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Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Publisher’s description

underNorah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.
Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.
Readers themselves will fall in love with Norah in this poignant, humorous, and deeply engaging portrait of a teen struggling to find the strength to face her demons.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was really a mixed bag for me.

 

We really get to see Norah’s various mental illnesses and how they affect her and her life. We get great, intense descriptions of panic attacks and the urge to harm herself and what it can feel like to have agoraphobia. We see how small her world has become—she has hardly left the house in four years. We see her have multiple therapy sessions in various places. We are right there with Norah in her panic and fear and distress. Gornall’s writing, for the most part, is great. The writing is also funny. Though Norah’s a wreck who is often really caught up in fighting against her own brain, she’s also really self-aware and clever. She’s funny and gives good banter.

 

Norah’s mental illnesses are BAD. They are in no way under control. Yes, she’s in therapy, but often it has to be at her house or in her mom’s car because she can’t get as far as the clinic. Just stepping one toe past her front door is terrifying. She’s unmedicated. She’s hoping to keep depression at bay and often gives in to the urge to harm herself. All of this, and her mother leaves her alone while she travels for work. Really? Yes, she’s 17, but she’s NOT OKAY. She should not be alone. And her mom’s two day trip turns into a week or more when she gets in some mysterious car accident that requires multiple days in the hospital and feels completely unrealistic/never satisfactorily explained. All of this is to say, as a person who both battles mental illness and parents another human with mental illness, I wanted her to be taken better care of. Yelling at her mom for leaving her alone took me out of the book. But, seeing her alone is what makes us really understand how bad her panic attacks and agoraphobia are.

 

Then there’s Luke, the new neighbor boy. At first all Norah can really do is spy on him from the windows. Then they start talking through the door (closed and open). It’s pretty much insta-like. Norah is consumed with thinking about him, considering her appearance (after lots of time not really worrying about it). She forgets therapy appointments because her head is so in the clouds. She feels something small and awake inside of her thanks to him. He adorably slips notes through her front door when she can’t handle talking. She describes him as “10 percent human, 90 percent charisma” and she’s right. He feels too good to be true. It’s not that I don’t think there isn’t a chance that a charming and super understanding boy could fall for a girl who can hardly interact with other humans, but Luke just doesn’t feel real. He’s too good. And, while he doesn’t magically or instantly cure her, it very much does feel like Luke, and love, do save her and speed up her progress in ways that other things can’t. The hopeful ending is necessary, but also feels rather unbelievable.

 

So. Like I said, mixed bag. Here’s the thing: minus the “love will fix you” story line and the worrisome fact that I think Norah needs way more care than she’s getting, this is a good book. It’s well-written. It’s amusing. The clever banter between Norah and Luke and Norah and her mother is good. But I am a hard one to please when it comes to mental health plots. I want to see good work being done in multiple ways. And it IS being done here, but I really felt the story needed more. Norah is VERY UNWELL. You can tell, even without reading Gornall’s author’s note about her own mental health experiences, that she knows what she’s writing about. I really wanted to feel like there was more to Norah than just her mental illness. And, most importantly, I want her to get better because of what she’s doing and for her own sake, not because of a boy. I don’t know that any of these issues were a flaw in the story or writing, necessarily, so much as my own desire for more out of Norah, for more concern over her mental health.

 

All of that said, I hope this book finds an audience because of its vivid and powerful descriptions of what living with mental illness can be like. And while I wanted more out of this book than I got, I really did enjoy the writing and look forward to future books from Gornall. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544736511

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Book Review: The Truth of Right Now by Kara Lee Corthron

Publisher’s description

truthTwo isolated teens struggle against their complicated lives to find a true connection in this heartwrenching debut novel about first love and the wreckage of growing up.

Lily is returning to her privileged Manhattan high school after a harrowing end to her sophomore year and it’s not pretty. She hates chemistry and her spiteful lab partner, her friends are either not speaking to her or suffocating her with concerned glances, and nothing seems to give her joy anymore. Worst of all, she can’t escape her own thoughts about what drove her away from everyone in the first place.

Enter Dari (short for Dariomauritius), the artistic and mysterious transfer student, adept at cutting class. Not that he’d rather be at home with his domineering Trinidadian father. Dari is everything that Lily needs: bright, creative, honest, and unpredictable. And in a school where no one really stands out, Dari finds Lily’s sensitivity and openness magnetic. Their attraction ignites immediately, and for the first time in what feels like forever, Lily and Dari find happiness in each other.

In twenty-first-century New York City, the fact that Lily is white and Dari is black shouldn’t matter that much, but nothing’s as simple as it seems. When tragedy becomes reality, can friendship survive even if romance cannot?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This was my first 2017 read and it was a great one to kick off the new year. You know how last year I was in a horrible reading slump and kept saying that the only stories grabbing me were ones that felt fresh and new, stories that felt like ones we just weren’t seeing enough of? That’s still holding true. And this one roped me in right away because Dari and Lily’s stories are so important. Any story that addresses race as much as this one does is always going to be relevant, not to mention still relatively rare.

 

Lily is not excited for another school year to start. We know she tried to kill herself and we know stories are swirling about her that have made her an outcast/shamed, but the reader doesn’t know right away what happened. I’ll leave it up to you to read that part of her story, but suffice it to say it’s pretty horrific and infuriating. Other than being the object of her classmates’ derision, she’s basically invisible. Her few friends weren’t there for her when she needed them and now Lily can’t really see the point of pretending to get along with anyone–that is, until she meets Dari.

 

Dari generally has his head stuck in his sketchbook or is ditching what he feels are classes that don’t challenge him. Their friendship initially is very much that of two kids who don’t have anyone else but seem content to be kind of quiet and distantly friends in school. But that doesn’t last long, especially for Lily, who pretty quickly develops more intense feelings for Dari. Dari holds her at a bit of a distance. He’s recently broken up with his older girlfriend and spends most of his time at home trying not to piss off his abusive father. After his sister leaves home to move in with her girlfriend, Dari decides to start to push back against his father’s violence, and that’s when the story really takes off. Dari’s father changes the locks to their apartment and Dari temporarily moves in with Lily and her mother. Lily and Dari grow closer and slowly reveal more of their pasts to each other, though there is still much held back and that leads to confusion and hurt feelings.

 

Lily is still reeling over the incidents of the past year and not particularly addressing her mental health needs. She’s tried therapy before and has very negative feelings about therapy and being medicated for her depression. She agrees to see a new therapist for a month and, while still reluctant to talk or get help, has some success. It’s through therapy that we learn more of Lily’s past as her therapist has her keep a journal where she can tell her story. Lily’s mom desperately wants to be a “cool mom” and is part of the problem. She’s a self-help writer trying to work on her second book, after an extremely successful first book, but rather oblivious how to actually help her own kid (or herself, as we see later in the story when she makes a particularly bad choice). Things at school get worse for Lily when a lewd picture of her begins to circulate.

 

Dari is trying to figure out what he will do now that he left home. He figures he can’t crash at Lily’s forever. He’s into Lily, but things just feel too complicated to start dating her, especially now that he’s living with her and her mom. That doesn’t stop Dari and Lily from hooking up, but he’s upfront all the time about how he feels (much to Lily’s dismay). Both Lily and Dari reveal that they are quick to get upset over things and both have violent tendencies. Their lives get pretty tangled up, with Lily looking to Dari for some sense of belonging and happiness and Dari trying to be careful of her feelings as he tries to work out his own stuff. Despite often holding back (and in some cases lying) with each other, they have many honest conversations about their personal lives, particularly about race. Lily is white and Jewish and Dari is black. We see Dari get stopped and frisked at one point for no reason. There are just some things that Lily doesn’t understand about Dari’s life. This comes to a head when they have a public argument and police show up. A pissed off Lily walks away and makes a thoughtless remark to the cops—one that has enormous consequences for Dari.

 

This intense story does not shy away from looking hard at racism, mental illness, the thing from Lily’s past that I’m not spoiling, and people making really horrible choices. Alternating viewpoints give the reader more of a peek into Dari and Lily’s minds and help keep the emotional tension high. This was one of those books where I read it as a nearly 40-year-old adult and just keep thinking about how *young* these characters are. They go through so much–things no one should have to go through at any age.  I have already flipped back a couple of times to read the very end, where Corthron gives the reader one last harsh truth. This isn’t always an easy read, but it’s absolutely an important one. Read this one and be ready to talk about racism, violence, sexual choices, and the many ways adults in this story screw up and damage the children in this book. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481459471

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 01/03/2017

Medication, Depression, and I Was Here

Generally speaking, I save my rants for Twitter and not blogging. I try to be more measured and professional in blogging (or writing reviews in other places). That said, yesterday while reading Gayle Forman’s I Was Here, I had some thoughts of the ranting variety that I shared. You can see them in the Storify I made. The link for that is here—I’m having to improvise and paste the tweets in below because of formatting issues.  I am just sharing my thoughts, but you can go to my timeline to see more of the conversations happening if you’re interested.

 

 

  • 102 pages into I Was Here, considering skimming the rest. I’m bored. Assuming she starts hooking up w Ben soon & changing his bad boy ways.
  • Oh good–page 109: taking medicine for mental health issues = feeling nothing.
  • I’m going to keep reading bc some of the pals in my YA book group have messaged me about this book and I’m already wanting that discussion.
  • Oh good–referencing Brave New World and Soma. Is this the new thing to do? Neat.
  • It IS a fucking “act of bravery to feel yr feelings.” Thanks, medicine, for 19 yrs of letting me feel my feelings instead of constant panic
  • I’m medicated. Many of my closest friends are medicated. None of us got help until late teens or adulthood.
  • This medication as numbing agent/crutch/failure attitude is not new. But good god, someone help teens learn that this isn’t true.
  • You know why my own kid is medicated for anxiety? Because I won’t sit back and let him suffer when there are medicines that do SO MUCH GOOD
  • Cody should shove Ben out of the van. He’s a douche who thinks she should be flattered by “but yr not a girl… Not that kind.” Get bent.
  • Mostly I am just yelling at everyone in the last few pages of I Was Here.
  • Stigma. Saddled. Kept quiet. BOOK, I AM YELLING AT YOU.
  • I’m picturing Meg “resting” hidden away in a room with yellow wallpaper.
  • “I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.”–Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

Obviously the part that bothered me was the attitude toward taking medication for depression. I’ve talked about this issue before with Cynthia Hand’s The Last Time We Say Goodbye in my Sunday Reflections post, “Mental Health Medications Are Not Your Enemy.” Unlike in Hand’s book, Forman addresses this anti-medication attitude in an author’s note. She writes, “Thankfully, there are treatments, usually a mix of mood-stabilizing medications and therapy. Refusing treatment for depression or a mood disorder is akin to getting a pneumonia diagnosis and refusing to take antibiotics and go on bed rest.” I GREATLY appreciate that Forman includes this, and that she includes links for learning about warning signs and risk factors for suicide, as well as resources for helplines and websites. I do not think Forman is in any way saying that medication is indeed bad, but her character is, and her character is who we see. Will most readers go on to read the author’s note I quoted from? I always read them, but I’m not so sure everyone else does. Will that author’s note erase the damaging message that medications make you  “feel nothing”? Maybe I would not have gotten so bent out of shape if I hadn’t just weeks ago read the Hand book, which put forth these same ideas about “feeling nothing” and also likened medications to Soma from Brave New World. Can this please not be a new trend in YA lit? Because I don’t like it.

 

I want readers to really pay attention at the end of the book (SPOILERS COMING) where Meg’s parents confess to Cody (her best friend) that Meg suffered from depression and had since 10th grade. They put her on antidepressants. Meg improved on them and then wanted to go off of them. Her parents advised her otherwise, telling her depression is not “something that visits once and disappears.” She took medicine. It worked. While she was on it, it worked. But medicine doesn’t keep working if you stop taking it, which is what Meg did. So if she KNEW medications worked for her in the past, why didn’t she pursue them while at college? Why did she assume she would “feel nothing”?

 

To further compound my issues, this nearly final scene of the book, where Cody is talking to Meg’s parents, we learn that, yes, Meg suffered from depression. How did her best friend in the world not know? Well, Meg’s parents decided to keep it quiet. They worried about “saddling” her with the “stigma” of it in a small town. Her parents admit they thought what they were doing was the best thing–implying, I think, that they no longer think that hiding their daughter away and turning her depression into a shameful secret that she needs to keep even from her best friend was the best way to deal with it.

 

I want the takeaway from this book to be that Meg’s parents in fact did not deal with their daughter’s depression well. They got her help, which is wonderful, but they added to the stigma by insisting on keeping it quiet. I want the takeaway to be that when Meg was on medication, it worked, she was getting better, and it was worth being medicated. Instead of pretending to have mono and be holed away in her room, she was able to function again. Will those things be the takeaways? I don’t know.

 

I’m not the first or only person to take issue with how depression and medication is presented in this book (or in recent books in general). I urge you to go read Liz Anderson’s review of I Was Here, which spawned some fantastic conversations on Twitter this morning about mental health, therapy, and medications. There were many, MANY voices adding their thoughts. I suggest checking out this morning’s tweets from  @catagator, @CarrieMesrobian, @CoreyAnnHaydu@aswatki1, @bibliogato, @lizpatanders, and @amydieg. This post is definitely more rant-based than an actual review, but the book helped bring on some fantastic conversations about these issues and I’m grateful for everyone on Twitter who is talking so honestly about mental health treatment. We need to keep having these conversations, whether in reaction to things we didn’t like in books or not, not just on Twitter, but everywhere.

 

For further thoughts on depression, anxiety, medication, and lit, check out the links below. Know of more posts on these topics? PLEASE share them with us in the comments–I’ll update the link list as we find more. 

Alex Townsend’s review of All The Bright Places on Disability in Kidlit 

Liz Anderson at Consumed By Books review of I Was Here

Reading, Depression, and Me by Kelly Jensen at Book Riot

Maggie Tiede’s “Popping Pills: Mental Illness Medications in YA and Why They Matter” at Disability in Kidlit. 

Cindy L. Rodriguez’s “Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community” on Latin@s in Kid Lit. 

 

Have thoughts on this book or this topic? Please leave us a comment. We value your opinions and input. 

Book review: Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor

In Melissa Kantor’s Better Than Perfect, 17-year-old Juliet seems to have it all. She lives a privileged life, she’s been dating her boyfriend, Jason, for four years, and they’re both on track to go to Harvard. But after her parents split up and her dad moves out, her mother spirals. Juliet knows her mom has Good Days and Bad Days, but doesn’t really have any idea just how bad things have gotten for her mother until she finds her passed out on the bathroom floor after having overdosed on some pills. Later that night, Juliet makes out with Declan, a cute boy in a band, which sets in motion many weeks of self-analysis. Unfortunately for Juliet, this period of reassessing what she actually wants in life comes while she’s living with Jason and his family, who have taken her in while her mother is institutionalized. Suddenly, that 2400 on her SATs and future that looks all planned out doesn’t look like the thing she’s worked for and wanted—it looks stifling. Juliet is forced to consider if her family was ever actually happy, just how miserable her mother has been, and if being “perfect” is all it’s cracked up to be.

 

This realistic look at the pressures teenagers put on themselves both to be high-achieving and to somehow get their whole lives figured out by 18 follows a predictable path, but readers will root for Juliet to finally make her own choices. Secondary characters are not as well-developed as Juliet is—some of the friends mentioned may as well not exist—and Juliet never fully owns up to the mistakes she’s made, but that sort of blindness/self-absorption fits with her character.

 

Also, though her mother is clearly suffering from mental illness, this is not a book about mental illness very much. Yes, it’s a little about how it affects Juliet (she has to live with Jason, it forces her to interact with her father, she worries about her mother, she starts to take stock of her life), but the mental illness is mostly off the page. Her mom is “sick” and “sad” and apparently had been abusing her pills/drinking with them. She’s briefly institutionalized and the doctors mess with her meds, but much of her story is left to the imagination. Again—this is Juliet’s story. The ending isn’t tidy—there are a lot of unknowns still in her life and relationships that will need work—but what in life ever is?

 

Overachievers who’ve ever considered stepping off the path will relish Juliet’s journey to finding out who she really is.

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062279231
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date
: 2/17/2015

In the most recent issue of SLJ

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

Gr 9 Up—Fig is six years old and spends a lot of time worrying about her mother, Annie. Her mother talks of fairy land, feral dogs lurking in the woods, and the importance of rituals. It is only after her mother attempts suicide that Fig learns the truth: her mother is schizophrenic. The story unfolds over the next 11 years, detailing the many ways Annie’s schizophrenia changes her and affects her family. Through it all, Fig remains determined to save her mother. She begins sacrificing trinkets, thinking this will somehow make her mother get well. She also sacrifices her own needs and creates a Calendar of Ordeals, dictating what she must refrain from each day. The teen exhibits many troubling behaviors and is eventually diagnosed with OCD, but her health is overlooked as the focus remains on her increasingly unwell mother. Fig is often left in the care of her icy grandmother and has no support system. When her uncle catches her cutting herself, she is relieved that someone finally sees her and will hold her accountable, but Fig never stops thinking she can save her mother. This beautifully written story is a painful look at mental illness. An element of fantasy weaves throughout the narrative, with Annie’s tenuous grip on reality and Fig’s magical thinking, and references to fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland abound. This dense, literary tale starts slowly, but builds to become an incredibly haunting story about mental illness and family bonds.