Learning Not to Drown by Anna Shinoda Review

Friday, September 12, 2014

Title: Learning Not to Drown
Author: Anna Shinoda (Twitter)
Publisher: Atheneum BYR
Publish Date: April 1, 2014
Genre: YA, Contemporary
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher

Family secrets cut to the bone in this mesmerizing debut novel about a teen whose drug-addicted brother is the prodigal son one time too many. There is a pecking order to every family. Seventeen-year old Clare is the overprotected baby; Peter is the typical, rebellious middle child; and Luke is the oldest, the can’t-do-wrong favorite. To their mother, they are a normal, happy family.

To Clare, they are a family on the verge of disaster. Clare: the ambitious striver; Peter: the angry ticking time bomb; and Luke: a drug-addicted convicted felon who has been in and out of jail for as long as Clare can remember—and who has always been bailed out by their parents.

Clare loves Luke, but life as his sister hasn’t been easy. And when he comes home (again), she wants to believe this time will be different (again). Yet when the truths behind his arrests begin to surface, everything Clare knows is shaken to its core. And then Luke is arrested. Again. Except this time is different, because Clare’s mom does the unthinkable on Luke’s behalf, and Clare has to decide whether turning her back on family is a selfish act…or the only way to keep from drowning along with them.
I'm amazed that this one flew so under the radar for so long for me because pretty much all readers of my blog can attest to the fact that I love gritty contemporary fiction. And, Learning Not to Drown, is pretty much that in a nutshell. Raw, evocative, emotional and real, it's the type of novel that sears deep into your soul, imprinting itself there long after you've finished it. By no means an easy read, it's the type of book that will cut you to the bone, but if you let it, it will also allow you to heal in ways you never thought possible. Anna Shinoda has created a nearly mesmerizing tale of family, friendships and navigating the harsh realities of life with this one - and it's amazing.

Learning Not to Drown got off to a bit of a rocky start for me. In books like these, it's often easy to find that one character you can empathize with, while everyone else seems to fall by the wayside, and this was no exception. I really struggled with Clare's parents at first. There was such a tenuous, frazzled reality to their existence, and it frustrated me to see that they weren't being what I believe the ideal parents to be - especially with all they were going through. As the book progressed though, we began to peel back those layers and understand why they were the way they were, and it made it easier to stomach their behavior - if not altogether accept it.

One thing that really stood out for me about Learning Not to Drown though was Skeleton. Throughout the novel, we're fully comprehending the fact that there are many, many skeletons in the Tovin's closets, but there is a near-visceral representation of these skeletons in Skeleton. It brings these shadows to light, and the beauty in the character of Skeleton is that he is so very, very real. Every aspect of his being is tangible - even if he is an intangible entity - and it serves to heighten the understanding and empathy that readers will have for Clare and her circumstance. And, for all intents and purposes, Clare is every bit the heroine. She, like Skeleton, goes through an immense journey from the shadows to the light, and it's a powerful one that you'll be pleasantly surprised reading.

Learning Not to Drown shifts back and forth between the past and present tense, which is a device that doesn't usually work for me. I find it to create a bit of a haphazard maze in most cases, and that frustrates me. In this case though, Ms. Shinoda carefully sets the stage through each flashback, offering us greater insight into how and why Clare and her family got to the place they are in today. It never felt jumpy or offbeat, instead offering us a glimmer of greater understand - however painful that might have been.

Overall, I can't believe I held off reading this one for so long. It's exactly the type of contemporary novel that I like to read because it truly investigates the depth of the human condition, familial relationships and survival. And, what's more, I don't think it's the type of book that is solely for one age group. It will work for the younger lot, but adults will also get a greater appreciation and understanding from the multitude of layers that Ms. Shinoda has created. I give it a 5 out of 5, and I highly recommend it to all fans of contemporary fiction - both YA and adult.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This, in no way, affected my opinion or review of this book.


  1. Wow. A five-star read and I haven't ever heard of it! Of course, I generally avoid books that are issue-y (teaching teens all day is issue-y and angsty enough for me!) but a read like this makes me perk up because I KNOW I need to pass it to some of my readers and our librarians. :)

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  2. I have this book but I haven't read it yet. I'm so glad you loved it so much. It definitely makes me want to push it up further in my TBR list.
    Beautiful review, Melissa!

  3. Thanks for the review! It seems like the older I get, the more interested I become in contemporary stories with REAL characters. This one sounds like it fits the bill, and I'm looking forward to reading it!

  4. I feel like I've seen this book around, but hadn't really paid much attention to it. That's a shame, though, since this definitely looks like the kind of book that would a huge hit with a lot of bloggers. I know I love contemporary/realistic, and this kind of dark, complex story I'd love to read. Thanks for sharing!

    Renae @ Respiring Thoughts

  5. I'm always a sucker for the water-themed covers but somehow I hadn't even heard of this one and it fell completely under my radar. So glad you finally reviewed it, Melissa, because it really seems like I'm missing out on a truly provocative and deep read. Fantastic review, dear! :)

  6. Ooh a 5 star gritty contemporary, and yay I have a copy! I'm thrilled to hear you loved it so much, going to go dig it out of my overflowing shelves now. Lovely review!

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