"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
Last weekend my husband and I attended NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis. The first session I went to was titled "Mental Health in Young Adult Literature," and it was presented by Amanda MacGregor with Teen Librarian Toolbox -- a GREAT resource for those working in teen services or anyone who cares about YA lit. (This session made me miss my days as a teen services librarian so much.)
MacGregor talked a lot about how common mental illness is among teens (and the population in general -- up to 25 percent of us will experience mental illness firsthand in our lives) and the importance of its presence in teen literature to show teens who have mental health struggles that they are not alone, and to foster greater compassion in those who don't struggle personally. She stressed that it's important that YA lit neither stigmatize nor romanticize mental illness, and that it show that help is possible. A work of fiction may be the first time a teen encounters someone who has a mind that works the same way as their own.
MacGregor shared her own lifelong struggle with anxiety, and she shared writing from YA authors who had written about mental illness, many of whom had personal experience with the mental health issues faced by their characters.
I agreed with MacGregor about the importance of portraying mental illness in a sensitive way when writing for young audiences, and I found myself examining my middle-grade novel through that lens.
Authors often talk about writing the book that they wished they'd had when they were young. I did the same, and much of what my protagonist, Maddy, goes through, I also experienced at her age. That includes my first brush with depression.
I struggled with depression throughout my adolescence, encountering it for the first time when I was about 10 years old -- from there it would come and go in waves, hitting its apex when I was 16; I finally found relief when I was prescribed antidepressants to treat my chronic migraines.
My novel opens with Maddy's suicide attempt; later in the book she experiments with self-harm. She is also the victim of bullying, to which, I would argue, depression is a natural response. She is never clinically diagnosed -- I have never received a clinical diagnosis, either. She does encounter the concept of mental illness through her father, who falls into a depression after he loses his job. Because his depression interferes with his ability to contribute fully as a parent, Maddy's mother pushes him to get help, and he does. So Maddy is aware that depression exists, and also that help exists for it. She even wonders briefly if she (and her mother) should get treatment. But she never sets foot in a therapist's office, and she finds other ways to heal.
I have no doubt that adolescents struggling with mental illness fall through the cracks all the time. Part of it is that we just expect teenagers to be "moody" or "difficult." As an adult or a parent, I'm sure it's difficult to discern when a teenager's struggles are a natural result of the seismic hormonal and social changes of that age, and when they signify an underlying chemical issue that should be professionally or medically treated. And often, teens themselves do not have the vocabulary to name what they are experiencing -- or the agency to ask for help.
In light of MacGregor's discussion, I find myself questioning whether it is irresponsible to portray mental illness without explicitly naming it in books aimed at children. Part of the challenge is that mental illness exists on a spectrum and is somewhat subjective, despite the existence of diagnostic questionnaires and the DSM-V. Although I, as the author, can diagnose depression in my main character, a reader could argue, based on the events of the story, that she has schizophrenia and/or dissociative identity disorder. I don't agree with either of those diagnoses, but I certainly wouldn't try to talk a reader out of that interpretation.
So the state of Maddy's mental health, while described in some detail in the book, is never named. This wasn't a decision I made consciously; and now that I have become more conscious of it, I'm resistant to changing it. Primarily this is because, unlike books such as Challenger Deep or Every Last Word, my novel is not ABOUT mental illness. Some of the characters in it are afflicted, just like some of the population is. Up until this point, I've always felt that what's important is for young readers to recognize themselves in the feelings and experiences of a book's protagonist -- not necessarily that they have names for all those experiences.
But I'm having trouble thinking of similar books for young people that portray mental illness without explicitly naming it. It seems like characters in YA novels are either diagnosed with a named mental illness before or within the course of the story, or they are assumed to be mentally healthy. Does the genre have room for middle ground? And if it does, do you know of books that occupy that space?
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #39: A book set in a place you'd like to visit
After discussing some of the book's flaws with my book club last week, I realize I may have been a bit generous in awarding it the elusive five stars. But despite its weaknesses, while I was reading this book I did not want it to end -- this happens rarely even when I am enjoying a book, and that tends to be what bumps it into five-star territory.
While I agree that Rosie is a bit of a manic-pixie-dream-girl, and while I do think she's a bit on the self-centered side, and while I had such a hard time picturing her even though she WAS described, she didn't really get on my nerves or interfere with my enjoyment of the book. The most fun aspect of this book for me was Don's "voice" -- I loved the unusual way he saw the world and the various adventures and misunderstandings that arose from this. Not only is the book a sympathetic portrayal of someone who is on the autism spectrum, but it also underscores the ways that neurotypicals and those with different brain types are very much alike. All of us have certain ideas that we are unwilling to be flexible about, and all of us feel pretty clueless when it comes to understanding love.
Overall, this is a "feel-good" book that would make a delightful romantic comedy -- and this coming from someone who isn't a huge fan of romantic comedies. What I liked about this as a romance is that the misunderstandings and tensions that arise in Don and Rosie's relationships are not manufactured for the sake of plot -- instead, they arise naturally from the way that their minds work differently. Thus, it's not one of those books where all the tension would be dissipated if the characters would just TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY. Talking to each other, with their differing communication styles, is often part of the problem.
I like that Don's relationship with Rosie made him more "open" to new experiences and "flexible" in the way he lived his life, but I think the criticism that he was expected to change "too much" is valid. Rosie probably could have learned a thing or two about being organized and methodical, too!
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #24: A "Between-the-Numbers" book of a series
This was pretty much what you'd come to expect in a J.D. Robb book, except shorter. There is no who-dun-it because Eve knows who the killer is -- an escaped convict that she put behind bars three years ago. The tension instead comes from the fact that Eve as well as a close friend are both on his "hit list" and she must find him before he kills the others on the list and without losing her own life.
The book was fine -- prose, pacing, plot pretty much on par with the full-length novels. I was annoyed that a book so short still had to waste pages on sex scenes that did nothing to advance plot or character, but mostly I rated this book three stars because it followed the J.D. Robb formula TOO well. I was hoping the shorter form might give her the opportunity to try something a little different, but this is just a miniature version of what she's been doing all along.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #25: A Book Whose Main Character is in a Profession that Interests You
This feels like two different books smashed into one: the first half is something of a memoir of Cutie's experience in the priesthood, while the second half is essentially his rant about all the things that are wrong with the Catholic church, which he mostly attributes to the celibacy requirement for clergy.
This has a bit more of a "celebrity memoir" feel to it than I usually like, and the writing in the first half feels a little labored, clunky, and obligatory. I didn't realize that Cutie was such a public figure, so his need to tell "his" side of the story and his many references to how the media and those around him perceived him felt a little bit overly defensive to me. If you're looking for a love story, you will be disappointed -- he goes into very little detail about the relationship that was ultimately the last straw in his decision to leave the Catholic church, probably out of respect for his wife, whom he characterizes as a "private" and "shy" person.
The book picked up steam (and interest) for me after Cutie stopped acting as an apologist for why he remained in the Church for so long and instead dissects all that he sees to be wrong with it. There is nothing incredibly new here, although there are a few interesting insights, such as his belief that the Catholic church has been so silent in speaking out against dictatorial governments because it is itself a dictatorship. The idea that all of the Church's problems stem from the celibacy requirement is a bit of a stretch, but he makes a compelling argument for it nonetheless. I liked having the "insider look" behind the veil that is the Catholic hierarchy and appreciated that Cutie's role as an outsider allowed him greater than priests still within the system are afforded. I felt a bit uncomfortable with how Cutie seemed ready to give priests accused of sex abuse the "benefit of the doubt" as well as his conflation of homosexuality and predatory sexual preferences, even though he claims to be an ally to the GLBTQ community.
As a memoir it's a little stiff and wooden, and it's not the greatest treatise on the failings of the Catholic church. But I'm still glad to welcome Cutie among the chorus of dissenters calling for change in an institution that too often does more harm than good to its adherents.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #34: A book about mental illness
This is one of the better YA books I've read this year. Samantha's voice feels believable and does not reduce her to her mental illness, which is OCD with a focus on obsessive thoughts. Although Sam keeps her OCD secret from her friends and crush, and this provides some of the tension, it's reassuring to know that her family and her therapist are in on her struggles and are there to support her, so the OCD never feels overwhelming and Samantha's predicaments never veer toward despair.
The story thread about Samantha dealing with her group of friends, "mean girls" who often prey on her insecurities and make the idea of coming out about her OCD unthinkable, is well handled. Although we don't get to know all the girls in the group in depth, and some of them are basically just names, Stone does a good job of showing that they are more than their place in the hierarchy, and she intersperses happy memories and a long history together that makes it easy to see why Sam can't easily just break away from them. From her association with them, she has access to a privileged place on the school's social strata, and this serves as "golden handcuffs" that traps her.
Woven alongside this story is one about Samantha discovering a new group of friends, poets who secretly meet to share their work twice a week. This is how she finds the strength to begin leaving her toxic friendships behind, and she also finds a way to give voice to what it feels like to live with OCD. She has a crush on one of the boys in the group, and for me this book's main drawback was the amount of time it spent on teen lovey-dovey stuff, although at least the object of Sam's affection feels like an individual and is not "perfect" (he's a stutterer, has his own insecurities, can't swim, etc.) I sort of secretly wanted this to be a lesbian story since Samantha and Caroline had such great chemistry, but I liked the ultimate explanation for why they "clicked," too. I also really loved the book's themes about the healing power of writing, the idea that those who have mental illness derive certain blessings from their condition and the sensitive way it handled Samantha's reliance on escapism.
A good read, overall, and one that delivers more than it promises.
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Item: A book set in the Middle East
This is a first novel, and it feels like one. The prose is overwritten and tends toward the purple, and it resorts to using the same descriptions far too often. Like, we don't need to know that Jalid has "tiger eyes" each time he looks at Sherzhad, do we? Or that Sherzhad has luscious, waist-length hair? There also seemed to be something weird going on with transitions, because I often had to backtrack to figure out how we got from one scene to another, or from one point of view to another, etc.
It's hard to redeem the caliph who murders a new bride every night, and this book puts forth a valiant effort. But in doing so, it sort of lets him off the hook for his crimes, which is a little off-putting. The tumultuous love story between Jalid and Sherzhad probably would have captured my interest if I read this as a teenager, but as an adult it felt a bit on the melodramatic side. Plus, whenever I started to get into it, there was, "Oh yeah, but this guy has killed a bunch of women," and that sort of killed the mood for me.
The world-building is pretty shaky and doesn't seem to be firmly rooted in Middle Eastern history or in a new, magical world. It ends up being a sort of mashup of the two, but the magic plays such a tangential part in the story that it feels a little out of place. There are curses and random powers inserted mostly for the sake of convenience and without feeling as though they are truly woven into the fabric of this time and place. And, like, why was there a magic carpet that never even did anything? I could have done without the half-baked love triangle, too.
I gave the book three stars, so obviously it wasn't all bad. It held my interest well enough even if it annoyed me at times, and there are far too few retellings of fairy tales outside the European canon. It ends on a little bit of ambiguity/cliffhanger which seems to set it up for a sequel, in which the love triangle is destined to take center stage. I don't think I will be reading it.
Book Riot Challenge Item: A Historical Fiction Set Before 1900
I think the people who dislike this book because they don't like the way Elizabeth or other Bennets act in it really need to venture out of their protective bubble.
There's a reason the characters in Longbourn are mentioned only in passing in [book:Pride and Prejudice|1885]: it's because the upper classes barely noticed that the servant class existed. The portrayal of the Bennets in this book seems perfectly in line with their portrayal in the book; they are kind to the servants, they are not monsters, but they have a sense of entitlement -- which is barely noticed when the story is told from their perspective, but which rankles a bit when you see it through the eyes of those who must work to make sure the Bennets continue to receive what they feel entitled to, whether it is new shoe roses despite the rain or three warm meals each day.
Although I consider myself a Jane Austen fan and I like the romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, I get easily irritated by the Jane-ites that fawn over the romance in the books as though Austen was merely a writer of Harlequins and not a woman who was attempting to critique the society in which she lived even as she upheld it. And I have limited patience for books such as [book:Austenland|248483] and [book:The Jane Austen Book Club|2152] that seem fixated on "cute-sy-fying" Austen.
What I loved about Longbourn is that it brought Regency England back down to earth. There are cold mornings, chamber pots to be emptied, a war in Spain, wealth that is acquired through connections with the slave trade. This should not "tarnish" our view of the original works but instead deepen it with a more complete appreciation of their full context. This book is rich in sensory and historical details and delves fully into the lives of those who are often considered disposable and forgettable by history -- and yes, by Austen herself, whether you like it or not.
Although it does have some similar themes to P&P, it is not too obvious, nor does it cripple itself by trying too hard to emulate the source material. At the same time, this book is eminently faithful to the original -- all the events are the same -- and only the perspectives are different. This time, the Bennets are in the background, and while this might be disappointing to those hoping to slather over a new take on Elizabeth and Darcy's love, I found it to be perfectly acceptable because the main characters here are fully realized enough that we don't need to rely on an old, beloved story to make it through. I also appreciated that, because this book was written much later than P&P, it could more fully explore issues that would have been improper to write about then, such as just how creepy Wickham might have been, what happened when children were born out of wedlock, etc.
It was a little slow to start, and I found my interest waning in the section about James near the end, which took the action away from the core group of women we had been following for the rest of the book. But it is definitely a worthwhile read, especially if you enjoy well-rendered, intimate historical fiction, and whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to its source material.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #46: A Crime Story
I am only a casual fan of Batman, but the credit for any of the fandom I have for the series goes back to Batman: The Animated Series from the nineties, which I still consider to be the best incarnation of Batman yet. So I was excited to read this graphic novel (memoir) about one of the original writers for the series, and his relationship with the Batman of his imagination.
I enjoyed this book, although it wasn't quite as phenomenal as I hoped it would be. I really liked getting a peek "behind the scenes" on the writing of the animated series, as well as the movie "Mask of the Phantasm," which Dini was working on when the attack depicted in this book takes place. I also liked the reflection on how fictional characters can become real to us, to the extent that they can actually influence our attitude and the outcome of our lives, as well as the look at how the life of the imagination can be disrupted, spoiled, and rebuilt after tragedy.
The art is appropriately gritty, dark, and realistic, although I felt that the female characters were more sexualized than was necessary. I also didn't particularly like the "framing" mechanism of having Dini "tell" the story to some unknown audience -- it seemed like a gimmick without there ever being a reveal on who his "listener" was, besides the reader.
Still, if you like graphic memoirs or comic books, I think this one brings something truly new to both genres.
- Susan Mallery, Writer's Digest Interview, May/June 2015
This was not a long book, but it sure felt like it.
The book is supposed to be about this epic battle between dark and light jinn, with the light jinn relying heavily on half-jinn, half-human descendants of a genia princess. But the whole first half of the book is dedicated to the half-jinn characters discovering their weird and random magical powers. I think Rushdie thinks he's doing some awesome character development during this section, but none of the characters really captured me, so mostly it just felt like nothing was happening. And even when the epic battle started, the decisive battles were wrapped up quickly and easily in a few sentences. I tend to get bored during long, drawn-out battle scenes, so I guess that's fine. But it did seem kind of anti-climactic after putting up with all the boredom to get there.
In the beginning I thought this might be a three-star book by virtue of "good writing" because Rushdie is a pretty big deal, but honestly, the writing just felt pretentious. It was obviously trying to be clever and funny, but I don't think I cracked a smile once, much less laughed. The distant and academic tone also made it really hard to get invested. And the heavy-handed moral messaging at the end pretty much clinched it for me -- this book would be lucky to scrape by with a two-star rating, and that pretty much just because I liked Baby Storm, and the fitting legacy of Jimmy Kapoor.
[Also, this book wants to be categorized as magical realism because magical realism is taken more seriously in literary circles, but really, it's fantasy. This is not a mostly real-world story where strange, magical things happen once in a while. This is a book where a sizeable portion of the named characters are genies and part of it takes place in fairyland. Also, if you classify it as magical realism, it's easier to overlook its shoddy worldbuilding. Seriously, it takes more than constant orgies to characterize a whole magical race. So, yeah, it fails as magical realism by having too little reality attached, and it can't hold a candle against any fantasy worth its salt.]
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Item: The First Book in a Series by a Person of Color
So, now I know why Octavia Butler is such a big deal.
I first acquired this book used about 10 years ago after a random stranger recommended her in a comment on a Livejournal post. Thank you, stranger, wherever you are. (I've run across her other times since then -- in a science fiction and feminist podcasts, in writing books, from other friends, but that long-ago recommendation is what spurred me to put one of her books on my shelf -- and now I hope to add many more.)
The backstory is not all that important, but it's hard to put my reaction of this book into words. If I were to sum it up in a single word, it would be: haunting.
Well-rendered, alien species can often sell a sci-fi book for me, and in this one I was utterly fascinated by the Oankali and Lilith's relationship to them. While there are some pretty clear colonization parallels in the way the Oankali relate to Lilith and other humans, seeing the story purely through that lens is too simple. The Oankali are a complex people, and Butler never offers easy answers; they have saved the human race from extinction, but in return they expect to take over their very gene pool. They are paternalistic and perceive themselves as benevolent, and the fact that they treat Lilith (and the other humans) so kindly makes the questions of consent even more unsettling. It is not surprising that [ Lilith comes to love them, perhaps even to prefer them over other humans, but the reader can't help but wonder if this is partially Stockholm Syndrome. Yet, when even the reader feels inexplicably drawn to the race, one can hardly blame Lilith for doing the same; but while she retains a certain ambivalence and rebellious nature, it's unclear whether we are meant to admire her alliance with the Oankali or simply accept it as the best option out of bad options.] One thing is certain: Lilith remains sympathetic throughout, and the real mastery of this novel is that the Oankali, despite standing in for the oppressors, do, too.
The only reason I gave this four stars instead of five is that my patience and interest waned somewhat in the middle section focused on Lilith and the other humans aboard the ship. There are a lot of characters, none of whom is developed with much depth, who behave overall in disappointing and frustrating ways that make this portion a bit of a slog to get through. But it's definitely worth holding on to the end -- now I need to get my hands on the rest of the series. [My library doesn't have anything by Butler, which is disgusting. Also disgusting is the white-washed cover on my copy of the book, despite the fact that Lilith is clearly described as black and the story itself can be seen as a metaphor for racial justice, or lack thereof. It's like the publisher didn't even *get* the issues the book was grappling with.]
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #26: A Book Everyone is Talking About
I usually don't explicitly review audiobook performances even though I listen to tons of audiobooks -- if something stands out, I'll mention it, but I focus my reviews on the things I would have noticed regardless of the medium.
I'm making an exception this time because this audiobook is *so damn good.* This is one of the rare cases where I'm honestly not sure I would have liked the book as much as I did if I read it the old-fashioned way.
The book is set up as a collection of "files" -- interviews, transcripts, diary entries, etc. -- surrounding research on a giant, ancient robot whose pieces are scattered throughout the world. I usually like this "self-aware" storytelling style, wherein the characters are aware that they are writing, being recorded, etc., as they tell their story. What this means in the audio version, however, is that each character is played by a different reader. And the readers, with their accents, quirks of inflection, rate of speaking, etc., all feel like real people, making this somewhat fantastical book ALSO feel as if maybe it *could* really happen. It's a totally immersive experience -- the kind that leaves you walking around in your normal life with your brain still living somewhere back in "book world." It's been a long time since I read a book that seeped so deeply into my subconscious, and that I wanted to sink into as much as I did this one. Perhaps I would have had the same experience if I had read it -- the book could not have done as well as it did if it were only audiobook listeners who liked it -- but I still think audio is definitely the way to go on this one.
So, why only four stars with all that gushing? One nitpicky thing is that this book does what a lot of "documentary," "epistolary," or "diary" books do -- there are places where it strains credibility that the characters would actually go into such detail when talking/writing about certain things, and you know the only reason the author did it is because he wants to reader to have that information, and his chosen medium has constrained the way that it can be delivered. There was only one place in here that I really noticed this, but it was big enough to jar me out of the story for a little bit.
Also, this isn't the type of sci-fi that I generally go for. I'm not a big fan of "giant robot" stories, and this one has a lot of military overtones, which is something else that is a turn-off for me in science fiction. And I kept feeling like there should be a bigger reveal at some point, like we were perhaps building up to something that never actually happened (although the epilogue was pretty cool.) So, I think it was not the story itself that captivated me, but rather its execution. This isn't the best story out there, but its execution is brilliant. And its audio adaptation is even brilliant-er.