Review: MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga

I know. I know. I just reviewed a book about suicide. And this is another book about suicide. What is with the suicide books, Lauren?

I promise this isn’t going to become a theme on my blog. I finished this book and promptly decided that it was time for something happy and different (so I started simultaneously reading a light YA contemp and a futuristic adult hard sci-fi. This is proving to be an interesting combo). But I’d heard such amazing things about My Heart and Other Black Holes that even though I’d just finished I Was Here, I couldn’t wait to read it.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution: a teen boy with the username FrozenRobot (aka Roman) who’s haunted by a family tragedy is looking for a partner.

Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together. Except that Roman may not be so easy to convince.

My Thoughts:

Suicide isn’t a topic most people like to discuss. It’s upsetting and sad, and I doubt the majority of folks want to believe that it’s a subject they’ll ever have to deal with personally. Of course, they think, if they ever need to talk about it, they will. They will get a suicidal person the help they need, and they will be supportive, and they will show their loved one that they are not alone.

The problem with that sort of thinking, unfortunately, is depression and suicidal thoughts are not visible to the naked eye. They isolate and tear down, whispering to the depressed person that they are alone in their struggle, and sometimes the people who love them don’t see the signs until it is too late.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES tackles this difficult conundrum. Aysel (pronounced Uh-zel) is a 16-year-old girl living each day in tremendous doubt and fear after a horrific incident that turned her life upside down and inside out. Roman is a 17-year-old boy wracked with suffocating guilt over a terrible tragedy that he feels was his fault. Both of them consider the cold end of death far more appealing than the certain pain of continuing their lives. Both of them know they can’t take the plunge into that dark unknown without a little nudge.

Both of them feel completely, devastatingly, alone.

But in that loneliness, they find common ground. And on that ground, using the pieces of their shattered lives, they start to build.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES takes a thoughtful, honest approach to depression and suicidal thoughts. Aysel’s pain is very real and raw, and there are no easy answers for her. She sees the world through a jagged, fragmented lens that twists everything into ugly and hateful shapes. But even as she longs to escape her life, she has fears and uncertainties about what taking her own life means. And when she looks at Roman — a boy who is good looking, popular, athletic, and loved by his parents — she sees so many reasons to live that she can’t see for herself.

I’ll admit, parts of this story were hard for me to read. Any time Aysel had to interact with Roman’s parents and felt guilt over what his death would do to them, I was gutted. And when the tragedies in each of their lives are revealed, it was achingly clear that should Roman and Aysel decide to live, their journeys will not be without pain and heartache and the kind of healing that can hurt worse than bleeding. This is not a story with easy answers or simple anything, and it felt all the more real for it. As the Author’s Note at the end of the book states, recovery is not a switch flipping, but a daily battle that some people fight their whole lives.

But despite the pain and loneliness and bitter heartbreak in Aysel and Roman’s lives, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is not a bleak book about death, but a story about hope. It takes two broken, hurting people and shows us that even at our darkest, we can be someone’s light. Even at our weakest, we can find strength. And even the loneliest of us can provide support to someone who may desperately need it.

Review: I WAS HERE by Gayle Forman

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Recently I was contacted by a publicist at Viking Penguin asking if I’d be willing to conduct an interview with one of their authors, who would be in my area soon. I’m not sure why they picked me, but I’m glad they did, because that author turned out to be Gayle Forman, author of international bestseller If I Stayamong other popular books. If I Stay was recently made into a movie, which means Gayle is now understandably busy, so I leapt at the opportunity to read her newest book, I Was Here, and then sit down to talk with her.

When you know you’re going to meet the author, there’s always a bit of nervousness that comes with reading their book. No author expects every reader to love their work, but so many of the authors I’ve met are such lovely people that I desperately want to be able to tell them I enjoy their stories.

With Gayle, I needn’t have worried. Not only was she kind and generous and wise in person, but I loved her book. Like most of her work, the subject matter is difficult, but it’s handled well, with care and honesty. It may actually be my favorite one of her books.

You can read my interview with Gayle on Young Adult Books Central, as well as enter to win a hardcover copy of I Was Here.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

When her best friend Meg drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated. She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, who broke Meg’s heart. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.

I Was Here is Gayle Forman at her finest, a taut, emotional, and ultimately redemptive story about redefining the meaning of family and finding a way to move forward even in the face of unspeakable loss.

My Thoughts:

After reading Forman’s debut novel, If I Stay, and its sequel, Where She Went, I knew Forman was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects and handling them with care, which is why I was interested to see her approach to one of the most upsetting and relevant topics in our society today, teen suicide. Though the subject matter is far from pleasant, it only takes a glance at the headlines to confirm that this is a very real problem facing teens. It is my hope that I Was Here and books like it will help kids experiencing thoughts of suicide realize they are not alone, and raise awareness in the people who love them.

I Was Here follows Meg’s best friend, Cody, as she learns to navigate life without her other half following Meg’s suicide. We never meet Meg except through Cody’s memories, and while there is an element of mystery and suspense as Cody tries to make sense of why Meg would kill herself, I Was Here is ultimately a book about grief, and how to move on after unspeakable loss.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed a book centered on such a grim topic, but I did. I Was Here constantly walked the line between hopeful and tragic, light and dark, guilt and healing. Cody could be a difficult narrator at times, partially because she was in such a painful emotional state and partially because Cody was naturally standoffish, but the other characters provided balance and occasional humor, which I appreciated.

As in all of Forman’s books, there is a romantic element to I Was Here, but it took a backseat to Cody and Meg’s story. I enjoyed watching Cody and her reluctant love interest come together, and fans of subtle, slow-burn romance will appreciate how their story is woven into the main narrative of trying to put together the pieces Meg left behind.

The mystery – why Meg killed herself when, to Cody’s eyes, she had shown no indication that she was suicidal – takes both Cody and the reader down a disturbing rabbit hole that is both illuminating and horrifying. I was concerned at first that the book may attempt to distance itself from its subject matter, taking the easy way out, but I shouldn’t have worried. I Was Here faces its demons head-on, even when Cody would prefer to stay steeped in denial.

Even though the book winds up where most people probably assume it must, the journey Cody takes to get there is in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, and at the end, I came away satisfied. I’d recommend this book to fans of Forman’s previous books, as well as anyone interested in a raw, thoughtful story of depression, loss, grief, and healing.

Review: FOR REAL by Alison Cherry

Hey, look at that! I’m writing a review! For a book! I know it’s been a while, and I’m sorry about that. Part of the problem is I’ve been reading a lot of ARCs that won’t come out for a few months, and I’d rather write the review closer to release, and part of the problem is that I’ve been revising and it’s hard for my brain to shift into reader mode when I’m in revision mode (it really messes with my ability to pleasure read when I’m so caught up in sentence length and awkward phrasing and is this chapter really necessary? and could this character’s motivation be clearer?) — and, if I’m honest, part of the problem is laziness. I’ve read some good books that I just haven’t bothered to review because I haven’t felt like it.

I know. I’m sorry. I will try to do better.

But two weeks ago, I was blindsided by a Killer Death Plague that rendered me incapable of doing anything other than lying in bed, miserable. Sometimes sleeping, sometimes just staring at the wall. I was too decrepit even to watch TV or read books. It was horrible.

That was the first week. The second was better — I could focus my brain enough to watch a show on Netflix, or process the words in a book. I absolutely could not sit in front of my computer and do anything writing-related. So I decided to put my current WIPs on guilt-free hold and plunge back into reading with what little energy I could muster, and the first book I picked up in my convalescence haze was Alison Cherry’s FOR REAL.

I’ve been looking forward to FOR REAL for a while now. Not only because Alison is an agent-mate, or because I contributed a (teeny tiny) idea for it via Twitter, and Alison actually used it in the book, although both of those were certainly factors. But mostly it’s because FOR REAL is a lighthearted book about sisters, and reality TV, and travel, and if that doesn’t sound like the most fun fictional frolic ever, I’m just really not sure what to tell you.

And friends, even weakened and fuzzied by illness as I was, I could not put this book down. Literally. I read this book in one sitting. I stayed up past my bedtime. I probably didn’t help my recovery at all. And I had no regrets.

THE PLOT (From Goodreads):

No parents. No limits. No clue what they’re in for.

Shy, cautious Claire has always been in her confident older sister’s shadow. While Miranda’s life is jam-packed with exciting people and whirlwind adventures, Claire gets her thrills vicariously by watching people live large on reality TV.

When Miranda discovers her boyfriend, Samir, cheating on her just before her college graduation, it’s Claire who comes up with the perfect plan. They’ll outshine Miranda’s fame-obsessed ex while having an amazing summer by competing on Around the World, a race around the globe for a million bucks. Revenge + sisterly bonding = awesome.

But the show has a twist, and Claire is stunned to find herself in the middle of a reality-show romance that may or may not be just for the cameras. This summer could end up being the highlight of her life… or an epic fail forever captured on film. In a world where drama is currency and manipulation is standard, how can you tell what’s for real?

MY THOUGHTS:

Man, this book was fun.

Everything about the premise of this book appealed to me. Sisters. Revenge. Reality TV. International travel. Romantic shenanigans. It sounded like exactly the sort of breezy, light read that would leave me with happy butterflies in my tummy and a goofy smile on my face. The kind of book that’s cozy like a pair of fuzzy slippers and a glass of lemonade. And it delivered in every way.

Miranda and Claire are not a saccharine-sweet pair of sisters — think less Meg and Beth, more Jo and Amy. They’re different in their interests, looks, personalities, insecurities. They’re the way I think lots of siblings are — two people who may not have ever chosen to spend much time interacting with each other if they hadn’t been raised under the same roof. It’s not that they’re incompatible; more that they’re not inherently complementary. But incongruities aside, they share a special bond, and I felt FOR REAL did a fantastic job exploring that dichotomy — sisters who love each other and are fiercely loyal to each other, despite how little they have in common.

I loved – loved – how their relationship was the driving force of the story. Miranda’s revenge on her sleazy ex-boyfriend, Claire’s awkward attempts to woo her charming crush, and the array of bizarre challenges they were forced to complete as contestants on Around the World were highly entertaining, but all the big emotional punches hinged on what was happening between the two sisters, as did most of the big shifts in motivation and stakes. It’s no big surprise that my favorite scene in the book — and one that may have provoked a few tears — was a quiet moment between the two sisters in the midst of all the crazy set pieces swirling around them. I loved the balance between the absurdity of what the characters were forced to do and the groundedness of the relationships. A book about competing on a ridiculous reality show needs to really drive home the authenticity in its characters and emotion, and I thought FOR REAL did a masterful job of that.

That said, the Around the World premise (and its unexpected and wholly inconvenient twist) was such wacky fun. Everything from the premise of the show, to the insane challenges, to the over-the-top contestants, to the polished host, to the zany twists was simultaneously outlandish and totally plausible in the current landscape of reality television. Following the characters through each challenge was as compulsively readable as actual reality TV is watchable. Plus I loved the snippets of different countries and cultures as the characters raced from one exotic location to another, even as the characters were frustrated that they didn’t really get to experience the different cultures because they were too busy smashing pomegranates and coating each other in pudding (yes, really).

As for the romance, all I’ll say is that FOR REAL is chock-full of the kind of witty banter and squishy moments and stolen glances that make for the best kind of romantic comedy — but that it never forgets its reality show premise, or that the primary focus of the book is the two sisters. So don’t expect conventional romance tropes to come into play here — in FOR REAL, the boys are the side show, never the main attraction.

All in all, if you’re a fan of great sister stories, or reality TV, or travel — or you’re just looking for a fun, quick, un-put-down-able read that makes you chuckle and groan and roll your eyes, all while tugging at your heartstrings and making you grin like a fool — then FOR REAL is the book for you.

Review: DELIVERANCE by C.J. Redwine

Received an ARC from the author

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, if you’ve spent any time perusing this blog, I’m a fan of adventure stories. Hero journeys, epic battles, sprawling quests, monster slayage – in the Encyclopedia of Me, under the heading of “Favorites,” these are the things you’d find at the very top.

Which is why I’ve so enjoyed C.J. Redwine’s Defiance trilogy.  C.J. is a friend of mine, but before I was a friend I was a fan. I read Defiance in one sitting, and found the murder mystery plot of Deception riveting, so when she handed me an ARC of Deliverance, the conclusion to the trilogy, I may have hugged it to my heart like a world-saving prophecy baby and scampered away before she could change her mind and take it back.

I’m not saying that happened. But it may have.

If you’ve been swept up in the first two books of the series and can’t wait to see how it all concludes – buckle up. Here there be dragons.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Everything hangs in the balance, and nothing is certain: Rachel has been kidnapped by enemy forces and is being taken to Rowansmark while Logan, imprisoned and awaiting trial, is unable to leave Lankenshire. Separated from each other and their Baalboden comrades, each must find a way to achieve what they desperately want: to rid their world once and for all of the Commander and the tech that controls the deadly Cursed One.

Fighting through her pain and embracing the warrior she’s become, Rachel will do whatever it takes to escape her enemies’ clutches and join Logan in his fight. But when she learns a secret that changes everything, she realizes that escaping Ian and his tracker friends is no longer an option if she wants to save the people she loves. Instead, she’ll have to destroy Rowansmark from the inside out—if she can survive the journey through the Wasteland.

Logan needs allies if he wants to thwart Rowansmark’s power grab and rescue Rachel. But securing allies will mean betraying his beliefs and enlisting the help of the man he hates more than anyone: Commander Jason Chase. Driven by his fierce love for Rachel and his determination to make their world safe, Logan may be just the weapon the city-states need to defeat the Cursed One.

But as Rowansmark bears down and uneasy alliances are tested, will Rachel and Logan’s love for each other be enough to surmount the unbelievable odds against them?

My Thoughts:

A word of warning before you start: if you haven’t read the first two books in the DEFIANCE series, or if it’s been a while and you really don’t remember them, you’re going to want to catch up before cracking open DELIVERANCE. The final book in the trilogy hits the ground running, picking up shortly after DECEPTION left off and plunging the reader back into the action-heavy plot with Rachel, Logan, and a host of characters that could get overwhelming if you haven’t ventured into their post-apocalyptic world for a while.

Fortunately, C.J. Redwine handles her hefty cast with dexterity, and while the list of players is lengthy, she manages to imbue each one with his or her own distinctive personality that keeps the pages from turning into a confusing mishmash of names. There are several new characters in DELIVERANCE, but most of the story centers around familiar faces from the first two books. Rachel and Logan, along with old favorites such as Willow and Quinn, are plunged into galloping adventure at a breakneck pace as they rush to save innocent people and bring justice to the evil Commander, as well as James Rowan, the sadistic ruler of neighboring city-state Rowansmark.

For fans of the romance between Logan and Rachel, the two lovebirds really get to test whether absence really does make the heart grow fonder in DELIVERANCE, as they spend the bulk of the book separated. Don’t despair, though, shippers – though it may take a while for them to find each other, they remain as smitten as ever, with their thoughts continually drifting toward each other. I thought it was a nice way to incorporate the romantic plot without retreading old ground, and it kept the pages turning to see how they’d eventually work their way back together.

In the meantime, there is action and intrigue galore, as our intrepid heroes now have to face not just one, but TWO Big Bads in the form of Commander Chase and James Rowan. We’ve had three books now to build up our hatred of the commander, but James Rowan gives him a serious run for his money. I found myself torn between WHICH dastardly foe deserved the more wretched end, but by the time the dust settled, I thought the outcome was just.

In addition to the duo of evil masterminds, Logan and Rachel also have to face off against armies, assassins, and tanniyn (read: DRAGONS!) galore, in a twisting, action-packed plot that rarely stops for a breath. Old questions get answered, long-overdue debts are settled, and while the resolution of the conflicts that have been building for three books now is not neat, it is fitting. Trilogy conclusions are tricky, but I believe this one wraps up most of the loose ends in a way that is both satisfying to the reader and appropriate to the characters.

If you have enjoyed the first two books in the Defiance series, I believe you will find DELIVERANCE a worthy send-off for C.J.’s fantastical, post-apocalyptic world, and for the characters you’ve grown to love. And if you haven’t yet plunged into the adventures of Rachel and Logan, now would be the perfect time to start.

Review: TEASE by Amanda Maciel

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

I can’t really put my finger on why I was so eager to read Amanda Maciel’s debut Tease. I read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why last year, and remember feeling like it was a book that was important for high schoolers — and people of all ages, really — to read. Despite the difficult subject matter (teen suicide), I thought that book did an amazing job of showing how words and actions have consequences, and how many times people aren’t as strong as you think.

When I heard about Tease, written from the perspective of a bully following her 16-year-old classmate’s suicide, it seemed like it would be another challenging but eye-opening book that wouldn’t be easy to read, but would be important. So when I got the chance to read and review it, I snapped it up.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Emma Putnam is dead, and it’s all Sara Wharton’s fault. At least, that’s what everyone seems to think. Sara, along with her best friend and three other classmates, has been criminally charged for the bullying and harassment that led to Emma’s shocking suicide. Now Sara is the one who’s ostracized, already guilty according to her peers, the community, and the media. In the summer before her senior year, in between meetings with lawyers and a court-recommended therapist, Sara is forced to reflect on the events that brought her to this moment—and ultimately consider her own role in an undeniable tragedy. And she’ll have to find a way to move forward, even when it feels like her own life is over.

With its powerful narrative, unconventional point of view, and strong anti-bullying theme, this coming-of-age story offers smart, insightful, and nuanced views on high school society, toxic friendships, and family relationships.

My Thoughts:

From the opening pages of TEASE, I knew I wasn’t going to like Sara — and that it was okay. It’s a rare YA book that has such a purposely unlikable narrator (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Lauren Oliver’s BEFORE I FALL) but when you’re reading about a girl that bullied her classmate to the point of suicide, you don’t really expect her to be all sweetness and light.

If you are looking for sweetness and light, a warning: there is none of that in these pages.

Sara is self-centered, whiny, and seems to lack even a trace of empathy for everyone around her. Her rolling eyes and her “like, whatever” attitude immediately set the tone for the rest of the book. This wasn’t a girl I wanted to root for. This was a girl I wanted to take by the shoulders and shake every time she repeated her “But I didn’t do anything” mantra — which she does for almost the entire novel, which alternates chapters between the months leading up to Emma’s suicide and the months following.

In the flashbacks, we get to watch Sara and her BFF Brielle (think Regina George from ”Mean Girls,” except worse) be utterly, inexcusably horrible Emma. They’re vicious and cruel and infuriating. But what’s interesting is that we also get to see that Emma was no saint herself. She made mistakes. She did some underhanded stuff. In Sara and Brielle’s eyes, she earned every bit of vitriol they spit at her. From Sara’s perspective, she was the victim of Emma’s cruelty, since Emma “stole” her boyfriend. Sara and Brielle were certain that Emma’s tears were a stunt to grab attention, and that everything she did was intended to irritate them.

Now, does that excuse what they did to Emma? No. Not in the slightest. I thought Brielle was an absolutely horrible person (and totally undeserving of Sara’s devotion to her) and that despite Emma’s missteps, the punishments that Sara and Brielle doled out were far, far worse. They were toxic in every way. Watching them revel in their constant abuse of Emma was sickening and horrifying, especially since we kept flashing forward to the period after Emma had died and Sara still couldn’t see that she did anything wrong.

That was the most disturbing part for me. How even after Emma was dead, Sara still couldn’t understand the role she played. She still thought that Emma deserved what they’d done, and that the main problem was her lack of ability to take a joke.

It may sound like I’m trying to discourage you from reading this book, but here’s the thing — I thought TEASE was brilliant. I spent the majority of it furious with Sara and Brielle, but I thought it did an amazing job of showing how bullying happens without romanticizing either the perpetrators or the victims in the slightest. Sara is a terrible bully, but then we get to see her be a wonderful big sister to her two brothers (although let’s be clear – I never really liked her). Emma is absolutely a victim, but she also purposely provokes them on a few occasions. Brielle is…well, Brielle is awful. But her awfulness is still somehow raw and real. Every character in TEASE was fully-formed and utterly believable, which is one of the things that made it so challenging. It wasn’t like reading a story. It was like watching these events unfold in real life, and watching these kids self-destruct, and being unable to do anything about it.

But that’s the beauty of a book. Because despite the fact that Emma, Sara, and Brielle don’t exist, there are kids just like them who do, and maybe after reading TEASE, they will think twice about pulling a prank or starting a rumor. I think it’s good that TEASE is infuriating, because maybe if a reader is furious with Sara, she will try harder to avoid being like Sara.

The prose is far from poetic, peppered with frequent, “like”s, “I don’t know”s, “whatever”s, and ”or something”s from Sara, who narrates exactly like the bored, insecure, self-centered teen she is. Her voice gives the whole book an authenticity that I don’t think could have been achieved with a more lyrical style. It’s a book where I thought the writing was perfection, even though it kind of made me want to rip my hair out.

Which is kind of the theme with every part of TEASE. Infuriating brilliance. Flawless abhorrence. Frustrating authenticity.

TEASE is not an easy book to read, but I found it impossible to put down. It’s beautiful and ugly and terrifying and real, and I think there should be a copy in every high school library. It’s not a book that made me cry, but it’s a book that made me think. I never really came to root for the characters, but I’m not sure that was the point of this book. I hope that in a strange way, this book about these kids who totally lacked empathy will be able to inspire empathy in the Saras and Brielles who are reading. Not toward these fictional characters, but to the real people they encounter every day. I hope they’ll be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and choose the higher road. The one that Sara and Brielle never took.

And to any Emmas out there, hang on. There is always hope.