Picture Book Perusal: Night Shift…

0

picture book perusal button

Today’s offering is one of those rare picture books that is aimed at adults and delivered in an extraordinarily moving way.  Debi Gliori, most famous for her popular fantasy stories and kid-level picture books, has created an absorbing portrait of depression and hope in her new picture book Night Shift.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A groundbreaking picture book on depression with stunning illustrations.

With stunning black and white illustration and deceptively simple text, author and illustrator Debi Gliori examines how depression affects one’s whole outlook upon life, and shows that there can be an escape – it may not be easy to find, but it is there. Drawn from Debi’s own experiences and with a moving testimony at the end of the book explaining how depression has affected her and how she continues to cope, Debi hopes that by sharing her own experience she can help others who suffer from depression, and to find that subtle shift that will show the way out.

‘I have used dragons to represent depression. This is partly because of their legendary ability to turn a once fertile realm into a blackened, smoking ruin and partly because popular mythology shows them as monstrous opponents with a tendency to pick fights with smaller creatures. I’m not particularly brave or resourceful, and after so many years battling my beasts, I have to admit to a certain weariness, but I will arm-wrestle dragons for eternity if it means that I can help anyone going through a similar struggle.’

The first clue that this isn’t your average picture book comes from the cover and size of Night Shift.  At A5 size and with a rich-feeling cloth-bound cover, it’s obvious from the off that this isn’t necessarily a book a child might pick up.  Fans of fantasy will be drawn to the dragon on the front cover and will be rewarded throughout because Gliori has chosen to represent mental illness – in this case depression – through the medium of the dragon.

The story starts simply enough.  A woman is a bit tired, a bit stressed, has trouble sleeping.  She is followed around by a small dragon who, while maybe a bit annoying certainly isn’t immediately recognised as malignant in intention.  As the story continues however, the dragon gets larger, the woman’s reality more fragmented and fanciful and it seems like she couldn’t possibly find the tools to escape from the new landscape of fear and sadness in which she lives her life.

And then…a feather.

And hope.

night shift feather

The monochromatic, graphite and charcoal illustrations throughout perfectly capture the sharp contrasts of depression and anxiety, as certain experiences stand out starkly while others blur around the edges.  In each vignette it is possible to see the small changes that eventually lead to a sense of being overwhelmed; in which some small thing has somehow taken over a life.  The text on each page is sparse, but the words skilfully chosen to reflect the common cliches that the depressed often hear from friends, family and therapists.

A brief afterword from the author describes her journey through depressive illness and her inspiration in creating the book.  Books like Night Shift are an important stepping stone on the way to making mental illness visible in the public eye, and something that is acceptable to talk about.  If you have ever experienced depression, or know someone who has, I would suggest seeking this book out.

Until next time,

Bruce

Children’s Book Week Chaser: Three Visually Stunning Australians…and a Giveaway (Int)!

12

picture book perusal button

I know, I know, I’m a week late, but what I have for you this week is definitely worth the wait.  As you may or may not know, last week was Children’s Book Week in Australia and, never one to let the party end once the official celebrations are over, I am happy to announce that the rest of this week will be Children’s Book Week around the Shelf! Woo hoo!  You can expect new release (and a couple of older titles) perfect for the younglings in your life, right here, every day until Friday.

I am also pleased to announce that we’re kicking off with THREE (count ’em!) TOP BOOK OF 2016 PICKS!!

Bruce's Pick

As well as an International GIVEAWAY!!

Before you explode with excitement, let’s crack on!

Today I have three eyeball-burstingly attractive books for you from Australian authors.  One is a heartwarming book about numbers for the littlies, one is a steampunk cautionary tale for the tweens, and one is a jaw-droppingly incredible, atmospheric and significant piece of wordless storytelling for pretty much any age reader.  We should begin with heartwarming, don’t you think?

theres not one

There’s Not One (Jennifer Higgie) Published by Scribble, September 2016. RRP: $24.99

*We received a copy of this title from Scribble Publishing for review*

From Goodreads:

This joyous debut from well-known writer and editor Jennifer Higgie (Frieze Magazine) celebrates both the individual and the diversity of the world around us. In kaleidoscopic colour, Higgie takes young readers on a journey from some of life’s most important things (baked beans!) to some of life’s biggest wonders (stars!). The perfect early picture book for budding art lovers!

To give you an idea about how different There’s Not One by Jennifer Higgie is to your typical “counting” book for preschool aged children, here’s a glimpse of one of the double page spreads:

theres not one page spread

So much for the “One monkey, two bananas, three chunks of poo being flung” format you were expecting!  There’s Not One bypasses the smaller numbers and makes a beeline for those things which are, in many ways, quite difficult to quantify.  Raindrops, for instance.  Stars.  Colours.  Methods of transportation.  This book will attempt, in the most gentle way possible, to stymie your little one’s counting finger and open their mind to a broader perspective on number.  The eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling seemed to take the phrase “too many to count” as a personal challenge and repeatedly attempted to count the individual stars on the star-counting page.  He happily gave up after a few attempts, and turned his attention to the page with “a zillion” baked beans instead, so in that regard, this is a great book for occupying the attention of the more stubborn younglings of  your acquaintance.

There is a completely unexpected twist at the end of this book that is the perfect way to round out the imagining of numbers of such large scale.  The aforementioned mini-fleshling, on hearing the last few pages of the book, stared off into the distance for a few silent moments, before slowly smiling in a way that indicated a revelation of incredible magnitude had just slithered into his consciousness.  It was quite the most heartwarming thing this stony old gargoyle had seen in quite a while and made the reading experience completely worthwhile.

I would recommend this heartily to those aged between three and maybe seven years; those children who are of an age to get a grasp on the fact that some things come in quantities to large to be counted with a child’s pointing finger.  Having said that, those younger than that will adore the bright colours and patterns, even if they don’t quite grasp the concepts being relayed.

Judging from the mini-fleshling’s reactions to There’s Not One, we have to note that Higgie is on a winner here.

mechanica

Mechanica (Lance Balchin) Published by Five Mile Press, 1st September 2016. RRP: $24.95

*We received a copy of this title from Five Mile Press for review*

From Goodreads:

In this field guide from the future, a dashing explorer—Miss Liberty Crisp—details amazing creatures known as Mechanica: human-created life forms designed to replace extinct species. 

Set in the twenty-third century, the book describes how Earth could no longer support wildlife. The warnings had been ignored. Corporations continued to expose the environment to chemical and radioactive waste, and many Earth species began to disappear. By 2200, vast areas of the world had become uninhabitable and wildlife extinct. In place of the lost wildlife species, the corporations began to create Mechanica. But the Mechanica escaped their confinement, and started to develop in the wild on their own. Filled with inventive and awe-inspiring images and details, this book is sure to spark readers’ imaginations! Kids will marvel at the steampunk-inspired renderings of mechanical bugs, birds, bats, snakes, and more!

Who doesn’t love awesomely inventive creatures repopulating a post-apocalyptic landscape?  No one, that’s who!  Mechanica, with its slightly larger than average hardback format is sure to pull in both reluctant and unstoppable readers alike.  The book begins with a few pages detailing the world in which the mechanica thrive and the circumstances in which they were brought about.  Each page spread features clear and detailed images of the mechanical creature under discussion, plus a brief description of how it came to be and where it is commonly found:

mechanica page spread

The effective use of white space means that younger readers shouldn’t become overwhelmed by the amount of text per creature, and the handy index at the back means that youngsters can look up their favourite mechanica in a snap.  As an adult reader, this is quite an absorbing picture book, given the history and background that has been created for each creature.  The brief descriptions bring to life the environmental chaos that has resulted from the actions of humans and the overall sense of the book had me bringing to mind the “life finds a way” mantra/warning from the original Jurassic Park film!

This book has so many applications for the upper primary classroom that teachers would be foolish not to pick it up.  Off the top of my head I can think of curriculum links for art, history, geography, science, drama and both creative and nonfiction text creation.  Curriculum links aside, though, this is quite simply a beautifully produced text with original and engaging subject matter that will draw the eye of discerning readers of any age.

small things

Small Things (Mel Tregonning) Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th August, 2016. RRP: $29.99

*We received a copy of Small Things from Allen & Unwin for review*

From Goodreads:

On the cusp of having everything slip from his grasp, a young boy has to find a way to rebuild his sense of self. An ordinary boy in an ordinary world. With no words, only illustrations, Small Things tells the story of a boy who feels alone with worries but who learns that help is always close by. An extraordinary story, told simply and with breath taking beauty.

Even before opening this book, it’s obvious that it’s going to be an eye-popping reading experience.  Perhaps it’s for the best then, that this is a wordless picture book and one from which readers will take their own diverse impressions.  Small Things follows a period in the life of a young boy who is obviously struggling emotionally at school and home.  Given that there are no words, it is not explicitly stated that he is suffering from depression or anxiety, but for those who have experienced these afflictions for themselves, the visual cues will be obvious.  As the book continues, the reader is given glimpses into why things might seem so bad for the protagonist – but there are also clues that hope and support are around the corner.

The page spreads range from single page illustrations to the more typical graphic novel format of multiple frames to a page:

small things page spread

I found that these multi-framed pages required a bit of time and energy to peruse, as I didn’t want to miss anything that might be tucked away in the corners of the images, or misinterpret the story because I was skimming.  The monochrome colour scheme is essential to convey the atmosphere of the boy’s headspace, but I found that it too required a more focused approach to “reading” the story.

Despite the end of the story offering some sense of hope and normalisation to the boy’s experience, I was left with a lingering sense of dread that may or may not be related to the personal mental health experiences of the she-fleshling in our dwelling.  Because I jumped straight into the book without first reading the press release that accompanied it, I was unaware that this book is published posthumously to the author’s suicide, and the final illustrations were completed by that giant of Australian story-telling, Shaun Tan.  I left the book with the feeling that the story was poised on a knife-edge, even though the boy’s demeanor indicates that things might be looking up for him.  This ambivalence is no bad thing I suspect, because the complexity of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety invite such contradictions and this is something that needs to be openly discussed and acknowledged.

Although I would recommend this for older children, say upper primary and above, as well as adults, I think readers will engage with this book on their own level.  The more disturbing nuances of the imagery will probably go over the heads of readers at the younger end of the age bracket, but they should still appreciate the need for a sense of belonging and support that the book conveys.  Similarly, older readers will be able to uncover much more complex themes in the visual journey.  Whatever the age and maturity level of the reader however, this is a story that deserves a conversation – so be sure to share your opinion once you have drunk it all in.

Giveaway Time!!

One winner will be able to choose one of the above books as their prize!

This contest is open internationally – hooray!

To enter, answer this question in the comments below: 

Which of these books would you most like to win and why?

Giveaway will run from the moment this post goes live (now!) until midnight, Sunday September 4th, 2016, Brisbane time.

I will select one winner from the pool of eligible comments using a random number generator.  The winner will have 48 hours to respond to a congratulatory email before a new winner is chosen.  I will not be responsible for prizes lost or damaged in transit.

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

We Are Monsters: An Adult Fiction “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review …

0

image

Ready to be party to some deep, well-pondered insights? Then you’ve come to the right place my friend. Today I have an adult fiction, horror tale for you in We Are Monsters by Brian Kirk. I was lucky enough to receive a copy from those masters of spookiness, Samhain Publishing, via Netgalley for review. Got your reinforced, monster-proofed reading gauntlets on? Then let’s have at it.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The Apocalypse has come to the Sugar Hill mental asylum.

He’s the hospital’s newest, and most notorious, patient—a paranoid schizophrenic who sees humanity’s dark side. Luckily he’s in good hands. Dr. Eli Alpert has a talent for healing tortured souls. And his protégé is working on a cure for schizophrenia, a drug that returns patients to their former selves. But unforeseen side effects are starting to emerge.

Forcing prior traumas to the surface.

Setting inner demons free.

Monsters have been unleashed inside the Sugar Hill mental asylum.

They don’t have fangs or claws. They look just like you or me.

we are monsters

So here are

Five Things I’ve Learned From

We Are Monsters

1. If you believe fiction writers, psychiatrists are always higher up the “Batshit Crazy” scale than their patients.

2. Psychiatrists always, ALWAYS have an ulterior motive. Even if it’s subconscious.

3. Unmonitored, experimental medicine always leads to trouble. Or a miracle cure. It depends on your viewpoint. And how uncomfortable you are about the possibility of having your psychotic hallucinations made flesh.

4. Reality is subjective. Unless you’re an inpatient of a mental institution. Then reality is objective and your version of it is clearly wrong.

 

5. If you are seeking inpatient care for mental health issues, always remember to ask about whether you will be subjected to experimental medicine. If yes, refer to point 3.

 

I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand, it is a hefty, action-packed, original tale with lots of twists and turns and characters with comprehensive backstories. On the other, it felt a bit overly long, used every cliché about psychiatrists (and patients) it is possible to use and kind of lost the plot in the middle.

Did I enjoy it? Yes.

Would I read it again? No.

Would I recommend it to lovers of psychological horror? Definitely.

So as you can see, We Are Monsters has inspired a crisis of ambiguity in me.

To begin with the positives, I thought that the first half of the book was very well-written, with a slow-build toward the inevitable catastrophe that is promised right from the start. As we are introduced to the three main characters – Eli, Alex and Angela – we get to see how the dynamics at Sugar Hill are primed for disaster, as Alex experiments with a new wonder drug for schizophrenia, Angela attempts to relate on a human level with a convicted serial killer and Eli wanders around in a fog of hippy altruism. We are treated to a few cheeky twists early on, discovering some possible motives around why Alex might be so desperate to perfect his new medicine and why he wants to keep Eli in the dark.

After a mini-climax in the middle of the book when the proverbial excrement hits the proverbial rotating cooling device, I did feel that the story lost its way a little. When our three main characters are plunged into what can only be described as an altered version of reality, the author spends a lot of time reliving the main characters’ backstories. I found that this section was overwhelming and slowed the pace considerably. By the end of the book, the rapid pace has resumed as certain characters regain normality and attempt to resolve the significant problems that have arisen during the time they were taking a holiday from conscious thought.

I suppose the way the author melded the realistic elements with elements of a psychological thriller and a paranormal story didn’t quite work for me. I definitely related to the jarring and disorientation that the main characters were experiencing, but I didn’t care enough about them to want them to come out the other side. In fact I would have been quite happy for them to have succumbed to unreality. I suspect this is because Eli and Alex in particular did really read like every bad stereotype of a psychiatrist that I’ve ever read, with Eli being all heart and Alex being all head. As for Angela…well, I just didn’t care for her. The serial killer seemed a nice enough chap though.

We Are Monsters will definitely satisfy if you are in the mood for a mind-bending tale that jolts you around and makes you question what is really going on. While elements of it didn’t really work for me, I think this is just due to personal tastes and I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from trying this out if it’s your preferred genre.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Ripping, YA Read-it-if Review: Boo…

3

image

Today’s Read-it-if Review book, I am pleased to announce, has made it onto both my “Top Books of 2015 (so far)” list (which currently only has two other listings) as well as….drum roll please….my Goodreads Favourites list!

*spontaneous applause*

I should probably warn you then that this review WILL include gushing praise.

Today’s book is Boo by Neil Smith. I received a copy of this YA book – which I think is actually adult fiction cleverly disguised as YA – from the publishers via Netgalley. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a ‘gommer’, a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from the volatile Johnny, a classmate killed at the same school, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives. In a heartrending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.

boo cover one

Read it if:

*you like books that feature diverse characters. Even if they’re dead.

*you are either (a) energised or (b) repulsed by the thought of being stuck as a 13-year-old in the afterlife

*you’ve ever been part of a chanting mob

*you like nothing more than discovering something curious turning up in an unexpected place

Now on to the gushing praise!

I have not experienced the kind of satisfaction that I felt on finishing Boo in a long, long time. Here, thought I, is a perfectly constructed tale that is expertly paced, filled with authentic characters, and can be appreciated by those well beyond the YA age-range at which it is marketed. I picked up Boo thinking it would be a reasonably quirky take on the paranormal, life-after-death plot that I generally enjoy, but Smith has created much more than just a fun, creative read here.

For a start, the afterlife that he has created is both expansive and perfectly contained, as well as being pretty original. For in the afterlife in which Boo finds himself, all the residents are 13 years old – the age at which they died. Some died years ago and some are “newborns” like Boo, but all can expect (barring a few exceptional cases) to hang around “Town” as they call it for approximately 50 years, before disappearing into Zig-knows-where. The concept of “Town” reminded me strongly of Neal Shusterman’s afterlife in the Skinjacker series that begins with Everlost. While the similarities are there, Smith’s afterlife doesn’t have the menacing, mysterious undertones of Shusterman’s post-death experience, and feels like a place in which all things have the potential to be made right.

The characters here are diverse (in ethnicity, ability and personality) and felt particularly authentic to me as an adult reader. All of the four main characters have their flaws but come across as complex and layered. I admit to having a soft spot for Esther, the young lass with dwarfism who is applying to be a do-gooder but can sling a stinging one-liner with the best of them. Boo is also a delightful narrator and it didn’t take long for me to relax into his easy narration.

The highlight of the story for me was the depth to which Smith is prepared to take young readers as the narrative unfolds and the events surrounding their untimely deaths are brought to light in Boo and Johnny’s memories. There are twists in this tale, but it didn’t feel like they were thrown in to shock, but to provoke thought from the reader. As these plot twists are revealed I was more and more impressed with the way the author constructed the story. This could have so easily been a two-dimensional, didactic tale in which certain characters were labelled goodies and baddies, but Smith has taken his characters far more seriously than that. The sensitivity with which the boys’ story is rendered was simply a joy to behold.

If you’re looking for a YA read that is, in my opinion, above the common herd, then you should make a point to search out Boo. I will certainly be making it my mission to collect it in print for my shelf.

Until next time,

Bruce

Shouty Doris Interjects about…Madness: A Memoir

10

 

Shouty Doris interjects

Welcome one and all to a new feature here at the shelf – Shouty Doris Interjects! Every so often you come across a book that will arouse strong emotions. When this happens, you may find yourself shouting (in your head, mostly), at the book, the author, the characters – whatever it is that has you all het up. Well around the shelf we have someone who takes this interjection to the next level. She is known as Shouty Doris. She is a denizen of the shelf and often takes it upon herself to loudly interject when happening upon certain emotion-provoking reads. And so we have given her a feature. She is a vocal non-fan of modern technology, so I was forced to create an artist’s impression of her countenance for the feature button. It’s quite a good likeness, I think. So enjoy this new feature – I hope Shouty Doris’s shoutiness will give you some sense of the complex issues behind today’s book.image

I’m also popping this one in for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the  comfy armchair.

The book is Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Madness is a real world for the many thousands of people who are right now living within it. It never apologises. Sometimes it is a shadow, ever present, without regard for the sun. Sometimes it is a well of dark water with no bottom, or a levitation device to the stars. Madness, a memoir is an insight into what it’s like to live with psychosis over a period of ten years, in which bouts of acute illness are interspersed with periods of sanity. The world is beautiful and terrifying and sometimes magical. The sanctity of life is at times precious and at times precarious and always fragile. It’s a story of learning to manage illness with courage and creativity, of achieving balance and living well. It is for everyone now living within the world of madness, for everyone touched by this world, and for everyone seeking to further his or her understanding of it, whether you think of madness as a biological illness of the brain or an understandable part of the continuum of the human condition.

madness a memoir

Right from the start, I found this to be a harrowing read. I had just picked it out for a bit of pre-naptime reading and was treated to a very graphic and frankly, stomach-churning description of the author’s attempt to amputate her own arm. While this was definitely not what I was expecting as an opening gambit, it was undoubtedly compelling and I knew that this would be an engaging read.

Shouty Doris interjects

It was bloody disgusting, all that talk about fatty tissue and seeping blood. I nearly had to reach for the sick bag. Honestly, books like this should come with a warning. I had to take one of my tablets to calm down.

This was not the first memoir I’ve read from someone diagnosed with Bipolar, but what set this one apart was the fact that it was written by a trained medical doctor and deeply explored the effects of her psychosis on everyday life. An author’s note at the beginning informs the reader that the book has been put together using the author’s notebooks as a basis for describing the periods during which she was unwell, and I found it interesting that while the descriptions were quite harrowing and shocking, we were also dealing with a narrator who, by her own admission, was unreliable. I questioned, for instance, the fact that none of her colleagues (who were all medical doctors, you will recall) picked up on the obvious signs of her psychosis.

Shouty Doris interjects

What you mean is, it beggars belief that she could turn up to work wearing multiple layers of odd clothing, with seeping wounds from a self-inflicted hydrochloric acid burn, after nights spent awake and imbibing large amounts of alcohol and not one of her learned, medical doctor colleagues noticed anything was amiss. And her being in and out and in and out and in and out of hospital and missing work! Surely her boss would have figured out that something strange was going on!

That aside, the book really raised the complexity of mental illness and the services available to people who suffer from its many variations.

Shouty Doris interjects

How did her workmates not notice the smell? The unkempt hair? I mean, how could you not notice the seeping wounds?!! WHY WOULDN’T ANYONE HELP THIS WOMAN??

The author had quite a negative view of psychiatrists in general as well as the specific psychiatrists of whom she was a patient. This was a recurring theme of Richards’ personal narrative, despite the fact that during much of the book she was too unwell to comply with the psychiatrist’s recommendations.

Shouty Doris interjects

Why did she stop taking her medication? She was doing so well! WHY IS THIS WOMAN NOT CHAPERONED DAY AND NIGHT?! She obviously can’t take care of herself. It was just a revolving door – self-harm episode, hospitalisation, out the door with some medication, and start it all again. For Pete’s sake woman, put away the alcohol! Follow the Doctor’s orders! Wait, now she’s going to New York? And Israel?? On her own? WHOSE STUPID IDEA WAS THAT? THIS IS NOT GOING TO END WELL!

Overall, this book was an in-depth look at one woman’s experience with severe mental illness over a period of years and her journey through the public health system. Reading it has stirred up a lot of questions for me about the glaring gaps in provision of mental health services generally, and especially for those who don’t have the money to afford private health care. In essence, while it was a difficult read in places, Madness is an engaging addition to the literature on mental illness in an Australian context.

I’d recommend this one to anyone interested in individuals’ experiences with mental illness, particularly Bipolar, but if this is your first foray into memoirs about mental illness I’d probably start with something a little less “in your face”, lest you be overwhelmed with the enormity of the subject.

Shouty Doris interjects

Thank goodness it did end well. Or well enough. Although that should have been obvious, seeing as she wrote the book. I need a cup of tea and a good lie down after that debacle. It’s enough to give an old woman heart failure.

Non-Fiction Reading Challenge Progress: 4/10

Until next time,

Bruce (and Doris)

 

 

The Pause: A YA, GSQ Review…

3

image

I’d like to extend a warm welcome to you and your psyche and I’m happy that you’re here today to join me and my psyche as we take a look at a book that is both timely and illuminating for the YA market. I speak of The Pause by John Larkin, an Australian story that hits upon the simultaneously expansive and reductive nature of time and thought in a hugely relevant way for young people who may be finding the everyday goings-on of life too much to bear. I received a digital copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley.

From Goodreads:

Declan seems to have it all: a family that loves him, friends he’s known for years, a beautiful girlfriend he would go to the ends of the earth for. But there’s something in Declan’s past that just won’t go away, that pokes and scratches at his thoughts when he’s at his most vulnerable. Declan feels as if nothing will take away that pain that he has buried deep inside for so long. So he makes the only decision he thinks he has left: the decision to end it all. Or does he? As the train approaches and Declan teeters at the edge of the platform, two versions of his life are revealed. In one, Declan watches as his body is destroyed and the lives of those who loved him unravel. In the other, Declan pauses before he jumps. And this makes all the difference. One moment. One pause. One whole new life.

the pause

The Good

imageThis book is based upon an incredibly simple, yet vitally important concept: that when it comes to mental illness and decisions made when not in one’s right mind, a moment can make all the difference. Undeniably, this is something that young people, with their still-developing brains and lack of life experience, can find difficult to grasp and it is the key to overcoming the feelings of desperation that can lead to an individual making a tragic and irreversible decision. Larkin has done a great service here in addressing that important technique for staving off poor decision-making when under the influence of depression or anxiety – just wait a moment. Okay? Now wait for five minutes. Great. Now another five.   If we can extend those pauses out just enough, chances are the emotions will change, the pressure will pass and there is now a window of opportunity for help to be sought and given.

Apart from the general premise on which the book is based, Larkin has done a fantastic job of creating a main character that is, in a sense, an everyman, albeit a reasonably well-off and entitled everyman. Declan is a pretty ordinary teenager who is driven to what he does after the loss of what – in the moment – he believes is his true love. To an adult reader this might seem a bit over the top, but I think Larkin has pitched this just right for reaching a younger audience, for whom events such as this really do seem like the end of the world.

The Sad

imageI did find the tone of the writing to be a little didactic at times. After introducing the pivotal decision that Declan makes early in the narrative, the story splits into a hypothetical timeline in which Declan’s story is played out, with some interjections from the Declan who didn’t Pause (essentially, Declan the dead). These interjections are good reminders to the reader, but are of the “Isn’t Declan’s life going well? Oh wait, it’s not, he’s really dead” variety which seemed a little too crudely executed for my tastes.

While I did generally think Declan was a likeable and relatable character there were a few events in the book that made me dislike him, and thus reduced my sympathy for him considerably. Firstly, his mum is a bit of a self-righteous pill who spends pretty much the whole book being rude and dismissive to her husband, while encouraging her son to do the same. Then about halfway through the book , there is a scene in which Declan complains about the overseas holidays that his father makes them go on. It was at this point that I actually said out loud (to a few odd sideways glances) “Oh you don’t like going on a free annual overseas holiday? Allow me to call you a waaaambulance! Would you like some cheese with that (white) whine?”

Needless to say, it did shift my perspective on Declan away from “suffering teen who needs care and assistance” and toward “entitled North Shore wanker who needs a good kick up the arse”.

The Quirky

imageThere are two things that this book does that sets it apart from other books about teens getting over mental health issues. Firstly, it projects Declan’s hypothetical timestream way into the future. The imagined storyline doesn’t just end with Declan getting over the issues that caused his breakdown and (possible) suicide, but pushes things out even further to hypothetical-Declan in his 20s. I found this really original as it gives a sense of how issues from around the time of his mental breakdown affect his life as an adult.

The other unusual thing that this book does, compared with others of its ilk, is address the issues that the adults in Declan’s life are having that contribute in part to Declan’s breakdown and the way in which he recovers. This allowed for growth from a lot of the characters in the book, rather than just the main character, which is often the case with YA books generally.

All in all, I felt that this is an important read for those in the target age bracket. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, and found some of the events a bit contrived, I did appreciate the originality of the format and concept and I think Larkin has produced a very readable narrative that is going to be a hugely helpful contribution as a conversation starter about mental health and suicide for young people and those who work with them.

If you are a teen or new adult, I would recommend reading it and passing it on to your friends. If you are an adult, I would recommend reading it and passing it on to your young people.

Until next time,

Bruce

Alice and the Fly: A YA, GSQ Review…

7

imageIt’s time to unleash my psyche’s personas once again, appropriately enough to review young adult offering, Alice and the Fly by James Rice.  I received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley (drawn in, once again, by the beautiful cover and the promise of content relating to mental health – I’m becoming predictable, aren’t I?).  Unfortunately however, these intriguing lures did not result in my arrival in readers’ paradise.  But let’s press on anyway, shall we?

It’s safe to say that Greg is a bit of an outsider.  Shunned by his peers and watching life from the bus window (when he’s not getting soft drink poured over his head), Greg records his thoughts in a notebook given to him by his would-be counsellor and actual teacher, Miss Hayes. As Greg records various traumatic incidents that happened (and continue to happen) to him, the reader finds out more about this troubled young man.  But then Greg finds what could be a friend…she doesn’t really know he exists, but Greg is determined to change that.  And that’s what leads to the terrible incident.alice and the fly

 

The Goodimage

The best thing about this book is its interesting format.  As well as excerpts from Greg’s journal (which  makes up the bulk of the narrative), the reader is privy to police interviews with a variety of Greg’s relatives and peers interspersed throughout the book.  These are welcome intrusions into Greg’s monologuing and also serve the purpose of giving the reader a few glimpses of the entire puzzle before the incident described at the end of the book.

The Sad

There were a number of things that didn’t work for me in Alice and the Fly.  The first is the fact that image there is a LOT of monologuing in this book.  It’s a personal preference, but I prefer my monolouing in moderation.  There were quite a few times during reading, particularly during the middle of the novel, that I just wanted Greg to shut up and/or stick to the point.

The thing that particularly annoyed me about this book is that there were quite a few things that just didn’t ring true while reading.  Greg’s father is a surgeon.  Greg, it appears, has some unspecified mental illness (loosely labelled schizophrenia), as well as at least one crippling phobia, that require him to be on serious medication (one would presume these to be antipsychotics).  I simply could not believe that a doctor who has a child with a serious, rare (in young children – Greg was supposedly diagnosed at 6) and debilitating mental illness, coupled with obvious social and emotional problems could be so detached from his son’s care and treatment.  Particularly after a violent incident that required Greg to be separated from the family many years previously.

That just didn’t work for me.  Nor did the fact that Greg’s problems were obvious to and identified by pretty much every adult in his life, yet he received no real therapy for his issues, aside from that provided by his well-meaning teacher.  I got the sense by the end that Greg was really just being portrayed, despite efforts to provide Greg’s side of the story through his narration, as the stereotypical dangerous, violent  loony, which just left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Quirky

The quirkiest bit of this novel is the fact that it’s written by an unreliable narrator.  Greg haimages memory blocks that are slowly chipped away, drip-feeding the reader with clues to his overall situation.  Later in the book he also experiences some dissociation that muddies the waters as to what actually happens during the incident, as I shall refer to it.  The mysterious “Them” that Greg is afraid of is also a quirky drawcard, but what “They” are becomes pretty obvious early on in the story and I don’t think the author did a good enough job of describing Greg’s state of mind when in the throes of an attack of his phobia.

I had high hopes for this book, but I was disappointed.  Having a look at Goodreads, plenty of others really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it though, so if you are interested in the themes here I wouldn’t necessarily pooh-pooh this book out of hand just because it didn’t work for me.  On the other hand, if you are interested in searching out other books featuring dissociative disorders and their effects (on children and others) I would highly recommend the novel The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke (which I never reviewed on the blog but probably should have!), The Shiny Guys by Doug MacLeod, or any of the gut-wrenching and eye-opening memoirs about schizophrenia that are out there such as Flying with Paper Wings by Sandy Jeffs, Tell Me I’m Here: One Family’s Experience of Schizophrenia by Anne Deveson, or Henry’s Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, A Father and Son’s Story by Patrick and Henry Cockburn.

In completely unrelated news, the shelf is moving! Not this virtual shelf. You can still find us in cyberspace exactly where we’ve always been.  It’s the real, physical shelf that will be moving to a new home in the next week.  I mention this because that flightly mistress, WiFi, may or may not choose to make an appearance in our new home on time, and therefore we will be taking a week off from blogging from tomorrow (that’s January 17th).  I’m sure you’ll all miss us terribly, but we will be back with you as soon as we possibly can, hopefully on the 26th for 2015’s first round of Fiction in 50! Join us, won’t you?

Until next time,

Bruce