In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

Delaney Doyle and Cash Pruitt are best friends. Growing up in a very poor small town in East Tennessee with a large addiction problem, both having seen their share of hardship and trauma. When Delaney manages to get both of them a scholarship to an elite private high school in Connecticut, a new (and utterly unpredictable) chapter begins for both of them.

There is a lot of depth to this book. Told from Cash’s perspective we get both typical coming-of-age experiences and some very atypical life experiences. Delaney is a gifted scientist — her talk is peppered with black holes, human wormholes, olfactory fatigue, and a theory of how humans may have descended from aquatic apes (I love this one). She sees patterns everywhere — in people as well as the natural world. Cash is sure that his only choices are a “sh**ty life or an ordinary life.” His Papaw (grandfather) is slowly sinking with emphysema back home, and Cash has the strongest feeling that he doesn’t even deserve an opportunity like this in the first place. And then, in a complete surprise to himself, he discovers the magic of poetry.

The book is very sweet and brought tears to my eyes multiple times. Themes of love, family, loneliness, being an outsider, and doing the right thing, even when it is difficult pervade. Some fascinating discussions on the similarities between the sciences and the arts in trying to understand the world we live in. I am absolutely not a poetry person, but I found the descriptions of how Cash came slowly to love both reading and writing poetry to be fascinating — an aspect of character development through passions that I don’t often see to this extent. Some of the language seemed a bit overdone at times to me, but I do find Zentner’s writing quite beautiful. The negative characters seemed kind of two dimensional to me but I’m guessing that is how they appeared to Cash so it makes sense.

Good for fans of John Green.

A few good quotes (there are many):
“Because it’s heretical. That’s how science advances and takes humanity with it. People have to be brave enough to look stupid in a field where looking stupid is the worst thing you can do.”

“I think the real problem is you feel so lucky to have survived what you did, you think you bagged your limit of luck by finishing out your childhood in a safe and loving home.”

“You’ll never regret a decision more than the one you make out of fear. Fear tells you to make your life small.”

“Life often won’t freely give you moments of joy. Sometimes you have to wrench them away and cup them in your hands, to protect them from the wind and rain. Art is a pair of cupped hands. Poetry is a pair of cupped hands.”

“It feel like he’s bequeathing me an inheritance of the only wealth he possesses — his memories, his quiet joys.”

“Being a poet takes bravery. Yes, the courage to bleed on a page. But also to bleed for the world we write poetry about.”

Thank you to Crown Books for Young Readers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.