Friends Band Together THE RIDDLES OF MULBERRY ISLAND–Review and Giveaway!

Hi there! Today, I’m sharing a review for a new YA historical mystery with LGBTQ romantic elements from new-to-me author Huston Piner. THE RIDDLES OF MULBERRY ISLAND features a teen with two good friends who help him figure out the eerie lights and strange sights on abandoned Mulberry Island.

Scroll down for your chance to win a $10 GC, catch the excerpt and pick up a copy for yourself.
About the book:
While out fishing one bright summer day, fifteen-year-old Tommy Oakley is startled to spy what appears to be a giant fish surfacing in the inlet near Mulberry Island. Confused and a little fearful, he returns to Bayside, the tiny village where he lives, and recruits Wendy to help him solve the mystery.

A few nights later, Tommy goes camping with his best friend John, and they’re alarmed to see ghostly lights floating above the water and movement inside the island’s abandoned mansion.

Everyone in Bayside knows the island is uninhabited, but they also think it’s haunted, so Tommy and John are more than ready to stay away. But the strong-willed Wendy convinces the reluctant boys to investigate the source of the lights, thereby setting in motion a harrowing adventure that has them dodging bullets and running for their lives, all the while struggling to sort out their conflicted feelings for one another.

One thing is certain—if they survive the summer at all, things will never be the same between them again.

How about a little taste?

The Great Bird and the Big Fish
Summer 1952

Tommy Oakley dashed through the woods, stumbling over roots and ducking low-hanging branches. He knew they might get in trouble snooping around Mulberry Island, but he hadn’t bargained on this. Now all he could do was hope he was going in the right direction and that John and Wendy would be ready to sail as soon as he got there.

He swerved around thorny bushes and jumped over spiny brambles, gulping air, desperate to get away from his pursuer. It wasn’t easy. For every branch he ducked or squeezed past, two or more scratched him and tore at his sweat-drenched clothes. And all the while, his pursuer’s cursing and stumbling grew louder behind him. Somehow, the man was getting closer.

He’s still gaining on me? Doesn’t he ever get tired?

A glimpse of marsh confirmed Tommy was going in the right direction and would soon get to the safety of the boat. The thorny bushes were giving way to more open ground, and he was finding it easier to run in a straight line. But that also meant the man chasing him would find it easier too.

Up ahead, he spotted the area where they had hidden the dinghy. Just a little more and he’d get away. Panting, he tried to find the strength for a final burst of speed.

Bang!

The shot seemed to echo all around him.

Tommy gasped and froze in his tracks, listening, as fear of capture gave way to a more deadly alarm.

From somewhere came the loud click of a rifle being cocked.

As if fired from a gun himself, Tommy took off running in a complete panic.

The second bang was so loud it was deafening.

Then the whole world fell silent.

Tommy fell to the ground.

A branch gashed into his forehead, and he collapsed onto a bed of fallen leaves.

Blood oozed from his wounds.

He saw a fading image of the great bird.

And then darkness took him.

*

One month earlier

Tommy was sitting in his boat on a beautiful sunny afternoon, the handle of his pole loosely resting in his hand, his mind wandering. It was the first time his father had ever allowed him to go out fishing by himself.

As various thoughts crept across his mind, he happened to glance up, and there it was, soaring on the edge of the heavens.

The great bird stretched its wings and floated in wide swirling spirals. As Tommy watched it, a light breeze floated over him. The briny air filled his lungs, and he sighed, pushing sandy brown locks out of his eyes.

It had been a perfect day.

Well, almost perfect. He’d wanted it to be special, one to remember—and normally, he would have invited his friends John Webster and Wendy Harris to come along. The trouble was, lately, John and Wendy always seemed to be getting on each other’s nerves. And if Tommy only invited one of them, it would hurt the other one’s feelings. So, he’d snuck out by himself and spent the whole day fishing and thinking while the hours drifted by like the water all around him.

He glanced at his watch. It was four thirty.

“Keep an eye on the time,” his father had said.

“You be sure to get home early for supper,” his mother had added.

They always treated him like a child.

He looked up again at the great bird.

Probably on the prowl for a rat or fish or something.

He imagined having wings and sailing through the air. He’d soar and dive across the sky like he did underwater when he was swimming. He’d float up high like the great bird. He’d be free.

He smiled at the thought. Then, as he lowered his gaze, something caught his eye. It emerged in the inlet between Mulberry Island and the peninsula.

Tommy blinked and leaned forward, squinting into the distance. It looked like some kind of fish, but it was huge—it had to be for him to see it from all the way out in the middle of the bay.

For a moment, it sat there, and then, in the same unexpected way it had surfaced, the giant fish made a slow descent, vanishing below the surface.

Wow. That was incredible! But what was it—a whale? It would be very odd if it was. They never came this far inside the sound. And this fish had a large dorsal fin that looked more like some kind of weird top hat than a fin. He’d never heard of a whale that looked like that.

It was so strange, and all the more so because of where it was. But then again, everything strange seemed to be connected to Mulberry Island somehow.

“They’ll never believe it.” They never do anyway.

Tommy’s parents never took him seriously. His teacher said he had a “vivid imagination.” But as far as his family—and most of the people in Bayside, the tiny village where they lived—were concerned, he was either absentminded or just plain dumb.

It’s not fair. Mom and Pop treat me like a child.

It was like this boat. It had been a thirteenth birthday present, but he’d never even been allowed to use it on his own before today.

“Come on, Pop,” he’d pleaded over a year ago. “It’s embarrassing. I’m almost fourteen. It’s been nearly a year since you gave me the thing. I mean, why even call it mine?” Here he was begging for permission to do something his friends had been allowed to do for at least a year, if not longer.

“What a joke,” he had muttered under his breath.

“Yeah, Pop,” his brother Jacob had said. “Give the kid a break. He’ll be okay.”

Tommy would have been grateful for the moral support, but then Jacob had tousled his hair and added, “Won’t you, little guy?”

It was something Tommy positively despised. At twenty years old, Jacob wasn’t a bad guy, and he often sided with Tommy. But he had the uncanny knack of treating him like a silly but lovable little puppy, which irritated him to no end.

But it didn’t matter anyway. In the Oakley house, a “no” was a “no.” His fourteenth birthday came and went, the school year started, and winter passed into spring. Finally, it was the beginning of his last summer before high school and tenth grade. He had just turned fifteen.

They were all listening to the radio, and the news had just finished with a report about President Eisenhower’s remarks on the war in Korea. Tommy took the opportunity to ask his father one more time, only to be told no yet again, and he had despaired of ever being treated like anything more than a child.

Then, last night, his father had surprised him and said if he wanted, he could go out in his boat without adult supervision in the morning. At first, Tommy had thought he was joking, but his father assured him he was serious.

Of course, there had been a few “ifs” to go along with this bestowal of generosity: He could go if the weather was promising, if he made sure to return before suppertime, and if his mother didn’t need him for chores. That last “if” was almost a deal breaker. Tommy’s mother was famous for making up excuses to keep him under her wing—something the other boys at school often teased him about.

But somehow, he’d managed to get away. And despite not having John and Wendy with him, it had been the best day of his life.

And then he’d seen that big fish.

My Review:
It’s the summer of 1952 and Tommy Oakley is 15, preparing to enter the 10th grade at a big-ish high school. He’s best friends with John Webster who is also 15. They live in Bayside, what sounded like a coastal Virginia (my guess, because it’s never stated) community which has few residents and fewer opportunities. Most of Bayside’s residents are fishermen, and life had been prosperous back when the Mulberry’s ran the fishery, but they closed it down long ago and only their Great House remains. Wendy Harris is also a resident of Bayside, though she’s a year older and already in the high school. Wendy likes Tommy and John likes Tommy and Tommy’s tired of their bickering.

Tommy got a boat for his 13th birthday, but his parents didn’t trust him to captain it until this summer, when he turned 15. He’s out in the boat alone, fishing and sailing, when he sees what appears to be a giant fish in the inlet between abandoned Mulberry Island and the peninsula on which Bayside sits. He knows John and Wendy won’t believe him, but he confesses his vision to them. Wendy wants to explore, to see if there is anything to it. She’s clearly smitten with Tommy, and he’s a bit shy of her advances.

Tommy and John plan a sail and a camp-out to go shrimping, and they see lights in the Great House–and they know it wasn’t the caretaker, old Mr. Hess, because he shows up later. Who’s in the mansion? And, does this have anything to do with the giant fish? John doesn’t want to investigate, because he’s afraid it will lead to trouble and get Tommy hurt. And, there is no one in the world that John cares for more than Tommy. (I’m going to pause here and mention that John is regularly beaten and emotionally abused by his father, and his mother doesn’t speak up about it because she’d likely be beaten in his stead.)

This is a mystery and adventure with just a little bit of romance. Tommy and Wendy and John make a quarrelsome triad in friendship, but there seems to be a connection between Tommy and John that John is beginning to explore. With the elements of danger, and the riskiness of the situations, John is the bold one, taking deeper risks to ensure Tommy’s safety–because he feels like Tommy is the only person in his life who truly cares for him.

I can honestly say this is an engaging, and thoughtful YA LGBTQ read. The bad guys are not immediately apparent and the stakes get ever higher as the action plays out. We have mercenaries, and insane men planning insane plots, and a hurricane blowing in. Tommy and company don’t know who to trust, but Wendy is ever-forceful in asserting what their trio should do–and how to do it. This causes conflict with John, who wants to back out completely, but he won’t leave Tommy to fend for himself. In the end, there are some unlikely heroes and some really spectacular fireworks–which thankfully take out the bad guys’ big plans. I liked the pacing, and the storytelling, and was especially grateful to see how the fathers of Bayside finally do what’s right and ensure John has a loving home and the care he deserves.

The blurb didn’t prepare me for either the slightly historical setting, or the descriptions of physical abuse and overt emotional/verbal abuse John suffers. His connection to Tommy is what eventually saves him. Tommy’s father won’t stand for Mr. Webster’s abuse of his John–or Tommy–when slurs get flung. Beyond this, the adventure and mystery are engaging, as are the glimpses of physical love between Tommy and John.

Interested? You can find THE RIDDLES OF MULBERRY ISLAND on Goodreads, NineStar Press Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on the Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 GC to NineStar Press. Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Huston Piner always wanted to be a writer but realized from an early age that learning to read would have to take precedence. A voracious reader, he loves nothing more than a well-told story, a glass of red, and music playing in the background. His writings focus on ordinary gay teenagers and young adults struggling with their orientation in the face of cultural prejudice and the evolving influence of LGBTQA+ rights on society. He and his partner live in a house ruled by three domineering cats in the mid-Atlantic region.

Catch up with Huston on his website Facebook and twitter.

2 thoughts on “Friends Band Together THE RIDDLES OF MULBERRY ISLAND–Review and Giveaway!

  1. Great review. I was honored to be a beta reader as this story was being developed and loved what I saw then. I look forward to reading the final iteration (whenever the paperback is released.)

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