The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner; Crown, 369 pages ($17.99)
Dillard Early is only 17 but is weighed down with the heavy burden of sharing the same name as his Pentecostal, snake-handling preacher-father who is doing time in prison for downloading child pornography. His father’s congregation, his father and his own mother blame Dill for his father’s prison sentence and his only consolation is the company of his best friends and fellow outcasts – Lydia Blankenship, who sees her Dollyworld fashion blog as her ticket out of Forrestville, Tenn., and Travis Bohannon, who wears black, carries a staff and spends all his meaningful moments immersed in the world of Bloodfall fantasy novels. Jeff Zentner, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Debbie Harry, says he wrote this debut novel as a “love letter” to “young people who struggle to lead lives of dignity and find beauty in a forgotten, unglamorous place.” Zentner uses alternating voices of the three main characters to tell his poignant story, and he creates not only unforgettable portraits of two young men struggling to find their way out from under the shadow of abusive fathers, but a vivid depiction of three friends struggling to survive and yes, find beauty, in the rural backwater that is the only home they know. He also offers a grim portrait of Dillard’s struggle to escape the constrictive vise of the judgments of his parents’ fundamentalist religion.
– Jean Westmoore
Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe by Tricia Springstubb, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler; Candlewick Press, 144 pages ($14.99) Ages 7 to 10.
Tricia Springstubb, a former Head Start teacher and children’s librarian, has created an irrepressible free spirit in Cody (introduced in “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”) and this charming novel for young readers is told from Cody’s point of view. Cody is thrilled that her best friend Spencer and his parents are moving into the neighborhood, into his grandmother’s half of a “side by side,” a double shared with the mysterious Mr. “Meen.” Through Cody’s acquaintance with the “Meen” daughters, the author offers a subtle lesson on getting along with people who might seem different or scary at first. Cody’s friendship with Spencer, a quiet boy who plays the violin and wears glasses, is an interesting study in contrasts; without the illustrations, the reader wouldn’t realize this is an interracial friendship. (“Careful was Spencer’s middle name. Cody was more of an action person herself.”) Springstubb’s merry narrative sings along. For example, after Cody trips and bumps head with a boy in gym class: “The nurse made them hold ice packs till they got brain freeze.”
– Jean Westmoore
Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser; Catapult (85 pages, $11.95)
Disturbing ripples run through this novella from an award-winning Sri Lankan author who grew up in Australia. We join the life of lead character Frances as she moves to modern-day Sydney to pursue her studies of elements of composition in 18th century art. She’s a keen observer of details, researching the significance not only of what’s in a painting, but what’s not.
Her story is both simple and intricate. Our first glimpse of Frances is as a woman walking her skittish dog, Rod, through the verdant back avenues of Sydney. Because Rod is afraid of his shadow, she picks their routes carefully to avoid encountering other pets.
The pair do fine at this game, admiring blooming backyards as Frances wonders about the inhabitants inside. Frequently they spy a silent, well-dressed woman and her white terrier who seem to fit clumsily into the lush landscape. Rod barks and whines each time they pass the garden, and Frances decides to seek out this mysterious woman.
Each bite-sized chapter of this charming book is punctuated by a revelation, whether mundane or otherworldly, that reminds us that we all inhabit not just space, but time. It’s a fast and captivating read, leaving us to wonder what we might be missing as we wander through the landscapes of our lives.
– Ginny Greene, Minneapolis Star Tribune