We Weren’t Looking to Be Found: A Review

“Meaning isn’t something you’re handed. It’s what you make out of tragedy.”

We Weren't Looking to Be Found by Stephanie KuehnDani is used to having everything she wants. Including easy access to alcohol and drugs whenever she wants. Sure, the pressure to be good enough for her parents and earn her place in the richest and most famous Black family in Text is a lot. But Dani has it under control. At least she thinks she does until her latest party ends with her close to blackout drunk in front of her aunt’s house.

Camila has been auditioning and failing to impress the same prestigious conservatory for years. Her Colombian American family has been saving for tuition. But even they don’t know that she’s still trying. Somehow, getting exactly what she wants still doesn’t work out. And it still isn’t enough to keep Camila from hurting herself when things don’t work out.

Dani and Camila have nothing in common until they become roommates at Peach Tree Hills, a treatment facility in Georgia.

Unwilling to trust each other with their secrets, the girls slowly learn to trust when they are united in trying to solve a years-old mystery. Someone at Peach Tree Hills left behind a music box filled with old letters. As Dani and Camila work together to find clues to the former residents past, they might also find the pieces they need to heal–and maybe even hope for their futures in We Weren’t Looking to Be Found (2022) by Stephanie Kuehn.

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Kuehn’s latest novel alternates between Dani and Camila’s first person narrations. We Weren’t Looking to Be Found deals with addiction, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.

Camila is a dancer which adds drama to the story–particularly with her downward spiral stemming from her parents assuming she has given up on her conservatory dreams and spending the money they had saved on her tuition on a home remodel instead (one of the strangest choices in the entire narrative)–but is not further interrogated in terms of health issues or cultural pressures.

We Weren’t Looking to Be Found is a thoughtful exploration of mental health and treatment centering two teens of color. While the framing story of solving the mystery of the letters works as a device to bring Dani and Camila together, it also often feels contrived–an extra element that wraps up a bit too neatly compared to other elements in this story. Both girls realize that improving their mental health–and staying healthy–will take work and require big changes. This is particularly true for Dani as she has to take a hard look at her own role in her self-destructive choices. Camila’s path is not as smooth and not as resolved by the end of this story although Kuehn does end on a hopeful note emphasizing the frienship that has developed between the teens.

While there are no easy answers in We Weren’t Looking to Be Found, this story does a lot to destigmatize the need for mental health with its honest portrayal of two teens trying to get help and the frienship that helps them through.

Possible Pairings: Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert, Whisper to Me by Nick Lake, We Are All So Good at Smiling by Amber McBride, The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

Jagged Little Pill: A Review

“How does anyone grow into believing they deserve anything? When does that happen?”

Jagged Little Pill: The Novel by Eric SmithFrankie has never felt like she fits in with her adopted family. It’s not just that she’s Black in a white family. It’s also that no matter how much she talks (or yells) her mother always cares more about making the right impression than speaking up for what she believes him. It’s that no one talks about how much her mom and dad have been fighting. It’s that her older brother, Nick, is marking time until he can start college in the fall.

No one gets Frankie the way Jo does. She’s there for every cause, every protest, and everything else Frankie needs–including kissing an maybe starting to date? It’s easier being around Frankie than it is to deal with her stifling home life where her conservative mother refuses to see Jo for who she really is.

Phoenix wants to help his mom, be present for his sister, and keep a low profile at school when his family moves so that his older sister can get better hospital care. That goes out the window once he meets Frankie.

Nick is so tired of doing well at school, keeping things together at home, being the guy everyone counts on. After spending his whole life looking out for other people he just wants one night to himself–one night where maybe he and Bella can get beyond awkwardly flirting to something more.

Bella has always liked Nick and knowing that he’s looking out for her. But after that party and Bella’s sexual assault all she really wants is to be believed in Jagged Little Pill (2022) by Eric Smith with Alanis Morissette, Diablo Cody, and Glen Ballard.

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Jagged Little Pill is the official novelization of the musical by the same name. Both are inspired by, and feature music from, Alanis Morissette’s seminal album Jagged Little Pill. The novel alternates first person point of view between Frankie, Jo, Phoenix, Nick and Bella with texts and other online messaging between chapters to further expand the story. Frankie is Black and Phoenix is Latinx–all other main characters (like most of the Connecticut suburb where the novel is set) are white.

All five points of view intersect in the aftermath of Bella’s assault while Bella tries to process her trauma, Frankie and Jo sweep in urging Bella to demand justice in a public way first by going to the police and then with a protest rally, and Nick waits to come forward while he tries to decide if he believes his longtime crush Bella or his best friend who assaulted her. Phoenix plays the role of observer even as he’s drawn to Frankie and–later–drawn into an ill-advised fling with Frankie who chooses to ignore that she is cheating on Jo in all the ways that matter even though the girls haven’t officially defined their relationship.

Morisette’s iconic lyrics are integrated into the text as subtle Easter eggs for fans and less subtly as poetry written by Frankie in a painful class seen where Phoenix can see how little she’s able to fit in with her other white classmates and how little space they are willing to give Frankie or her ideas in a classic show of microaggressions. Side plots in the story deal with opioid addiction and advocacy. While some things tie up neatly (as musical fans might well expect), there are no easy answers for many of the characters’ messier choices including Frankie’s cheating and Nick’s failure to stand by Bella when she needs him most. This choice does leave some character growth up in the air, but it also lends authenticity to a story with no easy answers.

Although intrinsically tied to the album, readers can and will appreciate Jagged Little Pill without any familiarity with the musical production or the album itself. That said, you can listen to the full cast recording of Jagged Little Pill on Youtube (readers of the book will also find a QR code link at the end): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeGMmeX6iCc&list=PLIGJvUWjlxeNy7lqwXxMtMUwR4djyFXSf

Possible Pairings: We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds, Tricks by Ellen Hopkins, Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh, All We Left Behind by Ingrid Sundberg, Nothing Burns As Bright As You by Ashley Woodfolk

In the Wild Light: A Review

“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”

“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”

In the Wild Light by Jeff ZentnerNothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.

Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.

Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.

As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.

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Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.

Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.

Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.

While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.

In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, This Golden State by Marit Weisenberg

We Are Inevitable: A Review

We Are Inevitable by Gayle FormanAaron Stein doesn’t really believe in happy endings or new beginnings.

It’s impossible to think those things can happen to him when he’s slowly falling apart. Aaron’s older brother is dead, his family is drowning in the debt they incurred paying for stints in rehab and trying to treat the overdose that killed him. Aaron is ostensibly the owner of the family bookstore, Bluebird Books, but he doesn’t care about it the way his father Ira does or even the way his mother did before the divorce.  Aaron knows the decrepit store is on its way out just like the dinosaurs he’s been reading about obsessively.

The crack in the bookshelf feels like the last straw, the sign Aaron has been waiting for to cut his losses, to sell the store, to move on.

But then his old classmate Chad drops by the store and asks about a wheelchair ramp so he can navigate the entrance. What starts as an old board thrown over the steps becomes an actual ADA accessible ramp when the out of work lumberjacks see what Aaron is doing and decide to help.

Then the lumberjacks see the cracked shelf. And they want to repair it because that kind of shelving is quality. Then they’re fixing the other shelves because they’re already there. And updating the store layout so Chad can fit his chair into the aisles. Then they’re adding a record section. Chad is running an inventory. There’s an espresso machine, a café.

Then there’s Hannah, the band lead Aaron meets at a show with Chad who feels like she could be exactly who Aaron needs.

Suddenly, the downward spiral that was Aaron’s life doesn’t feel so inevitable. There might even be something like hope in the air.

The only problem is Aaron already sold the store. And he’ll have to confront everything that led him to this latest choice–and lot of others from his past–if he wants to give the bookstore and his fractured family one more chance in We Are Inevitable (2021) by Gayle Forman.

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We Are Inevitable is a standalone contemporary set near the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. The audiobook is narrated by Sunil Malhotra. Most characters are presumed white.

There’s no getting around this, so I’m just going to say it: We Are Inevitable is a heavy book. Aaron and his father are despondent and depressed at the start of the novel. Themes of addiction and recovery play important roles in the plot as Aaron learns about love interest Hannah and also as he begins to come to terms with his brother’s overdose.

Forman presents a melancholy but deliberate look at addiction with respect for all parties involved despite Aaron’s initial hard line response. The financial hardship and Ira’s anxiety (which manifests a panic attack in an early chapter) add further tension to an already fraught story. Moments of humor alleviate some of the story’s weight but you have been warned.

Readers willing to come along for the ride with We Are Inevitable will be rewarded with a story that is ultimately hopeful both for Aaron and his family as well as for the unlikely independent bookstore that keeps trucking along.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher, Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*