Book Review: Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon (2015)

Friday, September 4th, 2015

This Impossible Life

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence and child abuse.)

Sometimes I reread my favorite books from back to front. I start with the last chapter and read backwards until I get to the beginning. When you read this way, characters go from hope to despair, from self-knowledge to doubt. In love stories, couples start out as lovers and end as strangers. Coming-of-age books become stories of losing your way. Your favorite characters come back to life.

If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change. Today is the same as yesterday. Tomorrow will be the same as today. In the Book of Maddy, all the chapters are the same.

Until Olly.

According to the Big Bang theory, the universe came into being in one single moment – a cosmic cataclysm that gave birth to black holes, brown dwarfs, matter and dark matter, energy and dark energy. It gave birth to galaxies and stars and moons and suns and planets and oceans. It’s a hard concept to hold on to – the idea that there was a time before us. A time before time.

In the beginning there was nothing. And then there was everything.

Eighteen-year-old Madeline Whittier has no memories of her father and older brother, who died in a tragic car accident when she was just a few months old. Nor does she remember life on the Outside: the feel of the sun’s rays shining directly on her skin; of warm, wet sand squishing between her toes; or of a salty ocean breeze tickling her face and tousling her hair. Maddy was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) shortly after the accident, and has spent the past fifteen years confined to her home, with only her mom Pauline and full-time nurse Carla for company.

Maddy doesn’t live in a bubble per se, but close to it: her house is specially outfitted with industrial air filters, which keep out anything over .3 microns and recycles the air completely every four hours. An airlock separates the front entrance from the rest of the house, and all visitors must undergo an exhaustive physical exam, background check, and thorough decontamination before entering.

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Book Review: Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante (2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

The Tribulations of Adolescence: A Character Study

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual assault.)

Anna Franklin has never really fit in. A native of Sunnyvale, California, Anna was perhaps the least “sunny” kid in her subdivision. Socially awkward and unsure, she usually watched from the sidelines while the neighborhood children played tag. Her parents meant well, but failed to pay Anna enough attention, absorbed as they were – are – in their own interests: she, a pianist; he, an amateur scientist.

When Anna turns sixteen, things go from bad to worse as she’s caught in the bleak, gloomy grip of depression – or melancholia, in Anna’s parlance. Nothing can seem to shake its hold on her: not a psychiatrist (who Anna dislikes), not drugs (which Anna tosses), not her parents’ well-intentioned encouragements. Until, one night – in an effort to rekindle mother-daughter rituals of old – Anna’s mom institutes mandatory bedtime reading. Her first choice? The Bible. Not for any religious purposes, mind you – Anna’s parents are both atheists – but because it’s the basis for so much subsequent literature.

Yet something (read: the promise of death, violence, and retribution) in Revelations speaks to Anna. She discovers that she is “passionately in love with death.” Anna begins to have dreams – and then waking visions – of a red heifer. Anna’s overnight religious mania coincides with the arrival of the Goldschmidts, a weird family that seems mostly disengaged from the world (or at least Anna’s small slice of it). When Lars invites Anna to his church, she finds a ready and receptive outlet for her newly discovered fundamentalist fervor.

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Book Review: Every Last Word, Tamara Ireland Stone (2015)

Friday, June 19th, 2015

Crazy Again Today

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviors, and suicide.

Review title pulled from the lyrics of Fiona Apple’s “Paper Bag,” which was a staple on my college-era depression playlists. It’ll click once you read the book, okay.)

Then I see the walls.

I spin a slow three-sixty in place, taking it all in. All four walls are covered with scraps of paper in different colors and shapes and textures, all jutting out at various angles. Lined paper ripped from spiral-bound notebooks. Plain paper, threehole punched. Graph paper, torn at the edges. Pages that have yellowed with age, along with napkins and Post-its and brown paper lunch bags and even a few candy wrappers.

Caroline’s watching me, and I take a few cautious steps closer to get a better look. I reach for one of the pages, running the corner between my thumb and forefinger, and that’s when I notice handwriting on each one, as distinctive as the paper itself. Loopy, flowing cursive. Tight, angular letters. Precise, blocky printing.

Wow.

Sixteen-year-old Samantha McAllister is dreading the start of junior year – and with it, the disappearance of “Summer Sam,” the better, braver, happier version of herself. It’s not that she’s ostracized or unpopular; just the opposite, in fact. She’s been best friends with Kaitlyn, Alexis, Olivia, and Hailey since kindergarten; collectively, they are known as the Crazy Eights (they’ve lost a few members over the years), THE “it girls” in school.

While these lifelong friends should provide Sam with some measure of support and stability, they’re just as likely to send her into an “Eights-induced thought spiral.” Led by head “Mean Girl” Kaitlyn, the clique is quick to pick apart each other’s hair, makeup, cloths, nicknames, taste in guys, you name it. So it’s no wonder that Sam hides her “crazy” from them. Imagine what they’d say if they knew that she’s suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) her whole life, and that her level of dysfunction is such that she’s been taking anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills and seeing a psychiatrist once a week for the past five years? No thanks.

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Book Review: Church of Marvels: A Novel, Leslie Parry (2015)

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

“I have witnessed the sublime in the mundane…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher.)

But this story, in truth, is not about me. I am only a small part of it. I could try to forget it, perhaps. I could try to put it behind me. But sometimes I dream that I’ll still return to the pageantry of the sideshow, hide myself beneath costumes and powder and paint, grow willingly deaf among the opiating roar of the audience and the bellow of the old brass band. It will be like the old days – when Mother was ferocious and alive, before the Church of Marvels burned to the sand. But how can I return now, having seen what I have seen? For I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.

Why, he wondered, did he have to peddle his difference for their amusement, and yet at the same time temper it, suppress it, make it suitably benign?

How would it feel to know there were people who’d chosen to live as they felt, not as they appeared, and never looked back? Could she bear their happiness, as shunned as they were? Was she brave enough?

She had seen it done. Wherever they glittered in the afterlife – flying among the high rafters of heaven, swimming with her mother in an undersea cave – she hoped the tigers had known it, and roared.

For the first time in her seventeen years, Odile Church is alone. Her mother’s sideshow carnival, the Church of Marvels, burned to ash in the spring, the casualty of a freak fire. With it went her mother, many of her friends, and the only life she knew. Her twin sister, Isabelle Church, was spared – only to run off to Manhattan not long after. That was three months ago; three months without a word.

And then Odile receives a cryptic, ominous letter from Belle: “If for some reason this is the last letter I should write to you, please know that I love you.” Armed with little more than an old map of her mother’s and Belle’s letter, Odile hops the next ferry to Manhattan in search of her sister.

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Book Review: Watch the Sky, Kirsten Hubbard (2015)

Monday, April 13th, 2015

“We’re both made of stars, Jory Birch. Everybody is.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Signs were everywhere.

Everywhere and anywhere, Caleb said. That was the problem. They came at any time. And they could be almost anything.

Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in an aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks.

“How do you know?” Jory had asked his stepdad once. “I mean, how do you know you’re seeing a sign? Instead of a bunch of coincidental fish?”

“You’ll just know,” Caleb had replied.

Caleb was fickle with explanations. Sometimes he shared them. Sometimes he didn’t. But he had no problem giving orders – mostly camouflaged as suggestions.

Eleven-year-old Jory Birch has been looking for signs for the better part of five years – ever since his stepfather, Caleb, swooped in and “saved” him and his mother. From what, Jory’s not exactly sure.

A veteran who served “in a desert war Jory didn’t know much about,” Caleb is convinced that something’s coming. Something big. That’s why he moved his family – mom; Jory; and Jory’s younger siblings, Kit and Ansel – to the farm at the edge of town. Why mom spends most of her day picking and preserving cucumbers and squash from the garden; why Caleb is growing a stockpile in the locked barn; why the kids are discouraged from socializing with outsiders or confiding in anyone outside of the family. Jory’s life is a maze of secrets – secrets which become increasingly harder to keep once Jory starts fifth grade and finds himself (gasp!) making friends: with the affable Erik Dixon and outgoing Alice Brooks-Diaz.

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Book Review: The Half Life of Molly Pierce, Katrina Leno (2014)

Monday, October 6th, 2014

An Unexpectedly Heartfelt Look at Mental Illness

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for depression and suicide. Also, this review is of an ARC. Any mistakes are mine and not the author’s or publisher’s.)

Seventeen-year-old Molly Pierce is blacking out. Losing time. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes; other times, hours or even most of a day passes before she comes to. One afternoon, the Massachusetts native was halfway to New York before she woke up behind the wheel of her car.

Though this has been going on for a year, Molly can’t tell anyone: Not her parents, who already walk on eggshells around her as it is; not her sister Hazel or brother Clancy; not her best friends Erie and Luka; not even her psychiatrist Alex. She’s too afraid of what might happen. She’ll be labeled “crazy,” shipped off to a “loony bin,” perhaps. Plus, talking about it? Giving voice to her problems? Makes them real. If she can just pretend to be normal, maybe she will be. Eventually.

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Book Review: The Chance You Won’t Return, Annie Cardi (2014)

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Interesting Concept, Unlikable Narrator

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: This review is of an ARC. Any mistakes are my own.)

It must have been like this for Mom – the longer you go without talking about something, the harder it is to start, until eventually you don’t know how to.

A junior at Oak Ridge High, Alex Winchester has tried to stay under the radar; until this year, it’s mostly worked. She’s failing driver’s ed., which is understandable given her phobia of driving – but since she’s too embarrassed to explain her fears to the adults in her life, they keep pushing her to get behind the wheel of a car. That is, until she drives the school’s Volvo right through the end zone, incurring the wrath of the football team and its newly rabid fans. As if this humiliation isn’t bad enough, her mom suffers a nervous breakdown during the meeting with her driving instructor Mr. Kane. The weird idiosyncrasies Alex has observed in her mother during the past few weeks fall into place: Janet Winchester is convinced that she’s Amelia Earhart.

A battery of tests and a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital are of little help; whatever Janet’s problem, it has no physical cause. And with insurance refusing to cover extended care, Alex and her family – father David, sister Katy, and brother Teddy – must care for Janet at home. Each member of the family deals with Janet’s illness in her own way: David is patient to a fault; Katy loses herself in her schoolwork; Teddy takes advantage of Mom/Earhart whenever possible; and Alex alternates between hostility, despair, and camaraderie. Before the illness, her relationship with her mom was rocky at best; now, she often stays up late at night, confiding in this new, not-quite-Mom. (Though the relationship isn’t as idyllic as the book’s synopsis would have you believe.)

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