The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The cover shows line drawings of ocean vegetation floating against a background of blue water. The title is lettered in shades of pink, orange, and yellow.

by Ash B.

Not to be dramatic, but The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake is one of the most underrated novels I’ve read. It received positive reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly – and yet it still seems like not many people know about it. That’s why I eagerly recommend it whenever I can! 

Violet Larkin is a wild child – partying and doing all manner of things that a 16-year-old girl probably shouldn’t be in New York City. After her younger brother attempts suicide and her own reckless behavior worsens, her family sends her to stay with her uncle for the summer in the small coastal town of Lyric, Maine.  

Descended from a shipwreck survivor who supposedly founded Lyric, Violet is convinced that disaster runs in her blood. As she struggles with inner turmoil, she becomes determined to uncover the long-lost location of that shipwreck and the truth of her family history. With the help of new, unexpected friends, Violet discovers so much more – about herself, about love in all forms, and about surviving the emotional wrecks of life. 

After Violet starts working at the local aquarium in Lyric, the story seems like it might include a very “boy meets girl” romance with her coworker, but it delightfully diverges into something more refreshing. While there is a slow-burn teen romance with a bit of a “twist” love interest, that is far from the focal point of the book. I would say the core of the story is the complexity of mental health and the importance of allowing oneself to be (safely) emotionally vulnerable. The narrative balances the mending of relationships within Violet’s family, the importance of Violet building new friendships in Lyric, and the development of Violet’s relationship with herself. 

It is such a beautiful story of healing and connection. I really appreciated how Violet, an amazingly complex teen protagonist, opened my eyes to how mental illness and trauma can impact and manifest in such different ways depending on each person. For someone such as myself, anxiety typically causes retreating into oneself, isolating, and fearing the outside world. Social anxiety and generalized anxiety can really go hand-in-hand in this way, at least in my experience.  

However, for Violet, her anxiety – the storm she feels inside but doesn’t know how to healthily cope with – is sometimes the catalyst for her extroverted, often-risky behaviors such as partying, (underage) drinking in social settings, and flirting with much older men. Over the course of the novel, I grew to understand why someone like Violet might engage in those types of behavior (that would personally make my anxiety even worse) as a means of trying to avoid their inner struggles. 

This is a YA novel that I think can help so many people, teens and adults alike. It shows the importance of communication, self-love, healthy interpersonal relationships, and being kind to oneself while growing up. It challenges the idea that teens who “act out” are “bad” or “broken,” instead showing the nuanced reasons why unhealthy coping behaviors are used by young people who are struggling. Not to mention that it is beautifully written with crossover appeal for both YA and adult fiction readers. 

The characters of The Last True Poets of the Sea settled into my heart and have made a permanent home there. I read this book for the first time over a year ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. When a book lingers with you long after you finish the final page, that tends to be a good sign. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and I’m planning on re-reading it during my own trip to Maine this summer! If you’re interested in a contemporary coming-of-age story, I really hope you give this one a read.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree. 

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

A pale yellow cover features bunnies in many poses and many colors, with the title in a quirky script.

By Sahana C.

This book is cathartic. It feels like therapy, except things get way worse, more cringey, and infinitely harder to handle before the payoff hits, and all of the suffering of the previous two-thirds of the book ease into something manageable and even likable.  

I will not lie – I judged this book by its cover. There was something about the whimsical nature of the rabbits juxtaposed with the bold cursive proclaiming “everyone in this room will someday be dead” that struck me. What room? The very room I was in? I looked around the adult fiction section of the Savage Branch surreptitiously to see who was nearby. I went back up to the front desk, still holding onto the book, and thinking, “Yeah, actually, that’s true.”  

Dear Reader, obviously. This is not a new concept, that everyone, one day, dies. But sometimes, a book like this will bring this into perspective, throw a new light on something you know deep down but don’t consider very often. Emily Austin’s debut novel has moments I’m sure she would categorize as semi-autobiographical (I threw the “semi” in there for her sake, as the main character, Gilda, is truly a disaster), especially since there are moments in the book that I felt were semi-autobiographical and was alarmed at how close Gilda had gotten to my reality.  

Emily Austin was not referring to the Savage Branch when she was referencing her room. She was talking about every room Gilda, a noted hypochondriac, ever walked into. Gilda is a twenty-something lesbian and atheist, well known in the emergency room at her local hospital to the point that the janitorial staff know her by name. When we first meet her, she has just been in a car accident and broken her arm, a more physically obvious issue than the anxiety that normally brought her in for a check-up. In an attempt to get her anxiety under control, Gilda follows a flyer for free therapy to a Catholic church, where she meets Father Jeff and accidentally gets a job instead of therapy.  

From there, Gilda searches for a missing cat, deals with her younger sibling’s deteriorating mental health, tries to keep her old friends, tries to pretend like she’s Catholic, well-meaningly catfishes an old woman, and tries to solve a murder mystery that might not have involved murder, actually, all while trying to stay afloat.  

I read this on a long plane ride, which perhaps compounded the feeling of claustrophobia as Gilda kept tangling herself further and further in her web of lies. It meant that as I was reading an especially cringey section and closed the book for a moment, I couldn’t get up and go for a long walk, like I normally do. I was confined to the middle seat, stuck between two people who were fast asleep and were completely unaware of my distress, and, much like Gilda, all I could do in that moment was keep going. Keep reading and hope that somehow, something was going to get better.

Thank goodness it did, because otherwise, also like Gilda, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. This book is wholly about the existential dread that comes with being an adult and looking around to realize your general existence is not exactly what you thought it’d be, then figuring out how to cope with that anyway. 

I would like to make it very clear that I do, indeed, like this book. I want everyone to read it, despite how difficult it can be. I’ve been recommending it to everyone, describing it as “anxious queer fiction” and asking friends, “Have you ever felt completely directionless and stuck? Well. Gilda will make you feel better. Because she had it worse.” I think if we all take a moment to reflect, the way Gilda does, on the way things are going, we might not always like what we see, but at least we know that we’re not alone in our discontent.

(And if you really want to feel like you’ve got a community, look at the Goodreads reviews for this book here.)

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is available in print and eBook

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.