Posted in Shattering Stigmas

A Q&A with Akemi Dawn Bowman, Author of “Starfish” and “Summer Bird Blue”

15068129I am so grateful to have Akemi Dawn Bowman, the author of STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE, back on the blog for Shattering Stigmas this year. Akemi is such a lovely person and a fantastic writer about complex mental health issues in YA, so I’m always so excited to talk to her about writing, mental health issues and more. When you’re done reading this lovely Q&A, you can find Akemi on Twitter and learn more about her and her books on her website

Tay: Your latest book, SUMMER BIRD BLUE, is a gorgeous and intense exploration of grief, loss and memory. Can you explain a little bit about what brought you to writing about these issues and telling Rumi’s story?

35716237Akemi: I feel like grief is one of those experiences that almost everyone deals with at some point in their life. And it’s one of those things that even if you haven’t had to go through it yet, you might have at least thought about it. The sad reality is that the people we love most won’t be here forever. But also, as universal as grief may be, we don’t all grieve the exact same way. And I really wanted to explore that in this book—how people love differently, and grieve differently, and remember things differently. And with the memories in particular, something I find especially heart-breaking about grief is how easy it is to focus on only the good and bad. Or sometimes even just one or the other. For some people it might be a coping mechanism, but for Rumi it’s very much about her guilt. Guilt that she survived over her sister, and guilt that she wasn’t as good of a sister as she thinks she should have been. Sibling relationships can be really complicated, and when you isolate a handful of bad moments like Rumi does, it can seem like the meanest relationship ever. But these memories are snapshots—they’re not the whole story. And for Rumi, part of healing is realizing that these memories are not the sum of her relationship with her sister. There’s the good and the bad, but also the in-between. And I think the in-between is sometimes more important. It tells the fuller story.

Tay: Something that seems to be a through-line in your books so far is teenagers navigating complicated and difficult relationships with their parents, who are suffering from their own mental health issues. Can you discuss what you find compelling or interesting about writing these kinds of relationships, where teens are tasked with not only processing their own mental health issues but those of the adults who are supposed to be there for them emotionally? 

Akemi: For me, these are just real relationships. Some people may have had wonderful relationships with their parents where everything just went smoothly and they always felt safe and loved, but that is not everyone’s experience. And honestly, some of the loneliest moments in a person’s life can stem from being convinced nobody else is going through what they are going through. It’s hard to navigate, because on the outside you don’t want anyone to say anything bad about your parents. You still love them. But when there’s hurt deep down—when certain events or actions are having a negative affect on your mental health as a teen—that is a tough situation to navigate. You might not have the coping skills you would as an adult with more life experience. So it’s not that I find these relationships compelling—I find them true to life. And I want to write the stories that would have made me feel less alone as a teen.

Tay: Part of what I love about SUMMER BIRD BLUE is that it deals so much with mental health, but Rumi’s struggles don’t necessarily fit within a neat container of clinical mental illness. Can you speak a bit about writing the messiness and complicatedness of mental health and adolescence, especially for someone like Rumi who is suffering from such an unimaginable loss? 

Akemi: I don’t believe mental health is ever a one-size-fits-all. I think it’s personal, and complex, and affected by so many individual experiences. You could put two people in a room who are the same age, who are grieving, and who are struggling with the loss of a sibling, and their mental health might look completely different. And that’s okay. We’re allowed to work through things differently, and mental health doesn’t have to fit in a box that someone else defined. And Rumi is a teenager. She’s young. She doesn’t have everything figured out, and she talks about this often. And she just lost her best friend. She copes with her grief with anger, and I allow her to be as angry as she wants to be because I think that’s important too sometimes—to let people react. I feel like sometimes we get so focused on the “one right way to be” that we don’t allow people to have different responses. Rumi is unapologetically angry and messy and trying to heal with the limited number of tools she’s been given. And I think that’s realistic too, for people who maybe don’t have mental health experts as parents, or who don’t have a big family unit that swoops in to take care of each other. Or even for a person that finds it more difficult to connect with people. Sometimes we just need to work through things on our own time and not feel like the world is telling us we’re doing it wrong.

Tay: Over the summer, you Tweeted at one point about not wanting to write personal stories, but also realizing that your books are essentially horcruxes. Can you discuss a bit about what it means to write personally, either from your POV and how writing is tied to mental and emotional health or from the response you’ve gotten from readers (or both!)?

Akemi: People say to “write what you know.” And even though I’m telling stories at the end of the day, I’m still writing from real emotion. I’m writing what I know. STARFISH took everything out of me, and I’ve discussed a bit about the toll it took on me. I did tell myself I’d never write anything that personal again, because the more I think you bare your soul, the harder it is to protect your heart. But the reality is that writing, for me, has always been a way of working through things. I’m working through ideas, or emotions, or trauma. Writing is my coping mechanism, and it always has been. So as I’ve written more books, I’ve realized that’s something I’ll just never be able to get away from. And to be honest, I don’t think I want to. The emotional response from readers who’ve connected with my words—who’ve told me they felt seen for the first time—it’s overwhelming. It makes me feel like sharing pieces of my soul is worth the risk of a few trolls. But I will say that I am a lot more proactive in how I take care of myself online. I have a lot of boundaries I didn’t have in my debut year, and I think that’s important for writers, particularly the ones who write personal stories. It’s not easy, but I’m working on finding a balance between writing the stories that matter to me most, and keeping my heart in a safe place so I can continue to do this job that I love so much.

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Tay: In that Tweet that inspired my last question, you also mentioned that in your
upcoming 2020 release, HARLEY IN THE SKY, you write about a mood disorder. Can you explain a little bit about what that process has been like and how it differs from the experience of writing STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE?

Akemi: HARLEY IN THE SKY started off as pure indulgence, to be honest. STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE literally drained me, emotionally and mentally. I have to pull from a dark place to write authentically (personal preference, not saying everyone needs to do the same!), and by book three I just desperately needed a break. I wanted to write something more fun—something happy. And of course, circuses are my FAVORITE. But when I started revising, I realized more and more that I put my own mood disorder into Harley’s narrative without even realizing it. So with each edit, it got pulled more to the forefront. The end product means that it’s not the fluffy book I set out to write, but I think it’s something that feels more authentic to me and my style. But the heartache and struggles aren’t as all-consuming as they are in my first two books. I think it’s more subtle.

Tay: When I talk to authors in Shattering Stigmas, I often talk about the representation of mental illness in their books. However, I’m also interested in mental health in terms of self care and emotional well being from the perspective of the authors I talk to, especially since I’m sure many of my readers are also writers who might be struggling in similar ways. Can you discuss a little bit about managing the emotional stresses of being an author—what has gotten easier and what do you still find challenging?

Akemi: I have been kind of open about how NOT PREPARED I was for how emotionally and mentally exhausting having a book out in the world would be. And this isn’t me complaining—it’s AMAZING too, and I feel very, very lucky to be in the position that I am. There’s no other job I’d rather be doing, truly. But I think it’s so easy to forget that being an author is still a “public” job in a lot of ways. Because we write alone, and almost all communication is done through email. So it doesn’t feel public, at least not for me. I just feel like a weirdo making up stories on a computer that people probably won’t want to read. That hasn’t changed. And nobody really gives you a list on how to protect yourself from strangers and trolls and negative things on the internet. It sometimes feels like being locked in a glass box and people are just screaming at you from the outside and you can’t get away from it. That’s why boundaries are so important. Because if you put up walls, then people can’t get that close to the glass box, if that makes sense. My biggest challenge is knowing when and where to put up walls, and reminding myself not to feel bad about it. Because I do, often. My armor doesn’t come naturally. I have to remember to wear it, all the time.

Tay: Do you have any new mental health reads that you would recommend since we talked last year?

Akemi: I have to admit I am so massively behind on my reading list it’s not even funny. But I really loved Emily X.R. Pan’s THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, which deals with grief and the loss of a parent who dies by suicide, as well as Beth Evans’ wonderful book I REALLY DIDN’T THINK THIS THROUGH, which talks a lot about anxiety and is just so relatable.

Tay: Finally, something I’m thinking a lot about this year with Shattering Stigmas is thinking of mental health awareness as a constantly evolving conversation that continues to develop and more forward. So, from your perspective, what’s the next step in the discussion around mental health and where would you like to see representation of mental health and illness in YA go next or develop in some way? 

Akemi: I would like more nuance. I know some people use that like a buzz word, but it’s so important with mental health. Because there is not only one experience when it comes to mental health. And also, how our mental health is affected and shaped could come from a thousand different outside experiences. Those stories are important, too. And I truly believe we need to talk about the good and the bad, and let people speak candidly about their experiences. It’s really the only way to normalize discussions about mental health. If we’re only looking for stories from the “perfect” person and shun others for being messy or even having bad experiences with mental health, then we’re going to end up silencing people. I think it’s counterproductive. If we want to create environments that are healthier for people and keeping doors open to understanding, we need to talk about how our mental health affects us, but also how we affect the people we love. I know some people don’t want to hear that, but some of the hardest work I had to do in therapy was learning that just because my mental health made me feel a certain way does not make it okay to treat people in ways that aren’t healthy for them. We can want people to have empathy and understanding for us while also recognizing that we are not entitled to that if we’re hurting others. And I think sometimes in mental health spaces we don’t like to discuss that enough, because it makes us feel bad. And I get it—it’s hard. It is for me too. But sometimes things that are hard require work, and we have to work on how we treat ourselves AS WELL as how we treat others. Maybe that’s too much nuance for some people, but I truly believe this is such an important aspect of mental health that needs to be discussed more moving forward, and I say that with a lot of love.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses, Akemi! It’s always such a pleasure to have you on the blog. 

Check out STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE on Goodreads!

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, another of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Welcome to Shattering Stigmas 4.0

October has rolled around once again. Everyone has their “spooky” names on Twitter, people are coveting their ridiculous pumpkin spice products and, at least here in the Northeast, there’s a subtle chill in the air and the leaves are tinged with yellow and red.

And it’s time for a new year of Shattering Stigmas, an annual two-week blogging event dedicated to ending the stigma against mental illness through the sharing of personal essays, media and book lists centered on mental health. If you’re new to Shattering Stigmas, welcome. If not, thanks for coming back. Either way, thank you for your support of this project and I hope you find it useful in some way. Posts will be going up every day until October 20.

Shattering Stigmas was started by the lovely and wonderful Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight three years ago and none of this would be possible without the immeasurable amount of work she has devoted to it since it began. I took over the organization of it because I firmly believe in the power of these stories and the power of offering people a platform to speak their truths without shame and judgement. We can all learn by listening to each other with respect and empathy.

I am not alone in organizing Shattering Stigmas this year. I am joined by four amazing co-hosts who have put an equal amount of work and energy into this project: Madalyn @ Novel Ink, Kitty @ Jelly Fable, Ben @ Ace of Bens and Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books. Without them, Shattering Stigmas would not be possible. Be sure to check out their blogs and follow them to keep up with all of the amazing posts people wrote for us.

I hope that over the next two weeks, you’ll read and engage with as many of the posts you can as we continue the conversation about mental health. Each year, I’m so struck at the honesty, courage and power that our writers bring to their pieces. Listen to our stories. Share your truth. End the stigma. And thank you for your support.

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, another of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Book Review

Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

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Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Crown Books for Young Readers, 224 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Content Warnings: Police brutality, racism, gun violence, gang violence, grief & loss 

This book joins All-American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and others that deal with the topic of black teens confronting issues of racial inequality and police violence in twenty-first century America. However, these novels don’t feel like “issue” books because of the tremendous grace and empathy with which they were written. Powerfully voiced and emotionally written, Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a force of a novel about Justyce, an intelligent black teen dealing with the loss of his best friend Manny during an altercation with an off-duty police officer.

I read this book in one-sitting and was in tears by the end. This book is powerful and it packs a punch in such a short length of a book. The dialogue was fantastically written and felt like actual teens speaking, which is harder to find in YA than it should be. I loved the brutal honesty of Justyce’s letters to Dr. King.

My only issue with this book was the length. While I enjoyed it being such a short read, it just felt like there should have been more of this book. While a lot of books would benefit from being 100 pages shorter, this one would have benefitted from being 100 pages longer. The major plot point of the book doesn’t take place until halfway through. The first half felt like a lot of context and build-up and the second half felt very very quick. I would have liked the pacing of this book to be a little bit more even.

Overall, I loved this gem of a book. It was packed with so much feeling and was written with such urgency that it was so easy to get lost in it in the opening pages. If you a white book blogger who wants to learn more about racial issues in America and why they are important, I highly recommend reading this book instead of trying to get free education from PoC on Twitter. This book approaches discussions of race with nuance and subtlety that taught me so much, and I am so grateful for this reading experience. I highly recommend this book and also recommend you seek out and boost #ownvoices reviews of this book as well.

Posted in Book Review

Review: Running Full Tilt by Michael Currinder

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Running Full Tilt by Michael Currinder, Charlesbridge Teen, 336 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

 

Content Warnings: Violence, death, grief & loss

Some books are just okay but also kind of good at the same time. They’re a good story and they have their moments, but they just don’t resonate enough wit
h you, but you still want to let people know about them because it might be the perfect book for someone else. Michael Currinder’s debut novel Running Full Tilt was one of those books for me. I’m still on the fence about how I feel about it, to be completely honest.

I love stories about guys developing a passion for running. I’m not sure why, but I do. That’s what drew me to this story about Leo, a junior in high school, who joins the cross country team at his new school after his family moves to a different neighborhood because their old neighbors complained about his autistic brother Caleb’s behavior. The author has a background in running and has a disabled sibling, and these experiences definitely felt reflected in the stories.

Part of my issue about this book is I wasn’t really sure how to feel about the representation of Caleb’s autism because I am not autistic and I don’t know anyone personally who is autistic at the level Caleb is in the novel. It is mentioned that he has other developmental and mental disabilities. Overall, I think that Currinder did a solid job at describing the different aspects of Caleb’s autism and the effects it had on the family. However, I would be interested in what people with autism or relatives of people with autism think about the representation.

In terms of story, this is definitely a character driven book and most of the plot is centered around Leo’s relationship with running and Leo’s relationship with Caleb, which are interconnected. I found it to drag at parts and move just right at others. Still, it was a quick read and is the kind of book that’s perfect to read on an autumn weekend afternoon.

One of the things I liked best about this book was the representation of high school athletics, which is something that I don’t think is represented as widely in YA as it should be to reflect the variety of athletic experiences that teens today have. I found the running scenes to be a bit boring and info-dumpy as a non-runner, but I could easily imagine those being the favorite scenes of someone who enjoys cross-country running. At the very least, those scenes added tension to the novel and it was clear that Currinder knew what he was talking about writing them.

Overall, Running Full Tilt is the quiet tale of a teen struggling to find patience and compassion for his autistic brother, who is increasingly violent towards him, and finds an outlet in running. It is endearing and poignant. It has some amazing secondary characters (Leo’s cross country teammate Curtis was my favorite) and some amazing teens. For me, it was solid and entertaining, and I think this has the potential to be a powerful story if it’s in the right teen’s hands.

Posted in Book Review

Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, HarperTeen, 384 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥

Content Warnings: Gun violence, gangs, anxiety, death, grief & loss of family members and suicide

I know a lot of you will probably want to shit on me for writing a less-than-perfect review of this book, but I have existential depression and that’s why I feel a lot of the things I do about it, so hear me out. I really wanted to like Adam Silvera’s new speculative fiction novel They Both Die at the End, which follows the stories of Rufus and Mateo, two boys who meet on a Last Friend app on the day they both will die. I wanted to love this book like my friends did, but it just kind of left me numb. I emotionally disconnected from the narrative early on and by the end, I wasn’t crying or feeling sad. I was just kind of exhausted and numb and angry at the time I’d spent reading it, to be honest.

I don’t want to rob anyone of their enjoyment of the book. If you loved it, that’s valid and I’m happy for you. I wish I was one of those people because I loved More Happy than Not and I think Adam is a wonderful author and person.

My biggest issue with this book was that it felt like there was no point to me reading this story about boys who could have this great “day of self-discovery” and know they’re going to die. I’m sorry. It felt like a waste. A waste of their characters. A waste of a story. A waste of my time. I get that this was supposed to be a book about learning to make the most of your life and live every day to the fullest, but I just wasn’t here for it. It wasn’t just depressing. It was infuriating. I get that kids and teenagers die all the time, that life isn’t fair. I think that books about death (i.e. Marieke Nijkamp’s emotionally harrowing novel This is Where it Endshave value. Still, TBDATE felt empty and hollow to me in the same way you feel cheated when you open up a fortune cookie to discover there’s nothing inside.

I’ve watched my closest family member waste away and die. I’ve passed by accidents on the Garden State Parkway as they’re draping a blanket over someone’s body. One of my earliest memories is 9/11. Death bothers me down to the bone. It is not something I am comfortable discussing or imagining, beyond a few darkly humorous jokes. I reacted to TBDATE in a similar way to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. As soon as I know there’s no hope for the main characters, I check out and I can’t connect to the characters or the story because I have to protect my brain. These books will drag my depressed brain into a deep, dark hole if I don’t keep that wall up.

This book messed with my head a lot. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I have existential depression, which means that I feel struck by hopelessness and worthlessness when I think about my place in the world and how small I am compared to everything. Reading a book about two boys who are told they are going to die and have no opportunity to fight that gutted me, because life became meaningless for them, too. Sure, they tried to have a good day. Sure, they made some amazing memories. But it meant nothing, in the end, not really, and just traumatized all the secondary characters in their lives for no other reason than to be a plot device and provide some conciliatory message about hope. It also really bothered me that Rufus and Mateo were two queer PoC who didn’t even get a shot at a happy ending.

My other issue with this book is that while the Leteo Institute in More Happy Than Not was believable, the entire time line and way this world was set up doesn’t make much sense. There’s no back story for the sudden development of this Death-Cast thing, which is heralded as “progress.” If anything, this is a novel about why “progress” is often bullshit. Anyway. Death-Cast calls you on the day you’ll die. However, this call makes you live your life differently that day and might set you up to make decisions that ultimately lead to your death. This happens to quite a few characters in the book. So, that means that in this world, there is no free will. Because one, you don’t get a chance to challenge this “pre-destined” death and two, if the call leads to you dying, than death is foreseeable and thus the entire space-time continuum is set in stone with no room for change. Many faiths (Christianity included) hinge their beliefs on the notion that we are able to make choices, that we are in charge of our fates, that we have free will and the ability to redeem ourselves. For me, that is what makes religion so empowering. In this world, that can’t possibly exist and even the churches are suspicious of Death-Cast. That’s because you basically have to be 17th-century Puritan believing in predetermination or a Nihilist for this world order to gel with yours. I know I’m reading into it. This is why speculative fiction doesn’t work for me when I can’t completely connect with it.

Overall, the entire cast of characters seemed kind of blah. The fact that Mateo and Rufus didn’t have living, conscious parents seemed kind of cheap. Lidia, Mateo’s best friend, was okay, I guess. I couldn’t tell Rufus’ friends Malcolm and Tagoe apart, to be honest. There were a lot of different view points, which was nice for a while, but became kind of confusing and just added to what felt like the pointlessness of this book. I even stopped caring when characters died. Usually when I’m reading, the world feels real and I like to imagine the characters living on after the end, but TBDATE just felt like ink on paper and I was relieved when I reached the end because it was over and I could say I read it.

I think that covers the main stuff. The actual writing wasn’t bad and kind of good at parts. Me not enjoying this book won’t turn me off from buying and reading Adam’s books in the future or impact my opinion of his other books. It was just a miss for me. Overall, it felt like a cool concept handled too cruelly and a joke gone too far. If you deal with existential depressive thoughts or have difficulty reading about death and loss, I 100% don’t recommend you read this book or if you do, proceed with caution. If you love Adam’s books and don’t think it’ll bother you, go ahead and read. I hope you love it more than I did. And if you like dark humor but also want a story with rib-aching laughs and tender hope, I highly suggest Lance Rubin’s YA novel Denton Little’s Deathdate.

Posted in Book Review

Review: When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter

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When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter, Tor Teen, 384 pp.

Rating: ♥

Content Warnings: Death, grief, heroin addiction, overdose, suicide, incest, rape

Sometimes you just really want to love a book and it keeps letting you down again and again and again. That was my experience of reading Sarah Porter’s new YA paranormal fantasy When I Cast Your Shadow. The book is about twins, Ruby and Everett, who are still grieving the death of their older brother Dashiell from a heroin overdose. Ruby unknowingly lets Dashiell posses her body after a bizarre nightmare, setting off a series of events that imperil Ruby and Everett while revealing dark secrets about their family.

Part of my problem with this book might come from the fact that I was reading outside of my genre. While I enjoy paranormal stories, I have never really read demon possession stories. The parts that take place in the Land of the Dead were confusing and difficult to picture. I found myself skimming over them for the most part, and ultimately skimmed through most of the book because I couldn’t connect to any of the imagery, characters or plot.

Frankly, the writing style of this book felt all wrong for YA. The dialogue felt forced and unrealistic. When the characters spoke, especially Dashiell, it felt like it was a thirty-year old from some artsy noir movie speaking and not a nineteen-year-old New Yorker. The pacing was off (oh my, how this book dragged). And while I’m not opposed to having YA handle topics like heroin addiction (I absolutely think it should, but responsibly and not as a plot device), this book literally features a teen heroin addict who commits suicide so he’s no longer a negative influence on his family.

There was a scene that broke the camel’s back that made me unable to devote my full attention to finishing it. I skimmed over the rest to see if I could get into it, but no dice. After this scene, the entire book fell flat for me. Spoiler alert for this: After Everett lets Dashiell possess him to save Ruby, Dashiell “rewards” Everett by using his brother’s body to have sex with Dashiell’s ex-girlfriend in the bed he died in. There were so, so, so many layers of wrong here. First of all, since Dashiell was in control of Everett’s body, but Paige thought she was consenting to sex with Everett and not her dead ex-boyfriend, it’s technically rape. Everett even recognizes that, but doesn’t feel too bad about it apparently because the chapter ends a paragraph later and he doesn’t ever really bring it up again.

Overall, this book is a mess. I wanted to like it. I really did, but I just couldn’t. The world-building didn’t feel coherent, the characters were just so-so, the plot was a mess and the bottom line is: I couldn’t even get through the damn book.

There were a few things I liked about it though. I liked the nicknames the siblings had for each other (Ruby-Ru, Ruby Slippers, Never-Ever, Dash-Dot-Dot). I liked that it was set in Brooklyn and featured a lot of my favorite places there. I loved that it started out as a story about a girl missing her brother, but then it took a turn for the worse and I couldn’t get into it. Maybe I just wasn’t the right reader for this book. Whatever the reason, this book was a miss for me and I don’t think I’ll be actively recommending it any time soon.

Posted in Book Review

Review: Ultimatum by K.M. Walton

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Ultimatum by K.M. Walton, Sourcebooks Fire, 320 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Content Warnings: alcoholism, grief, hospice care, violence

I love reading books that I know will emotionally gut me from start to finish. I love stories about siblings even though I’m an only child (Literally, any stories about brothers just….*grabby hands*). I love stories bursting the page with hope (*super grabby hands*). And if you’re a weirdo like me that loves all of the above, then you are going to love K.M. Walton’s YA contemporary novel Ultimatum

Ultimatum is about teenage brothers, Oscar and Vance, who struggle to cope with the inevitability of becoming orphans as their father dies in hospice from liver failure. Oscar is a quiet music nerd with a talent for drawing and Vance is the athlete who loves to party and always seems to get the girl. The book is told in alternating chapters, with Oscar narrating the present as their dad passes away and Vance narrates the past leading up to the brother’s present. Masterfully told and beautifully written, this is a story about the growth that can emerge from loss and what it really means to be a family. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone in the mood for something dark with lots of hope and tender moments mixed in.

The best part of this book are the characters and the way that Walton reveals them to us bit by bit throughout the novel. I loved reading about Oscar’s love for music. His fear and nervousness was relatable, as someone who’s dealt with a close relative in hospice care. I also loved Vance. Walton takes the archetype of the irresponsible, partying Jock and plays with it in really interesting ways that were surprising and heart wrenching. Walton  crafts equally intriguing secondary characters, from Oscar and Vance’s parents to the nurses. Every character was clearly created with care.

I also thought that the representation of the highs and lows and long days of hospice car was done really, really well. As someone who’s been there with several relatives, it was sometimes tough to read, but oddly comforting as well. Walton captures every moment of it with precision.

This book also does a great job of discussing the issues of family, from cheating to alcoholism to sibling rivalries. Reading about how this family fell apart was kind of uncomfortable, because you know how it ends and just have to go along for the ride. It’s a read packed with emotion and I was on the edge of my seat towards the end of the book, when the boys have to make a tough decision.

Overall, I loved this book. I look forward to reading other books by Walton and I hope some of you will add this book to your TBR. It’s a quiet, poignant masterpiece. This is such a lovely, lovely underrated book that will break your heart and then put it back together. You don’t want to miss it.

Posted in Book Review

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

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Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 400 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

There are some tropes I will never get tired of in YA. One of them is the trope of secret communication bringing unlike-minded people together. It’s even better when they exchange handwritten notes or letters. The use of that trope as the keystone in Brigid Kemmerer’s new novel Letters to the Lost made me super excited to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Kemmerer’s novel is about Juliet, a teen girl grieving the loss of her famous warzone photographer mother, and Declan, a boy assigned to community service after one tragic night that spiraled out of his broken past. At its heart, the novel is a beautiful, complex, funny and sad story about loss, grief, redemption and love. I also want to note that, in service of not spoiling anything because this is a book that truly reveals itself over time, my review might come off as a little bit vague.

I loved these characters. Juliet wasn’t the most “likeable” character but as someone who has lost a very close relative and spends a great deal of time with their gravestone I was really able to connect to her emotion and pain. I was also able to connect to Declan’s regret and pain over his past. I really loved how Kemmerer showed that the reckless actions and irresponsibility of adults have heartbreaking consequences on their children, which I think she captures with great complexity, depth and skill in his narrative.

I was also really able to connect to Juliet’s realization that the adults we look up to in our families aren’t always what they seem. This turned out to be a theme in the novel that connected Juliet and Declan’s story. I thought that was a great lesson to be inserted into a YA book and one that I wish more books would tackle.

Interestingly, one of the best parts of this book for me was the relationship that Juliet and Declan had with the adults around them. I was rooting for Juliet to sort out her emotions with not only her dead mother, but also her father who she’d been having difficulty communicating with since her mother passed away. Seeing their relationship unfold was one of my favorite parts of this book. I also loved seeing the friendship between Rowan and Juliet, and would have liked to see that developed a little more.

In Declan’s narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how intricate and not-surface level his relationship was with his mother and stepfather. Kemmerer really pushes Declan beyond the trope of the “secretly sensitive bad boy.” His emotions towards his family and his best friend, Rev, came off the page. In short, Declan is one of the most complex male characters in YA that I’ve read in a while.

I also really, really loved how Kemmerer developed Declan and Juliet’s relationships with the teachers who helped them. I still remember the teachers who I felt saw and understood me in high school, the ones who helped redirect my path as a somewhat troubled teen into the success I’ve had today. It was a joy to see that unfold on the pages of this novel. I found myself hoping that teachers will pick up this book and understand how important it is to have empathy and understanding for students, especially the ones with a “reputation.”

Of course, Letters to the Lost was not without its faults. The writing style was a little clunky throughout, which occasionally took me out of the story. I also really wish that Kemmerer had been more specific and paid more attention to Juliet’s panic attacks and the specific symptoms of her complicated grief, as I felt that would have added more dimension and emotion to the novel. Honestly, this is the type of book where I keep realizing new things that I love about it.

However, these minor issues were largely easy to look past and admire all the beauty and strength that this story contains. Fans of Kasie West’s novel P.S. I Like You, who also enjoy the darker side of YA, will love this book that explores romance, friendship, family, grief and more. I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be better if you read it or picked it up right now. You won’t regret it.

Have you read Letters to the Lost? Do you also like stories where the main characters get to know each other through secret messages? Let me know below!