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Book Review: The Project by Courtney Summers

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, a STARRED review, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

The Project

St. Martin’s/Wednesday Bks. Feb. 2021. 352p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781250105738.

 Gr 9 Up–A young woman’s determination to reveal the truth behind an apparent cult exposes a more complicated look at doubt and belief than she could have imagined. Lo Denham barely survived the car accident that killed her parents. Her sister, Bea, credits her miraculous recovery to Lev Warren, leader of the Unity Project, an outwardly innocuous religious group that performs acts of service and community outreach. Bea gives up everything to join them. Years after being abandoned by her sister, Lo—who works as an assistant at an investigative magazine—follows in her path, desperate to uncover the truth behind the Project and to save her sister. With promises of atonement, redemption, and salvation, Lev’s message begins to penetrate Lo’s skepticism—how far will she go to get the real story? And once she discovers it, can she bear what it may reveal? Masterfully written and pulling no punches, the narrative moves back and forth in time, showing events from both Bea and Lo’s perspectives. Summers creates and sustains almost unbearable tension, exploring sacrifice, loss, forgiveness, miracles, surrender, grief, and lies. The unflinching look at Bea and Lo’s desperation is devastating, especially as both chase healing and salvation to counteract emptiness and loss. Readers will question the truth and everyone’s motivations in this world full of manipulation and mind games. Secondary characters are of various races; Bea and Lo are described only as having brown hair.

VERDICT A gripping, flawless psychological thriller ready to leave readers shattered.

Book Review: The Project by Courtney Summers

Publisher’s Book Description:

“The Unity Project saved my life.”

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying–and failing–to prove it.

“The Unity Project murdered my son.”

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its charismatic and mysterious leader, Lev Warren, he proposes a deal: if she can prove the worst of her suspicions about The Unity Project, she may expose them. If she can’t, she must finally leave them alone.

But as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members, and spends more time with Lev, it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her–to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

Welcome to The Unity Project.

The next pulls-no-punches thriller from New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-winning author Courtney Summers, about an aspiring young journalist determined to save her sister from a cult.

Karen’s Thoughts:

Let’s start with I love all things Courtney Summers and this book does not disappoint. Courtney Summers dives deep into the female psyche and explores the complex nature of growing up in a patriarchal society that puts young girls at risk in a variety of ways. She also does a great job of looking at the complex mental and emotional states of young people, which is why her books resonate with readers of all ages.

The Project does all of things and looks specifically at the idea of a cult, making it one of the timeliest books to come out in 2021. At the risk of alienating some readers I feel like this book really captures the zeitgeist of the current political landscape that we have just seen play out in the 2020 election where there has often been a very real dismissal of provable facts that has come at a great harm to a lot of people, including 250,000 Americans dead from a deadly global pandemic. So this deep dive into the psyche and what makes someone fall into a cult is perhaps the most necessary reading of our time.

Another thing Summers does well is to present us as readers with a complex female character that is realistic. What I mean is, she’s not always likable or perfect in any way, which is true of every one of us. Lo’s journey is complicated and she is a rich, rewarding character that takes a journey through a life many of us could never imagine. There is a tremendous burden placed on Lo because of other people’s external expectations and part of what motivates her is trying to fill shoes she never asked to have to wear. That, more than anything, will resonate with teens who are trying to figure out how to become more fully themselves while living with the expectations of others.

Perhaps the most unpopular I would share about this book is that I don’t think it should technically be classified as Young Adult (YA), as it fits more solidly into what should be the New Adult (NA) category had that ever taken off the way that it should have. None of the characters in this book are in high school, they are all at or over the age of 19, and they live independently, though not necessarily successfully. Having said that, I think that teens will in fact read it, just as teens have always read adult books. In the truest sense of the word this is a crossover novel as it will appeal to a wide age of readers.

This is a moving portrait of loss, self discovery, and sisters trying to find their way back to one another. It’s a passionate exploration of how the mind works and how others can manipulate it for their cause. It’s suspenseful, rich and illuminating.

The Project releases February 2021 from Wednesday Books and it is highly recommended.

Book Review: The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson

Publisher’s Book Description

Piper was raised in a cult. 
She just doesn’t know it. 

Seventeen-year-old Piper knows that Father is a Prophet. Infallible. The chosen one.

She would do anything for Father. That’s why she takes care of all her little sisters. That’s why she runs end-of-the-world drills. That’s why she never asks questions. Because Father knows best.

Until the day he doesn’t. Until the day the government raids the compound and separates Piper from her siblings, from Mother, from the Aunts, from all of Father’s followers–even from Caspian, the boy she loves.

Now Piper is living Outside. Among Them.

With a woman They claim is her real mother–a woman They say Father stole her from.

But Piper knows better. And Piper is going to escape.

Karen’s Thoughts

Piper is scared and alone in a room, separated from her family and thrust into a world that she has always been told is dangerous and deranged. She’s angry. She’s alone. And she’s truly home. What Piper doesn’t know is that everything she knows about her life has been a lie, and the story is about unraveling that lie and dealing with the long term psychological complications of being brainwashed and manipulated. It’s an eerily accurate look at the who, what, why and how of cults.

The Liar’s Daughter is a deeply nuanced psychological study that asks us all to imagine what it is like to have grown up in a cult. And it is in the psychology that this book truly excels. Eventually, Piper begins visiting a counselor and the evolution of this relationship, the slow building of trust, the respect this counselor gives to this psychologically injured young woman, and the wisdom that he shares with her about free will and responsibility are truly profound. These are some of the best counseling sessions I have seen presented in YA literature. These are some of the best parts of the book.

As a reader, you also have to give props to the mother and father in this book. They too are an injured party who lost their child years ago and have to live with that fear, guilt and uncertainty only to discover that their child has been raised by a cult leader who has erased their child’s memory and distorted her sense of self and family. They are aching and longing, but they are patient and kind as they try to follow the wisdom of others and allow their daughter to slowly unpack all that has happened to her. They are by no means perfect in the process, as no family would be, but they are truly loving and compassionate in the process.

Piper is an unreliable narrator for a major chunk of this story and it is fascinating to read. She’s justifiably angry and confused and struggling to get back to the place and the people that she thinks are her true family. It’s frustrating to read at time because as an outside reader, your alarm bells are going off from the very first page. But Piper doesn’t have the knowledge that you do and the ways in which that dynamic works are well crafted.

There is a lot of good stuff to read in this book; it’s intriguing and well crafted. It has a slower pace because it is so focused on character as opposed to action, but the psychological aspect is often profound and deeply engaging. It’s not a psychological thriller per se, but it’s close enough to keep readers turning the page and rooting for Piper. The Liar’s Daughter clearly demonstrates that even in the most traumatic of experiences, with good support and access to resources, you can step on a road to recovery and begin a journey to a healthy self. The Liar’s Daughter is a compassionate and engaging exploration of the psychological trauma of being raised in a cult. Recommended.

Publishes September 10th, 2019 from Holiday House

The Need For Realistic, Compassionate Portrayals of Sexual Violence In LGBTQIA+ (and all YA) Lit, a guest post by Cheryl Rainfield

By Cheryl Rainfield, author of YA novels SCARS, STAINED, HUNTED, and PARALLEL VISIONS (@CherylRainfield)

 

cheryl-books-prideWhen I was a child and teen, I lived through daily/nightly rape, torture, and mind control at the hands of my parents and other abusers; my parents belonged to intergenerational, interconnected cults. I was also queer. When people hear that, they often ask me if I’m lesbian because I was raped. My answer—and that of my queer survivor characters—is a resounding no. I was raped by both men and women in the cult, and by both of my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Each rape traumatized, disgusted, and terrified me, no matter which gender raped me. And if rape could make survivors queer, then there’d be a heck of a lot more queer people in the world since at least 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys have experienced sexual abuse by the time they reach age 18Queer teens experience more rape than heterosexuals and have to face homophobia on top of it—sometimes in the form of rape, being beaten, being turned out of our families and homes, or other forms of hatred and  fear turned on us. I think we need books that talk about these experiences in an honest and real way. LGB teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens and half of transgender teens have seriously thought of suicide and 1 in 4 attempt it.

LGBTQIA+ teens (and adults) need to know they’re not alone and it can get better, and LGBTQIA+ survivors of rape, abuse, sexual violence, and torture need to know it even more.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-lgbtq-rainfieldI felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; I wanted to die most of the time and did actually try a few times to kill myself. I desperately wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one going through these horrific experiences or the only one was queer, and I tried to find that in books. I found small bits of validation, such as a character who was bullied or survived incest or a lesbian character, but I didn’t find enough—which is part of why I write the books I do. I write the books I needed to read as a teen and couldn’t find. I want others to know they’re not alone.

When we feel alone in traumatic or painful experiences—including abuse and homophobia—it makes the pain so much worse. I think when we see reflections of ourselves and our experiences, it helps lessen our pain, reassure us that we are not alone, help us feel healthier and happier, learn new ways of coping and surviving, and feel that we, too, can survive since characters with similar issues did.

Reading about characters who’ve experienced similar trauma or painful experiences can also help us decrease our shame, self-blame, and self-hatred; increase our compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others; and give us a tool to talk about the issue with others. And we all deserve to have that.

 

Readers have told me many times that because of my books, they were able to talk to someone for the first time about being queer, their abuse, or their self-harm; get help; stop self-harming; have more compassion for themselves or for someone who is a sexual abuse survivor, queer, or uses self-harm; feel less alone; survive the pain they’re living through; feel stronger in their own lives; and even keep from killing themselves. Books help heal.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks-everyone-reflections-rainfieldI don’t think there are enough YA novels with survivors of sexual violence written in a sensitive, realistic way, especially from someone who’s been there and knows what it’s like from the inside out; not enough YA books with queer characters; and definitely not enough books with both. And yet there is a need—not only for the queer community, but also for the world to help lessen homophobia and help increase awareness of sexual violence and its effects. An emotionally honest book about painful experiences can help readers whether they are queer or heterosexual, whether they have experienced sexual violence or some other form of abuse, or even if they haven’t experienced any of that at all but know someone who has. Books help us increase compassion and understanding by temporarily slipping into the soul of the character.

 

 

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” –Joyce Carol Oates

 

cheryl-sometimes-be-own-heroI write about many of the traumatic experiences I’ve been through—rape and incest, self-harm, being queer and experiencing homophobia from a parent in SCARS; rape, being held captive, being withheld food and water in STAINED; oppression, betrayal, and being hunted in HUNTED; homophobic-based rape and gang rape, suicidal thoughts, and depression in PARALLEL VISIONS. I write strong-girl characters, emotionally-strong boy characters, and both queer and heterosexual characters who help each other. I try to write queer characters, characters of color, and characters with mental- or physical-health issues into my books, reflecting our real world. And I also write about many of the techniques I’ve used to heal and cope—creating art, seeing a therapist, talking to friends, reading comics and collecting superhero items, creating my own superhero from myself.

I always write strong-girl characters who have to save themselves. That is what I had to do—rescue myself—over and over again until I was finally safe.

I write honestly from my own trauma and healing experiences, opening up to my intense emotions, bleeding them out onto the page so the reader can feel. So that they understand—whether they’ve been through something similar or not. So that if they’ve been through it, they know they’re not alone.

 

And I show some of the possible side effects from rape, sexual abuse, trauma, and abuse—PTSD, dissociation, cheryl-superman-tanxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, isolation—all things I’ve experienced and know well. It’s important to me to show what the effects of rape and sexual violence are really like. They leave deep emotional scars. It’s not something we walk away from and shrug off like a second skin—the way some movies, TV shows, and comics suggest. And it’s not something that I think should ever be used just for dramatic effect or to make another (usually male) character become a hero. If we don’t show the intense pain, despair, depression, and other resulting effects from  rape and trauma, I think we are doing us all a great disservice by telling survivors, perpetrators, and everyone else that sexual violence leaves no trauma or side effects aside from the physical. I believe that the worst and deepest wounds aren’t physical, but are emotional and psychological. So it’s important to me to write realistic stories of sexual violence and trauma that teens can relate to, and yet are also full of hope and healing.

 

cheryl-rainfield-nobody-knows-im-lesbianIt’s also important to me to write books where the queer characters are happy with their sexuality—not just books where the character is coming out, but books where the story is about something else and the character just happens to be queer—and books where the queer characters are in relatively happy, healthy, consensual relationships, where the tension and strife is coming most from the outside, and a queer character doesn’t get penalized or killed off because they’re queer. I think books with queer characters can help normalize being queer, fight homophobia and hatred, and increase compassion.

Queer readers need books we can enjoy and experience the way heterosexuals can most any time they pick up a book—and heterosexual readers need to be exposed to queer characters as just a reflection of the world we live in.

 

I think there is a great need for LGBTQIA+ YA books that have positive queer characters, that explore rape, abuse, homophobia, and trauma in realistic, sensitive, and hopeful ways, and that include both. I hope to see many more such books in the future. I will keep writing the books I need to. And I hope that you will read, write, or share the books you need to, the books that help you feel alive or the books that moved you. Read on!

 

Meet Cheryl Rainfield

CHERYLCheryl Rainfield is the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; and PARALLEL VISIONS, about a teen who sees visions and must save a friend. Cheryl Rainfield is a lesbian feminist, incest and ritual abuse torture survivor, and an avid reader and writer. She lives in Toronto with her little dog Petal.

Cheryl Rainfield has been said to write with “great empathy and compassion” (VOYA) and to write stories that “can, perhaps, save a life.” (CM Magazine)  SLJ said of her work: “[readers] will be on the edge of their seats.”

You can find Cheryl on her website CherylRainfield.com or her blog http://www.CherylRainfield.com/blog, on Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/CherylRainfield, Instagram: http://www.Instagram.com/CherylRainfield, and FaceBook http://www.facebook.com/CherylRainfield.