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Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

history-twoFrom the New York Times bestselling author of More Happy Than Not comes an explosive examination of grief, mental illness, and the devastating consequences of refusing to let go of the past.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are not enough positive words in the universe (this one or alternate ones) to convey how I feel about this book. I was torn between burning through it, so I could see what happens, and forcing myself to slow down, so I could be sure to read every single beautiful word. I absolutely loved More Happy Than Not, but I think it’s possible that I love this book more.

 

The novel begins with Griffin gearing up to go to Theo’s funeral. Theo is his ex-boyfriend, one of his best friends, and his first love. In an act of self-sabotage (or self-preservation), Griffin broke up with Theo when he moved to California over a year ago for college, but they’ve remained in each other’s lives. Griffin thinks of Theo as his once and future love. He figures Theo will find his way back to him at some point. That theory is obliterated when Theo drowns. Griffin unravels. Toggling between their history and the present (where Griffin is directly addressing Theo, who he believes is with him even in death and observing him), Griffin fills in every detail of their relationship and everything that happened after they broke up (though it’s a slow reveal).

 

As I read, I kept thinking of that Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” specifically the lines “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I was thinking of it not in the context of what happened to Theo, but what’s happening with Griffin. As we get to learn more of Griffin’s story, both the history and what he’s currently experiencing, we learn that he’s a real mess. He’s keeping a lot back from everyone (including the reader). He’s doing worse than anyone realizes, for so many reasons. Even when it seems like he’s letting people in, coping a little, trying to process and heal, he’s not. And who can blame him?

 

Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.

 

Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.

 

This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616956929

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 01/17/2017

#MHYALit: Writing a Therapy-Positive Book, a guest post by Marisa Reichardt

MHYALitlogoofficfial

Today we are honored to share a guest post by author Marisa Reichardt. You can read my review of Marisa’s book, Underwater, here. For an index of all of the posts in our Mental Health in YA Literature project, please visit our #MHYALit hub

 

 

I’ve been terrified to write this blog post.

 

I’m not an expert when it comes to mental health. What if I say something wrong? Or what if I say something truthful and real but it gets misinterpreted? But then I remember I had those same fears when writing Underwater. And it was exactly those fears that made me push myself.

 

So here I am.

 

Like my main character Morgan Grant in Underwater, I am not a stranger to anxiety. I am not a stranger to needing therapy. I am not a stranger to having emergency pills in my medicine cabinet for the extra rough days.

 

But it wasn’t always that way. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what was happening to me when I had a panic attack that was so bad I thought I was dying. I didn’t know because I didn’t talk about it. I felt like I couldn’t.

 

In the middle of my worst attacks, I would drag a sleeping bag into my brother’s room and sleep on the floor just so I didn’t have to be alone. Just so I could hear someone else breathing.

 

I was a teenager who needed therapy and didn’t have it.

 

When I was in high school, people didn’t talk about mental health the way they do now. So I accepted there was something inherently wrong with me. That there was nothing I could do about the way I felt. I tried to embrace what my mother and friends told me—that I was “too emotional” or just needed to “get over it” when it came to the things that triggered me. As a result, I kept the nervous energy inside of me until it manifested in stomachaches and throwing up at sleepovers.

 

But how did this all start for me? I think it was when my father passed away from cancer when I was in fourth grade. It was traumatic and terrifying and he was horribly and painfully sick for two years. I was too young to fully comprehend what was happening but since my brother was even younger, I somehow became the mature one. I was the one who could handle it. The one who had to be there for my sibling because my mom and dad were too busy dealing with the thing that would change our lives forever.

 

I was a kid who needed grief counseling and didn’t have it.

 

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I found therapy on my own. I talked. I began to heal. I tried things like biofeedback and meditation. But I am still seeking because therapy isn’t a one and done journey. Sometimes you have to find your way back to it. Life is dynamic and unexpected. This debut author experience has made it clear that I need to find someone to talk to again. And I will.

 

Because therapy isn’t a dirty secret.

 

The most important thing to me in writing Underwater was to write a therapy-positive book because therapy literally saves lives. I could’ve used it as a kid. I could’ve used it as a teenager. I’m glad I found it as an adult. But even though I’ve had my own personal experiences with therapy and anxiety, I knew it wasn’t enough for me to think I could tackle a whole book about it just because I’d been there. For Underwater, I interviewed a psychologist who works specifically with women and teen girls who struggle with anxiety and agoraphobia. Her feedback became crucial to me throughout the writing process.

 

The result was a book of my heart. I’m glad I wrote what scares me. I’m glad I took this journey with Morgan and got to know Brenda. My world became bigger. My understanding went deeper. Writing Underwater helped me feel less alone.

 

I hope it will help others feel less alone too.

 

Meet Marisa Reichardt

Marisa Reichardt_highresMarisa Reichardt is a SoCal native who has paid the bills by shucking oysters, waiting tables, peddling swimwear, tutoring, and writing. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her family and can usually be found huddled over her laptop in coffeehouses or swimming in the ocean. She has a Master of Professional Writing degree from the University of Southern California and dual undergraduate degrees in literature and creative writing from UC San Diego. Underwater is her debut novel. Find her online at her website marisareichardt.com, on Twitter @youngadultish, on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/YoungAdultish, and on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/marisareichardtbooks/

 

About UNDERWATER

Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive-first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then, herself. But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school. When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside. Underwater is a powerful, hopeful debut novel about redemption, recovery, and finding the strength it takes to face your past and move on.

ISBN-13: 9780374368869

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 01/12/2016

#MHYALit: A Place Where I Know: Writing About Grief, a guest post by Hannah Barnaby

Today I’m honored to share with you a moving post by my former coworker and fellow Simmons College alum, Hannah Barnaby. I recently reviewed Hannah’s newest book, Some of the Parts, here on TLT. In my review, I wrote, “Barnaby’s novel is a devastating and powerful look at grief, guilt, and how to survive the aftermath of something that changes who you are. A must-read.” Hannah’s post today on grief is a fantastic contribution to our ongoing series on Mental Health in YA Lit. Visit the #MHYALit hub page to see all of the posts. 

 

I have experienced—fought, wrestled with, submitted to, overcome—both grief and clinical depression. But I have only written about one.

 

The protagonist of my young adult novel, Some of the Parts, is in the throes of grieving for her older brother. Tallie lost Nate a few months before the book opens, in a car accident for which she feels entirely responsible, and she wears her guilt like a lead necklace. She can’t let go. She doesn’t think she deserves to. And then she finds out that she might not have to—Nate was an organ donor, and one of his recipients reaches out to Tallie’s parents. Suddenly Tallie sees a way to alleviate her sadness: if she can track down the other organ recipients, she can prove to herself that Nate isn’t truly gone.

 

Is this rational? No. But neither is grief. And neither is depression.

 

My first bout with depression was during my senior year in high school. My parents were getting divorced and I was overwhelmed with plans for college and homework and extra-curricular stuff. About halfway through the year, I felt myself shutting down. I came home from school every day and got in bed. I slept until dinner, did my homework in a zombie state, and went back to sleep. This went on for weeks. Finally, my parents found me a therapist. Seeing her twice a week until the end of the school year was . . . well, frankly, it was a pain in the butt. I was tired of talking about myself and I was sure that my fatigue and sadness would pass on their own. I told myself—and my therapist—that I was just sad about my parents splitting up. “That’s not what this is,” she told me. And she was right.

 

Clinically speaking, depression and grief look a lot alike. Both involve many of the same symptoms: sadness, fatigue, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, poor concentration, guilt, hopelessness, unbidden memories. Martha Clark Scala, a psychotherapist in San Francisco, says, “Among the bereaved, these symptoms are usually mild or temporary. But these same symptoms may be more chronic or severe among those who are clinically depressed.” Scala also identifies some additional symptoms that may be signs of clinical depression rather than—or on top of—grief: worthlessness, exaggerated guilt, suicidal thoughts or plans, powerlessness, low self-esteem, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

 

I can attest to the fact that it can be difficult to tell grief and depression apart. I did eventually emerge from my high school depression, but it found me again in college. And again after graduation. It kept coming back, like a slow tide, and I learned to recognize it and how to ask for help when I needed it. But then something terrible happened.

 

In 1999, I was a graduate student at Simmons College in Boston. I had just started my second semester and I was given a part-time work study job to help with expenses. I was at that job—stuffing social work school applications into envelopes—when the phone rang at the desk where I was sitting. It wasn’t my desk. It wasn’t my phone. But the call was for me. It was my father, calling to tell me that my younger brother Jesse had died the night before, in a fire at his fraternity house.

 

What followed, as you can imagine, was a whirling blur of confusion and sadness and difficult things. And as my grief soaked into me, I thought, “Oh, I know what this is. I recognize this.” It felt just like my senior year in high school, my sophomore year in college, my post-college year. I was almost relieved, because I knew what to expect. There had always been an ebb and flow to my depression and so I waited for it to move. But it didn’t. Because this wasn’t depression at all, and it wasn’t until I named it something else that I understood: I would have to find a whole new way to cope with this. It was grief, and it had its own landscape altogether.

 

Eventually, I was able to go back to school and to work, and I felt the weight of my grief lessening as I moved forward. Depression had never been like that. Depression had followed its own calendar and it had never dissipated until it was good and ready, no matter what I was doing from day to day, and I think that was because it had no source the way grief did. My depression was like a cloud of gnats that appeared and disappeared with little warning; my grief, though, was born of one very specific loss. And in a strange way, I found that comforting.

 

In writing Tallie’s story, I came full circle in my own grief. I revisited every part of the emotional journey I took after my brother died and I dragged Tallie through it, too. Part of me felt terrible, doing that to someone else. (Even a fictional someone.) But the rest of me felt sure and strong, because I could tell her with certainty, “There is an end to this. There is a door ahead of us. We’ll walk through it together, and you’ll see—there is hope on the other side.”

 

Meet Hannah Barnaby

hannahHannah Barnaby is a former children’s book editor and bookseller, and was the inaugural children’s writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library. Her debut novel, Wonder Show, was a Morris Award finalist in 2013. She lives in Charlottesville, VA with her family. You can find her online at www.hannahbarnaby.com and follow her on Twitter @hannahrbarnaby.

 

 

About Some of the Parts

some of the partsFor months, Tallie McGovern has been coping with the death of her older brother the only way she knows how: by smiling bravely and pretending that she’s okay. She’s managed to fool her friends, her parents, and her teachers, yet she can’t even say his name out loud: “N—” is as far as she can go. Then Tallie comes across a letter in the mail, and it only takes two words to crack the careful façade she’s built up:

ORGAN DONOR.
Two words that had apparently been checked off on her brother’s driver’s license; two words that her parents knew about—and never revealed to her. All at once, everything Tallie thought she understood about her brother’s death feels like a lie. And although a part of her knows he’s gone forever, another part of her wonders if finding the letter might be a sign. That if she can just track down the people on the other end of those two words, it might somehow bring him back.

Hannah Barnaby’s deeply moving novel asks questions there are no easy answers to as it follows a family struggling to pick up the pieces, and a girl determined to find the brother she wasn’t ready to let go of.

 

Book Review: Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby

Publisher’s description

some of the partsFor months, Tallie McGovern has been coping with the death of her older brother the only way she knows how: by smiling bravely and pretending that she’s okay. She’s managed to fool her friends, her parents, and her teachers, yet she can’t even say his name out loud: “N—” is as far as she can go. Then Tallie comes across a letter in the mail, and it only takes two words to crack the careful façade she’s built up:

ORGAN DONOR.
Two words that had apparently been checked off on her brother’s driver’s license; two words that her parents knew about—and never revealed to her. All at once, everything Tallie thought she understood about her brother’s death feels like a lie. And although a part of her knows he’s gone forever, another part of her wonders if finding the letter might be a sign. That if she can just track down the people on the other end of those two words, it might somehow bring him back.

Hannah Barnaby’s deeply moving novel asks questions there are no easy answers to as it follows a family struggling to pick up the pieces, and a girl determined to find the brother she wasn’t ready to let go of.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just jump straight to the last thing I wrote in my review notes: SO. GOOD.

 

Tallie’s not really sure how to get on with her life after her brother is killed in a car accident. She wants to try to return to normal, but it’s hard to say what that even means anymore. She thinks maybe relying on some self-selected rituals will help, but they’re not doing much. She knows everyone looks at her and sees death. She’s not the same person she was before her brother was killed—how could she be? Her best friends now completely avoid her, her parents are grieving in their own private ways, and Tallie’s holding on to so much grief, guilt, and anger that even pretending for a second that “normal” is possible is ridiculous. At least she has her friend Mel to distract her. Mel shows up when she needs a diversion and keeps her entertained with her brash ways and weird interest in taxidermy. Tallie’s not the greatest friend back to her, but she kind of gets a pass right now if she comes off a bit self-centered. Then there’s Chase, the new guy in town who has the odd hobby of maintaining a scrapbook full of tragedies as a way of memorializing people who will never have biographies written about them. He and Tallie become friends, though neither are completely honest with the other at first.

 

It would be enough to figure out how to navigate life after losing her brother, but when she learns that he was an organ donor, Tallie’s focus takes a new turn. Knowing there are pieces of Nate still out there in this world, Tallie becomes obsessed with contacting the recipients of his organs and stops at nothing to achieve this goal. Tallie lies and schemes, roping Chase into her plans, not really sure how things will pan out.

 

This gut-wrenching story is beautifully written. Barnaby writes so movingly about the very complicated experience of grief. Having lost my own dad in a car accident a few years back, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make it through the book and give it the full attention it deserves. But, like Tim Federle’s wonderful The Great American Whatever, the grief depicted here is so raw, nuanced, and compelling. Tallie’s a mess—we see that as the story reveals details we don’t immediately know and as her quest pushes her to the edges of what she can handle. Barnaby’s novel is a devastating and powerful look at grief, guilt, and how to survive the aftermath of something that changes who you are. A must-read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780553539639

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 02/16/2016

Book Review: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

redstarFEDERLE, Tim. The Great American Whatever. 288p. ebook available. S. & S. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481404099.The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

Gr 10 Up –In the six months since his sister was killed in a car accident, Quinn has hardly left his bedroom. He hasn’t gone to school or talked to his best friend and has barely interacted with his heartbroken mother. He hasn’t turned on his phone, either, knowing the last text his sister sent before running a red light was to him. Urged on by his best friend, Geoff, Quinn reluctantly emerges from his isolation just in time to meet a cute boy, turn 17, rediscover his passion for writing screenplays, and uncover some big secrets about the people he thought he knew best. He also gets some advice from a former idol, a neighbor turned Hollywood screenwriter: forget the rules of what’s expected in a script and just write the truth. For Quinn, who seeks solace in his daydreamy scripts with imagined conversations and outcomes that he can control, this is a hard pill to swallow, especially as he’s learning some truths he’s not really sure he likes. Even under the weight of grief, Quinn’s conversational and charming narrative voice effervesces, mixing humor and vulnerability in typical Federle style. Quinn’s story is at turns sad, funny, awkward, and endearing as he figures out friendship, romance, coming out, and moving on. VERDICT Federle’s YA debut about life’s unscripted moments has wide appeal and is an essential purchase for all collections. Readers will be instant fans of the funny and honest Quinn.–Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

Book Review: We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description:

we are the antsFrom the “author to watch” (Kirkus Reviews) of The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes a brand-new novel about a teenage boy who must decide whether or not the world is worth saving.

Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.

Only he isn’t sure he wants to.

After all, life hasn’t been great for Henry. His mom is a struggling waitress held together by a thin layer of cigarette smoke. His brother is a jobless dropout who just knocked someone up. His grandmother is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s. And Henry is still dealing with the grief of his boyfriend’s suicide last year.

Wiping the slate clean sounds like a pretty good choice to him.

But Henry is a scientist first, and facing the question thoroughly and logically, he begins to look for pros and cons: in the bully who is his perpetual one-night stand, in the best friend who betrayed him, in the brilliant and mysterious boy who walked into the wrong class. Weighing the pain and the joy that surrounds him, Henry is left with the ultimate choice: push the button and save the planet and everyone on it…or let the world—and his pain—be destroyed forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

We first meet Henry when we read his words, the opening words of the novel: “Chemistry: Extra Credit Project. Life is bullshit.” Henry has spent the last year, if not the many years prior to it, too, honing his nihilism. Life is absurd and meaningless. We are insignificant and don’t matter. We’re just ants. So when he gets the chance to stop the world from ending, he really has to think it over. Why let the world go on? With all of the pain and misery and unfairness, why not let it all end? He’s looking at the big picture of things, sure, but this is also just about him. Is not wanting the world to go on the same thing as wanting to die? Is not believing the world–filled with so many mistakes and so much pain–deserves to go on the same thing as not believing that he deserves to go on? Is letting the world end just an extremely epic way to commit suicide? As we get to know Henry–grieving, lonely, guilt-ridden Henry–we see why he’s so conflicted over a question that might seem like it has an easy answer.

 

Henry has 144 days to get through before either saving the world or letting it end. A lot of those days are terrible. Thanks to his brother spreading the word that Henry had been abducted by aliens, he’s known around school as Space Boy. Since the suicide of his boyfriend Jesse, he doesn’t have any friends. He hooks up with Marcus, the school’s golden boy and a supreme bully, in secret, trying to fill the Jesse-shaped hole in his life. Marcus torments him, physically and verbally, but Henry keeps going back for more. He feels guilty for Jesse’s suicide and, maybe as a result, doesn’t seem to care very much about what happens to him or what the consequences might be. After all, if the world is about to end, why make things worse than they are? Why call out bullies, or think you deserve better, or think anything will change? Why want or hope? Nothing matters–right?

 

As you might expect, some things happen to Henry that make him have to think harder about both what he might ultimately do about the whole world ending thing and about actually living his life instead of just standing by while things happen to him. He meets Diego, a mysterious and complicated new guy with a troubled past. He starts hanging out again with Audrey, Jesse’s (and his) BFF. He starts to see the potential for change and for better lives with his mother and his brother. But none of these things means suddenly life becomes bearable. He’s still routinely assaulted and taunted. He’s still scared to get close to anyone. He can’t see how he can possibly be with Diego (who Henry thought was straight and who says the excellent line, “I like people, not the parts they have.”) when Diego wants to ignore the past and Henry doesn’t believe in a future. He’s still wracked with grief, guilt-ridden, hopeless, and just desperately sad. Everything–the entire fate of the world–ultimately comes down to whether or not Henry wants to go on living. 

 

Hutchinson’s latest book is a powerful look at depression, grief, guilt, families, bullying, hope, and the power to change. He shows us an extremely broken character, one who’s not convinced it’s worth it to even try to put the pieces back together, and really makes us wonder not only what will ultimately happen to the universe, but what will happen to Henry as he falls deeper and deeper into despair. Another fantastic book from Hutchinson, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Smart, funny, weird, and heartbreaking, this title will have wide appeal thanks to compelling characters, an offbeat plot, and fantastic writing. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481449632

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 01/19/2016

Book Review: Breakaway by Kat Spears

23848184Publisher’s description:

When Jason Marshall’s younger sister passes away, he knows he can count on his three best friends and soccer teammates–Mario, Jordie, and Chick–to be there for him. With a grief-crippled mother and a father who’s not in the picture, he needs them more than ever. But when Mario starts hanging out with a rough group of friends and Jordie finally lands the girl of his dreams, Jason is left to fend for himself while maintaining a strained relationship with troubled and quiet Chick. Then Jason meets Raine, a girl he thinks is out of his league but who sees him for everything he wants to be, and he finds himself pulled between building a healthy and stable relationship with a girl he might be falling in love with, grieving for his sister, and trying to hold onto the friendships he has always relied on. A witty and emotionally moving tale of friendship, first love, and loss, Breakaway is Kat Spears at her finest.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

First of all, let me say that for the most part I liked this book. That said, I don’t like the tag line on the cover. No one really wins anything in this story, but they sure all lose and lose and lose. And yeah, the story has soccer in it, but it doesn’t account for much of the plot. The tag line and cover may help draw in readers that otherwise wouldn’t gravitate toward this book, but to me they aren’t a great fit.  ANYWAY. Pet peeves aside, let’s move on.

 

This is not a light story. There is very little hope. Bad things pile upon bad things. Characters make crummy choices, act like jerks to each other, and overlook/can’t properly deal with some dark stuff that’s going down. Their friendships get strained and fall apart. You like books that show the crappy lives some teens have? You’ll love this one.

 

Race and class play big roles in this book. Jason lives with his mother in a small apartment. He sleeps on the sofa bed, contributes what he can to help pay bills, and repeatedly mentions being poor and being hungry. Mario’s parents primarily speak Spanish. Jordie’s mom is Vietnamese. Jordie’s family has a lot of money, a fact that increasingly drives a wedge between Jordie and his other friends. Jason’s possible love interest, Raine, also comes from a family with a lot of money. Jason doesn’t see how it could ever possibly work out between them when Raine’s privilege and resources will send her down a path after high school very different than the one Jason is imaging he will go down. There are divorced parents and dead parents. There is drug addiction, alcoholism, death, abuse, and mental illness. I firmly believe no book ever has “too many issues,” just that some books present a lot of issues and don’t deal with them well. Spears navigates all of the issues in the characters’ lives skillfully, presenting what feel like very real (if very bleak) lives. Their friendships and other relationships are complicated by all of the factors and issues listed above.

 

This moving (and depressing) story takes a hard look at how friendships strain and how friends fail each other (and themselves). The ending will be annoying to some people–there’s no real closure, we have no idea what will happen to any of the characters or their relationships, and the sense we’re left with is one of sadness and hopelessness. This is the reality for these characters, Spears seems to say. Being briefly brought back together by a tragic event is likely not enough to reunite them as real friends or help them change the paths they’re on. I’m good with that kind of ending, but I know many readers (particularly the teens I know) are not. Pair this one with Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not for another look at grief, poverty, and changing friendships.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250065513

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 09/15/2015

 

 

Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

more happy“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you get through the messier tunnels of growing up. But the pain can only help you if you can remember it.” —More Happy Than Not

In Adam Silvera’s utterly fantastic More Happy Than Not, 16-year-old Aaron Soto grapples with what it means to be happy and if it’s possible to change who you really are.

 

Aaron and his friends live in a modern-day Bronx neighborhood with one major difference: it’s home to a Leteo institute, which offers a memory-relief procedure, which alters and suppresses painful or problematic memories. Aaron’s skeptical about it, but a kid from his block had it done and it seems legit. It seems like Aaron would have reason to undergo the procedure—when his dad committed suicide, Aaron was the one who found him. Aaron also survived his own recent attempt at suicide, something we’re reminded of every time he touches the smile-like scar on his wrist. His mother works two jobs to be able to pay the rent on their tiny one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has a job at the corner market and gives much of the money to his mom to help with the rent. He goes without a lot of things that he would like. But life isn’t all bad. He’s dating Genevieve, spends a lot of time playing games with his friends from the block, and has an intriguing new friend, Thomas.

 

Thomas and Aaron quickly become best friends. They have deep, honest, revealing conversations. There is an ease between them that makes it feel safe to be real. Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Thomas is gay, which, after some time, leads him to thinking that maybe he is gay (or, in Aaron’s parlance, a dude-liker). Before long, Aaron is torn between what to do, who he likes and loves, and what it all means. He comes out to Thomas, who is cool with it, but when Aaron makes a move on him, he’s rejected—Thomas says he is straight. Aaron is embarrassed and confused. He feels like he’s already lost so many people, and it seems certain he will now lose Thomas and Genevieve, not to mention who he might stand to lose if he came out to more than just Thomas. Aaron knows how to fix this, though: Leteo. He hopes Leteo will be able to make him straight, even though he knows that will mean that he’ll never really be able to be himself.

 

But before Aaron can undergo the procedure, his own friends start to get suspicious about his relationship with Thomas and attack him, brutally beating him. When Me-Crazy throws him through the door to their building, Aaron hits his head so hard that—much to his surprise—it loosens all of his memories, leading to a series of startling realizations for both Aaron and the reader. To say more would give away too much.

 

I absolutely could not put this novel down. The very first page grabbed me and pulled me right into Aaron’s world. The vivid setting, larger-than-life characters, and powerful narrative voice all stand out as some of the best writing I have read in a long time. The kids on the block (who have memorable names like Me-Crazy, Baby Freddy, and Skinny-Dave) are selling weed, getting in fights, and worrying over dead friends all while still playing childish games like Manhunt, a glorified hide and seek. They are a racially diverse group—we know Aaron’s Puerto Rican, Genevieve is Dominican, and Thomas was “the only brown” kid dressed up at a midnight showing of a movie. Their families vary, too—Aaron’s dad is dead, Gen’s mom is dead, and Brendan’s parents are in jail. Silvera does a great job of creating this extremely vivid little world in the Bronx, then making readers reconsider everything we think we know once Aaron hits his head. This powerful and complicated look at identity, memory, grief, happiness, and honesty will speak to a wide audience of readers who will find themselves unable to put down Aaron’s gripping story (even when it’s almost too painful to keep reading). 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616955601

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 6/2/2015

Book Review: Things We Know by Heart by Jessi Kirby

When we meet Quinn, in Jessi Kirby’s Things We Know by Heart,  it has been 400 days since her boyfriend Trent was killed in an accident. In those 400 days, Quinn has been wallowing in her grief and wallowing HARD (and who can blame her?). She’s basically stopped doing everything she once enjoyed and doesn’t interact with anyone beyond her family. She keeps track of each day since Trent was killed as some kind of vigil, a testament to their love and to his memory. As she says at one point, she’s essentially an 18-year-old widow.

 

The only good thing to come out of Trent’s death was the fact that five people became recipients of his organs. Working through the right avenues, Trent’s family (including Quinn) can reach out to the recipients and vice versa. Quinn has heard back from and met four of the people, but the fifth one, the one who received his heart, is elusive. But it’s 2015 and no one can remain elusive long thanks to the internet. Quinn does some savvy researching and discovers that recipient #5 is a boy named Colton. Though she knows she shouldn’t, she goes off in search of him, not sure what she’ll do if she finds him. She meets him in a convoluted way—they are in the same coffee shop and Quinn panics and flees, leaving her purse behind, which he returns, and then gets into a minor car accident that he witnesses. Instead of revealing who she is and what she’s doing looking for him, she just gets to know him while keeping everything a secret—a plan that is sure to cause some waves.

 

It is, of course, predictable that Quinn and Colton will fall for each other. You can also guess that this is confusing for Quinn—is it because Colton has Trent’s heart? Does this somehow affect how Colton feels toward her? You can also guess that when the truth of their connection is finally revealed to Colton, he doesn’t love that she has been keeping all of this from him. BUT what moves this beyond simply being a predictable story about love, loss, and lies are the very real feelings Quinn goes through as she processes everything from the past 400 days and everything that is happening to her now. She is happy with Colton. He’s good for her, and she’s good for him. They really just kind of do the same things over and over and that’s all it takes for them to feel content and enjoy each other. They don’t have a particularly deep connection, mainly because of the amount of things both parties are holding back, but their attachment to each other grows in a realistic way, especially once the truth comes out.

 

Each chapter starts with a quote about hearts or transplants—some scientific, some poetic. The scientific ones help inform the readers about organ donation and how hearts function in the body. Readers might be tempted to skip over these precursors to the chapter but would be remiss in doing so. Though the story follows a completely predictable trajectory, the tension that comes from Quinn having this big secret is really what carries the story. This will be an easy one to move off the shelves–a romance that is as much about loss as it is about love. A moving look at how our lives go on even in the face of almost unthinkable tragedies and obstacles. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062299437
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4/21/2015

Book review: The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

In Cynthia Hand’s The Last Time We Say Goodbye, high school senior Alexis is struggling to figure out how to go on in the aftermath of her brother Ty’s suicide. She’s going to therapy, refusing to take medication to help with the depression and panic attacks (more on this topic in my Sunday Reflections post), and keeping a journal. When her mother says she still feels Tyler in the house—that she smelled his cologne one night, out of nowhere—Alexis doesn’t think much of it. They’re grieving, after all, and feeling like a loved one is still around isn’t that uncommon. But when Alexis starts seeing flashes of Ty—in the mirror, in the backseat of the car—she starts to wonder if she’s hallucinating or seeing a ghost. She could talk to her therapist about this, but she doesn’t want to sound crazy. She’s alienated from her friends at the moment—they’re still trying to be there for her, especially her ex-boyfriend, Steven, but she just can’t deal with anything or anyone. Alexis tries to figure out if Ty is trying to give her some sort of message. As the weeks go by, Alexis confronts her future plans, family issues, and cautiously opens up to a few people about how she’s been feeling.

 

The grief, guilt, and pain permeate every second of this book. Despite my major issue with the problematic villainizing of medicine, I thought this book was profoundly moving and well-paced. Hand does not shy away from graphic description of Ty’s suicide and the immediate aftermath. The reconstructed day of Ty’s suicide was almost impossible for me to read. This is one of those books where I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The way Lex has to navigate relationships new and old, has to cope with her guilt and grief, and has to find a way to move forward is achingly moving. By the end, I was sobbing. Highly recommended—just be ready with the Kleenex. 

 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS

ISBN-13: 9780062318473

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 2/10/2015