Review: When We Collided by Emery Lord

When We Collided book coverWhen We Collided was at the top of my stack of mental health-related books, so I picked it up this week. Fortunately, it isn’t an issue book—it’s a good story with two main characters in very different situations who “collide” and their lives are forever changed, as the title implies.

Vivi is aptly-named—she’s a vivacious and boisterous girl with a fairly unconventional artist mom who allows her a lot of freedom, which she takes full advantage of. The two of them have temporarily moved to a small coastal California town. We know that there’s something going on with Vivi because every day she throws a pill into the ocean rather than take it, and it’s pretty clear that it’s related to her mental health. And as the book moves along, it becomes clearer what her mental illness might be. When the book opens, she is already in love with the town, has a job at a pottery shop, has made friends with some of the older locals, and is ready to meet someone her own age.

Enter Jonah, a seventeen-year-old who’s been forced to become prematurely adult due to the death of his father, the breakdown of his mom, and the existence of three younger siblings (plus two older). He meets Vivi when he takes his youngest sister, Leah, to the pottery shop, and Vivi befriends Leah and basically inserts herself into their lives. Jonah’s father ran an Italian restaurant with another guy, and Jonah has inherited his father’s interest in and talent for cooking. So Vivi’s first visit to their house is an opportunity for him to show off his cooking skills (though he cooks every meal every day, so this isn’t out of the ordinary). He and his older siblings take turns taking care of their family, while Jonah also covers shifts at the restaurant.

Vivi’s and Jonah’s connection is immediate and believable. They each need something from somebody because they’re both sort of falling apart. Vivi’s mental illness is ramping up while Jonah is feeling the weight of taking care of his siblings more and more every day. Both of them are very compelling characters with great character arcs. The book paints a very realistic picture of the experience of bipolar disorder, both from Vivi’s perspective and from Jonah’s, which I thought was valuable.

I recommend this for anyone who likes to see realistic teen characters go through a lot, but come out even stronger.

Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish book coverStarfish is the story of Kiko Himura, a 17-year-old Nebraska girl with a Japanese-American father and an obnoxiously white mother (who’s a total narcissist, but the way). Kiko’s mom has belittled her her whole life for not being “beautiful” like she (the mom) is. By beautiful, she means blonde and blue-eyed. Because Kiko takes after her father physically. To white people she’s too Japanese, and to Japanese people she’s too white. It’s not just her mom—the kids at school make sure she thinks this, too.

Unsurprisingly, Kiko’s anxious and lacking in self-confidence because she believes it all. She also thinks she’s responsible for breaking up her parents. When she was young, her uncle did something to her and she told her mom, who didn’t believe her. Still, Kiko thinks her parents were fighting because of this, and then her dad left. She’s got an older brother and a younger brother, but they’re not close. So she feels guilt on behalf of both of them, too. Kiko’s mom really is a piece of work. She’s so horrible that she’s almost unbelievable—but not quite.

Kiko’s a very talented artist and has applied to an elite art school in New York as her escape plan. But when she doesn’t get in, she’s distraught. And she’s hamstrung by her anxiety. But she’s lucky enough to run into her old friend, Jamie, who’d disappeared from her life when she was eleven and sort of broken her heart. Jamie invites her to come to California with him and she decides she’ll look at art schools out there. Jamie helps her ease out into the world. With a long overdue stroke of good luck, she meets a well-known established artist who takes her under his wing. By chance, he is Japanese-American too, and he helps her connect to her Japanese heritage for the first time. She and Jamie get closer, but there’s something that’s keeping them apart, too. She’s staying with him and his parents, and his parents are fighting and Jamie won’t tell her why. Eventually, everything comes to a head in a way I didn’t expect (but absolutely worked) and we see Kiko coming out of her shell.

This is a solid novel that will appeal especially to mixed-race kids, I’m guessing. The references to art throughout will also be particularly to those artistically inclined. But anybody can enjoy it for showing a girl finding her way.

Review: A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti

A Heart in a Body in the World book coverI admit I’m a fan of Caletti, even though I haven’t yet read all of her books yet (I’m at about half). I love how she writes about mental health issues without making the stories issue books. So I was predisposed to like this one. Which was fine, because I did. I should mention that I listened to the audio book rather than read the paper book.

The book takes an interesting approach to revealing a major incident that took place before it starts. We know something happened and that it had a huge impact on Annabelle, a teen at the beginning of her senior year. But Caletti holds back, only delivering tiny bits of info at a time, waiting until very close to the end to really reveal the full event. I feel like it might annoy impatient people because so much isn’t known (and because of that it feels slow in the beginning), but I liked it because it kept my curiosity up. And as much as I guessed about the event itself, I was still a surprised by the details.

The basic story is that Annabelle spontaneously begins a run across the country, from Seattle to Washington, DC. At first, she is woefully unprepared, but soon her grandfather appears in his RV to provide support and a place to stay each night. Her younger brother Malcolm and two of her friends back home form a publicity team, setting up a fundraising page to help pay for expenses. She becomes a bit of an activist, against her wishes, because of what her journey represents to other people.

And this is an arduous journey for Annabelle for a variety of reasons. There’s the obvious physical challenge. Even though she’s already a skilled runner, the distance starts to take a toll on her body, with horrible blisters, sore knees, and painful chafing (and more). But it also means that Annabelle is totally stuck in her head with nothing but her thoughts. And those thoughts are themselves painful, because she thinks what happened was her fault. Since we don’t know what happened (we only know early on that her best friend Kat is “gone,” presumably dead). The one who committed the evil is a boy at her school she calls The Taker.

Structurally, the book is mostly told in flashbacks because the running basically provides a frame for her to relay her memories of The Taker and her friends to us. But I think it works well because what else would you do while running other than dwell on the things that stress you out? I mean, that’s not the healthiest thing to do, but it’s pretty human.

This book touches on some really important issues. I won’t name them all, but I love how Caletti is quietly feminist in this book. Annabelle consistently thinks about how wrong the treatment of girls and women is in our society without getting in your face about it (not that in-your-face feminism is a bad thing, but it’s definitely not for everyone). And it looks at guilt, PTSD,  violence, and self-punishment (that’s what her running really is). It also explores the idea that maybe if you’d made different decisions in the past, things might have turned out differently—but that doesn’t make you responsible for the actions of other people.

Overall, I think this is an important and deep book that a lot of people will appreciate. It is quiet, as I’ve implied, rather than being full of action so you might want to make sure you’re in the mood for that kind of book before picking it up. But I think it will be worth it.

Review: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful book coverAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I enjoy reading about teenagers’ experience with mental illness, and this book definitely fits that bill.

Mel Hannigan has a lot to deal with. She has bipolar disorder. She also had an older brother who she was really close to who died a few years earlier. She has a couple of friends currently, but lost three close friends the previous year because of her illness and a fight with one of them. Nobody outside her family knows about her bipolar disorder. She also works at a nursing home, which is where she feels most comfortable now. This is where she meets David, a boy her age who helps to start breaking down some of the walls she’s constructed around herself. But it’s not an easy or painless process.

The book opens with a memory that leads up to—but doesn’t include—Mel’s brother Nolan’s death (what happened to him is a mystery that isn’t revealed until the end). Then we jump three years ahead to Mel at 16. She is dealing with her bipolar disorder reasonably well, considering how severe it is. She tries to keep it under control with medication and mood charts, and keeps it secret from her friends because she doesn’t think they’d react well.

Her mood tracking is pretty interesting—she thinks of four components of herself (head, heart, health, and “host” (which corresponds with her overall mood plus the combination of others)) and tracks how each one is doing in order to understand her state of mind as well as possible. This is pretty important to her because her bipolar is fairly extreme and she regularly experiences mixed states and even dysphoric mania (which is depression mixed with very high energy, highly dangerous in terms of suicide risk).

Mel starts getting to know David at the nursing home at the same time as her old friend group has a major event that means that she might be able to refriend them. Things are shaky on all fronts, however, and when something devastating happens, Mel’s mental state worsens and everything goes wrong. You wonder how things are going to turn around and it’s both heartbreaking and satisfying to see it happen.

I think this book does an excellent job of conveying one experience of bipolar disorder. It’s not everyone’s experience of it, but seeing one could help a reader understand it better. But it’s also just a good story.

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter book coverThis is a really interesting and unique book. It’s steeped in Mexican-America culture, but not really in a positive way—the main character, Julia, basically hates every aspect of it. To me this was interesting because one of the reasons she hates it is that she can’t navigate it well—she’s socially awkward, but not in the “standard” way (at least this was my take on it). No, she says and does the wrong thing for her culture, which might be okay in white American culture (though definitely not always).

The book opens just after Julia’s older sister, Olga, was killed when she accidentally walked in front of a moving semi. Julia is of course upset by this even though they weren’t particularly close anymore. But what has a more direct impact on her life is the way her family is handling it—her mother has completely withdrawn and her dad is as silent as he ever was. What’s more, Julia figures out that there was more to her sister than anyone thought, but she can’t figure out what was going on.

As things get back to normal, we can see that Julia’s still not okay, but it becomes clear that it’s not really about her sister. Her mother is incredibly controlling and doesn’t let Julia do much of anything. She’s supposed to want to stay home like any good Mexican daughter should want (and like her sister). But Julia’s “different”—as her mother puts it when she’s being nice about it—and wants other things out of life. First, she wants to be a writer and has befriended her English teacher, who thinks she’s one of his best students ever. She wants to go to college. She wants to go to an occasional party and maybe have some friends, even though she’s as awkward about that as she is with her family. Her mom doesn’t want any of those things for her.

One thing I have to mention is that Julia isn’t necessarily very likable. She’s not nice or very appreciative of the people around her and she generally says what on her mind without thinking much about it first. But as I’ve said here, she’s an interesting character and I did care about what happened to her because in some ways she's making the best of a bad situation (one that's bad for her, not necessarily everyone).

I think this is an important book because it teaches about a culture in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat things. It also addresses depression (which I didn’t expect, honestly—I knew we were skirting the topic but I thought that’s all we’d do). Julia’s a character worth getting to know, even if you’re not going to necessarily want to be her friend.

Review: Cut by Patricia McCormick

Cut book coverThis short book first came out eighteen years ago but it’s still relevant today. It’s (fairly obviously) about a girl who cuts herself.

The book starts with Callie in the hospital—a mental ward—sitting with her therapist. Pretty quickly, we learn the circumstances of when she cut herself for the first time. And then we learn that she’s not speaking, at all. She has to go to these group therapy sessions with other girls who are there for different reasons—some have eating issues, some drug issues. So, very early on we’re set up to wonder why she’s cutting herself, if she’s going to talk, and what’s going to happen with her group.

McCormick obviously did her research on cutting and what drives people to it. She portrays Callie sympathetically without romanticizing cutting in any way. And she addresses how cutting can make people feel better at times but shows how that’s a fleeting thing. And it stops working:

The pain is so sharp, so sudden, I catch my breath. There’s no rush, no relief. Just pain, a keen, pulsing pain… It’s never hurt like this before. And it’s never not worked.

Callie is shown to have depth even though we don’t really get to know her reasons for cutting any sooner than the therapist. The other girls are portrayed realistically, too, and there’s an interesting subplot involving one of the anorexic/bulimic girls. And even though we see her brother Sam only once in story time, he is a good character and critical to the story.

Check this one out if you’re up for a short but deep portrait of a troubled teen.

Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay book coverDarius the Great Is Not Okay is a unique book. Darius is an American kid whose mother is from Iran and whose father is Teutonic stock, and he is under treatment for depression. You don’t see a lot of YA featuring boys of color with depression, so I was curious to see how this one would play out. Also, most of the book is set in Iran, which is cool—I’ve only personally encountered one other YA book set there (not that I’ve looked extensively, but still).

Darius doesn’t fit in in Portland, Oregon and feels second-rate even in his own home. He does have an eight-year-old sister he adores, but his relationship with his father is rough. It’s clear from the very beginning that that causes him the most grief. Almost as soon as we’re first introduced to his father, Darius refers to him by his first and last name—Stephen Kellner—which is jarring. But he does this repeatedly, making it clear that he feels distant from his father.

In addition to things being difficult with his father, Darius has a bully (who also gets the first/last name treatment). He has one friend at school, a Persian girl. But she’s full-Persian rather than being “Fractional” as he thinks of himself, so he feels less than her. Interestingly, Darius has been on medication for depression since he was twelve, and that doesn’t seem to faze him much. He’s not 100% comfortable with it, but it doesn’t bother him as much as the other things do. His father also has to manage his own depression, so they’re very matter-of-fact about it. (I should mention that the depression representation is very good.)

Darius has a Skype relationship with his family back in Iran. But when it becomes clear that his grandfather’s brain tumor is getting worse, his family decides to visit the country for the first time. This is when the story really gets started—it’s the first time he really feels at home, after meeting his family and becoming friends with a boy named Sohrab from down the street, but he still has a lot to learn about his family, friendship, and himself.

Sohrab is a great friend to Darius and the two of them really bond. Darius spends most of his free time with him. It’s an interesting relationship from an American perspective, because Sohrab is very tactile. That’s realistic for a male relationship in Iran, even though it feels a little like there might hints of a romance between the two for an American reader. There are also hints that Darius’s “difference” might include being gay, but this never goes anywhere substantial, which made this a nice book about genuine friendship and family. Iran turns out to be where Darius finds himself and finally comes to an understanding with his father.

If you want a book about depression, or one about a kid who doesn’t fit in, or one about a half-Iranian kid going to Iran for the first time, etc. try this one out. All in one package. It’s very good.

Review: Essential Maps for the Lost by Deb Caletti

Essential Maps for the Lost book coverI’ve read a couple other books by Deb Caletti and liked them both. One thing I noticed is that the two I read (Stay and The Nature of Jade) were different from each other. So I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Essential Maps for the Lost. I heard Caletti speak about this book with E. Lockhart last year at a library event so I knew it had something to do with mental illness, like both of the others I read. But the interesting thing is that I found this book very different from the other two. It felt more more literary, for one (not that the other two weren’t but this one seemed more so)—maybe even a little ethereal. I read it for my MFA so I had to study it after my first read through. On my first read, I actually found myself a little confused because there were a lot of characters and we were really deep in both of the main characters’ heads. But as I read through it a second time, everything seemed obvious and clear, so perhaps I just wasn’t paying full attention the first time I read it. Who knows.

The novel is about Mads and Billy. Mads is an eighteen-year-old living with her uncle in Seattle while she completes her realtor course so she can get certified and go into business with her mom back in eastern Washington. One morning she goes for a swim in Lake Union and stumbles across a dead body. The dead woman committed suicide by jumping off the Aurora bridge and it turns out she has a son—Billy. Mads becomes a little obsessed with finding out everything she can about the woman and her family, which ultimately results in Mads semi-stalking Billy (watching his house from the car and so on). The two of them meet in a kind of random way and they would not have talked again except for the fact that Billy dropped a map he carries around and Mads decides to return it so she finds him again. The two of them bond over what that map represents—the classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg—because they both love it. For Billy, it represents a connection with his mom, and for Mads, it represents where her love of reading started.

As I mentioned, the book deals with mental illness. Obviously Billy’s mom’s suicide is part of it, but the more significant part is that Mads is dealing with depression made worse by the stifling future she sees for herself because of her obligation to her mother. There are some deep moments in the book relating to depression. For instance, Billy thinks,

depression can be a monster only felled by the most epic weapons. It’s a bully that winches your arm behind your back when no one is looking, that wears you out, and shouts stuff that sounds romantic but is never, ever romantic

Overall, I liked to book and found the story moving. If you’re in the mood for a more literary book than most YA today, give this one a try.

2018 in Review

One of the nice things about having a bad memory is that when it comes time to write an end-of-the-year post and look back on the year, the stuff that happened at the beginning of the year isn’t really that much more hard to remember than the stuff that just happened. Obviously I’m sort of kidding—it’s annoying even if it’s not unfair to the beginning of the year. 

This year, there were five books that really stood out to me. Three of them I read and studied for the MFA and the other two I’m planning to put on my list for next semester. 

Eleanor & Park has been one of my favorite books since I first read it back in 2013, I think. I reread it a few months ago and enjoyed every second of it again. If I could write like Rainbow Rowell, I’d consider myself There as a writer. I reviewed it in August. 

Louise O’Neill is one of my other favorite writers. This year, in June, I reviewed The Surface Breaks, which is a very feminist retelling of the Little Mermaid story. O’Neill manages to get her message mixed in with a very satisfying and engaging story every time. 

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard is another great one to me. It was such a fresh story about a gender nonconforming girl who learns the value of female friendships over her bro relationships. I reviewed it in October. This is one I’m hoping my faculty mentor lets me put on my reading list for next semester. 

Another book that I adored and studied for the MFA was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This is a fantastic and tragic look at mental illness (undiagnosed bipolar disorder in this case). I really loved this book and happily reread it for the MFA. I reviewed it in January. 

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati is second book on this list that takes a hard look at mental illness. This one doesn’t end sadly, however, but does explore bipolar disorder in depth. I really enjoyed it and reviewed it in April. 

Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Something Like Normal book coverSomething Like Normal is a slim book that explores a few weeks in the life of Travis Stephenson, a 19-year-old Marine home on leave after a tour in Afghanistan. His best friend there was recently killed and Travis is having apparent PTSD symptoms even though it’s undiagnosed because he’s afraid to seek help. He has nightmares and keeps thinking he’s seeing his dead friend. This definitely makes for a good story. And I did enjoy it, even though there were some things that bugged me about it.

Travis’s father is a jerk who has never forgiven Travis for giving up football. Travis’s brother Ryan sort of stole his “girlfriend” (I’ll get to the reason for the quotes), Paige, after Travis left for basic training and co-opted his car as well. His mom turned into a super-supportive military mom and his father didn’t take well to being ignored, so their marriage is struggling. So Travis comes home to a bit of a mess.

He goes to a party with Ryan and ends up at a bar where he encounters Harper Gray, a girl who wronged back in middle school. Somehow a little fib he told took on a life of its own and Harper ended up with a reputation as the town slut.

This is where one of my issues comes in. The good girl/bad girl thing was definitely in this book. Because Harper, despite her reputation, was really a good girl (i.e. a virgin) and Paige was really the one who slept around a lot (that’s why Travis thought of her only loosely as his girlfriend). And there were some other girls who were also considered sluts by the guys in the book in a way that might be realistic but was still frustrating. I wanted to see Travis come to realize his role in the perception of the girls and he never did.

Anyway, Travis runs into Harper at a bar and she goes off on him when he tries to flirt with her and punches him. That seems to be all she needs to do to get her five years of anger and resentment out of her system, which is the other thing that bugged me. Suddenly, she seems interested in him. I didn’t understand why, and I think the story would have been better if Travis had to struggle more to win her over.

Having said that, when I ignored how easy it was to get Harper on his side, I did enjoy the rest of the story. Travis does seem to change a little, and he comes to terms with the impact his friend’s death has had on him. He is a better guy by the end. Harper could definitely have been developed more than she was, but she was still a good character. The other secondary characters were a tiny bit flat. The best was Travis’s mom, who makes a major decision with his support. His friends aren’t bad as characters, though they are a little stereotypical (but to be fair, I imagine groups of Marines probably frequently are like that).

Overall, it was a good book, with those caveats I mentioned above. It’s nice to read a male protagonist. And Doller is a good writer. She gets into Travis’s mind effectively, the dialogue is realistic, and the story is well-plotted.

Review: Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

Still Life with Tornado book coverKing loves to work with weird ideas, and this book is no exception. At the beginning of the book, all we know about Sarah is that something happened at school that has her unwilling to go anymore. She was a talented artist but whatever happened seemed to suck her ability to draw right out of her fingers. She wanders Philadelphia by bus and ponders how literally nothing is original. Nothing she does, nothing anybody else does, nothing. She’s depressed and having an existential crisis.

But the thing is, the book isn’t just about Sarah. She narrates most of it first person, present tense. But there are also sections she narrates in the past tense about a family vacation to Mexico six years earlier, the last time she saw her nine-years-older brother. And then there are short scenes narrated by Sarah’s mom, which give us insight into the problem of Sarah’s family. Because that’s what the book is really about. It actually digs in pretty deep into the subject of physical abuse in a unique way.

But even more, the book’s about being a teenager. Sarah desperately wants to just be a human being, but she has to deal with the labels that society attaches to everyone. We learn a little slowly that her friends—or someone—did something to her. And King sums up what it’s like to be a teen with something to say:

But now it’s been so long that if I bring it up, I’ll look like a girl who can’t let go of things. Teenage girls always have to let go of things. If we bring up anything, people say we’re bitches who can’t just drop it.

That quote is just so perfect.

At this point, you may be wondering what’s so weird about the book. Sarah starts seeing other Sarahs. Actual, physical manifestations of herself at other stages in her life, specifically at ten (just after the Mexico trip), twenty-three, and forty. This isn’t some mental break—other people can see and interact with the extra Sarahs. This drives home the point that everyone is only at a particular point in their lives—they have a past where they were different but still themselves, and they’ll have a future where the same holds true. It’s interesting.

This is a loaded and layered book and you’ll probably see different things than I did. Whatever you might find, it’s worth your time if you enjoy magical realism or have liked King’s other books.

Review: Fat Angie by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie book coverI’ll start off by saying that this is an unusual book. This is mostly because of the point of view, which I’ll go into more below.

The novel is about a girl named Angie who had a very public emotional breakdown after her sister was captured and presumably killed in Iraq. Angie’s convinced she’s still alive, but no one else believes that. Before the book opens, Angie started falling apart—she gained a great deal of weight and tried to kill herself in front of a packed gym.

It’s not clear whether the bullying started before her sister went missing, but as the book opens, it’s vicious. There’s one particularly mean girl, but everyone mocks her for being fat and many people taunt her about her missing sister. Even her own adopted brother makes fun of her. Her mother is impatient with her and thinks she’s doing everything for attention. Her mom even found a therapist for Angie who’s totally unsympathetic.

Then her neighbor, a popular boy named Jake, sort of befriends Angie. And a new girl named KC arrives. KC isn’t impressed by all the popular kids and instead gravitates toward Angie. Soon they become friends and maybe more, but it’s a relationship full of turmoil. Because in their conservative town, being different isn’t very acceptable. Angie’s mom can’t tolerate her being with a girl, which creates the first rift. Things degenerate from there.

During all this, Angie decides to try out for the varsity basketball team because before her sister joined the military, she was a basketball star. She starts training for it with Jake’s help and tries out. The rest of the story follows her basketball pursuit and her relationships with KC, her brother, Jake, and her mom.

I mentioned the point of view above—in most contemporary YA, it’s 1st person, though 3rd person close isn’t unusual. 1st person just means it’s told using “I” and we get deep into the main character’s mind. 3rd person means “he/she” is used for the main character and the “close” just implies we get to nearly the same level of emotional depth as with 1st. This book is 3rd but it doesn’t feel very close at all. Throughout the book, Angie is referred to as “Fat Angie” (by the author, I mean), which I found very distancing. I never did feel like I knew Angie that well. I knew she was fat and had no self-confidence, but that was about it.

There are also phrases that are repeated (such as Angie’s “couldn’t-be-bothered mom”), which also pulled me out of the story a little each time. And KC speaks in very distinct (and unfamiliar to me) slang, which I didn’t find totally credible. I think stylistically, the book is very unique and that could appeal to a lot of people, even though for me it was distracting and kept me from getting as into the story as I wanted. But it still is a lesbian coming-of-age story, something we don’t get a lot of (I think there are a lot more stories about gay boys than girls out there…), so it’s probably worth a peek if you are looking for that.

Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up the Universe book coverNiven’s other YA book, All the Bright Places, is probably going to remain one of my favorite YA novels of all time. So Holding Up the Universe had a lot to live up to, for me.

The premise is definitely interesting. It’s about two kids with major and out-of-the-ordinary challenges in their lives. Libby Strout is extremely overweight and Jack Masselin has a severe case of face blindness.

Libby is returning to school after being homeschooled for many years—initially because she was housebound due to being so overweight that she couldn’t leave her bedroom, so overweight that they had to break a hole in the wall to get her out of the house. She got fat after her mom died several years earlier and she tried to eat her way through the grief. She’s lost a bunch of weight and is looking forward to returning to school even though she was bullied during her time there as a younger kid. She has great hopes for her return and is shot down pretty quickly. Still, she manages to make a handful of friends and plans to audition for the school’s dance team if a spot opens up. She may be a target, but she’s not a withering flower. Not at all.

Jack’s an interesting case. His face blindness makes all social interactions difficult for him and several times he’s humiliated himself mixing people up. Niven does a fantastic job of keeping us constantly aware of his challenges. Jack recognizes people based on unreliable clues and context. It’s easiest at home, since everyone is a different age or gender, but even there it’s dicey. For instance, he’s in his bedroom one morning before school and thinking about his brother, Marcus. “When a tall boy with shaggy hair comes into my room and starts yelling at me, I figure it’s him.” Then “a woman appears at the door and wants to know what in the Great Fanny Adams is going on.” Jack coughs, “which makes her point to the door and tell the tall/shaggy boy to get the hell downstairs.” Then he looks out the window at everyone leaving, including his little brother, Dusty, and summarizes it like this:

The woman climbs into one car with this little kid, and a man with thick dark hair gets in another car with the tall/shaggy boy.

It’s funny, sure, but it also perfectly conveys how nightmarish everything is.

Libby and Jack first encounter each other when he basically assaults her as part of a cruel prank, stuffing an apologetic note in her backpack at the same time. She retaliates by punching him, so they both have to go to this after-school group counseling session and eventually get to know each other and find out they have more in common with each other than they could have imagined. They get closer and help each other through some rough patches.

If you enjoyed the emotional depth of All the Bright Places—or just like books full of raw and at times intense emotions—you will enjoy Holding Up the Universe. It’s also just interesting to get a flavor of true face blindness.

Review: The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

The Weight of Zero book coverThere has been a lot of books about mental illness coming out lately, which I think is great as long as the author handles it carefully. The Weight of Zero is definitely a standout in the crowd of these books for its authenticity and solid story.

Cath Puloski has bipolar disorder (type I, which involves possible psychosis during the mania periods). And she’s already gone through some destructive mania periods and significant long-term depression as well. She used to be a ballet dancer but has quit it. Her two best friends abandoned her a few months earlier and one in particular has now made it her life’s work to humiliate Cath at every possible moment. The same one told the entire school about her disorder and now everyone mocks her and calls her crazy.

When the book opens, Cath’s fairly stable. Not (very) depressed; not manic. But she’s obsessed with her disorder and how it’s ruined her life, as she sees it. She’s convinced that the depression will eventually return and she has a plan for that: she’ll kill herself before it can really take hold. Like most potential suicides, she’s convinced that her mom (her only family) will be better off with her dead because Cath feels like a massive burden. She feels generally worthless because she thinks she’s genetically deficient and that none of her peers could possibly care about her.

Her psychiatrist has recommended that she start a group therapy program that runs every day after school. She doesn’t want to go at all, as she’s sort of checked out of trying to get better because she thinks she can’t. But her mom makes her go. She meets some new characters there, including Kristal, who becomes her first post-diagnosis friend. The other change in her routine occurs when she gets paired up with Michael for a big history project. Both things take her life a direction she thought impossible.

The book deals with the reality of bipolar disorder exceptionally well. We’re in the psychiatrist’s office with Cath while her doctor explains aspects of the disorder but the story focuses on her reaction to that information, so the reader is picking up knowledge about it without it feeling clinical. I thought that was really well done.

Cath’s voice is great. She’s very believable even when she’s thinking things that the reader knows are totally wrong. And best of all, she’s funny—not constantly, but every so often. It’s just right. For instance, she reacts to the leader of the therapy group’s change in tactics:

This is a novel spin on the IOP experience—Sandy pitching our mental illness issues like they’re black badges of courage. The few, the brave, the bipolar.

The other characters were also well drawn. Cath’s mom is wonderful—you feel so bad for her because you know what Cath’s planning despite the fact that she’s trying so hard to do everything right. The plot is strong and there’s a great subplot with the history project (and the way it ties into Cath’s life and thoughts is perfect).

Overall, an excellent book that I genuinely loved. Everyone should read it.

Review: The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti

The Nature of Jade book coverI always like a good book that deals with mental health issues, as long as it does so realistically and non-preachily.* The Nature of Jade fits the bill.

Jade’s a very open character, revealing a lot about herself early on, and she’s frank as the book proceeds, too. She has Panic Disorder and struggles to keep herself under control a lot of the time. She has found that watching elephants calms her down, so she keeps the Seattle zoo’s 24-hour elephant webcam on, which is where she first sees a boy in a red jacket coming regularly to visit, a toddler in tow. She becomes mildly infatuated and even goes there hoping to meet him, but he doesn’t show up again. In the end, she volunteers with the elephants and becomes a bit of an elephant care expert.

Then the red-jacket-boy shows up again and she actually meets him and learns his name. They start seeing each other and she really likes him, but her instincts tell her that something is up, though she doesn’t know what. When she finds out, it’s a bit of a shock. Other readers might guess, but I didn’t. Also, once I found out, I assumed the book would go one direction, but it went another.

The Nature of Jade is only my second Caletti book, but I consider myself a fan. She creates wonderfully deep characters who go through interesting journeys. Even the non-viewpoint characters are fleshed out really well. Her writing is nice—great setting details, realistic dialogue that fits each character, and the internal thoughts are powerful. Take this:

Some guys give you the edgy feeling of dogs behind chain-link fences, and some give you the nervousness of high heels you’re not used to. But Sebastian—he makes me feel like I just buried my nose in warm laundry.

She also made me laugh (with understanding) with lines like this:

Blushing is so unfair. Might as well wear a sign: WHAT YOU THINK MATTERS TO ME.

I have to mention the bizarre similarities between this book and E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver books, which I don’t feel bad about because the two of them expressed the same surprise (I wrote about seeing them speak here). But it’s uncanny—neither knew about the other’s book when she wrote her book (the road to book-completion to publication is long, and the first Ruby Oliver book came out in 2005 and The Nature of Jade in early 2007). Ruby also lives in Seattle, has anxiety attacks, sees a therapist, and volunteers at Seattle’s zoo. Ruby lives in a houseboat and Jade’s boyfriend lives in one. Also, on a side note, there’s a guy named Titus in the story and Lockhart’s got a major character with that name in Fly on the Wall. Weirdness.

Anyway, that’s not important. If you like books about complex people facing difficult situations, you should enjoy this one.

* According to Merriam-Webster, this really is a word.