nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Little scares me more than schizophrenia. It attacks seemingly without warning; there are very few treatments; science isn’t even completely sure what causes it. I’ve seen the devastating toll it takes on families, thanks to my friend’s openness on her son’s struggle and ultimate death due to the side effects of the medication he took (a not-uncommon outcome; meds for schizophrenia are hard on the heart and various other organs). But I feel a need to keep reading about it, keep trying to understand, maybe in the hopes that one day I’ll read something positive, a sunnier outlook, an amazing breakthrough. When Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (Doubleday Books, 2020) came out, it sounded like my worst nightmare, and it immediately went onto my list.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault and child molestation.

Don and Mimi Galvin appeared, on the outside, to have an amazing family. An Air Force family, they had twelve children (ten boys, two girls), but perfection evaded the ever-growing family. As the boys grew older, one by one, they became stricken with serious mental illness. Schizophrenia took down one son after another, until six of them were affected, most of them so severely that they lived in hospitals, at home with Mimi, or in supportive housing arrangements. Where had it all gone wrong?

Combining scientific research, the history of mental health research and treatment and schizophrenia in particular, and the story of the Galvins and the tragedy that befell them, Robert Kolker has crafted a deep narrative that spans multiple decades of science, from ‘Schizophrenia is caused by overbearing mothers’ to ‘This is likely due to a complicated combination of genetics and possibly some outside factors.’ Due to the large size of the family, the Galvins became research subjects for multiple studies. The results won’t be available for decades, but this family just might be partly responsible for future breakthroughs on the disease.

My God, this was fascinating. CONTENT WARNING: there is a LOT of sexual abuse mentioned in this book. If you’re unable to handle reading about this subject right now, it’s okay to skip this one. Abuse ran rampant throughout this family; both the daughters and the sons were victimized by both family and people in the community. It’s difficult to read about, so if this isn’t something you can handle right now, it’s okay to take care of yourself and choose a book that will allow you to breathe a little easier.

Hidden Valley Road is about a family unexpectedly stricken with multiple cases of one of the most complex mental illnesses out there, who likely did the best they could at the time with what they had (which wasn’t always much; even today, schizophrenia and how to best treat it remains an enigma), and whom society has often failed. It’s social and scientific history, and despite its large size, it’s an absolute page-turner.

Visit Robert Kolker’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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book review · fiction · YA

Book Review: The Survival List by Courtney Sheinmel

Content warning: suicide

Sometimes a book has sat on my TBR long enough for me to forget what it’s about, but I usually just trust past me to have made the right choice in putting it on there and check it out from the library regardless. That happened with The Survival List by Courney Sheinmel (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019); it was at a different branch than my local one, so I hadn’t been able to get to it during the height of the pandemic. Restrictions have eased, and I’m back to being able to visit other libraries (we’ll see for how long. Looking at you, monkeypox…), so I was finally able to check this book out this past week, and hooboy, what a heartbreaking read.

Sloane’s older sister Talley has died by suicide, and Sloane and her father are left heartbroken, not understanding why, but unable to connect after such a devastating loss. When Sloane discovers a mysterious list in the pocket of the jeans Talley was wearing when she died, she’s confused, yet intrigued: what do all these things mean? She begins a quest to learn what these items and phrases meant to her sister, eventually leading her on a plane and out of state, in order to discover more about her beloved Talley.

Joining Sloane on this adventure is Adam, a boy whose number mysteriously ended up on the back of the list (but who claims to know nothing about Talley). Together, they go on a journey that leads to discovery of not only more about Sloane’s sister and the life she lived before she ended it too soon, but about Sloane as well.

Get out the box of tissues, friends. Once I realized what The Survival List was about, I was unsure if I could keep reading (even when I don’t remember what a book is about, I almost always just dive in without reading the inside flap. I like to live on the wild side…). Sloane’s pain in the beginning is raw and deeply felt; some of the passages in the first few chapters had me setting the book down for a few in order to take a few breaths while scrolling through social media (and with social media being the cesspool that it is these days, for that to be less emotionally taxing is saying something). I’m fortunate enough to have never lost anyone close to suicide, but I’ve supported friends who have lost friends, family members, and, devastatingly, children this way, and Ms. Sheinmel expertly nails the devastation and emotional fallout of the survivors.

While Sloane’s journey may be a little unattainable for most grieving teens (she’s able to travel to California due to the funds of a wealthy friend; her father thinks she’s out there attending a writing camp on an all-expenses-paid scholarship), the emotions here are strong and accurately portrayed, and the discoveries she makes about her sister are enlightening. Boy, do families need to up their communication games as a whole.

The Survival List is a gut-puncher of a novel wrapped in grief and devastation. It’s a heavy read, but it’s worth the emotional energy you’ll spend on it.

Visit Courtney Sheinmel’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

My goodness, it’s hard to get book reviews written these days. Homeschooling takes up ALL of my time from 8-3 and sometimes later (and during our breaks, I’m scrambling to get housework and cooking done, so there’s no review writing getting done there). What little reading I’m able to do gets squished in at night (and this month, I read a few books I don’t feel called to review (parenting book, book for my volunteer job, etc). I’m trying, I promise! It’s one of my goals this year to knock off all the ebooks on my list (since they’ve been sitting there for a while), and This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central Publishing, 2021) was the next one on that list to be available through my Libby app.

First off, this book centers on some heavy topics and comes with a few trigger warnings. This Close to Okay deals mainly with suicide, and the subject comes up often. There are also mentions of the death of a child later on, along with a scene (and brief mentions of the aftermath) of a burn accident. Make sure you’re able to handle these topics before picking up the book, and if now is not the time, take care of yourself and your mental health and go for a different book.

Driving home one night, therapist Tallie comes across a man standing on a bridge, poised to jump. Unable to walk away, she brings the man, who calls himself Emmett, back to her home, where she cares for him and the two begin to forge a connection. Emmett is a mystery; he won’t explain his past or what brought him to the bridge in the first place, but Tallie finds two notes in his jacket pocket that only compound the mystery of who Emmett is.

Emmett has run from his life and is making up for that by getting overly involved in Tallie’s (secretly emailing her ex-husband from a fake email account he sets up) and alternately considering returning to the bridge. Both he and Tallie are hiding things from each other despite their growing closeness, but Emmett’s secrets are beyond devastating. After a tragedy strikes at Tallie’s brother’s annual Halloween party and Emmett steps in to save the day, his secrets come out, and Emmett will be forced to reckon with what he wants his future to look like.

This didn’t really click with me. I think the first part of the premise – the therapist who stumbles upon a suicidal man on a bridge – was what brought me to the book in the first place, but what happens next – she takes him to her house?!?? – seems entirely unethical. I can’t imagine any practicing therapist worth their salt, who wouldn’t want to lose their license, wouldn’t go all-out trying to get the person some serious mental healthcare. I know, I know that mental health hospital beds are incredibly difficult to come by, if not downright impossible, but it seems to me that Tallie was at least obligated to try. Bringing a suicidal stranger into your home, as a single woman, seems unwise at best.

Emmett’s story, when it comes out, is terrible and tragic, but – spoiler alert – while he’s not Tallie’s client, the two of them hopping into bed together just days after he nearly killed himself seems unprofessional and unethical on Tallie’s part at best. It seriously felt icky to me. That said, I did like Tallie as a character, for the most part. She’s independent and thoughtful, focused on her future and building up her life after her divorce (which she’s still trying to heal from).

I didn’t dislike this one, but I had a difficult time getting past the initial, “Why aren’t you taking this suicidal man straight to the hospital?” That threw the whole rest of the book off for me.

Visit Leesa Cross-Smith’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

I was 18 when the massacre at Columbine happened, just under a year after having graduated from high school myself. I remember waking up that day and hearing the news and being shocked and horrified, and as the news continued to filter in over the next few weeks, I grieved not just for the victims and their families, but for the families of the perpetrators. What must their parents be feeling at that moment? Not only had they lost their children to suicide, those children had died in the most horrific (for the surviving parents) manner possible- purposefully taking others out with them. My heart ached badly for those parents, and over the years, I wondered how they were doing. A few years ago, I learned that Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, had written a book, entitled A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (Crown, 2016). I immediately knew I wanted to read it (though I never formally added it to my TBR). On my last trip to the library, as I was grabbing a different book, her book was right in front of me on the shelf. I took it as a sign and put it into my bag.

Think back to when you were a teenager. How open were you with your parents? Did you inform them of the times you suffered from debilitating depression? Did you let them know about what was going on with your friend groups at all times? How many times did you spill the beans about what went on at those parties you went to? Did they really know the truth about all your friends? Teenagers hide a lot from their parents; it’s mostly developmentally normal, a way that they can begin to separate themselves from their parents and begin to form their full adult selves. And teens get really good at hiding things- I know I was- so much so that even the most attentive parents can miss major things. Such was the case for Sue Klebold and her husband Tom, who had begun to notice Dylan seeming a little distant just before the massacre, and who had plans to sit down and talk to him, but tragedy struck too soon.

In the aftermath of Columbine, Sue struggled greatly, unsure of how to process the fact that this child whom she had loved so very much, who had rarely given them any trouble and who seemed to be looking forward to a future at college, had murdered so many of his fellow classmates before turning the gun on himself. How had she not seen the signs? How could she ever possibly atone for the damage her son had caused the community? In her fog of grief, Sue began speaking with therapists, academics, brain health professionals, people who study violence and mass shootings, trying to find answers. Some, she found; others are questions that will remain unanswered forever.

This is a heavy memoir of the deep-seated grief of a mother who has lost her youngest son in one of the worst ways imaginable. It’s bad enough to lose a child; to lose a child who has killed others before killing himself, shattering everything you thought you knew not only about him but about your family and yourself as a parent, is a source of never-ending trauma. Sue Klebold has poured out her heart, soul, pain, grief, and desperate love for a son who committed heinous acts on these pages. You don’t stop loving your child when they do something terrible, but it takes a lot of mental readjustment to incorporate that into your understanding of that child. This book demonstrates the unthinkable difficulty of how to continue on after a nightmare comes to life, and it does so with grace and dignity.

My heart broke over and over for the Klebolds throughout this book: for their pain, for their loss, for the realization that they misinterpreted the signs that something was wrong, and for their gradual understanding that there’s not always a failproof way to prevent these things (look at how difficult it is to get any kind of mental health help; Ms Klebold mentions that Eric Harris, the other Columbine shooter, had been receiving help). It’s not always or maybe even often about how children are parented- how many families can you think of where one sibling has major problems like drugs or crime and the rest of the siblings live normal lives?

So much grief and guilt on every page of this book. I truly hope that Ms. Klebold has been able to find some modicum of peace. I know she’ll never stop loving and missing her son and questioning why- why him, why her, why their family, but I truly, truly hope she’s been able to find peace after such a terrible, terrible loss and painful aftermath.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I’ve had The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) on my TBR list for ages, both because the premise sounded intriguing and also because Hanna Alkaf is wonderful on Twitter (you really should follow her!). It was never in at the library when I checked…and then I finally realized it wasn’t shelved under Alkaf, Hanna, but under Hanna, Alkaf. Whoops. (I’ll ask the library worker about that when I return it, because this needs to be easier to find.) Once I realized the mistake, I located the book and slipped it into my bag.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. You’re probably also familiar with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, and maybe you’ve even learned about the Armenian genocide. But what do you know about what happened in Malaysia on May 13, 1969 and the days that followed? I knew nothing, had never even heard about it (have I ever even read a book set in Malaysia before this? I honestly don’t think so), and that’s one of the reasons I knew I had to read this book.

Melati has OCD in a time where there’s no word or phrase to describe her incessant need to count, usually in groups of threes, in order to protect the people she loves. She pictures the forces compelling her to count as a djinn, cackling at her distress to appease him. It started after her father died; her mother, already stressed over the loss of her husband, doesn’t know how to handle her daughter’s mysterious and shameful problems, and so Melati works hard to hide her compulsions from her.

So life is already tough for Melati, and then the world around her explodes in violence. Separated from her best friend by a group of men wielding knives and wearing sinister smiles, she has no knowledge of where her mother is, no ability to get home, and no idea if she’ll survive the bloodshed. As the bodies pile up in the streets, Melati will need to depend on the kindness of strangers and her own quick wit to not only defeat her own djinn but the evil and hatred that has suddenly pervaded her society.

Ms. Alkaf begins the book with a necessary content warning (told you she’s awesome); this is not an easy book to read for so many reasons, but I think it’s a necessary one if you have the mental space for it. There are a lot of parallels to things going on today, of the way far too many people view those different from them, and the events described in this book are devastating and worrying as a potential conclusion to those levels of hatred. Melati’s OCD is also tough to read, in that it causes her so much distress. I’ve dealt with some OCD tendencies (which were much worse when I was young), so reading her struggles made me want to scoop her up and hug her.

Her growth throughout the novel is admirable and inspiring; it’s hard-fought and incomplete, since OCD is a beast that must be continually tamed, but it’s real. And as in real-life crises, there are no full conclusions, just a sober understanding (as much as that can be possible) of what happened, along with the determination to carry on while never forgetting those who have been lost. It’s heartbreaking and should be eye-opening to any reader, imploring them to examine their biases, delve deeply into their prejudices, and pick apart the reasons why they believe the things they do. Because the outcome of hatred and prejudice is often devastation and death, and at this point in history, with far too many painful examples to illustrate the point for us, we should be better than that. Ms. Alkaf has penned a fictional account of real history that serves as a warning point; don’t let this happen to you, to your country, to anyone.

Excellent book; highly recommended. Just wait until you’re in a good mental space so you can fully process this story, because it’s heavy.

Visit Hanna Alkaf’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

For the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book recommended by my favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club, and what a perfect time to pick up Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2020), who had popped up on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books that I had *so* enjoyed. She’s smart, funny, witty, and such a joy to listen to; she tells great stories, has an amazing laugh, and I seriously live for the episodes when Sarah from Smart Bitches has her on. I read Ms. Rai’s The Right Swipe last year; I enjoyed it, though it was a little harder for me to relate to Rhiannon’s driven sense of ambition (I’m, uh, way more laid back and go-with-the-flow!). I enjoyed her writing style, though, and was eager to read more from her. And lo and behold, Girl Gone Viral was available via my library’s ebooks with NO WAIT. It felt like I’d won the lottery when I hit that check out button.

Katrina King is more than a bit of a recluse, but she’s working on it. Panic attacks, agoraphobia, and PTSD have steered her life for years, but she’s been working with a therapist and doing everything she can to take back control, and step by step, she’s making it work, adding places outside her home she can travel to. What’s not working is her mad, unrequited crush on her bodyguard, Jasvinder. He’s perfect, beautiful, everything she could ever dream of wanting in a man, and she’s like 99.7% sure he views her as just a client. Sigh. When a photo of Katrina and another customer at a cafe, complete with speculative Twitter thread, goes viral, Jasvinder takes Katrina to hide out at his family farm where she can be safe from the prying eyes of the world and from the people in her past who don’t have the best intentions.

At the farm, Jasvinder’s long-avoided family drama is front-and-center, as are his feelings for the woman he’s been protecting for years. He’s in serious, serious love, but how can he admit that without sounding like a creep? As his past elbows its way forward, his family situation needs immediate attention, and he and Katrina begin to grow closer. But it’s their mutual growth that feeds their mutual attraction…maybe going viral isn’t the worst thing that could have happened…

LOVED. THIS. SO. MUCH. I got Katrina. I could relate. She’s determined and driven like Rhiannon, but in a quieter way, and what really spoke to me was her panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which I’ve been diagnosed with. I was never as severely affected as she is, but I know the terror of being stricken with a panic attack in public, how scary and embarrassing it is. I’ve had to sit down on the floor while waiting in grocery lines (those used to be my worst places, the places most likely to cause a panic attack. Grocery stores are actually *really* common places for people to have panic attacks), which was really embarrassing at the time. I understood her needing to work to grow her list of places she could visit; I had to do the same, years ago, and there are *still* places that are hard for me to go on my own, but like Katrina, it’s something I try to work on and keep pushing myself. I don’t know that I’ve ever so fully related to a fictional character before. Alisha Rai has done a fabulous job at portraying a character with my exact same brain malfunction, and I’m impressed and grateful to see that so well-written and so expertly crafted and handled in fiction.

Jasvinder.

Jasvinder.

SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON.

He’s a former Marine who struggles with PTSD and is dealing with something straight out of the headlines today, to which he reacts in completely understandable ways. He’s honorable, not wanting to overstep his boundaries with Katrina, but adorable in the ways that he loves her in secrecy. His love for and frustration with his family work together in such a realistic fashion; Ms. Rai nails family drama and the push/pull of navigating stressful relationships with family members over sensitive topics. Jas is seriously one of the most swoonworthy romance heroes I’ve read recently in contemporary romance, and I so enjoyed his chapters.

To sum it up, I adored this book. Loved Katrina, loved Jasvinder, loved their love story, loved Jasvinder’s dedicated, loving,opinionated family, loved his attempts to make new friends with Samson from The Right Swipe, loved Katrina’s friend group with Rhiannon and Jia (is Jia next???? OMG JIA IS NEXT AND I AM DYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYING! February is when this book is supposed to hit, and I for one am willing to fast-forward EVERYTHING to get there!!!). This was a lovely, lovely distraction from the mess of the outside world, and I didn’t want the book to end. Anyone know how to jump into the world of a book and never leave???

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

How to Disappear- Sharon Huss Roat

This book right here? This is why I enjoy reading challenges so much. Without the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or involving social media, I probably wouldn’t have heard of How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat (HarperTeen, 2017), nor would I have been drawn to it via title alone if I had caught a glimpse of it on the shelf while browsing the library shelves. Its title makes it sound a little on the thriller side of things, but this in-depth examination of the devastation anxiety can wreak upon a teenager’s life and the lengths one goes to in order to work around it and feel seen, is in a category of its own. This novel is brilliancy in book form.

Vicky’s on her own. Her lifelong best friend Jenna, the person she used as a cover and her safety in all social situations, has moved away, and as Jenna shows signs, via text and other online conversations, of moving on, Vicky feels as though she’s been thrown to the wolves. She has no other friends, and her terrible social anxiety has her hiding out in the bathroom rather than attend class (it’s that bad). After she overhears a pocket dial phone call where Jenna calls her pathetic, Vicky uses her Photoshop skills to provide photographic evidence that she’s more than just the sad, terrified girl Jenna used to know. But why stop at just one photo? Soon, Vicky’s ‘shop-ing herself into fantastical situations- riding Buckbeak’s back, attending a Foo Fighters concert in the 90’s, dancing with Ellen on the set of her show. And then her Instagram, which she’s named Vicurious, blows up.

People are connecting to Vicurious in an amazing way. Suddenly, Vicky realizes she’s not the only one who feels alone and afraid; even some of her classmates, who don’t realize that Vicky and Vicurious are one and the same, are commenting on her digitally enhanced photographic creations. For once, Vicky feels seen, and she responds by helping others recognize those around them who are hurting as well. Scary new changes are happening for her socially as well, but it’s when tragedy looms that Vicky will grasp her newfound power of Vicurious to save everything and learn that courage doesn’t mean being fearless.

I. Loved. This. Book. I understood Vicky so well. I didn’t make many friends on my own during high school; I never really hung out with anyone on my own whom I didn’t already know from early, early grade school. Yeah, thanks, anxiety. I’m still garbage at making friends, because I can’t get past the voice in my head telling me how awful I am and how not worthy I am of every new situation, but I’ve at least started pushing myself to try new things despite all of this (and it’s STILL scary!). All that’s to say that Sharon Huss Roat writes the struggle and manifestation of anxiety, both generalized and social, exceptionally well. Vicky’s scenes of sitting in the bathroom rather than go to class, fumbling her way through interactions with other students, and panicking over class projects resonated deeply with me, because they’re still all so very real for me.

Vicky losing her best friend to a cross-country move is painful, and their distancing even more so. Her mother tries hard to push her to become more social, and it’s clear from the start that she doesn’t understand anxiety or how it’s affecting her daughter. Her character is also spot-on; my mother, who wasn’t cursed with a terrified brain, acted in similar ways. They both acted from their own place of (mis)understanding and were doing what they thought was best, however frustrating it was for Vicky and me. Their intentions were good! Lipton, the classmate who becomes Vicky’s love interest, is a million forms of adorable. He misses the mark a few times but is accepting and encouraging only in the way that adorable YA love interests can be, and once again, if you’re looking for a swoony, super-sweet sidestory romance, this subplot is a fantastic reason by itself to pick this book up.

The social media aspects of How to Disappear absolutely shine (and made me want to re-download Instagram again! I had to take it off my phone when I was running out of space). Only hoping that Jenna would notice her Vicurious account and rethink who her best friend is, Vicky uses her Instagram not only to help herself feel better, but to reach out to others, to make them feel seen, to make them feel heard and noticed and not so alone. Not only does she start a revolution of kindness, she does so in a way that’s careful of her own mental health, instinctively stepping away when the pressure builds or when her newfound (yet anonymous) massive popularity becomes overwhelming. Never does she let it go to her head; she always maintains a certain distance and the proper perspective about it, and I think that’s an extremely important message in an era when we’re all constantly checking for likes and new followers.

How to Disappear contains talk of anxiety on almost every page, and there’s a frantic scene towards the end that speculates about another character’s potential suicidal ideation, so be careful if these aren’t things you can handle reading about right now.

But if you’re up for it, How to Disappear is an amazing ode to the difficulties and the painfulness of life with anxiety, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how we can exist and even thrive despite it. Take it from me, who has dealt with anxiety my entire life: this book is the real deal, and Sharon Huss Roat gets it. I definitely feel seen. 🙂

Visit Sharon Huss Roat’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Let’s Call It a Doomsday- Katie Henry

I’ve loved Katie Henry ever since I read Heretics Anonymous last year, so I was super excited to read Let’s Call It a Doomsday (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019)- as soon as I learned of its existence, it went straight onto my TBR, despite the fact that its pub date was months in the future. I’ve been looking for it at the library for ages, but it had always been checked out (which is good! I never mind waiting; I’m happy that other people are enjoying the books I too want to read, and I always have a list of books I want to read that unfurls, rolls out the door, and heads for the Pacific Ocean, so, you know. No hurry). But this time, BINGO. It was in, and into my stack it went.

Ellis Kimball is obsessed with the end of the world. Nuclear disaster, earthquake, massive snowstorm, fires that wipe everything out, plague, she knows them all and she’s prepared for each scenario, keeping go-bags stashed at home, in her backpack, and in her locker. But her obsession is affecting every part of her life, including her family, and it’s after a session with her new therapist that Ellis meets the mysterious Hannah, who claims to have been having visions of the end of the world- visions that involve Ellis.

Buoyed by her acceptance into Hannah’s friend group, Ellis helps Hannah search for a young man she refers to as Prophet Dan, all the while preparing for the massive snowstorm that Hannah claims will bring the end of the world as we know it. But things get a little more complicated when Prophet Dan’s identity is revealed, and Ellis’s need to inform the world of its impending doom becomes urgent. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but faith, new friends, and the family who has been there for her all along might just be the answer to avoiding certain doom.

There’s so much to love about this book. Katie Henry obviously knows well what it’s like to live with anxiety (if not personally, than through excellent research and a deep sense of empathy), because there were quite a few times I was reading along and stopped to chuckle because Ellis sounded so much like what my brain does when I don’t stomp it back down. Her fears aren’t necessarily mine, but the thought processes are so similar, along with the constant negative self-talk, that I understood her well- though there are times when she and her mother, who is frustrated by a daughter she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to help, get into it, and Ellis eventually handles it in a more understanding and mature way than I would have. If your anxiety does center around disaster scenarios or the end of the world, however, Let’s Call It a Doomsday might either help or set off your anxiety, so please be careful.

I loved that Ellis’s faith and religious life- she and her family are active members of the LDS church- is woven into every aspect of the story. Family Home Evening is discussed multiple times, her family’s lax (so she feels) attitude towards food storage plays into her fears, multiple scenes are set before, during, and after church services, and how her religion may add to and help her anxiety is a huge theme throughout the novel. It’s not too often that you read stories where a character’s religion just is, without the novel having any ulterior motive, so I really appreciated this look at a religious teenager doing her best to live out her faith because of and in spite of her mental health challenges.

Hannah’s friends are great people; they’re smart, helpful, kind guys who protect the members of their group well, and this is demonstrated in multiple scenes, starting off when Ellis is warned in the beginning about Hannah having been through a hard time recently, and later on when Ellis overhears one of the boys trying to get Hannah to back off of something she and Ellis are doing that’s affecting Ellis negatively. The scenes with the guys were some of my favorites simply for eliciting such warm fuzzy feelings of friendship and trust. Tal, especially (who made me realized that the singer Tal Bachman’s first name is actually Talmadge, which I’d never considered before!), elicits a lot of warm fuzzies. The book is worth the read alone because he’s such a great character. That said…

I didn’t care for Hannah at all. I figured out her schtick almost immediately, and while I felt for her, she seemed too manipulative and sneaky to care as much about her as I did everyone else. To me, it felt like she was using Ellis and taking advantage of her anxiety to further serve her own needs, and that left a terrible taste in my mouth. Had I been in charge of the story, I would have changed how their friendship stood at the end, but I also understand why Ms. Henry let it play out as it did, and that didn’t change my enjoyment of the book itself.

Let’s Call It a Doomsday is a great read, to be read with some caution if you struggle with anxiety, but overall, to be enjoyed for the story of growth and self-acceptance that it is. Since it was published in August, it fits the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book published during your birthday month, so I can check another one off that list!

Visit Katie Henry’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.