Author(s): Carlie Sorosiak
Publication date: 29th June 2017
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Linny has been living life in black and white since her sister Grace ran away. When she witnesses the return of a cult writer and movie legend long presumed dead, she’s certain it’s a sign. Surely Álvaro Herrera can tell her why people come back – and how to bring her sister home?
Sebastian is in Miami seeking his father, a man whose name he’s only just learned. An aspiring astrophysicist, he can tell Linny how much plutonium weighs and how likely she is to be struck by a meteorite. But none of the theories he knows are enough to answer his questions about why his father abandoned him.
As Sebastian and Linny converge around the mystery of Álvaro’s disappearance and return, their live turn to technicolour – but finding the answers to their questions might mean risking everything that matters.
If you’ve looked at any summer most anticipated list this year, you’ve probably seen mentions of If Birds Fly Back. Another one for the YA-in-2017 hype train, I was intrigued by its premise – teen girl tries to track down her runaway sister by investigating celebrity disappearances, including that of a Hollywood figure, and collides with a poetic, aspiring scientist along with the way – and figured it would be a pleasant early summer read. The concept is somewhere between Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star (my review of which you can read here) but unfortunately that which made those books readable – charm, flashes of gorgeous prose – was lacking here.
Perhaps the most significant factor was the writing style. It’s choppy, jerky and totally off-putting. It really reminded me of Harriet Reuter Hapgood’s The Square Root of Summer (my review can be read here) which I didn’t enjoy either, though if you’re a fan of Reuter Hapgood, this book, also a Macmillan title, may be more your kind of thing. The book starts in media res and it’s so jumpy and confusing I had to check I hadn’t accidentally missed the first chapter of the ARC. The first half of the book is much of the same, with the prose leaving readers scrambling to catch up and get even a basic sense of who the characters are. I have high expectations for contemporaries – not least because there are so many of them in current YA – and if a novel doesn’t bring its A-game, whether that be in beautiful prose or new twists, I’d rather use precious reading time elsewhere.
However, the second half of the book shows improvement. Once the prose is settled in, and stops rushing about so much, the emotional stakes become clearer. Linny, short for Marilyn, is desperately seeking answers to her older sister’s disappearance even as her parents become ever more restrictive, while Sebastian, raised by a single mom who refuses to answer questions about his father, is searching for the man who has shaped his life by absence. Stronger pacing and greater dramatic tension make the book’s conclusion far more gripping and powerful than its opening.
There were some stylistic details, like Sebastian’s scientific explanations, which I really like, and others which are hit-and-miss. Linny’s screenplay is interesting, but very little seems to actually happen in it, and it could have been far more dynamic. The mysterious Álvaro lacks the charisma described by many of the characters and the setting sinks into sun-bleached staleness. The secondary cast could’ve been more developed and the romance is fairly predictable. Ultimately, Sorosiak fails to make If Birds Fly Back stand out from the crowd.
For fans of Adi Alsaid, Nicola Yoon and Harriet Reuter Hapgood, this contemporary’s premise contains potential but a jerky writing style and unsurprising plot mean it fails to soar.