We Are Okay (CBR11 #15)

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I struggled with this book for quite a while. For reasons I now don’t remember I believed this book to be a graphic novel and had filed it as such as a different task for Read Harder challenge than I eventually recorded it under. Then, once I began reading it for what it truly was, I found myself struggling through the chapters. Marin the protagonist is in such a low place, and Nina LaCour writes it so well that I felt myself being pulled under as I was already feeling a bit out of sorts. There were a few times I thought I might DNF the book, but the writing itself kept pulling me back in.

The story in We Are Okay is one of immense grief. We join events in progress, Marin is waiting for Mabel to come visit her at college over winter break. Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel in nearly five months and is living a sort of half-life. There was something terrible that happened, or perhaps several terrible somethings and we are reading to find out what they were. The novel works back and forth between the previous summer and this Christmas and we slowly piece together Marin’s truth as she becomes more and more ready to say the words, even to herself.

This novel unpacks what it means to discover someone has kept an enormous secret from you, and how life’s transitions can both change us drastically while also reaffirming exactly who we are.  Nina LaCour created astonishing characters and a deep story that absolutely earned its Printz Award. As long as you are in the headspace for it, I suggest this one mightily for those of us who read YA.

A Man Called Ove (CBR9 #49)

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I did a thing I don’t normally do, I watched the movie first.

I had gotten A Man Called Ove on Audible some time ago, but kept holding off on it. I tend to pick the audiobook I want to listen to based on its length – how much time do I have to give it right now? Sitting at just over 9 hours you’d think I would have found a few days to listen before now, but I had not. With August quickly getting away from me (campers are exhausting, y’all) I decided now was the time.

But only because I had watched the movie a few weeks ago, and it made me cry happy tears.

A Man Called Ove tells a rather simple story: the family you find can give meaning where you were sure there was none left to make.

Ove is a cantankerous man (as the book explains, “Ove has been a grumpy old man since the first day of second grade”) who is very set in his ways and not interested in making new friends and changing any of his routines. Alas, two tragedies have befallen him, his beloved wife Sonja, the only woman he has ever loved, has died following a several year battle with cancer and he has been made redundant at work just six months later. Ove sees this as a clear sign that it is time for him to exit this life, but then his new neighbors move in, and now his life is out of his control.

The book travels down several paths all at once. We travel back to Ove’s childhood and young adult years to see him develop into who he is, and learn about his life with Sonja and their struggles. We learn about Ove’s years living in his home, and his battles with his neighbors which have been built into his daily patrols. We also meet the people who would be in his life, and make him their business, and themselves his. We also trace Ove’s determination to end his life, and as the lovely Parvaneh puts it, just how shite he is at dying.

Honestly, if this quote stirs something in you, than this book is for you. If it doesn’t, that’s alright too. The book comes together a smidge too neatly, and is not as true to life as you might want. But it is warm, and satisfying while letting a curmudgeon be its heart.

“Now you listen to me,” says Ove calmly while he carefully closes the door. “You’ve given birth to two children and quite soon will be squeezing out a third. You’ve come here from a land far away and most likely you fled war and persecution and all sorts of other nonsense. You’ve learned a new language and got yourself an education and you’re holding together a family of obvious incompetents. And I’ll be damned if I’ve seen you afraid of a single bloody thing in this world before now….I’m not asking for brain surgery. I’m asking you to drive a car. It’s got an accelerator, a brake and a clutch. Some of the greatest twits in world history have sorted out how it works. And you will as well.” And then he utters seven words, which Parvaneh will always remember as the loveliest compliment he’ll ever give her. “Because you are not a complete twit.”

Everything I Never Told You (CBR9 #22)

I don’t know how I feel about this book.

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There is so much that this book does well, starting with its beautiful prose. It’s loosely a mystery, but more in the ethereal way that mysteries exist in our lives when tragedy strikes. There are some questions that we will simply never know the answers. This book unravels the ambiguities of familial relationships and societal pressures which shaped its characters and leaves us with enough unresolved to feel real, and true.

Each character in this family is fully formed and three-dimensional, and our central character, the now deceased Lydia, carries the burden of the expectations of those other characters. Her parents, like far too many parents, place the pressure on her to be what they wished they had been. It is enough to choke whatever she would have wanted out of the realm of possibility.

Lydia’s death is not a spoiler; the book opens with its acknowledgement. The greater mystery of the work is how she could have died in the manner she did without anyone truly knowing what happened. No one in her family saw past Lydia’s serene façade.  Her parents viewed her through their own expectations and the show she put on, and her siblings knew her better, they knew of anger, they knew  she could be scheming but also deeply lonely. However, did anyone really know her?

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that does such a good job of capturing the complicated web of family dynamics, and that may be the reason that I was in some ways turned off from the novel. It all rang perhaps a little too true, a little too close to home for me to sink into this work of fiction. For that perhaps I should rank it highly? But what about my overall ambivalence to the work, and coaxing myself to read it? Should that not rank it lowly? Instead, I will demure, and leave it unrated.

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

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.

One Confirmed Kill (CBR4 #26)

This review is my half-cannonball, the reading and reviewing of 26 books. The half-cannonball was my goal for the year; I never thought I’d make it by the end of June (the half year). So, I will be continuing on in an attempt to make the full cannonball both for personal bragging rights and a hope of contributing to something greater than myself.  I celebrate this achievement by reviewing One Confirmed Kill by Peter Johnston. It should be noted that I received this e-book for free for the promise of reviewing it (hey, it only took 3 months!).

There is a problem with being a new writer. I think this problem can be called the end-of-the-nose scenario. What I mean by that is not being able to see past the end of one’s own nose, or at least not clearly. Mr. Johnston takes the time to pen an account of life in Iraq during the war using his personal experiences and ruminations on his time in the military to present to us a view on the less pristine side of military life. However, I had a difficult time with a few aspects of his writing.

One Confirmed Kill is written in first person format, which is a great way to get into the perspective of the narrator, it does unfortunately tend to allow the writer to use their own voice and write the way they, or the person they are basing their narrator on, speak. I spent a good portion of my time reading wanting to edit the document for punctuation and word choice. The other main problem I had is that heading into this story with very little knowledge of the military and their procedures I had a difficult time keeping up with all the acronyms and short hand. But finally, perhaps the most egregious error is to me, a sense of a lack of editing. This is a short story that runs to 30 pages and over 18,500 words. It either needs to be shortened and honed down or expanded and given chapter breaks to aid the readers’ comprehension.

Anyway, as an amateur writer myself I hope to cast no stones, but instead have hope that Mr. Johnston can find an editor or a group of readers who will help him hone his craft, as I was certainly entertained and the very real problem of troop suicide is dealt with honestly.


I found out I lost a friend today.

Honestly, he had been lost to me for some time. In the way that the people we grow up with float in and out of our lives.

He had survived a rough childhood, nothing – unfortunately – out of the ordinary. An alcoholic absentee father and an overworked mother. An older sister with her own issues who wasn’t able to be there for him. He was a bright guy, smarter than average; he finished high school a semester early but didn’t think college was for him. He never even applied.

He wanted to serve his country; he wanted to be in the Coast Guard.

He never pursued that dream.

He wanted to have a good job that would allow him to be the type of father his never was.

He did work at a job which paid well but left him feeling unfulfilled, but a baby daughter who filled his heart with joy.

He was the type of friend who could be relied on in any situation. You needed a shoulder to cry on, he would listen. You needed to rant and rave about the injustices of the world, he’d join in and eventually make you laugh it away. You wanted to have a drink and play some pool, he was always game. He loved spending time with groups and was able to sit one on one and make you feel noticed.

I look back now and wonder what would make the boy that I knew turn into a man who would end his own life.

I do not know.

We love you Kev, and we’ll miss you. And we’ll remember the sad boy with the big heart and the man who never outran his demons.