In a wholesome YA debut by author Steven Salvatore, we explore the journey of Carey Parker, a genderqueer teen who dreams of becoming a diva as grand as their favorite idol, Mariah Carey.

But grand personalities often also have grand backgrounds – and Can’t Take That Away does a stellar job in detailing our soon-to-be music legend’s defining days.

The Good

Carey’s personality and fleshed-out character. Rare times does one encounter a personality as intriguing as Carey Parker. While their personality and dreams are greatly inspired by the miss Carey, Parker is a unique act on their own. The author dedicates just enough time and effort to flesh out our protagonist, with bits and pieces of Carey’s psyche driving almost every plot point. We get detailed insight into their overwhelming love of music and singing through the various details they notice in a track, by comparing moments of high emotional tension to musical crescendos and the like. What’s more, the book also succeeds in showcasing the history of our hero’s passion, what shaped it, and how it became as major.

Carey’s grandmother. Undoubtedly the most captivating side character of this story, Salvatore also establishes perhaps the deepest emotional bond between two characters through her. Offering not only moments of larger-than-life theatrical character illustration, but a deeply heartwrenching line of character development that leaves its mark not only on Carey but the reader, this addition was quite possibly the most remarkable aspect of the inspiring book.

A powerful and inspiring story plus execution. Dealing with unorthodox conceptions of gender identity, Salvatore titles each chapter with Carey’s pronouns of that specific moment in time. This novel sheds light on members of the queer community that desperately lack representation. Carey’s story and character portrayal are not only entertaining, but a superb opportunity to learn about genderfluid individuals and their identities. In addition, the storyline highlights the strength of its characters through the various forms of institutional discrimination thrown at them and how they fight for their rights and acceptance.

Salvatore’s powerful use of imagery. As mentioned when discussing Carey’s personality, the writing of Salvatore is captivating and memorable, especially when describing peak moments of sentimental intensity through a multitude of striking visual metaphors and similies.

The side characters. Salvatore’s novel seldom includes side-characters with no real significance attached to them. Every single supporting personality is detailed and lifelike, the author offering fleshed-out backstories and personality profiles to everyone in these chapters.

The Meh

A character’s death. Although the moments leading up to this turning point were executed with great detail to pacing and emotional significance, one might wonder if our protagonist brushed off this passing too fast. While it’s true that the fast-paced events of the last chapters didn’t allow for much introspection and grief, an additional touch of humanity might have been added to the book if the reader had been given the chance to witness Carey working through grief-related drama while also fighting for what they believe in. This is not the case for the most part – Carey compartmentalizes grief and bravery quite unrealistically, with no seeming effect on their psyche.

Besides, readers might be left with the idea that the grandmother’s passing came too soon in the story. Had it taken place further on – perhaps at the height of the school protests – it would have made for a higher-intensity read. What’s more, her character was simply too interesting to let go of so soon (it might be a good idea to explore her early years in a prequel).

A sweet, yet predictable plot with at times unrealistic writing. Although not unheard of or to be shunned in a novel directed towards young audiences in need of inspiration, the at times overarching justice-triumphs-all writing can be exhausting. And while it was adorable to see Carey getting noticed for their heroic deeds, what happened next can be deemed as a rather silly ending.

The Verdict

Although it shows signs of an author halfway between the fantasy and reality of our world, the book is no doubt a high-quality work of literature that could potentially change the lives of millions of young people. Not just through its inclusive and positive representation of queer characters, but through storytelling that’s attentive to detail, emotion, and the rhythm of a heartwarming story.

And at the end of the day, who’s to say a world where justice triumphs all can’t exist? Dreamers like Steven Salvatore will always exist to help us believe in a better future – and we can’t take that away.

82/100

Steven Salvatore at a signing for their debut novel, Can’t Take That Away

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