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Book Review: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashada

June 24, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki HigashadaSummary:
Born in 1992 and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 5, Naoki uses an alphabet board to painstakingly write. In this book, he addresses answers to common questions neurotypicals have about people with Autism, such as “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” and “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” Mixed in with answers to these questions are short stories that Naoki has written, squashing the myth that those with Autism lack imagination.

Review:
I read this for Katie of Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Book Club back in April, which was also Autism Awareness Month. I don’t often have the time to do group reads, but this book appealed to me and was short, would count for the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge I host, and I was able to get a digital copy from the Boston Public Library. I read this in one day in just my morning and evening commutes. It’s a short but mind-opening work.

For those who don’t know, Autism is a spectrum disorder. This basically means that Autism can severely or minorly impact how a person with it functions with the world (and everything in-between). Someone who is high functioning may mostly just strike others as a bit odd, whereas those most severely impacted are unable to communicate at all. You may read more about Autism here.

Naoki’s Autism is more severe. He is mostly unable to speak but he has learned how to communicate by pointing to an alphabet board with an assistant who writes down what he points at. Since Autism is so individualized, bare in mind when reading this book that his answers might not necessarily apply to everyone with Autism. That said, Naoki generally answers the questions with the word we, not I. My suspicion is this may be due to cultural reasons. Naoki is Japanese, which is generally a less individualized culture than our own. Additionally, his words have been filtered through a translator. It’s important, I believe, for a reader to keep all of these things in mind when reading this book.

This is a short book and an easy read, so I won’t say too much beyond the two biggest takeaways I had. First, I think in general people often wonder if people with Autism are similar to neurotypicals inside or are completely foreign. I think Naoki’s book smashes that question with a sledgehammer. It left me with the distinct impression that people with Autism are extremely similar to neurotypicals, but their signals from their bodies interfere with their ability to interact with the world. But Naoki puts this better than me.

It’s as if we’re remote-controlling a faulty robot. (page 16)

My second takeaway was that we should never make assumptions about anyone with Autism. The biggest example of this is that it is generally assumed people with Autism do not have an imagination. (I’ve even seen having an imagination being used as a way to rule out some people as having high functioning Autism). But Naoki, who very clearly has Autism, also very clearly has a bright imagination. His own short stories are inter-mixed throughout the book. They struck me as things any 13-year-old might write. That may sound simple, but that’s a big deal for a person who others might assume is “abnormal” for 13 with “no imagination.”

I do wish that the person interviewing Naoki had asked a wider variety of questions. Some of the questions can get a bit repetitive, and I wondered why they didn’t ask something deeper. Instead of continually asking things like why do you do this or why do you do that ask more about what he enjoys. What his hopes and dreams are. Does he think there’s a god. Things like that.

Overall, though, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about what it’s like to have Autism, as well as to those who do or may come into contact with someone with Autism.

 

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For:
Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge

Book Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

February 24, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost & Gail SteketeeSummary:
It may be difficult to describe a hoard, but you know one when you see one. Maybe you have a neighbor who keeps their shades drawn but when you enter their home you see piles and piles of stuff that either they keep for a project they’ll do one day or because every scrap of it contains important information (according to them). Maybe you’ve only encountered hoarding through reality tv shows focused around the forced clean-up of homes that immediately appear unlivable to you but yet that the person on the show insists is full of treasures. Or maybe you grew up in a home where the hoard slowly encroached on your own room

Between 2 and 5 percent of the population suffers from Hoarding Disorder. Frost and Steketee were the first to begin scientifically studying it. Here, couched in tales of real interactions with and homes of clients (who granted their permission to be featured in an anonymized fashion) Frost and Steketee present both what we know and what we don’t know about hoarding, as well as best practices for helping someone with the disorder.

Review:
As an outside observer of a hoard, it can often be difficult to imagine what leads a person to believe trash is treasure. But of course it’s more complicated than someone just being unable to recognize trash. After all…one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The authors attack this head-on by first giving a true definition to what counts as hoarding and then talking about various causes and possible presentations of the disorder. So what counts as hoarding?

It hardly matters how much stuff anyone owns as long as it doesn’t interfere with his or her health or happiness or that of others….Hoarding is not defined by the number of possessions, but by how the acquisition and management of those possessions affects their owner. (page 58)

So basically, it counts as hoarding if the collection of items interferes with the person’s health or happiness or the health or happiness of others nearby. The complicated gray area of course is that the sufferer may not realize that the hoard is interfering with their happiness and health. That is the point of conflict for many loved ones of people who hoard.

After establishing and defining what hoarding disorder is and is not, the authors continue on to analyze the behavior and mind of someone suffering from hoarding. Fascinatingly, hoarding shares commonalities with many other mental illnesses, seeming to a certain extent to defy categorization, although the DSM 5 currently lists it among “Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders.” Are you shocked? Did you think that OCD always means cleanliness? The fact is that is often not what OCD means. It’s a misunderstanding spurred on by popular culture. OCD is an obsession. It can be with cleaning and germs but it can also be with anything. It also often features repetitive behaviors. If you think about it, you can see what hoarding has in common with this. People who hoard become obsessed with the idea of not losing something important, of collecting everything relevant to a certain idea, of not wasting things. They also can come to establish repetitive behaviors such as maybe always buying a newspaper from a certain store on the way home from work. Another similarity with OCD is that hoarders often are perfectionists. Part of why their homes become cluttered is they are obsessed with only doing a perfect job of cleaning up or of fixing something or using some item for a project, and they become paralyzed with the fear that they can’t do it good enough, so they never start.

The authors also talk about how hoarding has commonalities with Impulse-Control Disorders, such as gambling and compulsive buying. Many people who hoard also struggle with both of these ICDs, and it’s easy to see the relationship here. Similarly, many hoarders show symptoms of ADD. They often do much better cleaning up if there is simply someone there to help them maintain focus, rather than being easily distracted.

Hoarding is also often a result of trauma. People suffer a trauma and essentially attempt to build a protective space around themselves by hoarding.

Compared to people who do not suffer from hoarding problems, clutterers report a greater variety of traumatic events (an average of six versus three), as well as a greater frequency (an average of fourteen versus five) of such events. The type of trauma most often experienced by hoarders include having had something taken by threat or force, being forced into sexual activity, and being physically assaulted. (page 87)

Interestingly, there’s a comparatively low incidence of PTSD among hoarders, in spite of such a high incidence of trauma. (A 2006 study found only 6% of hoarders had PTSD, page 91). It is possible that hoarding prevents the development of PTSD. Many hoarders also report a childhood devoid of warmth and support, so even if they were not traumatized, it is still likely that they had a cold, distant childhood. In contrast to PTSD, the majority of hoarders (nearly 60%) meet the criteria for major depression, and it is posited that this depression could be in response to the hoarding itself.

People draw conclusions about their worth and competence based on their inability to control their living space, and not being able to entertain people in their homes isolates them and limits their social lives. (loc 532)

The authors then talk about what may be going on in the heads of people who hoard. People don’t do things completely irrationally. There are reasons for it. There are multiple possibilities for hoarding of what may be going on. No single aspect has been determined yet.  However, in general, hoarders suffer from a different type of threat signal. They fear something being removed, rather than the presence of something. It has also been posited that they have the opposite of claustrophobia. They feel safer in small, tight spaces, so they artificially create them. Hoarders also frequently struggle with identity. Rather than knowing who they are, they often are defined by the question “Who am I?” and collect items to try to show who they are. In addition to the aforementioned perfectionism, hoarders also seem to view items differently from the rest of us. They are generally very optimistic about future usefulness and can be quite creative as to reusing things. It has been posited that hoarding may be creativity run amok. However, many hoarders also gamble compulsively and the relationship between a hoarder’s positive thinking and a gambler’s is interesting.

“Seeing the scratch tickets over the counter at the convenience store leads me to think, One of those tickets is surely a winner, maybe a million-dollar winner. How can I walk away when the opportunity is there?” Our hoarders have said similar things about items they’ve wanted to acquire. (loc 202)

Distress avoidance is also often a common feature. Distress avoidance is when a person seeks to avoid a situation that they think will cause them distress. They then build up that situation in their heads to be more of a stressor than it actually would be. Continual avoidance of these types of situations also weakens a person’s ability to deal with them (due to lack of practice), so it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Animal hoarding is its own special subcategory, and it seems that in addition to all of the other possible hoarding issues, animal hoarders may suffer from a form of an attachment disorder where their bonds with other humans are frayed and easily broken and replaced by bonds with animals.

So, essentially, hoarders are often people who are perfectionists who tend to perform rituals and struggle with impulse control. They may compulsively shop and/or gamble in addition to hoarding. They often had cold, distant childhoods and/or suffered a trauma (or traumas). They tend to come at life from a basis of fear and feel safer in tight, closed spaces, and their fear is heightened by removal of things, rather than appearance of new things. At some point, they started avoiding distress, and this distress avoidance became a self-fulfilling cycle. They also frequently struggle with knowing who they are internally, rather looking outward to possessions for identity signals.  In addition to these compulsions and fears, hoarders also often see things differently or in more detail than non-hoarders, and they also struggle to focus or concentrate, making cleaning up even more difficult for them.

The authors conclude by discussing both how to treat hoarding and effects on family members and loved ones (as well as on communities). The authors stress repeatedly that forced clean-ups are the absolute worst possible solution or treatment option. A forced clean-up just fulfills the person’s fear that people are out to get them, and simply makes them cling on to their possessions even more aggressively. It also can make them more depressed. Since their identity is wrapped up in their possessions, getting rid of them by force can cause emotional trauma akin to someone chopping off your hair by force. I was stunned to learn that there have been cases of people who hoard committing suicide after a forced clean-up. The authors strongly advocate for the much slower, but with more long-term positive results, method of going through the hoard with the person slowly and basically teaching them new ways to think about both their possessions and their identity. They also state that it’s easier to treat compulsive buying and gambling than hoarding, so when possible treat that first to prevent the arrival of new items into the hoard. It is a long, difficult treatment plan to go through a hoard slowly, and sometimes it may be necessary to remove the person from the home for safety but then to return with them repeatedly to work on cleaning out the hoard.

The fact that forced clean-ups are the worst possible solution for the sufferer and the fact that hoards get worse over time leads me to believe that early interventions are absolutely critical to render the most help to those suffering from hoarding. But this is a complex thing. Since many cases of hoarding start due to a cold home environment or from trauma, it may be difficult to get parents behind addressing the situation early. Many people who hoard interviewed in the book talk about their hoarding beginning to get out of control by late in their freshman year of college. Perhaps this is something colleges should be keeping an eye out and offering help for. Additionally, shame is often mentioned as a factor in keeping the problem hidden. Perhaps PSAs and other public service campaigns could both lessen the stigma and offer help to people early on in the development of a hoard.

So much of hoarding is stigmatized. To a certain extent this is understandable. It often isn’t seen by the public until it has reached a public health crisis level or in situations where animal hoarders are keeping their hoards in deplorable conditions. Often loved ones of those who hoard feel trapped and frustrated by the hoarding. They feel as if the loved one loves their stuff more than them. These are complex issues and professional help is required to address them. I honestly don’t think this is a situation that is easily handled one family at a time. A family member must be well-informed and patient and empathetic enough to wait through the long treatment process. Often that family member is the child of the hoarder and therefore a minor with no power, which makes the issue even more complex. This is definitely a situation in which public health education campaigns on things like early warning signs of hoarding tendencies and ways to seek help could be extremely helpful long-term. I do believe the authors could have taken things one step further at the end of the book to this connection to public health, rather than mostly focusing on individual therapy. They do mention less consumerism would be helpful, but that simply is not much of an observation. It is a small complaint, but I do feel that this interdisciplinary leap is important.

Overall, this was a fascinating, enlightening book. The authors have conducted extensive scientific research for years, and they do an awesome job of writing this information at the consumer level, as well as humanizing it by bringing in real cases with clients who they render in a three-dimensional fashion. I know I for one will never be able to stomach watching forced clean-ups on the tv show “Hoarders” again. Recommended to really everyone. Anyone could potentially know someone who struggles with hoarding, whether now or in the future, and the book is very readable.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For:
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Illness(es) featured: Hoarding Disorder

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

January 4, 2016 2 comments

cover_birdboxSummary:
Malorie thought the hardest thing she was going to have to face was dealing with her pregnancy and impending single motherhood.  She thought the warnings about seeing something that makes you go crazy and become violent was just the news blowing things out of proportion, or at least just hysteria.  Her sister believed in it, but not herself.

But that was all years ago, and now Malorie is alone in a house with her two children. Children who have never been outside without blindfolds on. She only leaves the house blindfolded, tapping the ground with a stick to find the well.  But now it is time for her to be brave and to take a boat on the river, just she and her two children, blindfolded, in the hopes of finding salvation.

Review:
I was drawn to this book for two reasons.  First, the mere thought of a mother and two young children boating down a river blindfolded had me intrigued.  Second, it’s set in Michigan, which is where my husband is from, and honestly I can’t recall the last time I saw a book set in Michigan.  These two elements came together to tell me this book is probably unique.  So when I saw the kindle version on sale on Amazon, I snatched it up.  What I found was a chilling tale that could easily fit within the Lovecraft mythos.

The order the story is told in helps build the suspense and keeps it from being a same old apocalypse and survivors’ tale.  The book opens with Malorie and her two children living alone in the house.  It opens post-apocalyptic.  Through flashbacks we learn various things such as who used to live in the house with Malorie, why there are certain parts of the house she doesn’t like to go to, and why neither she nor the children leave the house without blindfolds on.  From here, the reader is then taken forward into Malorie’s action onto the river, going down it trying to find a safe haven of other survivors that she knows used to be there years ago.  It’s a nice combination of flashback and plot progression forward that keeps the suspense interesting.

It is no spoiler to say that what caused the apocalypse is something that causes people to go stark raving mad when they see it.  This is included in the official book blurb.  What was interesting to me was how Malerman kept this from being purely straight-forward. Some characters believe in the mysterious creatures right away, others don’t.  Some think that merely believing it will cause you to go crazy makes you go crazy.  Some think that some are affected and others aren’t.  Some wonder if animals are affected too, and no one knows where the creatures came from or, if you don’t believe in the creatures, how the phenomenon started.  The lack of clear-cut answers reflects reality.  In general, with large-scale catastrophes, it’s hard to know exactly what happened or what is going on.  This lack of knowing made the situation read as real, even if the exact situation is an absurd sounding one at first.

I was also struck by how well Malerman wrote a female version of experiencing the apocalypse.  Malorie is both focused on surviving for herself and her baby but also distracted from the apocalypse because she is having normal hormonal reactions to pregnancy.  Similarly, while some characters embrace her as a symbol of hope, others see her as a burden.  Malorie was a refreshing change from the young, virile, kick-ass heroine often seen in post-apocalyptic books.  She is strong, yes, but not in a kick-ass way.  She is strong in a she’s doing her best to be a good mom and still survive type way.  And that’s a nice thing to see in post-apocalyptic horror fiction.

The book naturally ends up pondering “madness” a lot.  The creatures drive any who see them into near-caricature depictions of madness. Sometimes the person becomes violent against others. Sometimes the person turns on themselves, killing themselves or self-injuring to the extent that they die.  There are a lot of questions about what the human mind can handle.  There is a lot of argument in the book for agency against all odds.

It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces. (loc 4034)

On the one hand, I appreciate the argument for agency and fighting for your sanity and humanity.  On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a metaphor where madness happens to people who just aren’t careful enough or don’t have enough of a plan.  While it’s valid that a mental illness must be fought every day and some have more natural resiliency than others, there’s a tone of blame to the theme that strikes me the wrong way.

*small spoiler*
At one point, it is postulated that perhaps the only ones immune to being driven mad by the creatures are those who are already mentally ill because they are already mad.  There is no science behind this thought.  There is simply a character who appears to have paranoid schizophrenia who firmly believes the creatures are not actually dangerous because he has seen them and is fine.  Yet he is a character who ends up instigating an incredibly violent scene.  While it is true that there are violent extremes of mental illness, there are also those that are not.  The book fails to bring out the subtleties and varieties of mental illness.  Imagine the power that could have been from a character who had, for instance, OCD and was able to see the creatures and interact with them without harming anyone and able to understand that others cannot see them safely.  Imagine if it was simply that seeing the world differently already, being abnormal, protected one from being driven truly mad by the creatures.  What an interesting direction that could have taken the story.
*end spoilers*

Thus, in general, while I appreciate the more unique and interesting things the book did, such as focusing on a pregnant woman and then a young mother as the main character and telling the plot in a non-linear way, ultimately the book did not push the boundaries or the ideas far enough to truly enrapture me.  Recommended to horror, Lovecraft, and post-apocalyptic fans looking for a read with a young mother as the focus.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire (Series, #3)

Book Review: An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire (Series, #3)Summary:
When two of Toby’s good friends’ children go missing from their own bedroom and another won’t wake up from being asleep, they call Toby in immediately to look for them.  Soon the King of Cats reports that some of his kingdom’s children are missing too, and Quentin’s human girlfriend disappears as well.  It quickly becomes clear that it’s time for the 100 year cycle of Blind Michael’s Hunt.  Blind Michael, the Luidaeg’s brother, is incredibly powerful, and only three roads lead to his realm.  Toby can only take each road once.  That means she has only three chances to save the children and stop the Hunt.

Review:
I picked this book up immediately after finishing the second in the series and, oh man, it did not disappoint.  This book presents an old school Brothers Grimm style blood-curdling, toes-curling fairy tale, peppered with characters we’ve already come to know and love.

Blind Michael is scary. What he does to the children is really scary.  He turns the fae children into “Riders” monstrous twists on real fae features.  He turns the human children into their horses for them to ride.  Everything about Blind Michael and his twisted land scared the crap out of me, and I don’t scare easily.  It was exactly the sort of scare I used to seek out as a child from the original Grimm Fairy Tales (the ones that are not cleaned up).  This book goes a lot darker than the first two, which were already dark, and it went there in such a different way from the first two plots.  The first two plots were entirely about murder, here we have someone stealing children from their beds.  It’s a completely different type of scare and different sort of mystery for Toby to have to figure out.

The plot tells more than just this one mystery, though, it also brings out some information that is key to the overarching plot of the series.  I really enjoyed how smoothly this was worked together, and I also must say I didn’t predict at all where it was going.

There are basically two themes in the book, one I appreciated and the other I didn’t particularly agree with.  Let’s start with the one I didn’t agree with.

There’s a theme in the book that children on some level must deal with and be held responsible for the choices of their parents.  Toby tries to pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t work out so well for her.

Blood will tell. I tried to pretend it wouldn’t that we could change, but blood always tells. We carry the burdens of our parents.  (loc 312)

It basically reads as the idea that you can’t run away from your family or from your blood, your nature.  Personally, I don’t like that frame of thought.  You can leave your family of birth and not have to be held responsible for them.  You are not your parents. You are your own person. You are not responsible for what your parents do after you leave home.  So this theme didn’t sit well with me.  Other readers who agree with this theme will obviously enjoy it more.

The other theme was one I was quite happy to see so directly addressed in an urban fantasy and that is of suicidal ideation.  There are many different ways that suicidal ideation can manifest, but with Toby her symptoms are that she firmly believes her death is imminent and is planning for it, and she repeatedly throws herself into risk situations because she doesn’t care if she dies.  Suicidal ideation essentially means that a person is lacking self-preservation instincts and is ok with dying.  They won’t actually commit suicide but they will put themselves into dangerous situations because part of them does want to die.  So they might run across a street without looking, go walking alone at 2am in a dangerous neighborhood, etc… Toby’s depression from the first two books has grown so much that she is now at this point, and people have started calling her out on it.  Seeing her realize that she’s, in layman’s terms, got a death wish, is interesting and well-done.  What I appreciate most about it is how directly it is addressed.

Because, dear October, you’re the most passively suicidal person I’ve ever met, and that’s saying something. You’ll never open your wrists, but you’ll run head-first into hell. You’ll have good reasons.  You’ll have great reasons, even. And part of you will be praying that you won’t come out again. (loc 3876)

Overall, this entry in the series brings back the characters readers have come to love and puts them into a new mystery much more terrifying than the first two.  Two strong themes in the book include nature/nurture/ties to parents and dealing with suicidal ideation.  Fans of the series won’t be disappointed.  This is a roller coaster ride of emotions and peril.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Rosemary and Rue, review
A Local Habitation, review

Counts For:
Once Upon a Time IX

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Book Review: Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

September 19, 2014 7 comments

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.

Review:
I was intrigued by the concept of this book.  Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before.  So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up.  I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her.  It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking.  What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions.  This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently.  It always reads smoothly.

The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted.  The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though.  The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying.  I don’t want to give too much away.  Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.

Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it.  For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away.  Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.

Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.

I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape.  Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some.  I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.

Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure.  Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat.  Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Will Patton)

February 13, 2014 3 comments

Red-tinged image of a face with the author's name and title in smoke-like white letters over the top.Summary:
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day.  Not as much as the shining does though.  His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook.  He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror.  But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse.  When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.

Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine.  She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot.  They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it.  They call it steam.  They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra.  Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard.  Dan.

Review:
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today.  All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.

The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine.  This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere.  The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem.  It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine.  It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based.  That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult.  It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.

The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability.  This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support.  I appreciated seeing this.  I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed.  Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there.  AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction.  However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.

The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human.  But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely.  They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead.  The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine.  The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain.  They call themselves The True Knot.  This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan.  The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle.  I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual.  Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair.  Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight.  Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are.  She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is.   I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary.  I do think that was partially the point, though.  You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.

How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created.  It doesn’t come until later in the book, though.  There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first.  The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict.  So it definitely works.  Abra is a well-written middle school girl.  King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world.  Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it.  This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book.  Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.

There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche.  It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit.  However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book.  I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.

The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job.  It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet.  Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style.  I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on.  More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book.  Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak.  I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained.  Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.

Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine.  This time a girl.  The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored.  There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book.  It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set.  Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more.  Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
The Shining, review

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