BONUS BOOK: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

“I can’t blame him for trying to take someone’s arm off. I mean, the man reached into his cage, and that cage was all the bear had in the world.”

Genre: Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Everyone thinks they known Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed ‘America’s Fattest Teen.’ But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Since her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the art of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his own brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone. Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game – which lands them in group counseling – Libby and Jack are both angry, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Review: Based on the book jacket synopsis, Holding Up the Universe sounded… iffy. But I wanted to give this book a try for two reasons:

1) I’ve been fascinated by face blindness (prosopagnosia) since I first learned about it in an undergraduate psychology course seven years ago, and Holding Up the Universe is the first fiction book I’ve found that has a character with prosopagnosia.

2) I’ve read Niven before, and while All the Bright Places had its flaws, it’s the first book that made me cry in a really long time.

Holding Up the Universe alternates between Jack’s and Libby’s perspectives. I expected to like Jack’s chapters more given my interest in prosopagnosia. Unfortunately, I found it very hard to believe that Jack could actually suffer from prosopagnosia without anyone, especially his family, noticing that something was wrong. I was also very frustrated with most of Jack’s subplots, including his girlfriend drama and father’s affair. None of the characters had appropriate reactions to the revelation that Jack’s dad was having an affair with one of Jack’s teachers, making the whole affair subplot feel like an afterthought that was introduced to stir up trouble and make the reader pity Jack. As it turns out, Libby Strout was hands down the best part of Holding Up the Universe. She was funny, strong, and endearing; I was rooting for her from the getgo. I vastly preferred reading her chapters and particularly liked the portrayal of her relationships with her father and friends. Whereas Jack’s subplots did little to make me care about him as a character, Libby’s were well written and actually made me feel what Niven intended.

“In the hospital, I held her hand until my grandmother came in, and my dad, and the rest of my family. All of them sweet and loving and brokenhearted, but none of them like my mom. Not even all together. They didn’t begin to add up to her.”

I actually think Holding Up the Universe would have been better without Jack; his romance with Libby felt very insta-lovey, they had no real chemistry, and he didn’t add much to the novel overall. With that in mind, Holding Up the Universe is a just okay book. But I do think a lot of young women could benefit from reading about Libby Strout.





BONUS BOOK: A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

“Life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In a matter of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives. For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horrors? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently? These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In A Mother’s Reckoning, she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing up her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and countless interviews with mental health experts. Filled with hard-won wisdom and compassion, A Mother’s Reckoning is a powerful and haunting book that sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time. And with fresh wounds from the recent Newtown, Charleston, and Oregon college shootings, never has the need for understanding been more urgent.”

Review: I don’t remember what I was doing on April 20, 1999. I would have only been 7 years old, after all. In contrast, Sue Klebold remembers exactly what she was doing. She remembers waking up, saying goodbye to her son, Dylan, and going to work. She remembers getting a phone call from her incoherent husband about a shooting at Columbine High School. And she remember waiting in the driveway of her house while police officers and bomb squads searched the premises. For Klebold, and countless others, April 20, 1999 will live on in painful infamy. A Mother’s Reckoning is her attempt to share what she’s learned in the years since Dylan helped carry out one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Much of the first half of the book is dedicated to describing Dylan’s upbringing as a beloved member of a four-person family. The events of Columbine are presented in full detail about halfway through the book, and the rest of A Mother’s Reckoning is spent trying to understand why Dylan did what he did. If Klebold’s goal is to prove to the reader that her and her husband Tom, while imperfect, were loving, affectionate, and attentive parents, then she succeeds. After reading A Mother’s Reckoning, it is clear that Dylan’s mental health issues and eventual turn to violence were largely shielded from his parents. This, as Klebold points out, is what makes Columbine so terrifying; even if someone is brought up in good circumstances, they can still make terrible choices. While captivating as a whole, I did have a few  issues with A Mother’s Reckoning. Stylistically, I felt like Klebold was quite repetitive at times. She would introduce events or stories early on, and then repeat them with slightly more detail in later chapters. This made the timeline confusing. Much of the book was dedicated to considering the role Dylan’s declining mental health played in the massacre. Given what psychologists and counselors have told Klebold, Dylan was the depressive, suicidal counterpart to Eric’s psychopathic aggression. Without each other, the Columbine massacre might have been avoided. The information on mental health is an absolutely critical component of understanding what happened, but I felt like a piece of the story was missing because Klebold didn’t really discuss how Dylan and Eric got the weapons that they used in the massacre. In my opinion, that is a really important component of what happened, and speaks to the broader gun control issues in the US. These things aside, A Mother’s Reckoning was eye-opening and impossible to put down.


As with A Stolen Life, I find it unnecessary to rate A Mother’s Reckoning. I do believe that many people would benefit from reading this book, as it dispels a lot of myths about the Columbine shooting and also emphasizes how subtle the signs of mental illness can be. This book really made me empathize with the family members of mass shooters. After all, they not only have to grapple with losing a loved one, but also with the devastating actions that that loved one took. It’s an impossible burden.

BONUS BOOK: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

“There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “[Meet] the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind. It changed Rosemary – and it destroyed her family. Now Rosemary’s adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a far more terrible fate than the family, in their innocence, could ever have imagined.”

Review: I must admit; I am completely beside myself with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. This novel is tremendous. As the cover says, it has one of the best twists I’ve ever read (no spoilers in this review, I promise). A major reason this novel is so successful is the narration. Rosemary is  an unreliable narrator (far better than Rachel from The Girl on the Train) and reveals the secrets of her past in a disjointed, non-chronological order. She starts in the middle of her story, before jumping back, forward, back again. This method of storytelling was fascinating, as reading about each “version” of Rosemary gradually helped me understand what had happened to her family.

“My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

Fowler’s writing is exquisite. She transported me into each moment and was extremely effective at turning Rosemary’s feelings into my own. There’s a particularly beautiful scene where Mrs. Cooke helps her daughters get ready to play in the snow; the elation both girls feel is tangible. When Rosemary was jealous, I felt jealous. When she was sad, I felt sad. It’s no small feat to incorporate a reader into a fictional world, and Fowler excels at it.

“It wasn’t the flashes of anger – he’s been angry for as long as I could remember, a foot-stamping, middle-finger-thrusting, boy-shaped storm. I was used to that. His fury was my nostalgia.”

I can’t go into too much additional detail without running the risk of spoiling We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I can safely say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Beautiful prose, a captivating story, and a flawed but redemptive heroine; what more can a reader ask for?



BONUS BOOK: The Arsonist by Stephanie Oakes

“I am thinking about the first words of another book. It was a pleasure to burn. More than anything, it was a pleasure to live.”

Genre: Mystery, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Molly Mavity is not a normal teenage girl. For one thing, she doesn’t believe that her mother killed herself three years ago. And since her father is about to be executed for his crimes, Molly is convinced that her mother will return to her soon. Finally, the hole in her heart will stop hurting. Pepper Al-Yusef is not your average teenage boy. A Kuwaiti immigrant with serious girl problems and the most embarrassing seizure dog in existence, he has to write a series of essays over the summer… or fail out of school. And Ava Dreyman – the brave and beautiful East German resistance fighter whose death at seventeen led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall – is unlike anyone you’ve met before. When Molly and Pepper are tasked with finding Ava’s murderer, they realize there’s more to her life – and death – than meets the eye. Someone out there is lying to them. And someone out there is guiding them along, desperate for answers.”

Review: The Arsonist is told in a somewhat unconventional form, through letters Molly writes to a comatose Pepper, essays Pepper writes to his counselor in order to graduate high school, and journal entries by the late Ava Dreyman. The plot sounds interesting enough, with two intrepid teenager’s launched into a murder mystery that spans continents and decades. Unfortunately, The Arsonist comes off as incredibly far-fetched. Am I really supposed to believe that two teenagers tracked down the address of a suspected war criminal and began questioning him at his door? Does Oakes really think the reader will believe that the same two teenagers traveled to Germany, broke into a suspect’s house, and were held at gunpoint by said suspect before discovering a missing relic and escaping? These moments, and others like them (particularly Ava’s experiences once she makes it to the U.S.), made me roll my eyes and become increasingly critical of the novel. The plot also felt disjointed; I had a hard time integrating Ava’s perspective into the overall story line, and I still don’t fully understand what happened to Pepper’s mom or the nature of the relationship between Mr. Mavity and Mr. Al-Yusef. There were certainly some nice moments of writing, with Oakes doing a good job of giving both Molly and Pepper independent and unique voices (again, Ava’s perspective was the weakest link for me; she came across as unnaturally proper for someone her age).

“That day, I climbed to the top of the train bridge behind my childhood home on Syracuse Road, the one  I lived in before my family split apart like an orange.”

The Arsonist is a good novel if you’re looking for a story about teenagers with ridiculous lives. But if you prefer more grounded fiction, as I do, then you’ll likely find The Arsonist excessive, unbelievable, and ultimately uninteresting.



BONUS BOOK: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

“We reached for each other, and I thought of how many nights I had lain awake in this room loving him in silence.”

Genre: Adventure, Mythology, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Achilles, ‘the best of all the Greeks,’ son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful – irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from him homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath. They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.”

Review: This is the best adult fiction I’ve read since Euphoria and Room! What a tremendous first novel by Madeline Miller. I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, but Miller breathes new life into this retelling of the story of Achilles. Given that she spent ten years working on this novel, the craftsmanship and detail should come as no surprise. While I was somewhat unfamiliar with Achilles’ story before reading this book, I knew from the very beginning that things couldn’t end well for the star-crossed lovers. Miller manages to write a novel that is equal parts romance and adventure, all while breathing life into a remarkable cast of characters. Patroclus is the real showstopper of the book, but I also loved reading about Thetis (Achilles’ goddess mother), Agamemnon (ruler of Mycenae and frequent source of conflict with Achilles), and Deidameia (mother of Pyrrhus). I was particularly impressed with Miller’s writing; she manages to be poetic and poignant without preaching or overstepping. I particularly loved how she tied the beginning and ending together with a very simple word: this.

“I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.”

“At first it is strange. I am used to keeping him from her, to hoarding him for myself. But the memories well up like spring-water, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words, but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”

It’s beautiful, clean, emotive writing. I loved the short chapter format of The Song for Achilles, but felt that some of the middle chapters (particularly the ones focused on preparing for the war in Troy and the early years of the war) dragged; I would have preferred more chapters spent on the training Patroclus and Achilles received while living with Chiron, rather than the war. As a whole however, The Song for Achilles is an outstanding book and I can’t wait to read Miller’s second novel, Circe!



The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

“Gilly, if he looks peaky, we carry him next door as fast as we can. I ain’t gonna be sued by no big Virginia lawyer.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “At eleven, Gilly is nobody’s real kid. If only she could find her beautiful mother, Courtney, and live with her instead of in the ugly foster home where she has just been placed. How could she, the great Gilly Hopkins, known throughout the county for her brilliance and unmanageability, be expected to tolerate Maime Trotter,  the fat, nearly illiterate widow who is now her guardian? Or for that matter, the freaky seven-year-old boy and the shrunken blind black man who are also considered part of the bizarre “family”? Even cool Miss Harris, her teacher, is a shock to her. Gutsy Gilly is both poignant and comic as, behind her best barracuda smile, she schemes against them and everyone else who tries to be friendly. The reader will cheer for her as she copes with the longings and terrors of always being a foster child.”

Review: As I was reading The Great Gilly Hopkins, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t until I looked up the book cover for this blog post that I realized I had read this book before (the cover of the version I borrowed from the library was different). As a child, I’m sure that I gravitated to The Great Gilly Hopkins after reading and loving Paterson’s Bridget to Terabithia. Apparently Paterson has an affinity for writing books that end up frequently banned or challenged (although The Great Gilly Hopkins isn’t challenged for the reason I initially expected; see below). I enjoyed reading about Gilly’s transformation from a confused, angry child into a capable and loving young adult. Her relationship with her foster brother, William Earnest, was particularly endearing. As in Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson’s writing in The Great Gilly Hopkins was occasionally equal parts humorous and eloquent.

“To stop being a ‘foster child,’ the quotation marks dragging the phrase down, almost drowning it. To be real without any quotation marks. To belong and to possess. To be herself, to be the swan, to be the ugly duckling no longer – Cap O’Rushes, her disguise thrown off – Cinderella with both slippers on her feet – Snow White beyond the dwarfs – Galadriel Hopkins, come into her own.”

But there were also a number of sentences that didn’t make sense. Despite my best efforts, I can’t figure out what feeling Gilly was trying to convey by the following quote:

“God! Listening to that woman was like licking melted ice cream off the carton.”

Overall, however, I didn’t find The Great Gilly Hopkins to be particularly mesmerizing, and the fact that I didn’t even remember having read it as a child (whereas books like Walk Two Moons and Bridge to Terabithia have stuck with me for decades) reinforces that this book is not one of my favorites. I also found parts of the book to be offensive, as outlined below.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: The Great Gilly Hopkins has been challenged because of Gilly’s occasionally profane language.

“Though Gilly’s mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said `fiddlesticks’ when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her and love would give them no hope.”  – Katherine Paterson

However, I was more shocked by the racist comments Gilly made in the first part of the novel. Exhibit A: the exchange between Gilly and Trotter after Gilly fails to bring Mr. Randolph over for dinner.

Gilly: “He’s gone. Some weird little colored man with white eyes cam to the door.”

Trotter: “Gilly! That was Mr. Randolph. He can’t see a thing. You’ve got to go back and bring him by the hand, so he won’t fall.”

Gilly: “I never touched one of those people in my life.”

There were a number of additional racist comments made throughout the book, which contributed to my two-star rating.





BONUS BOOK: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

“My friend, I was born for soft days such as these.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the peace treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high. Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.”

Review: There’s no denying that Rachel Hartman is a talented and lyrical writer. The first few chapters of Seraphina actually made me feel like I was reading something in the same vein as Ella Enchanted (which is huge praise coming from me, as Ella Enchanted is definitely in my top ten books of all time).

“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.”

The descriptions of Goredd and the palace were excellent and I found the dragons of Seraphina to be unique and, by extension, fascinating. I particularly loved Orma, Seraphina’s draconian uncle with little sense of humor and no sense of irony. Concerning uniqueness, I don’t think I’ve ever read another book where music played such a pivotal and illustrious role.

“A feeling rose in me, and I just let it, because what harm could it do? It only had another thirty-two adagio bars of life in this world. Twenty-four. Sixteen. Eight more bars in which I love you. Three. Two. One.”

However, it took me a long time to wrap my head around Seraphina’s “mental garden of grotesques” (seriously… I had no clue what was going on). I also found that the plot moved at a really, really, REALLY slow place. It felt like Hartman made a trade off between world building and pacing. Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of Seraphina was actually the “Cast of Characters” glossary at the back of the book. As it turns out, Hartman can be a very humorous writer when she wants to be.

“Regent of Samsam – the regent of Samsam

Abdo – a dancer in a pygegyria troupe

A pygegyria troupe – and there’s the rest of them now”

I wish she had incorporated more humor into the actual story, as it might have negated some of the plot drudgery. I do think Seraphina’s story – particularly her journey to self-acceptance – is inspiring, but don’t feel an immediate need to read the second book in the duology.