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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, 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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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*