Under Rose-Tainted Skies – Louise Gornall

“The best you can hope for is to contain it, make it as small as possible so it stops being intrusive. Am I coping? Yes, but it’s taking a monumental amount of effort to keep the dynamite inside my stomach from exploding.”

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Blurb: “Agoraphobia confines Norah to the house she shares with her mother.
For her, the outside is sky glimpsed through glass, or a gauntlet to run between home and car. But a chance encounter on the doorstep changes everything: Luke, her new neighbour. Norah is determined to be the girl she thinks Luke deserves: a ‘normal’ girl, her skies unfiltered by the lens of mental illness. Instead, her love and bravery opens a window to unexpected truths…”

In the autumn of 2014 I was diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder and it felt like such a relief to finally find a doctor who believed what I was going through. I wanted to see anxiety discussed more within books, especially Young Adult, as there’s still so much stigma around mental illness. Surprisingly, it’s quite hard to find books that accurately depict what it is like living with anxiety and I was pointed in the direction of Under Rose-Tainted Skies.

The story follows a girl called Norah who has agoraphobia, OCD, Anxiety and spends her life living within the safety of her home. She frequently sees her therapist, Dr Reeves and has a mother who bends over backwards to look after her. One day, a new boy called Luke moves in next door and the story takes off from there.

I really didn’t want this to be one of those “cute boy cures mental illness” stories and from very early on it started to lean that way. Luke is a very forward boy: coming over to introduce himself, offering to drive Norah to school (after she lies that she goes to public school and accidently names the one he attends) which naturally makes her curious about getting to know him. However, over the length of the novel it didn’t feel like a realistic balance of the process of a relationship while one of the partners deals with severe anxiety. There were points in the narrative where Norah even talks about how “weird” she used to be as if the issues she faces every day have suddenly evaporated. As someone who is in a long term relationship and deals with anxiety every day, it just felt hurtful at times that she seemed to flick it off like a switch in certain situations. She uses Luke, in a way, as a goal to aim for in improving her life which is brilliant to see but falls flat in the actions.

She lays out boundaries that she doesn’t want Noah to cross but inevitably does and leads to a messy outcome which angered me. However, he did go on to fully research agoraphobia, anxiety, OCD and how to help someone you know dealing with any of those and comes back to Norah and mentions some of the things he learnt which is really good character growth.

The other characters I really liked were, as mentioned earlier, the mother who has quit several jobs in order to be flexible so that she can look after her daughter. Good mothers are something I feel is rarely seen in Young Adult so it was great to see a YA novel showcasing a mother who really does want the best for their child. The therapist, Dr Reeves, was wonderful, insightful, and understanding; even going as far as to conduct a therapy session in a car outside the building because Norah is too afraid to leave it.

I came out of this reading experience feeling depleted. So many other bloggers had recommended this book to me and sung its praises that I felt almost as if I’d missed the point. But I couldn’t get past the message that in some aspects it showed that maybe your mental health problems can be solved simply by meeting a boy.

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Am I Normal Yet? – Holly Bourne

“Why haven’t you told them?”
Because I’d lose them. They wouldn’t get it. They’d treat me differently. I wouldn’t be “normal” to them anymore, even if I never freaked out again. Once they knew, they’d always be watching… waiting… wondering if I was going to lose it.”

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Blurb: “All Evie wants is to be normal. And now that she’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the-girl-who-went-nuts, there’s only one thig left to tick off her list… But relationships can mess with anyone’s head – something Evie’s new friends Amber and Lottie know only too well. The trouble is, if Evie won’t tell them her secrets, how can they stop her making a huge mistake?”

Holly Bourne is an author I’ve been aware of for a while. I’ve seen her books everywhere and I follow her feminist discussions on twitter. However, I was yet to delve into her writing until I saw a recent video where she honked a horn every time she comes across sexism in the media (in spirit of her new book. You can watch that hilarious video here. After viewing that, I wondered exactly what was stopping me from picking up her books. So I started to read.

Am I Normal Yet? Is the first book in the normal/spinster trilogy and follows a girl called Evie who is recovering from being hospitalised for OCD and Anxiety Disorder. She is slowly working through her problems with the help of medication and her therapist Sarah. Evie starts college with one big goal in mind: to be normal. No one here, minus her flaky friend Jane, knows what happened to her and she plans to keep it that way. Evie meets Amber and Lottie and together they form the spinster club dedicated to reclaiming their womanhood.

While this is the first in a trilogy, Holly has said in the past that the books are stand alone in their own right and so can be read out of order.

Through the narrative, the reader gets an honest and raw insight into the mind of Evie by using prose, therapy techniques she’s given, outlines of bad thoughts and worry and recovery diaries. It reads just like that – a diary. Evie felt so human and so real that I found myself having to take a mini break every so often because of how deep things go.

Holly Bourne uses her platform to teach about feminism while expressing the importance of showing the sexism men face too. It feels like she set out to break down the stigmas around both feminist issues and mental illness which she certainly accomplished.

I often say that I “feel” for certain characters when I read certain books but this was a whole different experience. As someone who was diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder in 2014, had therapy and medication, I found it so easy to sympathise with Evie. While I couldn’t relate to the OCD side of things, the thought processes she went through were so familiar to me. I started to understand how her mind worked and how things could so easily spiral having been in some of those positions myself; that you need to stay on the straight and narrow or everyone will see you as a failure. It was like reading about myself.

I want to thank Holly Bourne for doing a really good job of not writing this book but doing it in a way where things weren’t glossed over. Some of the events are harsh, raw, brutal and a lot of the time hard to read but it’s so important that it’s out there so society can slowly bring up a generation of people that will be helpful to those suffering mental illness, rather than trying to brush them under the carpet.

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Alice Takes Back Wonderland – David D.Hammons

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Blurb: “After ten years of being told she can’t tell the difference between real life and a fairy tale, Alice finally stops believing in Wonderland. So when the White Rabbit shows up at her house, Alice thinks she is going crazy. Only when the White Rabbit kicks her down the rabbit hole does Alice realise that the magical land she visited as a child is real. But all is not well in Wonderland.”

**I was sent this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

The story opens with seven year old Alice running out of the courtroom after the case that takes place in the original story. As she runs to freedom, the Cheshire cat spouts his usual nonsense, this time about fairy tales and their echoes (echoes are how we know fairy tales, and the fairy tales are what really happened). For example, in the story as we know it, Alice is an English girl from the nineteenth century, in this book she is an American girl from the twenty-first century.

She returns to her world only to be told that the people she met, the adventures she had, and the world she visited are not real. She spends Christmas in a mental hospital, gets diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. One line that really broke my heart at this point was: “I told the doctors I didn’t believe ADHD was real. They told me they didn’t believe Wonderland was real.”

Ten years of therapy sessions, popping pills and re-affirming to herself that what she experienced was not real, Alice is finally (slightly) on the mend. That is, until the White Rabbit shows up in her bedroom.  Wonderland has changed and he needs her help: The Ace of Spades is now in charge and the Cheshire cat is dead. It is also later revealed that Ace send the White Rabbit through the rabbit holes and into the real world so he can collect things, because Ace wants Wonderland to be a mirror of our world.

The mad hatter wants things to return to well… as normal as they can be in Wonderland so he tells Alice that she need to seek help from other fairy tale characters to create an army to take back Wonderland. He puts Alice in a flying machine and sends her on her way.

So time for my thoughts.

Going back to what I mentioned about the mental struggles Alice faces when she returns from Wonderland; this part was so well written. To say this happened very early on in the story, you really feel for her and just want to reach through the pages, hug her and tell her that Wonderland is real. The pressure she has put on her by her mother and sister to be normal and go to university etc was just so sad to read.

However for me, this is where everything good about this book ended. The transitions between the worlds when Alice sets off on her adventures were just too jarring and felt kind of like I’d hit a brick wall. She seemed to spend way too much time in Wonderland to say there was this sense of urgency to create an army to beat Ace and the pace of the book was lost because of it.

It felt to me that a lot of the fairy tale characters were just thrown in randomly, without much thought, in order to get people buying this book for the very fact that it’s mentioned on the blurb  (in particular Peter Pan). I just felt like these types of characters were used for that reason and then left with a pretty sub-par story. Now I am all for fairy-tale retellings/reimagining’s but I feel like the idea of “echoes” was used as an excuse just to allow the author to change the fairy tales and their characters as much as they have done.

Also, I don’t know why the story needed to be americanised. It added literally nothing except obviously a location change in the real world. The only way the story would have been affected if the location had remained England and that time period was that there would have been no ADHD diagnosis and instead they would have just simply called her “mad” and shunned her.

If I wasn’t reading this because it was sent to me by a publisher and I had to give an honest review, then honestly I would have stopped reading this before the halfway point. However, it was only fair that I read the book in its entirety.

Overall, a very disappointing book.
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Paperweight – Meg Haston

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Blurb: “Seventeen-year-old Stevie is trapped in her life. In her body. And now in a treatment centre on the outskirts of the New Mexico desert. Life in the centre is regimented and intrusive – a nightmare come true for private and obstinate Stevie. She doesn’t want to get better – she wants to disappear. And if things go her way, in twenty-seven days she’ll do exactly that.”

I came across this book on Epic Reads’ Most Anticipated July Books. I’ve been looking for more Young Adult books that tackle mental illness. So when I saw this on the list, I decided to buy it.

The novel opens with seventeen year old Stevie being driven to a treatment centre for an unknown reason. As the plot progresses, it is revealed that Stevie has an eating disorder, has been admitted to the treatment centre by her dad, and she is counting down to some “anniversary.” Stevie arrives at the centre which is described as more of a summer camp in appearance. Stevie is assigned a cottage which she will share with other girls and meets her therapist, Anna, lovingly labelled “shrink” throughout the novel by Stevie.

This is a hard review for me to write because for the first time ever, I cannot decide whether I liked a book or not.

That’s not to say it’s a terrible book,  because it isn’t. There are many qualities that make this book great. I believe that it is very important to have books in Young Adult that tackle mental illness. Not only to help those going through the issues to find solace, but to give those who don’t, a little bit of education so that they are more understanding and able to help anyone they may know going through them. The topic of eating disorders was handled delicately and very well in this book.  It was also a very easy read, I managed to get through it in two sittings.

The Shrink – Anna – was a fantastic character who went above and beyond for Stevie. She never pushed Stevie too much but just enough to make her want to start addressing her issues. Anna made me think about all the therapists out there who work with young people, and how they are not recognized enough for the fantastic work they do every single day.

There was a lot more mystery than I expected and the information was dealt out slowly.For example, the event the caused Stevie to develop this disorder and what this big “anniversary” is that she’s constantly addressing in the narrative.  It keeps you very interested, which was probably why it didn’t take me too long to read.

However, we come to the reason why I’m at a loss as to whether I actually enjoyed this book or not. Stevie is a horrifically unlikable character. It’s understandable that she’s volatile because she doesn’t want to be in the treatment centre, being in the centre interferes with her plans for the anniversary and she doesn’t want help. Stevie is so nasty in the narrative when she talks about the other girls in the centre. Everyone who’s a patient at the centre has a wristband of one of three colours.

Red = Bad
Yellow = improving but still resistant
Green= Good, well on the path to recovery

Stevie is very judgmental of the girls based on the colour of their wristbands. A section of narrative is focused on a “yellow girl” whom Stevie labels a “failure” and criticises her physicality, a “green girl” who is larger than the other is labelled “pathetic” and fat shamed, and a “red girl” who has feeding tubes attached to her is labelled “weak” and judged for not hiding her eating disorder well enough. These aspects of Stevie’s character made it really hard for me to feel sympathetic for her when more of her back story is revealed, especially the cause of her eating disorder and the mysterious anniversary.

My dear readers, I am at a loss.
I am so mixed about this book.
Would I recommend it? Re-read it?
I honestly can’t give an answer.

Let me know if you’ve read it and whether you felt the same!

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