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Book Review: Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza

Publisher’s description

ra6For fans of Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, Emery Lord’s When We Collided, and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl,Anna Priemaza’s debut novel is a heartwarming and achingly real story of finding a friend, being a fan, and defining your place in a difficult world.

Kat and Meg couldn’t be more different. Kat’s anxiety makes it hard for her to talk to people. Meg hates being alone, but her ADHD keeps pushing people away. But when the two girls are thrown together for a year-long science project, they discover they do have one thing in common: They’re both obsessed with the same online gaming star and his hilarious videos.

It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship—if they don’t kill each other first.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

katKat is new to Alberta and starting grade 10. Being the new girl is extra hard for Kat, who has anxiety and panic attacks. She tries to stay off everyone’s radar, ducking quickly through halls and hiding out in the library during lunch. At least in the library, she can play Legends of the Stone, her favorite game. Online is where she feels comfortable.

Meg is an extremely charismatic extrovert who has ADHD and has bounced around between friends and is currently mostly friendless. She’s one of only a few black kids in school, chatters nonstop, doesn’t do well in her classes, and is into skateboarding and watching LumberLegs play Legends of the Stone on YouTube.

The two pair up for a science project and, while it’s clear their styles of working (or not working, in Meg’s case) are not going to mesh easily, they bond over LumberLegs and LotS. Meg makes sure they start hanging out, not just getting together to work on their science project, and they start playing LotS online together, too. Meg is a lot for Kat to handle—she’s erratic, wants to make Kat socialize more, and just so full of frantic energy. Kat loves order, predictability, pro/con lists, and hiding out alone. Neither girl reveals her diagnosis to the other, though thanks to the symptoms of ADHD and anxiety, it’s pretty obvious. But not talking about the different ways their brains work and how that affects them makes their friendship all the more complicated, muddying up communication and making for hurt feelings. They have such different goals and concerns. Kat would like to win the science fair, keep playing online with the few people she feels comfortable text chatting with, and be friends with Meg but also be left to her own devices as far as being social. Meg desperately wants to go to LotsCON, to find people in her life who stick around (struggling to figure out friends, her boyfriend, and her relationship with her ex-stepdad), and just be herself without also feeling so bad about who and how she is.

 

I don’t presume to actually know what it’s like to live with ADHD. BUT, my son has ADHD, so I do have a fairly good grasp on what it looks like, if not necessarily what it feels like. This story is not really about the ins and outs of ADHD or anxiety/panic disorder. Kat mentions a counselor who didn’t really help her. Meg is on medication. That’s about the extent of any medical/therapy discussions. But, this story is very much about the day-to-day experiences of both ADHD and anxiety. Meg’s inability to focus, to follow through, to live up to her potential, to complete assignments, to remember details, to think through impulsive choices all ring very true. And, as someone who enjoys the roller coaster of fun that is anxiety disorder and panic attacks, I can definitely say that all seems legit, too. Though their friendship isn’t necessarily easy, it is genuine, and more than anything, that’s what this story is about—finding true friendship and showing your real self to someone else. The alternate narration lets readers into the heads of both girls, really showing how they feel about themselves and their lives. While coincidence brings them together and a shared fandom kicks off their friendship, it’s their deep affection for one another and their eventual honesty that really cements their relationship. A fun book about conquering your fears and finding friendship when your own brain sometimes feels like your worst enemy. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062560803
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/07/2017

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

#MHYALit: Anxiety Disorder, My Son, and Me

MHYALitlogoofficfialThere are lots of things my son Callum and I have in common. We both like Converse. We love Harry Potter. We both wear glasses. And we both have anxiety disorder. While I often really, really hate my own anxiety, it has been extremely useful to have first-hand experience when it comes to needing to parent, support, and calm Callum.
 
 

A little history:

 

I’m 38. I’ve been medicated for twenty years. I probably should have been medicated for, like, ten years before that. I was a high-strung, anxious kid, a total perfectionist. My natural state was to work hard, expect to do well, and be hard on myself if I felt I didn’t do well on something. That alone made for plenty of anxious feelings. I heard the same things so many of us heard—You worry too much. You overthink things. It will be fine. Don’t worry about it. My anxiety would kick in when we had tests or projects. I hated being left home alone because I was so nervous about every noise (growing up as the kid of the high school principal, and having our house routinely vandalized didn’t help my fear). Through high school my anxiety worsened. I was fine speaking up in class about things if it was my own choosing, but being called on stirred up instant panic. But mostly, there was no obvious cause. No correlation. No clear trigger. I felt anxious all the damn time, for what generally felt like no reason. I got so used to having panic attacks–hearing my blood whooshing in my ears, feeling like I couldn’t breathe, feeling my muscles tighten up, having my heart race–that I kind of stopped thinking they were weird and just accepted that it was how I was built. I didn’t know anything different and no one was telling me that there was any other way to be. I sort of lived in flight-or-fight mode. It was exhausting.

 

And speaking of exhausting, I also kind of stopped sleeping. As many of us who suffer from anxiety know, bedtime is the brain’s favorite time to start screaming every single worry at you so loudly that sleep is impossible. I’d read, make mix tapes, write letters, work on my zine, watch tv, do anything but sleep. My dad would get up at like 5 and find me still awake downstairs and tell me how ridiculous it was that I was awake. Like I didn’t know. My first year after college, I worked overnights at a gas station (it was one of two things open all night in my tiny hometown, and in retrospect seems like not the safest choice I’ve ever made) simply because I’d then get home and be so exhausted I had to sleep.

 

I never really talked to my parents about any of this. I never really talked to anyone about it, back then. Outside of sometimes knowing someone who tried to kill themselves—or successfully did so—mental health wasn’t a topic that any of us were really openly talking about when I was in high school. But when I graduated high school and was going to move for college, I decided I had to do something or suspected I would spend my entire freshman year hiding in my dorm room and hoping my anxiety would just disappear. At my appointment I explained my symptoms and my doctor was like, oh, sure, you have generalized anxiety disorder. And panic disorder. And probably some social anxiety. Oh… yes. That all sounded right. I started medication and felt pretty much okay. I still had some panic attacks. I still was a worrywart perfectionist, but I don’t think medication can change that for me.

 

I changed medications a handful of times over all those years. Now, I take Elavil every night, have Klonopin for panic attacks, and have a beta blocker also for helping with panic attacks. My anxiety has remained more or less in check and predictable. I don’t like change or uncertainty. I don’t handle unexpected events well. My brain likes to grab onto small “mistakes” or hurts and put them on a continuous loop through my thoughts. When I had to add in new meds for my panic attacks, my doctor told me that my anxiety included “obsessive rumination,” which is exactly what it sounds like–the inability to stop thinking about things. You can image the implosion in my brain when my dad was killed in a car accident in December 2012. One of my biggest fears is driving. If I’m driving in a place I know well, I’m good. But I’ve always felt scared to be traveling along in this metal box and hoping everyone else in their metal boxes is paying attention. Having my dad die how he did was extra bad for my anxiety. I was literally incapable of being able to stop picturing what happened, especially after my grandma read me the coroner’s report (something I really wish she had not done, but she’s had 3 of her 4 adult children die–cancer, suicide, car crash–and I wasn’t about to shut her down). I was a wreck. My panic attacks became so bad I would shake like I was in hypothermic shock. I cried so much the salt from my tears made all the skin around my eyes raw for months. It was horrible.

 

It was around this time that Callum’s anxiety started to manifest. He was 6. He shares essentially all of my same symptoms and diagnoses. Thanks to my own experience, I started to notice his symptoms and began rounds with doctors. We did some testing and got him diagnosed. He has been in and out of therapy for nearly 4 years. He’s been medicated for about 1.5 years and his day-to-day anxiety is lower. His anxiety was getting in the way of his performance at school because he would spend so much of his energy being nervous and worrying about what was coming next that he would not be able to hear what was happening (his anxious mind basically worrying too loudly for him to catch instructions etc). He still has the occasional panic attack. But now he has an arsenal of words to use, techniques to try, and a steady stream of medicine to help even out those anxious moments.

 

Here’s the thing: I know how he feels. And I know the stigma that still exists. We have always treated his anxiety as just another part of him. We talk openly about it. We talk about how helpful therapy and medication are. We talk about how there’s no shame in saying that you have anxiety disorder (or any other mental health challenge). When we were at my best friend Kelly’s house one night, we were having a bonfire. It was late and dark and her son kept making howling wolf noises (something that has scared Callum since forever). Callum started to get uncomfortable and turned to me and said, “I’m having a panic attack and need to go home now.” Just like that. And as Kelly walked us back to the house, she said to Callum, “I totally get it. You know, I have anxiety disorder, too.” Factual. Open. Empathizing.

 

I never feel that my mental illness is a “gift.” It’s not. I’d gladly be rid of it. Outside of sometimes making me extra productive, it does nothing for me that I’d want to keep. But the ability to empathize with my child, to so bone deep understand how he feels, and to know how to help him is a gift. When he panics, I don’t say “don’t worry about it” or “it will be fine” or “just stop thinking about it.” I say, “Let’s talk about it if you want to. Yeah, that really sucks. It’s so hard to not feel like that. What can I do to help? What will make this feel less scary?” I know when he needs to get back in with his therapist. I know when medication seems like it needs to be changed. And the other night, when he had a crying meltdown over turning 10 (“I don’t want to get older. You’re getting older and will die someday. I don’t want to be without you. I want to stay little. Everyone in our family dies young. What if the movers lose all of our things? What if no one at my new school likes me?”) and it spiraled into an existential crisis over EVERYTHING, I got it. One worry reveals 90 worries. One thought makes 90 thoughts start shouting at us. And rational discussion or understanding does not do anything to dissipate what’s happening in his brain. But we talked. And found distractions. And called it what it was–a panic attack–and noted how much anxiety sucks.

 

He has to grow up with the burden of mental illness. I can’t change that. But I can damn well make sure he grows up knowing that he is supported, making sure that he gets the treatment he needs, and helping him understand there is no such thing as normal and that there is NO shame in how his brain is built.

Book Review: How It Ends by Catherine Lo

Publisher’s description

how it endsThere are two sides to every story.
It’s friends-at-first-sight for Jessie and Annie, proving the old adage that opposites attract. Shy, anxious Jessie would give anything to have Annie’s beauty and confidence. And Annie thinks Jessie has the perfect life, with her close-knit family and killer grades. They’re BFFs . . . until suddenly they’re not. Told through alternating points of view, How It Ends is the story of a friendship from first meeting to breakup, set against a tumultuous sophomore year of bullying, boys, and backstabbing.

Catherine Lo makes her debut with an honest, nuanced tale about the intricacies of female friendship.

 

 

Amanda‘s thoughts

I always want more YA friendship stories. Friendship, especially in high school, can be so messy. You can grow close so fast, or get ditched, or have fights, or change friend groups, or be obsessed with each other. There’s a lot of ebb and flow to teen friendships. Lo captures all of those things in this look at Jessie and Annie’s sophomore year.

 

Smart, studious Jessie suffers from “terminal loneliness.” Made into an outcast by her former friend and now mean girl, Courtney, Jessie has put up with years of being called “Lezzie Longbottom” and being otherwise ignored by her classmates. Isolated Jessie has anxiety, depression, and frequent panic attacks. Her mother has done a lot to try to “fix” Jessie over the years–therapists, medication, etc–everything, that is, except really talk to her. Jessie feigns interest in video games and comics so she can linger on the periphery of a group at lunchtime, but hasn’t had a real friend in years.

 

Annie is new to town and hates her new life in suburbia. She doesn’t get along with her new stepmom and her stepsister basically ignores her. Annie spies Jessie that first day at school and thinks she’s “beautifully uncool.” That’s all it takes to draw her to Jessie. Jessie thinks Annie is the coolest person ever and can’t understand why she’d want to be friends with her. The girls instantly become best friends. But before long, Annie grows friendly with the girls who’ve bullied Jessie in the past and starts to pull away from Jessie. “We don’t have to do everything together,” she tells her.

 

During their time drifting apart, both girls experience big things. Annie begins to date Scott, who Jessie has a crush on (and a lot of STUFF goes on with that relationship). Jessie’s anxiety, depression, and panic attacks ramp up. She’s constantly sneaking pills to help calm her down. It’s her own prescription, but her mother keeps the pills locked up and doles them out sparingly, the idea being that Jessie should learn how to cope with her anxiety, not need pills to get her through the things that make her anxious (like sitting with the mean girls at lunch). Jessie’s mental health issues become a big part of the story. She desperately wants to keep her issues a secret (a feeling that no doubt stems from her mother’s less-than-helpful understanding of anxiety, being medicated, and feeling ashamed). Her mother encourages her to tell Annie what’s going on to help “explain” some of how she’s been behaving. Yes, her anxiety colors some of how she behaves and reacts, but her mother seems to think that Jessie’s mental health struggles are responsible for the fallout of this friendship. As you might guess, I don’t really love how mental health is addressed here. Her mother goes about things in the wrong way. She’s encouraging shame and stigma and the notion that needing medication is some kind of failing. Then, her mother makes a REALLY BAD CHOICE and suddenly Jessie’s secret is out. And before long, Annie’s big secret is out too (avoiding spoilers here, people). Both girls become victims of rumors and gossip (in high school? No way!) and make repeated attempts to reconcile their friendship, but it isn’t that simple anymore.

 

For the most part, I liked this book. I did want to see more of just how Annie and Jessie become so close. They’re kind of instantly and inexplicably drawn to each other (which definitely happens in real life) and we’re told they’re best friends, but I wanted to see more of how that happened. We know time passes because we’re told it does, but I felt like we missed huge chunks of the time they’re growing closer. I did appreciate how swiftly and thoroughly their friendship fell apart—that felt very real—and getting to see how each girl reacted and what each did while not friends with the other. I really felt for Annie and the things she has to go through basically alone and the way she ends up very ostracized and angry. I also empathized with Jessie, who is more or less all alone without Annie and uncertain how to get through her days without panic attacks taking over. The girls’ story isn’t simple—it’s not like they’re friends and then they’re just not. Lo presents a nuanced look at friendship and shows how their pasts and their home lives affect them. A thoughtful look at the ways friendships can start, end, and all the things in between.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544540064

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 06/07/2016

Book Review: Liars and Losers Like Us by Ami Allen-Vath

Publisher’s description

liarsKeep calm and make it to prom night—without a legit panic attack.

For seventeen-year-old Bree Hughes, it’s easier said than done when gossip, grief, and the opportunity to fail at love are practically high-fiving her in the hallways of Belmont High.

When Bree’s crush, Sean Mills, gives her his phone number, she can’t even leave a voicemail without sounding like a freak. Then she’s asked to be on Prom Court because Maisey Morgan, the school outcast nominated as a joke, declined. She apologizes to Maisey, but it’s too late. After years of torment and an ugly secret shared with their class’s cruel Pageant Queen, Maisey commits suicide. Bree is left with a lot of regret…and a revealing letter with a final request.

With Sean by her side, Bree navigates through her guilt, her parents’ divorce, and all the Prom Court drama. But when a cheating-love-triangle secret hits the fan after a night of sex, drinks, and video games, she’s left with new information about Sean and the class Pageant Queen. Bree must now speak up or stay silent. If she lets fear be her guide, she’ll lose her first love, and head to prom to avenge the death of the school outcast—as a party of one.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved this book. It was the perfect mix of funny and serious. Minus the more serious themes, it would have just been a fish-out-of-water prom story, which I would’ve been fine with. But it rises above that (sometimes tired) idea and becomes a more widely appealing story with the addition of some complicated storylines. Mexican-American Minnesota teenager Bree Hughes never expects to grab the attention of her crush, Sean, nor does she expect to get elected to the prom court. It seems like lots of unexpected things are suddenly happening in Bree’s life. After years of fighting, her parents have recently gotten divorced. She’s getting into arguments with Kallie, her best friend, and keeping things from her. She’s becoming friends with the popular crowd. Perhaps most unexpected is the letter Maisey, her classmate who dies from suicide, leaves for her. We don’t know much about the letter until the very end of the book, but it’s intense.

 

Bree also suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, something she doesn’t necessarily think she needs help for. Her mother makes an appointment for her with a therapist, but Bree doesn’t see the point in going. Never mind that her panic attacks are debilitating and don’t exactly seem to be going away on their own. When she reluctantly goes to the appointment, she realizes how helpful therapy could be and changes her mind about needing help. It’s a wonderful look at someone being resistant to help, wondering what good it could possibly do to sit and talk to someone, who comes to understand how beneficial mental health care is.

 

Despite dealing with some serious issues, there’s also lots of romance in this story. Bree is so awkward and nervous at the beginning of her relationship with Sean. Their relationship grows in a very believable way. The large cast of secondary characters means there’s plenty of opportunity for drama, cheating, lying, and backstabbing. Bree and her (new) friends prove that what you see is not always the same as what’s going on underneath the surface. Secrets are revealed that show many people in new lights. Maisey’s letter, finally revealed in its entirety at the end of the story, packs a powerful punch as she writes about popularity, cruelty, bullying, and painful secrets. A smart and satisfying read.

 

Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781634501842

Publisher: Sky Pony Press

Publication date: 03/22/2016

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

symptomsPublisher’s description:

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. But Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in über-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s really like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. And Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

From debut author Jeff Garvin comes a powerful and uplifting portrait of a modern teen struggling with high school, relationships, and what it means to be a person.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Well, that extremely thorough summary up there really hits most of the main pieces of this story. This is 100% the story of a gender fluid teen. That fact is at the heart of every piece of this plot. We read the term “gender fluid” over and over again as we learn exactly what that means to Riley. Readers who are unfamiliar with what being gender fluid means (or means to one person) will walk away with a pretty complex picture of this identity .

 

Riley is starting at a new school. Riley’s father is a congressman, which matters because he’s up for re-election and needs Riley to attend fundraisers and help his campaign by not rocking the boat further. Riley has recently attempted suicide and had a recovery stint in a psychiatric hospital. Riley’s anxiety  and panic attacks are still a constant, but medication and therapy are helping with that. Riley hopes to start over at the new school, but is instantly called “it” or “tranny” and other slurs. “Is that a girl, or a guy?” kids whisper in the hall. It would appear that judgmental teenagers looking to figure out how they should categorize a person are all over the place. Go figure.

 

Riley makes two good friends, Solo (Jason Solomona) and Bec (self-named because of her prominent nose, “bec” being French for “beak”), though their friendships start out tenuously. Riley starts an anonymous blog as a way to connect with “people like me,” a suggestion from Riley’s therapist. The blog quickly gains traffic, especially after one of Riley’s replies to a reader goes viral when something unexpected happens. Riley is scared that someone will discover the blog and out Riley, but the community found there is too good to turn away from. Of course, you can probably see where this is going, right? Riley’s dad is a high-profile congressman. Riley is already being bullied at school. Riley isn’t out to Riley’s parents yet. Expect things to fall apart, especially when it appears that Riley has a stalker on the blog who may know Riley’s true identity.

 

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. Riley spends a lot of time talking/thinking about being gender fluid. Riley talks about feeling neutral, or feeling more “boy” or “girl” on certain days, or “both” or “neither.” Riley talks about the body dysphoria and the various ways it makes Riley feel when Riley shifts between identities. There is a lot going on here about gender, identity, and assumptions, not just with Riley but with some secondary characters in the book, both at the support group Riley attends and at school. Solo and Bec are great characters—particularly Solo (who refers to himself as “the three-hundred-pound brown kid with the furry Chewbacca backpack”). He’s an absolutely fantastic character. Part of the football team, Solo, who initially really seemed to connect with Riley, falls to the pressure of his jerk peers. He doesn’t make fun of Riley or hurl slurs, but he distances himself from Riley and doesn’t stand up to his peers right away. It doesn’t take long for him to ditch that attitude, though, and be a real friend to Riley. As far as enemies go, the biggest one is Jim Vickers, the football-playing a-hole who goes out of his way to bully and threaten Riley. Things go from bad to worse (to really, really a lot worse) with him.

 

Riley’s anxiety and panic attacks are also described in great detail. We see Riley getting help through therapy, medication (complete with adjusting doses as things change and having backup medication for the particularly bad moments), and learning techniques to try to stave off anxiety—things like deep breathing, visualization, and more. We see how horrible the panic attacks can be. Riley is open about them and their affects. Mental health issues are also addressed with the character of Bec’s mom, who is deeply depressed after a tragic incident in their family.

 

Though the novel is about a lot of very serious things, Riley’s wry humor and easy banter with Bec and Solo help lighten the tone. Though Riley struggles with coming to terms with this identity and sharing it with others, Riley has a lot of support. Riley has compassionate friends, a caring online community, people in the support group who can relate, and loving (if sometimes judgmental and not understanding) parents.

 

The novel starts with a blog post. “The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl.” Of course, since Riley is gender fluid, we know those labels don’t apply or only sometimes apply. Garvin manages to successfully avoid all pronouns for Riley or any other indications of what gender Riley was assigned at birth, helping drive home points about identity. An author’s note discusses where the idea for this book came from as well as offers resources on gender identity, anxiety, and depression. I have many pages of notes on this book and feel like this is a really rambling review, but there was just so much going on in this book. Here’s the takeaway from this review: THIS GREAT BOOK WITH A GENDER FLUID MAIN CHARACTER EXISTS. IT’S GREAT. THE WRITING IS GREAT. LOTS OF STUFF HAPPENS. THERE IS A LOT TO THINK ABOUT. GO GET IT!

Riley’s story is an important one and one we haven’t seen much of yet in YA. I hope The Symptoms of Being Human finds it way to the shelves of every library that serves teenagers. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062382863

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 02/02/2016

 

Book Review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

Publisher’s description:

underwaterMorgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive-first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then, herself. But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school. When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside. Underwater is a powerful, hopeful debut novel about redemption, recovery, and finding the strength it takes to face your past and move on.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

Oof. What an intense read. Morgan has been home, isolated, for months, ever since the shooting at her high school. Her debilitating panic attacks mean she can’t even conceive of being able to cross the threshold of her front door and go out into the world ever again. She does online school, takes comfort in routine and predictability, and is visited twice a week by a psychologist. When Evan Kokua moves in next door, he seems determined to be friends with her. Not only that, he doesn’t really seem fazed by the fact that she’s essentially a shut-in. At first she’s defensive and skittish around him, but their connection is immediate, and cleverness and honesty starts to give peeks of both who she is now and who she was Before.

 

The blurb above, from the publisher, could make it sound like Evan is some sort of savior. But that’s not the case at all. This doesn’t become a story about some boy swooping in and “fixing” a girl. They’re both broken. Maybe everyone is broken. Evan reminds her that she’s not the only one suffering, that everyone is just trying to survive–especially everyone who lived through the school shooting. Morgan’s road to recovery is long. She has intensive therapy. She has emergency pills. She has reminders to breathe, reminders that she’s not dying. She has the support of her mother. She has her own willpower. Her story is a testament to effectiveness of therapy. As the story goes on, we see her slowly (very slowly) change from the scared, isolated girl who can’t leave her house to something sort of like who she used to be. Flashbacks to her past show us how different she is now.

 

It’s through these looks back at her past that we learn more about her father, a now-homeless vet with an alcohol problem. After 5 tours in Afghanistan, he’s not the person he used to be. Morgan, her mom, and little brother rarely hear from him. He’s not getting the help he needs for his PTSD and Morgan is terrified that she might become like him. She doesn’t want to always be looking over her shoulder. She doesn’t want to retreat from her family and from life. And she doesn’t want to feel like a burden.

 

The issues addressed here are LARGE ones. Morgan struggles HARD. But there is a gentle undertone of hope and resilience throughout the story. Morgan’s panic attacks are terrible. What she went through is terrible. What she’s seen her father go through is terrible. The secret she’s hanging onto is making her feel even more terrible. But she has help. She has support. I really loved what Reichardt does with Morgan and Evan’s relationship. He is there to be a friend when she needs one and to get her to start to open up, but he isn’t there to save her. He is kind and understanding, but he’s also frustrated and calls her out on her inability to see that others are hurting too. He never tries to diminish Morgan’s own pain, but he reminds her that she’s not alone. And she’s not.

 

This novel is a powerful look at grief, mental illness, trust, forgiveness, letting go, and moving on. This should make your TBR list because of its strong writing, its examination of PTSD and panic disorders, and its hopeful approach toward therapy and recovery. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780374368869

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 01/12/2016

Book review: The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

In Cynthia Hand’s The Last Time We Say Goodbye, high school senior Alexis is struggling to figure out how to go on in the aftermath of her brother Ty’s suicide. She’s going to therapy, refusing to take medication to help with the depression and panic attacks (more on this topic in my Sunday Reflections post), and keeping a journal. When her mother says she still feels Tyler in the house—that she smelled his cologne one night, out of nowhere—Alexis doesn’t think much of it. They’re grieving, after all, and feeling like a loved one is still around isn’t that uncommon. But when Alexis starts seeing flashes of Ty—in the mirror, in the backseat of the car—she starts to wonder if she’s hallucinating or seeing a ghost. She could talk to her therapist about this, but she doesn’t want to sound crazy. She’s alienated from her friends at the moment—they’re still trying to be there for her, especially her ex-boyfriend, Steven, but she just can’t deal with anything or anyone. Alexis tries to figure out if Ty is trying to give her some sort of message. As the weeks go by, Alexis confronts her future plans, family issues, and cautiously opens up to a few people about how she’s been feeling.

 

The grief, guilt, and pain permeate every second of this book. Despite my major issue with the problematic villainizing of medicine, I thought this book was profoundly moving and well-paced. Hand does not shy away from graphic description of Ty’s suicide and the immediate aftermath. The reconstructed day of Ty’s suicide was almost impossible for me to read. This is one of those books where I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The way Lex has to navigate relationships new and old, has to cope with her guilt and grief, and has to find a way to move forward is achingly moving. By the end, I was sobbing. Highly recommended—just be ready with the Kleenex. 

 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS

ISBN-13: 9780062318473

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 2/10/2015