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: One

For Sale: baby shoes, img_2484never worn.

Ernest Hemingway’s much mythologised six-word story, illustrates very neatly how much can be evoked by very few words, as long as they are the right words, chosen with utter precision.  Such is the case with the exquisitely spare blank verse in Sarah Crossan’s One, which paints a mesmerising picture of life as a conjoined twin in just a very few, perfectly placed brushstrokes.

It would have been the obvious choice to tell this as a dual narrative, but it is precisely the fact that it isn’t told that way that lends extra impact to the story of Grace and her sister Tippi.  We have the individuality, the singularity of each girl, explicitly pointed out to us in order to gain a deeper understanding of how it must be to share your entire life, your very body in fact, with another person.  This is something that is so far beyond the normal realm of experience for most of us, but Crossan makes evoking it, in all its agony and beauty, look so effortless.

Like a particularly deftly crafted haiku poem, Crossan’s poetry fills the empty spaces on the pages of this book with all the words left unsaid, by selecting just the right ones and nothing more.  Perfectly judged, sensitive, heart-wrenching, haunting, One’s beauty lies in its deceptive simplicity.

Book Review: Illuminae

illuminae-coverYou can only hear about a book so many times before you realise you’re going to have to read it for yourself.  And so it was with the much lauded Illuminae.  A dark, dirty, brutal space apocalypse of a novel that explores endurance, resilience and the nature of intelligence through records of conversations, documents, memos, IMs and emails, with inevitably shifting viewpoints.

It’s hard to believe that a story told in this way could make the deep emotional impact that Illuminae does, and as a writer I sometimes found myself wondering why the authors had set themselves this specific challenge.  I couldn’t initially see that this form could be anything other than a barrier to the telling of a great story and the building of a well-drawn world.  But, as it progresses, two things happen: one is that you become so used to it that you stop even noticing, and the second is that the realisation dawns that this particular story could only ever have been told in this particular way.

The central character’s bravery, while staggering, never strays into the realms of the ridiculous.  My pet hate is heros who appear to feel no fear or hesitation; that’s not courage, that’s a psychological issue.  Kady’s fear and trepidation and doubts and horror and pain are visceral and bleed through the page.  But in amongst it all, sitting incongruously in this inevitably cold and brutal environment, there is also warmth, love and humour.  Particularly in some of the IM sections, I actually had several of those bedtime LOL moments that make my husband look askance at me.  

(More looking askance occurred when I began tilting and peering at my Kindle, and a brief aside here on the limits of the format, for consideration when investing in this book.  Living in a country where I can’t easily buy physical books in my preferred language means that I am usually a die-hard fan of the Kindle, but Illuminae’s artistic ambitions and insistence on experimentation with form make this a challenge that the plucky device is not quite able to deliver on.  Although there was something inherently pleasing about reading it on a little glowing crystal display in the dark, almost like I was tucked into a corner of the spaceship myself.  That said, I definitely feel I missed out by not possessing it in full physical glory.)

Protagonists who are believable as both teenagers and everymen, a suitably cold and well-defined space setting, and a backstory that underpins and founds, without overwhelming, Illuminae weaves in the familiar while simultaneously subverting the expected.  Making thrilling use of elements of zombie apocalypse and high-brow cerebral sci-fi, as well as twisty political intrigue and high-octane action, Illuminae has the genre-defying air of a captivating epic just getting started.

Book Review: Wonder

The hero owonder-by-r-j-palaciof this book (and what a hero) is Auggie, who has grown up with a medical condition that leaves him with a facial disfigurement.  Because of this his parents have taken the decision to homeschool him, but they have now decided it is time to get out in the world and start middle school.  This is the journey we go on with our plucky protagonist, as he navigates the school corridors and cafeterias that are such terrifying places for all of us, let alone for someone who is faced by the challenges that he is.

The novel is told from several different perspectives and it is this, and the sheer quality and warmth of the writing that ensures that by the time we turn the final page we have got to know the entire cast of characters so well.  We become intimately involved with Auggie, his parents, his older sister, his friends, even his teachers – to the point at which we start to feel their pain as if it was our own.  

A book with this premise could have ended up heavy, and even as I am reading back over this review it sounds like a slightly grim read, but it’s actually not at all.  It’s quite the opposite in fact.  It’s funny and inspiring and sweet and moving and uplifting, and this is because this is not a novel about pain or barriers or challenges, but about overcoming them.  It’s about friendship and love and loyalty and bravery and being yourself and staying true to what you believe.  It’s also incredibly compelling and hard to put down, and an extremely well crafted book, full of beauty and wisdom.  It’s unassuming, sweet and full of heart, just like its protagonist.

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: Songs About a Girl

saagLook, I’ll admit my dirty little secret, which is – drum roll – that I have never, that’s NEVER, not even as a hormonally charged fourteen year old, been a fan of any boyband.  EVER.  I realise this makes me weird.  I even tried to cultivate a liking for (showing my age now) Take That in their original early nineties heyday just to try and fit in.  But big boots and plaid shirts and Pearl Jam cassettes kept calling me back to the dark side.  I think I was just too weird grumpy depressed cool for all that sweaty lust and screaming and waiting outside the newsagent before school on a Wednesday morning just to be the first to tear out the latest poster in the centre pages of Smash Hits, ready to blu tack to my artex bedroom wall.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I dove into Chris Russell’s “Songs About a Girl” and found myself barely surfacing for air.  This is, after all, a book that is unashamedly about a boy band, albeit one that is told from the point of view of a non fan.  In it we are treated to a rare insight into the backstage antics, the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts, and of course the tensions and bonds that inevitably build between the people that find themselves in this rarefied position.  As readers we are elevated out of the mosh pit (do those kind of gigs have mosh pits?) and taken by the hand up onto the stage to look back out at the stadium that is screaming our name, blinded by the lights.

It’s testament to Russell’s tight plotting, dry humour and deft character development that a cynic like me found myself utterly absorbed by plucky heroine Charlie’s journey as she gets to know the band (and herself) better.  The dialogue and lively banter lifts off the page and makes the characters come alive, and the mysteries and questions at the heart of the narrative keep the pages turning right until the final few lines.  And beyond.

It’s so thoroughly fresh, modern and current that I really can’t explain why this book made me so gloriously nostalgic for the years of teen fandom I never had, but it did.  So, having missed out on it in real life, I’m glad this book gave me the chance to be a boy band fan for a little while at least.  Better late than never, and I’m sure that, were they real, Fire & Lights would undoubtedly have the edge on early-nineties Take That in any case.

Book Review: Paper Butterflies

paper-buttefliesPeople throw the term “heartbreaking” around a lot when talking about books, but with this book, there really is no more fitting description.  At first I found June’s story almost impossible to read.  The unfairness of her situation and the way she was treated just made me want to shout at the pages.  Sometimes, with books that deal with issues this difficult I end up wondering if I even want to enter the world that is being created.  Sometimes they’re just not journeys I can bear to go on.  I never felt like that with this book.  Even though June’s world is so dark, is at times SUCH a dark place to be, I was nonetheless utterly compelled.

Into June’s dark world comes the ray of light that is her best friend Blister.  He and his unconventional family are so perfectly portrayed; flawed and ordinary and perfect and extraordinary all at once, just as those people are who come into our lives at the right time to save us in whatever way they can, or try to anyway.  But it’s all the questions at the heart of the novel that keep you turning the pages – the secrets and lies and bottled up emotions that swirl in June’s unhappy home are almost physically nauseating at times as they twist together and ultimately unravel.

This is a spectacularly well written book – intimate and emotional, steeped with fear, and imbued with a hope as delicate as a butterfly’s wings (paper or otherwise).  You’ve got to be brave to read this book, but it’s worth plucking up the courage.