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The Curses: A Graces Novel by Laure Eve

THE CURSES: A GRACES NOVEL BOOK 2
by Laure Eve
(Amulet Books; $18.99 Hardcover, Ages 14 and up)

 

The Curses: A Graces Novel by Laure Eve book cover art

 

 

The Curses has an undoubtedly awesome first line: “Wolf had been back from the dead for almost three weeks when we had our first midnight picnic of the year.” Best-selling author Laure Eve’s second book picks up smoothly from where The Graces left off, changing the narrator from River (the new girl in town with enigmatic magical powers) to Summer (her on-again-off-again BFF from the Grace family of witches).

This sequel expands the world of the Graces while keeping favorite characters close. The Graces are beautiful, rich, and alluring—and they have cool names. Complicated relationships advance between the people who love the Graces, hate them, or want to be them. High school drama is heightened as the teens try to master their supernatural powers.

Truth-seeker and air witch Summer questions the dreaded curse on the Grace family (they cannot marry for love). After some sleuthing, dangerous mysteries unfold and Summer struggles with how she’s inexplicably drawn to River, wondering whether to stay away or bring her into their coven.

The main story line revolves around Wolf and the problems accompanying his resurrection. Throughout, the characters grow and learn to navigate the complicated aspects of friendship, family, and love. Appearances can be deceptive and easy answers may not be the right ones but there’s surely magic in the world, if you’re open to it.

@ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour – An Interview With Rachel Lynn Solomon

 

graphic for Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour

 

Welcome to day three! As one of the bloggers participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour, I’ve had the privilege to interview author Rachel Lynn Solomon about her terrific debut novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at the Association of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.

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PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY OF YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE
Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on hYou'll Miss Me When I'm Gone book cover image er path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.

But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.

When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.

These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?

From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.

 

INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON 

Good Reads With Ronna: Please tell us what the source of your inspiration was for writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (Simon Pulse, $17.99 + 12.99, Ages 14+)

RLS: Thank you for having me on your blog! As a kid, I remember watching a couple TV shows that centered on genetic testing, and the idea of being able to know your fate, to an extent, stuck with me. Years later in early 2014, I was doing some random Internet research, looking for something that might spark a book idea. I landed on a page about Huntington’s disease, which I knew a little about. What stood out to me was the fact that a child of a parent with Huntington’s has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and I wondered: what if twin sisters received opposite results?
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GRWR: Your bio says you write about ambitious, complicated, sometimes unlikable girls who are trying their best. Can you please expand on that in reference to your main characters, Adina and Tovah, the 18 year-old fraternal twin sisters who do not get along?
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RLS: Absolutely! I firmly believe we don’t need to like the characters we read about — we just need to relate to them. Likable characters, in fact, are often quite boring to read about. Rule-following characters who always make the right decisions, who never hurt anyone’s feelings…not realistic, for one, and not as interesting as a reader or writer. Furthermore, in fiction, male characters are often given much more “permission” to be unlikable. Their flaws are more easily forgiven.
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In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah aren’t bad people, but they make mistakes, they hurt each other, and they occasionally sabotage themselves. But they’re trying, and they’re relatable (I hope!), and at the end of the day, those are the kinds of characters I’m always going to gravitate toward.
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GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick? 
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RLS: There’s a bit of myself in all the characters I write. While I don’t play viola like Adina, I grew up playing piano and guitar, and in high school, I was a stereotypical overachiever like Tovah.
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GRWR: What are your thoughts about the need for Jewish authors to write about more than just Holocaust stories despite the need for those to continue being told? And what kinds of books would you like to see written? 
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RLS: My major thought about this is: YES. We need stories about all kinds of Jewish experiences. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but growing up, I truly believed we only had one story to tell, and that story was the Holocaust. And that’s just devastating, to think your entire culture can be summed up by a tragedy. It’s why it took me so long to write Jewish characters of my own — while YMMWIG was my first published book, it was my fifth completed manuscript since I decided to get serious about writing. It was also my first with Jewish characters.
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I would love to see more historical novels featuring Jewish characters that don’t center on the Holocaust. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF TRUE by Susan Kaplan Carlton, which comes out in April, is a great example of this, and I highly recommend it! I’d also love to see more intersectional Jewish stories like YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman, coming out in March, and COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz, coming out in August. Aside from that, more contemporary stories about Jewish teens simply living their lives while also being Jewish — whatever “being Jewish” means to them.
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GRWR: Do you feel that books featuring Jewish protagonists and teens tackling illness fall under the diverse books heading since they are so underrepresented and often stereotyped? 
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RLS: This is a weighty topic, and one I’m still grappling with. Judaism occupies an interesting space in diversity discussions. I’m keeping a list of 2019 YA novels by Jewish authors and with Jewish protagonists, and I have only 14 books on that list. It’s so underrepresented in YA, and yet I’ve had a trade review insinuate Judaism isn’t diverse. Jewish friends writing Jewish characters have asked me whether their book “counts” as diverse. Conversely, one review told me I made my characters Jewish “for diversity points.” To me, Jewish books are diverse books, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the book community.
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GRWR: Your YA novel tackles a tough topic of a mother slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease as her teen daughters witness the decline. Also, early on in the story, one of the twins will learn after genetic testing, that she will get the disease, too. Your second novel also deals with a character needing a kidney transplant. What compels you to write about characters coping with illness? 
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RLS: I’m drawn most to topics that interest me — with YMMWIG, I wanted to learn more about Huntington’s disease and genetic testing, and with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, which deals with the aftermath of a kidney transplant, I was curious about organ donation. Curiosity is a huge part of my writing process. My background is in journalism, and I love research, and writing is such a magnificent way to learn more about the world.
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With regard to illness, specifically, I wanted to write characters who are not defined by their illness. In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah’s mother is suffering from Huntington’s. It was important to me that Huntington’s was not her sole defining characteristic. She enjoys her job as a teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE I focus more on the aftermath of the transplant and how it affects the two protagonists’ relationship. I aim to write sensitive portrayals of illness where the illness is a piece of the story but not the entire story.
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Author Rachel Lynn Solomon photo by Ian Grant

Rachel Lynn Solomon Photo by Ian Grant

GRWR: Of the two sisters, Tovah is the practicing Jew who keeps kosher, studies Torah and observes Shabbat along with her parents. It was encouraging to read a YA novel featuring Jewish main characters and their perceptions navigating life in a predominantly non-Jewish school and world. Was this your experience too? 

RLS: Thank you! Yes — I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my Seattle suburb. I actually don’t remember meeting other Jewish kids outside of temple until middle school. And it wasn’t until college that I found more of a Jewish community — I took a year of modern Hebrew, I joined Hillel, and for a while, I attended services every Friday. These days, I am more secular, but I’m happy to say I have close Jewish friends for the first time in my life, which I’ve realized is so incredibly important, especially in a world that often makes us feel like outsiders.

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GRWR: Adina can be cruel, jealous, socially aloof and manipulative, often using her beauty to control guys. Is it easier to write a more likeable character such as Tovah or one who’s not so likeable? 
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RLS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure what this says about me, but Adina was much easier to write than Tovah! It might be that I’m more similar to Tovah, so writing Adina allowed me to get more creative. To this day, her voice is the clearest of any main character I’ve written.
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GRWR: Tovah is a neophyte when it comes to sex while Adina has been sexually active since age 14. Tovah myopically dreams of attending Johns Hopkins to become a surgeon while Adina dreams of playing viola in an orchestra. One incident four years earlier has shattered their tight bond. Sisters yet complete opposites and strangers. What would they or anyone for that matter have to do to become close again and repair the wounds? 
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RLS: I’ve never experienced a rift quite like theirs, but my sister and I fought constantly growing up. It’s hard to admit you did something wrong, but I think that humility is the only way to at least begin to repair a broken relationship. I’m not sure if it’s something that gets easier as we grow up and grow older, but I know it’s especially difficult as a teen.
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GRWR: The twins’ story is told through alternating POV which works so well. What do you like about this approach and what other YA novels using this dual POV have you enjoyed? 
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RLS: Thank you so much. I felt strongly that this was the only way the book could be told — each sister is a full person but only half the story. It was the same with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE. The book explores the aftermath of a kidney transplant, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. The book doesn’t work unless we have both POVs and understand both characters, whose arcs are so closely entwined. Some other dual POV books I love: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr.
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GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book? 
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RLS: It’s been an adjustment! In the past, my manuscripts felt like living documents — I could open one up and tweak a sentence any time I wanted. But now, the book gets to a point where I have to be done messing with it. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, but it’s heartening to know that the book is done because it’s going out to readers who will be able to experience it for the first time.
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For anyone else who’s interested, I wrote a “five years later” short story about Adina and Tovah that originally went out as part of a preorder campaign. It’s available on my website here for anyone to read: https://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/extras/. There are some sad moments, but I hope it provides a bit of additional closure!
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GRWR: What other irons do you have in the fire? 
RLS: My second book, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted through Simon Pulse. My third, a romantic comedy, will be out in the summer of 2020. It takes place in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and follows two rivals who realize, as they reluctantly team up to win a senior class game, that they might be in love with each other. While it’s lighter than my first two books, the two main characters also confront anti-Semitism in a way I haven’t written about before.
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GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention? 
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These questions were wonderful — thank you for again having me!

2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019

Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Out of the Box at the Horn Book

Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré, author and illustrator of Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2019

Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers Category
At The Prosen People at The Jewish Book Council

Jane Breskin Zalben and Mehrdokht Amini, author and illustrator of A Moon for Moe and Mo
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA’s Youth Media Awards
At the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) Blog

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2019

Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Teen Readers Category
At Good Reads with Ronna

Elissa Brent Weissman, author of The Length of a String
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At Mr. Schu Reads

Susan Kusel & Rebecca Levitan, leadership of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee
At The Children’s Book Podcast

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2019

Vesper Stamper, author of What the Night Sings
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers Category
At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Erica Perl, author of All Three Stooges
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2019

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

Reflections on the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA at Susan Kusel’s Blog

10th Anniversary of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour at The Book of Life

Swing, a Novel-in-Verse by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

SWING
Written by Kwame Alexander
with Mary Rand Hess

(Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18) 

 

Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal 

Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Crossover, used basketball as the backdrop for the story. His new book, written with Mary Rand Hess, is a novel-in-verse called Swing with a prologue beginning:

We were halfway through

junior year.

Rounding the bases.

About to score

it’s a good bet that the title refers to baseball.However, Hess and Alexander also collaborated on the 2017 novel Solo about rock and roll, and it turns out that Swingis as much about swinging the beat as swinging the bat. Most of all, though, it’s about putting yourself out there and embracing life.

The book opens as narrator Noah and his best friend Walt (AKA “Swing”) have again failed to make their high school baseball team. Noah wants to give up, lamenting:

But the truth is

we suck.

Our baseball dream

is a nightmare.

It haunts me.

Noah defines himself by what he can’t do. He can’t play baseball, and he can’t tell his longtime crush, Sam, how he feels about her. With Walt’s encouragement, Noah tries writing poetry for her, but it’s not very — well, see for yourself:

I want you

to be my symphony

Your legs

two piccolo trumpets

blazing through

the air.

Even Walt agrees the poem is not good enough to give to Sam, but when Noah buys a second-hand Louis Vuitton Keepall as a birthday gift for his mom, he finds old love letters stashed in the lining that inspire him to try again.

Tonight, I’m ready

To tear courage

Out of the book of dares

And make it mine.

The love letters give him a scaffold for creating art worth sharing. Noah uses them to make blackout poetry — he blacks out some words so that the ones that remain legible form a new poem — and then adds original graphic elements with his pen. The resulting mixed media art stands out, even in this book composed entirely of poems. They make me curious; I have to figure out which letter Noah uses for which piece. They make me want to try writing blackout poetry myself, and they make Noah more confident, able to express himself and impress the girl he loves.

As wonderful as Noah’s art is, my favorite creation in this book is, simply, Walt. I want to reread Swingto spend more time with him. Noah describes him and his quirks like this:

My best friend

Walt Disney Jones

is obsessed with jazz,

baseball,

dead famous people,

and finding cool,

if it’s the last thing

we ever do.

But Walt’s a

self-proclaimed expert

on how to

never give up

until you win.

When it comes to “finding cool,” especially with regard to girls, Walt relies on his older cousin Floyd and a podcast called The Woohoo Woman. He won’t give up, whether he’s practicing baseball or finding a date for prom. He even gets a tattoo inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE. Walt’s tattoo says HUG LIFE, exhorting everyone who sees it to embrace the world, and all its people and opportunities, wholeheartedly.

Noah’s quest to win Sam over from her boyfriend takes flight after Noah’s parents go on a trip, leaving him home alone for a few weeks. Noah’s grandmother is supposed to supervise him but doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Walt, on the other hand, moves right in, believing Noah absolutely needs supervision if he’s going to win Sam’s heart. Walt anonymously sends Sam one of Noah’s poems, but it’s still up to Noah to decide how and when to reveal himself. Will he ever convince Sam to promote him out of the friend zone?

Swing is most of all a coming-of-age story, but there is a mystery in the background throughout. People find American flags left on lawns, stuck on windshields, and painted on freeway exit signs, and the town debates whether the flags represent a show of patriotism or a sinister warning.

no one can agree

on why the flags are here,

who’s planting them,

and whether or not

we should be

happy or offended

that they’re growing

like dandelions.

The flag mystery leads a fairly light story into heavier territory. I believe in building empathy and understanding through books about difficult topics; however, in Swing, the social justice issues are not well developed. Because of this, I felt unprepared for a tragedy (caused by police using excessive force) at the end of the book, and I think younger, sensitive readers in particular may have the same experience. Most of us dislike spoilers, but with Swing I think it’s fair to provide readers with a little warning before reading and a lot of opportunities for discussion afterward. In that context, I recommend Swing to readers fourteen and up as both a funny coming-of-age buddy story and a serious vehicle for discussing the people we as a society forget, fear, or abuse.

  • Review by Mary Malhotra

 

Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles

THREE SIDES OF A HEART:
STORIES ABOUT LOVE TRIANGLES
Edited by Natalie C. Parker
(Harper Teen; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Cover image from anthology Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

Christine Van Zandt recommends Three Sides of a Heart, a short story anthology featuring sixteen authors and an introduction by Natalie C. Parker who is also the editor.

This YA short story anthology, Three Sides of a Heart, gives us glimpses into love triangles from historical zombie featuring the Southern belle, her handsome betrothed, and her fierce female Negro Attendant (“Dread South” by Ireland) to futuristic (“Omega Ship” by Carson—with a let’s-talk-about-it ending) to a modern-day girl-on-girl kissing romance (“Lessons for Beginners” by Murphy). The common thread in this collection is its unique perspective of this theme referred to in the introduction as “reimaginings.” Settings as near as your backyard to far-off inhabitable planets will delight readers.

If the proverb “variety is the spice of life” is true, then Three Sides of a Heart is zesty indeed—and quite steamy in places. Of course, there are girls torn between good boys and bad boys (“Hurdles” by Colbert and “Waiting” by Tahir), and, more unexpected, the undead falling in love with the dying (“Unus, Duo, Tres” by Hagen). In “Vega” (Yovanoff), the city is a character. “Triangle Solo” (Nix), set on Mars, uses the boy/boy/girl triangle and a triangle, the instrument.

The sixteen authors in this well-crafted collection include Renée Ahdieh, Rae Carson, Brandy Colbert, Katie Cotugno, Lamar Giles, Tessa Gratton, Bethany Hagen, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, E. K. Johnston, Julie Murphy, Garth Nix, Natalie C. Parker (who also writes the introduction and is the editor), Veronica Roth, Sabaa Tahir, and Brenna Yovanoff. Each author delivers a memorable bite-sized tale.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

What Light written by Jay Asher


WHAT LIGHT
by Jay Asher
(Razorbill; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Jay Asher's What Light cover

 

What Light by Jay Asher was released in October and was a perfect way to kick off the holiday season, but it’s also a book that keeps the holiday spirit going all year round. In fact, I’d say anytime is a great time to read a romance. It tells the story of teenager Sierra, whose family owns a generations-old tree farm and spends every December in California selling their trees to locals there. Her overprotective father keeps all the worker boys at bay, even though Sierra has no interest in a fleeting romance—that is, until she meets Caleb. Struck by his charming character and smile, Sierra’s feelings for him clash with her high standards for relationships as well as the rumors she hears about Caleb. He has a history that looms over him like the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Sierra tries to lighten the burden he’s carried with him for so long.

Sierra and Caleb share the instant love of Romeo & Juliet (though without the dramatic dual-sacrifice ending). In fact, the title, What Light, is a nod to Romeo & Juliet’s first meeting: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” However, the title becomes much more meaningful as the relationship between Sierra and Caleb unfolds.

Given that it is only 186 pages, and given Asher’s ability to instantly make me care about his characters so much that I need to know what happens next, it’s no surprise that I finished this book in one day. What was a surprise (and delight) was just how much my teenaged niece, new to Asher’s novels, loved the book as well. She had told me that she needed a book for her independent reading at school, and I immediately suggested this. She was going on a trip, and I told her it would be perfect for the plane ride. Upon her return, she messaged me immediately and said that she loved the book, could not put it down, and had never been so happy to be “forced” to read a book. She loved the bond between Sierra and Caleb and said, “It’s so cute….  I want this to happen to me.”

This story is one of family and friendship, understanding and forgiveness, love and loyalty, and, most of all, hope. My niece has been passing this book around to her friends, and I have been passing it along to those of my students who are avid young adult readers and enjoy a spark of love and hope in their lives. In a world that offers so much darkness at times, Asher’s latest novel offers us some well-needed light.

 

  • Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

 

 

 


 

The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom

 

THE CRUELTY
by Scott Bergstrom
(Feiwel & Friends; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

cover image for The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom

 

Initially, seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Bloom’s worst things in life include being bullied by rich girls at her “diplobrats” school and aching from the tenth anniversary of her mother’s brutal death. Gwendolyn’s worldview is soon upended when her father’s kidnapping propels her to action.

With the help of friends (including a blossoming first love), Gwendolyn escapes to Paris in pursuit of her first lead. She discovers that cruelty has no borders as she travels through the underbellies of France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Surviving in the shadows using intrigue and deception, Gwendolyn perseveres.

The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom is a fast-paced read; with each chapter, Gwendolyn grows more deeply involved in gambling, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. She sacrifices everything in the hope of freeing her father—then finds bigger causes to fight for.

While this modern-day spy book exemplifies female strength and independence, the life of this spy is rarely glamorous. The title tells all: cruelty rules. Opting for activism means becoming tougher and craftier than her enemies. Gwendolyn learns there’s no going back from these irreversible choices.

Find Scott Bergstrom’s website here.

The Cruelty is available on February 7, 2017.  Book two, The Greed, is scheduled for release next year.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

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

 

enter-title-here book cover
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

The Crown by Kiera Cass – The Selection Series Volume Five

THE CROWN
(THE SELECTION SERIES #5)
by Kiera Cass
(HarperTeen; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

The_Crown by Kiera Cass book cover

 

Since Kiera Cass’ The Heir left off on a heart-wrenching cliffhanger, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the next and final installment of The Selection series, The Crown. Princess Eadlyn faces the fear of possibly losing her mother, while having to step into very large and heavy shoes in the absence of her parents. As Maxon stays glued by his ailing wife’s side, Eadlyn must fill the role of both King and Queen while also continuing her Selection for the sake of her parents and her country. Eadlyn must also provide comfort for her younger brothers all on her own, as they are all still mourning the departure of Eadlyn’s twin brother, Ahren, after his surprise elopement to France. While the situation is extremely daunting, Eadlyn takes on these challenges, following in the strength of her mother, and blossoms into the woman she was always meant to be. She still struggles with whether love is actually possible for her, ever comparing it to the truest and deepest love her parents share, but she must find a way to do what’s right for herself, her family, and her people.

I recommend rereading the last few chapters of The Heir before reading The Crown to remember all the Selection candidates and Eadlyn’s feelings for each one. It reintegrated me back into the palace and Eadlyn’s life, allowing me to be wholly invested in her once again. I waited an entire year to read this book, and Kiera Cass did not disappoint. She gave me everything I wanted in an ending and allowed me, as a devoted reader, to lovingly say goodbye to these characters. I’m sad it’s over and will likely read the entire series again, just to experience it one more time.

  • Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

    Click here to get more info about Kiera Cass.
    Read  Krista’s review of The Heir here.

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

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

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

 

 RED QUEEN
written by Victoria Aveyard
(HarperTeen; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)

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In yet another riveting tale that falls somewhere in-between the Dystopian and Fantasy genres, we see The Hunger Games, The Selection, and Divergent collectively mirrored in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen, particularly in the unbalanced caste system, a displaced protagonist, an alluring romance, widespread uprising, and unbridled betrayal.

Mare Barrow is a young girl working to survive in a society with two castes, the silver-blooded elite and the red bloods who serve them. The Silvers are the upper echelons of society with superhuman powers, but perhaps the most important ability they have is to keep the Reds in their place. Mare gets mistakenly drawn into the walls of palace life where she discovers that she, too, has powers of her own. What she really wants, however, is the power to take down the Royals who keep her family and the rest of the Reds nearly starving and struggling to survive. While one of the most difficult things to endure is leaving her family and worrying about their safety, Mare finds that what’s even harder is discovering who she is and whom she can trust.

While some parts were a bit predictable, others had surprising little twists that kept me quickly turning pages to see what would happen next. I found myself rooting for Mare Barrow and the Reds, and I’m looking forward to Aveyard’s next installment of this colorful saga.

– Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

The Heir by Kiera Cass

 

The Heir
Written by Kiera Cass
(
HarperTeen; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

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Kiera Cass has captured the hearts of readers worldwide with her #1 New York Times bestselling Selection series, and she continues to keep us captivated with her fourth book in the series, The Heir. The collection itself has become widely known as The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games with a bit of Cinderella mixed in.

Books 1-3 center around Prince Maxon and his endeavor to find a wife, who will be his queen once he becomes King of Illéa (essentially the United States post war). One of the 35 contestants is America Singer, a young lady of a lower caste than most of the other girls. While the others are vying for a place in the palace as well as in Maxon’s heart, America resists because, while a life with Maxon would mean raising her family’s status, it would also mean denying her true love whom she must leave behind. America soon discovers, however, that a life with Maxon is exactly what she wants and more than she could have dreamed of, and she must fight to the end to attain it.

Book 4, The Heir, is set twenty years later and tells a similar tale through Princess Eadlyn, daughter of King Maxon and his bride, Queen America. Though Eadlyn is also resistant to the Selection from the start, like her mother had been, she begins to learn that perhaps love is possible in the most unlikely of circumstances, and maybe happily ever after is meant for her after all. Much like her parents did in the past, Eadlyn faces much political and personal turmoil during the selection process.

Cass leaves us on the edge of our seats at the cliffhanger ending of this book as we await the fifth and final volume of the series, which is due to be released in the spring of 2016. These books will draw in readers of all ages. In fact, they were recommended to me by my 14-year-old niece, an avid reader who said these were her favorites of any books she’s ever read. Though there are more than 20 years between us, I too was enchanted by this ongoing saga, so much so that I read all four novels in just three days! Though I am disappointed that I have to wait months to read its conclusion, I will be much more disappointed when it’s over.

–  Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

 

 

 

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

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 

 

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

✩Starred Reviews – Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal & Booklist

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From the very first page of Complicit (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, $19.99, Ages, 14 and up), author Stephanie Kuehn keeps readers off-balance, trying to figure out what’s true and what’s right. The YA psychological thriller opens at 3:29 a.m. with the narrator’s phone ringing. “I like to be prepared,” Jamie says, “so I sleep with my phone beneath my pillow just in case someone calls. No one ever does of course.” But the phone is ringing, and already something doesn’t add up.

At breakfast, Jamie figures out the call was probably from his sister Cate, who has just been released from prison, much to the family’s dismay. Another problem for the reader: how could a teen do something so awful that even her parents and brother completely give up on her? On hearing that Cate is free, Jamie’s hands go numb, which is inconvenient because he has all sorts of routine high school activities planned for the day, including playing piano in the school jazz band. There’s nothing routine about the condition that occasionally makes his hands limp and useless, though: “even the big-shot doctors down at Stanford can’t figure [it] out”.

In other words, before the first chapter is over, it’s easy to like Jamie and empathize with him, but there are also already lots of questions about the past he shares with his troubled sister. It’s the beginning of a wild ride that forces the reader to consider the repercussions of shielding people from painful truths. Also, does hiding someone else’s bad behavior make you complicit in the crime?

I recommend this book to all teens and adults who like a thriller and can handle Hitchcockian violence — there are some horrors to imagine in Complicit, but the violence occurs off-stage. This is author Kuehn’s second novel. Her first, Charm & Strange, won the 2014 William C. Morris Award for outstanding YA debut.

Click here for downloadable discussion questions.

– Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Noggin by John Corey Whaley is reviewed by Mary Malhotra.

☆starred reviews – Publisher’s Weekly & Booklist

John Corey Whaley’s debut novel won the Printz and William Morris prizes in 2012. His latest YA novel, Noggin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2014, $17.99, Ages 14 and up), is a worthy follow up, with unique and lovable characters put into a situation that is intriguing, heartbreaking, and a little creepy.

Noggin is about a boy named Travis Coates who has just experienced a medical miracle. noggin-cvr.jpg Travis volunteered. He didn’t think it would work, and if it did, he didn’t think he’d come back for at least a hundred years, when everyone he knew and loved would be gone. It would be sad and lonely at first, but uncomplicated. Instead, just five years after ending his battle with leukemia by having his head cryogenically frozen, Travis finds himself in a hospital bed, alive and adjusting not only to the transplantation of a healthy body onto his old head, but also to the changes in his world.

In a way, the book picks up where John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars leaves off. Travis and the people who love him have experienced all the challenges and pain of losing a teenager to cancer. Travis wants to re-wind to before he got sick, physically and emotionally still sixteen and in high school, but the people he left behind — his parents, his girlfriend Cate, and Travis and Cate’s best friend Kyle — have gone through five years of letting go, growing up, and moving on, with varying degrees of success. Going to school (where the only thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of a hated math teacher) is difficult for Travis, but it’s even harder trying to reconnect with Kyle and Cate. Kyle has an awkward secret, and Cate avoids Travis entirely, which is not surprising considering she’s now engaged to someone else.

Noggin explores some hefty questions while somehow keeping a light and funny tone throughout. Flashbacks fill in the life old Travis had before he lost his head. New Travis deals with being a celebrity (or maybe a freak?), even at school where his only friend is a quirky, funny, and absolutely dependable kid named Hatton. Meanwhile, Travis thinks about the secret Kyle told him when he was dying. Should he let Kyle keep pretending it never happened? Travis wonders about the life and death of the boy whose body he is using and forms a support group of two with the only other surviving cryogenic regeneration patient.

But the Travis/Cate dilemma is the heart of the story. He wants her back. If love and loyalty are meant to be forever, is it healthy and normal to move on when your soulmate dies (sort of)? Or is it a betrayal? If Travis truly loves Cate, should he work to win her back, or stay out of the way of her newfound happiness?

I highly recommend this book. I immediately connected with Travis, and found myself wondering how my world might change if I checked out for five years. The Travis/Cate problem is one I love to hate — I don’t know how I would face it in real life! Most of all I appreciate Whaley’s realistic and hopeful take on how we manage to keep on living after experiencing loss.

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