Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction in my spare time. A vast majority of them have dealt with sad topics: mental illness, suicide, death, endings of relationships, abuse, homelessness etc. These are all topics that teens deal with on a daily basis, so I appreciate the fact that there are resources out there that teens(and their parents/guardians/loved ones) can turn to if they need some help. However, reading all these angsty books with no break and with no happy ending in sight is throwing me down a rabbit hole of sadness. I needed a break or a book with a happy realistic ending, not a sad realistic ending. Enter Jennifer Niven.

I’d read All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven last year and had loved her work (fair warning though: this book has a sad realistic ending dealing with mental illness and suicide). Flipping through a review magazine, I found Holding Up the Universe, also by Niven. The premise sounded like it could possibly end well and I was willing to risk it because I had loved her previous book so much.

Holding Up the Universe tells the story of Libby Strout and Jack Masselin. It is told from both of their points of view, alternating chapter to chapter. Libby Strout was once known as “America’s Fattest Teen”, a teen whose house had to be partially demolished in order to get her out of it. Back in school for the first time in years, no one can see past her weight. She’s still just the fat girl even though she’s lost 300 pounds. After her mom’s death, Libby is left picking up herself, her father, and their grief. She is ready for the new start high school has to offer.

Jack Masselin is the quintessential high school popular boy. He has swagger and the ability to give people what they want. He is able to fit in. While he seems like he has it all together, Jack has a major secret. He cannot recognize faces. Jack has prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize people by their faces. Everyone he meets, he has to try to figure out who they are by their identifiers: big hair, beauty mark, Mohawk, etc. Jack gets through life by being the funny, charming guy, but doesn’t let people get close.

Jack and Libby’s lives become entangled together in the aftermath of a cruel high school game. Sitting squarely in community service and group counseling together forces them to make a connection. This connection changes both of their lives, forcing them to confront issues that neither of them realized they are carrying. Will their connection change their world for the better or for the worse? Add in cruel high school students, family issues, obesity, brain injuries, and the possibility of love and Jack and Libby are in for a crazy ride of self-esteem, self-reliance, and teenage angst. Holding Up the Universe was the exact book palette refresher I needed.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkHave you ever read a book that immediately piqued your interest? One that you just couldn’t put down? My latest “must finish quickly” book was Eleanor & Park, and what hooked me, besides the immediately engaging story line, was that I listened to it as an audiobook and was therefore able to listen to it while I was doing other things. (The version I listened to was through OverDrive, but this title is also available as a print book and a book on cd – same narrators too!)

Eleanor & Park tells the story of the two title characters: Eleanor, a red-haired chubby high school student starting at a new school, who runs into Park, a kid right on the cusp of the cool crowd, but not firmly implanted there. Eleanor feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere, especially at her new school or at home. and Park feels like she doesn’t belong at their school either. Despite himself, Park finds himself falling for Eleanor, a situation that she has trouble with since she can’t possibly believe or see why this perfect Asian boy with the perfect family would ever fall for a mess like her, living with her mother, abusive step-father, and four siblings in a tiny house. This book is set over the course of one school year in 1986 with readers getting an intense look into Eleanor and Park’s budding relationship and daily lives as they struggle with trying to fit in and the strange sweetness and intense hold that first love has on them. This book pulled at my heart strings, making me pull for Eleanor and Park to beat the odds.

What really hooked me about this book was the narrators. Their voices perfectly matched the characters that I envisioned in my head with earnest emotion shining through both voices. Their inflections as both narrators mimicked the different people in both Eleanor and Park’s lives had me present, immediately in the story with them: sitting on the top bunk in Eleanor’s room while she read the comic books and listened to the tapes that Park gave her, and watching Park as he only asked for batteries for Christmas, so he could continue to give Eleanor music to listen to. I couldn’t get enough and finished this audiobook in two days. Check this book out, either in print or audio, and let me know what you think!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

First of all, don’t attempt to read the last third of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in public. Find somewhere quiet and private so that you can read uninterrupted (because you won’t be able to stop) and where you can sob without alarming others (because unless you have a heart of stone, you’re going to cry) On the other hand, don’t let that warning scare you off – this book is also laugh-out-loud funny. It’s raw and honest and sweet and poignant and you’ll come out the other side a little different for it.

16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has never been anything other than terminal since her diagnosis; treatments have extended her life, but there is no cure. She no longer attends school, her best friends are her parents and she has to carry an oxygen tank with her at all times. Her path is set. Then Augustus Waters – hot boy she meets at Cancer Kids Support Group – bursts into her life, and that path takes on new and completely unexpected turns both heartbreaking and hilarious. A life well lived isn’t defined by quantity; it’s defined by quality.

Hazel and Augustus find common ground beyond their illness; they laugh and bicker and watch movies together and share adventures. They fall in love. They grapple with big questions and support their friends and each other. They live the days they’re given. “It is a good life, Hazel Grace” says Augustus. And it is.

The plot here is not particularly groundbreaking or unusual – the probable outcome is fairly predictable – but the characters and their stories will keep you riveted and will stay with you long after you put the book down. Hazel and Augustus are amazing of course, but the supporting characters are also wonderful, especially their friend Issac and Hazel’s parents. There is no romanticized stereotype of the “brave cancer patient.” The people here are real – funny and sad and inquisitive and so angry, struggling with the Big Questions but also not waiting around for death. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t been touched by cancer or other serious illness in their life – either yourself, a family member or a close friend or maybe all three – and you’ll recognize these emotions as real and honest. This book takes on the fear and the unknown, acknowledges them and then does battle with them. It’s a battle well worth joining.