The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

I’m a sucker for a book with a gorgeous cover and a British audiobook narrator. The Cactus by Sarah Haywood had both of these and I knew I was a goner. I mean, look how gorgeous this cover is!

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood tells the story of Susan Green. Susan is very particular in how she wants her life to run. Everything around her is perfectly ordered. Anything out of the norm presented to her must be weighed carefully by Susan to assess the pros and cons before she decides to either add it to her life or banish it completely. Emotions are one part of daily life that Susan just doesn’t see the point of because they are unpredictable and don’t fit into her perfectly ordered existence. They’re messy. Susan doesn’t like messy.

Susan has the perfect flat for one, a job that lets her logical side run free, and a longstanding, as she calls it, ‘interpersonal arrangement’ that has been going on for 12 years. This arrangement provides Susan with all the cultural and more intimate personal relations she feels she needs. With all this perfection and order, something is bound to go awry. And sure enough, Susan is soon faced with changing circumstances she can not control.

Susan’s mother unexpectedly passes away. Her mother’s will leaves Susan angry and confused as it details that Susan’s lazy and spoiled brother is given the larger share of everything. Susan also learns that her ‘interpersonal arrangement’ with Richard has resulted in her becoming pregnant, a fact that knocks her off course.

Susan is losing control. Despite her best efforts to curtail her brother’s efforts and to deal with her pregnancy, nothing seems to go her way. As her due date looms closer, the circumstances with her brother seem to be getting more complicated and do not clear up the way that she had hoped. Soon everything comes to a head and Susan finds herself looking for help from the most unlikely of people in the oddest of ways. Susan discovers things about herself that she previously didn’t know. This self-discovery amidst her mother’s death and unexpected pregnancy allows Susan to find the strength to move forward and create a different life.

This book reminded me a lot of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, so much so that I had to consciously remind myself that these were two separate books. If I had read them back to back, my confusion would have been great! Both main characters seem to have Asperger’s Syndrome, have difficulty relating to others, and have complicated personal and professional lives. Definitely recommend them both.

Breaking Sad edited by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones

Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up edited by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones lays out for you what to say when you just don’t know what to say. Loss, grief, bereavement, and sympathy are all complicated emotions and states of being that have the power to bring even the strongest, calmest, and most stoic of us to their knees. When that happens, what are those of us surrounding the bereaved supposed to do? If you’re like me, you stand awkwardly by in fear that you will say the wrong thing or that the words you meant to be kind will somehow be construed the wrong way. Breaking Sad helped me figure out what to do.

Breaking Sad breaks down loss into multiple sections: new loss, sudden loss, loss with time for a good-bye, loss at a tender age, persistent loss, complicated loss, unacknowledged loss, other kinds of loss, and loss and time. It additionally ends with a section of takeaways and an epilogue entitled: “One for the road”. Each section of loss features real stories and real feedback from people who have struggled with each type of loss presented in this book. These personal stories allow readers to gain a better understanding of what the bereaved are feeling. Each story further shows to highlight how people all grieve differently as what comforts one person only proves to irritate another. Grieving with a sudden loss versus a loss with time for a good-bye necessitates mourners to comfort the bereaved in different ways.

The part that I found the most helpful were the suggestions from survivors about how to comfort them. These suggestions are broken down into four sections: best thing someone did or said, worst thing someone did or said, advice for someone going through a similar experience, and advice for those surrounding the bereaved. Reading about such a wide variety of loss coupled with the suggestions from the survivors gave me a well-rounded look into how I should approach someone when they’re going through a loss. This book helped me work through my own grief and helped me become more comfortable when it comes to offering support and caring for people when they’re struggling through their own grief.

In addition to giving me real-life examples and ways to comfort others, this book also helped me work through grief of my own. Being able to read through situations that were similar to mine helped me realize that the emotions that I have felt, both in the past and the present, are normal and valid and that there is no right way to grieve. Having someone say those things to your face are one thing, but being able to read multiple accounts of people going through the same process is another. Everyone grieves in their own way, just like everyone expresses their sympathy and grief towards another in a different way. We’re all human beings. This book continuously reminded me to live in a place of kindness and understanding towards others because we truly have no idea what could be living under the surface. Be kind to everyone because you have no idea the battles waging within.

This book by no means captures all types of loss, all stages of grief, and even all the different ways that sympathy can be extended towards the bereaved. Read this as more of a guidebook, a collection of signs, that can help guide you towards what to say and how to act.

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.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

sharp objectsSharp Objects was Gillian Flynn’s literary debut in 2006, followed after with Dark Places in 2009, Gone Girl in 2012, and The Grownup in 2014. Flynn’s first three works are all suspenseful, dark books full of thrilling chases, tragedies, secrets, and lies. I was introduced to Gillian Flynn through Gone Girl and immediately dived into her other books.

In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker is working as a journalist for a second-rate newspaper, the Daily Post, in Chicago when her boss, Frank Curry, gives her a new assignment. Camille is to head to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the murder of one young girl and the kidnapping of another. Camille soon finds herself back in Wind Gap for the first time in eight years, working on her career-boosting serial-killer-in-the-making article.

In this psychological thriller, Camille struggles to break through small-town barriers to find the truth about what happened to those two girls. Once the body of the second girl is found, Camille finds herself swept into the story amidst all the rumors flying through town about who committed these vile acts. These murders are especially hard for Camille and her mother, as her younger sister died when she was 10 of a mysterious illness. Local police call on the help of a profiler from Kansas City, MO and Camille works closely with him to discover Wind Gap’s secrets.

Camille has secrets of her own. She comes from a dysfunctional family and one of the things she turned to to cope was self-mutilation. She was once institutionalized for this; her body covered in scars, words littering every surface of skin. Her trip back to Wind Gap forces her to relive her disturbed childhood, digging into old family secrets and things simmering under the surface. This book is truly suspenseful, leaving readers guessing about the murderer and the truth those simmering secrets until the very end.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Low, Volume 1: The Delirium of Hope by Rick Remender

low v1Low, Volume 1: The Delirium of Hope by Rick Remender blew all of my science fiction/fantasy/graphic novel expectations out of the water. Even though the woman on the cover, Stel Caine, the matriarch of the Caine family, is wearing heels, she is an incredibly strong and powerful leader who leads her family and community through despair. Her belief that human consciousness can change your reality pushes her through dark times, leading her to believe deeply that hope can change anything, no matter what the people around her may say or do or what her current circumstances are.

In this first volume, Low begins by introducing you to the Caine family, mom Stel, dad Johl, and their three kids. Many millennia in the future, humanity was forced to abandon the earth’s surface and take refuge underwater because of the sun’s intense radiation. They knew that living underwater would only prove to be a temporary solution as the sun’s radiation would reach them eventually. As a result, the first batch of mankind to live under the waves sent probes into the galaxy to look for inhabitable worlds, knowing their great-great grandchildren would be the only ones who would benefit from the results. Generations later, the Caine family is in control, fighting off invaders and trying to keep their lives together. A great disaster alters their family forever and the Caines are forced to reach deep within themselves to try to find the strength to survive. Grief cannot be given control leading Stel to work to find a solution to both the loss of her family and the necessity of finding a new inhabitable world quickly.

Tocchini’s artwork grew on me. His work is sketch-like with colors that are rich, but also at the same time, muted. His style of drawing really leads you into the different scenes and the different places underwater that the characters find themselves traveling to. I recommend you check this out! (I’m currently deep in the second volume, so stay tuned for a review of that one!)

Emily and Einstein by Linda Francis Lee

On his way to dinner with his wife Emily where he intends to ask her for a divorce, Sandy Portman – wealthy, sophisticated, self-centered – is hit by a car and dies. Furious that someone as important as himself should die so young, he makes a deal with the angel sent to retrieve him – a second chance to make things right. The only string attached? He’s coming back as a dog. An old, smelly, not-very-attractive dog to be exact.

Emily and Einstein by Linda Francis Lee is a charming story with both laughs and heartbreak. Now known as Einstein (and as a dog) Sandy struggles to come to terms with who he was as a man. Emily learns to become her own person, not defined by her Mother or sister or husband and to move on with her life. Einstein is very funny and sarcastic (he calls the angel that’s assigned to him “old man”) and Emily’s struggles are realistic. Some might label this as “chick lit”, but the issues are deeper and have more resonance than merely “getting the guy”. This is a love story on several levels, and also a story of forgiveness both of the people in your life and of yourself.  You’ll cheer for both Emily and Einstein, because everyone deserves a second chance.

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

When Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies suddenly, he and his wife Ginny, without hesitation, pack up their lives and move into her house to help care for her three small children. Making Toast is a record of that time – of the grief and sadness, but also of learning to laugh again.

Amy died from an asymptomatic heart condition at the age of 38. Her sudden and unexpected loss ripped a hole in the community of family and friends whose lives Amy had touched. Rosenblatt realizes that he learns more about his daughter – her selflessness, her humor, her generosity – after her death than he did while she was alive. He struggles not only with his own overpowering grief and anger, but also that of his grandchildren who each cope differently, his stoic son-in-law, his wife who must now step into Amy’s footsteps, his adult sons, his many friends. He finds solace in the mundane – reading stories, helping with schoolwork, making toast to order. Gradually, they all learn that while cannot escape the terrible loss, they can learn to live with it and to continue.

Written as a loose collection of essays, anecdotes and remembrances,  this small book is an eloquent and understated  study on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the coming to terms with terrible loss and a fitting tribute to a life that made a difference.

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay

Shelter MeThree months have passed since Janie’s husband was killed in an accident. She is still awash in grief, barely able to function, struggling to get herself and her two small children through each day when a contractor shows up at her house, ready to build the porch her husband had secrectly planned as a surprise for her.

Over the following months Janie finds strength and solace and even laughter from unlikely sources – her annoying, talkative Aunt, the shy, awkward priest, a neighbor she has nothing in common with, even the contractor who becomes a daily, calming presence in their lives. Slowly the pain lessens and Janie learns that moving on does not mean forgetting the past.

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay is a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny story of how one family puts itself back together after unimaginable tragedy. The writing is compelling – it’s very hard to put this book down – and the characters so real that they will stay with you long after you finish.

Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann

random-acts-of-heroic-loveTold in two parallel stories set in different times, Random Acts of Heroic Love is about the power of love, of how it can devastate but also uplift and empower us do what might seem impossible.

In one story, Leo and his girlfriend Eleni are traveling through South America when a horrific bus  accident takes Eleni’s life.  Nearly crushed by guilt and grief, Leo tries to make sense of his loss by seeking answers through science, but the weight of being left behind is almost too much.

The second story takes place in Poland where shortly after  Moritz and Lotte declare their love, Moritz is swept into the horrors of the First World War. Captured by the Russians and sent to prison camp in Siberia, he is literally thousands of miles from home. After escaping from the camp, Moritz undertakes the arduous journey back to his beloved.

At first the stories are so disconnected that you may wonder what the author is up to, but about two-thirds of the way through things begin to come together, rewarding the reader with a poignant examination of love and redemption across time and distance.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

I’m going to give you a warning about this book right from the start: a baby dies in this book. It is, in the words of author Elizabeth McCracken “the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending”.

McCracken was an award winning author (one of her books, Niagara Falls All Over Again, was the All-Iowa Reads choice in 2004), happy with her career and her status as a self-described spinster was in her mid-30s when she suddenly fell in love. Within a couple years she was living in France with her husband awaiting the birth of their first child. Everything was perfect, until her ninth month of pregnancy when her baby boy died.

What follows is a touching, heartbreaking story of love and grief, of struggling to go on without forgetting what happened. Told with warmth, humor and generosity, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is a powerful and beautifully written memoir, a literary gift to us all.