Tag Archives: Debut

The Serpent King

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

Three friends with three very different lives, bound together by love and respect for each other. One with a cursed name and history, one with a destructive present, and one with a glowing future.

Set in a small town outside Nashville named for a big wig in the KKK (“the second ‘r’ in Forrestville is for racist“), the story takes place over the friends’ senior year in high school as they each face a future apart from the others, and try to find their own way.

SO beautifully written.

The Serpent King is told from three POVs, and each voice is distinct in personality and tone. Even at the beginning of the book, even without the name at the head of each chapter, each narrator is unmistakeable.

Dillard Early Jr. lives in a world where he takes on the sins of his father. He lives in fear that his grandfather’s and father’s instability was passed down along with their name; his grandfather’s obsessive grief that led to his suicide and his father’s snakehandling, poison drinking, Pentecostal evangelicalism are two sides of the same coin. Dill fights back the darkness that shadows his everyday life. There is light, but he must choose to follow it. Will he be strong enough, with the burden he already carries, to make that decision?

Travis is an epic nerd. A giant of a boy who dresses all in black, carries a staff, wears a dragon necklace, and can quote pretty much all of the high fantasy series Bloodfall is going to be open for attack in any small town. But Travis, he of the horrible home life and bleak future, he of the gentle nature, knows who he is and takes joy in the moment. Travis has courage. And Travis broke my heart.

With doting, supportive parents, Lydia is privileged, determined, and self-assured. She hides the insecurities she does have with a smart mouth and an incredible work ethic that will see her set her corner of the world on fire. And she has love for and faith in her two best friends, no matter how the rest of the world sees them. She plots her escape from this small-town hell and fights for the same opportunity for her friends.

And Jeff Zentner is a musician who decided to write a book that reads like a love song to growing up.

This is a story about making choices. It is a story about climbing beyond despair and finding hope and peace.  It is a story about finding yourself.  It is a story about all kinds of faith and all kinds of courage.

This book punched me right in the heart, then turned around and filled it with hope. It is nothing short of spectacular.

The Serpent King was published March 8th, 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House.

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Blackhearts

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Before Blackbeard struck fear into the hearts of sailors, he was a young man who wished for a life of exploration and adventure on the high seas. But promised to a Baron’s daughter and destined to follow in the footsteps of his successful merchant father, Edward “Teach” Drummond’s dreams are just that, dreams.

16-year-old Anne Barrett, orphaned daughter of a British merchant and a West Indian slave, is a penniless maid who also imagines an escape from her dreary life in Bristol, England. The two meet, and recognizing the adventurous spirit in each other, fight to overcome the conventions that do not allow them to be together.

With this beautiful cover and the back page blurb, I expected a story of pirates and adventure and swashbuckling and revenge and Blackbeard’s origin. Instead, it is a romance. Which is fine, if it is the story you are looking for. But Blackbeard is probably the most well-known and notorious pirate in history, and this novel is a love story that could have been about any two people.

That criticism out of the way, if you approach the book with no expectations of a high seas adventure, it is a very enjoyable historical romance. Teach is the wealthy son of a merchant in late 17th century England, and Anne a biracial girl forced by circumstances to become a maid. Both are educated, independent, attractive, and wishing for a different life. The development of their relationship is nice and slow, although unlikely.

This story does seize the opportunity to discuss some very serious themes: racism and interracial relationships, along with class prejudice, among others. Author Nicole Castroman presents them very authentically to the time. So while the romance is implausible given the prejudices of the era, she uses it well to illustrate those very morals.

There is something familiar about the plot, and about halfway through I remembered the story of Anne Bonny. (I loved pirates as a young girl. Too bad I hate sleeping on boats, or I totally could be one. A pirate, not a boat.) Infamous in the 18th century, Bonny was the daughter of an Irish merchant and his servant, raised in the Carolinas, who ran away to marry an unsuitable man and become a pirate. There are shades of her amazing story in Blackhearts.

I do not like the ending. It is a cliffhanger, but there is no sequel in the works. Now, if this is indeed an origin story, I guess Teach just becomes Blackbeard and off we go on our merry way, rejoicing. But if you know Blackbeard’s story, there is a HUGE gap between this story and his known one. It is an unsatisfying conclusion, with far too many loose ends.

The novel is appropriate for the YA range, but will not appeal to those looking for an adventure story. It is a boy-meets-girl romance, lovely and predictable, with a few twists thrown in for interest. If a sequel ever does appear, I would read it, for fun.

Blackhearts was published February 9th, 2016 by Simon Pulse

Shallow Graves

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17-year-old Breezy (yes, hippie parents) remembers everything about the day leading up to her death, but doesn’t know who killed her, or how she came to wake up in a shallow hole, digging her way up and spitting dirt from her mouth.  But a year has passed and a man lies dead next to her grave. Because of her.

So now she is alive, sort of; her heart beats and she breathes air when she remembers. And she is conscious of those who hide a murderous past. The shadows of former crimes follow certain people, and she can sense memories of past bad deeds. Breezy sets out to discover what she is, and if she can ever go back to the life she had planned. As you might have guessed, it isn’t that simple. There are those who would hunt her down, those who hate her unnatural state, who can sense what she is.

There are a lot of reasons this novel is impossible to put down. Breezy is the first one. She is strong and independent, curious and confident, with just a touch of vulnerability. She enters a world she previously had no idea existed, armed with strange abilities and facing a cult that wants her dead (or, really, more dead), and she fights her way to understanding and freedom. But it isn’t an obvious outcome, and her plight kept me turning page after page, and I had to force myself not to skip ahead. Her voice is authentic and matter-of-fact, and she faces incredible violence without letting it define her.

Added to the constant cliff-hangers are humour and character diversity. A ghoul joking about eating the dead, mermaid fight club, and chilling with the brownie in the basement, all bring unexpected laughs throughout the story. And a biracial and bisexual main character who accepts herself unquestioningly sends a positive message, without it feeling forced.

The secondary characters are equally well fleshed-out (a little zombie humour for you), with Zeke and Jake being my favourites. Rain is creepy and terrifying, and Violet is still a little girl trapped in a life she doesn’t know how to escape. And Willow and Mother just creep me out.

Flashbacks of Breezy’s family and friends provide great context for her personality while moving the plot along and adding information.

The book is a total page-turner. It is packed full of changing and unresolved threads and heart-stopping predicaments in a creepy world filled with monsters that had me reading just “one more page,” right up to the end. And the end lives up to the rest of the story. Breezy faces an unknown future filled with infinite possibilities and dangers, and makes the brave choice to leave her old life behind and charge into the unknown.

The writing is beautiful, with stunning imagery. Debut author Kali Wallace has a great take not only on death, but also on creatures and ghouls and monsters and things that go bump in the night. They are the monsters we have grown up fearing in the dark, but with unexpected twists and personalities. Maybe all is not as the myths have led us to believe…

The novel is an appropriate read for the full YA age range, but may have the reader looking at people suspiciously after finishing it.

Shallow Graves was published January 26th, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

Fans of the Impossible Life

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Jeremy is returning to Saint Francis Prep after a bullying incident ruined the last few months of his previous school year. He spends the first few weeks back hiding in a teacher’s office, sketching, when he isn’t in class, until the teacher decides it is time for him to face the world.

Mira promises her parents she will try to fit in at Saint Francis, after depression and a suicide attempt chased her from her last school into the psych ward at the hospital. There she meets Sebby, a gay foster child with a self-destructive streak that only Mira seems to be able to keep in check.  Together they try to fix themselves by creating a safe haven of rituals and road trips and friendship, one they determinedly drag Jeremy into, whether he is ready or not.

If you are going into this looking for a bisexual love triangle, go elsewhere. This book is about three teenagers dealing with sexual identity, homophobia, depression, suicide, and bullying, with just a touch of romance and a lot of friendship thrown in. The three find love and acceptance in their friendship, as they come to realize they are not alone in their journeys.

Fans of the Impossible Life is narrated from three points of view, each uniquely written in a different person. Mira and Sebby crash into Jeremy’s world, and change his perspective on a life that seems mired in loneliness. He narrates his chapters in the first person as the main character, with Mira a close supporting second. Her chapters are narrated in the third person, and while Sebby has only a few chapters of his own, each narrated in the second person, he influences every action taken throughout the story.

The plot contains a lot of different scenes not often found in a YA novel, including a gorgeous cross-dressing episode and a random night at drag queen karaoke. Added is an amazingly diverse cast of characters including a mixed race young woman battling depression, a teenage boy figuring out his sexuality, a drug addict, gay dads, a teacher who understands teen angst, a caring and strict foster mother, and a lesbian with a tough exterior and an obsession for her elusive ex-girlfriend, along with the regular cheerleaders and football players that are present in every high school.

Debut author Kate Scelsa deals with depression honestly, with no sugar coating. But she also illustrates the misconceptions and denial that can go with such an illness; Mira’s parents want her to be stronger, acting like her suicide attempt was a choice she made out of weakness. Scelsa takes the reader through the exhaustion and fear of facing the day that Mira just knows won’t get better. Seb’s addictions and Jeremy’s torment are given the same careful, authentic, detail.

I loved the ending. There are more loose ends than not, but it works, because it is real.

This is a fabulous contemporary novel about the joys and perils of growing up, friendship, and discovering yourself, without covering up the sad reality of mental illness and bullying. It is a YA novel that will take you back to those tough years where we all stumbled around, immersed in our lives and those of our friends, trying to figure it all out.

Fans of the Impossible Life was published September 8th 2015 by Balzer + Bray.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

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If ever I wanted a book to go on and on, this is the one. What an original, enchanting, heart-breaking, haunting (no pun intended), story.

In October 1918, 16 year old Mary Shelley (yes, named after the author) Black flees to San Diego and her Aunt Eva on the heels of her father’s arrest for treason back in Oregon. She arrives hoping to hear news of Stephen, first a childhood friend, and then her first true love. He joined the war effort just shy of graduating school, and letters from him are sporadic.

Stephen’s older brother Julius is a Spiritualist, one who claims he can see and capture the spirit world with his camera. Julius preys on the desperate, who have lost so many loved ones to the war overseas and the deadly Spanish influenza. Unknowingly and unwillingly, Mary becomes his muse, helping to attract his bereaved customers with a doctored image.

But Mary’s scepticism of the spirit world takes a beating when she learns Stephen has been lost, and she herself narrowly escapes death, forever changed by the experience. She begins to feel a presence, an overwhelming knowledge that the young man’s essence is near and in agony, and her scientific curiosity gets the better of her as she searches for a way to help Stephen rest in peace.

Author Cat Winters has me caring about her characters from page one. Mary Shelley is a lost girl, trying to deal with the father she loves being arrested, trying to understand why someone doing right can be accused of wrong, trying to handle the enormity of loss brought on by world conflict. Strong and intelligent, she uses a scientific approach to solve her problems, is a feminist raised to see value in the human being, not the gender. “Why can’t a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?”

Stephen is as gentle and caring as his brother is vindictive and selfish. His curious mind and nature are drawn to Mary Shelley’s strength and drive, and although we see little of him whole in the novel, Winters draws a complete picture of him. Aunt Eva is a great complex individual – while she is breaking down barriers, proud of her work in the shipyards building battleships while the men are overseas, she also is a product of her time, widowed young and worried that she won’t find a man at her advanced age of 26.

The plot is engaging from the first page. The initial few chapters do a great job of setting the stage, and by the second half I was fully immersed. As Mary’s world unravels, the action is non-stop and I did an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop reading (my thighs thank Cat Winters).

Mary, as a budding scientist, struggles against stereotypes in a man’s world. Winters manages to weave in a few lessons of the struggle for women’s emancipation without it taking over the story. Aunt Eva’s work in the shipyard illustrates in a few words the shifting and changing expectations of women, not only by men but also by the women themselves.

Ugliness and death are everywhere. There is only fear and mistrust where there was life and curiosity before. Everyone wears gauze masks to protect and mask themselves, and a culture of fear evolves, fed by the snake oil salesman and spiritualists.

The search for equality, the hunt for solace, the need for peace, the desire for answers to how and why; Winters manages to explore so many aspects of human nature, without forcing the story or spoon-feeding the reader. Her style is completely captivating. Her writing evokes images of the horror in the trenches, the uncertainty of life in a flu-ridden city, and the beginning of hope.

This is a lovely, multi-layered story, well-researched about a horrific time in world history. It is a snapshot of a time of fatigue, when hope was nearly gone. Along with the gorgeous sepia cover are archival photographs from the period scattered throughout the novel, adding to the realism of the story. It is easily one of my new favourites.

Appropriate for any age, with the acknowledgment that there is description of war wounds and influenza deaths.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds was published April 2nd 2013 by Amulet Books.

Between Shades of Gray

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Ruta Sepetys bases her debut novel on her own family’s history in Lithuania during WWII. It is part of a history that has been overshadowed by the other horrors witnessed during the war years.

Can a book about abuse and starvation and labour and imprisonment in a Siberian work camp be lyrical? This one can. The story about the atrocities committed by Stalin against so many during the war is evocative and beautiful and horrifying and soul crushing and stunning. It takes away hope with one hand, and lets it shine thorough with the other.

15 year old Lina is an artist, looking forward to a life at art school, and all the joys and trials of being a teen. But it is 1941, and she lives in Lithuania, and her life is about to come crashing down. Soviet secret police barge into her home and grab her family; Lina, her mother, and her young brother are separated from her father, sent north on a crowded train, and eventually end up at a work camp in Siberia.

There, Lina witnesses the worst of humanity, and the best. She documents her experiences through her art, in the hope that she can get word to her father where she and her mother and brother are being held. In the hope of seeing him again, and in the hope of maintaining her soul through her sketches. She wants to honour their fight for survival, whether or not they make it out alive.

The title of the book perfectly captures her long imprisonment. She is terrified by the evil which surrounds her, and lifted up by the moments of goodness displayed at the most surprising times.

SO beautifully written. The flashbacks, Lina’s perspective, the way Sepetys documents the day to day life in the camps is more than compelling. She dragged me kicking and screaming into the crowded trains and barracks and freezing fields, right into the fight for food and medicine and life. The bone-numbing cold and the growing pile of corpses, the loss of friend after friend after family member is heart-wrenching and horrifying.

The characters are vivid and so well written.  The toll of their imprisonment, the strain of the adults trying to shield their children, the children being forced into early adulthood, and even the innocent romance between Lina and Andrius; the characters lose hope even as they continue to fight for their lives, and Sepetys writes them all so clearly.

This is a tough book about a horrific subject. But it is still a YA novel, and can be read by the entire age range.

Between Shades of Gray is published by Philomel Books.

Outspoken

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I received a copy of the eBook from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Outspoken is a cute, contemporary coming-of-age story about 18 year old Penny Beck. She is a girl who always says yes when she means no. She is a people pleaser, and that has led to some disasters in her personal life. So she is going to change.

A grandpa with early stages of Alzheimers who needs someone to check in on him is the perfect excuse to leave home for the summer before college. Penny travels from Montana to the coast of South Carolina, practicing her new assertive self on all she meets.

Archer could be trouble, though. Penny cares what he thinks of her, and is in danger of losing her newfound independence.

This was a light, fun read. Lora Richardson successfully gets into the head of an 18 year old girl searching for independence. Her personal struggles were realistic; she fought with her parents about her decision to not go to college in the fall, she wanted space from her overbearing family, she wanted to make her own decisions. She was uncertain about her direction, and terrified to break the rules.

That said, I’m not sure I really liked Penny. She is friendly and willing to approach new people, and, to be honest, a bit boring. The disconnect I had with her character was simple: she thought of herself as a someone who couldn’t say no, she slept with a guy who had just dumped her, but then she had no problem telling someone she’d barely met and who thought he was doing something nice that he was rude and shouldn’t interfere. Speaking up for herself isn’t actually her problem. Timing and delivery, on the other hand, is definitely questionable.

Archer didn’t really appeal to me; he was intended as the bad-boy love interest, but I found him a bit boring as well.  That said, the development of their relationship was cute.

The plot wasn’t very fast paced  or exciting, mainly, I believe, because it dealt with issues of day to day life and growing up. For all that, Richardson portrayed a realistic life of an 18 year old on her own for the first time; we didn’t all have exciting lives at that time!

Because this novel is character driven, I had hoped for more development throughout the story. I think this is where it fell short. Penny did not really seem to change; I didn’t find that she really became more sure of herself. Perhaps her romance with Archer was more mature than her last one, developing at a realistic pace, but her basic character remained the same.

All in all, a nice romance from a debut author. It is a good read for a teenager, with nice themes about standing up for yourself, growing up, and when to ask for help. I don’t think it will appeal so much to those of us who already have figured it (mostly!) out.

Outspoken is published by Createspace.