Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this advance copy. “Above All Else” will be on sale October 13th, 2020. [Side note: I will be IN COLLEGE when this is released. WHAT? I’m not okay with this guys a h. Okay anyway. Back to the scheduled programming of book reviews!]
Rose Keller and Tate Russo have been climbing for years, training in harsh weather and traveling all over the world. The goal that kept them going: summiting Mount Everest, the highest point on earth. Accompanied by Tate’s dad, the two will finally make the ultimate climb at the end of their senior year. But neither Rose nor Tate are fully in the game—not only is there a simmering romance between them, but Rose can’t get her mind off her mother’s illness, while Tate constantly fails to live up to his ambitious father’s standards.
Everyone on their expedition has something to prove, it seems. And not everyone is making the best decisions while short on oxygen and physically and mentally exhausted. The farther up the mountain they go, the more their climbing plans unravel and the more isolated each team member becomes. Rose and Tate will have to dig deep within themselves to determine what—or who—they value above all else.
This is it, guys – my last ARC of 2019. Whoa. Crazy, right?
Okay, first off. That cover! Easily one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen this year. That was what initially drew me in but it was the premise – when else are you ever going to find a YA book about teenage mountaineers climbing Mt. Everest? – that made me request it. And to that end, it definitely lived up to my expectations. But in other ways, it really didn’t. Let me explain:
Starting off with the good, the author clearly did her homework. In the author’s note, Levy mentioned having taken several research trips to Nepal (where this book is set) while writing “Above All Else,” and it seriously shows. The setting is incredibly well-captured with the kind of detail that only someone who’d seen the places they were describing firsthand would be able to capture. And although I don’t know enough about mountaineering to say whether the process of the climb was portrayed accurately, it certainly seemed to be. It was obvious that the author’s research on Nepal, mountaineering, and Mt. Everest had been exhaustive. That level of detail made for a great sports/adventure novel even when other aspects of the plot fell short.
I also liked that it struck a balance of life issues and climbing issues. Though Rose and Tate’s quest to climb Mt. Everest was obviously the driving plotline, Levy did well in incorporating the kids’ real-life issues into the central conflict. Both have very believable issues with their families (Rose’s mother is ill, Tate constantly clashes with his father) and in their personal lives (Tate has ADHD and mild PTSD from a climbing accident, Rose and Tate have feelings for each other that they don’t know how to process) that get in the way of their focus on climbing the mountain. And I loved the exploration of what going though such a grueling experience does to you not only physically, but morally and psychologically. I’d never thought about this, but Levy makes in an excellent point in emphasizing that accomplishing a goal that requires so much of you, and that carries such a high risk, really does change you in that it requires absolute self-centeredness. The constant refrain of “is any achievement really worth becoming a person you hate for?” is fascinating. And none of this felt like a distraction from the plot as a whole. But…there was ONE subplot that absolutely did not earn that distinction.
You’ll almost never hear me say this, but I honestly thought this book would have been stronger without the romance.
I know. I KNOW. Me, who will literally always be in favor of a romance being shoehorned into absolutely everything, not wanting one? Shocking. But seriously. For a few reasons, I really wished Rose and Tate had just been friends.
Firstly: their personal issues were poignant enough without the romance that it wasn’t needed to give the book emotional depth. Plain and simple, it was unnecessary, and there was almost no way in which it actually served the plot. It may have been a contributing factor to a big fight they had late in the book, but there were so many other reasons that happened that I can’t very well say that their burgeoning romance caused it. Basically, it accomplished nothing – I felt like it was there just to be there.
Secondly: it came out of nowhere. I know they were best friends, but other than one description of Rose blushing at an accidental touch, there had been absolutely no indication that their love for each other extended beyond a deep platonic bond until Tate kissed her out of the blue around the 40% mark. It was just…weird. They had a great friendship, and I was really hoping it would stay that way because there was no indication that it wouldn’t before that kiss (except in the summary that I didn’t read carefully enough), but nope. I’m almost never the “just let the girl and guy who obviously care deeply about each other be friends” person, but this book was an exception.
And lastly: the way the romantic subplot was written sort of fell into the “stereotypically hormonal teenagers” trap so much that, I’m sorry to say, at times it kind of read like fanfiction. It’s not that it was badly written; the comparison is more just in that this book took every possible excuse to get them in bed together. Even if I wasn’t Super Uncomfortable with sexy stuff in books (I gravitate towards adventure stories partly because they have less of that since you can’t very well get scandalous when you’re fighting for your life…I was wrong), that would have been weird. There was a good 20% in the middle that I had to skim because it got so much more graphic than I was comfortable with. I’m not sure how realistic it was that they went from childhood besties to Uncomfortably Physical after ONE KISS while FACING CERTAIN DEATH? Idk man. It was weird.
All of that sounds super harsh, and I feel bad for being so hard on this book when I actually did really enjoy it. I love sports and adventure books, and the setting was novel and excellently-realized, and I liked the characters (especially the supporting cast), and really, the romance didn’t kill it because *SPOILER* they get separated right after they get together, so it’s not that much of the book *END SPOILER*. And there was one scene at the end that genuinely made me want to cheer. “Above All Else” was a gripping adventure that I greatly enjoyed – its only major flaw was that it tried to be a romance when it really wasn’t.
Favorite Scene: at the end, when Tate conquers his internal demons for long enough to rescue some dying climbers who no one else was willing to help – that was the best moment of this entire book by far.
What Made This Book Stand Out: the novelty of the setting and premise, and its impeccably-researched descriptions of Nepal and mountaineering.
One-Sentence Summary: man, this mountain is really out to get these kids…
Something that Bugged Me: …didn’t I already beat that dead horse enough times?
Adult Content: quite a bit of language, TONS of making out (described pretty graphically), and at least one sex scene that’s sort of described but I’m not really sure to what extent because I skipped over that section.
Overall Rating: 4/5 Confused Llamas