Prepublication Reviews and Expertly Selected Title Lists

Archive for the category “Book Reviews – Travis”

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent KingIt’s hard to find your way when your dad is a Pentecostal minister who insists you handle poisonous rattlesnakes. Dill Early struggles to survive his senior year in the Bible Belt, while grappling with his secret feelings for a fellow outcast. He and his two misfit friends have their own methods for surviving senior year.

But a sudden tragedy soon leaves Dill wondering if his love for music, as well as his secret feelings for Lydia, are enough to see him through these dark days. Dill soon find his own faith, leading to a final confrontation with his devout mother about his shifting beliefs on God and the future that is pulling him away from the home that has long stifled him.

This coming-of-age story shows how the pain of the past need not dictate the long path forward. Dill’s struggle to make it through the school year grows more difficult as his parents pressure him to live by the faith with which they face each day. Dill’s own brand of faith finally gives him the courage to move on.

The Serpent King will resonate with fans of Me, Earl, & the Dying Girl, as well as readers seeking a heartfelt story of overcoming life’s challenges to forge one’s own path.

– Travis

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This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

This Raging LightIt’s been two weeks since Lucille’s mom left and didn’t come back. Her dad hasn’t been around either after abandoning the family with a nervous breakdown. Now Lucille is playing mom to her little sister, Wren, trying to keep their mother’s departure a secret, and dealing with her feelings for her best friend’s twin brother.

One of the strongest things about this debut is Lucille’s voice. I felt like I was sharing in her struggle to pay the bills and keep her sister’s stomach full. Anonymous helpers eventually stock Lucille and Wren’s fridge, and Lucille does secure a job, but the author does not let her off that easy. This story feels well-balanced between the seemingly insurmountable odds of making it on your own with enough hopeful plot twists to encourage teenage readers who need a little light in their lives.

While some plot points made life a bit easier for Lucille and Wren than it may be in the real world, a plot twist keeps the pacing quick and keeps the story from dragging. Lucille and Wren are the most fleshed-out characters, and by story’s end, I found myself disappointed that I will not be spending more time with them, as many contemporary young adult novels are standalone titles.

There is so much inspiration packed into this book, along with just the right amount of romance. I recommend This Raging Light to John Green fans that are itching for another meaningful contemporary read.

– Travis

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

WTNV_Version BEST 2.27In a small desert town where nothing is as it seems, an old woman lives with angels (though, of course, we all know angels do not legally exist…shhh). A well-meaning community radio host helps citizens accept that nothing will ever make any sense as they hurtle toward the inevitable expiration date waiting for us all, well except perhaps for eternally-19-year-old Jackie Fierro, you know, she runs the pawn shop, whose doors she inexplicably detaches and buries come closing time.

Our story picks up when the man in a tan jacket, holding a deerskin suitcase, gives Jackie a slip of paper that never leaves her left hand. Oh, she tries to get rid of it, she tries to throw the paper away, yet there it is, back again in her hand.

A series of events teams Jackie with Diane Crayton, treasurer of the Night Vale Parent-Teacher Association, and her son Josh on a quest to find King City, the mysterious town written on that stubborn piece of paper. Josh, as a shapeshifter, hopes to find clues about his mysteriously absentee father.

This wonderfully weird read features the same humor and offbeat philosophy found in the podcast of the same name, yet with even more heart. This book reads like a humorous episode of The Twilight Zone, a travel guide, and mystery all in one. Readers get a further bonus as a transcript of a new Night Vale Community Radio broadcast runs throughout the book.

Fans of the podcast will be thrilled to learn more about several popular characters. What new secrets will we learn about the man in the tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase? Carlos, the scientist, and Old Woman Josie, who lives on the edge of town, also play a part in the story. Readers will hold their breath as Jackie and Diane take a fateful trip to the Night Vale Public Library, which, as everyone knows, is run by deadly, feral librarians.

– Travis

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The Six by Mark Alpert

The SixBefore Adam’s muscular dystrophy can kill him, his father, responsible for a revolutionary Artificial Intelligence program whose sentience makes it turn on the entire human race, saves Adam and five other teens by copying their brainwaves into Pioneer robots meant to stop Sigma, the renegade AI bent on destroying mankind. Adam’s task grows increasingly difficult when his best friend and the girl of his dreams are kidnapped.

This is the first young adult novel in a long time that captured my attention and made me truly care about the characters. While the first third of the book feels like it runs a bit long, it helps the reader better connect to Adam and understand his pre-Pioneer life. Adam’s strained relationship with his mother, who refuses to believe any robot would merely be a shallow copy of her son, proves especially poignant.

The action picks up as the Pioneers train to take on Sigma. Adam will do anything to save the people he loves. While there is romance, the mission remains the primary focus throughout. The fact that not everyone survives the battle makes this a realistic read, as do the details about brain mapping. This is young adult hard science fiction at its best. I eagerly await a sequel.

I recommend The Six to fans of Michael Grant and those curious about where our research into Artificial Intelligence might take us.


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The Cage by Megan Shephard

The CageWhat would you do if you woke up in a desert on an alien world with six other teens and learned that every road brought you right back to where you started? As exhibits in a human zoo, observed by unseen aliens lurking behind black observation windows, six teen captives fail to escape and begin to accept their new lives…all except Cora, whose unique relationship with the alien Caretaker will leave her changed in ways she could not have imagined.

Cora Mason may be the daughter of a senator, but her life of privilege vanished the night she took the fall for her father and pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide. Joined by four fellow captives and the boy who was secretly responsible for the car accident that killed his mother and sent Cora to juvenile detention, Cora learns that they have been trapped by a race of aliens.

Cora is eventually forced to face her greatest fear if she hopes to escape the ‘cage’. Betrayal changes her motivations at book’s end, when she vows to make the aliens, known as the Kindred, pay for ‘rescuing’ humans from an Earth that may or may not still exist.

The execution of the Twilight Zone-esque hook keeps the plot moving, which is no small feat when you realize this is the first book of a series. As a Twilight Zone and alien story fan, I was eager to read this story. Shepherd even gives a clever nod to The Twilight Zone in the novel’s opening pages.

Overall, I enjoyed the quick pacing and plot twists enough to read the second book of this series. I recommend this book to Shepherd fans looking for a mysterious alien story and readers who like a little more mystery with their young adult love triangles.

– Travis

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Plot Perfect by Paula Munier

Plot PerfectPlot a specific path as you write your novel with examples, exercises, and insight that illuminates the three-act structure and how it can help you craft the story you need to tell. Checklists help you plan plots and subplots, as well as plan each individual act of your story.

While the examples from works of fiction and movies become a bit difficult to wade through, simply due to sheer volume, quotations from authors both classic and contemporary help inspire aspiring writers. The first six chapters cover areas with which many writers are already familiar, such as the inciting incident and introducing the story world. After a chapter-long case study of The Maltese Falcon and its plot points, subsequent chapters dive into pacing, themes, how to raise the stakes, and making sure each scene speaks to the theme in some deliberate way.

This is an ideal selection for “outline people” or “non-outline people” who are seeking a bit more structure while writing their novels. While I still prefer James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, Plot Perfect provides significant detail and gave me a new way of looking at my next project.

– Travis

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Atlantia by Ally Condie

AtlantiaClose your eyes after reading this story and you might see Atlantia’s citizens listening for voices in mysterious seashells or clambering at the chance to touch a most sacred ring that once belonged to Rio’s late mother, Oceana the Minister. That is how real this enclosed underwater society feels in Atlantia, Ally Condie’s first novel since her Matched trilogy.

In a future where the Divide separates those Above from those Below, Rio vows to find a way to the surface to find the sister she never thought would abandon Rio in the Below. The world was well fleshed out and quite breathtaking, but it felt a little claustrophobic. More characters would have benefited the tale.

That being said, Rio and Maire were well developed, and there were a few satisfying twists, but I did not get the same epic feeling that I felt while reading Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy. Rio seemed to spend a bit too much time in her own head; more secondary characters and a close friend or two would have helped.

The pacing felt acceptable, though the ending was a bit too clean and tidy for my liking. Still, there is an artistic resonance that makes this fantastical tale well worth the read.

– Travis

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Innocence by Dean Koontz

Koontz_InnocenceUpon closing this book, I sat in awe of the story to which I felt so deeply connected, wondering how an author could write characters with such heart, such drama, that I believed them to be quite real. Addison’s journey, after a life lived underground to hide the kind of face that prompts swift violence and quick death, meets a young woman named Gwyneth near a dark row of Charles Dickens novels. She must not see his face; he must not touch her in any way. So begins a relationship in which they, as Addison points out, hold each other hostage to their eccentricities.

With a winter storm bearing down on the city, Addison ventures forth from his underground living quarters to join Gwyneth on her mission to avenge her father’s death by stopping the library curator, her would-be rapist. Chapters alternate between Addison’s present and the past that brought him to this point, a unique and haunting language sweeping the reader through a tale that, while infused with echoes of Dean Koontz’s other work, does manage to stand on its own as something new and fresh and relevant. This feels like crucial reading to me. Philosophical considerations triggered analytical thinking and analysis as I pondered the world in which the very unique Addison and Gwyneth find themselves…especially by book’s end.

To pick apart character development, story structure, and the like would be missing the point of this tale. This is the first Dean Koontz novel to truly grip me in some time. The point of the story is the journey, and walking with Addison through his tortured life, one begins to see just how special it is that he meets Gwyneth at all, this girl in silver sneakers with the Goth-painted face who shines so brightly that Addison cannot look away.

To describe this story any further would be to reveal truths and surprises best kept for the reader’s own personal treasure hunt. I strongly encourage anyone open to expanding their mind to pick up this book and meet two people who will not soon leave you, even after the book is returned to the shelf.


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Blackout by Robison Wells

9780062026125  blackoutImagine a group of teenage terrorists with unnatural powers at their disposal. Now imagine a pair of teens caught in the crossfire, teens completely unaware they, too, have such powers.

Welcome to the world of Blackout. Following a trio of teenage terrorists and a pair of unsuspecting teens sent to a guarded camp, author Robison Wells shows us the possible national consequences when teenagers with special powers decide to attack the United States from within.

The novel opens on a scene in which three teen terrorists are preparing to take down the Glen Canyon Dam. This hook gripped me quickly, and while the premise of teens with superpowers has been done before, the terrorist take makes this book truly unique.

Alec, Laura, and Dan are American terrorists working against their own country. The story takes place in a modern-day world that’s quickly reacting to the recent U.S. terrorism outbreak.

Aubrey has long known she’s invisible, but she never imagined so many other teens could be carrying the so-called ‘virus’ inflicting them with strange abilities. When her first Prom ends with her date turning into a monster and being shot by the military, Aubrey finds comfort only in Jack, an old friend. Aubrey’s dad turns them in to the military where they’re trained to work with the United States Green Berets. Their targets are terrorists like Alec, Laura, and Dan.

When Laura infiltrates one of the military camps, passing herself off as a willing soldier, she soon teams with Jack and Aubrey. Little do they know what Laura really has in mind once she gets them to help her find Dan.

Aubrey is probably the character who undergoes the most change in this novel. Starting out awkward and a bit self-loathing, she discovers an inner strength that helps her when the time comes to join the Green Berets.

Jack feels a bit flat; as he is an old friend who wishes Aubrey hadn’t taken to ignoring him for so long in high school. While he also becomes an adequate soldier, it doesn’t feel like he has a definitive arc.

The three terrorists have a common goal, but the only kind of motive mentioned for their actions is the implication that Alec’s mother and Dan’s mother were killed, and these terrorist acts are being committed in their honor.

The teens that populate these pages boast such superpowers as the ability to plant false memories, strength, hyper-sensitive senses, invisibility, and the ability to gain favor in another’s eyes. This makes for some exciting action scenes that don’t tend to run too long or too short; they’re just right.

The pacing is fast without making the reader short of breath. The attack scenes, for the most part, feel organic to the plot. You won’t find many cases where the author threw in an action scene just because the book was getting slow.

With a twist ending which could lead to more books, but also lets this read as an action-packed standalone, Blackout is ideal for fans of Variant, Feedback, and stories featuring teens coming to terms with extraordinary abilities.


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Light: A Gone Novel by Michael Grant

9780061449185 lightAfter six years, Grant finally brings readers the action-packed conclusion to the series where kids under 15 struggled with their own society when everyone else disappeared beyond the Perdido Beach dome. The question is: ‘Is this book worth the wait?’ In a word? Yes.

This last installment of the Gone series picks up shortly after the Darkness is born into Diana and Caine’s baby, Gaia. The first chapter focuses on how different members of the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone) will react should the dome come down. While giving the reader deep insight into different characters and how they’ve changed, Grant does not get heavy-handed here.

The pacing feels spot-on. Also impressive is the fact that I did not have to read the previous book in the series to catch up; Grant works the backstory in seamlessly. There is no reason to fear the book’s length, as the pace picks up rather quickly and rarely lets up. Grant sends Caine and Sam off to take on Gaia, a creature whose powers are revealed and explained.

The dialogue feels just as authentic as always, making me wonder how in the world Grant is so good at nailing the teenage voice, especially while juggling so many points of view. Brianna is just as bold/brazen/reckless as always; Caine will deny until he’s dead that he has a good bone in his body.

Action sequences tend to run a touch long; however in a good way. Much of the fifth book seemed to deal with more internal struggle than external battles. Battles were fought, but not too often. Here, Grant pulls no punches. I cannot count how many battles pepper these pages, but they all matter and all seem to involve Gaia (as they should). Grant does an impressive job of varying the battle settings and sequences.

Then, of course, there’s the character work. Every single character feels just as real as if they came up and knocked on your door. Grant again peels back the layers of various characters to illustrate how they’ve changed and how they feel about it in this last installment. The unexpected feels refreshing and natural despite some unpredictability. The final battle honestly leaves a little to be desired, but I think part of this comes from the fact all the previous battles are so engrossing.

POTENTIAL SPOILER: Readers won’t be left wondering what became of their favorite characters at book’s end. Grant provides more than adequate wrap-up chapters to show what’s become of our favorite survivors (A few favorites don’t make it out alive.). Having only read this series for the past two years, I can say I am thoroughly satisfied with how the series ends. My guess is that longtime series fans will have no complaints, especially with all the action and character work.

Light is perfect for those who have read previous Gone books, but even if you skipped a few, you may be able to follow the action and still maintain an emotional connection. What a series. What an ending.


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