REVIEW: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

My Heart and Other Black Holes

Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Format: Paperback, 320 pages
Publication: February 10th 2015 by Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Contemporary, Realistic, Romance
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, Young Adult

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Synopsis

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution—Roman, a teenage boy who’s haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner.

Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together.

Review

There is something equally beautiful and pensive about Jasmine Warga’s debut novel; it does not romanticize depression. Even with a turn not quite so unexpected, it feels natural. She gets it, this author.

“Anyone who has actually been that sad can tell you that there’s nothing beautiful or literary or mysterious about depression.”

I like that Aysel (pronounced like “gazelle,” as she told one of her classmates) can find humor, albeit twisted in times, amidst her black slug of sadness. It isn’t an instant connection, yes. I dig Aysel’s voice after a couple of chapters, but it took a while for her character to grow on me. But even that was organic. When I began caring for Aysel, I was all in. I wanted her to reconsider things. I wanted her to ditch the suicide plan. I wanted her to save Roman. I wanted her to be saved.

“This must be a sign from the universe—if the only time you get lucky is when you’re planning your suicide, it’s definitely time to go.”

I wouldn’t deny that Roman is my favorite character though. He’s complicated and you see the layers in him. He’s not some enigmatic-equals-attractive dude. I actually sort of wish there were pov chapters from him or bonus ones or something. And I spent half of the book feeling queasy knowing these teens are planning their suicide. I also appreciate the inclusion of the parents of both characters. I prefer that there were more interactions but I understand, too, that when you’re a teenager (and forlorn, besides), adults are almost always a detached reality.

“I guess pretty much everything in life is about the perception of the observer.”

Ultimately, My Heart and Other Black Holes is about the walls a person—and depression—builds around her. That isolates the person and locks everyone out. It is about the unheard cries for help. I was deeply moved by a scene centering on the relationship between Aysel and her mother. That particular part, I think, shows really well the depth of Aysel’s character. But Warga, who divulges in the author’s note her personal encounter with depression, creates a heartening, realistic conclusion. I believe there’s a recent rise in YA books dealing with depression and suicide, and My Heart and Other Black Holes is one of those that tackle this thoughtfully and insightfully.

4.0 out of 5

Author

Jasmine Warga

Jasmine Warga grew up outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Before becoming a full-time writer, she briefly worked as a science teacher. This is her first novel.

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REVIEW: Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff

Playlist for the Dead 02

Title: Playlist for the Dead
Author: Michelle Falkoff
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Publication: January 27th 2015 by HarperTeen
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic
Other classifications: Bullying, Depression and Mental Illness, Young Adult

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Synopsis

HERE’S WHAT SAM KNOWS:
There was a party.
There was a fight.
The next morning, Sam’s best friend, Hayden, was dead.
All he left Sam was a playlist—and a note, saying that he took his own life.
BUT WHAT SAM DOESN’T KNOW IS:

WHY?

To figure out what happened, Sam has to rely on the playlist and his own memory. But the more he listens, the more he realizes that his memory isn’t as reliable as he thought. Especially when someone claiming to be Hayden starts sending him cryptic messages, and a series of violent attacks begins on the bullies who made Hayden’s life hell.

Sam knows he has to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it’s only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to people around him—including an eccentric, unpredictable girl who’s got secrets, too—that Sam will finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Review

I would be lying if I say I couldn’t not read Playlist for the Dead fast enough. Falkoff made me want to swallow her debut novel whole. Like, in those times I had to stop to do something, I wanted so badly to ditch real life and go back to reading. That’s how I know Playlist for the Dead will be so, so good.

“Of course I was there; where else would I be? Hanging out with all my other friends? Oh, no, wait—I didn’t have any.”

At times intriguing, at times heartrending, and fundamentally arresting, this novel easily made its way to my instant favorites. The narrator, Sam, has an incredibly compelling voice that can be lined up with that of Charlie from Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the pacing is perfect—gradual in its revelation but not too much of a drag so as to infuriate the reader. Plus, the playlist. For a set of songs made to explain a suicide, I rather like most of it.

“”Is that all you’ve got?” she asked. “Usually when someone initiates an introduction, you should ask her name.”

It wasn’t before long when I realized Sam Goldsmith will be a beloved character. Eight pages in and he already is. And it was to my comfort and delight to find out, in the end, I was not deluded. Sam is gawky and nerdy and witty, with a subtle undertone of snarky. If I ever see him in flesh, I’d bug him into signing a friendship contract. But, really, I love how he’s loyal to Hayden for the entirety of the book. Props to the action he took at the later part when faced with a conflict. It’s pretty evident, though, that he was omitting things. But that only served to tend the embers of my burning curiosity to know what actually happened. I also adore the family story arc. Mrs. Goldsmith isn’t just “the protagonist’s parent;” she is a character. And so is Rachel, Sam’s sister. The portrayal of sibling relationship in here is realistic, in that it captures how siblings don’t always dance to the same tune but crises pull them together. Intact and looking out for one another. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“”I’ll be okay,” I said, and I wanted it to be true.”

Falkoff has an arsenal of identifiable, complex secondary characters. Playlist for the Dead reads as an angsty YA, sure, but it is also a portrait of teenagers trying to balance on the precarious tightrope between wanting to find a place in the society and navigating the sea of expectations imposed upon by the various people surrounding them. Readers will definitely sympathize.

“Weren’t people supposed to wear black to funerals? She looked like she was off to a fucking garden party.”

Over the course of years, I became more and more perceptive of the opening paragraphs of the novels I read, and I think Playlist of the Dead‘s is very telling of the tone of the story. I laud the author for knitting together alienation and friendship and misconception and redemption adeptly. And, ultimately, the hopeful conclusion. In the end, it has as much to do with listening as it is about the songs. Go read Playlist for the Dead!

4.5 out of 5

Author

Michelle Falkoff

Michelle Falkoff’s fiction and reviews have been published in ZYZZYVADoubleTake, and the Harvard Review, among other places. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently serves as Director of Communication and Legal Reasoning at Northwestern University of Law. This is her first novel.

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