YA Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

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Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: High school students Aysel and Roman lose hope in life following separate family tragedies and plan to end their lives together on April 7th. But as their friendship begins to heal Aysel’s broken heart, she must find a way to convince Roman that life is still worth living.

What I loved: This book deals with loss and guilt that, though often painful to read, really delves into how isolating grief can feel. Aysel hates her father for committing horrible crimes, but she also still cares about and misses him. And she fears herself for missing him because she worries she’ll become like him. Roman blames himself for an accident that ultimately wasn’t his fault, but he can’t bear to live with himself without all his family lost.

Yet, even though these emotions are almost too much to bear, Warga also shows that through opening yourself to another person (along with seeking help), it’s possible to heal. Life doesn’t automatically become bright again once the Roman and Aysel have each other, but the love they receive from each other gives them hope that maybe they’re not the monsters their inner demons say they are. They also start to believe that, even though life hurts so much, they can still find happiness.

Quote: “But maybe meeting Roman has helped me to understand myself better. Yes, I’m broken. And yes, he’s broken. But the more we talk about it, the more we share our sadness, the more I start to believe that there could be a chance to fix us, a chance that we could save each other.

“Everything used to seem so final, inevitable, predestined. But now I’m starting to believe that life may have more surprises in store than I ever realized. Maybe it’s all relative, not just light and time like Einstein theorized, but everything. Like life can seem awful and unfixable until the universe shifts a little and the observation point is altered, and then suddenly, everything seems more bearable.”

Recommended: Yes! In my opinion, this was an honest portrayal of depression but also a hopeful one. Aysel and Roman’s path to overcoming depression has ups and downs, but their friendship gives them strength in dark times. I think, though, that it could be triggering for people who currently struggle with suicidal thoughts. It can get pretty vivid.

Next: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

YA Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Another Friday, another YA book review! Now that I have a good rhythm for these reviews, I’m hoping to add more content to this blog: as a tentative schedule, I’m planning on personal posts for every other Sundays and creative writing posts for every other Wednesday. Wednesday will be the first one. Ideally this will help make the content a little more varied and related to my own work as a writer.

Until then, enjoy this review of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven!

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Title: All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of a bell tower and team up on a school project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, saving each other from their inner demons in the process. But some demons are harder to fight than others, and Finch struggles to keep from losing himself (and Violet) to the darkness inside his thoughts.

What I loved: This book is narrated from the perspectives of both Violet and Finch, alternating by chapter. Both characters have distinct voices, and it’s enjoyable to inhabit their perspective (if only for a little while). Though dealing with similar troubles, Violet’s voice is very different from Finch’s (and vice-versa). This can be a little hard to pull off when dealing with multiple POVs in a book without making one more interesting or combining both into an indistinguishable blob.

Many YA books deal with depression from a first-person perspective, but less focus on the effect depression can have on the friends of those dealing with it. Violet and Finch’s relationship is complicated, and although she loves him a lot, ultimately she can’t take what he’s dealing with away through dates or kind words. I think this is a good message to send, even if it’s hard to hear: depression is more than just a feeling. It’s serious, and treatment involves more than holding hands and wishing it away.

What Violet and Finch go through is so hard, and it’s hard as a reader to experience their struggles with them, but it’s real. While some themes in this book may be triggering (mentioned more later on), portraying painful situations in YA can be important because it helps those who experience them feel less alone. The way Niven writes them is respectful and done with a lot of taste. I especially appreciated that she listed resources for readers with the depression at the end of the book, too.

What I didn’t love: Although this book is beautifully-written and handles difficult topics well, I had a few concerns about its portrayal of depression. Sometimes it felt like the characters glorified mental illness as something that made you deep or quirky rather than a serious thing that needs treatment. Adults in the book are largely portrayed as clueless and unable to help, which seems like a bad message to send if a reader is struggling with depression.

Sometimes Finch felt more like a concept than an actual human being. Although his character was intriguing, his actions seemed more like a vehicle to talk about depression than a person with multiple dimensions. If he was a little more relatable, I think it would be easier for readers to understand him and see depression as a real concern rather than a quirk or romanticized illness. I still enjoyed his character but felt like he could have been more believable.

Quote: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

Recommended? Yes, but with some caveats. This book is definitely for older teens. Not only does this book include themes of death and suicide, but the way it handles these topics is a lot more open but also graphic than some YA books. If death and suicide are triggering subjects for you, this book might not be the best choice.

This book especially reminded me of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (which I personally love a lot). Readers who also enjoyed this book might appreciate the similar ideas and feelings in this book, especially since All the Bright Places is strong enough to stand on its own.

Next up:  The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

A Monster Calls: Truths, Regrets, and Letting Go

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Last weekend, I saw A Monster Calls in theaters with my mom. I’m a little biased since I’ve been waiting in anticipation of this since 2014, but it was probably one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time. The special effects drew heavily off the striking nature-based book illustrations, and the acting was emotional and very-well done.

A Monster Calls follows the story of a boy named Conor whose mother is dying of a terminal illness. He comes to terms with losing his mother and the conflicted emotions surrounding this through a monster, who tells him a story each night that broadens his understanding of life. “Stories are important,” reminds the monster, “They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

While driving back to my university, we talked about how well the movie applied to anyone who must overcome loss in life, whether that’s loss of a loved one or something else. She asked me if I remembered a specific scene from the movie, when the monster confronts Conor about letting himself feel the truth: that his mother is dying and he must face his feelings surrounding her loss before they consume him. Conor cannot bring himself to face it.

He begs the monster to let him hide from the truth, crying that if he lets go of her, the truth will kill him.

“It will kill you,” exclaims the monster, “if you do not!”

Conor feels as to his mother is falling and he cannot catch her, and he struggles to face this but, at last, he does it. He faces the truth after months of repression and anguish.

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He lets go and he is finally, finally free.

This scene stuck with my mom, and it stuck with me, too. We both, as so many do, have regrets in life. We have moments we wish we could have changed, and lying behind these moments are painful truths. We know that no matter what, we can never return to where we used to be or who we once were. We wish we hadn’t experienced certain situations, some of which may even be our fault.

And yet, such is life. No person is perfect. A Monster Calls even notes the complexity of human nature and notes that most people aren’t good or bad but “somewhere in-between.”  While we dwell in the in-between, we go through experiences we wish we never had to face. But face them we must, or they will destroy us from inside out.

Neither my mom nor I fully understand why we go through hard things after watching the movie. It didn’t really answer that. Maybe sometimes there’s a reason, or maybe sometimes suffering is a part of mortality that is beyond our understanding or control. But in response to suffering, we have two choices: we can either ignore it and let the pain consume us, or we can embrace it. The latter hurts more than anything but in time, we heal.

I especially love the monster as an analogy of this process. Nothing is more horrifying than the truth, but nothing is more important, either. Often we think of pain as demons we have to struggle against at every cost, but I like the idea of embracing them, instead, and letting them go.

I’m not particularly good at facing truth but want to remember this, especially when I feel dysphoric or guilty. Pain isn’t the enemy nor something that we need to hide from. We have to face it so that we can let go.