Book Review: When We Collided

cover-for-when-we-collidedI thought it couldn’t get any better than the depiction of bipolar disorder in All the Bright Places, and maybe it doesn’t. But if there ever was a contender, it could be right here, in the beauteous, luminous When We Collided.

In it we are transported to a small, pretty coastal town where enigmatic, charismatic mini-Marilyn Vivi meets sensitive, handsome Jonah whose father has recently died, devastating his family. His mother’s subsequent grief and depression have left him and his older siblings caring for his younger ones, struggling to pay bills and attempting to hold together the family business. Into this world of cares and responsibilities Vivi comes like a whirlwind, or maybe a rainbow, since the particular brands of joy, fun and love she is offering extend not only to Jonah but to the rest of his family too. And in bringing the sunshine back into their lives, she also begins to expose the darkness that they are all living with, including Vivi herself.

Riding around town on her Vespa, Vivi lives up to just about every MPDG stereotype except one – unlike most of her kind she does have her own trajectory, her own story, her own journey to go on. This is assured by the clever use of the dual narrative, in which the two voices are distinct and through which we get a heartbreakingly intimate and wholly convincing first-person view of the struggles of living with bipolar disorder; the sheer colour and exhilaration of the highs (and the accompanying recklessness), versus the debilitating and inevitable self-destruction of the lows.

I literally read this book in a matter of days. This is one of those that end up responsible for a series of 2am bedtimes on my part. There was just something so compelling about these characters, their oh-so-normal and yet otherworldly setting, the sense of doom that hung over even their most star-filled, swooping and gorgeous moments. Honesty, truth and beautiful little nuggets of wisdom shine out of the rich and sumptuous prose and will stay with me, meaningfully, for a long time. I mean, it’s just so quotable I can’t even pick one to include; suffice it to say that the things it pointed out to me and made me consider left me feeling that this is a book everyone needs to read.

So I’ll end with an advisory: do not read this book unless you are prepared to be moved, to be surprised, to be compelled into staying up late to read one more chapter, to end up falling quite deeply in love with the characters, and to return from the journey it takes you on changed forever and for the better.

Book Review: Our Chemical Hearts

Our Chemical HeartsWhen the immensely likeable, self-deprecating and sensitive Henry first encounters the enigmatic, damaged Grace, they are being made joint editors of their school newspaper. They build a tentative friendship, and Henry finds his feelings for her growing, but it soon becomes clear that Grace’s life has been complicated lately, and that this has taken its toll on her body and soul.

There’s quite a lot of YA books that deal with similar subject matter to that of Krystal Sutherland’s Our Chemical Hearts – first love, heartbreak, grief – but I have rarely seen them dealt with from so fresh a perspective. The real nuts and bolts, the most truthful of emotions, are sensitively depicted. There are no platitudes here. What’s more, each character is given the space to show their darkest and lightest sides (and every shade of grey in between). We are not presented with heroes and villains, or innocent victims – Grace, for example, is depicted as someone who is cruel and difficult, as well as someone who is deeply wounded by what has happened to her. The visceral pain of unrequited love, loving someone even when we know we shouldn’t, is all here, but treated with so light a touch that there is also space for lively, witty dialogue between the leads, and a great many warm and charming comedy moments from the quirky ensemble cast.

At times, Sutherland overlays a contemporary and familiar setting with some beautiful imagery, elevating ordinary suburban locations into something as ethereal and otherworldly as the philosophical questions posed in the themes of the book itself. There are a number of tonal shifts in the story, but not one of them seems abrupt or inappropriate. In fact, as with life, the collection of different moments, moods and emotions captured in this narrative come together into a compelling and mutually enriching whole, which is wistful, beautiful, thoughtful, truthful and sad, while also managing to be funny, unusual and irresistibly readable.

Book Review: Seven Days of You

sdoyThere is nothing like the last week in a country you’ve been living in for several years: the intensity of every moment, the burning desire to absorb every sight and sound, the constant postponement of final goodbyes, the sheer exhilaration that is mixed in with the fear and pain of everything that has made up your life disappearing around you.  I should know, I’ve done it several times in my life.  And this is the genius premise behind Cecilia Vinesse’s Seven Days of You, which I just devoured and am already missing.

It’s not just that her characters are unusual and well drawn and likeable (but they are), or that her Tokyo is so vividly described it literally leaves the taste of miso soup in your mouth (but it is), it’s also that her narrative is beautifully crafted around a literal countdown to the moment it must all end, so that we’re feeling every second that ticks by.  I love the peppering of Japanese throughout the prose and, despite having zero experience of the country, never felt disorientated by it.  Instead I felt like I was part of the cool Tokyo scene, heading off to karaoke, buying weird candy at the konbini, watching the sun rise over the neon galaxy of the cityscape.

SDOY is a gorgeous exploration of something that any long-term expat (or in fact anyone) can identify with – where is home?  Once you’ve been gone a certain amount of time from where you started, will anywhere ever really feel like home again?  But what even is this thing we call ‘home’ anyway?  Sensitive, gripping, beautiful – SDOY is an exhilarating, sparkly, all-night stroll through Tokyo, and I loved every minute.  

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books For Young Readers and NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: Optimists Die First

optimists-black-ukAs soon as I read the title of this I had to read it.  I mean, this is actually a philosophy I hold pretty dear.  I go into most situations expecting the worst – after all, that’s the only way to guarantee you’ll only be pleasantly surprised.  

But there’s a lot more to the path of Nielsen’s protagonist than pessimism.  She’s recovering from a horrible horrible tragedy, and doing it by pushing people away and approaching every situation with dread.  We see everywhere the tatters and echoes of a formerly happy life, which imploded the day her baby sister died.

There is a love story at the heart of this novel but at all times it feels like there is also a lot more.  Petula (great name!) is in the process of rebuilding her shattered soul piece by piece, and this means a lot more than just falling in love.  It’s about her friendships, her family, the things she used to love doing and all through the narrative these are woven together into a rich tapestry.

I love the quirky details of Petula’s world – the endless cats (and cat videos), the crafting and particularly the band of misfits at her art therapy group.  I’ve been in one of those myself actually and so I don’t think of this part of the story as far-fetched at all – they’re pretty interesting places.

What’s even better is that this isn’t all about the big happy ending; this is about the way people fight to survive, even when it seems impossible.  Inspiring, touching and funny by turns, Optimists Die First is a vivid and absorbing read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: The Last Thing You Said

tltysWinter is winter, even where I live in the South of Spain.  It’s scarves and cold floors and lighting the woodstove and dark mornings.  Which is why an escape into a balmy midsummer in Minnesota lake country was exactly what I was looking for when I picked up The Last Thing You Said.

A year after the heartbreaking tragedy that drove them apart, Ben and Lucy are working summer jobs and hanging with friends and trying to move on.  The only problem is that every time they look at each other it all comes flooding back.  Told in a dual narrative, we are drawn into every detail of the protagonists’ lives – their jobs, their families, their romances, their friendships, the constant struggle to move on and put the pain of the past behind them.

Aside from the intensely evocative setting which leaps off every page and surrounds you with starry skies and sun-drenched lakeshores as you read, one of the great strengths of TLTYS has to be its cast of supporting characters.  Friends, family members and love interests are so well drawn and defined that you become almost as invested in them as in the two leads.  And while there was much that was idyllic about these summer days, the life portrayed was grounded in responsibility, tainted by doubt and pain, shadowed by guilt.

There was much to like about the deeply flawed Ben, and this was where the dual narrative really came into its own.  While his behaviour, from the outside, had Lucy’s friend Hannah declaring him a “moody little prick”, getting to see things from his perspective made it clear how deeply his actions were rooted in his pain.  Intimate touches like his collecting and polishing of rocks and the building of the inuksuit (I loved learning about these) added depth and sensitivity.  I’m not a fan of dual narratives when it seems like there’s no real point to them, but in this case the narrative was largely driven by the gap between the perception of behaviours and the truth of them, which was also completely appropriate within the context of looking at the different ways people deal with grief.

Flawed but likeable characters, a rich and unusual setting, emotional honesty – TLTYS is an atmospheric, absorbing and touching read.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: The Sky Is Everywhere

img_2032“There were once two sisters who were not afraid of the dark because the dark was full of the other’s voice across the room”

I don’t have a sister, but there are several pairs that I love very dearly and am very close to, including my own fourteen-months-apart daughters.  It says something about how special the bond between two sisters is that even as a bystander these relationships have been inspirational and important in my life.  So important in fact that reading The Sky Is Everywhere I found my heart breaking a little bit on every page.  I never cry at books and yet here I was wiping away tears.  Lennie’s devastating loss, the loss of her sister, was one that, even as someone without a sister, I couldn’t help but feel keenly.  

Which makes this sound like a harrowing downer of a read, when in fact it couldn’t be more uplifting.  The beautiful contradiction at the heart of Lennie’s life is that she is simultaneously experiencing the worst and best moments of her life.  While in the depths of grief she finds herself, ironically, coming to life, waking up, seeing the world in vivid technicolour and, most crucially, falling in love for the first time.  The reader is thrown into this swirling mass of emotions alongside Lennie and her family, in all its raw joy and beauty.

Because Lennie’s sister Bailey spends the entirety of the book already dead, she could be a shadowy figure and one that remains enigmatic, but she is evoked so beautifully through tiny, subtly woven memories of her that she’s almost as much a character in the book as any other.  This ends up making her loss even harder to bear, with Lennie’s little guerilla poems, written on scraps and scattered through the narrative, recalling childhood memories and giving a perfectly executed (and devastating) depth to the sister relationship:

But it was all a ruse – we played so we could fall asleep in the same bed without having to ask, so we could wrap together like a braid, so while we slept our dreams could switch bodies”

Gah, I was in bits reading that – and that is so rare for me.  I blame my love for my daughters mostly (who sneakily co-sleep whenever they can get away with it), and how precious their relationship is to each other and to me.  But it’s also that Nelson seems to so elegantly capture, in just a few words, the way the little moments, the ones that seem so insignificant at the time, are actually the true building blocks of the way we love each other.

The way characters are portrayed is so detailed – the minutiae of their appearance, manner, dress, their bedrooms – that for a brief time we are in their world, living it, inhabiting the space along with them.  I would think this was why we feel their emotions as keenly as we do but it’s more than that; rather it’s the way Nelson describes things in a way we all experience them but have never actually been able to explain before, almost like she is the translator between us and life, putting into words the things we never could.

I think it’s also the brutal and wonderful honesty that renders this story into such vivid life.  While Lennie berates herself for what she sees as her inappropriate response to her devastating grief, we readers are given such a beautiful and detailed insight into her inner turmoil that it seems wholly appropriate and completely understandable, even when her actions fall into the category of (what she considers) unforgivable.  Destroyed and uplifted at the same time, surrounded by the heady scent of roses, spooked by the creaking of the giant redwoods, head over heels in love and drowning in the depths of grief – life, in all its glorious contradictory intensity, is just so richly evoked in every line, making this a spellbinding, poignant and achingly beautiful read.  

Book Review: All the Bright Places

atbpUrgh, writer’s envy is a terrible thing. And I felt it on basically every other page, if not more, of this book. There’s just so much I love about the surprising and original writing. And the characters are just so vividly drawn, not just Violet and the amazing Finch, but so so many others as well – their families, their school friends, even the bit parts are so solidly depicted. The love story is so well paced as well, so compelling. Literally could NOT put it down. I think this is one of the most relatable and sensitive depictions of mental health issues I’ve seen, as well as giving a fresh, original and realistic take on it. Totally jealous, and am simultaneously excited for the movie and fearful it won’t live up to my high expectations.

Book Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

fullsizerenderI was transported to the rugged California coast by this beautiful novel, which tells the story of twins Noah and Jude, coming of age in artsy surf town Lost Cove. The POV swaps between the twins and between two distinct timelines, one before the series of tragic events that drove the formerly very close siblings apart and one after. We’re left to piece the story together pretty much as they do, since the assumptions they’ve made and the secrets they’ve kept from each other mean that they only each know half of the story.

It’s not an easy task to deliver two distinct and unique voices within one book but Nelson is pitch perfect. Both protagonists are artistic free spirits so their descriptions are unusual and original and poetic, rendering the novel into life as if it itself was one of the paintings that are so vividly evoked within its pages. The love stories are believable and realistic while also being transcendent and beautiful. The entire cast of characters are interesting, engaging and deeply flawed, fleshing out the bones of the twins’ family, history and community, the whole of which is brought to life with an honesty that is deeply moving.

An engaging, page-turning plot, sumptuous prose and a cast of fascinating characters – one of the best books I have read this year and one that stays with you, long after you read the final words.

Found in Translation

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 18.21.10July 1st saw the release of the first translated foreign language version of The Loneliness of Distant Beings – Eenzaam en Extreem Ver Weg – in Holland.  So far, the Dutch publishers, bloggers, readers (well just about everybody involved) have been so positive and responded with such enthusiasm and I am super excited to have been translated into a language I don’t even slightly understand so that I can reach a whole new set of readers.  Can you imagine how hard it is to translate a whole book?  Crazy.

On the left is the quote card the Dutch publishers produced with a book club who sent my book out in the monthly box to their subscribers.  There were two hundred of these cards that traveled all the way to Spain for me to sign, before heading back to Holland and into the homes of new readers.  A few of them even made videos of them”unboxing” and then posted them online (apparently this is a thing).  Obviously I have no idea what anyone is saying in these videos but I still think they’re very cool:  http://www.celebratebooks.nl/unboxing/.

Tonight I will even be dropping in to an event over there (sadly only via Skype) but I am really looking forward to meeting (sort of) some of my readers over there.  Wish me luck!