Tag Archives: young adult books

“The Serpent King” Book Review

The Serpent KingEvery high school has those kids that don’t fit in. In The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, three teens from Forrestville, a small Tennessee town named after the founder of the Klu Klux Klan, are bound together as misfits and as best friends. Lydia comes from loving and prosperous parents; she’s got a popular fashion blog and is on her way to college in New York City. Travis escapes his father’s drunken beatings in the fantasy world of knights and noble quests. Dillard Early Jr. can’t escape his name: his snake-handling, poison-drinking preacher father was incarcerated for child porn and his grandfather went around wearing snakeskins and killing every snake he could.

Written in third person, this novel alternates among the three characters. The story covers the characters senior year of high school and is filled with poverty in the rural South, enduring friendship, heartbreak, clinging to faith at all costs, fear of the unknown, and learning the courage it takes to survive and to thrive.

While it took me several chapters to get sucked into the story, I ended staying up way too late to finish the novel. The book covers the harsh reality so many outsiders have to live in. And while parts of the novel did showcase that this was a debut, it’s a phenomenal coming-of-age story about hope and courage, of salvation and betterment, of surviving and flourishing when life seems too bleak to continue.

(Photo courtesy of myself.)

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When Beauty Destroys the Beast: “Uprooted” Book Review

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Before I began Uprooted by Naomi Novik I had high expectations. With over 50,000 ratings and nearly 9,500 reviews, this young adult novel has over a 4 star rating (out of 5). This book had to be phenomenal! At least, that’s what the overwhelming majority of the reviews indicated.

The first pages—almost the entire first chapter—grabbed my attention. This book is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast is a magician known as the Dragon and Beauty is a village girl about to discover that she has a much larger role to play than she’d ever imagined.

However, after the first pages, I had a difficult time reading the first third of the book. It didn’t seem any different than most of the young adult books out there. The protagonist Agnieszka is a seventeen-year-old brown haired, clumsy girl, whose best friend is beautiful and talented and brave. The Dragon is a one hundred fifty year old guy, who looks like he’s not much older than Agnieszka and is a jerk. (Where have we heard that scenario before?)

In the original Beauty and the Beast, the Beast was also a jerk, but I felt that there was a reason behind it. (He did look like a monster, after all.) The Dragon seemed to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk.

I felt like the Dragon being terrible and incredibly rude to Agnieszka for no reason, and she reacting like some exceedingly self-conscious, mumbling, and messy girl, was a story plot I’d seen before. One where the jerk of a guy was going to be the love interest. A story plot I’ve never liked.

But that all changed when I entered the second half of the book. Basically, I liked the book better when the Beauty and the Beast retelling ended and the story took on a life of it’s own.

Agnieszka started growing as a character. She began standing on her own two feet. As the world, characters, and plot built layers and layers on itself, I was pulled back into the story. I ended up not being able to put the book down. Some of the my favorite scenes were when Agnieszka and the Dragon were separated, because then I got to see what Agnieszka could do and what her personality was truly like, without the Dragon’s shadow looming over her.

While the final third of the book made me late a few mornings to work—I ended up reading longer than I should have—there was one scene that chucked me headfirst out of the story. Normally, a scene like this one wouldn’t have bothered me, if it were in an adult novel. However, this scene was in a young adult book that is intended for thirteen to seventeen year olds. This scene is a detailed sex scene between the Dragon and Agnieszka. Detailed enough that I could picture everything that was happening. I wouldn’t have wanted my fifteen-year-old cousin reading this scene. When I was fifteen, I read books that had sexual content, but never anything that I’d describe as soft Harlequin.

Other than that scene, the final section of the novel was extraordinary. The creativity and imagination fueling the rising action, climax, and resolution was brimming with excitement and depth. When the ending finally came, it was satisfying, mature, and realistic. It was a perfect ending to a book that turned out to be an incredible fairy tale.

Have you read any good books lately?

(Photo courtesy of Chris Alcoran.)

“Story of a Girl” Review

305379629_0cf039ac22_zIn high school, there’s always that one girl people whisper about, the one that has the reputation of “school slut.” Maybe she got that reputation from being caught on school grounds having sex with her boyfriend, or she’s the type of girl who steals other girls’ boyfriends. Or she could have been the girl that got knocked up and had an abortion. Perhaps she didn’t do any of those things.

It doesn’t really matter what she did or didn’t do. The gossip and labels her peers give her will define her.

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is a young adult story about Deanna Lambert, a girl who was caught, by her father, having sex with her brother’s seventeen-year-old friend, when she was only thirteen. Three years later, Deanna is labeled as the “school slut.” Suffering from low self-esteem, a poor and highly dysfunctional family, and crushing on her best friend’s boyfriend, Deanna is stuck within the past, unable to form any true relationships or move on and plan a future for herself.

By the end of the story, Deanna is able to move on. But how does she break free from her reputation? It’s not because the world she lives in changes. Everyone’s views of her remain the same. She’s still considered the school slut, but what does change is her. By learning to forgive others, she allows herself to be forgiven. By changing how she responds, she opens the doorway for hope and change: “Forgetting isn’t enough. You can paddle away from the memories and think they are gone. But they will keep floating back, again and again and again. They circle you, like sharks. And you are bleeding your fear into the sea, until, unless something. Someone? Can do more than just cover the wound.” (147)

From the beginning Deanna’s point of view is two-fold. Outwardly, she’s extremely tough, but, inwardly, she is a very vulnerable teenage girl. This vulnerability makes her highly self-protective. She’s haunted by a past action she wishes she could undo. This memory pains her every time it arises. Deanna has a realistic voice, full of self-doubt, loneliness, and most of all, a need to connect to others. To be needed and loved. By Zarr writing Story of a Girl through Deanna’s point of view, she is making Deanna an authentic teenage voice and relatable to readers, regardless of whether or not they’ve been caught having sex by their father. Because most people know what it’s like to be labeled and to have those labels stick, and to want to break away from what other people define you as.

In terms of plot, there isn’t any huge climatic ending. There isn’t a major dramatic scene anywhere within the novel. However, the story is powerful. Zarr uses quieter scenes to showcase Deanna slowly overcoming the “slut” label she’s been placed under, revealing a deeper and more accurate view of Deanna. This quiet growth allows for a truer version of Deanna to progress, and shows her maturing in a realistic way. By using subtler moments, Zarr allows for the universal themes of the story to shine: the unfairness of having false identities forced onto you, the ache of being unable to change past events, and the desperate need to belong to a group of people who will love you despite your flaws.

For most of the story, Deanna doesn’t have an accepting family, so she attempts to escape from herself. Zarr uses sub-chapters to weave a story within a story. These sub-chapters act as Deanna’s coping mechanism. In them, she is not Deanna Lambert, but the girl on the waves: “I’d already detached from the conversation. In my head I saw the girl on the waves, bobbing along, thinking my thoughts, feeling my feelings, swimming away.” (30) The girl on the waves acts as Deanna’s emotional buffer, but once Deanna begins to move on, the girl on the waves becomes less of a presence within the story, until she disappears and there’s only Deanna left. Zarr’s use of these sub-chapters gives readers an idea of how fragile Deanna’s internal state is and how lonely and isolated she is. Unable to confront her emotions on her past, Deanna hides behind the girl on the waves, until, finally, she is able to start to take back her emotions and her identity piece by piece.

Story of a Girl is not a happy story. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending. Deanna is not completely healed, but she’s in the process of healing. She’s hopeful and looking toward a future she didn’t conceive of before.

(Photo courtesy of Chris Weisberg.)