REVIEW: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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Title: The Serpent King
Author: Jeff Zentner
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Publication: March 8th 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic, Southern Gothic
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, Young Adult

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Synopsis

Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.

The only antidote to all his venom is his friendship with fellow outcasts Travis and Lydia. But as they are starting their senior year, Dill feels the coils of his future tightening around him. The end of high school will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is happy wherever he is thanks to his obsession with the epic book series Bloodfall and the fangirl who may be turning his harsh reality into real-life fantasy. Dill’s only escapes are his music and his secret feelings for Lydia—neither of which he is brave enough to share. Graduation feels more like an ending to Dill than a beginning. But even before then, he must cope with another ending—one that will rock his life to the core.

Review

The Serpent King is raw, honest, and heartachingly beautiful . . . a fine debut of a novel.

Dillard “Dill” Early Jr., the only son of an incarcerated snake-handling preacher, tries to escape his name. Lydia Blankenship, a brilliant, offbeat fashion blogger, tries to escape Forrestville. Travis Bohannon, a hardcore fantasy novel fanboy, tries to escape his father. All of them on the precipice of young adulthood. None feels they belong in their rural Tennessee town. And that’s the thing about The Serpent King, the trio’s fears, their battles, wonders, heartbreaks, and at times, triumphs are so incredibly and infinitely familiar you’d feel right at home in a couple of pages.

“”Nothing stops when we’re gone,” Lydia said. “The seasons don’t stop. This river doesn’t stop. Vultures will keep flying in circles. The lives of the people we love won’t stop. Time keeps unspooling. Stories keep getting written.””

Told in the third person, and switching between Dill’s, Lydia’s, and Travis’ points of view, this coming-of-age is vividly written. It has very distinct voices, with an equally striking Southern backdrop, it almost feels like you’re watching three separate short films that share the same universe. And it works. It delivers an unflinching look at the struggles of growing up and finding one’s identity, not pulling punches in its portrayal of religion and poverty. It also touches on mental health in a manner that suggests complete understanding and empathy. It’s poignant, witty, and heartrending, but ultimately hopeful.

And if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.

It’s hard not to feel strongly about Zentner’s characters. Lydia is my hero—clever, ambitious, passionate about what she believes in, impossibly young and talented, and quick with words but can be insecure and near-sighted all the same. Dill, with all his dreading and insecurities and the weight of his situation, probably undergoes the most character development. And Travis—large in stature, gentle of heart—I just want to hug Travis. But then you’re hit by the crushing harshness of their circumstances. Dill’s parents are a tag team of guilt trips and extreme faith; Travis’ father is straight up asshole, abusive in all the ways a person can be abusive. Add Lydia’s well-to-do, supportive, loving family into the equation and there’s a stark, often oppressive disparity. And this plays a lot in the dynamics of their friendship. There are easy banters and quips between the three but Dill sometimes lashes out on Lydia, Lydia is sometimes uncharitable with her judgments, and Travis sometimes holds back. In one scene, after a particularly appalling Father Episode, Travis considers his options, “he didn’t think Lydia would understand because her family was so awesome. And he didn’t think Dill would understand because his family was so awful,” further affirming Anna Karenina‘s famous opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Or, you know, each shitty family is shitty in its own way.

“If there was a way I could explode with beautiful heat and light, like a firecracker, that’s what I’d want. I want people to talk about me and remember me when I’m gone. I want to carve my name into the world.”

Then there is Zentner’s writing style. There is a certain pensive beauty to his prose, a saudade quality underlying everything. I found myself, in multiple occasions, sobbing and at the same time thinking, this is a beautiful line or that is a clever play on words. I’m hard-pressed to name a more fitting YA evocative of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming than The Serpent King, in terms, at least, of the way the two made me feel while soaking up on the language. I also haven’t cried—actual tears I had to remove my glasses—over a book in a while. So there’s that.

Hold this moment. Keep it. Until the next train whistle in the distance pierces the stillness.

For fans of David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. Remarkable. Just, remarkable.

4.5 out of 5

Author

Jeff Zentner 01

Jeff Zentner is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write for young adults. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son. The Serpent King is his first novel.

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Have you read this one? Have I convinced you to? Are you a fan of narratives with multiple POV characters? What was the last book you rated 5 stars? Also, can we stop a minute and talk about Travis? PLEASE. Sound off in the comments below!

You can also stalk follow me elsewhere! On Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Bloglovin.

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Unmissable Weekly: June 25, 2017

Bookish and Awesome’s weekly round-up of buzz-worthy news from around the bookternet in bite size. Click on the links to be directed to the full articles.

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Bloomsbury and Pottermore will publish two new books this autumn for the British Library exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic”, opening on 20th October.

“Previously unseen material from the Bloomsbury archive and J K Rowling” is promised for both titles, with Rowling’s original drafts for the books set to be on display in the exhibition for the first time.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, a £30 hardback with full-colour illustrations, will be the official book of the exhibition, while paperback Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic (£12.99) will be “aimed at a family audience”.

And the story of the boy who lived lives on (what?).

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In an attempt to help those that were displaced and/or otherwise harmed by the fire that consumed Grenfell Tower just a week ago, a large number of authors have donated signed items, Skype calls, and other in demand experiences to an auction that will go to benefit those families through the British Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund.

Once again, it is proven that book people are the best people.

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With just about every major character – Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister and some dragons, to point out a few – making appearances, the new trailer foreshadows the unification of the various battling clans as they join forces.

The latest Game of Thrones trailer used Ramin Djawadi’s ‘Light of the Seven’ and I am not okay. Also? “Unification” is highly doubtful.

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Penguin’s Dutton imprint has announced plans to publish a new novel by YA author John Green on October 10, Turtles All the Way Down. This will be his first novel since The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012), which has sold 23 million copies worldwide. The book follows 16-year-old Aza Holmes as she investigates the disappearance of a fugitive billionaire, while coping with mental illness. Dutton has planned a first print run of 1.5 million copies.

This seems to me a pretty bizarre title but it doesn’t matter because WE ARE GETTING A NEW JOHN GREEN BOOK!

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Scenes I Need to See in the Simon vs Film

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that this fanboy is SO stoked for the movie adaption of Becky Alberalli’s debut Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Not only does Simon Spier have the most pitch-perfect of voices, the book also is a 320 pages of adorable. And now that rumors surrounding the actor playing Blue are finally confirmed (do not click the link unless you know who Blue is because spoiler), it is time to put together a list of scenes from the novel fans need to see in the big screen. And by fans, I mean myself.

For hardcore Simonites, you will notice I did not include Garrett’s Halloween Party and The Carnival. Evidences in the form of set photos assure fans we’ll get those. Then again, you probably already know. So, here goes:

1. The Autocorrect Fail.
Simon vs switches between Simon narrating and entries from his e-mails with Blue. One that particularly cracked me up is an entry where Simon e-mails Blue from his phone and, well, autocorrect fail. I won’t share the whole thing but it has the line: “DICK a good guess.” Simon is pretty freaking embarrassed and we need to see Nick Robinson blushing!

2. Simon’s Golden Birthday Plus E-Mail Thread After.
Because sugar high Simon is sugar high Simon and he is a-do-ra-ble. And the cake scene at lunch! People are shameless about cake and we need to see Nick Robinson covered in frosting! I mean, his face. Okay, I need to shut up. I needed to shut up like five minutes ago.

3. Simon Wearing Eyeliner for Oliver!
Because the EYES. So, Simon is in a play called Oliver! And the Friday before opening night, the cast performs a sneak preview for the students of Creekwood High School. Abby applies eyeliner on our boy and the result is EYES. Obviously, we just need to see Nick Robinson framed in close-up shots.

4. Peter and Webster’s.
One of my absolute favorite scenes in the book is when Abby and Nick take Simon to a night out. They go to this “gay bar” restaurant, where Simon meets college student Peter and it is all kinds of cute and flirty! (Shush, I’m still Team Blue. Geez.) But we clearly need to see wasted Nick Robinson! Bonus points for Colton Haynes who plays Kevin. Not a typo. He is the film version of Peter.

5. Really, Just Give Us All the E-Mail Exchanges Between Simon and Blue.
Please and thank you!

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is set to hit theaters March 16, 2018. Which means you have all the time in the world to catch up. Go pick up a copy and thank me later.

Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

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So, which scene(s) are you most looking forward to seeing in the big screen? Did I miss your favorite(s)? Do tell me in the comments below!

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Unmissable Weekly: June 18, 2017

Bookish and Awesome’s weekly round-up of buzz-worthy news from around the bookternet in bite size. Click on the links to be directed to the full articles.

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This is Unmissable Weekly: Movie Casting Edition.

Jessica Chastain is in talks to join Simon Kinberg’s “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” as the villain Lilandra.

Lilandra is the empress of an alien empire called the Shi’ar, who leads the quest to imprison and execute Dark Phoenix, leading her into conflict with the X-Men.

Not that I’m not already excited for Dark Phoenix.

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Angourie Rice will star in MGM’s romance movie “Every Day,” an adaptation of David Levithan’s novel with Michael Sucsy directing.

Production will begin next month in Toronto. Jesse Andrews, who wrote “Me And Earl and the Dying Girl,” has adapted the script.

Me: One of my first YA loves is getting a female lead!
Article: Oh, but also, “an entity named A, who inhabits a new body of another teenage boy each day.”
Me: WHAT.

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Danielle Macdonald, the breakout star of Sundance movie Patti Cake$, has booked her next starring role.

The Australia native will star opposite Jennifer Aniston in comedy-drama Dumplin. The film, helmed by The Proposal and Step Up director Anne Fletcher, is based on Julie Murphy’s 2015 YA novel that follows Willowdean Dickson (Macdonald), who was given the nickname “Dumplin'” by her former beauty queen mom (Aniston).

Dumplin’ finds its Willowdean.

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The Flash actor Keiynan Lonsdale will appear in Fox 2000 YA drama Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the Greg Berlanti-helmed film adaptation based on Becky Albertalli’s novel. It centers on a young gay teen, Simon (Nick Robinson), who takes a novel approach to coming out to his classmates.

This is a spoiler but AAAAAHH—Simonites all over the world had been waiting forever for this announcement/confirmation and it’s HERE!

NOTE: Unmissable Weekly will now appear every Saturday night (EST)/Sunday morning (HKT), instead of its initial Friday runs.

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To All the Boys Who’ve Had to Learn to Play By Different Rules

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June 15th. Today marks the date Ari and Dante first met in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s multi-award-winning Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which is absolutely beautiful, in all senses of the word. It is a breathtaking and breathtakingly poignant story of two Mexican-American boys who learn the wonders and power of friendship. It is a story where I learn the wonders and power of words.

One can argue that with the love of reading comes the awareness that words have power. That they have weight and that they can impact our daily lives, ranging from the trivial ways we view waffles to the grand, life-altering moments of finding out we all eventually have to adult. We’ve always had stories and stories always matter. But up until Aristotle and Dante, I didn’t fully buy into the adage. I was raised in a community where boys have to follow a specific set of rules, much like the two leads in the novel. And like Ari, I felt like a fraud. I felt small. I felt inadequate. I was scared of many things. I was scared of my own narrative, for one, and believing in the power of words would mean that I have to face my truths. And boy was I afraid of my truths. But Sáenz made me face them, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. He made me feel that it was and is okay to feel all these emotions. He made me feel that it was and is okay to be me.

Obviously, I can go on and on and on for days, gushing over this book and how much it means to me. But I figured I’d honor Ari and Dante by writing to all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules, just like how Sáenz felt the need to write Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

You’re scared. That’s okay. We all are.
You care. Too much. That’s okay, too.
Boys aren’t supposed to like other boys, they say. Boys aren’t supposed to like kissing other boys, they say.
And so you feel ashamed of your thoughts. You feel ashamed of your emotions.
You run.
You run away.
Convinced that if you didn’t say it out loud, it can’t possibly be true.
You bottle all the love inside you. All that is beautiful inside you. Because the world is cruel to boys who are different, and you are different.

But you’re only a boy. And boys, like girls, like any other human being, can only hold so much.
And I need you to stop.
I cannot let you remain silent and silently crying.
I cannot let you go on, feeling locked into yourself, exhausted by all that you keep within.
I cannot let you discount many unrequited loves and heartbreaks because you’re too damn afraid.
I cannot let you repeat the same mistakes that I, myself, made.

So this is me telling you it’s going to be fine.
This is me telling you you’re not alone, even if it feels that way.
This is me holding your hand because I know you made—and are making—it hard for other people to do so.
This is me telling you something I wish someone had advised me when I was younger: I pray you find the courage to be true to your heart. No matter what.
And, although even I doubted this before, this is me assuring you you’ll find love. And support.
You’ll always find love and support.
I’m rooting for you.

I picked up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe in 2014; I was twenty-one then. I am twenty-four now and openly gay.

HAPPY ARI MET DANTE DAY, Y’ALL! ❤ What are your favorite Ari and Dante moments? Did you post something to celebrate today? Link me up! Also? If you’re obsessed with this book like moi, do check out Bobby’s fan art over at Junk Knight because he’s AMAZING. #brbswooning Give some Ari and Dante love in the comments below!

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REVIEW: Duplicity by N. K. Traver

Duplicity

Title: Duplicity
Author: N. K. Traver (and narrated by MacLeod Andrews)
Format: Audiobook, 6 hours 46 minutes
Publication: March 17th 2015 by Audible Studios
Source: Author (thank you, N. K. Traver!)
Genre: Fiction—Cyber Thriller, Science Fiction
Other classifications: Young Adult

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

Synopsis

A computer-hacking teen. The girl who wants to save him. And a rogue mirror reflection that might be the death of them both.

In private, seventeen-year-old Brandon hacks bank accounts just for the thrill of it. In public, he looks like any other tattooed bad boy with a fast car and devil-may-care attitude. He should know: he’s worked hard to maintain the façade. With inattentive parents who move constantly from city to city, he’s learned not to get tangled up in things like friends and relationships. So he’ll just keep living like a machine, all gears and wires.

Then two things shatter his carefully-built image: Emma, the kind, stubborn girl who insists on looking beneath the surface – and the small matter of a reflection that starts moving by itself. Not only does Brandon’s reflection have a mind of its own, but it seems to be grooming him for something—washing the dye from his hair, yanking out his piercings, swapping his black shirts for … pastels. Then it tells him: it thinks it can live his life better, and it’s preparing to trade places.

And when it pulls Brandon through the looking-glass, not only will he need all his ill-gotten hacking skills to escape, but he’s going to have to face some hard truths about who he’s become. Otherwise he’ll be stuck in a digital hell until he’s old and gray, and no one will even know he’s gone.

Review

I received a review copy from the author which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.

Duplicity asks the reader to suspend quite a few disbelief in exchange of an intriguing, fast-paced cyber thriller with a normal, flawed guy at the center.

The book follows Brandon Eriks—tattooed bad boy by day, deft hacker at night—and the series of bizarre occurrences after his computer seems to have gotten hacked. His reflection appears to operate on its own volition; his multiple piercings start disappearing; the dye in his hair gets washed off; and his wardrobe undergoes a makeover. It doesn’t help that his ex, who doesn’t believe any of it, wants to get back together and Emma, who refuses to buy the devil-may-care attitude, is making him question his carefully built façade. Equally unhelpful is his barely present parents. And then he gets pulled through a mirror and, well, he’s gonna need all his hacking skills to fight his way out. Here’s the thing. Do not attempt to make sense out of the concept of this novel; it doesn’t work that way.

“”Maybe that’s the problem,” I say. “That everyone does what’s easiest.””

The plot could’ve worked out fantastically—except for the part where some codes don’t add up. I listened to the audiobook—Andrews captures the little pockets of humor in Duplicity particularly well—and I had to pause several times, taking in details, processing information. I paused and rewound. And this could’ve easily been attributed to the fact that the descriptive nature of the book consistently sends my imagination off, rendering the narrator a white noise. But ’til I realized the best way to enjoy the story is to turn off the critical thinker in me, I was going back and forth over scenes. I was positive I missed passages.

“You don’t know how to block what you can’t see, do you? You’re too visual. Typical guy problem.”

It’s easy to dismiss Duplicity as a ridiculous YA thriller with certain elements too improbable for its own good. But it bears pointing out that where the narrative shines is on the characterization of Brandon Eriks. Misunderstood baddy, sure, that has appeal to a specific set of readers. But I’m talking flaws in character. Brandon has trust issues; he has his reasons for not letting people in. But he’s also self-absorbed and I like that the author doesn’t try to excuse him. Some of the parts that stood out to me are ones where we witness Brandon struggling with the realization of this. On the contrary, some of the parts that scarcely registered to me are those involving Emma. She is a love interest at best, a plot device at worst. She had potentials, especially in the scene where we discover she has a personal agenda. But I wish she had more agency. Although, props to Traver for sidestepping a convenient literary trap. Emma doesn’t save Brandon. Love doesn’t fix everything. Then there’s Seb. You can’t discuss Seb without stumbling upon a collective data of spoilers, so I’ll curtail. Brandon meets Seb in the mirror and the latter probably brings about the most humor and character development from the former. Seb also makes our MC uncomfortable, which makes for good entertainment.

“I sigh because it’s literally hurting me to think of nice things to say.”

In a way, Duplicity is a hero’s journey. One that doesn’t end with the hero learning all his lessons, neat bows and all.

3.0 out of 5

Author

N. K. Traver

As a freshman at the University of Colorado, N. K. Traver decided to pursue Information Technology because classmates said “no one could make a living” with an English degree. It wasn’t too many years later Traver realized it didn’t matter what the job paid—nothing would ever be as fulfilling as writing. Programmer by day, writer by night, it was only a matter of time before the two overlapped.

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Unmissable Weekly: June 9, 2017

Bookish and Awesome’s weekly round-up of buzz-worthy news from around the bookternet in bite size. Click on the links to be directed to the full articles.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic story of racism in the southern states of the US, which has sold more than 40m copies since it was first published in 1960, is to be turned into a graphic novel. Unexpectedly, the move has been encouraged by the late author’s estate.

The graphic novel will be illustrated by Fred Fordham, the artist behind Philip Pullman’s recent first venture into the form, The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship.

Of course it’s endorsed by her estate. Of course this is sure to sell.

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In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Pottermore invites fans old and new to join the Wizarding World Book Club – a free, online club to examine and debate every book in the Harry Potter series. 

The Wizarding World Book Club kicks off in June, and to take part you just need to read (or re-read) a Harry Potter book each month – or more, as the books get longer. You can then join in a conversation about it on Twitter, or simply check Pottermore to learn more about each story.

I keep forgetting Pottermore is still a thing. But yaaay to all the Potterheads! Here’s another way to celebrate the books, whether you’re reliving your Hogwarts adventures or being sorted for the first time.

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More important, the book world still frequently fails to make its spaces welcoming and inclusive of people of color, especially black women, or relegates them to token events addressing diversity or race in literature. Preceding the established festival with an event for black women provides a counterbalance to the whiteness of most shared literary spaces, an opportunity for black girls and women to celebrate their nerdy sides in a sisterly atmosphere.

Well-Read Black Girl is getting a literary festival!

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“In the press at large, everybody said, ‘there are four spinoffs’ and they assume that it means each one is happening and we’re going to have a new Game of Thrones show per quarter. That’s not what’s going on,” explained Bloys. “The idea is not to do four shows. The bar set by [showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss] is so high that my hope is to get one show that lives up to it.”

Because it’s 2017 and Unmissable Weekly is still all about Game of Thrones.

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