Book review: The Place Between Breaths by An Na

Atheneum, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2018

This little, cerebral thriller of a book packs a punch. However, there’s a few things to consider before you read it. It is a book about mental health and schizophrenia. It is not a fluffy cuddly book. This one bites, and confuses. The author has South Korean origins, meaning that the Eastern influences are heavy in the writing style of the book. And why do I say both things before I even review the book? Because if you’re expecting a perfectly “coherent” fluffy book, this book is not it and it definitely isn’t a Western view of the world even if it is set in the US.

Throughout the novel we get to know Grace, who saw her mother deteriorate in the grips of schizophrenia, and then ultimately disappear from her life. Her mother has never been found, which has led Grace’s father on a desperate quest to find a cure for this debilitating illness. Grace interns at the lab where her father works. He is a headhunter, bringing in the top scientists from around the world to join forces in search of the key that will unlock a cure for Grace’s mother—the love of his life—if only they could find her.

This is a non-linear novel that uses the seasons of the year to anchor you in the story. Na is a master of imagery and it felt to me that her arresting descriptions of the weather coincided with Grace’s moods and mental state. I could be reading too much into it, but nothing in this book felt accidental.

In addition to jumping back and forth between the seasons and around in the story, the reader is also left to parse between reality and delusion. This made for an intriguing and gut-wrenching, but unenjoyable read. Though, I would argue that “enjoyable” was not the goal, and for this I was glad.

Though a novel, this did not read like an attempt to make schizophrenia into entertainment. This felt like a deft effort to bring understanding to an illness that continues to be misunderstood, despite decades of research. The portrayal of this mental illness and how it breaks the mind apart from the inside out was honest and elegant. It does not glorify the disease but rather exposes it in all its gruesome tragedy.

It was definitely worth the read, and I believe an important work for helping people understand what schizophrenia looks like from the inside out. It’s a confusing illness, and to wrap up the story with a neat little bow would have been disingenuous. In the end, I appreciated the beauty and tragedy, and clarity and confusion Na wove together to create this novel. There are a lot of twists and intriguing bits in the story where at first you aren’t sure but as the story progresses you begin to realize how much Grace is fighting and what “enemy” she’s fighting. In my opinion it was a clever book with the way it sets things and how it leaves you guessing

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Book review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2016

High school junior Morgan Grant can divide her life into two parts: Before and after the devastating events of October 15. Before, Morgan was a bright, popular athlete with a promising future, whose days were filled with friends, sun, sand, swimming and school. After, Morgan is a survivor of a deadly tragedy whose worsening anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder have caused her to become a shadow of her former self.

Traumatized by what she has experienced, terrified of a world she can neither control nor predict, and haunted by feelings of guilt and culpability for what has happened, Morgan’s agoraphobia worsens until she no longer is able to leave her family’s two-bedroom apartment and she seeks comfort in a familiar, daily routine filled with little more than soap operas, home schooling, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Underwater is a sincere, heartfelt exploration of mental illness and a topical, all too important reminder that the story does not end when the final shot has been fired and the cameras finished rolling. For some, the story has only just begun.

Morgan’s journey to recovery is a difficult one. This YA author offers no easy answers or simple solutions for Morgan’s agoraphobia, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather demonstrates the impressive mental and emotional labor and strength required to rediscover and remake oneself in the wake of a tragedy. Though Morgan’s progress is gradual and she often becomes frustrated with her missteps and failures along the way, Reichardt’s inherently charming and endearing protagonist is never presented as any less worthy of help, love or acceptance or as being beyond hope or recovery. Morgan is allowed to shine in other ways, most notable of which is evident in her devoted relationship with her single mother, a hard-working nurse, and her precocious younger brother, Ben, for whom she clearly cares deeply. Though the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s illness and the severity of what she suffers are arguably extreme, there’s little doubt that the essence of Morgan’s story – of being unashamed of one’s illness and working to better take care of oneself – will resonate with Underwater‘s readers, particularly those who also suffer from anxiety, as Morgan does.

There have been many novels written the about the subject of school shootings in recent years. Many writers have tried to make sense of an act that is, by its very nature, senseless, but what’s different about Underwater from its peers is its chosen focus. While other stories have focused largely on the psychology and motivation of the perpetrator or the details of the shootings themselves, debut author Marisa Reichardt instead chooses to focus on the devastating aftermath of such an event. Reichardt neither sensationalizes nor exploits this topic, instead offering a sensitive, empathetic portrayal of the repercussions of such a tragedy. In doing so, Underwater has the potential to act as a source of comfort for those who suffer from anxiety, agoraphobia and/or post-traumatic stress disorder and an excellent resource for readers who wish to better understand and empathize with those who do.

Underwater‘s synopsis does the novel a disservice in that it implies that Morgan’s recovery is mainly due to Evan’s appearance in her life. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. While a potential romantic relationship with Evan can provide Morgan with an additional incentive to pursue treatment and regain some semblance of normality, it is not the sole motivating factor in her recovery. Before Evan’s introduction, Morgan had already been undergoing treatment for her anxiety, agoraphobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder for four months. This treatment includes both the use of prescription medication and ongoing therapy with her psychologist, Brenda. Evan is not perfect–Evan grows frustrated and impatient with Morgan’s progress (or lack thereof) and is not always as supportive or as understanding as one might hope–but it’s to be commended that their blossoming romance is never presented as a solution to Morgan’s problems. There’s also something to be said for the strength and empowerment that can be drawn from a strong support system and the grandness in forming such a community. From her burgeoning relationship with Evan to her unconditional love for her mother and brother, Ben, Morgan has several positive relationships in her life from which she draws comfort and courage.

Underwater is a poignant, powerful, and ultimately uplifting and inspiring story of recovery and forgiveness that successfully attempts to lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness. It accomplishes this by providing readers with a positive and responsible portrayal of therapy and medication as effective tools in managing mental and emotional trauma and encouraging readers to embrace hope and possibility, even in the face of what might initially appear to be insurmountable obstacles. This YA novel is a genuinely kind and heartwarming narrative about triumph and love in the wake of adversity. 

Book review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

For most people, life can be divided into parts, like the beginning, middle, and end of a story. For this YA novel sixteen-year-old Alexi Littrell and Bodee Lennox, there are only before and after.

Before, Alexi and Bodee were relative strangers, brought together only by locker proximity and coincidence, a world of differences between them. Bodee was known more simply the Kool-Aid Kid, an unassuming oddball with weird hair who was the object of ridicule and scorn amongst his peers. Alexi was known more simply a shy, ordinary teenage girl who liked spending time with her best friends.

After, the two teenagers are dealing with psychological trauma far beyond their sixteen years. For Bodee, this means attempting to escape the violent legacy of his murderous father, who killed his mother in a devastating incident of domestic violence. For Alexi, only the self-inflicted scars on her neck give away the sign that someone close to her did something terrible to her. Now she is faking normal and dealing with the crippling aftermath of her rape and betrayal at the hands of someone she trusted. Alexi’s secret is killing her on the inside. In order to cope with the internal pain, she engages in various rituals, including self-mutilation, and she still gets up every morning and pretends like everything is fine. No one in her family notices how much she is suffering every day. Even with all the anxiety building up inside her, she still can keep her family and friends in the dark.

When the Littrells welcome Bodee into their home, Alexi and Bodee form an unlikely bond despite their vastly different backgrounds and upbringings, their reciprocally shared pain forging an indelible link between them. When he moves in with Alexi’s family, he discover the scars on her neck, the ones she inflicts on herself and always tries to hide it. They become friends and help each other to deal with their traumas together. As the two teenagers attempt to seek closure and redefine themselves after all that has happened, Alexi and Bodee may find that there is no greater power than that of love and that there is light to be found at the end of even the darkest of tunnels.

Faking Normal deals with the sexual assault, self-injury, and spousal abuse. It is a story about being honest with yourself and finding courage. It also about understanding that you are never alone, no matter how lonely you feel.

Book review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Dial Books, 2016

Agoraphobic sixteen-year-old Solomon Reed has not left his house in three years due to acute anxiety, crippling panic attacks, and agoraphobia, but Lisa Praytor is determined to change that by beating his illness and saving Solomon from himself—and to write a scholarship-winning essay based on the results, which Solomon knows nothing of the sort. Lisa remembers the day in eighth grade when Solomon stripped to his underwear and got into a fountain as a result of a panic attack. But he isn’t depressed, strange, angry, excessively shy, or any of the other negative qualities characters with mental illnesses receive in literature. Instead, Solomon is a funny and compassionate young man who loves his family and friends

So, with the help of her boyfriend Clark, who Solomon ends up crushing on, Lisa enters Solomon’s world in order to observe him for her essay which will get her to university on scholarship and out of suburban California. Soon, all three teens are far closer than they thought they’d be, and when their facades fall down, their friendships threaten to collapse, as well.  This story shines with how the characters handle the aftermath of such a ludicrous intention as armchair psychology to cure mental illness.

This book provides a human look at mental illness and how we need to treat those who have mental illness as people first. The hilarious, heartwarming, skillfully told coming of age story alternates between Lisa and Solomon’s witty, bantering voices. Solomon’s grandmother who’s his best friend, is portrayed with youthfulness and quirkiness which adds a fresh tone to the novel. It’s a quirky and endearing character portrayal that explores the intricacies of friendship, trust, and identity, in addition to mental health issues.

Book review: Essential Maps for the Lost by Deb Caletti

Publisher: Simon Pulse, 2016

How do you go about getting lost? Answer: “There are many ways to be lost.”

The protagonist in Essential Maps for the Lost wants to escape herself. Why? It’s summer, one last summer in Seattle, away from her mom, a realtor, who expects more from her daughter, Mads (Madison) Murray, that she can give. Mads future has been planned for her, it’s a real estate career with her mother unlike the college path that Mads so desires. In order to make her mom happy, Mads stays with her aunt, uncle, and cousin during the summer while taking real estate classes. Then after the brief real estate curriculum at the local college Mads will go home and sign the paperwork making her a partner with her mom.

Do you think you’re having a bad day? Well, Mads, out for a morning swim collides with a dead body. The shocking discovery is of another lost soul who did the imaginable on one traumatic morning. The body of the woman was the mom to Billy Youngwolf Floyd, a grieving young man struggling to bypass the shadow of grief that encapsulates him as he carries a map in his pocket. It’s from his favorite children’s book: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Mads is obsessed with the dead woman and sets about to stalk her son: Googling the deceased, finding out from where she came, her home, and her family. That is the junction where questions, coincidences, and secrets come into play. Billy, who moves in with his grandmother, is full of questions. He is lost and confused. Billy, who works for an animal shelter, focuses on the only things that makes him feel better: that map from the book.

Billy and Mads, as well as Billy’s grandma, are full of depth, with wonderful personalities, and tangled emotions, albeit the grandma is a bit cranky. Despite the tragedy these characters work really well together and even the minor characters feel real.

So, Billy runs into Mads, who is standing outside his old house. What’s weird is he keeps running into her at random times, like on a bridge, where Billy thinks Mads might be thinking about jumping. They both wonder if they were supposed to meet? Fall in love? Madison wakes up to the world around her and she starts to notice other coincidences, like witnessing Billy commit a crime.

Mads obsession with the dead body, Billy’s deceased mom continues. But she can’t tell Billy that she’s the one that found the body. This book is really about how life can be unfair and cruel, how what you say and how you treat people (and animals) can be the difference between life and death, and how the opinions and hopes of your family members can be hard to deal with and how you can find hope in unexpected places.

This YA novel had a lot of substance to it such as self-discovery and finding out what you really want out of life. With beautiful, lyrical, sometimes witty writing, and pacing on the slower side, you’ll find it a touching read where love needs no reasons. Essential Maps for the Lost is an emotionally significant exploration of grief, mental illness, and hope, as well as the redemptive power of storytelling.

Book review: Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016

This story about first love is not only heartwarming, but also raw and emotional. It follows Henry Page, a bookish high school senior that has never had a girlfriend, is unexpectedly attracted to new student Grace Town, who brooding and mysterious, enters the school with a conspicuous limp, unwashed and unkempt, and wearing boys’ clothes that are obviously too big for her. After they end up co-editing the school newspaper, an attraction ignites.

Henry becomes quite enamored with Grace as she seems to be hiding a very broken part of herself. But Grace sends mixed signals and has a mysterious upbringing and when grief and love mix together, the outcome is unpredictable. It’s a roller coaster of emotion, and an inside look at how a teen might deal with grief after losing a loved one. It’s a bittersweet, believable look at unrequited love because as their romance blossoms, secrets about Grace’s past, and more importantly her present circumstances are revealed. Is she beyond his help?

This book has teen angst for days. I think what I did like about this teen love story is it was very messy. Young and everlasting love isn’t realistic, and this book touches on even if that is the case, an individual can still impact you immensely. The diverse characters with realistic motivations including endearing friendships and family relationships really make this YA romantic tearjerker that much more enjoyable.

Book review: How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat

HarperTeen, 2017

How To Disappear protagonist, Vicky Decker, suffers from “absurd shyness,” “self-consciousness,” and introversion. The fun, rousing read starts with her friend Jenna, who kept her safe from social circumstances, moving away, leaving her utterly friendless and nearly agoraphobic. Vicky employs her savvy with digital media to craft the persona of the confident, socially adventurous person she’d like to be.

This depiction of yoyeuristic isolation of social media is a way to understand more the inner thoughts of people who are suffering from being judged or/and afraid of attention. When I read this book, the familiar feeling is not easy to approach because of the amount of uncomfortableness that the main character went through. Basically she is afraid of calling attention to herself and being laughed at and judged.

I really enjoyed this book because it is very relatable, since everyone has a moment in their life where they just want to disappear and not care about anything else. However, as you keep on reading, you’ll eventually find happiness when she finally feels a bit encouraged and connected with others. The novel had great characters, high drama, suspenseful chapters and its realistic fiction also seemed like a thriller.

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Angela Grey is a writer with paranoid schizophrenia, OCD, PTSD, and social anxiety. She has created memorable moving tales about the sometimes unexpected and challenging road to first love: Secret Whispers (a story about schizophrenia), Déjà vu (a tale about a teen with bipolar disorder), and Of Laughter & Heartbreak (a piece about obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Until my next post, why not check out my YA novels about mental illness, memoir writing, novel in verse, or even my Native American mystery series on Amazon, or follow me on Bookshop, TwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreadsLinkedInBookbub , BookSprout, or AllAuthor.

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