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'The Last Academy' a mediocre debut

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The debut novel from Anne Applegate is supposed to be creepy because it follows the protagonist, Camden Fisher, at her new boarding school as she tries to unravel a mystery of disappearing students. But that's not the reason I found it creepy.

There are scenes that, intentional or not, have very weird and suggestive undertones. The main character is 14 and keeps running into a very mysterious middle-aged man throughout the course of the story.

Her first encounter with him is on a plane, where he grabs her neck. Applegate writes, "His fingers slid up my neck, right under my jaw, and wrapped around my throat. Slowly, he pulled me close, his eyes steady on mine. I thought: This crazy guy is going to kiss me! And I just about laughed right in his face, because I'd never been kissed and that'd be one freaky story I'd have to tell if anyone asked me about my first time."

Yes. When a middle-aged man puts his hand around a 14-year-old girl's throat, and she thinks she's about to be physically violated, I'm sure her first thought would be about how gut-busting the situation is. Not, you know, how utterly horrifying and disgusting it would be. To be fair, by the end of the book, this incident is explained, and it's innocent (in context, at least), but there's no denying how odd Camden's reaction is.

There are other lines from the book, involving Camden's crush, that are also oddly sexual. "Did I like tennis? Yeah, right. I liked tennis shorts. I liked Mark Elliot in tennis shorts."

Or perhaps my personal favorite: "I had an insane urge to lean over and ... I dunno. Lick the sweat off Mark Elliot's neck, right by his collarbone. It was shocking to think that. Shocking and super-uber fantastically unbelievably gross. It wasn't even a kiss, was the thing. It was madness to think of something like that. Insane licking madness."

The book has other problems besides a few odd scenes like the ones mentioned above. You can tell the novel is that of an amateur. Applegate tries far too hard at times, seemingly under the impression that being vivid as possible creates great scenery. It doesn't.

There's a term used for writing like this, called "purple prose." Applegate's prose is about as purple as a plum.

Then there's the problem of writing from the perspective of a young teenaged girl. There are plenty of authors who can do this successfully. "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld and "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green are two shining examples. But Applegate can't seem to decide if Camden is a kid, a teenager or an adult. Her voice is a hodgepodge of different age mentalities, making it difficult to connect with her.

There are also terrible pacing problems. The novel drags on and on until the last 100 pages, at which point Applegate finally seems to be able to pull in the reigns of the story and direct it into something interesting and coherent.

All my issues with the book aside, I will say that for a debut novel in the young adult market, "The Last Academy" is at least original. Though I saw it coming, I still found the twist ending to be good, and I'm sure it will take some readers by surprise.

I'll openly admit to not being in the right audience for the book, but I'm sure the target audience (young teenagers) will overlook my problems with it and enjoy it. After all, readers are likely starved for something original in the YA market, and everyone loves a twist ending that isn't terrible.


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