Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Small Town Sinners by Melissa C. Walker

Tags: YA, contemporary, religion


Good-girl Lacey Anne Byer is the darling of her town’s steadfastly evangelical church. Lacey can’t wait to star in a leading role in Hell House, an annual event her church puts on in order to illustrate dangerous sins and encourage visitors to devote themselves to Christ. However, as unexpected events take place—members of the church are discovered to have performed the very sins they condemn—Lacey is forced to reexamine her faith and her beliefs, in order to carve out the best future for herself.


YA contemporary fiction just gets more and more stunning in their nuanced, relatable, and thought-provoking treatments of difficult subjects. Melissa Walker’s latest novel, SMALL TOWN SINNERS, is arguably the best examination of religious evangelism that I have read in YA fiction. Its sympathetic cast of characters and the careful way it treads the middle ground between black and white make it a superb literary accomplishment.

Religion is, as ever, a sensitive topic, one that is often difficult to talk about due to its highly personal and subjective manner. Which is why what Melissa Walker does in SMALL TOWN SINNERS is so impressive. Virtually all of the characters in this novel support rather unpopular and subjectively archaic positions on today’s controversial hot topics like abortion and gay marriage. However, rather than simply demonizing religious evangelists, Walker deftly makes all of her characters likeable, or at the very least sympathetic. It’s easy to hate issues and take solid stances on them when they are distant. However, when the issues hit home—when they become personal—is what SMALL TOWN SINNERS does so well. Walker shows that things such as faith and beliefs are individual and personal. This is a lesson that everyone could care to learn and promote.

The theme of SMALL TOWN SINNERS is a wonderful one, which makes up for the fact that sometimes, I felt like the characters were a little…mild. Lacey is a great protagonist in that she really captures the ambiguity of questioning her church-based faith, but there are times when I wanted her to be more than simply a mind-churning, tears-swallowing, does-he-like-me-or-not girlie-girl. Lacey’s best friend Starla Joy is said to be this more gregarious and outspoken girl, but she doesn’t very often display that. Ty, the supposed love interest, is, in my opinion, blown a bit out of proportion in the book’s synopsis. In SMALL TOWN SINNERS, romance definitely takes a backseat to the more compelling plotline of characters questioning their former beliefs. In fact, one may even think that the romance is a little lacking, a little too contrived.

But these minor qualms of mine regarding the characters don’t really matter in light of the book’s larger message. I love that the characters of SMALL TOWN SINNERS change over the course of the story—but in a way that stays true to who they are, and the way they were brought up. Needless to say, this is probably one of the most skilled and nuanced portrayals of extreme religion I’ve read in YA literature. All sorts of readers, I think, find this book compelling and eye-opening.

Similar Authors
Donna Freitas
Tara Kelly

Cover discussion: I'm not sure it really captures the wonderful "gray-ness" and darkness of this novel, but it's eye-catching and hopefully will inspire readers who might not usually read about religion to pick it up.

Bloomsbury USA / July 19, 2011 / Hardcover / 288pp. / $16.99

ARC sent by publisher. Thank you!


  1. I'm glad you reviewed this, because I've been wanting to check this out. I will promptly add it to my list.

  2. Wow - this was seriously a stellar review. I'd seen this cover, but wasn't particularly interested. However, I tend to hate the way religion is treated in YA fiction, and by many YA bloggers, and Small Town Sinners sounds like the kind of book that could get everyone to see MULTIPLE sides of religion, rather than just their own bias. I wonder if the cover means to suggest the apple from the garden of Eden?!

    1. Oooh, maybe. I'm never good at considering symbolism, haha.

  3. I have this. It was on sale for the Nook and I was excited, because there aren't many YA books that take on religion. (At least that I'm aware of. If you know any, throw them my way!) I'm really, really wanting to read it now.

    1. Any other ones that I can think of involve religious cults and don't have the same sort of thought-provoking, tolerance-building ambiguity that SMALL TOWN SINNERS has. But I'll keep thinking about it!

  4. I've been meaning to pick up this particular book, and also to check out Walker's works as a whole. Thank you for reminding me (and writing a great review). I'm even more excited to read this one.

  5. I loved this one so much. (My mom liked it too!)

  6. I didn't really like this book, especially due to Ty who annoyed the crap out of me. But the writing was very good and I hope more YA books start to explore religion with more nuance instead of books with cults and such.


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