Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Recently I was approached with the opportunity to interview Celeste Ng, debut author of Everything I Never Told You, for YABC (look for that interview to post next month). I’d actually decided to take a hiatus from reading YA for a little while — I’ve been nitpicking every YA book I’ve read recently, which I think has far more to do with me hitting a saturation point than the books themselves — and was preparing to decline for that reason, but then I read the summary. And I couldn’t say no.

Not because it was a family drama surrounding a dead kid, but because it was a family drama about a Chinese-American father, a white mother, and their mixed-race kids. Which is my family. And while I’ve never been a person that needs to see myself in a story to relate to it, I was curious to see if my experience would be reflected in this book. There simply aren’t that many books out there with Chinese characters, especially books with Chinese characters that are not about being Chinese. So I was intrigued. How would she pull it off? Would she pull it off?

Let’s discuss.

(Also, before we get to my review, I want to mention that after reading this, I don’t believe this book is YA. I assumed it would be, since I was reading it for YABC, but while there are indeed some teen characters, I feel this book is more accurately described as adult literary fiction with crossover appeal.)

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

My Thoughts:

From its very first page, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU utterly captivated me with its poetic, sparse prose and keen emotional insight. Each word feels carefully chosen to immerse the reader in the Lee family’s household, which seems ordinary at first — in spite of the dead girl no one has yet discovered — but as the layers peel back, we learn things are far more complicated.

I was surprised, at first, at the narration of the story. Told in the third-person, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU strolls casually through the thoughts of its five main characters — parents James and Marilyn, and their children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah — sometimes sticking with one character for nearly an entire chapter, other times jumping from one to another to another all within the confines of a single scene. In addition to that, the narrative also darts back and forth through time, from James’ and Marilyn’s childhoods, college years, and courtship, up through their children’s lives, all the way to and beyond Lydia’s untimely death.  One might think this head-hopping and time-leaping would be disorienting or confusing, but it isn’t. Ng juggles it all masterfully, so that instead of the story rolling out in a neat line, it unfolds like a flower, all at once and in every direction.

The characters themselves were an interesting puzzle. On the one hand, they almost felt less like people and more like concepts or symbols. Though I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a book about racism, or feminism, or parental pressure, or adultery, or sibling rivalry –all those themes are present, and important, but as an undercurrent to the story, not the story itself — there are times when it seemed as though a character was the embodiment of an issue, rather than the embodiment of a person. Normally, this would turn me off. I love a good plot, but I read for character. If the characters don’t feel like real people to me, that doesn’t usually bode well for the book.

However — and this is a huge however — in this particular case, I was all right that the characters felt a little more ambiguous, because the emotion was spot-on. While I’m not sure that James is a person one could ever know, the way he felt growing up as the only Chinese kid in an all-white school rang entirely true. I could feel my hands shake as Marilyn stepped into a physics classroom full of men, feel my stomach clench as Lydia’s grades slipped and tumbled, feel my heart sink as Nath learned how mean children can be. I had to stop reading at one point because I needed to remind myself that the family’s grief was not my own; at another, I put the book down so I could go into my sleeping daughters’ room and hug them and tell them that they were loved, because the pain the parents in the book felt at not being able to tell Lydia those things left me no other choice.

For me, if a book can make me feel emotions that raw and sharp, it trumps absolutely everything else.

I also want to talk a bit about ethnicity, and how the fact that James is Chinese and his children are mixed-race works its way into the story. As the child of a Chinese father and a white mother, I was curious to see how that aspect of the book would be handled. And while the experiences of the Lees (particularly Nath and Lydia) were not and are not my experience — partially because of the 1970s setting of the book, and partially because I was not the only not-white kid growing up — they felt authentic to me, and I could relate to much of how they thought and acted and reacted. It’s hard to put into words the sense of knowing you are different but not feeling different, of forgetting that sometimes people will look at you and see an ethnicity instead of a person. I am fortunate to have only felt this way sporadically throughout my life — for some, as it is for James in the book, I know it is constant — but EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU does an excellent job of conveying how those times felt, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly, as it is in life. Being Chinese — or half-Chinese, or married to a Chinese man — does not define the whole of who the Lees are, but is instead a thread woven through their being, informing every aspect of their lives, whether or not they are conscious of it.

As for the plot — the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death, what led to them, and how the family reacts — I found it simple, but never straightforward or boring. As in real life, there are multiple forces at play here, and though the plot itself isn’t complex — a girl dies, and her family tries to make sense of her death — the real story here is in the nuance. It’s impossible, after putting down the book, to cite any one reason or cause for Lydia’s death. It’s a culmination of her whole life, of her parent’s lives, of her siblings’ lives, and all the choices and hurts and slights and misunderstandings and pressures running through each. When we finally reached the night of Lydia’s death in the narrative and everything was explained, it wasn’t the “a-ha!” moment one typically expects in a mystery, but more a quiet, “of course.” For really, this isn’t a mystery about the death of a teenage girl, but a story about a family’s complex relationships with each other. Not a line or an arc, but a web.

Ultimately, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a beautifully crafted tale full of honest emotion and raw truth. Though it is quiet, the gorgeous prose and heart-wrenching story kept me riveted from the first page to the last, and will keep my thoughts spinning for some time to come.

Review: WE ALL LOOKED UP by Tommy Wallach

I’ve been sitting on this review for months, ever since I stole borrowed the ARC from a friend who wasn’t quite as enthused about the idea of a quiet YA apocalypse as I was. I don’t know what it is about the human-race-facing-their-imminent-demise premise that I find so fascinating — maybe it’s spending my formative years in the ’90s when every other movie was about one form or another of Armageddon, including one (which I unabashedly love so don’t even attempt to speak ill of it) actually titled Armageddon — but no matter the reason, all I knew is when I read the blurb of We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Now, make no mistake, this book is way less Armageddon and way more Melancholia. There is no rag-tag group of rugged miscreants tasked with saving the world, no last-ditch far-fetched government plan that unites the nations, and definitely no curmudgeonly-but-secretly-heroic mission leader willing to lay it all on the line for the greater good.

Still, if you’d like to read this review imagining Aerosmith playing softly in the background — or actually playing Aerosmith softly in the background — that is fine.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Four high school seniors put their hopes, hearts, and humanity on the line as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth in this contemporary novel.

They always say that high school is the best time of your life.

Peter, the star basketball player at his school, is worried “they” might actually be right. Meanwhile Eliza can’t wait to escape Seattle—and her reputation—and perfect-on-paper Anita wonders if admission to Princeton is worth the price of abandoning her real dreams. Andy, for his part, doesn’t understand all the fuss about college and career—the future can wait.

Or can it? Because it turns out the future is hurtling through space with the potential to wipe out life on Earth. As these four seniors—along with the rest of the planet—wait to see what damage an asteroid will cause, they must abandon all thoughts of the future and decide how they’re going to spend what remains of the present.

My Thoughts:

I really love a well-executed multiple-point-of-view book, but they’re hard to execute well. I’ve read a lot of multiple POV books by authors I otherwise enjoyed where the attempt to jump from one head to another kind of fell flat. Either one POV resonates more than the other(s), or they all sound kind of the same, or any number of other reasons.

Which is why this book stood out so much.

Even in third person, each of WE ALL LOOKED UP’s four narrators had their own unique voice, and each was a fully developed character, with strengths and flaws and moments of greatness mixed with moments of what-could-you-possibly-have-been-thinking. From Andy’s boneheaded pursuit of Eliza, to Anita’s ill-advised self-emancipation, to Eliza’s frustration over her undeserved reputation and Peter’s struggle between who he’s always been and who he wants to be, they all have honest and daunting uphill battles to fight in the face of their possibly impending doom.

The relationships start shallow, but become interwoven, intricate, and challenging. At the opening of the story, none of the four main characters know each other outside of a peripheral acquaintance, but as the meteor strips away the social boundaries keeping them apart, they come together in interesting and unexpected ways. They all begin the book viewing each other as objects and stereotypes — some more than others, but none are immune — until they don’t. Every one of them starts out as some version of “problematic” — again, some more than others — which, to me, read very true to where a lot of teens (and adults) are, drifting through life not really thinking about how their views and choices affect others until they have to.

I found it fascinating how the end-of-the-world scenario shoved them into those “until they have to” situations, and did it for each of them in different ways. How each faced the reality that they might all be dead in a couple months varied greatly — Do you try to become a better person? Do the thing you’ve always been afraid to do? Throw caution to the wind? — and told me a lot about each character and the lives they’d lived up to that point. By the end of the book, you may not necessarily be rooting for all four characters — some of them make some terrible choices with awful consequences — but I felt I understood them all better, and that they finally understood each other. Which, to me, felt like the point of their winding journeys.

The other aspect of this book I really loved was the glimpse into how society as a whole might handle an impending cataclysm. Since the approach of the meteor takes several months, and since they never know definitively whether its going to hit the earth or not, the world doesn’t instantly descend into chaos. Life goes on as normal — or normal-ish — for a while after the maybe-apocalypse is announced. But the closer the meteor gets, the more things break down. Kids stop attending school, people in unfulfilling jobs stop going to work, prices for basic goods and services skyrocket, rules and laws carry less and less weight until they’re eventually meaningless. The global shift in priorities starts subtle, then grows more and more pronounced throughout the book, until you can’t help but feel the slide. I’m not saying this is necessarily a more or less realistic view of what might happen than in other works of fiction where society bands together to work for the good of all; it’s just different. And for me, it was fascinating and kept the wheels in my brain turning for days after I finished the book.

I can’t speak to the science of the story. Physicists, I don’t know how realistic it is that NASA wouldn’t be able to predict whether or not a giant meteor will or will not hit us until the moment of impact. All I ask of science fiction (and this is extremely light science fiction, and even that categorization may be pushing it) is that it present its case in a way that allows me to buy into its premise for the duration of the book, and doesn’t throw anything at me that is so obviously far-fetched that it pulls me out of the story. And for me, WE ALL LOOKED UP delivered on that front.

Boiled down to its bones, this book is not an apocalypse story, but a character and relationship study under extraordinary circumstances. Its overall tone is quiet and contemplative, but there are definite moments of adrenaline and action and shock. It’s a weird one to peg down, because on one hand it has some definite science fiction aspects, but on the other hand it reads much more like a contemporary. I’d say that if you can swallow the maybe-end-of-the-world premise, and you enjoy well-drawn, far-from-perfect characters in scenarios that keep you thinking long after turning the final page, then you should try WE ALL LOOKED UP.

Film Review: INSURGENT

This past week I got the opportunity to catch an advance screening of Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s action-packed YA blockbuster Divergent. I’ll be honest, I was on the fence about this one. While I was pleasantly surprised by the first movie, the trailers for the second left me scratching my head. The entire first teaser appeared to be either a dream sequence or a fearscape (one of the drug-induced hallucinations characters in the franchise’s dystopian Chicago face to prove their bravery) — is it a red flag when a movie has to advertise using a scene that has nothing to do with the actual plot? — and the full trailer strongly hinted that the adaptation would be deviating in a big way from the book.

Box? What box? The box isn’t in the book. What’s in the box? (Anyone else unable to read that question in anything other than the traumatized voice of Brad Pitt? Just me?)

But since the first film had exceeded my trailer-based expectations, and since the second book was my favorite of the series, I went into Insurgent with an open mind and cautious hope.

Insurgent opens shortly after Divergent leaves off. Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) have sought refuge in the peaceful Amity compound outside the city limits while they try to determine their next move. Meanwhile, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), head of the Erudite faction, has gotten her hands on the aforementioned Mysterious Box, and is obsessed with finding a Divergent who can open it. Hence Eric (Jai Courtney) is leading a group of Dauntless soldiers around attempting to round up Tris and her ragtag group of rebels.

Obviously, chaos ensues. And continues to ensue for the entirety of Insurgent’s 2-hour running time. Which, if you read the book, is about what you’d expect from its adaptation; neither version of the story is short on action sequences.

However, I did take some issue with the way the action unfolded. In both the book series and the movies, Tris becomes a far more competent soldier and leader in the second installment. But while the book version of Tris also develops a more mature and measured way of thinking and problem solving, even if it means making hard decisions, the movie version did away with that pesky nuance, instead opting to have her lash out violently any time she was placed in a tough situation or in a conversation with someone she didn’t like. This did lead to some fun fight scenes, and yes, I suppose one could argue that it made Tris “strong,” but for me, I would’ve liked a bit more strength of character and a bit less strength of temper and fists.

As a sidebar, it was kinda odd seeing Shailene Woodley in scenes opposite literally all of her previous YA movie love interests. I mean. She’s had a really good past few years professionally, but it’s starting to get weird.

TJ: Divergent is the best.
MT: SAY THAT TO MY FACE.
TJ: I just did. I punch people A LOT in these movies. What did you do in Spectacular Now? Cry?
MT: Not as much as SOME people.
AE: Uh, guys? I’m right here.
TJ: I TAKE MY SHIRT OFF TOO.
AE: I took mine off in Fault In Our Stars. AND my leg.
MT: OH SNAP.
Shailene Woodley: Hate to break this up, but we’re supposed to be filming an awkward scene with all four of us now, okay? Okay.

As far as acting goes, Insurgent boasts a lot of heavy hitters in the cast, but I felt that a lot of them failed to deliver. While I was surprised by how well both Shailene Woodley and Theo James handled their roles in the first movie (despite my complete inability to buy him as an 18-year-old), in this one, they were lacking for me. Naomi Watts, whom I usually like, was surprisingly unconvincing as [highlight for minor spoiler: Four's presumed-dead mom -- who, despite the fact that she is 16 years Theo James' senior in real life, only looks about 5 years older on-screen], and Kate Winslet, whom I love and adore, had such an odd over-the-top role to play that even her innate Kate Winslet-ness had trouble saving it. I also had trouble connecting with Ansel Elgort’s character, but I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, as Caleb isn’t exactly Mr. Personality in the books either. However Miles Teller was a wonderfully pleasant surprise, stealing every scene he was in, and Jai Courtney was a sufficiently menacing baddie. So a bit of a mixed bag, for me.

There were also, as I mentioned before, tons of plot changes, both big and small. As often happens in movie adaptations of books with large casts, many characters’ roles were truncated, given to a different character, or eliminated altogether. Subplots were altered and rearranged. And of course, the Mysterious not-in-the-book Box is the central point around which the entire movie’s plot rotates.

While I am not a book purist when it comes to film adaptations — I mean, I thought the Hobbit trilogy was great fun, fanfictiony and ridiculous though it was — I do wish that the filmmakers had taken a little more care to make their Big Changes actually make sense. The logic behind the Mysterious Box is frail at best, a theme that carries through a lot of the narrative choices in the movie.

Characters fight to the death over a misunderstanding that is later cleared up with a single sentence. Characters are shown in no-hope-of-escape scenarios in one scene and then happy as a clam back at their home base in the next, with no explanation how they got there. Bad guys hatch elaborate plots, then they unfold using set pieces put in place before the plot was hatched.

Basically, abandon hope, all ye who seek logic here.

However I don’t want to come across as a big ol’ downer telling you to avoid this movie at all costs. There are some great fight sequences, and anyone hoping to see Shailene Woodley kicking some serious bad-guy booty will be over the moon. There are some huge — albeit a bit video gamey — nifty CGI sequences. There is some surprisingly great comic relief in the form of Miles Teller, whose character I absolutely loathed in the book but kind of adored in the movie. And if Tris and Four (whose shipper name I don’t know, but if it’s anything other than FourTris, which would clearly be pronounced fortress, I quit) are your jam, then you’re in for a treat, as the romance is definitely amped up from the book.

Ultimately, my thoughts on this movie are that if you’re okay with the movie being its own, separate-from-the-book thing, or if you’re there for the action, for the romance, for the high-stakes adrenaline-pumping pace, or for the futuristic dystopian setting, you’ll probably really enjoy it.

If you’re more about tight storytelling and source material faithfulness, this may not be the film for you – or you just need to go in knowing not to place too high a value on those things.

No matter what, if you decide to check out Insurgent at the theater, I hope you have fun, and I’d love to know your thoughts!

Check out the video below for the Drive Through Movie Review Clint Redwine and I filmed after exiting the theater, in which I say “like” way too much, coin the term “Bovine Dystopia,” and do a bad impression of Caleb running. You’re welcome, Internet.

Review: MOSQUITOLAND by David Arnold

This is the time where I should probably remind you that what I do on this blog is not review books, but recommend. I used to do reviews, back before I started seriously pursuing my own writing, but criticizing someone else’s blood, sweat, and tears when art is such a subjective thing never really sat well with me. I’d rather recommend what I love (and stay quiet on what I don’t) than steer folks away from something that just wasn’t for me.

This is why I don’t post that often, and why, when I do, it’s always positive. It’s not that I love every book I pick up. It’s that I only take the time to write about the ones that I enjoy so much, I want to pass them on.

With that reminder and caveat out of the way, I’m going to be honest: I’ve recommended a lot of friends’ books on this blog, and I stand by every single one of those recommendations. But David Arnold’s quirky road-trip debut MOSQUITOLAND has made me a bit more verklempt than usual. Although I am blessed to have many amazingly talented writer friends in my life, and I am so proud of their successes, I met most of them post-agent, post-sale. They were already Authors with a capital A, even if their books hadn’t hit shelves yet.

But I knew David back when he was still an aspiring author. Little a. Like me. And it feels different.

I first met David a couple years ago, at a writing retreat where he and I were assigned to the same critique group. This was before he’d ever sold a book, before either of us had signed with an agent, before we’d even finished our first YA manuscripts or started querying. We were, for all intents and purposes, at the same point in our respective writing journeys.

Our critique groups each had five or six people in them. We traded first chapters and filled out worksheets in an attempt to help each author improve their work. It was very quiet and studious and serious as we passed pages around the table and everyone took a turn jotting their suggestions for how each writer could improve their characters, their prose, their plot and set-up and all the nitty gritty that goes into crafting a book.

I read a lot of good pages.

Then the papers shifted, and the first three chapters of MOSQUITOLAND landed in front of me.

I read them, filled out my worksheet, and then stared at it with a frown, feeling there was something more to say about these pages and not knowing quite how to say it.

Finally I scribbled onto the bottom of the page — I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of– “Don’t tell anyone, but your book is far and away my favorite.

Now here we are, two and a half years later, and MOSQUITOLAND has grown from my favorite 30 pages at a writing retreat into one of my favorite for-real paper-and-ink books on my shelf, and David Arnold has gone from being a fellow aspiring writer whose ridiculous talent was easily spotted even in those early, drafty pages, to a cherished friend.

All that said — I’d recommend this book even if David was a stranger I wouldn’t know if I tripped over him in the street.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

“I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.”

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice, “Mosquitoland” is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.

My Thoughts:

The first thing a reader notices when they pick up MOSQUITOLAND is the voice. Self-proclaimed strange protagonist Mary Iris Malone (“Mim”) leaps off the page, a precocious, declarative and impulsive girl with a view of life and people that is, even at its most stable, a little askew. She is quick to judge and quicker to act, and though her wit is razor-sharp, her common sense is quite a bit more blunted.

Which is why, as one might expect, her spur-of-the-moment road trip to find her absentee mom doesn’t go exactly as planned.

It’s an odd thing, sometimes, being an adult reading books about teenagers. Actions I would have cheered in my adolescence cause me to cringe, situations that appear romantic and exciting to a 16-year-old seem rife with danger, and the logic that feels incontrovertible to the teenage protagonist is riddled with holes.

Often, these are the sorts of things that can pull me out of a story, because checking one’s adult sensibilities at the door is not a natural impulse. Honestly, Mim makes a few choices that would probably even give some — or most — of her peers pause. But her voice is so open and authentic that even when she’s jumping into a scrap-heap truck with an older boy she just met or taking a dip in a probably-disease-riddled swimming hole or any of the myriad other weird and ill-considered things she does, I was with Mim, totally and completely, instead of wishing I could pull her back before she charged headlong into disaster.

And she does, on more than one occasion, charge into disaster. Sometimes physical and cataclysmic, sometimes internal and echoing, and probably not nearly as frequent as might be likely if a real-life Mim were to embark on this same journey. But the consequences Mim faces for her impulsive and often uninformed decisions are enough that while a reader may sympathize with Mim’s intentions, they can still recognize her fallibility and naivete.

As for tone, this book skillfully straddles the line between “issues” and “light” contemporary. It tackles hard topics in a way that gives them weight without bogging down the narrative, and balances tough real-world issues — mental illness, suicide, divorce, and sexual predators, among others (it’s worth mentioning that this book is marketed for readers 12 and up, but I think it skews a bit older) — with an effervescent lightness, as if the story has been painted with a vibrant, Wes Anderson-esque brush. Every part of MOSQUITOLAND is a little brighter and larger than life, from the cast to the plot to Mim herself and her perception of reality.

For my money, that’s a good thing: Mim views her story as grandiose and that is how she tells it, and being submerged in her off-the-beaten-path brain gives her tale a degree of authenticity that may not have been present with a more straightforward narrative.

Mim’s odyssey is a strange one, full of strange characters and strange happenings. But it’s also beautiful and fun and heartfelt and raw, and while Mim’s musings are not always brimming with objective wisdom, they are honest and endlessly quotable.

If you’re a fan of surprisingly eventful road trips, of quirky and bizarre casts of characters, of flawed protagonists, of vivid settings and skewed realities, of the type of voice that will dig its way into your brain and refuse to let go, and of strangeness, I can’t recommend MOSQUITOLAND highly enough.

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.