An affecting contemporary tale of self-discovery set against a richly portrayed Deep South backdrop.

COTTONLANDIA

A privileged youth spends a winter break on his aging grandmother’s farm in this YA novel.    

It’s the holiday season on the brink of the new millennium in Manhattan, and temperamental, spoiled teenager Win Canterbury has just been informed of a major change. His parents want him to spend his private prep school’s four-day winter break with his grandmother in Mississippi. His wealthy best friend, Jules Brevard, who treats life like a “personal cruise ship of adventure,” tells Win to go hunting during his Southern vacation. After a short period of white-knuckle reservations, Win reluctantly agrees and heads to “Cottonlandia.” The ancestral, 3,000-acre cotton plantation features a crumbling main house and is home to a weathered local farmer named John Case, caretaker Gert, and Win’s decrepit grandmother, who appears gravely ill. Staying in his father’s childhood bedroom, Win experiences swift culture shock: The plantation’s accommodations are impossibly rustic, with limited electricity, no internet service, and no transportation. But this is the least of his worries. Win’s father unceremoniously arrives at the farm to announce federal charges being brought against him and that the teen’s mother has become emotionally unstable. The plantation will be Win’s new home indefinitely. After a period of denial, the truth sets in as Win, donning camouflage coveralls, must make peace with the dusty realities of Cottonlandia, his makeshift family, and a few ornery locals. Will the young, independent-minded, restless Win let the humble, backwoods country life of school, work, hunting, and dirt grow on him, or will he bolt back to the privileged urban glitz he’s accustomed to?

Key sets up this scenario expertly and sketches Cottonlandia with a gritty realism. The nearby town is populated with an endearing cast hobbled by poverty yet emboldened by Southern pride, and Win’s education percolates with the slow, persuasive simmer of the “new, strange life” that somehow just might work out. As “sentimental and impractical” as Win’s father considers the plantation, his son soon discovers a world of purpose, drive, and character-building work. This environment affords the author opportunities for descriptive brilliance, such as Win eating the gamey venison he’d shot days before that tasted “like the first time you try a lamb chop”; riding a mattress harnessed to the back of an ATV at a holiday party; and observing the local swamps at dusk “throbbing and pulsing with frogs and insects.” The tension between Win and his father is palpable, much in the same way as the teen’s resistance to settling into the slow, Southern way of life as the forgotten, bucolic cotton farm begins to blossom all around him. Key’s YA debut, Alabama Moon(2006), was released to wide acclaim, including a movie adaptation. Here, he utilizes the same seamless storytelling skills in an engrossing, resonant tale of humility, history, and the gravitas of family obligation. The author focuses on the excitement, the trepidation, and the anticipation of unknown places, new directions, and unfamiliar people. Key structures his introspective story around 87 brisk, clipped chapters, which serves to both tell a fast-paced, enjoyably uncomplicated tale and to create a simple yet memorable reading experience. Readers of Southern fiction and charmingly evocative tales of personal growth will find much to savor in this novel.

An affecting contemporary tale of self-discovery set against a richly portrayed Deep South backdrop.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2021

ISBN: 979-8486387197

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Independently Published

Review Posted Online: Nov. 28, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2022

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Engrossing, contemplative, and as heart-wrenching as the title promises.

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THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END

What would you do with one day left to live?

In an alternate present, a company named Death-Cast calls Deckers—people who will die within the coming day—to inform them of their impending deaths, though not how they will happen. The End Day call comes for two teenagers living in New York City: Puerto Rican Mateo and bisexual Cuban-American foster kid Rufus. Rufus needs company after a violent act puts cops on his tail and lands his friends in jail; Mateo wants someone to push him past his comfort zone after a lifetime of playing it safe. The two meet through Last Friend, an app that connects lonely Deckers (one of many ways in which Death-Cast influences social media). Mateo and Rufus set out to seize the day together in their final hours, during which their deepening friendship blossoms into something more. Present-tense chapters, short and time-stamped, primarily feature the protagonists’ distinctive first-person narrations. Fleeting third-person chapters give windows into the lives of other characters they encounter, underscoring how even a tiny action can change the course of someone else’s life. It’s another standout from Silvera (History Is All You Left Me, 2017, etc.), who here grapples gracefully with heavy questions about death and the meaning of a life well-lived.

Engrossing, contemplative, and as heart-wrenching as the title promises. (Speculative fiction. 13-adult).

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-245779-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: HarperTeen

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

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Riveting, brutal and beautifully told.

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WE WERE LIARS

A devastating tale of greed and secrets springs from the summer that tore Cady’s life apart.

Cady Sinclair’s family uses its inherited wealth to ensure that each successive generation is blond, beautiful and powerful. Reunited each summer by the family patriarch on his private island, his three adult daughters and various grandchildren lead charmed, fairy-tale lives (an idea reinforced by the periodic inclusions of Cady’s reworkings of fairy tales to tell the Sinclair family story). But this is no sanitized, modern Disney fairy tale; this is Cinderella with her stepsisters’ slashed heels in bloody glass slippers. Cady’s fairy-tale retellings are dark, as is the personal tragedy that has led to her examination of the skeletons in the Sinclair castle’s closets; its rent turns out to be extracted in personal sacrifices. Brilliantly, Lockhart resists simply crucifying the Sinclairs, which might make the family’s foreshadowed tragedy predictable or even satisfying. Instead, she humanizes them (and their painful contradictions) by including nostalgic images that showcase the love shared among Cady, her two cousins closest in age, and Gat, the Heathcliff-esque figure she has always loved. Though increasingly disenchanted with the Sinclair legacy of self-absorption, the four believe family redemption is possible—if they have the courage to act. Their sincere hopes and foolish naïveté make the teens’ desperate, grand gesture all that much more tragic.

Riveting, brutal and beautifully told. (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: May 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-74126-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

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