Book Review: My Heart & Other Black Holes

22328549Title: My Heart & Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 302
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: 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–Roman, a teenage boy 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. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: It is interesting that two of last week’s new releases dealt with the subject of suicide, as it is a subject that is sensitive to many and one that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, which is a shame because many folks experience depression and/or have thoughts of suicide. Teens especially need to be able to have someone to reach out for help, and sometimes, handing a young adult book that speaks to the heart of what they are going through can save a life. I honestly feel that My Heart & Other Black Holes could be a potential life saver for many young adults.

While Aysel’s depression is triggered over her father’s crime, Warga makes note to show how Aysel showed signs when she was growing up, so the novel doesn’t feel like one of those, “she’s depressed over something and now she’s all better, happy every after” novels. No, when we meet Aysel she is in the thick of her depression, has made the decision to commit suicide and is actively seeking help by having a suicide partner. And this is where I think Warga’s novel really shines. Reading the thought process of someone committed to taking their own life is very tough, but it is a thought process that is very real, hence making Aysel a fully-fleshed out character. It makes the reader empathize with Aysel, as we understand that when someone is at the point Aysel is, when they are in their darkest moments, it can be extremely hard to change their thinking. A person who is depressed to the point of committing suicide will not “just get over it”.  Aysel is actively looking forward to her death. As a teacher of teenagers, this was hard to read because I kept thinking about a student who came close to this point a few years ago, but reached out and got the help she needed. As the novel is told in first person, Aysel, unfortunately does not believe that she can find help or even capable of help. It was also those moments that the heart of Warga’s story really impacted me.

It was also Aysel’s thoughts, her self-awareness about her depression that really made her a character to root for. She even personifies her depression, calling it a black slug, and it became a “villain” in a way. She has to actively fight against the black slug and sometimes she wins, sometimes she looses. I feel that having Aysel name her depression was a stroke of genius by Warga. It turned an illness that can be very abstract into something concrete. It allowed for readers who might not fully grasp how depression works into seeing the disease as a real obstacle in a person’s path. If people get anything out of this book, it will be that depression it is not just an imaginary illness in a person’s head, but a real tangible presence that they fight daily against.

And, I think, that is the beauty of Warga’s novel. The reader really connects with Aysel, with her wry humor, her love for her little brother, and how much she struggles with the slug that she fights daily. The reader knows that Aysel is a beautiful soul and really wants her to recognize her worth so she won’t continue to think about suicide, but is still willing to go on the journey that Warga lays out as Aysel begins to question her decision with Roman. The novel takes place over a span of 26 days, with each chapter counting down, and we are not privy to Aysel’s decision to live or die until almost the very end. And when she does, well…you just have to read the novel to find out.

Jasmine Warga’s debut novel is a beautiful and touching story about depression, family, friendship and love. It’s about answering the tough questions we have about ourselves, our place in our family and our world, but mostly it is about discovering and owning our own self worth. The messages and themes that My Heart & Other Black Holes explores is one that people of all ages can learn from and relate to.

Recommendation: If you are in the mood for a story with heart, run to the store and buy My Heart & Other Black Holes now!

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Review: When Reason Breaks

22032788Title: When Reason Breaks
Author: Cindy L. Rodriguez
Genres: Contemporary, Issue
Pages: 304
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children’s
Review Copy: ARC from NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: 13 Reasons Why meets the poetry of Emily Dickinson in this gripping debut novel perfect for fans of Sara Zarr or Jennifer Brown.

A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl, with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.

In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control.

Review: When Reason Breaks is a fantastic and difficult book to read. Difficult in the sense that Cindy L. Rodriguez does an amazing job of showcasing two very different girls and their struggles with their families, friends, and school. There’s humor, yes, and happiness, and quiet moments of connection between these two different girls, but even the good times feel uncertain and fragile because of the opening: one of the girls—and we don’t know which one—attempts to commit suicide.

In some respects, When Reason Breaks feels like a mystery as the reader attempts to figure out which of the girls left a suicide note and letters for Ms. Diaz. I personally felt that the answer was obvious, so that aspect of the book didn’t engage me as much as it probably was meant to. What Rodriguez does best, however, is giving the reader insight into both Emily and Elizabeth, especially how they deal—or don’t deal—with their emotions and the troubles they’re facing.

I had particular sympathy for Emily, whose social (media) life was under a microscope because of her father’s political ambitions and who felt smothered between demands for perfection, her friends’ desire to have fun, and her boyfriend. Where Emily turned inward, Elizabeth vented outward, often driving a wedge between her and the people who cared about her. Elizabeth’s anger and guilt fueled more than one interesting encounter. But the book was best during the few times Emily and Elizabeth interacted—especially when they connected to one another. (The scene at the party is wonderful, for the record, and is probably my favorite scene in the entire book.)

Emily Dickenson’s poetry is integral to the story; not only does Ms. Diaz feature Dickenson’s work in her classroom, but most of the chapters begin with a line from one of Dickenson’s poems. The title of the book itself is a reference to “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” I felt most of the quotations were well chosen and that they were excellent ways to set the mood for each chapter, though a few felt shoehorned in.

The rest of the characters—Ms. Diaz, Kevin, Tommy, family members, friends, and other members of the community—are an adequate supporting cast. Ms. Diaz was easily my favorite secondary character, though both Kevin and Tommy had good moments with Emily and Elizabeth. I do wish that Emily’s two friends hadn’t felt so interchangeable, though, and that they had a bigger part to play in Emily’s story than Kevin did.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re interested in a thoughtful exploration teen girls dealing with depression, dysfunctional families, and questions that don’t have easy answers. Between the Emily Dickenson’s poetry and Cindy L. Rodriguez’s prose, When Reason Breaks is a book that you’ll end up thinking about for a long time.

Extras: Cindy L. Rodriguez’s guest post at Diversity in YA.

Rodriguez on WNPR’s “Where We Live.”

“Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community” at Latin@s in Kidlit.

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Mini-Review: Pointe

pointeTitle:  Pointe
Author:  Brandy Colbert
Genres: contemporary, realistic
Pages: 352
Publisher: Penguin
Review Copy: the library
Availability: April 10th 2014

Summary: Theo is better now. She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.

Review: In Pointe, Theo is a high schooler and ballet dancer determined to live out her dream of joining the most elite ranks of ballet dancers. Dance is the one thing that lets her escape from her everyday life and memories — but when her best friend Donovan returns home after years of living with his abductor, her dance starts to suffer. Memories of losing her friend and memories of her ex-boyfriend begin to collide.

Through Theo’s perspective, Pointe deals with a lot of issues — such as abuse, eating disorders, trauma, and kidnapping. These issues are handled in a sensitive, realistic, and eye-opening way. Pointe is an incredibly important book for teens to read.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Review: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

angel Title: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery
Author: M. Evelina Galang
Genre: Contemporary and Historical
Pages: 347
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Angel has just lost her father, and her mother’s grief means she might as well be gone too. She’s got a sister and a grandmother to look out for, and a burgeoning consciousness of the unfairness in the world—in her family, her community, and her country.

Set against the backdrop of the 1986 Philippine People Power Revolution, the struggles of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII in the early 1990s, and a cold winter’s season in the city of Chicago, is the story of a daughter coming of age, coming to forgiveness, and learning to move past the chaos of grief to survive. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: Within just a few pages I suspected that this was a book that would challenge me and make me work – make me think. Prior to reading this book I had very little knowledge about the history of the Philippines and the novel covers a lot of historical territory. The bigger issue initially though was language. The majority of the text is in English, but Galang’s characters code switch between English and Tagalog and there are no italics to be found. Yes, the meaning was often clear through context, but it was challenging to read with that bit of uncertainty. Looking to the back of the book, I found that there was no glossary, but there was a rather thorough explanation for that choice “In Context (Or,  Why There is No Glossary).” I’ve read articles about authors using or not using italics and including or omitting glossaries and she makes a very strong case for writing in this style. The reader who doesn’t know Tagalog may choose to use the Internet and find the definitions or just fall into the story and go with the flow. I really wanted to know what all of the words meant, but a conversation between Angel and her father convinced me to skip the definitions. He was explaining about how to listen to the blues, “The trick, Angel, is not to think. Just feel it.”

There is plenty to feel in this story. Angel and her family are dealing with the unexpected loss of her father. In the aftermath, her mother pulls away from the family and adds one more loss. The book moves on to other issues though as Angel becomes increasingly involved with politics. She protests the corruption in the government in an effort to overturn the presidency. This section of the book was a little harder for me to follow. I wasn’t always certain what exactly was being protested and why, but even so, Galang’s story pulled me along. Angel, her sister Lila and her grandmother also visit elderly comfort women. These are women who were taken by Japanese soldiers during WWII and were used as sex slaves. The amazing strength of the women in this book and the stories of the comfort women blazed through any confusion I may have had on my first read through.

The beginning of the story centers on Angel’s immediate family and those closest to her. The second portion expands out into the larger community and the final section pulls back in again to a more intimate view of Angel’s inner conflicts. It’s in the final portion that the book felt the most like a young adult novel. In spite of the teen main character, it felt more like an adult novel in the beginning. I still can’t place my finger on why that was true for me, but maybe it was that there was so much that was unfamiliar in that part of the book. Also, when Angel was in the Philippines, she was attending a private Catholic school for girls and that was only part-time. Most of her time was taken up with work, family duties, and politics. She was dealing with adult situations as she stood in for her absent mother. The final section takes place in Chicago with her mother and around high school and her new friends. There was revolution in her political acts in the Philippines, but there almost seems to be more revolution here as she settles into her new situation in the U.S. and certainly in her interactions with her mother.

This is a story of self-discovery, family, hope and healing. There is a lot of pain and heartbreak within these pages, but there is also strength and beauty. Galang’s writing is lyrical and rich – something to savor.

Recommendation: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery was on the 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project List and I am not surprised. This is a book not to be missed. Get it soon. It may require a little extra effort for a reader without the background knowledge or Tagalog language skills, but any effort is totally worth it. Angel and the women in her life will be with me for a long time to come.

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New Releases

We found three diverse books that are being released this week. The fun thing is that one is historical, one is contemporary, and one is a dystopian. Here they are in chronological order.

silver Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle
HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary: One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.

From the young “silver people” whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

 

drama Drama Queens in the House by Julie Williams

Roaring Brook Press

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Jessie Jasper Lewis doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t surrounded by method actors, bright spotlights, and feather boas. Her parents started the Jumble Players Theater together, and theater is the glue that holds her crazy family together. But when she discovers that her father’s cheating on her mother with a man, Jessie feels like her world is toppling over. And on top of everything else, she has to deal with a delusional aunt who is predicting the end of the world. Jessie certainly doesn’t feel ready to be center stage in the production that is her family. But where does she belong in all of this chaos? — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

 

wanderers Wanderers (Wasteland, #2) by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan

HarperTeen

Summary: The former citizens of Prin are running out of time. The Source has been destroyed, so food is scarcer than ever. Tensions are rising…and then an earthquake hits.

So Esther and Caleb hit the road, leading a ragtag caravan. Their destination? A mythical city where they hope to find food and shelter – not to mention a way to make it past age nineteen.

On the way, alliances and romances blossom and fracture. Esther must rally to take charge with the help of a blind guide, Aras. He seems unbelievably cruel, but not everything is as it seems in the Wasteland.…

In this sequel to Wasteland, the stakes are even higher for Esther, Caleb, and the rest of their clan. They’re pinning all their hopes on the road…but what if it’s the most dangerous place of all? – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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New Releases

We found several books being released this week. I had to update this post in the evening since I found Gilded later in the day. I loved Eliot Schreffer’s book Endangered and look forward to seeing what he does in Threatened. I have been a fan of fairytale retellings since I was a child so I am also excited to get my hands on Grim too. Not every short story in Grim is by or about a person of color, but it is certainly a diverse group so we are including it. I hadn’t heard of Gilded before today, but it looks interesting too.

threatened
Threatened by Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press

Summary: Into the jungle. Into the wild. Into harm’s way.

When he was a boy, Luc’s mother would warn him about the “mock men” living in the trees by their home — chimpanzees whose cries would fill the night.

Luc is older now, his mother gone. He lives in a house of mistreated orphans, barely getting by. Then a man calling himself Prof comes to town with a mysterious mission. When Luc tries to rob him, the man isn’t mad. Instead, he offers Luc a job.

Together, Luc and Prof head into the rough, dangerous jungle in order to study the elusive chimpanzees. There, Luc finally finds a new family — and must act when that family comes under attack.

As he did in his acclaimed novel Endangered, a finalist for the National Book Award, Eliot Schrefer takes us somewhere fiction rarely goes, introducing us to characters we rarely get to meet. The unforgettable result is the story of a boy fleeing his present, a man fleeing his past, and a trio of chimpanzees who are struggling not to flee at all. — Cover image from IndieBound & summary from author’s page

Here’s an interview with Eliot talking about the book and writing from a different perspective.

Another interview may be viewed below.

grim
Grim Edited by Christine Johnson
Harlequin Teen

Summary: Inspired by classic fairy tales, but with a dark and sinister twist, “Grim” contains short stories from some of the best voices in young adult literature today:
Ellen Hopkins
Amanda Hocking
Julie Kagawa
Claudia Gray
Rachel Hawkins
Kimberly Derting
Myra McEntire
Malinda Lo
Sarah Rees-Brennan
Jackson Pearce
Christine Johnson
Jeri Smith Ready
Shaun David Hutchinson
Saundra Mitchell
Sonia Gensler
Tessa Gratton
Jon Skrovron

— Cover image and summary via IndieBound

Here’s a very fun book trailer for Grim.

gilded Gilded by Christina L. Farley
Skyscape

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Jae Hwa Lee is a Korean-American girl with a black belt, a deadly proclivity with steel-tipped arrows, and a chip on her shoulder the size of Korea itself. When her widowed dad uproots her to Seoul from her home in L.A., Jae thinks her biggest challenges will be fitting in to a new school and dealing with her dismissive Korean grandfather. Then she discovers that a Korean demi-god, Haemosu, has been stealing the soul of the oldest daughter of each generation in her family for centuries. And she’s next.

But that’s not Jae’s only problem.

There’s also Marc. Irresistible and charming, Marc threatens to break the barriers around Jae’s heart. As the two grow closer, Jae must decide if she can trust him. But Marc has a secret of his own—one that could help Jae overturn the curse on her family for good. It turns out that Jae’s been wrong about a lot of things: her grandfather is her greatest ally, even the tough girl can fall in love, and Korea might just be the home she’s always been looking for.  –Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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