Book Review: “Rise to the Sun” by Leah Johnson

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 2021

Genre: Realistic Fiction (YA)

Format (How I Read It): Hardcover

Goodreads Synopsis:

Olivia is an expert at falling in love . . . and at being dumped. But after the fallout from her last breakup has left her an outcast at school and at home, she’s determined to turn over a new leaf. A crush-free weekend at Farmland Music and Arts Festival with her best friend is just what she needs to get her mind off the senior year that awaits her.

Toni is one week away from starting college, and it’s the last place she wants to be. Unsure about who she wants to become and still reeling in the wake of the loss of her musician-turned-roadie father, she’s heading back to the music festival that changed his life in hopes that following in his footsteps will help her find her own way forward.

When the two arrive at Farmland, the last thing they expect is to realize that they’ll need to join forces in order to get what they’re searching for out of the weekend. As they work together, the festival becomes so much more complicated than they bargained for, and Olivia and Toni will find that they need each other, and music, more than they ever could have imagined.

Packed with irresistible romance and irrepressible heart, bestselling author Leah Johnson delivers a stunning and cinematic story about grief, love, and the remarkable power of music to heal and connect us all.

Book Review

*Some spoilers ahead!

Themes: Live life to the fullest. Don’t take true friends for granted. You have to love yourself before loving others. Be yourself. Embrace your passions. Don’t let fear get in the way.

Character Development: Individually, I really liked both of the main characters (Olivia and Toni). I felt like they were both written in a very realistic way and that a lot of teenagers would relate to them. For me personally, I related to Toni in a lot of ways, and I wish she was a character I could’ve read about when I was younger. Olivia goes from relationship to relationship, constantly changing how she presents herself in order to be who she thinks people want her to be, while constantly worrying that her true self is too much and always ruins things. I feel like this is a really common experience for many teenagers, and I appreciated the portrayal of this experience. While I didn’t always like Olivia (there were many moments when it frustrated me to see her being such a bad and selfish friend), I still felt like her flaws were realistic and therefore I didn’t mind that she wasn’t perfect and I was still able to root for her. The lesson Olivia learns about the value of being herself (in life but especially in relationships) is also a really important one for teenagers to see.

I also liked Toni’s development. What I related to most about Toni was how she was so afraid of getting hurt by others that she just kept to herself in order to protect herself. The juxtaposition of Olivia, who was going from heartbreak to heartbreak, with Toni, who avoided love altogether was interesting and I felt represented a wide variety of teenage experiences. I also really liked what Toni learned about how connecting with others is worth the risk and can bring so much joy and purpose to life.

As for the two of them together, I like the idea of it. However, I just didn’t feel like it was executed well. The entire story takes place over the span of a single weekend, so it just kind of felt like insta-love rather than true love, which cheapened the relationship a little bit.

In terms of side characters, I wish we got to know their friends and families better. Especially Olivia’s family – why did they treat her so terribly?? I would really like to know more about that history.

“I’ve been searching and searching and here, with her, is the first time I’ve ever felt found.”

Plot/Pacing: The pacing was fine! I was engaged throughout and read the book pretty quickly. I do kind of wish there was more to the plot though. There were a lot of different elements that were touched on (sexual harassment, gun violence, panic attacks, etc.), but it didn’t really go into depth on any of them. I would have preferred if just one or two of these heavier topics had been included and had been more purposefully developed in the plot.

Writing Style: The writing style definitely felt very young and fun; something that would be engaging for younger readers. However, I found some of the sentences to be long-winded and kind of awkward to read. There were several times when I had to re-read certain sentences in order to make sense of them.

Something else that I thought was odd was that there many moments of “telling” rather than “showing.” And these were especially noticeable during important plot points. For instance, when Toni breaks up with Olivia, we’re told about it after-the-fact rather than getting to experience it ourselves. Or when Olivia finally stands up for herself after what happened with her previous boyfriend, we’re told what she does but we don’t actually get to hear what she says in the moment. This really lessened the emotional impact of what should have been really emotional moments.

“Somewhere in the light-years of space between the spiritual and the scientific, between the known and the ineffable, there’s live music.”

“Bingeability”: Moderate.

Emotional Investment: Moderate.

Windows and Mirrors: Bisexuality. Queer characters. Sapphic relationship. Death of a parent. Single parent households. Sexual harassment. Black characters/black student in predominantly white school.

Overall Thoughts: I absolutely loved You Should See Me in a Crown, and I wanted to love this just as much but I had some issues with it. While I enjoyed the focus on the power of music (especially live music), and there was a lot I loved about the characters, the biggest issue I had was probably the short timeline of the story. I wanted to believe in their love story, but it just happened too fast to really feel as important as it was supposed to. I also really wanted to learn more about the characters and their backgrounds, but there wasn’t really time to explore that. I also really wanted to know what happened after the festival was over. Did Olivia give a statement in court? Did she go back to the same school? Did her friendship with Imani survive? Did Olivia’s relationship with her family change? Did Toni go on tour? Did she go to college? And, of course, do Toni and Olivia stay together? Without an epilogue, it doesn’t feel like much more than a summer fling, and there were just too many unanswered questions.

I also didn’t love how many important topics were seemingly haphazardly thrown into the story, particularly the reference to school shootings. The reference to mass shootings was somewhat relevant at the large festival venue, but didn’t end up being essential to the plot (the background with Toni’s dad was enough on its own). But the frequent reference to school shootings seemed completely unnecessary and was really triggering for me as a teacher (and likely would be for teenagers too). I just wish that the more serious themes had been treated a little more delicately and intentionally.

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend this for teenagers! It would also be a good one for guardians and teens to read together, as it would be a good conversation starter for some important topics (especially regarding identity and healthy relationships). Something I did really appreciate was the content warning at the start of the book regarding the sensitive topics that are included, so just be sure to check that before reading or recommending to students.

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Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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