Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

I lived for that Mack cameo! Sadly, Olivia & Toni didn’t steal my heart away like Liz & Mack did…

“Loving someone is being big enough to admit when you mess up, and then doing everything in your power not to do it again.”

Rise to the Sun is a summery sapphic romance that reads a lot like a love letter to music. Once again Leah Johnson has written a YA novel that succeeds in combining escapism with relevant and important issues (grief, trauma, non-consensual image sharing). Rise to the Sun spans the arc of three days—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and takes place at Farmland Music and Arts Festival.
Our two narrators and main characters are Olivia and Toni. Toni, still reeling from her father’s death, is seventeen and about to go to college, not so much because she wants to but she feels pressured by her mother. Her passion is music, something she shared with her roadie father. Olivia is about to enter her final year of high school and, quite understandably given her situation, she’s not keen to return. The fate of her ex, a jock with a promising future ahead of him, rests in her hand. But will telling the truth solve anything? Her mother and sister disapprove of her, and many of her romances have ended on a ‘you’re too much for me’ note. Both girls are going to the festival to take their minds off their worries and anxieties. Tagging along with them are their respective BFFs.
The two girls meet by chance and decide to compete together in a music competition….and sparks inevitably fly.

Having genuinely loved Johnson’s debut novel, I was prepared to have my heart stolen away once again…but things didn’t quite pan out that way. While I liked Johnson’s light yet engaging prose and the themes that she touches upon during the course of the novel, there were a few things that didn’t work for me. Olivia and Toni’s voices are too similar and I kept mixing up their chapters. Their personalities are supposedly meant to be quite different, with Oliva as this extroverted and zingy kind of person, and Toni being more of an ‘Ice Queen/conceal don’t feel’ type of gal…so why did they sound like the same person?
The story’s 3 days setting made it so that their romance seemed of the insta variety.
And, the thing that ultimately made me not enjoy this novel all that much, Olivia is a terrible friend. She promises her BFF that this weekend is all about them and that she won’t pull off her usual ‘ditching you friend for the person I currently have the hots for’ move but she does! She doesn’t even try to keep her promise and be there for her friend. She simply convinces herself that Toni’s BFF and her BFF make a great match so pushes them together so that she can then spend time with Toni. She keeps justifying herself by saying that this time is different and that what she feels for this girl she’s known for a second is REAL and no one should stand in the way of TRUE LOVE. She then pulls an incredibly crappy stunt towards the end after the typical 70% romcom misunderstanding and convinces herself that it’s okay, and when she’s called out she whines that her BFF is being ‘harsh’ (of course she’s going to snap at you! what were you expecting after making a move that makes it clear you don’t give a shit about her?).
And I also didn’t care for Toni going on and on about ‘my Truth’, it made her sounds like someone who is into Goop or whatever.

Anyway, just because I wasn’t particularly enamoured by this does not mean you should skip on it and if you are in a mood for a queer YA romance, well, you should consider giving this a shot.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson — book review

“Maybe things don’t need to be exactly as I’ve imagined them. Like maybe in this universe I’ve suddenly found myself in, things could be different. I could be different.”

You Should See Me in a Crown is an incredibly thoughtful and wholesome YA book. Liz’s first person narration won my heart within the very first pages. Leah Johnson’s simple yet engaging prose perfectly conveyed Liz’s perspective. Liz is in many respects a regular ‘awkward’ teen who is a dedicate student and friend, a good older sister and a responsible niece. But Liz has to contend with a lot more challenges, from her mother’s death to her family’s financial troubles. She’s Black, queer, and has anxiety, and is often made to feel like an outlier at her high school (which is mostly attended by rich white kids). Understandably, she’s eager to leave her small-town to attend the exclusive Pennington College School of Music.

“Music is something I understand—the notes are a thing that I can always bend to my will.”

Readers quickly get how and why music is everything for Liz. To attend Pennington she has to win their music scholarship…but she doesn’t. Not wanting her grandparents to sell their house, Liz’s brother convinces her to compete for the title of prom queen as their high school endows the king&queen with large checks. Although there is nothing Liz hates more than being in the spotlight, she finds herself campaigning for prom queen.

“This whole race is set up to mimic some twisted fairy tale. The queen is supposed to be the best among us: the smartest, the most beautiful, the worthiest. But the people who win are rarely the people who deserve it. Like with any monarchy, they’re just the closest to the top. You don’t earn queen; you inherit it.”

Winning other students’ votes isn’t easy, especially when she’s competing with the most popular girls in her school. In the stressful weeks to follow Liz reconnects with an old friend (some great male/female solidarity here) while her relationship to her controlling best friend becomes frayed. Also, she falls for the cute new girl in her school, Mack.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales and love at first sight and all that, but for just a second, I think this girl and those eyes and the way her freckles dot the entire expanse of her face are cute enough to make a believer out of me.”

While on paper the story might not scream originality, Johnson’s novel is far from predictable or superficial. Girls that may initially strike us as little more than the queen bee’s cronies, straight out of Mean Girls, may not be as passive or stupid as they might first appear. Liz herself finds herself gaining self-assurance.
As much as I liked following Liz’s campaign and witnessing her character growth, the thing I most loved about this book was its romance. Although the relationship between Liz and Mack doesn’t take the centerstage, it does underline much of the narrative. Their cute and tentative flirting had me grinning like an idiot. Their romance was equal parts sweet and heart-melting.
As a non-American I was horribly fascinated by Liz’s school’s ‘prom-culture’. It seems so bizarre to me…but thanks to Liz’s narrative I could see why prom is regarded by many as ‘the event’ of their school years. The dialogues are heavy on cultural references, some of them niche, some of them downright funny, all spot-on.
The only thing I could have done without is the ‘food-fight’. I really don’t get the ‘appeal’ of these scenes…(such a huge waste of food!).
If you like YA fiction that combine romance with coming of age (set against a background of music a la Night Music), touch on contemporary social issues, and present a more realistic view of high school, you should definitely check this one out (not going to lie, Liz&Mach’s scenes alone are worth the read).

“People like us. And that feels sort of good in a way that surprises me. She’s right. High school is complicated, and the lines of demarcation that The Breakfast Club said divided us aren’t quite so clean-cut. The athletes are also the smart kids; the theater kids are also the presidents of the student council. But there’s still those outliers. The people who are everywhere but fit nowhere. People who are involved but not envied—present but imperfect—so the scrutiny pushes them out of the race.”

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

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