Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Heart and Other Black Holes – Jasmine Warga Review

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Rating:★★★★

I was concerned starting this book that it would fall into a lot of cliches, and to be fair, it did – a lot of cliches. However, I still enjoyed this book. The writing and the characters meant that the cliche plot didn’t stop me appreciating the book.

My Heart and Other Black Holes revolves around sixteen year old Aysel and Roman, who meet via a Suicide Partners website. Both want to die, and they agree to do it together, a month from their first meeting. They’re both running away from something, but as they spend more and more time together, Aysel starts to wonder if running away is really necessary, or if all you need is someone who understands you. Eventually, Aysel realises that there is more to live for than there is to run away from, but the clock is ticking, and Roman is much more committed to the plan than she is.

The first cliche that I was apprehensive of in this novel was the suicidal teen story. Obviously, suicide and depression are very important issues to address in fiction, but sometimes I worry that teen novels romanticise mental illness as characteristics and quirks. Warga addressed the feelings of both Aysel and Roman well enough that their problems didn’t feel like they were just being used to advance a plot. Aysel’s father committed a horrific crime a few years before, and she is running away from the fear that she is just as bad as he is. Roman is running away from guilt that he could have stopped a tragedy in his family. Warga wrote this after the death of a close friend and you can see clearly that her writing is influenced by real experiences. This novel is dark, because it honestly addresses the characters’ experiences, and while it is heart-wrenching at times, this means that overall, mental illness doesn’t feel like a prop.

Further, the characters both feel real and less like quirky caricatures than they sometimes feel in other teen novels that address characters with health problems. Instead of being one-dimensional and cookie-cutter characters that serve the author’s purpose of writing about their mental health problems, Aysel and Roman were multi-faceted and fun to read. Personally, I loved Aysel’s interest in physics and how it influences her narration of the story. She also talks us through some of her memories, and we see how these affect her, without an annoying info-dump or cringe-y flashback. Both Aysel and Roman have their own sense of humour and wit, and overall, they were just a lot of fun to read and very likeable characters.

All of these little cliches, however, developed into what felt like one big cliche. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but my feelings around the ending made me feel unsure about the  novel as a whole. On the one hand, all of the little cliches developed into a bigger cliche ending that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lifetime movie. While this felt refreshing compared to other teen novels about mental health that sometimes feel like they romanticise huge tragedies, the ending isn’t objectively super happy. Rather, it is an open-ended and hopeful conclusion. However, the ending did feel a little rushed, and so the cliche aspect of the ending was emphasised until it was much stronger than it actually might have been.

Overall, it’s just my ambiguous feeling to the ending of My Heart and Other Black Holes that dampened my feelings to the novel overall. The characters were well-crafted and multi-faceted, and Jasmine Warga’s writing is excellent. While it was a really good read, I don’t feel like it made an impact in the same way that other novels on this topic has, but at the same time, I didn’t think that any aspects of her exposition of mental health and suicide was problematic or unresolved.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist – Renee Ahdieh Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I went into it. The only thing I knew was that I really, really wanted to read Renee Ahdieh’s previous series The Wrath and the Dawn, and so I hoped Flame in the Mist would grab my attention in the same way. Renee’s writing is really wonderful, and I liked the characters and the setting of this novel, but some aspects of the story and the fantasy system fell flat to me and didn’t feel properly brought to life.

Flame in the Mist is about Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who is attacked by the mysterious bandits the Black Clan as she travels to marry a man she has never met in the imperial city. Furious and determined to prove her worth to her family as more than a pawn to be sold in marriage, Mariko sets out on a mission to find the Black Clan, infiltrate them, and find out who paid them to kill her. She dons the disguise of a boy and does just that, and delves into a world of secrets, lies, intrigue and war.

I enjoyed Mariko’s character and the Black Clan as a group. At first, I thought that Mariko might be a typical feisty strong female lead, but she is more than that. I appreciated that her strength lay more in her mind than in her physical abilities – she is not a fighter, although she tries. I also liked that we see her grapple with doubts and questions, as well as with a desire to be brave even though she cannot escape the fact that she is terrified. Okami and Ranmaru are the other two central characters in the Black Clan, and Mariko’s brother, who we follow as he tries to track his missing sister. I enjoyed reading about the connections between these characters, and especially that there were different types of relationships. The romance does not overpower the story at all, but instead there is just the right amount of love for me, and there are also great friendships in the novel. My main issue was that the book swaps perspectives between these characters quite a bit, as well as some other minor characters, and sometimes the way this was done felt disjointed and confusing, and I felt like Renee Ahdieh spread the narration too thinly among too many characters.

I have tried to pick apart exactly why I couldn’t connect to this story fully, and I couldn’t find a single reason. The opening half of the story felt very flat to me, principally because I couldn’t really understand why Mariko was doing what she was doing. I understood that she resented being married off, and I understood that she wanted to prove that she was more than just a weak girl, but I couldn’t understand how she made the link from that to infiltrating the Black Clan to discover why they had tried to kill her. After the initial section of Mariko trying to find the Clan, we then have to sit through a large chunk which consists of her being treated as a sort of servant, and read as Okami and Ranmaru question whether they trust her. I think that because I was bored in this first section, I missed some vital details about the characters Okami and Ranmaru that made the second part harder to understand and get excited about, even though I felt like the story was picking up. I couldn’t remember the details about the pair’s history, and I’m still not sure I understand it.

The fantasy was also a bit vague. I found it so intriguing – there were trees that suck the blood out of people, and foxes made of smoke, and characters that could fly. But I had no idea where any of this came from and how it worked. I felt like the magical aspects of the book were quite randomly dropped into the book and for quite a large chunk of the book I wasn’t sure if this was a fantasy novel or a sort of historical novel. When magic did turn up, it was merely shown for a passage, then it vanished again. It felt so random that I felt like it could have been taken out of the novel altogether and the story would have still functioned equally well without it.

Overall, there were parts of this book that I liked a lot and others that, although I didn’t dislike, I just didn’t really get. I would have loved for the story to have picked up quicker and for aspects of the novel to have been a bit clearer, specifically the magic system and the characters’ pasts and goals. Although I didn’t love this book, I think that I will read the second instalment of this duology when it is released just to see where the characters end up and where the story goes.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Everything, Everything – Nicola Yoon Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★★★★

This book caught my eye because, well, because I’m pretty sure you can’t be into YA at the moment without having caught wind of Nicola Yoon’s novels. Both of them have been huge hits, and this novel Everything, Everything has even been made into a movie starring Amandla Sandberg. I just had to read this book and see what the fuss was about, and I get it. I really do. I read this book in less than a day, and if I hadn’t had things to do, I would have read it in one sitting. Madeline is captivating, and the story, and Nicola Yoon’s writing, swallowed me whole.

Madeline is 18 years old, but she spends every day cooped up in her completely clean, safe, cocoon of a house. Why? She has a condition called SCID, which means that she is effectively allergic to the world. One step outside, and something could trigger all sorts of horrible reactions. The world is literally out to kill her. Madeline is content with her life, which consists solely of her mother, her nurse Carla, her Skype tutors, and her books – that is, until a family move in next door. Olly is energetic, running up walls and jumping onto the roof; he is kind, protecting his mother from his abusive father; he is funny, communicating with Madeline by mimed conversations through the window and then through online messages. However, the more Madeline gets to interact with the outside world, the more she wants to be in it, and she has to decide whether life is better lived safely, or fully.

Madeline is such a wonderful main character and her voice is so strong that you feel like you know her. I love the way that Nicola Yoon has various different types of chapter in the book, so that you get a sense for different sides of Madeline. Some of the chapters were simple retellings of what is happening, while others were computer screenshots, or  diagrams, maps or IM conversations. These broke up the structure of the novel in a really fun way, because events that were perhaps more ordinary, like Madeline buying an entirely new wardrobe, could be put across to the reader quickly with a drawing. Others really got across the emotion that Madeline is feeling, whether it is the dream that is described in writing in the form of a spiral, or a map of her broken heart. They also bring you closer to Madeline in that you feel like you are reading her personal journal, seeing the doodles that she makes for her eyes only.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Madeline and Olly. I loved the contrast between Olly and Madeline, and the fact that he in a way, symbolises everything that Madeline is missing outside. He wears all black to her all white, and while she is trapped inside her house, he is running around and practicing parkour. At the same time, he didn’t feel like a YA love interest cliche. He wasn’t a bad boy, he wasn’t cruel, he wasn’t a John Green quirky nerd. He felt as real as she did, and I never found myself wondering what was so special about Olly. He was genuinely nice. I also liked that although both of the characters come from very different family backgrounds, they both have to face the same challenge of finding a way to be free of their family’s control, and the idea that love can trap you as well as free you. This might seem a little vague, but I promise you, if you read this book you will see what I mean. This novel doesn’t portray love as being simple, and for such a short book, I think Nicola Yoon really explores the nature of love in all its forms really well, from Madeline’s controlling mother, acting out of love and trying to protect her daughter, to Olly’s mother who can’t find it in her to take herself out of a dangerous situation.

My only issue with this book was that I felt like the plot twist – without revealing anything spoiler-y – was a cop-out. All of the problems facing Madeline were solved with a flick of Yoon’s wrist, and the consequences of this plot twist didn’t felt properly dealt with enough. To be honest though, this was annoying, but it didn’t ruin the book for me. My favourite parts of the novel were the characters and their relationship, and this wasn’t really dampened by the weak plot. If Nicola Yoon had explored the various revelations made in a more nuanced way, this book would have been a 5-star read.

Overall, this book had so many wonderful aspects. I really recommend this if you are looking for a short and sweet read, whether you typically read YA or not, this is a brilliant and entertaining novel, and I can’t wait to read more of Nicola Yoon’s work.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Life As A Bench – Jaq Hazell Review

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Expected publication: May 2nd 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book was such a pleasant surprise. I was intrigued by the description, but to be honest, I was more curious than optimistic about it. It seemed like it would be weirdly executed and feel disjointed, rather than what it was, which was so much fun to read!

My Life As A Bench is about a seventeen year old girl called Lauren, or ‘Ren’, who is dead. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way, it’s just how the story begins. Ren has died, but she lives on in the bench that her father has had made in memory of her. Day in, day out, she looks out at the view of the River Thames from her bench, and relives her life. Although she has some companionship in the form of Leonard, the bench beside hers that houses the soul of an elderly man who died over twenty years before, she is completely alone, stuck watching as passersby walk past, sit on her, let their dogs urinate on her. Her family visit her regularly, but really it is her boyfriend Gabe that she is waiting for. When she finds out why Gabe hasn’t visited her, she is devastated, and must find a way to communicate with the living to help him.

What I really loved about this book is that although it is supernatural in a sense, it doesn’t feel like it. This book feels firmly like a YA coming of age story, even though the protagonist isn’t dead, and she isn’t going anywhere. Ren still goes on a journey over the course of the book, and she experiences vivid emotions like joy, love, sadness, anger, frustration. Even better, she is such a brilliant character and Hazell, in my opinion, captured the voice of an English teenager today so well that Ren jumps right off  the page. I felt like I knew her, like she was talking to me directly. Ren’s voice felt so real and personal that I didn’t even mind the way that the love story dominating the novel. Although I would have liked to have seen more of her life and relationships, it felt normal and fitting for her character; Ren was a selfish, and perhaps naive, teenager, and so even though I might not relate to the head-over-heels love for Gabe, it makes sense that after death, she would also be worried about the same things that she was worried about in life – her boyfriend.

Ren’s lively character contrasted so much with the fact that she is literally trapped in a bench, unable to communicate with the people that she wants to communicate with, that this book was often quite sad. It was interesting to read a book that felt so happy at times, but at other times made me feel so sorry for the main character. Every night, Ren relives her life, the friends that she made at her new school, her relationship with Gabe, and we are waiting for her to relive her ‘death day’ so we can find out what happened. These passages, where she is reliving falling in love and hanging out with her friends feel like any other YA contemporary drama, like a Jenny Han novel, but then Ren is brought back to reality by someone’s dog urinating on her bench, or kids making out on her. You really feel for her and her situation, and you want her to figure out whatever it is that she needs to figure out.

My only issue with this novel was that, in hindsight, there didn’t seem to be a clear plot progression. Yes, Ren was trying to find out how she died, and she did so,  and there was closure, but the problem wasn’t really solved. Although this was explained and in a way that is quite realistic, I just found myself being genuinely concerned for Ren. Was she going to be stuck in the bench for decades just like Lionel was? It was implied by Lionel’s character that the dead can ‘pass over’ in a sense and no longer live in their bench, and I thought that this would probably apply to Ren, but at the end, she is still in the bench, and I don’t want her to be stuck in the bench! She doesn’t deserve to be stuck in a bench, even if the people she loves do visit her all the time.

Overall, this book was great fun and a really unique and original concept. I was so impressed by the way Jaq Hazell captured Ren’s voice and character so well and made her feel so read, and the way that the concept itself didn’t feel weird or out of place. The whole story flowed and the two storylines, Ren in the bench and Ren’s memories, gelled together really well.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven Review

 

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

 

Rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“You are all the colors in one, at full brightness.” 

This is the best YA contemporary novel I have read since I read Jandy Nelson’s books last year. Jennifer Niven’s writing is brilliant, and there is a great balance between the endearing relationship that is at the centre of the novel, and the far more weighty issues that it discusses.

all-the-bright-places-jktThe tagline of this book is “the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who wants to die” and there isn’t really much more to say without going into spoilers. Violet Markey has just suffered a great loss, and during one of her lowest moments, she meets Theodore Finch, who spends his days assessing different methods of committing suicide. Their story starts when Finch saves  Violet, who was wandered up onto a roof, and is standing on the edge, and from there, the story begins.

Both Violet and Finch were so well written that they felt like real people. I loved reading their conversations, especially Finch, who is so lively and funny. Niven adds another layer to the story in the form of a school project, where Finch and Violet have to explore Indiana and write about the hidden locations that they have found. This means that we get to see them going on a series of adventures, which was a lot nicer than reading about two teenagers falling in love in a ‘normal’ setting like at school.

This book is obviously quite ‘deep’. It deals with very sensitive issues like grief, mental illness and depression, but I feel like Jennifer Niven dealt with these issues very sensitively, but also with sincerity and honesty. She captures the characters and their emotions so well that you really relate to their emotions, which helps you to understand a little of what they are feeling, and you feel captivated by the story, even though a voice in the back of your mind tells you where it’s going to end.