Book Review – Little and Lion

Author: Brandy Colbert
Publisher: Little Brown and Company (2017)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a YA readership)

“When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she doesn’t want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her step-brother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her around for emotional support. But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to find a way to save her brother from himself. But will he ever trust Suzette enough to let her help him?”

This book has been on my to read/review list for a while but I pushed it to the bottom because it features a sibling with a mental illness, rather than a parent. I didn’t know what I was missing.

As an Australian reader, I was conscious the whole time of how American this book was, which isn’t a bad thing, just an observation that there were certain terms and concepts (such as the school system) with which I wasn’t overly familiar and that I didn’t immediately understand.

That aside, this was an excellent book. The non-linear structure was great and allowed readers to form a more complete picture of Lionel (and his relationship with Suzette) before his diagnosis.

I wanted to cheer for the way this book explored diversity, both in terms of sexuality and religion. I don’t know much about Judaism but it was portrayed beautifully here from what I could tell, and it was a testament to the bonds between Saul, Lionel, Suzette and her mum that they converted.

The racism directed at Suzette and Emil shocked me. I’m extremely fortunate to have never been on the receiving end of such treatment, and I can’t fathom how it still exists. However, I need to recognise that it does exist – everyone needs to recognise it so that we can do something about it. This book – and fiction in general – has the power to make people aware of casual cruelty and racist behaviour and, I hope, to put a stop to it.

The way Colbert validated and emphasised the emotional support provided by a sibling or child of someone who has mental health issues was absolutely brilliant. In particular I appreciated that it was Suzette’s parents who identified she “was taking on too much emotionally for someone [her] age…How [she] couldn’t worry so much about him that [she] missed out on [her] own life.”

The bond between Suzette and Lionel was highlighted when Lionel stopped taking his medication and asked Suzette to keep the secret for him. It was a heavy burden to bear and a tough predicament, one that I imagine many young people in a similar situation would recognise.

I felt uncomfortable with the idea that Lionel and Suzette might have feelings for and possibly vie for the affection of the same girl, because I loved their sibling dynamic so much. There was no way a romantic relationship could come between them, surely? So, without saying too much, I was very happy with the ending.

Here are a few of my favourite lines:

“I smile and pretend I’m not examining every single inch of him for changes.”
Also, the description of Lionel’s thumbs immediately after this as “shredded, the sides of them forever bitten and spotted with red,” could be a description of my thumbs every day, so I have to mention that as well!

“It feels claustrophobic in my room, like I’m being pushed out by Lion and his increasingly intense thoughts.”
This was such an evocative description!

I’ve already started recommending ‘Little and Lion’ to my friends and colleagues in the mental health field. It’s a must-read.

little and lion

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Book review – August Falling

Content warning: discussion of suicidal thoughts and attempts

Also, fair warning: there are full spoilers ahead.

“After a bad break-up, August is trying to piece his life back together. It’s not perfect – his flat is small, he works in a call centre, he can’t finish the book he’s working on, and he’s hopelessly awkward when it comes to relationships.

When August meets Julie, he finds she’s everything he isn’t – confident, composed and purposeful, despite her troubled childhood. With her August feels he can finally be himself. But Julie has a secret – one that threatens to plummet August right back into the miseries of his past.”

Author: Les Zig
Publisher: Pantera Press (2018)
Genre: Contemporary fiction

I’ve been especially nervous about writing and posting this review, but I had some spare time today and told myself that just like with every other piece of writing, all I have to do is put words on the page, and I’ll feel better once I do.

I feel ill-equipped to write this review – and all of them, really – because I’ve never formally studied writing. I mean, I’ve devoured books like Stephen King’s On Writing, Kate Grenville’s ‘The Writing Book,’ and Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones,’ but that doesn’t exactly qualify me for anything.

I read – and write – for the love of it, and I’m trying to learn as I go along. So, with that long winded disclaimer out of the way, here are my thoughts on ‘August Falling.’

I like the easy-going tone of August’s voice, and the first person perspective is well-suited to helping us understand his mental state.

One of the reasons I avoided writing this review for so long was because the book is not (at first glance) similar to those I usually write about. However, August is facing mental health challenges, which clearly impact himself and his family and that’s something I understand better than anything else.

On that note, Gen’s relationship with her brother was shown really well. They have the usual sibling dynamics which are strengthened (and complicated) by Gen’s concern for August. She’s an enormously caring, almost maternal sister; checking up on him with regular phone calls and making sure he’s easting properly. I laughed out loud when Gen accidentally sprayed Julie with her breast milk.

The fact that Gen had a female partner was incorporated naturally into the story, which was great. I’m starting to see that happen in other books too, but it needs to happen much more frequently.

I admired how as August got to know Julie, her background revealed itself to make her someone who could understand August’s low self-esteem and sit through it with him. Her vulnerabilities – her mum’s illness, for example, and having to grow up too quickly – were what allowed her to empathise with and challenge August. I was surprised when her secret was revealed – definitely did not see that one coming (no pun intended).

I will say that I’m a super sensitive – some would say excessively sensitive, and excessively polite – person, so the swearing didn’t sit well with me, which is not a criticism of the book. It’s a strength, because it represents the way many people speak. It prompted me to reflect on myself, and I love it when a book invites me to engage in such reflection.

Here are a few of my favourite lines:

“You see your anxiousness as a weakness, but it helps you be sweet and sensitive. That’s not a bad thing.”
As someone who is often anxious, I needed to hear this probably as much as August.

“There are days when everything feels like it’s opening up, and everything that’s been a burden could fall away so the world can become new and exciting again.”
I know these days and love them, and they inspire me in much the same way that reading this line did.

I also adored the fact (and this is a major spoiler) that they didn’t end up together. Julie didn’t heal August – she can’t, and he’s not her responsibility – and it’s far more realistic that their lives would pull them away from one another.

I really liked how August would often look down at the scar on his wrist, and how it was repeatedly described as gleaming, or a “jagged, mocking smile.” It was a subtle reminder of how far August has had to come, and how easily he could slip. Plus, as someone who thinks of my own scars in much the same way, I really appreciated how it was used in the novel.

I could see parts of myself in August, particularly his tendency to apologise when it’s not necessary, and I imagine there are many other readers out there who could relate to August too.

The final words of the book sum it up perfectly: “It’s a story of acceptance, and hope. And finding yourself.” We need more stories like this one.

august falling

Book review – This is How I Find Her

Author: Sara Polsky
Publisher: Albert Whitman and Company (2013)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a YA readership)

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

“Sophie has always lived in the shadow of her mother’s mental illness. She checks her mum’s meds and makes sure the rent’s paid. She rushes home after school and makes dinner every night. She keeps it all a secret.

The one day everything changes. After a desperate intervention, Sophie finds herself living with the family she barely knows – and apart from Mom. In some ways, it means she’s alone. In other ways, it means she’s free. But when the crisis is over, will she have to go back to being the old Sophie?”

This is my first review of 2019, but it’s actually a book I read (and adored) in the last few days of 2018. The opening line was arresting: I was impressed by the juxtaposition of an ordinary school day with the life-altering act of Sophie’s mum attempting to end her own life. It established from the very beginning the deep emotional connection that existed between Sophie and her mum. I’ve seen this book referred to as a quiet novel, and I think that’s what I love most about it.

I felt for Sophie so much and related to so many aspects of her character, especially her dedication to her school work, because “homework was the easiest part of [my] day.” She could use school as a distraction and an escape, until the thoughts about her mum became too insistent. The litany of questions Sophie asked herself, one after the other, conveyed the sense of panic she was feeling in a realistic way and I wished so many times that I could reach through the pages and give her a hug.

I enjoyed the scene where Sophie was able to impress Dr. Choi with her knowledge of her mum’s medication, and especially appreciated that he made her feel as though he had nowhere else to be. He recognised – as all professionals should – that as her mother’s daughter, Sophie had an expert understanding of her mother’s condition.

I’ve never read much of Rumi’s poetry, but the extract that Sophie, Leila and James used for their English assignment was so beautiful and poignant that I’m determined to read much more of it. I’m a big fan of intertextuality and love how it was used here – Rumi’s words offering Sophie (and the reader) a different perspective on her situation.

Not sure if it’s just me, but flashbacks can be confusing if they’re not well executed. I’m pleased to say that Polsky differentiated clearly between past and present (using the respective tense for each time period) and that every glimpse into the past gave readers an interesting insight into Sophie and/or other characters.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes, and why they stood out for me:

“She’s confused and woozy and wanting to make all of it – the moods, the medication, the parenting from her 16 year old daughter – stop…Unable to remember that she’s made it through this before.”
This moment was touching because I love how it evoked Sophie’s empathy for her mother – empathy that remains (love that remains) even when her mum wasn’t able to show any empathy for her.

“[it] doesn’t have to be one or the other – happy or sad, my mother or my life. Maybe it can be like the axis of the graph, right in the middle, everything at once.”
Not only was I happy for Sophie as a character to have come to the realisation that her mother’s illness didn’t have to consume her or prevent her from living the rest of her life, I was also uplifted by this concept in general – the duality of our lives, the fact that we can choose to embrace it and find meaning in it.

All in all, I really liked this book – the characterisation, the plot, and the prose – and would recommend it as both a read for any YA lover and as a resource for COPMI (children of a parent with a mental illness).

this is how i find her

My favourite books this year (2018)

Flowers In The Brain

  • Picture1When elephants fly by Nancy Richardson Fischer: I didn’t expect to fall so in love with this book. I became so emotionally attached to Swifty the elephant which is the main reason I enjoyed this book so far. I hadn’t read a book quite like this before, I found it interesting that the story also had a huge focus on mental illness, schizophrenia but the illness wasn’t actually present in any of the characters. I really recommend this book!
  • All the little lights by Jamie McGuire: I only read this book a few weeks ago, it was my favourite read of November. Again, the characters is what made me love this book so much. The ending also made it for me, really wasn’t what I was expecting, no spoilers here!
  • Letters to the lost & More than we can tell by Bridid Kemmerer: I loved this sequel, I…

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Book Review – Pretty Girls Don’t Eat

Author: Winnie Salamon
Publisher: Ford Street (2017)

Content warning: mentions of eating disorders and suicide

“Sixteen year old Winter Mae Jones knows exactly what she wants: a career in fashion design. There’s only one thing standing in her way’- ‘fat girls’ don’t work in the fashion industry. A strict diet seems like a good fix, but Winter’s weight may not be the only thing holding her back…”

I’ve thought about this book a lot in the weeks since I finished reading it, a sure sign that it’s a great one. The gorgeous cover and informal chapter titles drew me in, as did the plot, and my interest only grew as I progressed through the novel.

I was so pleasantly surprised to find that this was a COPMI (child of a parent with a mental illness) story as well as one that deals with Winter’s own mental health. The book demonstrated the bi-drectionality of mental health – not only does Winter’s mum impact her, but Winter impacted her mum, too. And it went even further than that with the revelation that Grandma Joan took her own life, which shocked and rattled every member of the family.

The night Winter woke to find her mum sneaking food at night was perhaps my favourite and a scene I wasn’t expecting. There had been hints earlier in the book that her mum had an unhealthy relationship with food, but I think it was important for readers to see it laid out so blatantly.

My heart was warmed to read about how Winter’s relationship with her mother developed and became something positive, especially in the scene where they went to the gym together. The following quote was a lovely demonstration of that: “There I was, throwing punches at the woman who had raised me and loved me and fought with me and made me feel like shit more than once. And it was awesome.”

Giving Winter a female role model who was comfortable in her own body – a body which happened to defy conventional beauty standards – was such a powerful choice. Mabel was probably my favourite character for that reason, aside from Winter herself.

Another choice I admired was the inclusion of her counselling sessions with Rosie. With many people who experience mental health challenges still reluctant to seek help, positive representations of the outcomes of help-seeking are so important. Winter’s relationship with Rosie, and Rosie’s acceptance and strategies were a significant part of her recovery, and I hope such representations might inspire other readers to seek help.

I have to give an Honourable Mention to Oliver as another of my favourite characters. As I’ve mentioned in several other reviews, I tend not to enjoy romance in YA but in this case, I really liked it. The fact that Oliver was the only person in Winter’s life not to comment on her weight loss was the thing that cemented that for me. He was exactly what she needed. By the same token, it was clear that Winter helped Oliver too – his nervousness on their first date at the dog park and the fact that he was able to confide in her about the pressures of growing up with a single mum was a testament to that.

I would so recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand disordered eating, particularly its intergenerational effects.

I found the final paragraph of the book particularly empowering, and that’s where I’d like to end this review, with Winter’s reminder to herself, and to everyone reading: “I was going to enjoy moments like this. I was going to be me. Not perfect. Not skinny. But good enough, Actually, better than good enough…”

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Book Review – Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Author: Siobhan Curham
Publisher: Walker Books (2018)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a YA readership)

Fourteen-year-old Stevie lives in Lewes with her beloved vinyl collection, her mum … and her mum’s depression. When Stevie’s mum’s disability benefits are cut, Stevie and her mother are plunged into a life of poverty. But irrepressible Stevie is determined not to be beaten and she takes inspiration from the lyrics of her father’s 1980s record collection and dreams of a life as a musician. Then she meets Hafiz, a talented footballer and a Syrian refugee. Hafiz’s parents gave their life savings to buy Hafiz a safe passage to Europe; his journey has been anything but easy. Then he meets Stevie… As Stevie and Hafiz’s friendship grows, they encourage each other to believe in themselves and follow their dreams.

I saw this book in the book store and picked it up because I was intrigued by the title, and once I read the blurb and realised there was a COPMI (child of a parent with mental illness) story in it, there was no doubt that I’d soon be reading it. And I’m very glad that I did.

Here are a few of the lines which I thought highlighted various relevant parts of a COPMI situation:

“When she first got depressed… her depression came in waves…and the good days were like rocks for me to cling to.”
I loved this description because the imagery suggests being swept up in a storm, or by a current you can’t control, which is both accurate and highly evocative.

“I look at mum’s firmly closed bedroom door and instinctively my stomach clenches.”
I loved how this demonstrated being shut out in both a literal and figurative sense – how your parent can be lost or obscured by their illness.

“What if I catch her depression?” This one line highlighted so strongly the importance of psychoeducation, which could help dispel false beliefs lie this about the origin of depression and other mental illnesses.

As an aside, I’m not sure if having a couple at their school called Lily and James was a deliberate Harry Potter reference, but that was where my mind went.

Having a book told from alternate points of view can be hit and miss, especially if the perspectives aren’t distinct, but for Siobhan Curham it was definitely a hit. Hearing from both Stevie and Hafiz – and sometimes reading about the same scene (or sections of it) from each of their perspectives – gave us greater insight into them as characters and how they developed.

I felt angry when reading about how Hafiz was treated by David Price and others at the school, which was a sure sign that Curham did her job well and has created a believable world. Sometimes when a book tries to tackle more than one big issue at once, neither of them end up being explored very well, but in this case, Curham has succeeded. The book beautifully captured the experience of growing up with a mentally ill parent and (although I can’t speak with any experience/authority about the immigrant experience) Hafiz’s story also brings a much needed lens of compassion to how it feels and what it means to have to flee your war-torn country.

I was impressed by the way that although there were hints of each of them having feelings for the other, the relationship remained a platonic one of friendship.

The way that Stevie and Hafiz’s stories constantly mirrored one another was an excellent feature of the book. For example, they both had one hobby about which they’re truly passionate, one that allowed them to escape the misery of their circumstances, albeit briefly, and their passion gave them another way to connect to one another.

In addition to worrying about her mother’s wellbeing, Stevie was grieving her father, feeling isolated at school and trying to keep her and her mother financially afloat. It’s more than any young person (or any person) could reasonably cope with. Hafiz’s entrance in her life brought her hope, and their friendship was transformative.

This is an important novel that I’m sure will appeal to a wide-range of YA readers.

Don't Stop thinking about tomorrow

Book Review – Tender

Author: Eve Ainsworth
Publisher: Scholastic (2018)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a YA readership)

I read this book in one night and it would have been in one sitting, if I hadn’t stopped to have dinner. I was interested to see that Ainsworth has worked in Child Protection and pastoral care roles, but not surprised – her understanding of young people, particularly vulnerable young people, is one of the many strengths of this book.

Here are a few of my favourite parts, followed by a brief explanation:

“As I walked back into the house, I felt the usual tension shift on to me – but it wasn’t as bad as it usually was.” This was Daisy’s experience when she returned from spending time with Marty. Spending time with a peer, with someone who understood how difficult home life could be, because theirs was difficult too, changed Daisy’s experience of coming home. I liked how Marty’s behaviour and ability to empathise was contrasted with Martha. Despite being Daisy’s best friend, Martha could never support Daisy in the way that Marty did.

“When [mum] was by herself, she started thinking, worrying, doing odd things. She needed me with her.”

This thought of Marty’s carried with it the suggestion that he felt responsible for looking after her mum when she wasn’t well, or for keeping her company so that she didn’t start thinking or worrying of behaving in an odd manner. What he failed to understand, and what Ainsworth made apparent to the reader, is that his mother’s mental health is not his responsibility.

“With mum I never know what she’ll be like one day from the next. I used to resent it all, but I know that I need to enjoy the good times when I can.”

This was Marty talking to Daisy, with new-found insight and perspective. He was describing a feeling that comes up quite often among young people in families where mental illness is present: consistent inconsistency. Essentially, that the person you love is impossible to predict, and that the ensuing uncertainty can be draining.

Moving on from the many wonderful sentences in the book, Mr. Terry was one of my favourite characters. I loved how he genuinely cared about Marty, and how his support demonstrated the invaluable role that teachers can play in the lives of their students, above and beyond their allotted lesson times.

Personally, I related more to Marty’s situation than Daisy’s, but there are many readers, I’m sure, for whom the opposite was true. The fact that Ainsworth addressed both mental and physical illness in the book is another of its strengths, and means that it has much wider appeal than it would if it had addressed only one of them.

One thing that I found slightly off-putting (yet impressive at the same time), is how heavily the book emphasised the term ‘young carers.’ I’m not sure about the UK, but in Australia, the idea of being a young carer, or a carer full stop, can be quite contentious. The power and validation that a term like that can offer to the person doing the caring, which often goes unnoticed and unrecognised by other people in their lives, is undeniable. However, accepting the role/title of carer can often come with conflict or tension, especially from the person being “cared” for. There are strong connotations of dependence in the notion of being taken care of, suggestions of deficit or weakness which can be unsettling both for the carer and the unwell person to contemplate.

Having said that, Tender is the kind of book that touches on heavy topics in an accessible way, and it’s one I’d definitely recommend young people read. Furthermore, I’d also call it a must-read for anyone working or hoping to work with vulnerable youth whose situations might resemble those of Marty and Daisy.

Tender book cover