South of Sunshine by Dana Elmendorf
Publisher: Albert Whitman
Publication Date: April 1st 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, LGBTQIA
Pages: 256
Format: e-ARC
Source: NetGalley

Purchase/Pre-order: Amazon ◊ Barnes & Noble

What is Kaycee willing to risk for the sake of love? And what will she risk for acceptance? In Sunshine, Tennessee, the main event in town is Friday night football, the biggest party of the year is held in a field filled with pickup trucks, and church attendance is mandatory. For Kaycee Jean McCoy, life in Sunshine means dating guys she has no interest in, saying only “yes, ma’am” when the local bigots gossip at her mom’s cosmetics salon, and avoiding certain girls at all costs. Girls like Bren Dawson.

Unlike Kaycee, Bren doesn’t really conceal who she is. But as the cool, worldly new girl, nobody at school seems to give her any trouble. Maybe there’s no harm if Kaycee gets closer to her too, as long as she can keep that part of her life a secret, especially from her family and her best friend. But the more serious things get with Bren, the harder it is to hide from everyone else. Kaycee knows Sunshine has a darker side for people like her, and she’s risking everything for the chance to truly be herself.

Quick Thoughts and Rating: 3 stars! I loved some of the messages throughout this story, but I didn’t love the book as much as I had anticipated I would. Though there was a bit of romance in this novel, to me South of Sunshine was more of a book about a girl discovering herself and allowing others to truly see her for who she was, no hiding, and then learning to be proud of those secret desires. Elmendorf captured small town Southern life in all its splendor, both the infuriatingly awful and the relatively awesome aspects of it; however, sometimes it leaned toward the more clichéd version.

Review: You can tell that South of Sunshine was a novel of the heart for Ms. Elmendorf. There is passion in her pages and the noteworthy growth of her characters and in the small little town in Tennessee, but boy did it feel like a harrowing effort to make it to the finish line. There were parts of this novel that I loved and parts that had me cringing away from my kindle, rolling my eyes, or scoffing time and again. So, it’s in part to the simple fact of my seesawing emotions/reactions that I really feel like readers are either going to love this book or hate this book, flat out. Or perhaps there will be a few like myself that find themselves straddling the metaphorical fence. My double opinions aside, I feel like the author’s heart truly was in the right place and she had an amazing story to tell, but the delivery of said story in search for authenticity-both in character voices and in the setting-was often hit and miss, in my opinion.

First, let’s start with the town. I’m not going to lie, I’m hypercritical of books located in the South, particularly those in little bitty cities, because that’s where I come from, born and raised and where I’m raising my own, and so I’m pretty protective of how we’re portrayed in novels, and often times it isn’t so well. There were aspects of Sunshine that really spoke to me. For instance, people love being up in everyone else’s business and even more than that, they love sharing that business with everyone they know on the gossip train. It’s just a known fact, plain and simple. Do something today, and before you even realize you’ve done it, it’s already blazing its way across town and landing itself in the ears of every gossiping busybody out and about and willing to listen. Secondly, the teens in this novel came across pretty accurately as far as finding creative activities to do in the middle of nowhere-cat and mouse, field parties, bonfires-and they way they joked with one another using various “Southern’isms”. Another thing is we’re all about minding our manners and respecting our elders, even if it’s done sarcastically or with fake charm, and I feel like the author captured that well, too. Now, for the parts that aggravated me. Yes, in the South (but I’m assuming it’s everywhere else to), you will find racism, homophobes, bigotry, and plain ‘ole idiocy. Yet, times have changed and unlike days long passed and like certain instances included in this novel, people–especially adults–don’t outright spew hate-filled with the barbed jabs to someone’s face, those comments are usually reserved for whispers among friends or behind the closed doors of their homes. Undoubtedly, you will come across the occasional loud-mouthed bully that feeds their ego by tearing others down, but most people today are too worried about being slapped with a label to say anything directly to someone else. Also, while I feel people naturally tend to segregate in unfamiliar situations, there’s a constant blending of heritages, cultures, social classes, and skin color in school, even more so these days than when I was attending, and I feel like it was an unfair representation of separation between the white kids and the POC kids in this book. (However, please note, I don’t want to throw a blanket statement over all this and say this is what it’s like for everyone everywhere in the South. These are just my thoughts from my observations and experiences from my small little town in north Mississippi and how they directly affected my reading experience. Different people from different areas may have a different viewpoint all together.)

Another major issue I had was how Kaycee felt like she had to hide her true self from others because she was afraid of being shunned or judged, but she was a hypocrite because of how awfully she constantly treated/attacked a fellow classmate who was supposedly a widely known bi-sexual. There was serious slut-shaming and judgement of how “Chesty” Chelsea (because she had big boobs, get it? #sarcasm) was constantly throwing herself at anyone and everyone because she basically would hook up with anyone with a pulse. I don’t know, it just really rubbed me the wrong way. Then, if wasn’t enough to make Chesty the villain for stealing Kaycee’s ex and then going after Bren, Kaycee’s fem crush, the author had to turn her into the super villain by having Chelsea claim that Bren “practically raped her” while playing basketball. One, I was offended by Kaycee’s too-quick-to-judge attitude of someone that should have been her peer.  Two, and more importantly, I’m really over rape or sexual assault being used so casually. If you want to make the girl awful, fine, but to go that far just seemed insensitive and unnecessary to me. (Sidenote: Let me make it clear, I’m not negating the fact that teens can be awful and that “slut-shaming” does exist in real life, it’s just hard for me to be sympathetic to Kaycee when she treats someone else so poorly.)

Those faults aside, I enjoyed Bren and Kaycee together when they were alone and the in-depth talks that they had. I also enjoyed seeing Van with Arthur. I believe if the author would’ve focused her attention on this more, the learning to love who you want to love aspect, and let the town drama play as a background noise instead of a driving force, this novel would have been more successful to me. More so, the drama also came off as a little unnatural at times, written in just for drama’s sake. Besides, the true grit of the book and the part that spoke the most to me was when Kaycee really addressed how she felt inside. Her struggle to come to terms with her preferences over what she’d been taught about love through her religion her whole life were some pretty powerful moments. In those sections, Elmedorf really had some spectacular quotes that I would pause and reread several times before I’d allow myself to move on. I also appreciated the growth of Kaycee’s mom and how, ultimately, her actions had all been out of a place of love and fear for her daughter. The conversation they had at the end was beautiful and truly warmed my heart with her mother’s overall acceptance. I realize this one section isn’t as wordy as the previous ones, but it was these elements that really saved the book for me. With the book leaving off the way it did, I was almost able to completely overlook everything I disliked about it beforehand.

Teaser Quote: There really were numerous passages that I highlighted along the way that I think will truly resonate with people- heterosexual, homosexual, uncertain, or uncategorized, it doesn’t matter. Those numerous sections spoke to our humanity and our hearts, not our sexual preferences, but I settled on this one quote to share:

“Why’d we hide this part of us?” I ask.

Van’s posture softens, and he gives me his I-love-you-like-my-own smile. 

“Us of all people,” I say. “We’re from the same mold. We share the same fears and religious guilt for who we are, but we never shared this between us. Why?”

He clasps his hands over mine. “Maybe it’s because I never shared and you never admitted. Together we just sat in a bucket of silence.”

“That echo was painful.”

Van squeezes my hands and nods. “But our bucket runneth over now. And there isn’t any going back.”
~quote taken from the e-ARC of South of Sunshine at 53%

Book Rating Breakdown
General Book Feels

Rec It? I don’t know, maybe? Quotable messages and thought-provoking circumstances made for an interesting read, but I fear that the slow pacing of the story and some of the town’s mentality will turn people off to the more important elements hidden inside this book. Though, I definitely feel like there needs to be more diversity like this in teen books because every person deserves to be able to find a character they can relate to/share an experience with, I’m just not sure this is the book I would shove in people’s hands when it relates to “coming out” per say.

♥ A very special thanks to Albert Whitman and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

**Disclaimer:** An eARC of these title was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. However, that did not influence this review in any way. All thoughts, quotes, and opinions will be of this version and not of the published edition.


Full of giggles, flails, snark and Southern endearments. Avid Reader. Lover of swoony boys, kickass heroines, yummy kissing scenes, and pretty prose.

I like to draw hearts in the sky (eternal optimist) and wish on stars (forever dreamer). Documentaries, sweet tea, sleep, and brightly colored knee-socks are a few of my favorite things. ♥

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