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In the Wild Light

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Life in a small Appalachian town is not easy. Cash lost his mother to an opioid addiction and his Papaw is dying slowly from emphysema. Dodging drug dealers and watching out for his best friend, Delaney, is second nature. He’s been spending his summer mowing lawns while she works at Dairy Queen.

But when Delaney manages to secure both of them full rides to an elite prep school in Connecticut, Cash will have to grapple with his need to protect and love Delaney, and his love for the grandparents who saved him and the town he would have to leave behind.

From the award-winning author of The Serpent King comes a beautiful examination of grief, found family, and young love.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published August 10, 2021

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About the author

Jeff Zentner

9 books2,233 followers
Jeff Zentner is the author of two New York Times Notable Books: The Serpent King and In the Wild Light, as well as Goodbye Days and Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee. His next book, forthcoming from Grand Central in 2024, is entitled Colton Gentry's Third Act.

Among other honors, he has won the ALA’s William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award twice, the International Literacy Association Award, the Whippoorwill Award, the Muriel Becker Award, and been longlisted twice for the Carnegie Medal. He’s a two-time Southern Book Prize finalist; and was a finalist for the Indies Choice Award. He was selected as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start and an Indies Introduce pick. His books have been translated into fifteen languages.

Before becoming a writer, he was a musician who recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. He lives in Nashville.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,741 reviews
Profile Image for Jeff Zentner.
Author 9 books2,233 followers
November 22, 2021
Every book I write is a love story.

The first question I ask myself when I start work on a new novel is this: what do you love?

This time the answer was: standing in rivers, floating on rivers, reading poems, writing poems, audacious journeys with friends, having friends smarter than you, learning about the wonders of the world from friends smarter than you, that one teacher you never forget, talking on front porches, sitting silent on front porches, watching the sun set, and falling in love.

It turned out that a boarding school book was how this story wanted to be told. There’s a particular sort of magnetism that the boarding school story has for a particular sort of person. I’m one of these people. As a kid I dreamed of a place where my love of learning was a social asset, rather than a liability. I imagined a refuge, away from parents and bullies, where I could go to be the person I really wanted to be. Naturally, I’ve always been drawn to boarding school stories for this reason. When I started writing books, I promised myself I’d write one someday.

This book is about everything I just mentioned, but it’s about something else. In the words of one of my characters:

“[Y]ou are not a creature of grief. You are not a congregation of wounds. You are not the sum of your losses. Your skin is not your scars. Your life is yours and it can be new and wondrous.”

Because there’s something else I love that I left for the end: learning that you’re more than you ever thought you could be, and that your life has greater treasures laid up for you than you could ever imagine.

This is a reminder I need often. We all do.

Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
October 1, 2021
‘life has given me little reason to feel large, but i see no need to make myself feel smaller.’

JZs books have never failed to move me, but this is the first time he has made me ugly cry.

this is the kind of story that gently touches you and the feeling spreads right to your very core. its a story of loss and new opportunities, of the homes that create us and that distant places that refine us, of peaceful waters and contentious anxiety, of best friends and family, of the healing power of words and finding the beauty in struggles.

but most importantly, its a story of not letting your circumstances or emotions limit you, of becoming the person others have helped you to be, and living a life of your own making.

‘you are not a creature of grief. you are not a congregation of wounds. you are not the sum of your losses. your skin is not your scars. your life is yours and it can be new and wondrous.’

even though this is a coming-of-age story, these are the kind of messages and reminders that everyone needs. and they are so stunningly and tenderly told. easily JZs best work and easily a timeless story i know i will reread over and over again.

5 stars
Profile Image for Tiff.
581 reviews537 followers
September 18, 2021
4.5 stars. Effervescent, buoyant, heartbreaking and heart making. I might have more words for this beautiful book, but I’m not sure I’ll have complete sentences. This is jaw-droppingly beautiful and Zentner’s best work since The Serpent King. Review to come.


Profile Image for Em Lost In Books.
903 reviews1,818 followers
January 4, 2022
I was unable to connect with protagonist. There were so many instances where it feel like I should feel sad for Cash and his family but i didn't. It never evoked any emotions in me.
Profile Image for Kezia Duah.
392 reviews343 followers
September 28, 2021
I have confirmed a new quirk of mine. When I finish a really good book, I clap my hands as if I just watched a performance… and boy did I clap my hands for this!
You know when you can sense a book is going to be 5 stars from reading the first chapters, well I knew from chapter 11.
This was way too pure for me. I really really loved it. It was still hard to rate because I did have some issues, but I still felt it deserved 5 stars. The poems were so good, and some parts that were not poems still felt like reading poetry.

Okay back to the issues…
The character development for Cash took way longer than I wanted. I wanted to be positive and just say “oh, he’s just humble,” but then he started to project the low self-esteem onto Delaney and I was not happy about that. And the fact that Delaney had to say I love you before Cash realized it himself was just so annoying honestly. This might be controversial: Cash didn’t deserve Delaney…and that’s on period.

Low key wishing this book had a sequel, because this left me wanting more.
Great job, Zentner!

Favorite quotes:

“For every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You’ve just got to find it. “

“You’ll never regret a decision more than the one you make out of fear.”

“We were always meant to be side by side in this world for as long as we could be, always.”

“I don’t know how to live under the sun of a god whose harvest is everyone I love.”

“I guess you don’t get good at mourning. There are no grieving muscles you can train. You start over each time.”

Profile Image for Marieke (mariekes_mesmerizing_books).
509 reviews337 followers
January 31, 2022
I’m in awe! This book is like a love song so mesmerizing, you put it on repeat again and again. Like a poem so vivid, it’s etched into your mind forever. Like prose so tangible, it touches your whole being. And it’s YA, y’all!!

When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty ... You let it save you, if only for the time it takes a snowflake to melt on your tongue, or for the sun to sink below the horizon in a wildfire of clouds.

I loved The Serpent King, a beautiful story! An easy five star read. And this? I’d like to give it a million stars. It’s a gem! It could easily be a literary masterpiece! Jeff Zentner juggles with words and puts them together in a hypnotizing way. It left me longing and breathless and smiling and silent and crying and so much more. How can someone make me feel so many emotions just by putting words together?

Sometimes a clear day will cloud up without your noticing, until a gust of rain-scented wind nearly steals your balance. That’s how the homesickness hits my center of gravity.

And then the story itself. Don’t read it because you want to read a book with a major plot. This is a character driven story and quite simple, but when Jeff Zentner uses his magic, even the simplest things become magnificent. Let this story take your breath away. Let the writing flood you, just feel the warmth, hear the cicadas, smell the grass. Feel Cash’s doubts, endure his homesickness, feel his love for the people around him.

In the dim of the porch light I see his eyes, ardent with furious love. It burns through the darkness in me. It pulls me from the maelstrom and drops me, dripping and shivering on the shore.

Lastly that cover and title! Like the story they’re simple, and so breathtaking at the same time! They fit Cash and the writing perfectly. And ... I strongly believe this story should not only be pitched as a YA. Like I said above, this could easily be a literary masterpiece!

There are days when your heart is so filled with this world’s beauty, it feels like holding too much of something in your hand. Days that taste like wild honey.

Thank you so much Jeff Zentner for writing this gorgeous story!! I’m still in awe... And everyone reading this review, even if you normally don’t read YA: please read this brilliant gem of a book!

Life often won’t freely give you moments of joy. Sometimes you have to wrench them away and cup them in your hands, to protect them from the wind and rain. Art is a pair of cupped hands. Poetry is a pair of cupped hands.

I received an ARC from Andersen Press LTD and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Profile Image for Theresa Alan.
Author 10 books1,044 followers
January 7, 2022
5 very enthusiastic stars. I loved this so much. The writing is spectacular, and the story is both heartbreaking and uplifting.

Cash befriended Delaney at a support group because, like so many people in the small Appalachia town where they live, their mothers fell victim to the opioid crisis. Delaney is wicked smart, and she made a scientific discovery that secured them both scholarships to an elite boarding school up north. Cash is hesitant to go because he knows his impoverished background won’t easily fit in. Plus, he’s certain he’s no where near as smart as Delaney and the other kids that go there. Most of all, he’d have to leave the grandparents who raised him, and his beloved papaw is dying of emphysema.

He wants Delaney to succeed, so he takes the risk. He discovers a great teacher and good friends and works around the privileged jackasses who think they did something special to be born rich. Have I mentioned how wonderful this is? Have your tissues handy.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
October 23, 2021
This is one of those YA books that more adults than "YA's" will embrace. Why? Not much on plot, the lifeblood of popular YA fare. It's aces on writing style and characterization, though, and it's what they call "sweet" in that the characters are so nice you want to believe they exist. And although it walks the property line of Hallmark Channel Lit., it never quite crosses it, for which we are grateful.

Let's start with a positive. As a writer, Zentner's all in with imagery. Here's a sampling of his writing style:

"I lie back on the sun-warm log. There are days when your heart is so filled with this world's beauty, it feels like holding too much of something in your hand. Days that taste like wild honey. This is one of them.

"When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty whenever and wherever you find it. You let it save you, if only for the time it take for a snowflake to melt on your tongue or for the sun to sink below the horizon to a wildfire of clouds. No matter what else might be troubling your mind."

And this:

"She rejoins us, her russet hair damp on her shoulders like autumn leaves stuck to a window after rain, smelling like fake Granny Smith apples and Ivory soap...

"It begins sprinkling, the muted notes sounding like someone trying to slowly and secretly open a plastic bag in a room full of sleeping people. The air grows dense with the shimmering perfume of rain, dewy honey suckle, and mown grass."

Bogs a bit in the middle and the ending's predictable, but still, did I mention how sweet and all-American these kids are? You'll want to adopt them -- and their poetry teacher practically does (I guess you can get away with this in private schools, but have my doubts).

Speaking of, the protagonist, an east Tennessee kid named Cash (yes, yes -- after Johnny) who doesn't know he's in love with his best friend, the scientifically brilliant Delaney, becomes a poet himself along the long and winding way. Props to Zentner for giving air-starved poetry some life, then! And for letting the twosome go to a private school in Connecticut without any Connecticut stereotypes. (Zentner's only mess-up is referring to a "New England accent," as if such a single thing exists.)

Anyhoo, long time no YA. It's good to get one in among all the other books.
Profile Image for Christy.
3,918 reviews33k followers
August 8, 2023
4 stars
“You’ll never regret a decision more than the one you make out of fear. Fear tells you to make your life small. Fear tells you to think small. Fear tells you to be small-hearted. Fear seeks to preserve itself, and the bigger you let your life and perspective and heart get, the less air you give fear to survive.”

Such a beautifully written book about family, found family/friendships, and finding yourself. I especially loved Cash's growth and watching him find himself in poetry. This is my second book by this author this year, and it's official. I'm a Jeff Zetner fan.
Audio book source: Libby
Story Rating: 4 stars
Narrators: Michael Crouch
Narration Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Contemporary YA
Length: 10h 39m

Profile Image for Katy O. .
2,319 reviews723 followers
August 25, 2021
I'm going to make a bold statement here, and say that this is my new favorite YA book. Given my generally intense feelings about books I read and like, it's HUGE for me to say it's my favorite. I sobbed for the entire last 25% of the book and was riveted from page 1. And the sobbing was about something sad in the book, but also about my love for the characters and Cash's outstanding character and seeing in him what I want to see in ALL young people. "In the Wild Light" is poetic, atmospheric and a shining example of young adult literature reflecting the world we actually live in. Set in both rural, opioid-ravaged Tennessee and an elite boarding school on the East Coast, this book hits two things I absolutely love seeing in YA, but don't see enough ~ rural settings and income inequity.

Whenever a book impacts me like this one did, I dig deep to figure out WHY it hit me so hard. For this one, I think a large part of it was reading this directly after finishing "The Catcher in the Rye" (an often-required novel which I disliked intensely) and caused me to reflect a lot on the types of characters I want today's teens reading about and modeling themselves on. I want teens reading books exactly the opposite of "The Catcher in the Rye". I want teens reading about characters like Cash and Delaney, emotionally aware males, raw grief, the opioid epidemic, the beauty of nature, genius girls, nontraditional families, deep family ties, small towns, positive therapy experiences, standing up to toxicity, and most of all, deeply good people getting what they deserve.

Of course I want teens reading about other people and places and themes as well ~ for our teens to take our currently divisive world and transform it into a community of caring and empathy, we need our young adults exposed to all of the experiences and worlds we possibly can. Replacing an outdated classic with a book like this in English classes would be one step in the right direction.
Profile Image for Book Clubbed.
146 reviews209 followers
February 9, 2021
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC. Please listen to the full review at: https://bookclubbed.buzzsprout.com/15...

In the Wild Light is anchored by its co-leads, Cash & Delaney, specifically through their chemistry and dialogue. We don’t see an excess of authentic boy/girl friendships in YA, at least operating at this level, so that is an achievement in and of itself. The dialogue is also great, occupying that tiny sliver in the venn diagram where “realistic chit-chat and conversational quirks” overlaps with “witty, engaging banter which makes you want to be friends with them too.”

I also loved the profile of a small southern town, where people are struggling but maintain dignity, where they are doing the best to take care of their own, where the young people are torn between a bigger city with opportunity and the gentle rhythms of the community and surrounding nature.

The secondary characters are complex and enjoyable, outside of an evil Post Malone cartoon character who serves as the bad guy in the first half of the novel, and the zero-dimensional frat boy who takes over as the bad guy in the second half. Other than that, the friendships made at the boarding school are handled with great care and Zenter captures the bonds that teenagers form under mounting stress.

The book packs an emotional wallop in the second half, one that you see coming but still catches you across the temple nonetheless. I’m not a crying-when-reading type of person, but maybe have tissues on deck just in case.
Profile Image for Maisha  Farzana .
555 reviews239 followers
March 20, 2022
~ 3.5 stars ~
"When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty whenever and wherever you find it."

"Would it be better to know that someone you never thought loved you did love you? Or would it be worse to know that someone you always thought loved you didn’t?"

Call me heartless, I admit- I am. But how can I deny my heart what it desires? I wanted to love this book. I wanted to love it so bad that thinking about it hurts right now. But alas! I didn't. I couldn't.

The story this book offers us is beautiful. Jeff Zentner's writing style is lyrical; the prose exquisite and tender. This book is emtional. It's full with wonderful quotes, all playing in my ears like music. Yes, this book gifted me with a serene calm I always crave....

But lots of parts of it were unrealistic. They just didn't sit well with me. While reciting poetry, the author somehow made the characters other-worldy but not in a good way. They felt so distant. I just couldn't touch them, couldn't care about them. The emotional scenes also felt aloft. I couldn't connect with the characters despite trying hard. I started feeling so frustrated at a point that I literally skimmed through some parts.....

Sorry for not being able to love this book. Still I would recommend it highly. Just try it. You may end up loving it...
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,514 reviews29.5k followers
January 17, 2022
Jeff Zentner's latest YA novel is a powerful, poignant story about family, friendship, heritage, love, and finding yourself.

This was just excellent! Zentner is one of my absolute favorite YA authors, and this book was another reminder why.

“I’ve seen that life is filled with unimaginable horror. But it’s also threaded through with unimaginable wonder. Live through enough of the one, maybe you’re due some of the other.”

Cash lives in the tiny rural town of Sawyer, Tennessee, raised by his beloved grandparents since his mother died from opioid addiction. He’s content for his life to consist simply of going canoeing on the river, mowing people’s lawns, and spending time with his best friend, Delaney.

When she makes a remarkable scientific discovery locally with Cash’s help, it gets Delaney a full ride to a prestigious Connecticut boarding school, where she’ll finally be challenged academically. She convinces them to award the same opportunity to Cash, since she can’t imagine undertaking this adventure without him.

Cash doesn’t want to ride Delaney’s coattails, and with his grandfather’s emphysema worsening, he fears leaving Tennessee for a life he never imagined. But the thought of Delaney struggling all alone is also too much to bear.

How do you make the choice between those you love? How do you know if going after something you never thought you’d have is worth the risk of losing what you know? How do you find the courage to let people in?

I loved everything about this book. I went to bed with puffy eyes from crying but it was just so good. (And if you love this, definitely read The Serpent King , if not all of Zentner's other books.)

See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com.

Follow me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/the.bookishworld.of.yrralh/.
Profile Image for Deb✨.
319 reviews5 followers
April 25, 2023
I LOVED this book so much! This is going straight to my favorites list. Jeff Zentner has a way of writing that is absolutely amazing and makes you feel ALL the feels. I did not want to put this one down.

I listened to this on audible books, and the narration was superb. I highly recommend this book to all. Don't miss out on this one. ♡
Profile Image for Cory Marie.
261 reviews94 followers
March 3, 2021
I’ve always known that Jeff Zentner has a way with words. And I think In the Wild Light may just be his best work yet. He writes in a way that forces the reader to truly experience something. The smells, tastes, touches, and overall imagery in this book are brilliantly and uniquely described. Just through the power of words I could smell the wonderful scents of the South, taste the goodness of country cooking, and feel the air of all four seasons. This. This is why I love reading, and why I especially loved In the Wild Light.

In the Wild Light has so many incredible quotes that it would be impossible for me to pick just one favorite. It would be far easier for someone to tell me a random page number and I’d pick one from there. There is honestly something profound, funny, emotional, or inspiring on every single page of this novel. And don’t even get me started on the poetry. I’m a novice when it comes to reading and appreciating poetry, but even I can tell you that the poems scattered throughout this book were written with great care and sincere emotion.

One thing I particularly love about all of Jeff’s books is the message that you don’t have to do overly impressive things to live a life full of love and dignity. While the circumstances that lead to Cash and Delaney ending up at a boarding school are indeed extraordinary, this book goes to show that sometimes our most memorable and important moments can be lunches at McDonald’s, quiet canoe rides on the river, and even doing laundry with a good friend.

I’m not the type to beg. But very often I find myself begging people to read Jeff Zentner’s books. Not because I’m a snob and think that I have the best taste in literature, but because I think you are denying yourself of a remarkable experience if you don’t take the opportunity to let his beautiful words flow through your brain. In the Wild Light comes out August 10th and I can assure you that it is not a read you want to miss out on.

Shoutout to the amazing Jeff Zentner for giving me the opportunity to read In the Wild Light early!!!! Forever grateful for you and your books.
Profile Image for (old.enough.for.fairytales).
498 reviews216 followers
December 9, 2020
"You are not a creature of grief. You are not a congregation of wounds. You are not the sum of your losses. Your skin is not your scars. Your life is yours, and it can be new and wondrous. Remember that."

Alright I finally feel emotionally recovered enough to attempt a review.

Easy 5 stars, obviously. Probably my new favorite Zentner. Everything about this book was stunning. The characters and their journeys, the setting, the writing, the poetry...all of it. Jeff Zentner's writing is relatable, easy to grasp, yet the way he arranges his words and articulates his narrative absolutely knocks you over with its beauty. It's something that I think he does better than anybody else. He brings beauty to the mundane, he makes you feel for people you'd usually overlook... he gives dignity to unremarkable, "average" people.

I find what I love most about my favorite authors is that they tell previously overlooked, untold stories. Which is why I love all of Jeff's books. There's nothing spectacular or special about any of his main characters. They're the kids in your high school that you probably didn't know much about, the cashier at the Dairy Queen, the quirky kids with the odd hobbies, the misfits in your hometown. But he gives them dignity. He makes you look at those "average" and "unspectacular" people and see that they actually are spectacular and special, in their own ways.

"I've always loved when the light finds the broken spots in the world and makes them beautiful."

That's what Jeff does through his writing. He finds the "broken spots" and makes them beautiful. This book is special. The characters are special. And I hope you give this special book a chance. If you've never given contemporary fic a chance, I beg you to try Jeff's books. I'm not saying his books will all of a sudden make you love all contemporary, realistic fic...but I am saying that his books are remarkable and able to be loved and appreciated by every type of reader. Readers love good stories, and all of Jeff's stories are good.

"There are days when your heart is so filled with this world's beauty, it feels like holding too much of something in your hand. Days that taste like wild honey. This is one of them."
Profile Image for *J* Too Many Books Too Little Time.
1,921 reviews3,458 followers
January 16, 2022
4.5 Stars!

This one was a BIG departure from what I normally read.

It was chosen by my neighborhood/friend book club. I was most definitely nervous about what book would be chosen. I had never heard of this author. But when I went to look it up and read the blurb I thought it sounded really good.

And honestly from the get-go it did not disappoint. I was hooked from chapter 1.

I enjoyed the writing. The setting. The characters. The story. I teared up multiple times. This one definitely hit me with all of the feels.

I will definitely be checking out other stuff by this author.
Profile Image for Katrina.
409 reviews105 followers
February 2, 2022
I don't have words to describe this beautiful book. Treat yourself to this poignant story this year. Take your time with it and enjoy every word. I'm not usually a fan of coming-of-age books, but In the Wild Light surprised me at every turn of the page. It reminded me a lot of my own story of moving far away from home to attend college with only my best friend/boyfriend (now husband!)

I never do this, but I just have to record some of my favorite quotes from this book. No spoilers, but this will give you a taste of the gorgeous prose and poetry you're in for if you choose to pick this one up.

"When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty whenever and wherever you find it. You let it save you, if only for the time it takes for a snowflake to melt on your tongue or for the sun to sink below the horizon in a wildfire of clouds."

"Here we are, survivors of quiet wars. Like trees that have weathered a brutal storm, but with broken branches and fallen blossoms littering the ground around us."

"I’ve seen that life is filled with unimaginable horror. But it’s also threaded through with unimaginable wonder."

"We think of language as this tame thing that lives in neat garden beds, bound by rules and fences. Then someone shows it to you growing wild and beautiful, flowering vines consuming cities, erasing pavement and lines. Breaking through any fence that would try to contain it. Reclaiming. Reshaping. Reforming."

"Words make me feel strong. They make me feel powerful and alive. They make me feel like I can open doors."

"My heart howls. I don’t know how to live under the sun of a God whose harvest is everyone I love. I don’t know."
Profile Image for • Lindsey Dahling •.
325 reviews643 followers
May 6, 2022
This book is a work of art. I don’t know how else to explain it.

It perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to be the outsider. What it feels like to be lost. To love. To grieve. To heal.

I knew this would be a difficult one for me to read. Like Cash, my grandpa was my best friend. He was the closest thing I had to a father figure. And, like Cash, the grief that came with losing someone who was always my person was suffocating. It felt like my head was being held underwater indefinitely. There was no drowning. That would imply the grief ceased after awhile. And…it just doesn’t.

The book is beautifully written, but not in an exhausting manner. I loved meeting all of the characters and the realistic banter between each of them. They felt real. It reminded me a lot of my high school friend group.

I fell in love with Dr. Adkins, Cash’s poetry teacher, as soon as she entered the stage. Love at first sight. I mean, how could it not be?

“You can’t fix a car with poetry. “Poetry won’t help you build that new app and make billions. It won’t win you an election. There are so many ways that poetry isn’t useful in the way we think of things as being useful. And yet…We bring poems to read at weddings and funerals. We write them to lovers. When our lives have been burned down around us, we look for that single glowing ember remaining, and that’s a poem. Poetry is one of the highest artistic achievements of humankind.”

Say no more, Dr. Adkins. Marry me immediately.

The book really is a masterpiece. I don’t have any other words for it. You just need to read it.
Profile Image for Samantha (WLABB).
3,543 reviews234 followers
August 23, 2021
After making a rather incredible biological discovery, Delaney was offered a chance to escape to a place that would nurture her brilliance, and she was taking her best friend Cash with her.

My love for Zentner’s books has no bounds. I know several things will happen when I read a Jeff Zentner book.

1. I will meet some incredible and memorable characters.
2. I will be part of a very personal journey with them.
3. I will laugh at times.
4. I will cry.
5. I will be filled with feels.

And, yes! Zentner did it again with this beautiful story of love, loss, family, and friendship.


I met and fell in love with some many characters in this book. I was quite taken with Delaney’s drive and strength, and Dr. Adkins ability to see and nurture talent, but I think it was Cash and Pawpaw who owned my heart. Cash was a gentle soul with a huge heart. He loved fiercely and was protective of his own. He sometimes did the unpopular thing because he knew it was the right thing. The more time I spent with Cash, the more my love for him grew. I cheered all his successes and felt the pain of all his losses. And then, there was Pawpaw. Wow! He really embedded himself in my heart. Those talks he shared with Cash were amazing and touched me deeply. He was just a beautiful man, and his positive influence on others was obvious.


It was very difficult for Cash to leave his home for that fancy boarding school. He was not only a fish-out-of-water there, he was afraid to give up any time with his grandparents. He was, however, determined to make them proud. A great deal of this story is Cash struggling with self-doubt and the pain of his past. He felt so lost until Dr. Adkins saw something in him and took him under her wing. She came from a similar background as Cash, was able to relate to him, and helped him find his passion – poetry. I LOVED the exquisite poems woven into this story. Cash was already a well-drawn character, but his poems gave him even more depth and were such a lovely way to help him find himself and work through some of his pain.


Delaney and Cash shared a deep, deep bond. They both experienced trauma related to their mothers’ drug addiction, and because of that, they had a bone-deep understanding of each other. Cash was fortunate to have the endless love and support of his grandparents, and they doled that love out just as equally to Delaney. I also had great fondness for the bromance between Alex and Cash. Their friendship was a beautiful thing. They suffered through crew together, ironed together, and were known to hug it out when necessary. It was a pleasure seeing that friendship grow and flourish.


• Easter Eggs – there are nods to all Zentner’s books in this story. One made my heart explode!
• The Laundry Boys – Alex and Cash’s laundry sessions were always a good time
• Sawyer – Cash’s love for his hometown shined through, and I appreciated the vivid depictions of the beauty of his home.
• Delaney + Science – I will always laud a STEM loving character, and there was some cool science mentioned.
• The Poetry – I talked this earlier, but it really deserves a second mention. I was really grateful that Zentner shared his poems with us. I already thought him a word wizard, but these let him showcase that talent in a different way.

Overall: This book was stunning and emotional. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking. It was simply something special and worthy of every tear I shed.
*ARC provided in exchange for an honest review.

Profile Image for Gail.
1,072 reviews356 followers
September 16, 2021
I can't review a book written by Jeff Zentner without disclosing my bias for his work: I have followed him online since discovering "Serpent King" years ago, and, over the years, have struck up a friendship with him. This is why I knew, months ahead of its August release, that Jeff had a new book coming out—it's also why, fan that I am, I couldn't wait to dive in to it.

For sure, I was not disappointed. "In the Wild Light" serves up all the familiar delights of Jeff's previous novels—prose that borders on poetry, scenes that make you laugh one moment and tear up on the next page, an abundance of sensory details, scenic descriptions of Tennessee, and teenage characters whose greatest attributes are their heart and their humility.

In Jeff's hands, these elements come together this time around to tell the story of Cash*** and Delaney, high school friends whose bond is formed by tragedy and then transformed when, together, they leave behind their hometown for the educational opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to attend an elite East Coast boarding school on full scholarship.

I always lose count of how many pages I dog-ear in Jeff's books, but enough that the book grows bigger by the time I (unwillingly) turn to the last page. That was true here, of course. But what I especially loved about this title, and maybe it has to do with my own children getting older and so my "parent hat" is more firmly in place, is my appreciation for the many scenes in which Jeff was telling his readers that it's okay to:

— feel like an outsider
— seek help for your mental health, especially if you are a guy
— find solace in religion, especially prayer
— be proud of your family, no matter your socioeconomic background
— express emotions in front of your friends
— stick up for someone who needs help, especially when that someone is a young woman in duress

Those are important lessons that everyone needs to hear, but especially the young adults who make up Jeff's core audience.

A beautiful book and my favorite of Jeff's novels since his debut, which will forever hold a spot on my shelf of all-time favorite reads.

***Bonus points to Jeff for working in the reference to Cash's physical resemblance to River Phoenix. Long live my crush on that beautiful, young man who died way too soon.

Profile Image for Pernille Ripp.
Author 10 books641 followers
January 17, 2021
With gorgeous language, Jeff Zentner once again invites us into a life that could easily be overlooked but whose very existence doesn't allow us to forget them. It is clear that the book is written with such care for the lives of the character and it makes us care deeply about them as well. I read the book in one day, needing to see the path that Cash ultimately chooses for himself, needing to sit with him and Papaw as they remind us of the beauty that comes in absolute love and care for one another. A quiet book, perhaps, but one that roars with determination.
Profile Image for Sara Grochowski.
1,142 reviews566 followers
May 19, 2021
This book made me ugly cry with an intensity I haven't experienced in awhile, which speaks to the depth of emotion Zenter packs into his stories.

Also, when are we getting a book of poetry from Zenter? Because I'm on board for that!
Profile Image for eda.
250 reviews9 followers
March 5, 2022
Beautiful story about family and friendship. All the feels-soo good!! Jeff Zentner is an amazing writer and writes in such a poetic and relatable way. A must read for 2021
Profile Image for Eileen.
2,046 reviews89 followers
August 8, 2021
5 amazing stars

My trash bin is now overflowing with kleenex as I sob my heart out. Seriously, this book had me weeping from about the 60% mark when he wrote his first poem until the end. I absolutely fell in love with Cash, Delaney, Pawpaw, Mawmaw, Alex, Vi, and Bree. I was a bit concerned when I read that this was a Boarding School story because I was expecting a story full of rich entitled jerks, and although there are at least three of them in this story, this story was so much more! We are introduced to Cash and Delaney in their hometown of Sawyer, and although drug addiction is a real problem and more than a few families are struggling just to make ends meet, the author does an amazing job showing us what they both love so much about their hometown, even if their own personal experiences with their family were traumatic with addicted mothers and disappearing fathers. The sources of hope in both of their lives come from Mawmaw and Pawpaw (Cash's grandparents) and their own friendship. The book slowly moves them to the boarding school where they are both in total culture shock and not sure if they should be there. And yes, Cash's roommate is an entitled jerk, and that could be the crux of his boarding school experience. But that's not what this book is about and Cash quickly finds his squad in Alex, Vi, and of course Delaney. There are others at the school who are really cool as well, but throughout, Cash (and Delaney) struggle with taking advantage of this opportunity for them to live their best selves, but also being worried about Pawpaw's failing health.

This pacing of this book is just perfect, in my opinion, with parts of it capturing the stillness and peace of Sawyer, and parts of it capturing the energy and speed of New York City. Throughout the latter half of the book, poetry is used as a way to help Cash find himself, and from the moment he wrote his first words, I was completely captured. I am not a poetry person normally, but I looked forward to reading every single poem, slowly and repeatedly. Every single verse he wrote left me in tears. This book was truly a coming of age for both Cash and Delaney, but it was also about grief and celebration, trauma and healing, friendship and family. I loved all the different kinds of love that the author included in this book, including many of the deep friendships that developed in this book, both romantic and platonic.

I initially intended to read this book over several days, and I even put it down a couple of times intending to call it a night. But the book kept calling me and so here I sit after midnight just soaking in this book. Sometimes a book just speaks to you and for me, this was one of those.

I am so grateful I was able to receive an advance review copy from NetGalley, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
Profile Image for Jennifer LaGarde.
3 reviews268 followers
July 29, 2021
I’ve been holding onto this recommendation until closer to its release date but the wait is over!

Like all of Jeff Zentner’s books, In The Wild Light has a heart that beats in Tennessee. And although I’ve never lived in “the volunteer state,” I did call its neighbor to the east home for nearly 30 years - which may be part of the reason why I always feel as though I *know* the small towns that Zentner creates. I’ve been to places like Sawyer, Tennessee. But more importantly, I *know* the people who live and love and sometimes die in there, too.

For example, not only did I recognize pieces of Cash and Delaney: the two HS best friends that In The Wild Light swirls around, but I absolutely knew Cash’s papaw and mamaw - the grandparents who raised Cash after his mother died of a drug overdose and who nearly end up raising Delaney as her mother battles the same addiction. Like a lot of small, rural communities Sawyer, Tennessee is being devoured by drugs. The opioid crisis has swallowed both Cash and Delaney’s parents, and is threatening to destroy them as well, when suddenly, and remarkably, everything changes.

Here’s where I should probably mention that while I definitely taught a lot of kids like Cash, (bright, thoughtful, and loyal HS boys who are fiercely devoted to doing what’s right, but who lack confidence in themselves), I’ve never taught anyone quite like Delaney Doyle who is a bonafide, mega IQ super genius. Not only does she have a photographic memory, but she’s also incredibly curious about the world, which is what inspires her and Cash to explore the caves dotting the river that cuts through their mountain community; it’s in one of those caves that Delaney discovers a new strain of penicillin mold that has the potential to change the world, but is absolutely about to change their lives.

That change starts when Delaney is offered a full scholarship to a prestigious preparatory school in New Canaan, CT, which is thousands of miles (and about a million worlds!) away from Sawyer, Tennessee. The kicker though is that Delaney only agrees to go if Cash is offered the same deal, and while the school immediately agrees, it takes some convincing for Cash to decide it’s time to leave Sawyer: a place that has caused them both so much pain, but that is also the home of his beloved grandparents.

It’s when Cash decides to take a chance on himself, that the story shifts from one about two special kids trying to escape the poison in their small town, to one about those same kids realizing that it’s what’s inside them - their gifts and their love - that will not only be the things that end up saving them, but that might actually save their small town, too.

There’s something deeply earnest about In The Wild Light. We fall in love with Cash and Delaney not because they are lovable (although they are!) but because they need us to love them. Sawyer, Tennessee may be a pin in a fictional map, but its struggles and triumphs are very real. I’m excited for kids living in small, forgotten places like Sawyer to see themselves in this book.
Profile Image for Gary Anderson.
Author 0 books88 followers
October 7, 2021
In the Wild Light is Jeff Zentner’s new novel about two kids--Cash and Delaney--who would be lost without each other. They are best friends in a small Tennessee town ravaged by opioid-related tragedies, including their own mothers. Delaney is a genius whose scientific instincts lead her to an astonishing discovery. When she is invited to an elite East Coast prep school, she insists that her friend also receive a scholarship. Cash is torn between being there for Delaney and being there for his dying grandfather. I can’t say much more about this without spoilers and even if I was so inclined, I wouldn’t want to deny other readers the powerful experience that Zentner provides as Cash and Delaney struggle to understand where they belong and their relationships with each other and their friends and family.

In the Wild Light is a book that I didn’t want to end, and I keep thinking about the characters and hoping they’re okay. Jeff Zentner’s first novel The Serpent King affected me the same way. His second book Goodbye Days hit me in a completely different way. It deals with a triple-death car accident. Unfortunately, earlier in my life a triple-death car accident scarred my friends and family, and I had to put down Goodbye Days as it gave me a clear understanding of how some books can be traumatically triggering for some readers. Then Zentner’s third book Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee left me cold. It seemed like a zany comic book trying to be a novel. So, I appreciate that In the Wild Light is a way back into Jeff Zentner’s books for me.

In the Wild Light will appeal to readers who like realistic fiction, especially sad stories. The firecracker dialogue is also a strong point, along with bad guys who make you want to fight them in real life. I can’t quite explain why, but this seems like a perfect book for fall.
Profile Image for Bridget.
1,195 reviews78 followers
February 8, 2022
Truly, one of the best books for young people, for any people in recent times. This book, which I read slowly because it was so incredibly moving and I didn't want it to finish, really got to me. I dreamed about it. And this might be because I have elderly parents who have failing health, and I found the Cash's grandparents a little too close to my folk, but I dare you to read this book and not be completely caught up in Chase and his best friend Delaney, their challenges and struggles and their love for each other and for Chase's Papaw and Mamaw.

It's the feeling that the writing evokes, that desolateness of the small town of Sawyer, where both Delaney and Cash's mothers have sought solace in drugs, where the river flows through it and provides a place of solace and peace, where sitting on the porch between the two people who love you feels like it is the right place to be forever, but you know that you have to leave. Where there is threat and insecurity with never enough money, with failing health, with jobs that don't pay you enough to live. This author is able to draw out these feelings, make you go through a lot of tissues, and fill your heart to the brim. I finished this book early in the morning in a soggy mess.

Delaney is a genius, she has discovered a mold in a cave and it has huge potential as a pharmaceutical, she's been offered a full scholarship in one of the most successful colleges around. She says she will only take it if her best friend Cash can come too on an equivalent scholarship. But leaving his grandparents, the life he thought he was going to have, but, which is unfulfilling is a huge step for Cash. He is torn and tortured by his decision to go.

This book is full to the bring with goodness. It is gentle but gritty and full of love, courage, a sense of fun and so many other good things I'd be here all day listing them. A fabulous read.
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