Review: The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare by MG Buehrlen

I’m going to be honest – Sci-Fi/Fantasy has not been my thing lately. This pains me to say, because I adore those genres, and it’s absolutely not the books’ fault. It’s totally a problem with me. The book I’m trying to write (I say “trying” because I’ve rewritten the ending so many times I’ve lost count, and it is still not right) is very plot-heavy and intricate, and my poor brain is just not capable of processing the world-building that’s necessary in speculative fiction.

Contemporary. That’s all I can do. Because although contemporary fiction can still be smart and intricate, at least my brain is already familiar with the world and the laws of the universe. Plus, contemporary fiction is often focused a lot more on emotion and character than plot. I can handle emotion and character. But plot? I am up to my ears in plot. I have reached my capacity on plot. No more plot.

You’re wondering where I’m going with this, aren’t you?

ALL THIS TO SAY, I was wary about reading MG Buehrlen’s debut, THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE, because it is not only sci-fi, but it is the epitome of mind-bendy sci-fi, which is TIME TRAVEL SCI-FI. I didn’t know if my poor brain could handle it.

But I knew I had to at least give it a try, because MG is delightful (I haven’t met her in person — YET — but we converse often enough on Twitter that I feel like I know her. Creepy? Let’s hope not.) and because I have friends who know her and share my taste who swore up and down that her book is brilliant and I would love it. I trust these friends. And I really, really wanted to enjoy MG’s debut. So even though I was pretty sure it would break my brain (again), I gave it a shot.

The verdict? I should never have doubted. I loved it.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.

But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.

It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.

Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.

And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.

My Thoughts:

THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE does all sorts of things I don’t see often in YA, and especially in this kind of intricately-plotted, genre-bending, world-building-heavy YA.

It gives our main character, Alex, an entire intact family unit, complete with parents, grandparents, and siblings, that is not dysfunctional in the slightest.

It puts at the center of the book a relationship that is in no way romantic, and a male lead who isn’t even kind of swoony (unless you are about 40+ years older than the book’s target audience, in which case 1) GOOD FOR YOU, and 2) go right ahead and swoon).

It presents three possible love interests for the main character, but at no time ever resembles a love triangle, square, hexagon, dodecahedron, or any other geometric shape. And of those three, not a single one is an obviously terrible choice.

Yet at the same time, Alex is not a She’s-All-That-esque swan-in-ugly-duckling-clothing. When she takes off her nerd glasses, she is — shockingly — still a nerd. She never becomes magically popular. She isn’t stunningly beautiful underneath her rumpled appearance. And she actually turns out to be less of a Chosen One than she originally thought.

This all brings me to the main reason I loved this book: It put characters first. A lot of time, even in good books, when there’s this many EVENTS that have to happen on the pages, writers almost seem to run out of room to develop the characters. But with ALEX WAYFARE, the thing that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime wasn’t the thrilling missions through time or the looming menace of the ever-nearing villain — though those were fun too — it was the heart in the characters. It was the fact that the characters rang true.

They reacted illogically. They made mistakes. They carried unfair prejudices. But these weren’t just quirks. They weren’t a laundry list of imperfections so that the characters could be more interesting. They gave the characters depth and history, even when I didn’t agree with them.

Take Alex herself. At one point, she tells a boy that he should know that most girls are “shallow, shallow creatures.” At first glance, a reader might be turned off by that line. That’s an awfully sweeping statement to make about half the human race, isn’t it? Isn’t she a girl? Isn’t her sister, who she adores, also a girl? Why does Alex think she’s such a special snowflake?

But then you realize, Alex literally has no friends. Her only encounters with other girls are with the couple popular girls at school who bully her and gave her an ugly nickname. Everyone else seems to pretty much ignore her. She’s under the impression that the entire school is constantly whispering about her, but in reality, they’re probably not. It’s just her perception of reality. As a result, she closes herself off and tries not to interact with anyone. Ever. So of course she thinks all girls are awful. Her only encounters with them have been negative, and as a coping mechanism, she’s made sure that the only way she will continue to have contact with girls is if they seek her out. And who seeks her out? The bullies.

Vicious cycle.

This isn’t the only example where Alex, or the other characters, rang true in their shortcomings. It’s just one that stood out, because I remember going through a whole circuit of reactions when I read that line. Plus it’s toward the end of the book, so it’s fresh in my memory. I liked that MG Buehrlen didn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of her characters, but instead explored them and allowed me to see why they’d come to think or act the ways they did. In addition to being a bit prejudiced against her own gender, Alex is impulsive, naive, and kind of shockingly short-sighted at times.

But then these moments of weakness are balanced with strengths. Alex is also clever, inventive, brave, caring, and loyal. Her good points really do outweigh the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her develop and mature throughout the story. And she’s not the only one. I loved her family, and how involved they all were in each other’s lives. I loved Porter, her middle-aged mentor who teaches her about herself. And I loved Blue, the boy she meets over and over again in each of her lives, and Jensen, the boy on whom she blames her social misfit status.

Outside of the characters, though, I loved the story itself. I loved the creative spin on a reincarnation story, and how each journey into Alex’s past highlighted a different point in history. The narrative weaves seamlessly through different eras, jumping from the modern day to Prohibition-era Chicago to a train heist in the Wild West. It kept me constantly on my toes, wondering where I’d be transported to next, and opened the door to endless possibilities in the future. And I followed the logic of the time travel pretty easily, with most of my questions being answered just a few pages after I asked them.

All in all, I loved the timey-wimey goodness that is THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE. It was a fun, energetic  romp through history with characters I enjoyed following on their various (mis)adventures. It helped me rediscover my love of the genre, and made me excited for what’s to come in the series. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and when I turned the final page, I was left simultaneously satisfied and yearning for the next chapter in Alex’s story. If you’re a fan of time travel and adventure and history and heart, I highly recommend this one.

Nutshell Film Reviews: Ender’s Game, The Book Thief, Catching Fire

I have been a bad blogger lately. I’ve been reading good books and seeing good movies, yet my reviews are few and far between. I blame this on the holidays, and writing, and critiquing, and children, and travel, and the Internet, and Netflix, and queso. Since none of these things are going away any time soon (*whispers I love you queso*) I figure it’s best not to stress about it, and to give you what reviews I can, when I can.

Because really, I know you’re all waiting with bated breath to hear what I think before you decide what book or movie to see next. Right?

(And as a general reminder, reviews from me are also a bit sporadic because I only review what I can also recommend. So I’m reading more books than I’m writing about. Thankfully not a lot more — since life is too short to read bad books — but still, more.)

Anywho, I had lofty plans to write detailed reviews on each of the book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen in the theaters recently, but alas, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. So instead, you’re going to get three mini-reviews, and you’re going to like it.

Okay, maybe you won’t like it. That’s really not up to me. Sorry, got a bit presumptuous there.

The three films I’m going to be talking about are vastly different, their only common denominator that they are all based on books written for young adults, and that they are all books I really enjoyed. They are Ender’s Game (novel by Orson Scott Card), The Book Thief (novel by Markus Zusak), and Catching Fire (novel by Suzanne Collins).

Before I get into the individual reviews, let me mention a few of my opinions that apply to all three movies. First, I found the casting brilliant in all of them (with a couple very minor exceptions) and the acting superb. Even when an actor didn’t look like how I pictured a character from the book, their embodiment of their character more than made up for it. I tend to be pretty forgiving when it comes to actors physically matching character descriptions anyway — to me, the feel of a character is far more important than whether they have the “correct” hair or eye color — but even if I was more of a physical purist, I think I could have forgiven most of the times when casting drifted significantly from the way a character was described in the book, simply because the actor was the character.

I also thought the effects in each film were fabulous. Granted, they were certainly more noticeable in Ender’s space-and-explosions setting than in the historical town of The Book Thief, but none of them had effects that made me roll my eyes or felt at all cheesy. The effects were well-integrated and appropriate, and really helped bring each world to life.

Also, each film had a fantastic score. I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack, and I thought all three of these soundtracks perfectly accompanied the stories being told. Book Thief‘s was simple and haunting, Ender‘s was tense and epic, and Catching Fire’s seamlessly wove between the over-the-top anthems of the Capitol, and the subtler, more intimate melodies of the Districts. All three scores were beautiful, and I’ve already added Ender to my writing playlist.

Okay. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the films themselves.

Ender’s Game

I really, really enjoyed this film adaptation, but after talking to other friends who have seen it who have and have not read the book, I’m willing to admit that it’s possible that this film will appeal far more to those who come into the movie already familiar with the story. The movie made some significant changes to the book, streamlining the complex and nuanced narrative down to its core elements to fit into a 2-hour film, and either truncates or eliminates many of the subplots that give the story its texture. So while I don’t think the movie would have confused someone new to the story, it may not have resonated as much with them. Most of Ender’s internal struggle as he adjusts to Battle School is only hinted at, and we lose almost all of the back story of him and his siblings, which sheds significantly more light on his character. The Mind Game that Ender plays, through which his commanding officers are psychologically evaluating him, also only gets a brief scene, as opposed to being a common thread running all throughout the story. In addition, I could have used at least one or two more Battle Room sequences, where Ender is honing his command style, because that would have really helped the audience understand how his brain works, and why the adults in the movie have so much faith in him. (Plus, Battle Room sequences were my favorite parts of the book and the movie, so I could have happily sat through another half hour of them at least.)

That said, there were other changes I was totally fine with. For example, Book!Ender is probably a good 5+ years younger than Movie!Ender, and this pretty much applies across the board to all the kids. Truthfully, if they’d kept the characters elementary-aged prodigies like they are in the book, it would have been nearly impossible to find child actors who could portray them accurately. They also changed the gender/race of several of the adult characters, and/or combined multiple characters into one, and I thought it worked really well. Also, they updated the graphics Ender and his jeesh see on their displays (the book came out in the ’80s, and as such, has ’80s-era graphics notions), for which I was highly grateful.

The one casting decision I was a little torn on was the character of Bonzo Madrid. The actor was a perfect Bonzo — seriously, I can’t imagine anyone playing his personality better — but by casting a kid who was smaller than Ender, it didn’t seem like quite so much of a David-and-Goliath situation, and therefore didn’t evoke the same kind of tension that their relationship evokes in the book.

However, I still thought Ender’s Game was a great adaptation of one of my favorite books, and that even though it at times felt a bit rushed, it’s still a wonderful story that was amazing to see brought to life on the big screen. If you’re a fan of the book, try to catch it in theaters. If not, it’s worth checking out on Redbox or Netflix in a few months.

The Book Thief

I spent this entire movie in awe of how perfectly it captured the spirit of the book. Even the feel of the book — the drifting, hazy quality that comes from having Death as the narrator — translated to the film. I know I already mentioned that I was a fan of the casting, but I need to give a special shout-out to Sophie Nélisse, who plays Liesel. She was absolutely stunning in the role, and I hope to see her in many, many more films in the future.

There were some minor changes and a few parts missing from the book, but I didn’t miss any of them as I was watching. It was only after leaving the theater and discussing it further that I realized changes had been made. The experience of watching the movie was riveting and immersive, and I was moved to tears over and over (seriously, bring tissues). Each moment of the film felt purposeful and thoughtful, and I have to believe that the writer, director, and cast must be devoted fans of the book to have translated its essence to film so beautifully.

While some events of the book were streamlined or skipped, the movie never felt rushed. The plot was extremely easy to follow, and each of the characters developed wonderfully well. I went to see the film with a friend who had never read the book, and she also adored the movie, so while I still absolutely recommend everyone reads the book, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoy the film.

Bottom line, I thought The Book Thief was a thoughtful, moving, beautiful film that will both satisfy fans of the book and enthrall new fans. It’s adapted from a YA novel, but I believe it will appeal to viewers of all ages, from early teens to great-grandparents. And while it tells about one of the darkest times in human history, it does so in a manner that is sensitive and quietly uplifting without becoming saccharine. It recently opened in wide release, so go look up showtimes and get thee to a theater.

And again. Tissues. I cannot stress this enough.

Catching Fire

I’m going to preface this with the obvious: Catching Fire is a sequel to The Hunger Games, so if you haven’t seen the first one, you should probably do so before you see the second.

THAT SAID! If you saw the first one and weren’t pleased with the deviations from the book, or the extensive use of shaky cam, this one is so much better. (Disclaimer: I really liked the first Hunger Games movie, but I can see why some didn’t.) And if you did like the first movie, prepare to love the sequel.

Catching Fire takes all the best parts of The Hunger Games – the excellent cast, the glorious and appalling extravagance of the Capitol, the musical themes, the visceral sense of the Games — and takes them up a notch, in addition to fixing most of the problems with the first film. Gone is the nausea-inducing shaky cam, the significant changes from the book for the sake of action or shock value.

This film relies far less on putting the viewer in the Games, and more on making the viewer feel Katniss’ and Peeta’s gamut of emotions as they are flung back into a fight for survival. While the first film definitely wrung a few tears from me, I was a mess for most of Catching Fire. Secondary characters that I enjoyed in the first movie — Haymitch, Effie, Cinna — are fleshed out and humanized in this one, and we also are introduced to two of my favorite series characters, Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason.

Again, I know I already mentioned casting, but I need to give a shout-out to Sam Claflin and Jena Malone, who portrayed Finnick and Johanna, respectively, because they were perfect. Neither of them is who I pictured when reading the books, but I can’t imagine anyone doing more justice to the characters. Their scenes were my favorites in a movie full of amazing moments (which is doubly saying something, since Peeta Mellark is one of my favorite fictional characters ever).

Catching Fire is my favorite book in the Hunger Games trilogy, not only because of the amazing characters, but because I like how it digs deeper into the turbulent climate of Panem, and how while we do get a second set of Games, how we experience them is totally different. This time, Katniss is not a lone wolf, but a member of a team. This time, it’s not children in the arena, but adults. And this time, although they ostensibly have the same mission, the underlying tone is that they’re fighting for something far greater than survival. And all of this was somehow even more effective in movie form than in book form. I thought this film did a stellar job in driving home the toll the Games take on the Districts, the savage mercilessness of the Capitol, the horror of the tributes and their families, and the psychological trauma that plagues even the “winners” of the Games. And I thought it set up audience expectation going into the third movie (which is going to be painful) masterfully.

My one quibble with the film was that it still harped a little too much on the supposed “love triangle” (which I still maintain does not even exist in the books), which made Katniss more wishy-washy and hormonal than she should be, given the events going on in her life. I think the filmmakers are shooting themselves in the foot, giving themselves an unnecessary uphill battle in pulling off the end of the trilogy convincingly, all in the name of being able to print more “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” t-shirts. But it’s a minor quibble, and I can overlook it in light of all the other major things the film got so, so right.

Overall, I can honestly say that not only was Catching Fire one of my favorite movies of the year, but one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations ever. It made me laugh, gasp, and cry on more than one occasion (this is another movie where I must stress, bring tissues). My theater burst into spontaneous applause and cheering at several parts. The cast, the visuals, the direction, and the storytelling were all spot-on. I don’t say this often, but the film was, in my opinion, better than the book. If you are a fan of The Hunger Games, whether in book or movie form, Catching Fire does not disappoint. I’ve already seen it twice in theaters, and may need to see it again. It’s that good.

OKAY. THAT WAS A LOT OF TYPING.

So those are my thoughts on the latest YA book-to-film adaptations, now playing in a theater near you. In non-book-adaptation news, I’ve also seen Thor: The Dark World (twice) and it is also pretty awesome. SO much more of all the things I wanted more of after the first movie (and yes, this includes LOTS more Loki).

Hopefully soon I’ll review some books on here. I spent most of November reading and critiquing friends’ manuscripts (coming down the eventual pipeline to a bookstore near you!), but am now finally caught up and back on the reading-books-currently-on-shelves bandwagon. Right now I’m reading ALLEGIANT, which I’ve managed to NOT SPOIL for myself yet, so please, I know it is polarizing but DON’T TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. Please and thank you.

In the meantime, seen any good movies lately?

Blog Hop: Playlist for A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron

Welcome to Day 1 of the A Spark Unseen blog hop! I’m so thrilled to help promote Sharon Cameron’s upcoming sequel to her her historical YA debut, The Dark Unwinding. I just finished reading A Spark Unseen yesterday, and it is a wonderful follow-up to the beginning of Katharine Tulman’s story, full of fascinating gadgets, unexpected twists, and fabulously varied characters, all told in Sharon’s gorgeous, flowing prose. Both books are smart, well-crafted tales set in wondrously captivating places, and A Spark Unseen takes us from the (pink!) halls of Stranwyne Keep to the streets and dark corridors of Paris. I loved the story and the characters, and hope you will too.

Here’s a bit more from the publisher about A Spark Unseen:

The thrilling sequel to Sharon Cameron’s blockbuster gothic steampunk romance, THE DARK UNWINDING, will captivate readers anew with mystery and intrigue aplenty.

When Katharine Tulman wakes in the middle of the night and accidentally foils a kidnapping attempt on her uncle, she realizes Stranwyne Keep is no longer safe for Uncle Tully and his genius inventions. She flees to Paris, where she hopes to remain undetected and also find the mysterious and handsome Lane, who is suspected to be dead.

But the search for Lane is not easy, and Katharine soon finds herself embroiled in a labyrinth of political intrigue. And with unexpected enemies and allies at every turn, Katharine will have to figure out whom she can trust–if anyone–to protect her uncle from danger once and for all.

Filled with deadly twists, whispering romance, and heart-stopping suspense, this sequel to THE DARK UNWINDING whisks readers off on another thrilling adventure.

Today, I have Sharon here to share a bit of her playlist that helped inspire her as she crafted Katharine’s tale. Take it away, Sharon!

This is really more of a song for The Dark Unwinding rather than A Spark Unseen, but I couldn’t resist including it.

I spent my former life as a classical pianist, and this was one of my favorite pieces, mostly because it shows the heights that can be reached with one simple, evocative melody line. The challenge in this piece is not the notes, but what to do with them, how to paint the picture of a song in the mind of listener. Not that different from writing, really!

So this is Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, nicknamed “Suffocation,” written around 1835 and, by Chopin’s request, played at his own funeral. This was the tune running through my head every time I envisioned Katharine’s life with Aunt Alice, before her fateful carriage ride to Stranwyne Keep. And this is a tape recording (on actual tape!) of me in my moody 20’s, playing it!

Do enjoy.

Find Sharon Cameron:
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Book Trailer: A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron

I’m so excited today to be able to help reveal the trailer for Sharon Cameron’s book A Spark Unseen, the sequel to The Dark Unwinding. You might remember how much I loved The Dark Unwinding, with its rich atmospheric prose, smart, personable characters, and Victorian Gothic setting. I hope if you haven’t given this series a shot yet, this trailer will be just the nudge you need!

Pretty nifty, right? And as cool as the gadgets and the house and the eerie atmosphere are in the trailer, I promise, they are even better in the book. So what are you waiting for? Go out and grab a copy of The Dark Unwinding today, and pre-order A Spark Unseen!


About A SPARK UNSEEN

The thrilling sequel to Sharon Cameron’s blockbuster gothic steampunk romance, THE DARK UNWINDING, will captivate readers anew with mystery and intrigue aplenty.

When Katharine Tulman wakes in the middle of the night and accidentally foils a kidnapping attempt on her uncle, she realizes Stranwyne Keep is no longer safe for Uncle Tully and his genius inventions. She flees to Paris, where she hopes to remain undetected and also find the mysterious and handsome Lane, who is suspected to be dead.

But the search for Lane is not easy, and Katharine soon finds herself embroiled in a labyrinth of political intrigue. And with unexpected enemies and allies at every turn, Katharine will have to figure out whom she can trust–if anyone–to protect her uncle from danger once and for all.

Filled with deadly twists, whispering romance, and heart-stopping suspense, this sequel to THE DARK UNWINDING whisks readers off on another thrilling adventure.

A Spark Unseen Releases September 24, 2013.

Blog Hop dates are September 9-20. Spots are still available. More information here. Participants will receive an arc of A Spark Unseen. 

Special incentive for the trailer release! Tweet or post on your own blog about the trailer release and be entered in to in win an arc of A Spark Unseen. You will need to include @CameronSharonE in the tweet in order to receive credit. Please tweet all blog links to the same twitter account. Retweets will also count. 

About THE DARK UNWINDING

When Katharine Tulman’s inheritance is called into question by the rumor that her eccentric uncle is squandering away the family fortune, she is sent to his estate to have him committed to an asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine discovers a genius inventor with his own set of rules, who employs a village of nine hundred people rescued from the workhouses of London.

Katharine is now torn between protecting her own inheritance and preserving the peculiar community she grows to care for deeply. And her choices are made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a secretive student, and fears for her own sanity.

As the mysteries of the estate begin to unravel, it is clear that not only is her uncle’s world at stake, but also the state of England as Katharine knows it.

Praise for THE DARK UNWINDING

ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection, 2013

Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of 2013

The Crystal Kite Member’s Choice Award, 2013, SCBWI

ABC Best Books for Children, 2012

Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award, SCBWI, 2009

“Haunting thrills unfurl. . . .” –ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“Utterly original, romantic, and spellbindingly imaginative.” –USA TODAY

“Cameron’s eerie and suspenseful first novel offers gripping twists, rich language, and an evocative landscape.” –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

“Cameron, through wry, observant Katharine, spins a deliciously gothic tale. . . . By turns funny and poignant, this period mystery is a thoroughgoing delight.” –KIRKUS REVIEWS

“Cameron has produced a ripping good read with all the drama, intrigue, and romance of a Victorian pot-boiler with mystery, suspense, and hints of the supernatural thrown in for good measure.” –VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES

About SHARON CAMERON

Sharon Cameron was awarded the 2009 Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for her debut novel, The Dark Unwinding. When not writing Sharon can be found thumbing dusty tomes, shooting her longbow, or indulging in her lifelong search for secret passages.

Review: The Devil’s Backbone by Rae Ann Parker (@raeannparker)

Complimentary copy received from the author in exchange for my honest review

Rae Ann Parker is one of the lovely Nashville authors I met through SCBWI. She has always been kind and generous in all my dealings with her. She also makes some killer iced coffee. So when she asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her debut, The Devil’s Backbone, a middle grade historical mystery centered around the Natchez Trace Parkway, of course I was happy and excited to read.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

David Baxter takes the blame for the graffiti on the school gym doors to keep his friend out of trouble and earns a three-day suspension. His dad, the juvenile judge, forces him to go on a roadtrip to redemption on the Natchez Trace Parkway. What his dad doesn’t know is that David meets a ghost carrying the last letter of Meriwether Lewis – the piece of evidence that may solve the 200-year-old mystery of Lewis’s death. Thanks to the ghost, David just might figure out how to relate to his dad and forgive his wayward mom.

My Thoughts

The Devil’s Backbone is a quick, easy read, with clean writing and a unique concept. David Baxter is an instantly likable character, and I happily followed him through the pages of his story as he traveled down the Natchez Trace. The pace is steady throughout, and kept me engaged as I learned more about David, as well as the historical mystery he sets out to solve.

Speaking of which, the mystery is actually fairly light, as both the letter-carrying ghost and the unsolved death of Meriwether Lewis serve more as backdrops to David’s own personal journey than the central force of the story. It’s not all dropped clues and careful deduction; the ghost and David work through their questions and what needs to be done in a straightforward and simple manner. The ghost adds a bit of fun and intrigue to the story, without making it the slightest bit scary or spooky. The real meat of the narrative is David’s relationship with his father, and his feelings about his relationships. Through the course of the story, David realizes what’s truly important to him, and is able to be more honest with his father about his concerns and choices. 

Rae Ann’s love of the Natchez Trace Parkway is evident in the pages of The Devil’s Backbone. The Trace becomes almost as much a character as David and the others. Through a journal David keeps, she manages to weave historical facts into the story that highlight interesting and curious pieces of the Trace’s past. The way the modern story intertwines with the historical trivia would make this book an excellent addition to any middle school teacher’s classroom library. As a Tennessee resident myself, I found myself itching to travel the Trace, to experience the same beautiful scenery and bits of history that David discovers as he travels with his father.

Overall, The Devil’s Backbone was an enjoyable, educational book, uncovering some lesser-known pieces of American history through the eyes of its relatable teen protagonist. I’d recommend it especially to teens (and teachers and parents!) in Tennessee and the surrounding states, but I’d happily recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and a love of compelling characters.