My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

18336965You know, I had a very lovely Tuesday planned that involved reading, possibly finishing, one of the four wonderful books I’m currently reading. And then the mail came with two books I pre-ordered, and those plans were shot to fuck. It seems that Jasmine Warga and her debut novel My Heart and Other Black Holes had vastly different ideas about how my day off would be spent. I can’t remember the last time I inhaled a book, cover to cover, within the span of an afternoon, but I honestly didn’t have the ability to do anything but finish this book with the inadvertently apropos soundtrack of classical piano music to keep me company. And now I’m crying, so, that’s where I am now as I try to consider this rather simple but rather beautiful book. (This review might be a jumbled mess #sorrynotsorry.)

Aysel Seran wants to die. This isn’t hyperbole. Everyone in her small town knows knows who she is and what her father did, and everyone looks at her as if she is nothing but than: her father’s daughter. Her mother ignores her or fears her, her sister is from another species from her, and her little brother—well, actually, he’s all right, but he’s better off without her really. She wants to die and can’t not plan how she’s going to go, but she fears fucking it up at the last minute and ending up an invalid of some kind, half-living, half-dead and generally not much better than the crushing numbness she’s living in now. Then she meets FrozenRobot on a message board called Suicide Partners, what is basically the worst dating site ever to exist. FrozenRobot is not some creeper in his 40s named Bubba but really a boy named Roman, just barely older than she, who can’t escape his own family tragedy. Together, they are going to kill themselves. Except things really don’t go according to plan, and as April 7th nears, things get confusing. Aysel starts to find more reasons to live, and one of them  is Roman.

By the first 100 pages, I couldn’t help but think of one of the books I was casually ignoring for this one, My Best Everything (review to come, yo) a sweet YA romance story about unlikely smart girls who fall for the unexpected boy over the course of the story with a potentially tragic ending. By the next 100 pages, I couldn’t help but find more in common with My Heart and YA darling The Fault in Our Stars. Here, we have two main characters falling in love as they face their own inevitable deaths, two smart, darkly funny girls prematurely philosophizing about oblivion, the sarcasm and bad jokes, the boys they never expected to meet, let alone fall for. Even their names are similar, but let me tell you this: Aysel (it rhymes with “gazelle”) is no Hazel Grace. Where Hazel dreads her own end and the effect it will have on her parents, Aysel feels the vast distance between her and her mother and hates how much she empathizes with her father. Hazel is weary of the constant pity she gets from those around her, but Aysel is a social leper. Even the grownups look at her with suspicion, possibly even fear, that she may snap one day, just like her dad. Hazel does not want to meet her end just yet, but Aysel welcomes it, encourages it, finds solace in the idea of it.

Warga demonstrates Aysel’s hopelessness with irreverent honesty. I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve know the kind of depression that she describes well. I’m familiar with the black slug that eats up all good emotions and even some of the bad. She nailed that weird contradiction of needing people and pushing them away because of the inability to connect with them or sometimes even see them. And Roman, who is, yes, tall and attractive and popular and athletic, is no male manic pixie white knight either. He grieves the imagined future with his sister that can never be, and he blames himself. His guilt weighs heavy on him, and he is not looking to save or be saved. He just doesn’t want to be alone when he takes the plunge.

I know these guys. I grew to love these two characters. I love how I fell in love with the two of them the way they fell in love with each other, in a way I don’t see too often in YA, with gradual subtlety. It wasn’t a sudden jump into eye-hearts and chest palpitations at the merest brush of the fingers but a connection that grew somewhere along the lines from nothing. Love wasn’t the primary focus, and in this book, it isn’t really the cure either. Yes, it’s a huge component of the story, but more than anything, I really dig how Warga handled the topic of depression, as something serious and dark but not precious or delicate, and that it’s not something that can turn on a romance-dime. It was a spark of human connection that first cracked the dam. Anyone who’s ever felt this desperate knows that recovery doesn’t happen with a kiss and a dreamy sigh, that throwing a hot dude at a problem isn’t going to fix it (if only, you feel me?). I really respect this book for not taking the easy way out because salvation doesn’t happen in a moment or in a day when it comes to depression. It can take a lot of time and a lot of work and the hope of a maybe.

I want to take this book and hold it to my chest until it hugs me back. For such dark and heavy subjects, there is also charm, humor and somewhere in there, hope. My Heart and Other Black Holes is the first novel by Jasmine Warga, and for serious, we are all very lucky she quit her day job (a science teacher, which becomes evident when Aysel starts philosophizing in terms of Einstein’s theories of relativity). Her writing is beautiful, authentic, clear. This book is a bittersweet thing, the kind that you can’t help but speed through but simultaneously regret as you near the end.

Reviewed for Cannonball Read 7.
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Thomas Sniegosky: Fallen & Leviathan, Books 1 & 2 of the Fallen series

the fallen and leviathanIt’s… fine? Yes, they’re fine. The books are fine. They were readable. I was able to get through both the first two novels in the series (published together in one binding for some reason) without wanting to stab the nearest person or my own eyes. Sometimes that’s the most you can ask for in a book, right?

Aaron Corbett is turning 18 years old and can understand everything. Not in that sense that teenagers think they understand the whole world because no one is smarter than they. No, Aaron literally understands everything, from the hot girl in school speaking Portuguese to his psychiatrist reading random Latin from a book to his slobbery rescue dog. His foster parents (oh, did I mention that he was an orphan who never knew his parents?) have a nonverbal autistic son who starts to communicate with him little by little one day. Then there’s this smelly old hobo dude who just won’t leave him alone. That’s when Aaron learns of his true nature: Nephilim, half-human and half-angel. It sounds pretty cool, but not everyone agrees. There is, for example, a really angry angel with a flaming sword who is very intent on ridding the world of every half-breed abomination he can find before the ~chosen one~ destined to reunite the fallen with their heavenly home can do so.

Then some stuff happens.

When the series was released a few years ago, the four books of the series were paired up into two Omnibus novels, so The Fallen 1 is actually two books, which is what I’m count it as because screw you, self-imposed CBR goal! In the first, Aaron struggles to accept his role in this old-as-shit prophesy and his angelic-bastard nature. Spoilers: He does, and there’s a second book that follows. The basic premise of book 2 is “one and a half angels and a dog go on a road trip.” Junky hijinks ensue.

Part of me wants to pick up the second half of this series, because I genuinely am interested in what happens, but that would require slogging through another 500 words of adequate prose for a story I can probably predict. Sniegosky’s writing is just… fine. There are times when it’s too expository, and he’s occasionally guilty of doing that thing of using the ~fancier word or phrase when a simple, straightforward one would do and it being so blatant. I even noticed an editing error two-thirds of the way. He keeps referring to his Aaron’s high school crush as “the pretty Brazilian girl” when he gets tired of using her name, and it made me uncomfortable every single time. Aaron Corbett himself is kind of flat and boring as a character, and his dog sidekick shows more personality than he does at times. Book 1 was understandably more of an origins story than anything, but it’s amazing how little actually happens in the span of those 300 pages. Book 2 was little improvement. Aaron kept noticing things and wondering, gee, I wonder if this is all related to my friend disappearing and the weird mutant animal hybrids, and EVERYTHING ELSE HAPPENING. (Aaron isn’t that smart a boy.) It reminded me of the TV movie and series adapted from the books in the days of Fox Family past. Each installment actually felt like it could fill an hour-long episode of TV and little more. Damn, that’s, like, hella slow.

I heartily wish this book was better—better-written, better-paced—because I love this kind of stuff. I have a thing for religiousy apocalypse stories and angels and Judeo-Christian mythology and free will and the good and evil of humanity. It’s not that often I come across something that speaks to this interest and is actually good, but hey, if you want to read it, go ahead. You’re a grown-ass adult (unless you’re not, in which case, sorry for all the swearing on my blog). Do what you want. It was an easy enough read to consume in little time. If you liked Maze Runner, this one might be right up your alley.

If you want something better than just okay with a reasonably interesting premise, though, I have a few alternate suggestions. As far as Chosen One stories go, the Harry Potter series is an obvious one. The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is another one of my favorites, better written and just downright fun (but above all costs avoid the horribly narrated audiobook version). Crap Kingdom cheekily turns the trope on its head. And if you want a break from reading words on a page, just check out the first five seasons of “Supernatural.” I’m not kidding. Religious beings, prophecies and Chosen Ones, myths and monsters, and wise-cracking pretty boys who are both afraid of their feelings and talk more about them than anyone I know.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

This review was written as a part of Cannonball Read 7. Click here to learn more about this most awesome thing. 

how-to-build-a-girl-caitlin-moranI, like many other 20-somethings with ADHD, a nostalgia for the teen years we didn’t have, and a full-time workload (school or work or both) that leaves us too exhausted for 500-page tomes surreptitiously about Life and Important Thoughts—love the shit out of YA novels. Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is YA  written for adults. It’s a YA book that dropped out of high school its junior year to pick up a smoking habit and eyeliner addiction while interning for Rolling Stone. This book is Go Ask Alice by way of Eddie Izzard and Stephen Fry with a happier ending and a much, much better soundtrack. And it is so funny. Dear fucking god is it funny. I don’t always agree with Moran’s beliefs on sex, living, and feminism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for her and her writing, feeling equal measurements of awe with her witty, absurd turns of phrase and dire depression at never being able to put words together in as pleasing a fashion as her. I devoured the first 50 pages sitting on ModernLove‘s couch and pretending not to notice her looking over at me every time I giggle-tripped my way through another paragraph. Imagine Almost Famous but in the early 90s, dirtier, raunchier, with a lot more cursing and horny virgin teenage girls.

For those of you in any way familiar with Caitlin Moran’s other writing, the story of a fat teenage girl named Johanna Morrigan living in public housing and who leaves school to become a music writer sounds familiar, but Moran states explicitly that this is not an autobiography. These aren’t her parents, those aren’t her siblings, and that’s not her life. Fair enough, but it’s hard not to see Moran in Morrigan. While trying to save her family from financial ruin through a poetry competition, Johanna embarasses her and them on local TV and decides that the person she was must die. In her place is Dolly Wilde, a smoking, drinking, snorting, shagging, foul-mouth, sharp-tongued music journalist.

You see, the life Johanna is trying to escape sucks. It really, really sucks. We come to know her, know her in a way we don’t even know our best friends. We know her from the inside out through her ridiculous fears to her very, very real ones. Her family is poor and hungry and desperate. Her father, who, after a bad accident at work, is about one-third made of metal, desperately clings to a hopeless dream of becoming a pop star and escaping from working-class Wolverhampton and poverty, and her mother is downtrodden, mostly absent, and a prisoner of post-partum depression after the birth of the unnamed Unexpected Twins. When she decides to destroy herself and become Dolly, Johanna writes herself as a Mary Sue in her own real life except Mary Sues can’t exist in real life and either become real people with real messed-up flaws or explode. The person she becomes is someone who doesn’t give a fuck what others think of her, but Johanna herself does give a fuck. She gives a lot of fucks. She gives so many fucks about being liked and fitting in that she forgets about things like what she wants and who she is. It is the path that many a teenager needs to take before striking out on their own, and I love that.

For all my love, though, it’s not a perfect book. It can meander sometimes, and a majority of the characters aren’t the most complex creations ever committed to the written word. The narrator’s voice jumps back and forth to the teenager who sometimes bordered on foolishly childish and the future, knowing adult Johanna who can’t help but comment on what silly teenage Johanna is experiencing or thinking, which threw me from time to time. Like much of Moran’s writing, it is (not totally unlike this review) very self-aware and tries to guard itself against criticism (“If you can’t save yourself from attack by being powerful—and I, palpably, have no power; my hands are empty—then perhaps you can save yourself from attack by being ruined, instead. Blow yourself up before the enemy gets to you.”). The sense of humor won’t appeal to some . It’s the kind of sarcastic, articulate, hyperbolic, absurd, rambly humor that you’ll find in a lot of British comedy and of which Moran wields like a superpower. The words jump off the page, grab you by the throat, spin you around seven times, shove you up against a wall, then tickle your brain until you wet yourself from laughter. It’s the same sense of humor that I both envy and find completely exhausting (I never finished Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook for this very reason.)

That said, I love this book. I want to be best friends with this book. It’s the kind of book I wish I could write myself. I nearly gave it just 4 stars, but just look at how much I’ve written about it. This book made me laugh and smile and excited to pick up another book, regardless of whom it’s written by. I’d happy loan this out to anyone who was unsure about it and offer endless quotes from it. If that’s not what I’m saving a five-star rating for, then what?

If you like this, you might also enjoy Angus, Thongs and Full-Front Snogging by Louise Rennison, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Stephen Fry’s Moab Is My Washpot and, of course, Caitlin Moran’s other books like How to Be a Woman. (I haven’t read Lena Dunham’s book yet, but I suspect if and when I do, I’d add it to the list.)

 

I may have made a huge mistake

They say if you ever want something done, give it to a busy person. I’m sorry (to myself) for starting off with a cliched saying, but I’m really banking on it being true. There is just one semester left between me being a registered nurse and being…. a registered nurse with a bachelor degree in nursing (on top of my other bachelor’s)

(I’m not bitter)

(I’m totally bitter)

and in order to get all of that done by May, I had to cram all my remaining requisites in this semester. It’s not too bad on its own, but the whole, you know, working an exhausting full-time job and vague attempts at having a non-basement-dwelling social life doesn’t help. So, of course, this is a great time to join Cannonball Read 7! I don’t totally hate myself, so I’ve committed to reading and reviewing just 26 books in 2015, most of which I think I’ve already planned out (mostly new books as opposed to the ones I already own because that was a good use of my money). “Reading more” sounds like a great resolution, but without putting a value and a goal behind it makes it a little easier to put off. Considering how little I’ve read and the even smaller number of books I’ve actually finished (zero, the number is zero) this year, that would be easy to do and not at all satisfying.

Thanks to Amazon Prime, a friend who works at a major publishing house and often sends me published books and advanced copies on regular whims, I should be all set, right? Nevermind the full-time job with odd hours and call requirements and the ever-worsening ADD.

Other resolutions involve cooking more (in a paleo direction with meal plans and shit) and trying to learn how to budget almost like a goddamn adult. Come on, 2015. I’m actually trying this year

The Games We Play (aka Children Are Scary)

The shit that scared me as a kid barely makes me blink now.The ghostly pallor of Powder? The ghoulish demons that drag Carl’s spirit down to hell at the end of Ghost (sorry, to the spoiler-phobes)? That episode of “Married with Children” where Al kept seeing aliens after hitting his head?

Freaked the shit out of me.

But when you look at all the other things that populated your childhood,  you really do wonder why you weren’t living in a constant state of panic and anxiety. (In fairness, I actually was, but that might be a chemical thing.) My best friend cringes at the mention of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor (probably has something to do with small children being squashed, blown up, floated up to their uncertain doom towards spinning blades, and turned blue. She also can’t stand the idea of The Wizard of Oz, and I, being the awesome, compassionate friend that I am, enjoyed many a day at college humming the witch’s theme at her while she screamed in horror/plotted my untimely death. But honestly, that’s just the start of it.

Buzzfeed recently listed the creepy-ass shit in “Rugrats” that should’ve traumatized us as kids, which is what started me thinking about this. Another friend told me about a game she played in grade school that involved kids running into the woods behind the school and basically kidnapping each other. They had to stop playing this game at recess because too many kids were getting hurt or, you know, lost in the wilds of Massachusetts.

The childhood game that weirds me out the most was a high-stress version of tag called Bloody Mary. The fact that this was a game I actually played myself is why it bothers me the most. This was around the time I learned the tales of saying the horrifying name too many times into the mirror, so walking around like slow-footed zombies doing stabby motions and saying chanting “Bloody Mary” over and over again, sounds like fun! The worse part was there was no base, no place on the playground was safe, and if you were tagged, the tagger didn’t suddenly free themselves from the awful, undead spell. No, this was the zombiepocalypse. The last person alive in a sea of dead, homicidal children was the glorious winner. I hated every second of it.

My chest is starting to clench tight and my breathing hitching just thinking about it. Being one of the few survivors at the end of the game was hard enough, but being a Bloody Mary was just as bad. Why? I have no idea. As if I’d maybe turn into her for real. Or maybe it was one of the older, much wiser second-graders saying that even having a mirror in your pocket or bag or anywhere nearby while you  say her name would summon the dark, murderous one.

Some fucker started this game and passed it on to each year to follow, a terrible legacy, like a blood-soaked chain that goes back and back and back.

I wonder how old the kids who first played this game are now.

(M. Night Shyamalan twist: I created the game myself. The evil was inside me all along.)

HOLYSHITOMGSPLODEYBOOM

I remember watching the first episode of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranges when I was, maybe nine years old. Everything was shiny and bright, like a really cool episode of Saved By the Bell, and there was even an Asian girl who didn’t have an accent, omg, on my TV. (At nine and living in the middle of WhiteAsFucksVille, OH, this was a pretty big deal for me, the hairy, gangly, growth spurt-ridden baby awkward ’bot that I was.) And one day, this totes cool girl who wore yellow scrunchies as well as anyone did in the early 90s, had a really cool variety of friends…. with whom she fought crazy-ass monsters with.

In a giant robot tiger.

I didn’t know about mechas back then. All I knew is that someone on TV looked like me and kicked ass. Seriously. What more did I need? Thus began a love affair with Power Rangers that lasted way longer than was probably appropriate as I ventured into my preteens.

(I also was way into the Xena/Hercules series and started my Ryan Gosling crush way back when he graced my screen as Young Hercules, with the hair of a god.)

(There was also a live-action TV show where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got a sixth member, and she was a chick, had a soft Chinese accent, and also kicked all shades of ass. I was 13.)

Time passed, and other girls in my year (whom I loathed) (because they’d never let me be one of them) started getting into the Power Rangers. Mostly because Tommy was, like, totes cute. (I was more of a Red Ranger kind of girl myself, and this was clearly proof of their inferior tates.) The show lost its spark for me, and there was junior high and periods and the Backstreet Boys stealing my attention away from them. It was time to move on.

But I’ll never forget what it was like, joy of watching a giant-ass robot that moved way in ways that defy physics.

The second I felt closest to that was when I saw Pirates of the Caribbean in theaters. It wasn’t the greatest movie ever with the most nuanced performances and character development. I mean, Orlando Bloom was the leading man. How good could the acting have been? But goddamn if it wasn’t a blast to see them swash their buckles, with even the damsel in distress getting in quite a few good hits in there herself.

We’ve lost that sense of fun in our big summer blockbusters over the past few years. Things need wacky twists and turns, movies going far past the two-hour movie mark, gritty darkness and vast destruction. And most of them aren’t even all that smart. Or they think they’re a regularly McSmartypants, and/or assume the audience is full of dunces who are lucky to have made it to the theater in one piece. And we’re cynical now because of it.

A movie about giant lizard-things and giant robots? Ha. Yeah. That’s not going to be idiotic. But Pacific Rim is definitely not that. Sure, it doesn’t purport to be a high-concept film about anything other than things going KABLAMO, but it doesn’t try to be. And it doesn’t mean it wasn’t made with skill, thought and love. The pacing was awesome, and the characters attractive but also good in their parts. People watching it with me were conspicuously in awe of everything that Idris Alba is. Young Mako gives one of the best damn performances I’ve seen on film in months. (Seriously, someone give that girl lots of money to be in more movies.) (Also, someone also suggest more Japanese movies to me, stat!) Instead of groaning at a forced kissing scene, I’m bouncing in my seat, practically shouting for our main characters to do so.

AND DAMMIT I HAD FUN.

Everyone, go see this movie. Support good storytelling, even if it isn’t the most groundbreaking story ever told. Show Hollywood that we will shell out the money for overpriced fireworks, as long as it’s quality fucking fireworks. And let’s all support Charlie Hunnam taking off his shirt more often.

Because it’s number three in the box offices behind GrownfuckingUps 2. And that’s not the America I want to believe in.

Important Stuff! Excitement! Sexiness!

To be a good writer, you really need to have your own voice, a perspective, something to say. Pretty sure I haven’t had anything to say since I was a first grader who believed strongly in recycling and the proper, safe disposal of toxic waste. Even then, that was more Captain Planet’s message than mine.

It’s like I’m living a plagiarized life.

For now, the blame shall be placed solely on Twitter, land of pith and brevity. It’s easier and more convenient. Within 140 characters, it’s a lot easier to spout out nonsense, hope it’s entertaining or informative enough, then walk away. Honestly, the idea of writing in paragraphs kind of freaks my shit out. There might be truth to be found in blocks of words, truths about myself. God, what if after all this time, I’m not actually funny or witty or smart or a whole person. Do you know what they do to sub-humans? I’ve seen it in movies. It’s not pretty. If you can’t prove yourself, then you’re the Elephant Man or the first person to die in a horror movie. (I’m a woman of color, so there’s a good chance I’ll get ganked in the first half of the movie, but it’s nice to think you have enough character development to be the second or third ganked after the slut and the douchey beefcake.)

I’ll get better at this, I promise. Okay, I can’t really promise that. If history has taught me anything, it’s entirely possible the exact opposite will happen. Maybe I’ll start sleeping around so I can at least have some stories of sexy and zany hijinks!