The Beginning of After

The Beginning of After by Jennifer CastleFirst Lines: Anyone who’s had something truly crappy happen to them will tell you: It’s all about Before and After.

This book was on my to-read list for the last 9 years.  Sigh.  But it was also one of the last books I was able to check out from the library before it closed, so…I’m kind of doing my homework.  Actually, the premise of this has always fascinated me because I’m continually drawn to the books I know are going to make me sad but mean something.

Sixteen-year-old Laurel’s life changes in a single moment when her parents and brother are killed in a car accident.  Her neighbor, David Kaufman, lost his mom in the accident as well–and his dad was the one driving.  Life in the After isn’t easy as Laurel navigates the new “normal.”  Boy may be approaching her out of pity. Her friendships are strained. Memories are everywhere. And Mr. Kaufman is comatose, but very much alive unlike her family.  Through it all, David keeps swooping in and out of her life.  Unlike everyone else, he understands what Laurel is going through.  As their connection grows, Laurel begins to wonder if maybe After will be…ok.

So I knew I was getting an emotional story out of this and that was right on the money. There were times that were rough. But I felt like it was an accurate portrayal of not only grief, but also of how people who aren’t grieving react to that person. Laurel is, in one fell swoop, left as the only member of her immediate family. It’s heartbreaking, but her journey was really something to see.

Laurel is a character who is far from perfect, despite the fact that many people do actually see her as “perfect” because of her great grades and SAT scores. She does have a lot of flaws and seeing how those manifested, especially as contrasted to David’s grieving process, was really awesome. David and Laurel are night and day, so their different processes were great to really show how grief and moving on hits people differently.

The story doesn’t exactly totally have a plot. Like it does, but it doesn’t. Most of the book, I couldn’t have told you what we were building toward. Only when the thing actually happened at the end was I like, “Oh, ok I get it now.” Did that diminish my enjoyment? Not particularly. I got sucked into the story because of Laurel and her grandmother and David and Meg. I binge-read this hard.

One thing about this book that was a little laughable while reading it in 2020 was just how dated and cringey the technology was. Whenever people are making plans, they keep asking for the other’s email address. (I truly forgot we ever did that.) And it’s not that they don’t text in this book, but when they do, it looks like either your grandma trying to text or like you sat on your phone and it happened to look like a sentence. It was stuff like “Jst cnt w8 2 c u ltr.” Oh my God, I thought I was trying to decipher another language. My whole life, I’ve never had anybody text me like that. That’s how my parents thought we texted back in 2008.

But if you can ignore that, it’s a pretty good story.

The Leaving Season

Image result for the leaving seasonFirst Lines: Nate called it a shade box.  “A shade is a memory,” he once told me.  “What’s left of a person or place after they’re gone.”

This book has been on my radar for years, but it’s only been recently that I decided I finally needed to do something about it.  I always assumed, since it was supposed to be sad, that I needed to be in the right mindset for it.

Middie calls every August the Leaving Season–the season when high school graduates pack up and leave town for college.  But this year, it’s her boyfriend Nate leaving.  Nate, who’s so perfect she can barely believe it.  Nate, who’s strong and hopeful.  Nate, who promises to come back to her after taking a gap year in Central America.  But when tragedy strikes, Middie’s left trying to understand what happened.  And no one else understands what she’s going through–no one but Nate’s best friend Lee.  Middie and Lee have never gotten along.  Different personalities, different outlooks on life.  But with her life looking drastically different now than it did before, Lee might be the only one who can help her find stability once more.

This was really good.

I figured this was going to be a sad, grief story, but that’s only partly right. It’s also about how an ending can be a new beginning and how we can be lost even when everything else feels planned.  The sadness is truly only part of the story.  And while you feel Middie’s loss, this was not the kind of book that left me in a puddle of tears or anything.  So it’s sad, but not depressing.

Middie was a good lead for this because she was so interesting. Before everything hit the fan, she’s a hardworking student with her whole life planned out. She’s Nate’s Girlfriend to basically everything and they know exactly what life will be like for the next 5-10 years. They’ve planned out everything. And then, suddenly, she’s left trying to discover who she is now. And as she begins to change a little at a time, you see her starting to redefine herself. I liked that.

I really enjoyed the themes of this book. There are so many different ways to look at it and take meaning from it. It’s even surprisingly quite a feminist story, though it’s never super overt about that. That took me by surprise, but I liked it. (It comes out more in the themes than anything else and it’s never a focal point necessarily, but I saw a connection.)

The plot was good and I thought the timing was good too, which I don’t always say. The whole story takes place over something like six months as we see some Before and a lot of After. I think it really helped to have all that time because it felt more realistic. For anyone who’s suffered a shocking loss, you know you don’t recover from that overnight. It takes a lot of time, especially when that Loss is tied to who you thought you were. So yeah, we needed to see Middie dealing with the time aspect.

The only thing about it that I didn’t necessarily “like” (and I’m using that term loosely because I still enjoyed it, but I started nitpicking it) was some of the stuff near the end.  I’m definitely not going to spoil anything, but let’s just say some of things that happened felt much less realistic than what happened earlier in the book.

I really did enjoy this. This was emotional and entertaining. (I hesitate to say “fun” when we’re talking about loss, but I had a hard time putting the book down. And there were parts that were funny.)

Arcadia’s Gift

First Lines: It felt like ripping…ripping through me, ripping from me.  A deafening roar reverberated all around as I lay flat on my back, drowning the shrieks and screams echoing on the river valley walls.  My eyes were wide open, unblinking, but all I could see were abstract forms in shades of black, gray and red.

I was offered an ebook copy of this book from the author.  I’m at that point in the semester (re: the beginning of it) where I still have plenty of free time, enough of it that I can still finish books quickly and timely.  And this one was short (like, 175 pages), so I breezed through it.

For Arcadia, or as she’s better known, Cady, life is starting to unravel around her.  Cady wakes up in the hospital, unable to remember how she ended up there in the first place, caused by something doctors refer to as a “psychic episode.”  Her twin sister died in the accident.  Her parents’ marriage is crumbling.  Her sister’s boyfriend can barely bring himself to look at Cady.  Nothing is as she wants it to be.  The only time she feels normal anymore is when she spends time with Bryan Sullivan, the new kid at school.  When he’s around, she doesn’t feel like she’s losing it, nor does she experience wild mood swings.  Soon, Cady begins to suspect her first psychic episode won’t be the last…

I liked this book.  There’s a lot of heartache early on, with the separation of her parents and the death of her twin, but it also gives Cady somewhere to grow.  As the older sister to a set of twins, I can understand some of the things Cady complains about, like people only seeing you as half of a whole.  Twins are judged by the other one’s weaknesses.

Anyway, I thought the heartache early on allowed for us to see a growth in Cady’s character as she struggled with her identity as an individual, the death of her sister, and the other family issues that abounded.  Bryan was incredibly helpful in that respect.  He seemed pretty sweet.  And he was very instrumental in showing Cady that sometimes, overcoming grief just means taking one more step today than you did yesterday.  I liked that message.

On the flip side, some parts seemed a little too contrived.  There’s a “happy coincidence” with the neighbor that I won’t spoil, which seemed too easy.  And there’s a misunderstanding that could have easily been cleared up if Cady had just listened to the person for 10 seconds, but took up a chapter as she dwelled on the issue.

Overall, it’s a fast read.  It covers great topics of loss and how to move on from that.