On “Holding Up the Universe” by Jennifer Niven

Image result for holding up the universeI can’t imagine anything more difficult for a YA author than penning a second novel when his or her first has been massively successful. In Jennifer Niven’s case, Holding Up the Universe is another heart-breaking, important book, much like her first novel All the Bright Places. She continues to explore themes of pain and isolation in her teenage characters, but in Holding Up the Universe she imbues her central characters–Libby Strout and Jack Masselin–with rare characteristics to further that exploration.

Libby was labeled “The World’s Fattest Teen” after she had to be cut out of her house when a panic attack stopped her breathing. She weighed over 600 pounds and could not stand on her own. After her mother’s sudden death, she attempted to fill the emptiness inside her with something tangible–food. In her worst moment, she realizes she has to change and develops healthier ways of dealing with her loss, losing some weight in the process.

When Libby returns to school for her junior year, she becomes the target of cruel joke, one that binds her narrative to Jack Masselin’s.

Jack has been living with prosopagnosia–“face blindness”–since a fall off the roof of his house at age six. No one knows. He’s developed coping mechanisms and a heady amount of swagger to avoid any sticky situations. But lately, his efforts have been failing.

Once his stupid prank with Libby lands him in a special after school counseling group, he finds that she is the only person he can consistently recognize. Yes, she’s physically larger than everyone around her, but it’s something else, too. She’s magnetic. And their adventures together lead to a domino effect that changes everything for both of them.

The idea of having these two off beat characters come together to challenge preconceived notions of what’s acceptable in society is a commendable idea, and I think Niven does an amazing job of it. I love that she forces readers to really consider why they might revile someone who is overweight.

And Libby is unabashedly herself. A dancer. She honestly doesn’t care what people think of her weight, but the weight of people telling her she doesn’t matter, that she’s nothing, forces her into the painful position of having to wonder about the depth of people’s cruelty.

Libby and Jack’s story is sweet and funny. I can imagine it could become an influential book for any young people who feel out of place.

My only reservations are personal ones. This story did not crack my chest cavity open the way All the Bright Places did. But in all honesty, it was nice of Niven to leave off with a happy ending this time.

On “Ruin and Rising” by Leigh Bardugo

ruin and risingAfter finishing Siege and Storm, I thought I had a pretty good inclination as to how the third installment of the Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising, would conclude the story. As it turns out, I was way off. Way, way off.

I thought Bardugo would go against the grain and have Alina end up with Nikolas, so they could rule Ravka with equanimity and grace…But maybe that was just wishful thinking on my end. (Scratch that–it definitely was. Team Nikolas for life.) At the end, I love that she was the only person alive who could understand the darkness that he still felt in himself. Let’s just say it’s an ideal Fan Fiction avenue that I intend to pursue.

By the end of the second novel, I truly hated the idea of Alina ending up with Mal, or having their lives intertwine any more than was strictly necessary to advance the plot. Alas, Bardugo threw it back in my face in Ruin and Rising where the reader finds out *SPOILER ALERT* that Mal is the descendent of Bagri’s oskatzatsy’a (sp?) sister.

Through the use of merzost, Morozova resurrects his daughter after Baghra, in a fit of rage, uses the Cut on her. Without meaning to, Morozova turns her into the third amplifier, and her descendent, Malyen Oretsev, is destined to follow Alina Starkov wherever she goes and eventually die at her hand.

This twist in Alina and Mal’s fate was unexpected at first, but quickly became the obvious conclusion if the two were going to end up together. While I hate obvious conclusions, Bardugo does an amazing job of building the story up and letting the plot reach its end naturally.

That being said, some of the threads that Bardugo attempts to tie together at the end seem a little far fetched. The idea that Morozova and his human daughter never died when they were thrown into the water in chains feels unlikely. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that a small girl who had just been cut in half could survive with merzost alone.

I was moved, however, at the final resting point of Alina and Mal’s relationship. After all that, they know there weren’t brought together solely by forced beyond their control, but by their own choices. Plus, their supporting cast is one of the best in YA fiction. Tolya, Tamar, Nikolas, and the others are written with outstanding empathy and depth, which adds much needed nuance to what can become a formulaic YA plot.

All in all, it was a solid conclusion to a very well done series, and I can’t wait to start on Six of Crows.

On “Siege and Storm” by Leigh Bardugo

51OGPbo8TzL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ahhh…I was so eager to get my hands on the rest of the Grisha trilogy after reading the first installment, Shadow and Bone. Every bit of Bardugo’s narrative, character development, and bleak Russian detail captivated me. But as every reader should know by now, these obsessions are never good for one’s health as the following novels are always slight, if not complete, letdowns.

I’ll start with the relationship between Alina and Mal. To be blunt–I hate it. Deeply. With a passion. As separate characters, they’re acceptable. Of course, I care more deeply about Alina than Mal, but together, they’re a catastrophe. I understand the tension and gradual degradation of their relationship is essential to the plot and Alina’s recession into the Darkling’s state of mind, but to my mind, Mal is always wrong.

Trust me, I sympathize with the whole abandoning a successful army career to be with Alina thing, but he didn’t have to do it. His constant sullenness and expectations of Alina are really freaking annoying if I’m going to be honest with you. His burden is far less than hers. Does he have to save the country? Does he have to protect both Grisha and humans from the Darkling’s wrath? Does he have to be a political puppet for the crown? No? Not at all? Didn’t think so, dude. So shut the fuck up.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest. Who else thinks Alina and Nikolai are the true lovers of this story? They understand each other. He’s far less mopey, and is driven toward the same goal as her–saving Ravka. I know he’s not trustworthy, but at least he’s honest about the fact that he isn’t, and, in my opinion, Mal isn’t exactly at the top of the class in that respect either. Nobody is.

Besides the obvious love triangle situation that Nikolai’s presence introduces to the series, his existence is one of the novels most compelling elements. His ambition, constantly overshadowed by rumors of his illegitimacy, is the pulse that that makes the narrative thrive beneath Alina’s increasing desperation and isolation.

To that end, isolation is something Bardugo knows how to explore better than most YA authors out there. The conflicting push and pull relationship she has with her power leaves her stranded from Mal–the only the person she ever loved. And he is all at once afraid, jealous, and angry with her for that very power, which she tells him she would never give up, even if she could.

That sense of power, constantly pushing her closer to the Darkling until the moment of their mutual self-destruction, is the most powerful part of the narrative, and I am, once again, eager to see how it will play out in the third novel, Ruin and Rising.

I hope that last installment has Alina a little less driven by Mal/what Mal thinks/what Mal’s doing. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but one can dream. I want much more Nikolai. There better be much more of him, Leigh Bardugo. He is the greatest character to spring up in this book.

On Caite Dolan-Leach’s “Dead Letters”

Image result for dead letters bookThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

You know that famous first line of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina? He wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” First time novelist, Caite Dolan-Leach must have kept this is mind when she forged the Antipova family into being in Dead Letters; I can’t remember the last time I encountered such a twisted group of people.

The novel begins with Ava Antipova returning from Paris after she’s learned that her estranged twin sister, Zelda, died in a fire. We learn that Ava has refused to speak to Zelda for two years because she found her and Ava’s “boyfriend” Wyatt together, but she knows that deep down she was looking for any way to get away from her family’s failing vineyard and their mother’s increasingly erratic behavior.

But Ava was always the good girl, earning straight A’s and going to Cornell to study viticulture and oenology. After her father, Marlon, abandoned the family, she knew it would be her duty to run the family’s vineyard. Finding Zelda and Wyatt together was just her excused to high-tail it across the Atlantic where she could entirely switch gears.

Not for a second does Ava believe Zelda is really dead. After two years of silence on Ava’s end, Zelda has done something drastic and dramatic. Pretending to die in a fire? That’s exactly something Zelda would do. Or so Ava thinks.

When she returns to her family’s vineyard in the Seven Lakes region of New York, she begins receiving emails and text messages from Zelda, taking her on a treasure hunt of sorts, from A-Z. Ava and Zelda were meant to be the end all, be all. The Alpha and the Omega. Until Ava left everything behind. Now Zelda is showing her exactly what she let happen when she left. Ava has to figure out each clue before she can reach Zelda, and who knows what she’ll find when she reaches her.

Dolan-Leach does a fantastic job of using this hunt for Zelda as a way to introduce information slowly throughout the novel about the Antipova family and their extremely fucked up history. At some point in the novel after Ava is forced to interact with her (and Zelda’s) old flame, Wyatt, she admits straight-up that she and her twin have been functioning alcoholics since they were teenagers, and her parents are far worse.

The Antipova matriarch, Nadine, is a nasty piece of work that the reader will spend just about the entire novel hating. Granted, there are moments where you feel genuinely bad for her because she is, after all, and alcohol with increasingly severe dementia, but those moments are few and in-between. For this most part, she confuses Ava with Zelda and won’t cooperate unless she’s given alcohol as a pacifier. But in her lucid moments, she reveals little small pieces of information that change the tide of the story and Ava’s search.

The author made each member of the Antipova family equally reprehensible. All of them do things will make the reader clench his or her teeth or cringe in horror. I mean—drugs, sex, alcohol, debt, dark family secrets—it’s all present and accounted for, though this novel really can’t be pegged as a mystery or suspense novel in the traditional sense. It’s more of a family saga that involved putting the pieces of past and present together to make a clear picture.

What I loved most about Dead Letters was Dolan-Leach’s obvious love of language. She makes letters (A-Z) an integral part of the narrative. For example, Ava goes to Paris to study Oulipo writers and the work of Edgar Allan Poe. These writers have utilized constraints in their writing, believing the hindrance would produce more creative work. Ava’s fascination with this becomes a springboard for Zelda’s clues; places, people, and things are hidden within Zelda’s verbose emails.

Dead Letters is a dark exploration of family malfunction, alcoholism, mental illness, and the ties that bind siblings together in their most painful moments. Though it might not be the mystery it touts itself to be, Caite Dolan-Leach’s masterful work is worth the read. Who doesn’t love an unhappy family?