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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. 


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. 




ISBN-13: 9780062318473

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 2/10/2015


Book review: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson with illustrations by Christine Larsen

17-year-old Andrew Brawley lives in a forgotten part of the Roanoke General Hospital. By “forgotten,” I don’t mean that it’s an area that doesn’t get many visitors or feels lonely—it’s literally a forgotten wing of the enormous building, abandoned in the middle of renovations. And let’s unpack that sentence even further: “lives” is accurate, because it is his only home and he never leaves there, but “hides out” or “squats” might be better words. He sleeps on a pile of stained sheets using a laundry bag as his pillow. He swipes items from the hospital staff to use as he needs to. He works in the cafeteria (getting paid cash under the table) and spends most of his time hanging out around the ER or in the pediatric department. He doesn’t need to be in a hospital in the sense that he’s not sick or there for treatment. But he needs to be there because it’s the last place he saw his family alive.


Andrew (often called Drew) is killing time chattering with his favorite ER nurses when Rusty is rushed in. Rusty, who appears to be Drew’s age, is in agony. His tortured howls should drive Drew away, but they keep him there, curious, feeling as though he should bear witness. Rusty has suffered severe and extensive burns, something about an accident maybe at a Fourth of July party. The details come out quickly, both in the media and from what Drew learns by keeping his ears open around the ER: Rusty, who had long been bullied, was set on fire at the party.


Drew takes to sneaking into Rusty’s room and talking to him or reading to him. He feels some connection with him, though he’s not sure why. Both boys are gay, and when one of the nurses asks Drew if he knows Rusty, Drew points out, “We don’t all know each other.” But he gets to know him. He tells Rusty things he hasn’t told anyone else, like what happened the night his family died. As Rusty begins to slowly recover, the conversations become two-way, rather than Drew just talking to a boy he isn’t even sure can hear him. Their affection for one another grows quickly, though Drew still isn’t sure what to make of how he feels about Rusty.


Throughout the story, Drew is on the run from Death, who also goes by the name Miss Michelle. Michelle is a social worker at the hospital and Drew lives in fear that she will one day figure out not only that he’s living in the hospital, but that he’s in fact a missing boy. He feels he somehow escaped Death when he lost his family and it’s just a matter of time before she catches him. He also worries that Death will come for Rusty, too.


Drew is drowning in grief. We know he’s seen tragedy, but the full extent of that tragedy is revealed slowly, and packs a real emotional punch when it’s finally all out there. Drew talks to Rusty about his debilitating guilt and how his family’s death is his fault. The grief permeates every page of the story. It is dark, dark, dark, and gets darker with every reveal. I ached for Drew as I watched his pain and guilt, cried when Rusty recounted the years of torment he suffered at the hands of his peers, and was shattered when he finally told Drew about what really happened the night he was lit on fire.


The other characters here are well-developed and mostly all have dark or sad aspects to them. Drew’s only real friends beyond the ER nurses are Lexi and Trevor, two teens in the cancer ward who are in grim shape. Drew also befriends Father Mike, the hospital’s priest who, to Drew’s surprise, is into comic books, has a biting sense of humor, and doesn’t shy away from conversations that ask the hard questions. Drew’s other friend is his boss Arnold, who runs the cafeteria. Drew can’t figure out what a guy with a master’s in literature is doing running a hospital cafeteria, or why Arnold has a tendency to pull back into himself and have unexplainable dark moments. In Drew’s small world, everyone has seen too much death and suffering.


This book includes a graphic novel that Drew is working on interspersed throughout, telling the story of Patient F. Here, Drew works out some of his anger, pain, guilt, and grief. If the overall narrative is dark, then the graphic novel is whatever is one step beyond dark. It’s disturbing, creepy, and haunting, and gives us a real look at exactly what tortured thoughts run around Drew’s brain.


The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley gutted me. The author puts all of Drew’s pain on the page and never lets you look away. Even the lighter moments are tinged with pain, death, suffering, guilt, and loss. Drew’s story is hard enough to imagine, but it was Rusty’s story that tore at me. When he tells Drew of his years of being bullied by his classmates, he says, “People always guessed I was gay… Not like I’m flaming or anything—or that it’d be bad if I were. It was just the worst-kept secret at my school. I never dated girls, Nina was always my bestie, and I sucked at sports.” Drew laughs and says, “Sucking as sports doesn’t make you gay.” “No,” replies Rusty, “but it makes you a target.” He explains that he was on a hit list. There were points for assaulting him. By the time he got to telling Drew about what happened when he was lit on fire, I had to set the book down. All I could think was, please don’t ever let that be my kid—the one brutalized for being different or the one cruelly bullying his classmates. I wanted to look away, but Hutchinson makes sure you can’t—look closer, his writing urges, as he describes in painful detail the humiliation and hatred.


It’s hard to say the novel has a hopeful ending. That darkness? It outdoes itself near the end. The idea that things have to get worse before they get better is more like things have to get worse before they can get even WORSE. But there is hope, especially if the graphic novel is to be viewed as finishing the story rather than wish fulfillment. Though Drew is suffering on every page of this story, he is also fumbling his way through the darkness to whatever is on the other side of it. All of the characters are. It’s hard to see that or remember that in the middle of so much pain, but hospitals aren’t just a place for ailing—they’re also a place for healing.


The unique setting, multifaceted plot, strong characters, and raw emotion make this story impossible to put down, even when you really want to. I’ll be thinking about Rusty and Drew for a long time to come.


ISBN-13: 9781481403108
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 1/20/2015