My Heart and Other Black Holes (CBR8 #16)

My Heart and Other Black Holes is the debut novel from Jasmine Warga from last year. It is a YA novel that deals with two depressed protagonists in some of the truest descriptions of being a teenager with depression that I have ever read. This is a good book, but probably not for everyone.

I was alerted to this book’s existence by the five star review from Annie for Cannonball Read 7. While she and I agree on some points, I only rated this book at 3.5 stars. My Heart and Other Black Holes is the story of sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel. Aysel (rhymes with gazelle) is severely depressed and suicidal since her father’s violent crime rocked her small town a few years ago. She is friendless, and a stranger in her own home. 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 a website with a section called Suicide Partners provides her solution: a teenager a few towns over is haunted by a family tragedy is looking for a partner of his own.  Even though Aysel and Roman have seemingly 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 die, and if she can bear to let Roman end his life.

Spoilery discussions from this point on.

My biggest concern with this book, one that I read quickly and was enraptured with most of the time, was the seeming hijacking of Aysel’s story by Roman’s at the end. Instead of the reader following Aysel‘s path to get the closure she’s been desperately craving, we instead get Aysel worried over Roman and his suicide attempt. It was… less than I hoped. But part of that is the limited structure of Warga’s work. By focusing on the immediacy of the days leading up to their agreed upon suicide date Warga infuses the writing with the appropriate stakes. But, by stopping her work on that date, she also leaves many plot threads up in the air. Is Aysel going to pursue physics? Is she going to go to therapy? Is her family going to deal with their own dysfunction? Will she visit her father? Will that help or hurt? What about Roman? Will he also begin the journey towards and through therapy? Should he (and she) be on medication? What about college? What about his parents own issues with guilt and trust? There is so much more to the story, and while it’s a nice YA bow to have these two committed to being there for each other and fighting their depressions, it felt like not enough.

In her author’s note Warga talks about her motivations for writing this book, and her personal insights really show through. She has an amazing way with describing the feelings of depression.

Depression is like a heaviness that you can’t ever escape. It crushes down on you, making even the smallest things like tying your shoes or chewing on toast seem like a twenty-mile hike uphill. Depression is a part of you; it’s in your bones and your blood. If I know anything about it, this is what I know: It’s impossible to escape.

I also loved the thematic work she was doing with physics, energy, relativity, and philosophy. There were lovely little layers to unpack and think about. I am looking forward to her second book which is scheduled to be published sometime this year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Act Like It (CBR8 #15)

I have ellepkay to thank for bringing Act Like It to my attention at the beginning of the new year. I am somewhere near the seventh (maybe more?) person to review this book on Cannonball Read, and we’re all pretty universally in love with this debut author’s contemporary work. Nailing good contemporary romance is not easy. There are so many ways for it all to go wrong, to feel unnatural, or cliché, or any number of other possible problems.

What I find myself most struck with (because trying to write a fresh review with so many others rolling around is tough I’m going to structure this review like a conversation with the earlier reviews, just go with me here) is Parker’s authorial voice, and her ability to use tropes to her advantage.  As I mentioned over on emmalita’s review, I really like Parker’s tone. Her authorial voice is open and friendly, which is surprisingly not something all authors of any genre manage to achieve or even, I worry, understand most stories benefit from.

As part of Parker’s authorial voice, I agree wholeheartedly with alwaysanswerb’s opinion that Parker nails the balance in writing dialogue that demonstrated the characters’ intelligence while also remaining casual. Lainie and Richard (and to a lesser degree everyone they interact with) speak the way you expect them to if you ran into them on the street. They are obviously intelligent and worldly (Richard more so), but they aren’t beating each other, or us, over the head with it. These are also characters that Parker is comfortable making real through their interests (Doctor Who!) and regular need of caffeination.

As to the tropes, Parker is giving us a modern take on the “marriage of convenience”. Following a breakup with her onstage boyfriend, rising star and current darling of London’s West End, Elaine “Lainie” Graham has pretty much sworn off men for now. So, she is less than enthused when the theatre management and publicists call her into a meeting with her other cast mate, Richard Troy, and announce the plan for these two to have a fake relationship in order to give Richard a serious image makeover. You see, after a few too many negative stories, Richard’s publicity team and the theatre’s manager feel that the audiences and media might look more kindly upon him if they believed he was in love with Lainie. Lainie reluctantly agrees as added publicity will only help her career (she hopes), but mostly because she’s strong armed the management into making a very generous donation to her favorite charity. With this basic set up Parker gave herself the underlying structure to have these two characters interact authentically, which is only for the good.

The other trope that Parker is working with is the relatively recently renamed Alphahole trope. Ilona Andrews just released a great article on the subject (h/t Malin) which I suggest you read posthaste if you haven’t yet, but let’s look at how Richard is nearly the epitome of the Alphahole:

  • Richard is independently wealthy and became an actor mainly to piss off his father. Any personal motivations that are almost entirely to piss someone else off? Alphahole territory.
  • There is no denying his great talent, by anyone, throughout the book. They all sing his praises, and the one time Lainie gives him a bad time about a bad performance, she’s really digging into what happened because a poor performance (while still award nominated) is so out of character for him that it must be addressed. There’s the alpha portion taken care of.
  • He’s also condescending, superior snob. (see also: Asshole.)
  • He has a well-publicized temper and while many of the stories in the press have been exaggerated, he’s really not a very pleasant man. Lainie comments on it, and while he warms up to her, she (and we) are very aware of his prickly personality.

As Mrs. Julien notes there are many ways to “reform an asshat, but a partner who gives as good as he/she gets is the most fun”. Yes, and Lainie is just the right character to give as good as she gets.  I will admit I didn’t necessarily see coming in the first fifth of the book.  This dynamic reminds me of the scene in the latest Downton Abbey* when Mrs. Hughes tells Mr. Carson that it makes all the difference that he is her curmudgeon. This is the dynamic that builds between Lainie and Richard. Richard becomes Lainie’s asshat. (*We have already established I watch Downton.)

Detractions? There are a few. I agree with Scootsa1000 about Will (the jerk who broke up with Lainie at the beginning of the book). Yes, Richard needed an adversary (I suppose, wasn’t his personality enough of a foil?), but Will was just too dogged in his pursuit of someone he basically threw away mere weeks before for me to feel comfortable buying into his character motivation, beyond dick. Also, and this is super nitpicky, the stakes get SUPER high right near the end, and they probably didn’t need to in both ways they do. Also, each chapter begins with a celebrity news agency tweet which will likely become dated soon. But I don’t really care, you should read this book if you are in the mood for this kind of fluff.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (CBR8 #14)

Last year’s Book Riot Read Harder challenge has been the gift that keeps on giving for me. I’ve cruised through over a dozen audiobooks after having struggled to enjoy them in the past, and I’ve broken past my own weird hang-ups about graphic novels, narratives, and memoirs. It still isn’t a seamless process for me to read these works, which probably affects my rating of them, so do take my three-and-a-half-star rating with a grain of salt. Yesknopemaybe rated this book at five stars and wrote a great review of it for Cannonball Read and was where I discovered the book.

My work is in a creative and educational field. I am tasked with finding ways to creatively present historical information to a variety of audiences in a variety of methodologies. Sometimes I’m giving tours, sometimes I’m leading conversations, sometimes I’m giving hands-on workshops, and sometimes I’m just running herd on campers (creatively! With great care!) which makes a book like Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel something that is incredibly interesting and necessary to me as I continue to expand my repertoire of crafting interesting stories for informal learning.

Subtitled The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, this work is basically a tutorial for the storytelling process, with radio/audio format specific portions. The chapters cover Ideas, Character and Voice, Story Structure (which is the section that kicked my butt), Sound, and The Edit (which is almost exclusively about the collaborative approach of refining work and something that I cling to as necessary in my work). Abel goes a bit meta on us, particularly in the Epilogue, when she explicitly uses the various things she learned in the writing. It is fantastic.

What was kind of bonus-great for me was who she interviewed in order to make this book happen. Abel spent a couple years interviewing and visiting the people who make 99% Invisible, The Moth, Planet Money, Radio Diaries, RadioLab, Snap Judgement, This American Life, and Transom Story Workshop. I have listened to basically none of these show (I know) and have only really picked up listening to podcasts relatively recently thanks to a friend of mine constantly asking me if I’ve listened to such and such and to Cannonball Read’s own emmalita’s singing the praises of You Must Remember This. I now have even more things to listen to in my limited time!

Back to the matter at hand, if the creative process or how your favorite podcasts and radio shows are made is of any interest at all, give this book a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

To Sir Phillip, With Love (CBR8 #13)

I devoured this book in one sitting. There’s really not much else you need to know about it. It isn’t my favorite Bridgerton book (books #1 so far would be An Offer From a Gentleman), but it is quite good.

Eloise Bridgerton is the fifth child of Bridgerton brood and 1824 finds her firmly on the shelf after turning down many marriage proposals, and newly alone following the marriage of her best friend and fellow spinster Penelope. At loose ends, Eloise decides to accept an invitation from widower Sir Phillip Crane, whom she has been corresponding with for over a year, to visit him at his country home to see if they suit.

However, because this is Eloise, she doesn’t actually answer his invitation and instead shows up one morning unannounced.  Sir Phillip, were he actually expecting someone, thought she would be more fitting with his mental image of a twenty-eight-year-old spinster, and it leaves him confused, perplexed, and without much idea what to do with her now that she’s here. Also, did I mention that he has twins from his first marriage and a lot of baggage about his deceased wife (who is also Eloise’s distant cousin)? Because that’s all in here too.

I’m on the record as stating that I find Julia Quinn’s strengths to lie squarely with how well (and quickly) she is able to flesh out her characters. They are fully fledged people with personalities and quirks all their own, and give great dialogue. (Which was unfortunately missing in my most recent read). I was all too happy to see the Bridgerton brothers stomping onto the scene once they realize where Eloise has run off to. But, that wasn’t where the book shined best, instead it was in the neatly wrapped up relationship between Phillip and Eloise, because we are treated to a couple who do know each other, but not as well as they might have hoped or expected, but in turn find themselves enraptured by the character of the other (as well as their physical attributes). This, plus the interplay with the various dynamics of family and responsibility make for a truly enjoyable read.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this book in closer proximity to Romancing Mr. Bridgerton as several of the important plot beats are the same. But, several months’ delay didn’t seem to lessen my enjoyment overmuch. I am also having trepidations about the next Bridgerton book When He Was Wicked which is Francesca’s book, and loathed by many a cannonballer. My greatest concern so far is that Francesca has been entirely absent from the books, and we just don’t know the character. I had similar concerns about Benedict going into his book, but I do not have hopes that Quinn will be able to pull this trick off twice.

For now, I’ve completed a quarter cannonball and am on pace for my goal of 91 books for the year!

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Bollywood Bride (CBR8 #12)

Well, it wasn’t the best of books. It wasn’t the worst of books. It is definitely somewhere in the middle. I am not going to do an in depth review of The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev since we are going to be having a group discussion on March 1 for the Cannonball Book Club Reads Romance and I want to save topics to talk about then. But Let’s do a quick rundown of what I liked and what I thought were some of the problems of this work.

Pros (a non-exhaustive list):

  • Absolutely anything to do with the Aunties and the wedding.
  • Descriptive language of the Indian culture and traditions which populate the vast majority of the book.
  • The pacing of the second half of the book.

Cons (a similarly skimmed list):

  • A lack of consistent characterization, especially in the first half of the book.
  • The beginning of this book is overworked, there is too much everything. Too much drama, too much backstory, too much angst, too many weird flashbacks.
  • Adoption is totally a thing! You don’t have to have biological children if you don’t want to, but you do have to talk about it.
  • The characters don’t TALK to each other. They have feelings and emotions near each other.
  • Schtupping does not equal communicating, even in a romance novel.

And I think that is the crux of my concerns with this book: there isn’t enough dialogue, or witty banter, or any of the fun things that help make romance novels so enjoyable. Dev is definitely heading in a good direction with her craft and the kinds of stories she wants to tell, but the “early days” of her writing are clearly visible. Show, don’t tell, and I’ll become a loyal reader.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Girls of Atomic City (CBR8 #11)

I loved the topic of this book, I wasn’t so much in love with its execution. I listened to this one via audiobook, as has become a new obsession of mine, and I’ve noticed that listening to books as opposed to reading them can really highlight poor editorial choices. There were many cases in the course of reading this book where we were revisiting information for the third or fourth time and it bothered me. Not enough to stop listening to this book, but enough to keep me from bumping this book’s rating up from three stars to four.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II is both exactly what its title says it is, and a little bit more. Author Denise Kiernan runs two narratives simultaneously: the first about the aforementioned women who came to the mysterious Clinton Engineering Works without any idea of what exactly they were working towards, except something that would help end the Second World War quickly, and the second the history of the scientific discoveries which would eventually lead to the development of the world’s first atomic weapon. Each side of the story has its ups and downs, but Kiernan does a good job of conveying the experience of a variety of women (and men) had at CEW both during the war and in its aftermath.

I’ve seen this one compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I think that a fair comparison. Each book tackles a portion of science which is likely unfamiliar to the general reader (how many of us really understand what goes into nuclear energy?) and tells us the tale of the science and the people who were directly linked to it. However, each suffers occasionally from an onslaught of information or a story that seemingly wanders away from the main narrative, but are both well researched, engaging reads.

While working on this review I came across the website for the book and it is full of the stuff I missed not having a hard copy in front of me (I love pictures!) and that has generally improved my opinion, so perhaps this one is best in its paper form.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse (CBR8 #10)

This book was like catnip to me.

I have been having trouble the past few weeks sinking into books, which is why there has been an uptick in novella reviews from me. I have no less than three books currently sitting open at home, plus an audio book underway, but this Saturday I wanted to read none of them. It was time for a trip to the non-fiction aisle, and thankfully I had ordered The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse from the library based on yesknopemaybe’s review.

I was always going to like this book. I love cases of mistaken identity. I am intrigued by the very real epidemic of people living double and sometimes triple lives in the Victorian era, and I love a bit of Edwardian gossip (yes, I also watch and enjoy the soap opera that is Downton Abbey). This book contains it all. I’ll let Goodreads do the heavy lifting for the synopsis:

The extraordinary story of the Druce-Portland affair, one of the most notorious, tangled and bizarre legal cases of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. In 1897 an elderly widow, Anna Maria Druce, made a strange request of the London Ecclesiastical Court: it was for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, T.C. Druce. Behind her application lay a sensational claim: that Druce had been none other than the eccentric and massively wealthy 5th Duke of Portland, and that the – now dead – Duke had faked the death of his alter ego. When opened, Anna Maria contended, Druce’s coffin would be found to be empty. And her children, therefore, were heirs to the Portland millions. The extraordinary legal case that followed would last for ten years. Its eventual outcome revealed a dark underbelly of lies lurking beneath the genteel facade of late Victorian England”

And that’s really only the first third of the book.

Eatwell is a documentarian for the BBC by trade, and the pacing and depth of research shows it. This is definitely a work where the author is intentionally leaving you on the precipice of knowledge, nearly every chapter ending in a cliffhanger that had me continuing to push on even when other things should have been accomplished that day. I think part of my five-star rating is that I was able to read this in a day and that suited the pace of the three hundred pages. Spreading this book out over several days or weeks might have lessened my enjoyment.

This book was originally published in the UK in 2014, but in its 2015 re-release has an additional chapter from Eatwell as she describes what more came to light following her initial research and publication. I found her authorial voice engaging and the story captivating.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Map (CBR8 #9)

Last year I was delighted with Jackaby by William Ritter. It had just the right mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and whodunit to be right up my alley. It’s got a bit of Sherlock mixed with a little Doctor Eleven for a male protagonist and a female protagonist who is smart, wily, and sarcastic in equal measure – and a great example of female agency in print. I immediately added the second book, Beastly Bones, on my to read list for 2016 as well as this fun little novella The Map.

The action of The Map is centered on one day – Abigail Rook’s birthday. She dares to hope that her employer Jackaby, detective of the supernatural, won’t make a fuss. She is let down. The pair are off for parts unknown using magical party crackers to teleport in time and space (I told you, a smidge timey wimey) using a cryptic map that may lead to a forgotten treasure.  Jackaby is going to give Abigail the present of adventure, just as soon as she comes around to it.

In some ways this short story felt much more akin to a television script than it did a novella, and that isn’t really a detraction. You probably need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one, for while certain characters don’t appear on page, they are referenced. The same goes for some of the action. This one also doesn’t give us any new character development, and may not be the best place to meet these characters as this is VERY plot driven, but if you are already into the world of Jackaby it is currently FREE on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for download.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Alone with You (CBR8 #8)

Yes. I read another one. No, I’m not proud.

I find I end up reading the Kowalski Family books in pairs. I had not intended to read another one so quickly, given my less than happy feelings with All He Ever Dreamed. But, I was out, I didn’t have my current book with me, and I had about 20 minutes to fill. Alone with You to the rescue (darn you, Nook app!) and then I had to finish it, because reasons.

This is a very straightforward novella. The action is based around two characters back in the stories original New Hampshire stomping grounds. Darcy, employee of Kevin Kowalski of the Jasper’s Bar from Undeniably Yours. When Kevin asks Darcy to help out with the launch of his new restaurant venture upstate, she’s happy to take on the challenge. Little does she know that the co-owner of the new restaurant is Jake Holland, the perfect guy who slipped through her fingers after their one night together.

Jake is, like all Stacey male leads, a genuinely decent guy. In this story he’s lost Darcy’s number because he got soaking wet helping a stranded driver on the side of the road. The reader is told immediately that this is a good guy and we should be rooting for he and Darcy to end up together. And they do, this is Romance Land, but while expert authors like Courtney Milan or Sarina Bowen can build in a great story to their novellas this outing from Shannon Stacey felt like a heavily summarized version of her longer works (which aren’t all that long to start with).

It was nice to revisit some old characters (Paulie!) from my favorite book in the series, but this one is definitely a pass. At least it fulfilled my Read Harder task of a book fewer than 100 pages.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

My Life on the Road (CBR8 #7)

Okay: confession time. I read this because a) Emma Watson suggested it as her “Our Shared Shelf” group on Goodreads for January and b) I needed a non-fiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes for the 2016 Read Harder Challenge. This was not an “oh! I must read this book!” choice so much as a “well, if a whole group of people are going to read it, I might as well choose this one” choice.

I am just young enough where Gloria Steinem has always been a “historical” figure to me. Her heyday – the work that defines her to millions as a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer including her work with the National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. Magazine – was already well underway by the time I arrived on the planet in the early 80s. When I became conscience of feminism and the strive for equality, Steinem had already been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, NY. For much of my life, and for feminists like me, Steinem was a figure, not a person.

Perhaps that is the gift of this book, her first in over 20 years (according to her website), is that it can serve to introduce Gloria Steinem to us for the person she is. My Life on the Road is a collection of stories and anecdotes that highlight the life Ms. Steinem has lead. This book isn’t a proper travelogue (which I’ll admit was what I was truly hoping for), nor is it an autobiography as Ms. Steinem is more interested in telling us the tales of the people her life has intersected with as she has built a life mostly without a home base.

But that is also the weakness of this book. It quite literally feels like a collection of random stories (much like traveling itself). While the really great parts are fantastic, most of the book is middling. I felt simple whelmed, not over or under.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.  You can join us for our first 2016 Book Club choice: Cannonball Reads The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev on March 1st.  Led by yours truly.