REVIEW: Serafina and the Splintered Heart by Robert Beatty (+ Giveaway)

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Title: Serafina and the Splintered Heart
Author: Robert Beatty
Format: ARC, 355 pages
Publication: July 4th 2017 by Disney Hyperion
Source: Publisher (thank you Sharon Keefauver and Disney Hyperion!)
Genre: Fiction—Fantasy, Gothic, Historical, Mystery
Other classifications: Middle Grade

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

Synopsis

The storms are coming. . . .

Something has happened to Serafina. She has awoken into a darkness she does not understand, scarred from a terrible battle, only to find that life at Biltmore Estate has changed in unimaginable ways. Old friends do unthinkable things and enemies seem all around.

A mysterious threat moves towards Biltmore, a force without a name, bringing with it violent storms and flooding that stands to uproot everything in its path. Serafina must uncover the truth about what has happened to her and find a way to harness her strange new powers before it’s too late.

With only days to achieve the impossible, Serafina fights to reclaim herself as the guardian of Biltmore, friend of Braeden, daughter of her pa, and heroine of the Blue Ridge Mountains and all the folk and creatures that call them home.

Review

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

Serafina and the Splintered Heart is the third and seemingly final installmentat least for nowin Robert Beatty’s middle-grade mystery series and it delivers.

The book opens with Serafina waking up in a darkness so complete even her eyes, which normally can see just fine at night, cannot pierce. She returns to Biltmore Estate, trying to piece together her memory of the night she was attacked, but everything she witnesses along the way doesn’t add up. The moon is on the wrong phase. Storms are brewing. She stumbles upon a grotesque-looking creature in the forest. And then there’s the sorcerer. But all these are nothing to what she discovers upon arriving at the great house. With a plot like that of The Splintered Heart, writing a reviewwhich is tricky enough by virtue of it being a series finaleis no easy fit. But let me tell you: Beatty once again hits all the marks. His latest is enchanting, atmospheric, and deeply satisfying.

“They watched the stars and the planets sliding slowly over their heads, marking time so precisely that it was barely perceptible, like a great, celestial clock, keeping the time of their inner lives, showing them that out there in the world everything was always changing, but here in the center of the world, where they were lying side by side, everything would always remain the same.”

It’s always bittersweet to come to the conclusion of a story, especially one that spans through three books. But the beauty of the Serafina series lies ultimately on the journey: character development after character development. In The Splintered Heart, the main characters are further thrown into hard situations, both physically and emotionally, and the author gets to show the complexity of each of them. Serafina has come a long way from the lonely, friendless girl who is constantly suspicious of people in the first book. She’s been struggling to belong, searching for herself, and trying to make sense of the world around her for a while now that it’s heartening to see where she ends up as the final act draws to a resolution. There is Braeden, genteel, affectionate, and quick to trust. Witnessing how he grapples with loss and betrayal is absolutely interesting. He and the progress of his arc bag all the waffles! There is Waysa, too, who was introduced in the previous installment. Here, he gets a solid characterization and story line, with Beatty weaving in Cherokee culture in what I think is a carefully researched representation. And there is one more whom I wish I could talk about but, alas, I would rather not spoil you. So I will leave it at this: unlikely alliance, if written well, is one of my favorite tropes, and the author did just that.

“What do you do when you realize you are the monster in your own story?”

The Splintered Heart continues to reinforce positive messages on family, friendship, and bravery. It also gives each of its characters a good amount of agency which clearly affirms that actions have consequences and we are responsible for them, that we are not our past mistakes and we have the capacity for recovery and growth. But I like that Beatty didn’t go for formulaic, an easy trap for series such as this. There are no rehashing of scenes even as the novel revisits themes and reintroduces characters. Instead, it goes full circle. It concludes in a manner that is emotionally rewarding but just loose enough to allow for future sequel(s).

“She’d spent her whole life hiding, but now she just wanted one person, any person, to know she was there.”

Of course, I’d be remiss not to comment on the setting, which plays a huge part in the narrative. I am no expert in history but the author does a wonderful job in crafting a distinct atmosphere set in the backdrop of the opulence of Gilded-Age Biltmore Estate and the rugged beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And this is true for all the Serafina books. Albeit, The Splintered Heart is less eerie, but no less rich in details.

With a mystery that will have you racing along with the MC, Serafina and the Splintered Heart is vastly imaginative and utterly enjoyable. This series will certainly be a staple in MG lists.

4.0 out of 5

Author

Robert Beatty 01
Robert Beatty lives in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife and three daughters. He writes full-time now, but in his past lives he was one of the pioneers of cloud computing, the founder/CEO of Plex Systems, the co-founder of Beatty Robotics, and the CTO and chairman of Narrative magazine.

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Giveaway:

The giveaway, which ends July 31st, is very simple. You just head over to Twitter, follow me @mielsnickey and retweet this:

The prize pack includes one (1) signed finished copy of Serafina and the Splintered Heart, one (1) poster, one (1) journal, and one (1) enamel pin.

Blogger’s note: You can read my reviews of Serafina and the Black Cloak (Book 1) and Serafina and the Twisted Staff (Book 2) here and here, respectively.

Have you read this one yet? Have I convinced you to check out the series? What are some of your favorite MG titles? Or, you know, your recent read. Sound off in the comments below!

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REVIEW: Serafina and the Twisted Staff by Robert Beatty

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Title: Serafina and the Twisted Staff
Author: Robert Beatty
Format: ARC, 370 pages
Publication: July 12th 2016 by Disney Hyperion
Source: Publisher (thank you Sharon Keefauver and Disney Hyperion!)
Genre: Fiction—Fantasy, Gothic, Historical, Mystery
Other classifications: Middle Grade

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

Synopsis

Serafina’s defeat of the Man in the Black Cloak has brought her out of the shadows and into the daylight realm of her home, Biltmore Estate. Every night she visits her mother in the forest, eager to learn the ways of the catamount. But Serafina finds herself caught between her two worlds: she’s too wild for Biltmore’s beautifully dressed ladies and formal customs, and too human to fully join her kin.

Late one night, Serafina encounters a strange and terrifying figure in the forest, and is attacked by the vicious wolfhounds that seem to be under his control. Even worse, she’s convinced that the stranger was not alone, that he has sent his accomplice into Biltmore in disguise.

Someone is wreaking havoc at the estate. A mysterious series of attacks test Serafina’s role as Biltmore’s protector, culminating in a tragedy that tears Serafina’s best friend and only ally, Braeden Vanderbilt, from her side. Heartbroken, she flees.

Deep in the forest, Serafina comes face-to-face with the evil infecting Biltmore—and discovers its reach is far greater than she’d ever imagined. All the humans and creatures of the Blue Ridge Mountains are in terrible danger. For Serafina to defeat this new evil before it engulfs her beloved home, she must search deep inside herself and embrace the destiny that has always awaited her.

Review

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

NOTE: This review contains spoilers for Serafina and the Black Cloak.

Compellingly readable and exceedingly satisfying, Serafina and the Twisted Staff is a delightful sequel to its predecessor.

The novel picks up three weeks after the events in The Black Cloak. Serafina’s existence is now known to the folks of Biltmore Estate. Her pa is teaching her table etiquette and her momma the ways of the catamount. But the arrival of a mysterious evil force threatens Serafina’s newly found peace in her home. A near-fatal encounter in the forest. A series of puzzling attacks in Biltmore. Two strangers. One returning character. She can’t join her momma and half-siblings because she’s too human to survive in the wilds and she can’t possibly stay in the estate after a tragic accident that separates her from her only ally and friend, Braeden Vanderbilt. But she’s Serafina, Chief Rat Catcher of Biltmore Estate and Guardian of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and she’s ready to fight for her home and the humans and creatures in it. There’s quite a lot to unpack from Serafina and the Twisted Staff. For one, there’s a distinct growth in characters, themes and storytelling as the author further examines friendship, family, self-discovery, bravery and what these all mean to twelve-year-old Serafina. For another, it’s a 370 pages of running and plotting and fighting for and against animals.

“The wolves of the pack stuck together. They fought together. That’s what a family was. That’s what it meant to be kin. You didn’t give up on that.”

I command Beatty for managing to write a fast-paced, action-packed narrative while at the same time have his heroine’s different relationships with other characters be a central and overt part of the book. The mother and daughter bond is fleshed out more in the little airtime they get together. Serafina’s friendship with Braeden flourishes but also hits a roadblock. The author introduces a cast of new characters, three of whom Serafina befriends. There’s Lady Rowena Fox-Pemberton, visiting and staying in the estate indefinitely, and Essie Walker, a servant to the Vanderbilts. The former is obviously a foil to Serafina, with her snooty English conduct, and the latter is a nice, uncomplicated friendship that balances things out. And I like how the novel presents the reader with various faces of girl power through them: Serafina is fierce, loyal and will fight tooth and claw for those she loves; Lady Rowena is cunning, subverting conventional expectations time and again; and Essie is the quiet, modest kind. The third new friendship is with a feral boy, whom Serafina meets the night she is attacked by the strange bearded man and his wolfhounds in the forest, and whom I only wish we got to see more of.

“She wanted to belong. She wanted to belong more than anything.”

Another overarching themes in Serafina and the Twisted Staff are identity and sense of belongingness. Serafina’s constant struggle to bridge the gap between her two worlds and find who she is and who she can become is something readers will surely identify with, irrespective of age and gender. Although, it sometimes felt dangerously leaning towards YA territory in certain scenes (then again, I have an uncorrected copy). And you don’t need to know your history to appreciate Biltmore Estate and its lavish rooms. The author does incredibly well in setting up the scenery with expansive brush strokes, grounding it in historical accuracy but also taking artistic license here and there. Just as capable he is in pulling off the turn of events leading up to the reveal. I was utterly fooled.

“As she tried to envision her future, she realized there were many paths, many different ways to go, and part of growing up, part of living, was choosing which paths to follow.”

Immensely entertaining and positively imaginative, Serafina and the Twisted Staff is a win for middle grade fiction.

4.0 out of 5

Author

Robert Beatty 01

Robert Beatty lives in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife and three daughters. He writes full-time now, but in his past lives he was one of the pioneers of cloud computing, the founder/CEO of Plex Systems, the co-founder of Beatty Robotics, and the CTO and chairman of Narrative magazine.

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Have you read this one? Have I convinced you to check it out? Are you into MG? What are some of your recent MG reads? Or your favorite ones? Throw ’em recommendations to me!

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REVIEW: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina and the Black Cloak 01

Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Author: Robert Beatty
Format: Paperback, 320 pages
Publication: June 14th 2016 by Disney Hyperion (first published July 14th 2015)
Source: Publisher (thank you Sharon Keefauver and Disney Hyperion!)
Genre: Fiction—Fantasy, Gothic, Historical, Mystery
Other classifications: Middle Grade

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

Synopsis

“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.

Review

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

In Serafina and the Black Cloak, Beatty blends together eerie imagery, an intriguing premise, and a spunky heroine.

Set in 1899 Asheville, North Carolina, the book centers on Serafina, Chief Rat Catcher (C.R.C.) of the Vanderbilts’ estate. Her pa worked on the construction of the great house and they have lived illicitly in its basement for as long as she can remember. She naps during the day and hunts at night—and that is not the only thing unusual about her—all the while avoiding any contact with the people upstairs. Then, one night, she witnesses a frightening man as his cloak appears to consume a girl. Suddenly, children in Biltmore Estate are vanishing and Serafina races to unveil the Man in the Black Cloak before it’s too late; she is the only one who has seen him in action, after all. But first, she needs to risk exposure and team up with the landowners’ orphan nephew, Braeden Vanderbilt. As the reader follows the two uncover the mystery of the disappearances and the man responsible for them, he also follows Serafina in her self-discovery.

“She didn’t want to go another step, but friends had to help friends. She didn’t know much about life, but she did know that, knew that for sure, and she wasn’t going to run away like a scared-out-of-her-wits squirrel just when somebody needed her most.”

It is not uncommon for middle grade novels to operate in good versus evil, in which the former always prevails. The first books of the Harry Potter series easily come to mind. But every now and then, we get stories like Serafina and the Black Cloak, where the line isn’t as clear-cut, where there is a vague sense of uncertainty even as the heroine thwarts the villain. This along with Serafina’s inner journey and coupled with strong messages on family, friendship, and bravery make for a satisfying, emotionally resonant read. It is also atmospheric with its descriptive prose and Gothic setting. The author utilizes the opulent backdrop of Biltmore Estate and its surrounding landscape very well.

“She was beginning to see how difficult it was to determine who was good and who was bad, who she could trust and who she had to watch out for. Every person was a hero in his own mind, fighting for what he thought was right, or just fighting to survive another day, but no one thought they were evil.”

I’m glad this generation of young readers has Serafina to look up to. She’s fierce and loyal as well as a stockpile of curiosity and conflicting temperaments. She longs to be a part of the world of the lavishly dressed masters and guests of Biltmore, though she knows she is too strange-looking to them. She is drawn to the forest, though she is aware of the dangers lurking in the trees. And it’s this inner struggle to belong, while at the same time searching for one’s identity, while trying to make sense of the world around you that is sure to connect with readers of all ages. And her friendship with Braeden—another loner like our MC—is just heartwarming.

“Our character isn’t defined by the battles we win or lose, but by the battles we dare to fight.”

Notwithstanding a bit of rough patches here and there, Serafina and the Black Cloak is a fast-paced, suspenseful debut. Definitely recommended for its target market (8 – 12 years old) but also for everyone who’s into this type of stories.

3.5 out of 5

Author

Robert Beatty 01
Robert Beatty lives in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife and three daughters. He writes full-time now, but in his past lives he was one of the pioneers of cloud computing, the founder/CEO of Plex Systems, the co-founder of Beatty Robotics, and the CTO and chairman of Narrative magazine.

Twitter | Website

Have you read this one? Are you into MG? What are some of your favorite MG titles? Or, you know, your recent 5-star read? Come on, let’s talk!

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REVIEW: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King 01

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!

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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

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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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REVIEW: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

The Upside of Unrequited 01

Title: The Upside of Unrequited
Author: Becky Albertalli
Format: Paperback, 336 pages
Publication: April 11th 2017 by Balzer + Bray
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic, Romance
Other classifications: LGBTQIA, Young Adult

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Synopsis

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love—she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is.

Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him.

Right?

Review

I’ll go ahead and tell you that Becky and I are friends. So you can be all Simon Spier with my judgement and “take [this] with about a million fucking grains of salt.” I mean. I’m just saying. But her sophomore novel is honest and funny and nuanced and charming. There is no way a teenager would pick this up and not see himself somewhere in the pages.

It centers on seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso and the fact that she’s had twenty-six crushes and exactly zero kisses. And how she is possibly losing her twin sister, Cassie, who is falling in love—for the first time—with cute new girl Mina. Enter funny, charismatic Hipster Will, who happens to be Mina’s best friend, and everything should be fine, right? Except there’s also Molly’s coworker Reid—awkward, geeky, Cadbury-mini-egg-loving Reid—who maybe likes her. Okay, I am literally Molly. I’m twenty-four and I’m Molly. I’m a prolific crusher but haven’t actually kissed anyone—at least not kiss kiss. I’m careful. Too careful. Heck, she’s even had more action than me and that’s, well, tragic. But that’s why I connected deeply with her story; that’s why Molly freaking out next to a cute boy or feeling self-conscious next to people she’s known her whole life resonated with me. Because all the crushing, all the wanting, all the unrequited-loving, and suddenly here is an author affirming emotions I’ve been trying to make sense of all these years, and boy was that unraveling.

“But I spend a lot of time thinking about love and kissing and boyfriends and all the other stuff feminists aren’t supposed to care about. And I am a feminist. But I don’t know. I’m seventeen, and I just want to know what it feels like to kiss someone.
I don’t think I’m unlovable. But I keep wondering: what is my glitch?

Like the author’s debut, The Upside of Unrequited captures the immediacy of and renders articulately the teenage experience. How everything feels like it’s either the end of the world or the beginning of it; the elations and heartbreaks of first love; the innate, underlying fear of not mattering. I was an idiot to worry I wouldn’t love this book as much as Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (and in fact, fans of Simon vs would find themselves a treat or two). That’s unfair and unfounded and ultimately, as it turns out, untrue. Both are brimming with heart and humor, because Becky has an acute understanding of voice and how awkward and exciting and scary it is to be a teen. With Upside, as it was with Simon vs, I’m not just reminded how careful and at the same time hopeful I was at seventeen, I am seventeen-year-old me, careful and hopeful.

“”Why are you making zombie faces?” he asks.
“What?”
“Just relax!”
“Zombies are relaxed.””

There is something to be said about how great narratives aren’t always solely about the lead and that is true for Upside too. I’m certain many teens, as well as then-teens, would feel for Molly and her anxieties and journey to self-confidence; it’s both an absolute delight and comfort to follow her but the secondary characters are just as vibrant. Each character is fleshed out, so much so that the reader can easily see the other characters’ stories unfolding outside the curtains. The novel also touches on positive representations of body image—it’s central to how Molly views the world and herself, even if often self-deprecating—and intresectional diversity. Molly is a fat, white, Jewish girl with interracial lesbian and bisexual mothers; there’s a Korean-American pansexual character and there’s a gay couple; and everything feels organic. As organic as Molly and Reid’s chemistry. There’s effortless draw and almost inevitability in the progress of their relationship; it’s warm and fuzzy and at times nauseating. It’s hard not to root for Reid! Plus, without the aid of a spoiler, I like that the author could’ve conveniently gone one way with Molly and This Other Character but didn’t.

“And suddenly, I feel like crying, but not in a bad way. More like in the way you feel when someone gives you a perfect present—something you’d been wanting, but thought you couldn’t ask for. It’s that feeling of someone knowing you in all the ways you needed to be known.”

So, in the parlance of Molly and all of us millennials, my verdict is: ALL THE HEART-EYES EMOJIS.

5.0 out of 5

Author

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Becky Albertalli is the author of the acclaimed novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. She is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and teens. Becky now lives with her family in Atlanta, where she spends her days writing fiction for young adults.

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Have you read this one? Have I convinced you to? Because, really, it’s just such an adorable, smile-inducing read! Also, tell me about your first kiss fictional crushes! Or, you know, your current read(s).

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REVIEW: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

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Title: History is All You Left Me
Author: Adam Silvera
Format: Paperback, 294 pages
Publication: January 17th 2017 by Soho Teen
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Contemporary, Realistic
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, LGBTQIA, Young Adult

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Synopsis

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart. If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

Review

In History is All You Left Me, Silvera delivers a surprisingly quiet, thoughtful exploration of friendship, grief, love, and loss.

The book alternates in story lines between ‘History’, where we see Griffin and Theo falling in love and transitioning from best friends to boyfriends, and ‘Today’, where we see Griffin navigating through a Theo-less world. As is the case with More Happy Than Not, the author does what he does best: writing everyday moments with a severe awareness of human connection. It doesn’t matter whether Griffin, Theo, and Wade are browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble or they’re exchanging gifts or Griffin is talking to Theo’s family, it’s compelling and laced with pockets of emotion. The parents—and all the main characters have parents—are very much a part of the story, to boot, and I like how Silvera doesn’t pull away from the infinite paradoxes of familial love. Sometimes Griffin would adore and hate his parents in one page or he would be annoyed with his dad for being too cold to Jackson but at the same time be annoyed with his mom for being too nice to Jackson or how Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, his parents, only want what’s best for their son but also operate on their own definition of what’s best for him. We still do not often see parent involvement in YA, but I’m glad there are authors like Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli who are gradually taking down the barriers.

“He shrugs, which I know he doesn’t mean as a dismissal. He’s doing that thing I’ve done before where I try to shrink my own feelings, try to make my problems sound smaller to others because sometimes people just don’t get it.”

Two of the many important themes of the book are grief and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I am not personally familiar with the former. The closest to family I’ve lost is my uncle’s wife, and I was eight. But the empathy with which Silvera looks into grief is palpable. You follow Griffin and the messed up things he does and not once do you question if this is uncalled for or unlikely. He is hurt and grieving and confused and lost and seventeen, and this ultimately affects all the relationships he has around him. And then there’s the latter. This, I am not not personally familiar with. I have a self-diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)—yes, those two are different and not by the mere addition of ‘Personality’—and I commend how consistent and consistently woven in the narrative OCD is. It plays a big part in Griffin’s story without ever taking center stage. It isn’t an item the author checked off in his list for inclusivity; it is a constant struggle for the MC and this is reality for people dealing with this mental disorder.

“‘I’m ready,” I lied. I’m hungry, I’m drained, I’m over it all, and I’m not ready.”

However, perhaps my favorite element of the whole novel is the dialogues. I don’t exactly know how to classify Silvera’s writing style. It isn’t lyrical but it also isn’t just straight-cut contemporary; there’s something rhythmic about how he plays at words, a cadence poetic all its own. Here is a person with an utter sense of language. And this is evident with the exchanges between the characters, not just between Griffin and Theo, although those are my favourite scenes. Plus, did I mention this book is filled to the brim with nerdy and pop culture references? You don’t need to be a Star Wars fan or a Potterhead, if you’ve felt passionate about something or someone, you speak Griffin’s and Theo’s language. You speak nerd. Or fanboy. Or whatever you wish to call it.

““You’re not someone that just memorizes facts for exams and forgets them the next day. You don’t just have lucky guesses in pop quizzes. You bring textbooks with you into the shower. Basically, you’re a really weird superhero.”
He forces a smile. “One day, Batman is going to take off his mask and, boom, it’ll be me.””

Silvera’s sophomore novel is quieter than his debut but it is no less vivid and heartrending.

4.0 out of 5

Author

Adam Silvera 02

Adam Silvera was born and raised in the Bronx. He has worked in the publishing industry as a children’s bookseller, at a literary development company, and as a book reviewer of children’s and young adult novels. His debut novel, More Happy Than Not, received multiple starred reviews and is a New York Times bestseller. He lives in New York City and is tall for no reason.

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