, despite Layla’s warning that she can’t abide her friends dating her brother. But how can you draw a line between friendship and romance when you meet the right guy? The times Sydney and Mac find to be alone — usually while delivering pizza in Mac’s not-so-reliable old truck — are some of my favorite moments in the book. I enjoyed reliving the sweet excitement of a potential new relationship. I also related to Sydney’s discomfort when her brother’s friend keeps popping up to hang out with her, especially when her parents aren’t around. It’s hard to ask for help when an older guy creeps you out for reasons you can’t name and therefore can’t report.

The heart of the book for me centers on Sydney’s feeling of guilt about the young teen, David Ibarra, her brother Peyton injured. Sydney learns everything she can about David’s life before and after the accident. A friendly, caring guy nicknamed “Brother,” he’s going to be in a wheelchair for life, and Sydney feels like she’s the only person in the family wanting to make amends. Her mother, Julie, only thinks about Peyton and how the aftermath of the accident affects him. As a parent, I laughed out loud as Julie, stuck in helicopter-parent mode, tries to organize families of Peyton’s fellow prisoners as if she were the president of a prison PTA. I was touched, though, when Sydney and Peyton start talking on the phone, finally getting to know each other as individuals outside of their family roles, ready to take responsibility for their own lives.

SAINT ANYTHING is peopled with teens who feel real, none of them perfect and all of them passionate about something, whether music, school, or French fries. The book is a comfortable place to hang out even while facing uncomfortable situations with the more caricature-like adults. I recommend this book to fellow fans of quiet YA, those of us who’d like to peek inside a house when delivering a pizza, trying to figure out what life’s like behind that half-open door.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

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GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE
Written by Andrew Smith
(Speak; $10.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

GrasshopperJunglecvr.jpgIf you’re a YA reader and haven’t read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith yet (in trade paperback as of February 2015, Speak; $10.99) — in spite of all the buzz, like a 2015 Michael L. Printz honor and news of an Edgar Wright movie adaptation — get to it! Maybe you don’t like science fiction. No problem; the six-foot tall man-eating praying mantises come off as campy rather than horrific. Maybe you don’t like troubled narrators who use expletives every other word. Well, if Holden Caulfield didn’t help you get over that, maybe Austin Szerba will do it for you. Austin’s horny all the time, smokes most of the time, and often breaks rules just for the heck of it. But in spite of the trouble he gets into and the bad decisions he makes, he’s likable and sincere, and his adolescent mistakes provide a thought-provoking contrast to the nightmares the full-grown adults in his world engender — in their personal lives, in politics, and in ethics-impaired science.

Austin’s story takes place in small-town Ealing, Iowa in the early twenty-first century U.S. His brother is fighting in Afghanistan, and the economy is failing. The Ealing Mall, along with the neighboring field that Austin and his best friend Robby named Grasshopper Jungle when they played there as younger kids, has turned mostly into a junkyard. When Austin and Robby sneak into a locked office in one of the few remaining stores, they discover specimens from a 1960’s era Department of Defense research project. The specimens, accidentally unleashed by Austin (or, one could argue, by the bullies who steal the specimens after Austin finds them), develop into Unstoppable Soldiers, the aforementioned monstrous bugs that do indeed look more like praying mantises than grasshoppers, in spite of their provenance in Grasshopper Jungle.

Keeping notebooks with drawings and text about everything he experiences, Austin defines himself as a historian. His voice is fresh and humorous but also full of pain and sadness for his own hurts and those of generations past. Although he frequently uses an Anglo-Saxon term for “excrement” and drops a few f-bombs, Austin enjoys speaking eruditely and notices when anyone else uses even slightly elevated language, too. “She used words like moment,” he says about his girlfriend Shann. “The way she talked made me horny.”

That’s Austin in a nutshell. Almost everything makes him horny, but the way he reports this feels natural, not uncomfortable. Austin doesn’t consciously focus on sex. It’s just there, all the time, whether it’s convenient for him to be thinking about it or not. And he’s dealing with the fact that he’s overflowing with sexual feelings not just for Shann, but also for Robby, who is gay. Austin is confused, “…wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl…. There had to be something wrong with me. I envied Shann and Robby both so much for being confident in who they were and what they felt.”

Readers who identify with Austin’s confusion — whether over sexuality or one of the many other dilemmas he deals with — will enjoy this book. Readers who love the outrageous visuals of low-budget sci-fi horror will relish the scenes with huge bugs hatching out of human beings and feasting on what’s left of them, alongside destroyed cop cars and exploding bridges; there’s also a really cool underground bunker. Readers looking for a philosophical take-away will think about science, and responsibility, and history.

Author Andrew Smith is a social studies teacher, and for me the biggest growth in Austin and the biggest takeaway from Grasshopper Jungle is a developing understanding about the purpose of recording history. Austin tells us history has “to be an abbreviation. Even those first men…who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down. We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.” The novel circles back to this idea again and again, asking the questions: which details are the important ones? And what should we do about them if we ever figure that out? These are important questions, and Smith’s book is a satisfying way to explore them.

– Reviewed by Mary Malhotra


Half-Life by Tina Ferraro Book Blitz

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Half-Life by Tina Ferraro
Leap Books, 2015 (March 24),
108 pp., Kindle Edition $1.99
& Rafflecopter Giveaway

 

Probably not a good idea to take advice from your dead twin sister.

Half-Life, Tina Ferraro’s new YA novella from Leap Books, is my favorite kind of ghost story: one in which the ghost is someone you are happy to see and wish would stick around. I’ve read several of Ferraro’s teen romances — she’s been a finalist for the Romance Writers of America RITA award twice — and while the supernatural twist is new, the elements I enjoy most in her books are all here: a main character who is frank, funny, and a bit clumsy; family dynamics that are real and give the story depth; and a sweet, good-hearted love interest. Thankfully, the love interest is not the ghost in question (that could get awkward!). Rather, the ghost is main character Trisha Traynor’s identical twin sister Chessie, who died from a virus when the twins were just five. Soon after Chessie died, Abby Lowe became Trisha’s best friend, helping fill the void Chessie left in Trisha’s life.

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Now that Trisha and Abby are sophomores in high school, Abby is obsessing over a new boyfriend, and Trisha feels like she’s been dumped. Who can you turn to when your best friend turns away? Trisha’s mom is always super busy, determined to live exclusively in the present so she doesn’t have to address her grief and guilt over the death of her child. Since Mom’s no help, Trisha finds support in a very unexpected place. On Halloween night, Chessie appears as a reflection in a mirror with a plan to help Trisha fix her friendship with Abby. The first action item: get Trisha a boyfriend of her own, pronto.

Sensing a supernatural time limit (Chessie keeps consulting an invisible wrist watch), Trisha sets her sights on attainable Chadwick O’Reilly instead of her longtime crush, drop-dead gorgeous Kirk Maxwell. But Trisha’s choices aren’t all working out so well. The more she sees of Chadwick, the creepier he looks. She assumes Kirk is out of her league, but maybe he’s actually interested? And not even Chessie can understand why Trisha is willing to risk everything to get on the good side of her mean-spirited next-door neighbor, Dawn Dupree.

– Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

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tn3Author Bio: Tina Ferraro been writing since she learned to hold a pencil, and sold upwards of a hundred short stories to national magazines before turning to novels. She is the author of three Random House novels, The ABC’s of Kissing Boys, How to Hook a Hottie and Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress, which have received distinctions such as the ABA Book Sense Award and two RITA nominations.

Her fourth YA, The Starter Boyfriend, has spent time on Amazon’s Top 100 Lists. She lives in Los Angeles with her rocket scientist husband, two cats and whichever of their three young adult children is in town. When not writing, she enjoys playing Facebook Scrabble, swimming, and chasing coyotes out of her neighborhood.

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Others on the Blitz:

March 16th

Word to Dreams

A Little Bit of R&R 

Twinning for Books 

March 17th

Tattered Book Blog 

Somewhere Over Yonder 

Forever Lost In Other Worlds 

March 18th

After the Last Page 

Electively Paige 

Queekie Girl Reads 

March 19th

Reese’s Reviews 

CiCi’s Theories 

Girl With Pen 

March 20th

Michelle’s Minions 

Lindsay and Jane’s Views and Reviews 

Good Reads with Ronna 

March 23rd

Jessica Bayliss 

Ali’s Books 

Emma Michaels 

 


Get Happy by Mary Amato – Blog Tour

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GET HAPPY BLOG TOUR & GIVEAWAY

Author Mary Amato is also a songwriter, just like the protagonist of her new YA novel, Get Happy (Egmont USA, October 28, 2014, $16.99, Ages 12+ ). This fact provides a fresh hook: readers who get curious about the songs soon-to-be seventeen year-old Minerva writes when she’s working through her feelings can go to thrumsociety.com and listen to performances of the actual songs.

A funny moment in the book rings true and reflects Amato’s musical background: Minerva wants a ukulele for her birthday. She thinks she’s made this clear to her mother, but the two are rarely on the same page. So when Mom doesn’t come through, what does the uke-less Minerva do? She spends so much time practicing on the instruments at the music store that the store manager bans her!

The friendships in Get Happy also feel very real. Finnegan is a real BFF whom Minerva can count on when she’s down. He also pushes her to do things that are good for her. Notably, he gets Minerva to audition for a job with a company called Get Happy. The job entails, well, a tail! Minerva has to dress up as a mermaid, following a script to entertain at birthday parties. The job generates some funny and poignant moments and also turns out to be a place to meet new friends. Fin and Min meet Hayes on the way to the audition, and convince him to try out, too. Hayes is tall and friendly, and a cowboy — at least when he’s dressed for work. Cassie is the perfect princess, so perfect that her clients love her. Minerva notices every moment Cassie shares with Hayes, and finds herself feeling jealous. She even stalks Cassie on-line, leaving nasty comments on her blog.

The main conflict in the book feels less completely realized, but definitely adds suspense, and a sense of commonality for readers dealing with separated or divorced parents. Minerva’s father left when she was just a baby, but now he’s trying to get back in touch. If he’s as bad as Mom says, he’s not worth knowing, but Minerva can’t help wondering about him. Who is he, really? Should she try to contact him? Will Mom find out about the package he sent Minerva on her birthday?

Reading Get Happy is a good way to discover different paths for self-discovery — art, work, friendship — and will be especially enjoyed by younger YA readers.

Learn more about Amato’s books for younger children and educational resources for her books at www.maryamato.com.

– Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

GIVEAWAY

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THE BLOG TOUR CONTINUES …

Saturday, October 25, 2014
Bring On the Books: Guest post and giveaway

Crossroad Book Reviews: Review and giveaway

Sunday, October 26, 2014
Reading Teen: Guest post and giveaway

Pinky’s Favorite Reads: Q&A and giveaway

Monday, October 27, 2014
Jean Book Nerd: Guest post and giveaway

Adventures in YA Publishing: Question and giveaway

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Book Briefs: Q&A and giveaway

CherylRainfield.com: Guest post and giveaway

Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Unorthodox Mama: Review and giveaway

Bloggin’ ’bout Books: Review and giveaway

Thursday, October 30, 2014
Reading Nook Reviews: Q&A and giveaway

Fandom Monthly: Review and giveaway

Rockin Book Reviews: Review and giveaway

Saturday, November 01, 2014
Adventures in YA Publishing: Question

Sunday, November 16, 2014
Children’s Book Review: Guest Column and giveaway