Friday, April 1, 2016

Review: South of Sunshine by Dana Elmendorf

South of Sunshine by Dana Elmendorf
Series: Standalone
Published: April 1st, 2016
Publisher: Albert Whitman
256 pages (eARC)
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Acquired this book: Via NetGalley in exchange for honest consideration
Warning: May contain spoilers
{GoodReads || Buy this book: Amazon || Chapters/Indigo}

What is Kaycee willing to risk for the sake of love?
And what will she risk for acceptance?

In Sunshine, Tennessee, the main event in town is Friday night football, the biggest party of the year is held in a field filled with pickup trucks, and church attendance is mandatory. For Kaycee Jean McCoy, life in Sunshine means dating guys she has no interest in, saying only “yes, ma’am” when the local bigots gossip at her mom’s cosmetics salon, and avoiding certain girls at all costs. Girls like Bren Dawson.

Unlike Kaycee, Bren doesn’t really conceal who she is. But as the cool, worldly new girl, nobody at school seems to give her any trouble. Maybe there’s no harm if Kaycee gets closer to her too, as long as she can keep that part of her life a secret, especially from her family and her best friend. But the more serious things get with Bren, the harder it is to hide from everyone else. Kaycee knows Sunshine has a darker side for people like her, and she’s risking everything for the chance to truly be herself.

I had really high hopes for South of Sunshine. I was drawn in by the gorgeous cover, and when I found out the book was f/f YA I was even more excited. I’ll read all the LGBTQ books I can get my hands on, and if it’s f/f, so much the better since the majority of LGBTQ, especially YA, seems to be m/m. Within the first couple chapters, I had issues and was worried about the direction the book was taking and that I’d be disappointed. Unfortunately, I was right about being disappointed. I ended up having very mixed feelings about South of Sunshine.

Sunshine, Tennessee hasn’t quite joined the rest of the 21st century in its way of thinking. It’s a small town full of racists, homophobes, and hypocrites. Most people seem to be pretty religious and take their ‘wholesome ideals’ from the Bible. Except those ideals make them fear and loathe anyone who’s even remotely different from them. It was quite sickening to read about, but was a definite eye-opener to the type of discrimination and bigotry that still exists in this world. This bigotry is what makes Kaycee hide her true self. She’s always known she was different, but in a town that hates ‘different’, she hides the side of her that likes girls, and unhappily dates boys instead. Until Bren comes to town. Bren is different in more ways than one, and she’s proud of who she is. She doesn’t hide the way Kaycee does, and she stirs up the feelings Kaycee has tried so hard for so long to hide.

My issues with the book mainly revolved around Kaycee. I sympathized with her problem of being afraid to come out. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a town - and even in a house, since her mother seemed like a bigot, too (although I did end up appreciating her mother’s eventual baby steps toward acceptance) - where you knew if you were your true self, you’d be shunned and possibly worse. But her behavior at times was appalling. For someone who was so worried about being judged, there was an awful lot of slut shaming, girl hate, and judgement from Kaycee. Like to the point where I found myself cringing and wanting to DNF the book on several occasions.

There’s sort of a gray area in YA, especially when you’re reading as an adult. I know I’m not the ‘intended audience’ for YA. I’ve been out of my teens for a long time, as have many other readers/lovers of YA, so we have the experience and possible wisdom that most teens are lacking for another few years at least. It’s hard being a teen and being ruled by hormones and emotions - I may be far out of my teens, but I do remember that clearly. That sense of urgency - done well - is part of what I love about YA. And because of that, I can usually understand mistakes and stupid or hormone-fueled decisions, especially when they’re part of a character’s growth. But in Kaycee’s case, there were a few things that really pissed me off. They were things I couldn’t excuse away with ‘but she’s only seventeen, this is part of her growth’. It seemed like a bit of stewing and an apology absolved her from her bad behavior and she didn’t really have to be responsible for her actions. I get that in this case, part of Kaycee’s behavior had to do with her being brought up in a stifling environment, surrounded by judgmental, hypocritical bigots, but at the same time, would I want my teenage nieces reading a book where slut-shaming and girl hate was sprinkled liberally throughout, and be led to think it was okay? NOPE. Some people would be able to take it for what it was - a lesson in the small-mindedness of some people and how some people are a product of their environment, but others might internalize it in a different way, and isn’t there enough hate out there? I don’t usually get so analytical when I read, but I did with this one, hence my mixed feelings.

So...Kaycee was an okay character and Bren was an okay character. Kaycee had a major case of instacrush that turned into instalove, but I felt like we didn’t get to learn much about Bren except she had a great hair and smelled like ocean and spice. There wasn’t a whole lot of actual romance so much as Kaycee thinking about Bren all the time. I enjoyed their romantic interactions, but wish there had been more of them and that Kaycee hadn’t spend the entire time analyzing her feelings for Bren and the possible consequences of those feelings. Van, Kaycee’s gay best friend, was my favourite character. He was the only one with any real personality, and at times I felt like I knew him better than I knew Kaycee. Kaycee was like Bren in a way - all we really learned about her was surface stuff. The entire plot centred on her being gay and coming out in a bigoted town, but we didn’t learn anything about her beyond that. I think this contributed to the plot dragging at times, especially since she had a lot of long inner monologues.

Overall, I was disappointed with South of Sunshine. I guess I should know better than to have really high hopes about books anymore, but I couldn’t help it. This book encompassed a lot of serious issues - coming out, homophobia, racism, religion - but the way it was dealt with left me with kind of an icky feeling. After so much tension and angst, the whole thing came together with rainbows and sunshine - literally. The pride-flag-waving part of me enjoyed the ending, and I appreciated that things ended on a happy note (especially since there are so many doomed f/f romances), but it felt rushed, plus slightly unbelievable.

All that being said, I always encourage people to try books for themselves. I know plenty of people who loved South of Sunshine, so if you’re curious about it and you’re looking for a coming out f/f book with a happy ending, South of Sunshine might be for you.

Have you read South of Sunshine? What did you think? If you haven't read it, do you plan to? What's the last book you were really looking forward to but were disappointed by?

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