Since, for my last couple of reviews, I have extensively rambled on in both English and German about how much I hate reviewing stuff for authors I actually know, I decided to read a book by someone completely unfamiliar for once. I literally picked this book out (which was graciously provided by MacMillan via NetGalley) based on the cover, the fact it was YA, and the first three sentences of the description.
I’ve had this book lying around in my virtual bookshelf for a while and – since I have been reading so many off-genre books in the last few weeks – I decided to indulge some good, old guilty-pleasure YA.
Before I dive headfirst into my review, I’d first like to talk about the YA genre for a while. I feel that ever since John Green came and shook up most of established young reader’s literature with his novels, YA has been tossed around like a dirty word.
While I do agree novels from this genre are often problematic (as seen in the portrayal of Alaska by John Green, but that is a whole other story), especially the LGBQT+ YA fiction deserves a very special and important spot in literature.
Looking back, I do believe that my teenage years definitely were the years when I was shaped most by the media I consumed. I delved into books because they made me feel normal and gave me the feeling that no matter how weird you are, there will be weirdos just like you out there – somewhere. For me, those books were, of course, the Harry Potter series, but also German author Gaby Hauptmann’s Kaya series, Philip Ardagh’s Awful End and many, many more. I like to believe that teenagers and adults today find the same comfort in current YA novels like I did back then.
Moreover, the YA genre plays an important role in the more accurate reflection of current realities than your average children/adult fiction. Most of the YA novels I have read were more diverse on every level, including nonbinaries, non-straight and non-white people. I feel like an awful lot of classical genre literature nowadays still covers mainly the white, straight world – which is just not representative. Presenting young readers with diversity early on without making it seem special, but simply defining it as the new reality is one way to influence the current generation into open, tolerant global citizens.
I could ramble on and on about this for another year or two, but yeah. Case closed, I still love YA and I’m glad wonderful writers like Tess Sharpe or, in this case, Caleb Roehrig continue to write diverse, sensitive literature.
I usually don’t really talk much about the authors of books I review, so I’ll just leave it at encouraging you to read Roehrig’s highly amusing bio before we jump into Last Seen Leaving, in which I will – as always – first provide you with the book’s jacket text.
“Flynn’s girlfriend, January, is missing. The cops are asking question he can’t answer, and her friends are telling stories that don’t add up. All eyes are on Flynn―as January’s boyfriend, he must know something.
But Flynn has a secret of his own. And as he struggles to uncover the truth about January’s disappearance, he must also face the truth about himself.”
When I started reading this book, I had no idea where this would go – all I knew was how intrigued I was by the book description.
Last Seen Leaving was one of those books for me that just became an instant page turner the second I reached the end of page one. I pretty much breezed through it in a week of not having time to read, yet anxiously wanting to continue and therefore spending ridiculously long periods of time in the bathtub. True story. I finished the last twenty percent after a day of hard moving labor, having lifted a 300kg couch onto a hayloft in the middle of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern hinterlands. While I did expect to be knocked the fuck out as soon as I would hit the sheets, I stayed alive and awake and kept suffering a little longer because I just had to finish this book.
Here’s what I loved: Kaz. Kaz might be the best written supporting character I have ever had the pleasure to meet between the pages of a book. Generally speaking, most characters were impressively well dimensioned and defined (except for Micah, what was up with that, Roehrig? I’m demanding an extra Micah and Flynn celebratory friendship short or something!) and despite their young age were still super easy to identify with.
The girlfriend, January, is a prime example of this for me as well. While she did slip into the background during the second half of the book, Roehrig managed to stir up a whole tirade of feelings I had for January – first sadness, then worry, followed by the overwhelming desire to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, then resentment and, at last, I understood her. I am utterly impressed by how well Roehrig shaped January in flashbacks, considering she never actually makes an appearance at all.
Flynn does get a honorary mention in the whole character adulation thing: He was a brilliant protagonist, faceless enough to see yourself in him, yet thoroughly shaped so you could feel for him. Flynn, we’re good, buddy.
Here’s what I loved even more than the characters: The fact that I was completely blindsided about the underlying LGBQT+ topic in the novel. It hit me square in the face and I’m pretty sure I literally reread the relevant scene about a dozen time because I had been completely oblivious to it – you either get to attribute this to Roehrig’s talents or my lingering exhaustion, whatever you guys see fit.
More importantly, I felt like the subsequent coming out-scene was free of cliche; just very natural and unromanticized or dramatized. (Almost) everyone was kind of like “Yup, okay, moving along.” – and I loved it! Between causing family feuds or endless outpours of support, these kinds of coming-outs deserve their respective portrayal just as much. Also, there is a super adorable scene related to that later (the car scene, people, the car scene!) that made me smile so wide and stupid I had to show my best friend – who did the exact same.
Here’s what I didn’t like as much: The ending. The last twenty pages felt like Roehrig was coming close to a deadline, so he dumped all information needed after one final trigger event. Don’t get me wrong, the ending wasn’t bad, it wasn’t bad at all – yet, I really wish someone could have donated Roehrig another fifty pages or so to spread the whole shebang out a bit. Someone get that guy a larger notepad for the next book!
Additionally, while I loved Roehring’s writing style, I did stumble about a single sentence which still feels so out of place in the entire book that I remain to have a hard time understanding how it made its way onto the page. I believe that during this fragment the writer was speaking for himself more than he was actually speaking for Flynn – because, between the bibliophiles of us, I doubt Flynn would have described a starry night sky as “a sky rendered into a pointillist masterpiece by limitless stars, the moon shining like a beacon through the diaphanous lace of barely-there clouds.” For my taste, this sentence stood out so harshly that I literally let out a very audible, amused snort. But, but, taste is acquired and all – someone more poetic than me might find this super pretty. I, unfortunately, don’t – but entirely positive reviews are boring anyways.
Considering this is probably already the longest review I have ever written so far, I feel like it is time to wrap it up for me.
Personally, I feel like Roehrig wrote a book to remember. It’s a book I would want my little sister and brother to read, a book that very sensitively covers a wide array of difficult topics. I have devoured the book and I have loved every last page of it – my ultimate literary dream right now would be to read the same thing from January’s perspective. Well, one can hope.
Because people have said I need a rating scale for my book reviews, I also will premier my new standard right here and now, awarding the book a full 5 of 5 hearts. Yay!