Tag Archives: mental illness

Dreamers Often Lie

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If I had to summarize this novel in a couple of words, it would be intensely trippy. Think Shakespeare and brain damage and hallucinations and then throw in the usual teenage angst and drama, and there you have it.

17-year-old Jaye doesn’t know how she ended up in a hospital bed with a blinding headache, but she’s pretty sure that characters from Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be there with her. So probably best not to tell anyone about that little problem. Her one pleasure in life right now is her work in the school play, so as the star of Midsummer Night’s Dream she has to convince her doctors and her family that she is ok to leave the hospital before she loses her prized role.

But she has personal demons to deal with on top of everything else. A broken family and feelings of loss and abandonment fuel her struggles. Her life becomes intertwined with Shakespeare’s plays and she can’t keep the two of them straight. Especially when Romeo walks into class on her first day back to school. Where does reality begin and fantasy end?

Jaye is a totally unreliable narrator, which has possibly become my favourite kind. I love getting into the head of someone who thinks completely differently than I. I even like that I don’t like her. She is extremely self-centred and immature. Where I do have a problem with her is the lack of growths she displays throughout the story.  Yes, she has a severe head injury, but it seems like it knocked all the sense out of her. She does not develop or change, and she doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes, acknowledging them and then going on and repeating the same ones over and over again.

And although I understand why she wants to keep her hallucinations secret, and she is afraid of losing her role in the school play, that motivation loses it’s believability as the story continues. There is a certain point where you have to let it go. Certainly when you can no longer remember what role you are playing and in which play. At some point, healing has to become a priority. There is always another play.

The secondary characters are widely varied, and I found the real ones less believable than the hallucinated ones. Pierce is a bit of a sociopath, and it is never clear whether he is truthful or not. Does he actually like Jaye, or is it an ego thing? Is he telling her the truth about her dad? He is not a likeable character at all.  Jaye’s mother and sister are a bit one-dimensional, and her mother is not believable, letting her severely head-injured daughter call the shots about leaving the hospital and going to school.

But the way the Shakespearean characters randomly pop up throughout the novel is unexpected and creepy and so well done, keeping the line between fiction and reality blurred. Ophelia is awesome. She appears soaking wet and cold and white and her mind is distant and confused, straight out of the play. Hamlet fluctuates from mad to lucid and back with each appearance, talking to the ever-present skull, while the Bard himself personally questioned Jaye’s actual desire to return to full health.

The plot explores conflict of many kinds, including the dysfunction present in even a “perfect” family, Jaye’s troubled relationship with her father, her difficulty in facing that conflict, being torn between what you want and what you can have, and of course, reality versus fantasy.

And the storyline itself reflects Jaye’s state of mind. There are secrets and twists and confusion, building tension and leading to an… ending. The story just stops. And I’m not entirely sure what happened. Perhaps everyone died? Perhaps everyone lived happily ever after? It is certainly Romeo & Juliet-esque. (Oh! Maybe it is Newhart all over again! I jest. And show my age.)

I like this novel, but don’t love it. It is not for everyone. You must enjoy being off-balance to get the full effect.

Dreamers Often Lie was published April 5th, 2016 by Dial Books.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls

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Ok, December is killing me. I have had tons of time to read because I’ve been sitting in hockey rinks all month waiting for tournaments and practices to finish, but have had no time to post reviews!  Hopefully, January will be a good catch-up month…

June’s former best friend Delia lives a troubled life.  June has always known that the girl was unhappy with her stepfather’s presence, that she abused various substances (alcohol being the least), she hopped from relationship to relationship, and she was a very good liar. But that night June, Delia, and Ryan (June’s boyfriend) hung out ended in trouble, and the two inseparable friends didn’t speak again. A year and a half later, she sees Delia’s name on her phone but doesn’t answer.  Two days later, she learns of the teen’s suicide.

June may not know Delia anymore, she may not have spoken to her in well over a year, but she knows one thing. Delia would never kill herself. And certainly not in the way her death happened. It had to be murder. And that one certainty drags her down into a web of deceit and danger.

This is the story of an all-consuming friendship gone wrong. It is a fire that burned itself out, as was inevitable. Two girls from equally broken homes who look for family in each other.

I found June to be a bit weak, unsure of her own mind and own decisions, easily led. She lacked common sense. Her characterization was a bit off. 15 years old, she is quiet, shy and likes to move under the radar. She does her work in school and has a “safe” boyfriend, one that is nice to everyone. But when she starts to investigate Delia’s murder, she decides to infiltrate a drug lord’s party and search for information. Look, I’m not exactly the meek and mild type, and I sure as hell wouldn’t do that, as a teen or at my age now.

Delia, on the other hand, is the type of character that I am drawn to, even as I dislike her. She has a dark side. Oh boy, she does have a dark side. She is self-absorbed, manipulative, and domineering. As we learn more about her during June’s investigation, she appears to be sociopathic. Coming from a tough home life, she latched on to June and was the dominant player in their friendship. She demanded complete attention and loyalty, even as she slipped away without June’s knowledge for other pursuits.

The other characters worked as good foils for Delia and June, but I could never really get a solid feeling about any of them.  Each one had secrets and all seemed equally inconsistent. June’s boyfriend Ryan was central to the mystery, and at first seemed beyond reproach. But then questions arose. And his version of the truth does not always add up.

The plot of the story moved around, and I found myself slightly anxious while reading. I wanted to find out what happened, and did not want it to be true. Suicide vs murder is not a new idea, and I’m not sure how original the ideas are in this reiteration. Not all questions were answered or resolved, and while the behaviour of some of the characters made sense, others’ never seemed to fully add up. Was Ryan good or bad? What about Jeremiah? Had Delia been in love with June, or just liked the control she had over her?

I can’t decide whether I loved or hated the ending. I am someone who likes to know how everything is resolved when I read the last page. I want to know what happens. Don’t leave me hanging! But no matter what, I did not see that coming.  Maybe, looking back, it should have been obvious, and it probably will be to some readers.

As with the ending, I don’t know whether I liked the novel or not. It was hard to read but impossible to put down. There were inconsistencies and questions never answered. There are a lot of mature themes and scenes and is best read by the mature YA reader.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls was published July 7th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall

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After the death of her great-aunt Cordelia, the Piven family house now belongs to 17-year-old Delia. She and her family plan to spend the summer at the house, readying it for sale. Except when they arrive, they discover it isn’t just a house. It is the former Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females, known locally as “Hysteria Hall.”

And the house has plans of its own. It has a mission, a purpose: to keep troubled girls, some insane but some just strong-willed, locked away, even in death. And Delia has had a few troubles. The house wants her to stay. It goes to great lengths to keep her. Now Delia must find a way to make sure her little sister doesn’t get trapped as well.

I am on the fence about this one. It is very well written and entertaining, and there is a great twist just a few chapters in that I did not see coming, but I could never get emotionally involved in the story.

Main character Delia is real. She is a fabulous narrator for the story; neither bratty nor spoiled, she is funny and charming and still unsure of herself. Her voice made me laugh out loud throughout the novel. She has a touch of teenage defiance, just enough to get her into trouble and attract unwanted attention.

Her parents’ reaction to her defiance is a bit over the top for what she did. She was stupid, yes, but not exactly criminal. Delia’s reaction to her parents’ flip out, on the other hand, seems very realistic.

With that one exception, her parents seem genuine, and along with all the other characters in the novel, distinct and fun to read. The relationship between Delia and Janie, her five years younger sister, alternates between love and hatred. Your typical older-younger sister stuff. Her friendship with Nicole and relationship with ex-boyfriend Landon strike true. The ghosts, all of whom are from different decades of the institution’s history, cover the scale from happy and friendly to scared and shy to terrifying.

The setting is awesome. A haunted house? Love it. There is very little in this world creepier than an abandoned asylum. Filled with the ghosts of former residents who died there, Hysteria Hall has more than its share of both evil spirits and benevolent apparitions.

It is difficult to write a balance of humour and darkness without it feeling forced and false, but author Katie Alender somehow achieves that balance perfectly. And the ending could not be better.

Although it nicely fills the quota of creepiness and suspense, this is not a scary story. In the end, for all that I enjoyed reading it, I do want more. Maybe I am just heartless, but for a story with such great potential it needs more to suck me in. More horror. More emotion. There are places in the novel where I knew I should be in tears, be heartbroken, be terrified. It just didn’t happen. This is a like, not a love.

If you are easily scared, don’t read this one at night, when things go thump and bump. Just in case. But it is a nice daytime read for anyone.

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall was published August 25th, 2015 by Point.

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

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No one said which Christmas“.

Recommended to me by the wonderful ravenandbeez, this book will hit you right where you live. (Thanks for breaking my heart, ladies. Sheesh.)

The day Alfie Summerfield turned 5, the First World War broke out. Alfie’s dad Georgie promised him that he wouldn’t join up, but broke the promise the next day, leaving Alfie and his mum on their own.

Now Alfie is 9 and hasn’t heard from his dad for more than two years. His mum says Georgie is away on a special mission for the government, but Alfie knows it can’t be true. He knows something has happened, he just doesn’t know what. He goes to school two days a week because those are the days that have the subjects he enjoys. The rest of the week, he shines shoes for pennies at King’s Cross Station and slips the money into his mum’s purse at the end of the day, to help her out and do his share. And it is there that he happens upon some information that leads him to the truth about his dad.

Which is that he is hospitalized for PTSD (shell shock, 100 years ago). In WWI doctors, nurses and medical professionals were trying to deal with and treat a condition that had no physical symptoms, all the while battling the public and government perception that the men were merely suffering from cowardice. Georgie is one of those men.

Holy. Crap. Alfie!  What a wonderful narrator for the story. Intelligent and funny and straight forward. Author John Boyne perfectly captures the innocence and bluntness of youth in the boy. Alfie sees the world his own way, and everything is black and white. There are no overtones of adult logic or greyscale, just what Alfie sees and how he perceives it, and it is SPECTACULAR.

Georgie and Margie and Joe and Mr. Janacek and Kalena and Granny Summerfield are so true to life. Margie holds a job for the first time, doing her bit for the war effort while trying to keep a roof over their heads. Joe, the conscientious objector and Georgie’s lifelong friend, who holds onto his beliefs in the face of those who call him coward and would force him to kill. Mr. Janacek is persecuted for his birthplace while Kalena dreams of being Prime Minister one day. And Granny is the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip Brit who is fiercely loyal to her own. And all are seen through Alfie’s eyes, with his perception of each. They are perfect.

Wartime London is grey and suspicious and close-knit. Families and neighbourhoods close ranks and protect one another, but are quick to turn when someone doesn’t conform.

This book is a true historical novel. Boyne does not shy away from the horror and terror and hardship of war, he just sees it through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, doing a masterful job of portraying the culture and societal norms of the time.

It makes it no less painful to see a man break even though his son doesn’t quite understand what is broken. To tackle a topic such as this in a middle-grade novel might seem too much, but Boyne handles it gently and in terms a young reader can grasp. And while it may seem like something we don’t want our children to face, with terror and war raging around the globe many already are.

Be prepared for a punch in the heart.

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave was published September 26th, 2013 by Doubleday Childrens.

Fans of the Impossible Life

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Jeremy is returning to Saint Francis Prep after a bullying incident ruined the last few months of his previous school year. He spends the first few weeks back hiding in a teacher’s office, sketching, when he isn’t in class, until the teacher decides it is time for him to face the world.

Mira promises her parents she will try to fit in at Saint Francis, after depression and a suicide attempt chased her from her last school into the psych ward at the hospital. There she meets Sebby, a gay foster child with a self-destructive streak that only Mira seems to be able to keep in check.  Together they try to fix themselves by creating a safe haven of rituals and road trips and friendship, one they determinedly drag Jeremy into, whether he is ready or not.

If you are going into this looking for a bisexual love triangle, go elsewhere. This book is about three teenagers dealing with sexual identity, homophobia, depression, suicide, and bullying, with just a touch of romance and a lot of friendship thrown in. The three find love and acceptance in their friendship, as they come to realize they are not alone in their journeys.

Fans of the Impossible Life is narrated from three points of view, each uniquely written in a different person. Mira and Sebby crash into Jeremy’s world, and change his perspective on a life that seems mired in loneliness. He narrates his chapters in the first person as the main character, with Mira a close supporting second. Her chapters are narrated in the third person, and while Sebby has only a few chapters of his own, each narrated in the second person, he influences every action taken throughout the story.

The plot contains a lot of different scenes not often found in a YA novel, including a gorgeous cross-dressing episode and a random night at drag queen karaoke. Added is an amazingly diverse cast of characters including a mixed race young woman battling depression, a teenage boy figuring out his sexuality, a drug addict, gay dads, a teacher who understands teen angst, a caring and strict foster mother, and a lesbian with a tough exterior and an obsession for her elusive ex-girlfriend, along with the regular cheerleaders and football players that are present in every high school.

Debut author Kate Scelsa deals with depression honestly, with no sugar coating. But she also illustrates the misconceptions and denial that can go with such an illness; Mira’s parents want her to be stronger, acting like her suicide attempt was a choice she made out of weakness. Scelsa takes the reader through the exhaustion and fear of facing the day that Mira just knows won’t get better. Seb’s addictions and Jeremy’s torment are given the same careful, authentic, detail.

I loved the ending. There are more loose ends than not, but it works, because it is real.

This is a fabulous contemporary novel about the joys and perils of growing up, friendship, and discovering yourself, without covering up the sad reality of mental illness and bullying. It is a YA novel that will take you back to those tough years where we all stumbled around, immersed in our lives and those of our friends, trying to figure it all out.

Fans of the Impossible Life was published September 8th 2015 by Balzer + Bray.

Solitaire

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Let me get this out of the way first.  I wanted to LOVE this book. I was looking forward to reading it. The plot sounded fantastic. And the PLOT was really good. BUT.

Oh. My. GAWD.  Someone stop me from reaching into this book and strangling Tori. Please. Violence of any sort should not be tolerated against a fictional character.

Tori Spring is stumbling through her last years in high school, not really fitting in, not really caring one way or the other. Her brother Charlie has some mental health issues that are never really explained, her mother is remote. She chances upon a website, Solitaire, that wants to challenge authority and make change at her school – but essentially, it goads teens into mob-like behaviour and mocks authority. She makes it her mission to find out who is behind it, as the behaviour escalates and people get hurt.

I know I’m supposed to be sympathetic to her character, but I just can’t. Sheesh. What a self-absorbed WHINER. Bitter, pessimistic, judgmental, toxic, pretentious, and convinced she is the only human out there that understands life. Enough with the teenage angst and no one understands me and I blog all the time and I hate reading and my life sucks and you’re too good for me and no one is real except me and I don’t like anyone. My mother is insufferable, my father recommends books to me. Poor me.

Look.  We were all misunderstood teens at some point or another. But Victoria Spring takes it to a whole new level. And I can’t decide whether that is awesome or not – is it worse to intensely hate a character, or to feel ambivalent about one? Author Alice Oseman obviously can evoke emotion in her writing!

I wasn’t a huge fan of any of the characters, really, although I seemed more drawn to the ones Tori judged unworthy of her attention.

The funny thing is that the story itself was very compelling.  I wanted to find out what Solitaire was, and who was behind it, and why. The idea is interesting; are today’s teens really just social media sheep? Is that really all it takes to incite violence? It didn’t seem totally unlikely. But the execution is painful at times. (For example: blasting one song all day over the school’s PA system that no one can stop? Ever heard of the “off” switch? Maybe pull the plug?)

Don’t even ask me about the supposed love triangle/interests, I have no idea. I’d smack all three of them and move on.

Any teen can read this, and maybe some will want to, if only to feel better about their own lives.

Solitaire is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books.

Every Last Word

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There have been a lot of books written lately dealing with teen mental illness, some successfully, some not so much. They are tough to read, and tough to review.  This one in particular was  difficult – although I really loved it, it left me with questions.

Samantha McAllister is a junior in high school, and has been diagnosed with Purely-Obsessional OCD; she can’t turn off her brain without the help of meds and dark thoughts can overwhelm her.  Her crushes on various boys are not always based in reality. Sleep can be nearly impossible and the number three has far too much influence on her daily activities.

She has been best friends since junior kindergarten with the same group of girls – the Crazy Eights (now down to five). They are the popular girls, they set the trends for make-up and clothes, are on every social committee, are the ones everyone else wants to be.  Or so Samantha thinks.

In reality, she is no longer comfortable around the group, and she feels like the fifth wheel. The petty jealousies, the social structure and watching every word she says and every outfit she chooses is tiring. She is ready to move on, but is afraid to leave the safety of familiarity, afraid to make such a change.

Then she meets Caroline, who helps her find her own voice.  Sam is introduced to Poet’s Corner, and accepted into a group of individuals who all have their own ideas and quirks, who all are ready to like her for her. She competes at an elite level in swimming, and finds strength in the pool and in her writing. Slowly, she starts to feel “normal,” and occasionally leaves behind some of her regular behaviours.

I did NOT see the twist coming at the end.

Tamara Ireland Stone writes fabulous characters.  Sam, AJ and Caroline were so alive, and the various friends and frenemies were absolutely believable. Stone evokes emotion without effort throughout; the story made me angry, made me hold my breath, cringe, laugh and cry.

Here is my issue with the story: I cannot judge how successful it is in portraying OCD accurately. To me, Sam’s challenges seemed a bit romanticized, if I can use that word. Is it really likely that a teenage girl was able to hide her OCD from the friends she had hung out with almost daily since kindergarten? When she was diagnosed so young?

That said, it feels like an honest attempt, and I think was done respectfully. Any effort to shine a light on and bring understanding to teen mental illness should be applauded.

Given the subject matter, the novel is appropriate for age 12 and up.

Every Last Word is published by Hyperion.