Rise To The Sun – Book Review

Leah Johnson, who took the publishing world by storm last year with her YA debut, You Should See Me in a Crown, is back with her sophomore effort, Rise to the Sun, which not only succeeds in its endeavors, but has cemented Johnson as one of the brightest voices in YA today.

Here’s the summary…

Three days. Two girls. One life-changing music festival.

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.

After everything I’m about to say concerning Rise to the Sun, understand that what this story is about is its examination of the three canons of existence, honesty, humility, and humanity, and how, through the power of storytelling, Leah will make these seemingly unremarkable girls, anything but. In fact, I dare you; I fucking dare you not to fall in love with Olivia Brooks and Toni Foster. Despite my histrionics, it’s an extraordinarily easy thing to do, because they might as well be real people with real problems, heck, you probably know or have known a Toni or Olivia in your life, I know I have.

It doesn’t hurt that their three-dimensionality is off the charts, which results in an absence of make-believe that makes them seem substantial and tangible. In a way, it very much feels like she’s recounting an event from her past, rather than spinning a web, for all I know, maybe she’s doing just that! Regardless, it’s as if we’re reading a long excerpt from someone’s memoir, it’s that visceral, it’s that primal, it’s all there, the pain, the guts, the glory.

*Before we go any further, you’ll notice some text in bold with footnotes. In keeping with the themes of the book, one of which is music, these are song lyrics which all together make a playlist that can be found at the end of this review.

The summary pretty much says it all, the setting is the Farmland Music and Arts Festival where these two lost souls are hoping to turn their golden faces into the sun[1], changing the trajectory of their still young lives. And we’ll talk more about in a bit but choosing a music festival as the backdrop is more than just a practical decision on Leah’s part, it’s a wonderfully inspiring setting where there’s an abundance of people that are free from fear, unhinged and uninhibited.

It’s a standalone so there’s not much preamble, there’s no time for it, and any and all pertinent information we’ll learn as we go, akin to say, an Easter egg hunt? In a way, it ends about as quickly as it begins so, Leah, understanding it’s about the journey, wastes little time in having their lives intersect, with Toni helping Olivia get out of a perilous, if not funny, tent emergency.

One look at the cover and a quick glance at the summary will tell you this book has a certain measure of predictability to it, as most romance infused novels do. But, as sure of that outcome you may be, Leah expertly subverts those eventualities and toils in a little self-doubt as Olivia and Toni’s rollercoaster ride to happily ever after veers towards the road less travelled, and a bumpy one at that. This isn’t a movie so crass and awkwardly cast[2] that it’s easy to walk out on, no, you’ll be in it for the long haul, regardless of how you think this particular weekend will end.

To the Black girls who have been told they’re too much and to the ones who don’t believe they’re enough: You are the world’s most beautiful song.

Idiom or not, Toni is following in her father’s footsteps, hoping to someday pay the bills with her guitar[3]. In desperate need of a little inspiration, she’s headed back to Farmland hoping to recapture that magic her father once felt and bottle some pixie dust of her own. You see, Toni doesn’t want to explore her trauma too much, that would be a Pandora’s Box, so rather than deal with her open wounds, she’s slapping on a band-aid, strapping on her guitar, and headed stage left. Farmland, more specifically the Cortland Performance barn (amateur stage), is her golden ticket and Toni knows that her future is still unwritten, and if she’s going see the world, she’ll have to write it herself. You see, for Toni, maybe life is a song, but she’s too scared to sing along[4], well, that ends now.

In tow is Peter Menon, her best friend and trusty sidekick the last handful of years. Peter is smart, nice, understanding, loyal, knows a lot (too much?) about ex-President’s, and most importantly, knows when to press Toni, and when to back off. She’s shut out pretty much everyone else in her life, her mother included, who isn’t stoked with her burgeoning interest in a music career, but Peter remains her only confidant through these trying times. We learn right away that Toni builds a lot of walls in her life, so her relationship with Peter is not only significant, it’s rare.

As for Olivia, she’s fumbling towards ecstasy[5] these days one relationship at a time, and like Toni, has some things going on she’d rather not deal with. Her endeavors and trysts thus far have been a series of mismatches, poor choices, and failed attempts, but she remains a hopeful romantic, not a hopeless one. But oh, what she wouldn’t give not to stumble, but to really fall in love, just once.

On paper, you’d be forgiven to think Olivia is a frustrating person to be around. As proof of this, it’s offered that it would take a patient person the likes of Imani to be friends with someone like Olivia, and that argument is made through the point of view of Olivia herself who’s definitely self-aware, but on this point, she would be wrong. The predominant reason for all this is that Olivia takes precipitateness to the pro level; she’s the A’Ja Wilson of impulsivity. But you must understand, Olivia isn’t meant for this world, she’s pure energy, she spars with stars and constellations[6], occasionally stopping to pay us a visit.

She’s definitely not traditional in the sense that she doesn’t know how to wait, how to be patient, or how to follow society’s rules of social interaction, she’s, as they say, “a lot”. She acts without thinking and often makes decisions when she’s emotional, which I think we can all agree, are bad times to make decisions. But she’s not “irrational”, or “selfish” or “irresponsible”, those are labels people will apply to folks like Olivia, girls especially, Black girls even more so, who have been told too many times they’re acting “crazy” every time they open their mouths to speak. Shit, every time they try to fucking breath some asshole is telling them they’re breathing too hard.

You see, when women like Olivia and Toni express darker emotions, they are told it’s simply the result of “that time of the month,” or the frustration they feel is not based on a rational (i.e., masculine) worldview. They are told it’s a default of their gender, that it simply can’t be helped. These kinds of “men” aren’t ready to respect what women can offer, they’ll simply move on to the next, trying to find a girl who wants to listen[7], good luck to them, I guess?

For instance, becoming emotionally fluent, the ability to navigate internal landscapes is challenging for both characters for different reasons. Also, remembering that they are both women and grew up in a society that expects different things from different genders. And if you should grow up in an environment that supports the notion that wanting something out of life besides being a broodmare is a bad thing, the end result can be an extremely repressed unhealthy life. The general thinking is that women have long been relegated to an ingratiating form of emotional expression. Nothing too threatening or too dark and nothing resembling panic or fear, its condolences, and commiserations, or it’s nothing. For a lot of men, when it comes to women, silence is their favorite sound[8] unfortunately. In society, emotional toughness is “super fucking rad” and a sign of power over one’s continence, mostly attributed to macho bullshit awarded to tough guys and “father knows best” types.

And don’t you worry what their bitter hearts are gonna say[9], that would be bated breath you’re wasting. Fuck that, you know who knows best? Women or any other repressed segment of the population who’s had their necks stepped on for far too long by white males. So, by putting two girls on her cover who society historically wants “kept” because of the color of their skin, their XX chromosomes, and their displaying of emotional self-awareness, Leah is making it clear she’s having none of it. Because what she’s selling are two girls whose pain is on the way out now[10] and after some much-needed emotional purging, are able to move forward in the direction they so desire. These two girls are ready to take flight, and the best thing you can all do, is just stay out of their way. This will all make more sense once you read the book and understand what these two girls are going through, microaggressions and all, especially Olivia who like I said earlier, is the target of some vileness.

Rise to the Sun isn’t entirely social commentary however, there’s a really fun buy in actually that I suspect most won’t have a problem with, the indefinable power of music beyond its quantifiable energy level, which is decibels. Decibels measures the intensity of sound, not it’s emotional affect, so how can something so intangible have such an effect on us? How can it exert such a powerful influence on human memory, endurance, mood, and even fatigue? It’s an upper, a downer, a stimulant, a depressant; it moves, changes, and alters the ribbon of time. It’s used in hymns and prayers, rebellions and protests. As Herbie Hancock once said, “Music is the tool to express life – and all that makes a difference.” Listen to Herbie, he knows.

This is an issue I have a wee bit of credibility on. For starters, I was a roadie myself for many years, having toured across North America and even parts of Europe. I play a few instruments, can read music, and was even in a band for a short (very short) period of time. I own a rather large LP collection and will ALWAYS prefer physical media to digital (this includes books as well) and consider music (besides reading) to be the primary source of my well-being. At a deep and fundamental level, music is especially important to me and isn’t a topic I take lightly. That’s a long and somewhat braggadocios way of saying I get it and that for me, the music was young and strong, and the melody still lingers on[11].

I understand its raw power[12] and its ability to even defy the laws of physics. I have a great many memories, both good and bad, that have a direct relationship with a concert or song, and for as long as I live hearing a certain lyric or melody will instantly put me in that time and place. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean and have songs that do the same for you, remind you of another time, another place. Music is a real-life TARDIS, and the songs they heard will forever be the soundtrack to this weekend for Toni and Olivia. These moments in time, like it was for Toni and her dad, will be forever tracked by the music of Farmland. For instance, what do you think Toni and Olivia will think of whenever they hear “If I Ever Leave This Place”? Or any Kittredge song?

I’ve never met Leah Johnson, probably never will (small fish, big pond), but I’d bet that she chose to host this story at Farmland not only because she loves music, but because of the countless literary devices and metaphors that come with it, she’s a storyteller after all. And the reason is something I alluded to earlier, Rise to the Sun is about honesty, and there’s nothing more honest than live music. Those courageous air-benders who take the stage, looking for freedom in one-hour increments are searching for meaningful forms of empathic blending. A concert or festival is a spirit of collaboration; it’s about being present and free of judgment, and there’s great value in that. In a very real and forthright way, this exchange is an unwritten but mutually dependent relationship between people who find that they just don’t care to fit the mold.

And now we get to it at last…the point!

The relationship between Olivia and Toni, like the one between a fan and a performer, is one where likeminded folks, who find that they are good on stage, but bad at life, intersect. This only works if you take people at face value, if you take them at their word, so, liars, thieves, and scoundrels need not apply, this isn’t for you. No, this part is for the good souls, the ones that make life better, ones that without, life would not matter[13], and Olivia and Toni’s souls are intact. They’re good people, who deserve good things, who deserve a life worth living. So of course, these pixies are looking for their own planet of sound[14].

It’s a contemporary setting obviously but Leah does something very smart here, by setting the story at Farmland she’s able to apply some great physical world-building skills. A music festival is both a wondrous and strange place that might as well be on another planet, and as such, requires a little literary terraforming. It’s a sonically and visceral brand of fusion energy that’s bursting at the seams from absorbing everything, the spectrum’s A to Z[15]. There are some definite festival tropes such as long lines, seas of tents, beer gardens, ephemeral hygiene, etc., but Leah goes beyond that, giving you an even clearer picture of the layout. This is important as Olivia and Toni make their way through this Garden of the Hesperides with extraordinarily little time to ponder, chasing golden apples, yes; golden apples (look it up).

One thing she sneaks in is the idea that music is always present, either in the foreground and background, no matter where you are on the festival grounds. It’s a constant reminder of where you are and what you’re doing; it serves as a GPS of sorts because depending on the type of music playing or the volume, you should be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leah uses that method of orientation to produce a clear map in your head of where our characters are at all times relative to each other and the festival landmarks. It’s so good in fact I feel like I could draw a map of the Farmland layout if I had to.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Leah has an uncanny ability to present to us a fictional account of all the superbly messy parts of being human, whether times are good or bad, happy or sad[16]. This is a quality, along with being self-aware and bold, that I find incredibly attractive. Someone that comfortable with honesty, humility, and humanity, someone that comfortable maybe not in their own skin, but still enough courage to reveal it, that’s someone I want in my life. Plus, she loves music seemingly as much as I do so, what’s not to love?

The stakes are little higher in this book than her first because the themes and topics are slightly more complex. In You Should See Me in a Crown, her characters were searching for some great white rose of youth[17], enjoying the fleeting moments of childhood, in Rise to the Sun, Olivia and Toni are waving goodbye to childhood, taking steps towards a larger world. Either way the in-universe point of view is the same, because whether it’s Liz and Mack, or Olivia and Toni, a mountain is a mountain. But leaving your cynicism at the door is the absolute best advice I could give someone picking up either book.

I especially like the moment in time feeling I get at the book’s conclusion. Will the events of the weekend be the cure-all for either of them? Will they emerge from Farmland better people, worse people, or neither? Maybe, maybe not. But hey, that’s life sometimes; square or round, rich or poor, at the end of day and night all we want is more[18]…more love, and more truth.

Listen, my advice to anyone out there who feels threatened by two Black girls on the cover of a book, is to simply move on and perhaps get a life of your own. You must understand something, when you mess with Leah you’re messing with a good heart, and we just can’t stand by and allow that to happen, we’re not going to abandon feeling for just a piece of mind[19]. Likewise for Olivia and Toni, if you’re lucky enough in this fucking messed up world to have people in your life that love like Toni loves, or dance like Olivia dances, be their greatest defender, be their champion.

Leah is a master at grasping the complexity of life and as such makes you work a little harder than maybe you were expecting to, going into a book that some marketing is calling a “rom-com”. And she’s teaching us to be better without being didactic about it, she’s saying, you know you a star, you can touch the sky, I know that it’s hard but you have to try[20]. She’s teaching us that we are all worthy of love, regardless of how society feels about you or how you feel about yourself, this is Leah speaking directly to us, and I thank her for that.

But her most ardent and important act of grace she saves for her queens, Olivia and Toni, who after holding their breaths for so long, are finally allowed to breath, and what greater gift is there than that.

Rise to the Sun is out now, click HERE to order a copy today as well as Leah’s other book, the bestselling You Should See Me in a Crown!

About the Author: 

Leah Johnson is an eternal mid-westerner and author of award-winning books for children and young adults. Her bestselling debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, was a Stonewall Honor Book, the inaugural Reese’s Book Club YA pick, and named a best book of the year by Amazon, Kirkus, Marie Claire, Publishers Weekly, and New York Public Library. Leah’s essays and cultural criticism can be found in Teen Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Cosmopolitan among others.


Rise to the Sun Review Playlist:

[1] Alphaville – Forever Young

[2] The Shins – Pink Bullets

[3] Plain White T’s – Hey There Delilah

[4] Patrick Park – Life is a Song

[5] Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

[6] Lauryn Hill – Everything is Everything

[7] Dua Lipa – IDGAF

[8] Billie Eilish – You Should See Me in a Crown

[9] Jimmy Eat World – The Middle

[10] War on Drugs – Pain

[11] Chaka Khan – And the Melody Still Lingers On

[12] The Stooges – Raw Power

[13] Starsailor – Good Souls

[14] The Pixies – Planet of Sound

[15] Death Cab for Cutie – Lack of Colour

[16] Al Green – Let’s Stay Together

[17] Sufjan Stevens – Neptune

[18] Jonelle Monae – Many Moons

[19] South – Paint the Silence

[20] Lizzo – Good as Hell

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