Book Review: In Sight of Stars

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Polisner, Gae. In Sight of Stars. Wednesday Books, 2018.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

Many YA releases discuss mental illness in a frank but positive way. Some examples include John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls. Gae Polisner’s most recent publication, too, sheds light on tough topics like suicide and self-harm, but leaves the reader feeling hopeful.

In Sight of Stars features teenaged protagonist Klee (pronounced “Clay”), a high school senior and burgeoning artist. Klee’s artistic abilities were inherited from his father, an artist-turned-attorney. Klee, unfortunately, is the first to discover his father’s body following his violent suicide. Feeling numb and directionless, Klee moves with his stoic mother to the community of North Hollow.

In North Hollow, Klee begins a relationship with the beautiful but flighty Sarah. But Klee grows aggravated with Sarah’s elusiveness and is troubled by an accidental discovery regarding his parents’ marriage. Thus begins a series of events that lands Klee in a juvenile psychiatric ward nicknamed the “Ape Can”. Through the help of wise Dr. Alvarez and a mysterious nun with dwarfism, Klee recounts his haunted past and prepares to deal with his now complicated present. Will he make amends with Sarah and his mother? Will he untangle the mystery of who his father truly was?

Having read Polisner’s The Memory of Things—a book centered on the events of 9/11—I can say with certainty that the author describes the bustle and beauty of New York in a way that few writers can. I loved The Memory of Things, but In Sight of Stars is by far my favorite of Polisner’s books. The action felt fast-paced, the flashbacks were bitingly painful, and artwork was described so viscerally that I found myself Googling painting after painting.

In my view, the book’s one flaw is that the surprise or turn regarding Klee’s father felt predictable. I guessed the outcome early on; I would assume that younger readers would be able to connect the dots as well. Also, for teachers looking for appropriate read alouds, this book has a sizable amount of sexual content.

Overall, though, I truly enjoyed In Sight of Stars and can see a number of uses for this text in the classroom. Teachers who are touching on psychology or art related issues would perhaps be most interested in Polisner’s novel, but anyone hoping to start conversations about life after trauma should pick up a copy as well.

Book Review: The Radius of Us

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Marquardt, Marie. The Radius of Us. St. Martins Griffin, 2017.

I’ve never been a fan of traditional romance novels. This is not a slight against romance authors or the genre—I just find romance the least appealing aspect of a well-written story. But there is one attribute that will always compel me to root for a fictional couple. I love it when a broken character finds another broken character and a relationship ensues. There is perhaps no better example of this than Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us.

Gretchen’s life was irrevocably changed when she was assaulted and robbed on a dark Atlanta street. Since then, she has suffered from anxiety attacks, and is weary about going out in public or interacting with others. Now homeschooled, Gretchen spends her days working out complicated calculus problems, hanging out with her friend Bree, babysitting her two cousins, and trying alternative therapies to alleviate her trauma. When Gretchen sees a young man who bears a slight resemblance to her attacker, she panics, but later makes an effort to speak with him. She learns that his name is Phoenix, and she is surprised when she feels an immediate comfort and ease while in his presence. Will her feelings of peace turn in to something more? Can Gretchen work up the courage to rejoin society?

Phoenix’s young life has been full of heartache. He grew up in an area of El Salvador saturated with gang activity. He never knew his father; his mother became a nanny in the United States and left Phoenix and his brother in the care of his grandmother. Fearing for the safety of his family, Phoenix reluctantly joined a gang. When his brother was approached by the same group, Phoenix fled, and his journey eventually led him to Atlanta, and to Gretchen. Will he be able to protect his brother? Can he tell Gretchen the truth about his past? Will he be allowed to stay in the United States?

The characterization of Gretchen and Phoenix continually pulled at my heart as I read The Radius of Us. Their traumas have made them brave and selfless—Gretchen overcomes fear to help Phoenix and Phoenix gathers his own courage to help his brother. Almost every character in the novel displays a degree of kindness beneath a weary or tough exterior. The novel highlights the worst of humankind, but it leaves the reader believing in the goodness of his fellow man.

My complaints about the novel were mostly small. A character is named Ty Pennington, which is the name of an actual television personality. This threw me as I read, and I was surprised it wasn’t caught in editing. I also felt the narration became heavily focused on Phoenix and showed less of Gretchen’s perspective as the novel progressed; however, his story is so complex there is perhaps no way around that.

Most students are aware of the divisive ideas that exist when discussing illegal immigration. This novel could perhaps present a new perspective worthy of discussion. Furthermore, The Radius of Us encourages readers to consider their fears and ambitions, and to take risks that enrich their life and the lives of others. The inclusion of Marquardt’s novel in any classroom or curriculum would certainly be a positive addition.