Review – ‘Future Leaders of Nowhere’ by Emily O’Beirne

Title:  Future Leaders of Nowhere
Author: Emily O’Beirne
Genre:  Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT+
Date of Publication: 15th March, 2017
Page Count: 270 pages (ebook)
Synopsis: (from Goodreads)

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“Finn’s solid. Not in body, but in being. She’s gravity and kindness and all those good things that anchor.”

“Willa’s confusing. Sometimes she’s this sweet, sensitive soul. Other times she’s like a flaming arrow you hope isn’t coming for you.”

Finn and Willa have been picked as team leaders in the future leader camp game. The usually confident Finn doesn’t know what’s throwing her more, the fact she’s leading a team of highly unenthusiastic overachievers or coming up against fierce, competitive Willa. And Willa doesn’t know which is harder, leaving her responsibilities behind to pursue her goals or opening up to someone.

Soon they both realise that the hardest thing of all is balancing their clashing ideals with their unexpected connection. And finding a way to win, of course.

In short: I loved this book. The main characters were endearing and easy to root for, the love story was gradually developed and their relationship had a solid foundation based on adorably nerdy interactions (no insta-love here!) and their conflicts felt grounded in their individual personalities and beliefs instead of contrived for drama. ALL THE YES.

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At length: This is everything I want in a YA novel!

I love the LGBT representation: our main protagonist is Finn who is unabashedly bisexual and this is integrated so casually without fanfare: we find out early in the story that she’s recovering from being dumped by a guy after she slept with him, and that she hasn’t been with anyone since, aside from kissing a girl at a party. Later on, when someone is confused about her being interested in Willa given that she was last known to have dated a guy, she sighs at their ignorance and explicitly states that:

“I do not have the time or the energy to explain really basic stuff. Especially when the meaning is in the actual word. Bisexuality. Hear that? Bi.”

Our other protagonist is Willa who confides in Finn about how she had a messy break-up with a girl recently – it’s lovely that both girls are comfortable with their sexual orientation and that the story isn’t bogged down with repressed same-sex attraction or coming out angst. I don’t have anything against stories that include those themes, but there are already a lot that have bisexuality or gayness as something frightening that the characters have to come to terms with in themselves, and I always enjoy  a story where this is just another aspect of their personality instead of their defining character arc.

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I know that this isn’t going to be true of everyone’s experience, but my high school was very liberal and gay kids weren’t picked on or targeted specifically – that’s why this book appeals to me because the teenagers here ring true to my personal experience. There isn’t any big drama or confrontation when Willa and Finn’s relationship becomes public, it’s just another juicy item of gossip to whisper about same as any other couple. It’s always appealing to read a YA novel where there isn’t rampant homophobia and our characters don’t have to live in fear of being outed or bashed. Again, I recognize that this is a sad reality for some people, especially in more conservative areas, but I think it’s also important to reflect other places and cultures where people don’t suffer such hardship simply for being LGBT. The flip side of the coin to show teens that there is hope, it isn’t all struggle and adversity, y’know?

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I love the diversity: Aside from including two girls who are bi and lesbian respectively, Willa is also biracial. Instead of being the poster girl for the Indian culture, however, she doesn’t actually have much of a connection to her roots.

Avi’s Indian too, but real Indian. Both parents and a culture. Willa just shrugged on the day of the gettting-t-know-you game, when Avi asked how she ended up with a name like Willa. Just like she has so many times when she is picked out by other Indian kids and shows herself to be clueless. But how can she explain that she has no idea why her mother named her Willa? How can she explain she knows nothing about the part of her history that lays claim to her skin colour?

Her Indian-ness is something that is stamped on her, not something she holds inside. When she was a kid, it used to embarrass her when peoplea sked her about it and she couldn’t say. Liek she was failing at something. Later, it was annoying. and now, it’s still strange to think that some of her blood resides in a place she cannot know.

OMG, THANK YOU. This is the first time that I’ve seen my experience as a biracial person reflected in a novel – I was born in Australia, but my father is Fiji-Indian and my mother is Samoan. People ask me about my background all the time, but I don’t have any attachment to either of their countries, I don’t speak the language, my heritage doesn’t inform my character at all. And normally when an author includes a character of a different racial background, it’s to highlight differences between that culture and Western society, to explore how this shapes one’s personality, and I greatly enjoy that, it’s fantastic to have POC protagonists that ring true to their background. But I’m also squealing a ton at being able to relate to Willa in how we look different on the outside, but can’t claim any knowledge or insight into that ethnicity that marks us.

Apart from Willa, there are other POC, although we don’t get a great deal of insight into them – there’s Avi, her fellow Indian; Jessie, a nerdy Asian (who calls out the fact that people assume he’s good at math because of his race – he’s actually a history buff); two Muslim girls, and a guy with a Tongan father. I appreciate the casual diversity, which is very realistic and more representative of real life than all the stories with 100% lily-white casts.

I love the female friendships: Finn and Willa have a bit of a rocky start given that they’re captains of rival teams, but they try to ignore the game and interact with each other as friends outside of it.

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However, this isn’t the extent of it – Leaders of Nowhere is packed with teenage girls of different personalities and opinions and backgrounds; while we may not get to know them all as well as Finn and Willa, they still come off as well-rounded and believable teenagers, and they don’t just exist in the periphery of our main characters, they have their own relationships and history (for eg. best friends Hana and Zaki, who wear matching hijabs and worship Taylor Swift). Plus the dialogue is natural and suits their age, none of that cringe-y ‘adult trying to sound hip‘ thing happening here!

Best of all, no slut-shaming! It’s depressingly common that in most stories where there are a bunch of teenage girls, they will end up being catty and back-stab each other and try to bring one another down, but this book felt like it was deliberately built up to be the antithesis of that stereotype! The girls may not always agree or get along, but they are supportive and tolerant and have each other’s backs.

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I love the plot: sometimes in YA, the romance takes priority over the story, but the author focused on properly developing the camp’s leadership game and actually had me invested in the politics and the behind-the-scenes wrangling and anxious as to who would win! What I loved was how the game revealed different aspects of our lead characters – we see how Finn bows initially to her team’s vote to join another group instead of sticking it out on their own how she struggles with a lack of confidence in her ability to inspire and lead, which is a central theme that Finn deals with throughout the story.

We also see how stern and serious Willa is, how ruthless she can be in pursuit of victory, and how this stems from her obsessive need to be perfect and ace everything because of her broken family situation and the way she’s required to look after her younger siblings and grandmother, with all that responsibility weighing heavily on her shoulders. The twists and turns in the game show the character growth in the girls and what they’re willing to risk or put up with and where their priorities lie, and it’s a brilliant framing device for their respective arcs.

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Kudos for the author for staying true to the stakes of the story set out from the start and not giving in to the urge to add more angst and drama for the sake of it. I’m really over books throwing in unnecessary developments like cheating or sexual assault or death, etc. as a way of building up to a climactic finale, and I loved that this one was based on the outcome of the leadership game, such a fun nerdy finish!

Slight nitpicks: I will note that it was jarring to me to read the first half of the book from Finn’s perspective, only for it to abruptly shift to Willa’s perspective in the second half. I missed hearing from Finn as I’d grown used to seeing this world from her pov, and while I did enjoy getting to know Willa more personally, it was a bit of an adjustment. There was also an occasional turn of phrase that I found overly flowery or where a metaphor perhaps got out of control, but on the whole, it wasn’t that distracting and I ended up considering it part of the narrative’s charm.

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Personal Rating: 5 out of 5 kitties approve this book!

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Disclaimer: I received a digital copy free from YLVA Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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