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.

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Shotgun Lovesongs (CBR6 #44)

Shotgun Lovesongs caught my eye a few months ago while I was perusing my local bookstore. The book flap synopsis sold me:

“It’s a place like hundreds of others, nothing special, really. But for four friends – all born and raised in this small Wisconsin town – it is home. And now they are men, coming into their own or struggling to do so. One of them never left, still working the family farm that has been tilled for generations. But others felt the need to move on, with varying degrees of success. One trades commodities, another took to the rodeo circuit, and one of them even hit it big as a rock star. And then there’s Beth, a woman who has meant something special in each of their lives. Now all four are brought together for a wedding. Little Wing seems even smaller than before. While lifelong bonds are still strong, there are stresses – among the friends, between husbands and wives. There will be heartbreak, but there will also be hope, healing, even heroism as these memorable people learn the true meaning of adult friendship and love.”

Butler tells us this story through the voices of a group of friends. Each chapter is designated by the first initial of that character and the reader experiences the forward momentum of the story from their perspective, while also being given insight to the events of the past. Perhaps my favorite part of this construction is that we often hear about the same event from multiple perspectives, giving the elusive hint of truth.

But truth, and to an extent loyalty and trust, are the through lines of the narrative. Through much of the early part of the book, I was convinced this was merely a character study, without much of a plot. And perhaps that’s why it took me quite a while to get through it (Goodreads tells me I spent 2 weeks with this book which barely clocks in over 300 pages). But the plot is centered so heavily on what builds a friendship, what destroys it, and how it can be repaired that it felt like nothing was really happening, but everything was happening at the same time.

Nikolas Butler’s first novel is a statement. It’s bold, but not overblown. And for that reason alone, I suggest you read it, I may be giving it 3 stars here, but it’s really a 3.5 book that I just couldn’t quite find my way to giving a 4. Even though it had the following quote:

“America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their life is so desperate, and so dismal that it doesn’t seem there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing.

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

Tell the Wolves I’m Home (CBR6 #19)

I normally do pretty spoiler free reviews, but I cannot think of how to talk about my reactions to this book without spoiling the heck out of it, so if that’s a thing you want to avoid then you probably need to click right along to another review.  Go ahead, I won’t judge. Promise.

Anyway, now that we have that done, let’s talk about Tell the Wolves I’m Home.  Our protagonist is June, age 14. She is telling us about the death of her Uncle Finn, her godfather and best friend. It is 1987 and the President of the United States won’t utter the word AIDS for a few more months but it’s the disease that took Finn from June and her family. June’s as up to date as it was possible to be 27 years ago, but the world at large isn’t. It’s a charged climate, and as much as that affects June, and how others react to her and Finn’s death, she’s busy processing the loss of the person she felt she knew entirely, and who knew her.  The problem is that through machinations between her mom and her uncle, there is much about Finn’s life that June does not know, and it all comes screaming into her life with the arrival of Finn’s boyfriend Toby at the funeral.

I wish the book had been told from Toby’s point of view. I want to read Toby’s story. I want to know about  his childhood in England, I want more information about how he and Finn fell in love because what we are told feels like being short changed, how Toby dealt with his  AIDS diagnosis when there was little to nothing to be done and AZT hadn’t been announced yet, what it felt like to get diagnosed with an illness that meant everyone would be terrified of  being in physical proximity to you, how he coped with the decisions to accept being banned from Finn’s family’s life and subsequently let them believe he was the reason Finn had AIDS and not the other way around,  and how he then attempts to survive losing the love of his life. But most importantly I want to know what it took from deep inside of him to attend Finn’s funeral and know that he would likely be turned away, at the very least, in an attempt to make a connection with the niece he was denied a relationship with and on whom his great love’s final wish rested.

After a few fits and starts, June and Toby begin a clandestine friendship. What evolves is the type of relationship which they should have been allowed to have since Toby had spent the last decade with Finn – living in the same apartment that June visited – but she had no idea he even existed. Not his name, not his stories, she didn’t even know his belongings were his. She thought it was all Finn. This is a great story – the story of Finn orchestrating that his two loves are able to help each other process their loss after his death, even if they had been forcibly kept from each other during his life. But that isn’t really the story we get, although it is by far the best part of the book.

What we do get is another coming of age story set against the backdrop of crisis. But it isn’t as good as others in the genre, such as The Age of Miracles. We spend a lot of (possibly wasted) time with June interacting with what death by AIDS means to the people who must now interact with the Elbus family following Finn’s death. And, how it relates to their individual interactions with the portrait.

And here’s a plot device that eluded me. I loved the early parts of the book where Finn is painting the portrait of his nieces. I enjoyed immensely reading about the work and detail that he put into it, including the wolf’s head between the two bodies in the all-important negative space.  But what happens after – the article in the New York Times, the displaying of the work in the living room, the removal to the safe deposit box, the additions made to the painting by the various members of the family, the fixing of said painting, the art professor – all of it, was simply too much. It was another example of the too much factor in this book. There are just too many storylines to be covered adequately. To name only a few I haven’t yet spoken about:

  • June has no friends and is generally a social recluse who prefers her imagination and pretending to be a girl in Medieval Europe
  • Finn was a renowned artist who left the art world and the portrait he paints of June and her sister Greta is his last and an image of it is ‘leaked’ to the press. We never find out from who or why
  • Greta is a 16 year old high school senior who is battling her demons about being pushed to grow up too fast, unreal expectations, the dissolution of her relationship with her sister, and feeling shunned from June’s relationship with Finn.
  • Greta has taken to getting drunk at parties and roping her sister into attending them so that she can ‘rescue’ her in her inebriated state without telling June why. (This one was particularly bothersome to me, because I kept expecting to find out that the Drama teacher was abusing Greta in some way).
  • Their mother, Danni, gave up her own dream of art after Finn left home to travel and study art on his own. Danni has an equivalent talent to her brother and seems to be holding on to a lot of anger about the life she could have had if Finn had stuck to ‘the plan’.
  • Their dad is an accountant, like Danni, and they are so busy with tax Season as to leave June and Greta without supervision for the entirety of the spring. He is often also in the position of apologizing for Danni’s behavior.

Brunt could have written a story about familial relationships and how they can disintegrate so easily without layering all these storylines over the plot.  With that said, yes, the writing is good, the word choice is evocative and emotions are inspired, the characters are well drawn, but they can often be difficult to care about and their motives are vague if present at all. But this book still gets three stars because what Brunt does well is the sincere and the heartfelt and this book is teeming with it. I just wanted more.

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

Burial Rites (CBR6 #18)

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I have had a bit of luck with first time authors of late, and Hannah Kent is no exception. Her debut work, Burial Rites, is a gripping novel- all mood and emotion. It’s a story gaining speed like a stone rolling downhill, for there is only one way to go.

Ms. Kent writes in Burial Rites about the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland. Its 1829, moving quickly into 1830, and everyone is waiting for word from Denmark allowing the beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir for her role in the murder of two men, one of whom was her employer. This is not a spoiler, as the entire book is built around Agnes’ death sentence, and her life between her trial and her execution. But I don’t really want to talk about plot in this review; I want to talk about language and intent.

In her Acknowledgements Ms. Kent describes this work as her “dark love letter to Iceland”. She became acquainted with the story of Agnes Magnusdottir on a Rotary exchange trip to Iceland from her home in Australia, and researched the murders at Illugastadir to a magnificent depth, mining archival sources and academic writings to deliver a story based on the historical record. In fact, each chapter of Burial Rites begins with a primary source related to Agnes’ case, in a similar way to how Lyndsay Faye begins each of her Timothy Wilde books. What the reader receives is a story that is based in fact and embellished with fictional likelihoods which delivers, as Ms. Kent intends, a more ambiguous portrayal of Agnes and the people who interacted with her in the last few months of her life. The reader also discovers what life in northern Iceland was like nearly two hundred years ago through Ms. Kent’s evocative use of language.

The language is the star of the show in Burial Rites. While one of my very few complaints about the book is that sometimes the characters’ voices blended together Ms. Kent’s word choice and craftsmanship are simply stunning. The bleak landscape, the harsh weather are felt in each sparse and multifaceted sentence. “Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.” But it isn’t just Iceland that we come to know through Ms. Kent’s language, it’s her characters. And none so intimately as Agnes. Through her conversation with her young priest Toti and the farmer’s wife Margret, Agnes’ life and crimes are seen in the light. But Agnes is no ordinary woman of her class, she found herself in learning and is therefore a well-spoken and well-read reporter of her life. She is also highly aware of her future, and what now lies ahead of her, and her voice is the clearest, and the most haunting. In reflecting on what good Toti may be able to do for her, Agnes has this to say, “though prayer could simply pluck sin out. But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”

It is hard to believe that Ms. Kent is only 28 and this is her first novel. I am excited to see what else this author might bring to us moving forward.

“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”

While I can’t seem to pinpoint where I heard about Burial Rites based on when I added it to my to-read list other reviews of Burial Rites include ElCicco’s from CBR6 and Miss Kate’s from CBR5.

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

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (CBR6 #16)

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“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.” (288).

It’s hard to know what to make of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s a quest, it’s a mystery, it’s one man finding himself, and it’s the coalescing of a group of friends. It’s all this and more. Clocking in at fewer than 300 pages, Robin Sloan manages to craft an epic adventure for his protagonist and his merry band of players.

And it’s simply delightful.

The story is based on Clay Jannon a San Francisco based web-design lackey who finds himself out of work when the small company he works for goes under and in turn starts working at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It only takes a few days working at the store for Clay to discover that the store is more curious than either its name or his slightly odd boss. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything—instead, they borrow large, obscure volumes from the way back shelves. Bored and looking to practice his programming skills for his eventual escape from clerkdom, Clay maps the behavior of the customers which only uncovers more questions.

At this point Clay starts on a quest to understand the data. While set, at least in part, in a bookstore, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is more the story of the digital future, the art of printed books, and data visualization. To say much more would give the plot away, but it’s worth the read so I won’t spoil it.

Quibbles about this book are limited to the following: that the supporting cast is not well developed. Everyone has the ‘thing’ they are useful for, but we don’t really learn more about them. Clay tends to say he cares about Mr. Penumbra without truly demonstrating it, and there is a reference to an all-museum database which took me out of the narrative because I know no such thing exists and the ease of it made me jealous of the fictional reality in which it does exist. But that’s a museum professional specific complaint.

My only real regret about this book is not reading it in one sitting.

“…I prefer bookstores…” (270).

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

The Age of Miracles (CBR6 #15)

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“…as if he knew even then that there existed under everything a universal grief” (227).

I suppose that The Age of Miracles can be viewed as a dystopian novel. In it our narrator, Julia, tells us about the year she turned 12 and the Earth’s turning slowed down, eventually leading to weeks of daylight and weeks of darkness. It can also be said that this is a sad book, about the dying and destruction of our world. These things are true, but somehow Karen Thompson Walker prevents the novel from being as unbearably sad as the description might have you believe.

Julia tells us the story as reminiscence, as a woman in her twenties looking back more than a decade to her own childhood to recount the year that her entire world changed. This is the story of her memories of the year the slowing happened, when minutes and hours were added to the Earth’s rotation. We see the events through the microcosm of a young girl’s memory and in so we are limited in scope, we hear from her only hints of what is happening outside of her town in California. Others might view this as a drawback, but ultimately it’s for the story’s benefit that we are limited to less than a dozen characters. By being of limited scope we are able to focus in on the various effects the slowing has on different types of people, and how that compounds in the life of Julia.

The story, at its core, is a cross-hatch of a coming of age tale for Julia, and also the coming of the end of the world. As she struggles with the changes in friendships, being attracted to boys, the changes of her own body we also see the change in the physical environment, how people cope (or don’t) with the ever lengthening days, and what happens as people cling to survival in a world that seems bent on their destruction. Which, to many of us, is exactly what middle school felt like.

Probably my only complaint about the structure of the story is that so much time is spent in the early part of the school year/slowing. We spend nearly half the book going from September to December, and then the second half seemingly racing through January to September. I would’ve liked to spend more time in the second six months of the first year of the slowing but in order to build the world of the story; I can understand why Ms. Walker chose to focus on the first six. While the science of this dystopian sci-fi might not be plausible, it is still an intriguing story that will stick with you and make you think about how you would survive in a world like Julia’s. I whole-heartedly suggest this book to everyone. The writing is evocative and delicious while Julia’s story is intimate and engaging.

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

No One Else Can Have You (CBR6 #14)

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I picked this one up based on the recommendation of Caitlin’s review of it for the Cannonballread. No One Else Can Have You is centered around 16 year old Kippy Bushman, and told to us by her in first person narration. It is also a YA read and Ms. Hale’s first novel.

Kippy’s best friend has just died. More specifically, she was murdered. It is the first murder that anyone in Friendship, WI (population 688) can remember. The town is in shut down mode until the suspected killer is apprehended. The problem for Kippy is that she doesn’t believe that the person accused of the crime is actually the culprit. In fact, between her best friend Ruth’s diary and some rudimentary detective work Kippy is able to clear the suspect (Ruth’s cheating boyfriend) and start looking into new suspects. Unlike the local police who are too excited to have the crime tied up with a nice bow on the town’s local miscreant. What follows is the story of Kippy finding out who her friends are, and who aren’t and what really happened to the best friend she lost too soon.

There are plenty of things that worked for me in No One Else Can Have You. Kippy’s widower father Dom is a treasure of a character. Complex and interesting with the kind of heart anyone could wish for their own parent. There’s also a very realistic examination of just how tough we can all be on our best friends, particularly when we are teenage girls. It is also fantastic at mining the depths of not completely understanding attraction, and who likes whom more. And that fabulous cover art. Bravo to whomever designed it; I want to wear that sweater.

But, there are many things which didn’t work for me as well. And I really felt that they detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the book. First, Ms. Hale covers a lot of the ground several times. Kippy’s antagonists antagonize in the same way. Over and over again. Kippy uses the same petulant tone consistently. It also takes nearly a hundred pages (of 380) for the story to get going, and in the last 80 it makes a serious change in tone.

Give it a read if you like YA first person protagonists and murder mysteries. If any of these things annoy you, stay away.

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