Friday, March 27, 2015

My Heart and Other Black Holes - Jasmine Warga

Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 302 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 26, 2015
Finished: March 27, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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.

This is a gorgeously written and compulsively readable novel about the transformative power of love, heralding the arrival of an extraordinary new voice in teen fiction, Jasmine Warga.

Review:
I've been on a morbid book kick lately, so I decided to pick this up despite the cliche title. I was surprised by how beautifully written this book was, and it captured me until I put it down.

Aysel is sixteen and very depressed. Her dad is in jail for murder, she feels like she's an intruder on her mother's new family after spending most of her time with her dad after the divorce, her classmates treat her differently because of what her dad did, and she constantly thinks about what would happen if she chose to end it all. When she comes across a website with a section for those looking for suicide partners, she answers an ad from a local poster. He insists that it happen on April 7th, the day his little sister died (less than a month away), and he needs Aysel to convince his mother to allow Roman freedom from her constant supervision. Because they need to appear like they're friends simply hanging out, they spend time together. Aysel learns that Roman blames himself for his little sister's death, loves playing basketball, and is a talented artist. He learns that she loves science and physics, classical music, and even comes to appreciate Einstein because Aysel does. They connect and fall for each other, and even though they both keep reminding themselves of their pact, Aysel becomes less and less willing to follow through.

I like how the author delved into both chemical depression and situational depression. Aysel has what she describes as a black slug inside her that swallows up her happiness, and has since she was a child. Roman only became depressed after his sister's death. It shows that depression can come on suddenly, or it can be something that a person has dealt with all their live and not realize it because it's such a constant for them and they don't know anything different.

The romance between Aysel and Roman happens very gradually even though the novel takes place over the course of about a month's time. They're very sweet together and this is one teenage romance that I can actually root for and think of as a nice model for others (despite the suicide pact that brought them together).

The main theme of the novel is human connection, and what transpires from it. Both Aysel and Roman are broken people who need help, but in finding and confiding in each other, they begin to care about the other to the point where they want each other to live. Aysel sees and loves the rare joy in Roman's eyes when he plays basketball, Roman draws a portrait of Aysel to illustrate how he sees her. Aysel is so afraid of being rejected because of her father's crime, but Roman already knows about it and accepts her as she is.

You can tell the author has experience with suicide, she explains at the end that writing the book was a therapeutic process for her after the death of her friend. The passion for life and human connection comes through here in droves, and you as a reader just reacts with joy when you realize Aysel has turned that point and decides to plan for a future she didn't think she would be around for.

Recommendation:
Although it does deal with some heavy subject matter, this book truly celebrates life. The characters seek help from each other and their families to make it through the long healing process. There are suicide hotline numbers at the back of the book for readers to peruse if needed. It's a beautiful book that grips you and doesn't let go.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the little swirl on the cover, and it has texture to seem like it was sewn on. It's a good visual representation of the metaphor of how Aysel views herself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Playlist for the Dead - Michelle Falkoff

Title: Playlist for the Dead
Author: Michelle Falkoff
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 279 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 24, 2015
Finished: March 25, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Here's what Sam knows. There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, Sam's best friend, Hayden, was dead. All he left Sam was a playlist - and a note, saying that he took his own life. But what Sam doesn't know is: why?

To figure out what happened, Sam has to rely on the playlist and his own memory. But the more he listens, the more he realizes that his memory isn't as reliable as he thought. Especially when someone claiming to be Hayden starts sending him cryptic messages, and a series of violent attacks begins on the bullies who made Hayden's life hell.

Same knows he has to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it's only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him - including an eccentric, unpredictable girl who's got secrets too - that Sam will finally be able to piece together his best friend's story.

And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Review:
I won't lie, I picked this up because it reminded me of Thirteen Reasons Why, a book I read years ago and loved to pieces. However, Playlist for the Dead is a very different novel, even though it has a similar premise.

Whenever Sam and Hayden have a fight, Sam always caves and apologizes first. That is how Sam discovered Hayden's body after they fought at a party the night before. Hayden left Sam a list of songs that he claims in a note that Sam will understand if he just listens to it. Sam becomes obsessed with the playlist in his grief, confused over whether it was his fault Hayden killed himself because of their fight, or if it was more about Hayden's older brother Ryan and his buddies who always bullied them. When attacks begin on the "bully trifecta" as they are called, Sam feels that maybe karma has done its job. But when Sam logs onto the online game he and Hayden played, a character claiming to be Hayden says that he is responsible for it all. In Sam's desire to discover exactly what happened to Hayden and who is really attacking the bullies, he realizes that people aren't exactly what they seem, and that you never really know someone until you listen to their whole story.

I really liked how Sam was a realistic character, he was portrayed as a typical fifteen-year-old boy who just lost his best friend in a very traumatic way and is trying to figure out how to resume his life while being consumed with guilt. He didn't grieve in a stereotypical way, or in the way others in the book expected him to, it was very much his own coming to terms with Hayden and his life and those involved in it. You don't see many books that deal with the direct aftermath of a suicide, and this one touched on Sam's experience. I liked how he saw Hayden's suicide as a mystery to unravel, how it was so out of character and he had to figure out what drove Hayden to do it. But in the end, there were many factors and events that could have been the trigger, and perhaps all of them were, and Sam finally admits to himself that if everyone believes they contributed to it in equal parts then no individual person could have stopped Hayden.

I do like how the idea of revenge was included, especially in a book that includes a suicide related to bullying, and how most of the characters ended up having a beef with the bully trifecta that Sam never knew about. I really don't think Ryan and his buddies got what was coming to them despite the attacks on them, and Sam's final conversation with Ryan felt off for some reason, like Ryan's issues were somehow supposed to excuse his cruel treatment of his own brother. Maybe my empathy meter is broken, but I felt nothing for Ryan and his buddies even after hearing their side of the story. I do applaud Sam for his mature reaction at the end, though.

I really enjoyed Sam's self-discovery, what he learns about others, and how he chooses to piece himself back together after Hayden's death, which surprisingly does not include the budding romance between him and Astrid. The songs felt almost unnecessary, they don't really help with much, but perhaps that's because the songs are unfamiliar to me and I didn't look up the lyrics. The songs and all the pop culture references will date the book pretty quickly, I feel the novel could have been written with just as much impact had they not been included.

Recommendation:
A powerful book, but it left me as a reader wanting for some reason I can't explain.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included Sam and Astrid on the cover connected by the earbuds, and the shade of blue is pretty cool.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The View From Who I Was - Heather Sappenfield

Title: The View From Who I Was
Author: Heather Sappenfield
Publisher: Flux, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 21, 2015
Finished: March 23, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

Pain is like water. It comes in different forms.

On a cold Colorado night, Oona Antunes leaves Crystal High's Winter Formal, walks deep into the woods, and lies down in the snow to die.

She awakens in the hospital, suffering the effects of frostbite and hypothermia. But her physical injuries aren't nearly as painful as the wound she can't name, the one she feels cutting deep into the core of who she is.

While recovering from her suicide attempt, Oona discovers that the roots of her problems go beyond herself. To fully understand what happened that night in the woods, she must confront not only her own pain but the hidden past that's suffocating someone she loves.

The View From Who I Was is a story of the damage that can be passed down through the generations, and the healing that can arise from tragedy.

Review:
I picked this up without really knowing what it was going to be like, but I was pleasantly surprised at how engrossing it was.

Oona is the only child of wealthy parents living in Colorado. Her mother is more interested in appearances than spending time with her daughter, and her workaholic Portuguese father is never present physically or emotionally. Oona walks out of her winter formal and lies down outside on a trail near her home and waits to die. At that point Oona's spirit detaches from her body and narrates the story from a first person plural point of view, referring to the physical Oona as "Corpse." Readers get a glimpse at her unhappy family dynamic as the reason for her suicide attempt, and while her mother reforms quite quickly to help her daughter, her father's attempts to be different aren't quite satisfactory. After a stint at a Native American school organized by one of her high school teachers, Oona realizes her father and his troubled past is the main reason for her dysfunctional family, and vows to force her father back to Portugal to confront the events that brought him to America as a child.

The writing style is a bit jarring at first until you realize what's going on with Oona's spirit, but the writing itself is quite eloquent here. Oona is a good student, especially in Science, so she writes a lot about the properties of water in her journal that act as metaphors for herself. The story lags a bit in the middle with the events of the Native American school and Oona's friend Ashley, but things pick up again with her resolve to save her father. The only thing that bugged me was the ending, it didn't quite seem realistic to me. After the stunt her father pulled (can't say much more for fear of spoilers), I definitely wouldn't have been forgiving in the least.

Recommendation:
Definitely worth a read if for nothing else than the unique point of view and the beautiful writing.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's basic but quite appropriate.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? - Roz Chast

Title: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Author: Roz Chast
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 228 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction, Graphic Novel
Started: March 20, 2015
Finished: March 20, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

Roz Chast and her parents were practitioners of denial: if you don't ever think about death, it will never happen. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is the story of an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die. In this account, longtime New Yorker cartoonist Chast combines drawing with family photos and documents, chronicling that "long good-bye."

Review:
My mother has been a caregiver for the past ten years, the majority of my adult life. All four of my grandparents were alive and well in 2005 until my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. From that year onward, one after another had serious health issues that needed help navigating through the health care system; and despite four siblings one one side and two on another, the care of all four aging parents mostly fell to my mother. So because of her experience with caregiving, I picked up this book to read, and also for myself, because like the author, I am an only child who will be solely responsible for the care of my own parents.

The author opens the memoir with recounts of her parents and their attitudes toward death. Both children of Jewish/Russian immigrants born in 1912, they experienced their fair share of tragic death on both sides of the family between sickness, war, the Depression, and the Holocaust. As a result, death was a subject that was simply not discussed. The early trauma in her parents' lives probably also explains her father's debilitating anxiety and her mother's over-controlling nature. When the author was born in 1954 as her parents' only child (their previous child was stillborn), their anxiety and control drove her from their Brooklyn home to college, later moving to Connecticut in 1990 with her husband and growing family. After the attacks of September 11th, when her parents were nearing 90, the author began to make visits back to her old neighbourhood and saw for herself how her parents were declining. When her mother is hospitalized in early 2006 and she sees her father's senility up front when she cares for him in her home, the author begins the journey of trying to convince them to enter an assisted living facility, and their eventual deaths.

Though this was a difficult book to read purely because it hits oh so close to home, I was laughing just as often as I cried, the author really knows how to take a troubling subject and bring out the inherent humour in it. The author's parents, as she portrays them, are freaking hilarious. Her dad's tangents about bankbooks, though rooted in senility, you can't help but chuckle at.  Her mother's stubborn streak, which rivals that of some of my family members, had me laughing like I was watching an elder caricature in a movie or tv show.

The subject matter is portrayed very realistically, which I and my mother can vouch for. Watching over elderly parents that you feel aren't quite coping independently anymore while trying not to arouse their suspicion that you think they're reverting to children that need supervision, trying to convince them to consider a retirement home when that one incident occurs that insists you can't ignore the issue anymore, trying to go over wishes for end of life care or funeral arrangements amidst insisting that you can discuss this some other time, dealing with their doctor's appointments and hospital stays while still trying to manage your own life, trying to ignore judgements from family and friends who have no idea what the situation is actually like, cleaning out a lifetime of personal possessions after a death or move into a care facility, and handling the grief when that person does finally die.

Recommendation:
Being a caregiver is incredibly hard, which this book certainly portrays. You will cry a river here, but you'll also laugh; the author manages to carefully convey the conflicted nature behind caring for aging parents.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover image gives you a good idea of the drawing style the author employs throughout the rest of the book, and I love the panicked look her father has.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Half Brother - Kenneth Oppel

Title: Half Brother
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 377 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 9, 2015
Finished: March 10, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

When Ben Tomlin's mother brings home his new "baby brother," and eight-day-old chimpanzee, Ben is far from thrilled. His father, a renowned behavioural scientist, has uprooted the family and moved them to Victoria, B.C., so he can pursue a high profile experiment - to determine whether chimps can learn human sign language. The chimp, named Zan, must be raised exactly like a human. He's dressed in clothes and has a room full of toys and books. As Ben becomes both researcher and adored older brother, Zan becomes a media sensation. But when Project Zan unexpectedly loses its funding, Ben's father is under huge pressure to make the experiment succeed or abandon it - and Zan.

Review:
This is one of those books that I'd been meaning to read for years but never got around to it until now.  The author is a renowned Canadian one (my students of various ages love his books), and I've yet to be disappointed by any of his books, and Half Brother is no exception.

The novel begins in the summer of 1973. Ben has just turned thirteen, and his father has moved the family from Toronto to Victoria in pursuit of a position at the university, one that will fund a controversial experiment. A day after moving into their new house, Ben's mother arrives with Zan, a newborn chimpanzee that the family will raise like a human being in order to see if he can learn sign language. At first Ben is resentful of Zan because he is the reason for their move (that he was not consulted on), but Ben quickly warms to the little guy, and actually loves him as his little brother. The novel covers a two-year period, and as time passes and the experiment is threatened with loss of funding and Zan grows bigger and more dangerous, Ben and his family ask themselves vital questions like what makes a human being, and is it wrong to use animals in testing to benefit humans?

First off, Ben is portrayed quite realistically, which I enjoyed. He's angry at his father for being a crappy dad and having academic expectations of him that he can't fulfill, he wants nothing more than to fit in at his new school, and actually studies the girl he's crushing on in order to have things to talk about with her. He actually has a decent relationship with his mother, and bonds with Zan in a way that is incredibly sweet. He takes on a great deal of responsibility not just with Zan during the experiment, but in caring about what will happen to Zan when it's over.

This book is amazing just for the discussions you could have over the content. Since the book takes place in the 70s, there has been a lot of change in how we view animals and their welfare, but the we still struggle with whether any kind of testing should be allowed on animals. Zan is raised as a human and later essentially discarded to Ben's dismay, which made him raise the question of what makes a human, and does Zan necessitate human treatment because of how he was raised? There's also a great little side plot where Ben tries to be the "dominant male" at the school and in his relationship with Jennifer, which can lead to questions about masculinity and power.

Recommendation:
A very insightful book that is well-written with great characters. And Zan just steals the show, I never thought I'd love a chimpanzee character.

Thoughts on the cover:
Clever, and very appealing to the eye with the orange colour.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Echo - Pam Munoz Ryan

Title: Echo
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
Publisher: Scholastic, February 24 2015 (Hardcover), Review copy is an ARC from the publisher
Length: 587 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: March 5, 2015
Finished: March 8, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Lost and alone ins a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.

Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All of the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, Echo pushes the boundaries of genre and form and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories. The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.

Review:
I'm embarrassed to say that this ARC has been sitting on my "to read" shelf since Christmas and I've only just gotten around to reading it, which is sad because I could've read this gem of a book months ago. The book is actually four separate stories that are intertwined via the common element: the harmonica with the letter "M" on it.

Fifty years before World War I, Otto gets lost in a forest playing hide-and-seek with his friends, with only a storybook and a harmonica to keep him company. Soon he meets the spirits of three sisters, princesses, that he read about in his storybook (that writes itself as events involving the sisters transpire) that are under a curse. Their spirits can only reunite with their family in human form if they save a soul on the brink of death while being confined to a woodwind instrument. In exchange for helping him get home, Otto offers up his harmonica as the sisters' vessel and promises to be the "messenger" to pass the harmonica along.

Years later in 1933 in early Nazi Germany, twelve-year-old Friedrich that comes by a special harmonica while working in the local harmonica factory, is targeted by Germany's new eugenics laws which threaten to sterilize him due to a very obvious facial birthmark. His father of course protests the new direction Germany is moving towards, including the laws that affect their Jewish friends and neighbours. When his father arouses suspicion and is placed in Dachau, Friedrich and his uncle must come up with a plan to rescue his father and escape to Switzerland.

In the next segment in 1935 in the USA,  eleven-year-old Mike and his seven-year-old brother Frankie are orphans living in a children's home in Pennsylvania. When Mike finds out he will soon be outsourced to work the nearby farms and his little brother will go to an institution even worse than their current orphanage, he tries to come up with a plan to make sure at least Frankie will have a home. When the two brothers are requested based on their innate musical talent by the representative of a wealthy woman who must adopt in order to access her inheritance, it seems the boys have it made until Mike discovers that she only needs to adopt one child.

In the final segment in 1942 in California, ten-year-old Ivy Lopez is yanked from the first stable home she's had and moves with her family to Orange County where her father will be the caretaker of a farm owned by a Japanese American family now being interned in a camp in Arizona. Ivy's father's job depends on being able to keep the place afloat and impressing the owner's son, who will come to inspect it on his military leave. At the same time, Ivy finds out her new school is actually segregated, where children of Mexican descent go to a separate, decrepit building and are forced to learn pre-school material no matter their citizenship status or how well they speak English. Thankfully for Ivy, that doesn't prevent her from trying out for the school band with her harmonica.

This book is amazingly written and is intimidating at first due to its size, but is actually quite manageable. All the stories meld together as the book progresses, and you see how each child comes to own the same harmonica Otto had in the beginning (though it takes a while to see how Otto came to part with it). Each segment is wonderful even in isolation due to the historical fiction content, each tackles a piece of history you don't often see in children's books: the care of orphans and child labour in the early 20th century, groups other than Jews targeted by the Nazis in the war, and the Japanese-American internment and the racist treatment of other immigrant groups.

The music in the book is simply beautiful. The passages where the children play the harmonica, or the piano, or conduct, are written with such beauty and passion that it almost feels like a daydream. Plus, in the preface to each segment, there's a sheet of harmonica music to the key song that appears in that particular section.

Recommendation:
Simply beautiful and powerful. A must-read for music lovers or readers that enjoy historical fiction. It is a big read and will not appeal to all kids, but for those that give it a shot it will be well worth the effort.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple but effective. I like the colour scheme and how all three kids are together at the bottom.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Once Upon a Cloud - Claire Keane

Title: Once Upon a Cloud
Author: Claire Keane
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 40 pages
Genre: Children's Picture Book
Started: March 6, 2015
Finished: March 6, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Celeste wants to give her mother something special - but what? As she drifts off to sleep, Celeste is swept up into the sky, where the sun, the moon, and the stars are eagerly awaiting her arrival. How grand! They receive her with such kindness that Celeste positively sparkles with delight. And on her way home, it comes to her: the perfect gift. It was there all along; Celeste just didn't know where to look.

In this story about finding unexpected inspiration and giving from the heart, Claire Keane invites readers to ride on the wind, wherever it leads.

Review:
This book was just released this week but it's been on my radar for a few months. Once I saw the gorgeous cover art and figured out that the author is the daughter of the famous Disney animator, I knew this was going to have a place on our shelf. I received it today after ordering it for my daughter's collection, and oh is it ever spectacular!

The illustrations are incredibly whimsical and adorable, and the colours just add to the eye-candy: sugar pink, floral purple, and vibrant blue. Look at the picture below and try to claim you're not getting cavities from the sheer sweetness.


I love how Celeste's dog follows her around in each scene, it's a great little touch. Plus a bit of narcissism on my part: Celeste, her mother, and their dog actually look a little like myself, my daughter, and our dog. 

Recommendation: 
Please pick up this book, your inner child and your actual children will thank you. This is a must-read if you or your child adore whimsy and fantasy, it abounds here. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Simply gorgeous. This gives you a good idea as to the quality of the drawings and the colours you'll see throughout the book. Also, it's hard to tell in the image above, but the white spots spreading over the cover is actually silver embossing, it's a perfect extra touch.