Sometimes you read a book that just leaves you a little breathless. One that you go into expecting something and leave having taken a lot more than you thought you would. That was the experience in reading CK Kelly Martin’s latest, My Beating Teenage Heart.
From the beginning of the story, we’re kept distant. We know we’re being talked to by Ashlyn, who is unsure of who she is or where she is. She feels like she’s falling from the atmosphere, but she has no sense of her body or her purpose, but she immediately latches onto Breckon. He’s lying in bed, broken, and she knows that she needs to see his story. For some reason, Ashlyn believes her story is also part of his story, and for her to understand this place she’s in, she needs to follow Breckon.
At this point — after only a couple of chapters — I began envisioning a story much like Amy Huntley’s The Everafter. It’s a similar premise from the beginning, but Martin’s story telling led me to believe she’d take me something different, new and unexplored, and she did.
Ashlyn begins revealing more and more about herself as she begins to see more about Breckon. He’s just lost his sister, but as readers, we’re not savvy as to how she died. He’s in deep mourning, and he blames himself for the loss. Through this blame, Ashlyn experiences moments of complete recollection about her own life. As readers, we learn she’s been through something horrible, something unimaginable. But it’s been so removed from her in this afterlife that she experiences the pain again both within herself and as she begins to understand and sympathize with what Breckon experiences with his sister.
My Beating Teenage Heart is not a straight up contemporary novel, nor is it a strict fantasy. It’s more speculative, and it treads the lines between the two genres. Going into the book is a little overwhelming, but it has to be. Since Ashlyn’s the initial narrator, and since she’s suspended in a place she doesn’t understand, we don’t get a completely clear sense of story from the beginning. But that’s what drives the novel. The topics covered in the story are incredibly emotional, and as readers, we’re able to easily trust Martin to tackle these things gracefully.
I bring up the trust issue because that’s an essential element to making this story work. I’ve read many books with this idea before — where someone begins to piece together their life in the afterlife — but because Ashlyn is easy to immediately connect with and because she so strongly develops an interest in Breckon, who is alive and yet suffering from something earth shattering, I knew the story would travel to somewhere unexpected. And it did. Breckon and Ashlyn have a connection to one another, but it was a completely unexpected and effectively executed.
Martin’s writing style is fluid, and even though we’re given both the voices of Breckon and of Ashlyn, both are believable and dynamic enough to differentiate their stories. I mourned with Breckon, and I mourned with Ashlyn, too. The unraveling of her story in particular is smooth and the suspense building well played. I cared deeply about both of these characters and their stories. Voice is always my biggest power tool in a good book — I can get into any genre if there’s a powerful voice behind the story, and without doubt, My Beating Teenage Heart captures two incredible voices. Even if the story had fallen apart or taken me somewhere I’d been before, I could have forgiven it based on this element alone. Fortunately, we get a story here, too.
Here’s the only spoiler I will give about the book: you’ll need a kleenex or two for the last chapter. The way it comes together is not only powerful, but the language, the sentences, the words — they’re all the big players here. Many readers and writers believe that a lot of writing is itself about the act of writing, and it’s here that Martin really puts the message out there. It’s a hopeful ending, too, though not necessarily one that’s rock solid. It’s a little messy, leaving the reader a bit suspended at the end as well.
Pass this along to your fans of contemporary stories like If I Stay or Before I Die, as well as those who have enjoyed books like Huntley’s The Everafter, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere. This book is powerful and intense, and it is frank in sexual situations, as well as in other difficult to read topics (I won’t mention in detail since they’re all key to the unraveling of the story). Death is a heavy topic here, not a light one, but Martin’s storytelling will satisfy readers. I think this is an easy sell to not only teens, but adult readers, too. My Beating Teenage Heart is easily at the top of my 2011 favorites list.
Review copy received from publisher. My Beating Teenage Heart will be available September 27. Check back Friday for a chance to win a copy here!