Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Genre: Historical mystery
Secondary genre: paranormal
CW: mental health
Rep: violence against women, mental health
Rating:

One thing I love about Simone St. James’ work is that all of her book, though stand alone, are set in the same world. There are often references to other books or events.

In this particular volume we follow Joanna, a dejected war widow who has no choice but to work for her husband’s selfish, horrible relatives. Officially she’s Dot’s companion–her husband’s aunt–but later transitions to being more of a secretary. Dot treats everyone like garbage, probably because her husband is a horrible man who hates her and she’s the type of person who takes it out on everyone around her.

Anyway, it’s not until returning to the family home that Joanna learns Dot’s mentally unwell daughter died several years earlier, by “jumping” off the roof (it’s never specified what she suffered from, but it’s implied she was a high-support autistic). In the nearby village, however, rumor fly ranging from murder to an aborted German invasion during the war, to all sorts of paranormal explanations, including a ghostly dog that can be heard howling in the woods at night.

It would seem that her ghost has a message for Jo, and she keeps appearing at the most inopportune times. Already near an emotional breakdown, Jo is half convinced she’s going crazy.

While this wasn’t my favorite Simone St. James novel, I did really enjoy it. I love how atmospheric her books are, but she does definitely have a type when it comes to heroines: poor, lonely, and depressed. But that is one thing I really love about them–they start at rock bottom and always find their strength through the book. It did mean I found this book a bit predictable, but I still enjoyed the reveals.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Genre: YA Contemporary (Well, historical, now. 1990s)
Format read: audiobook
Content Warnings: mental illness/depression, mentions of abuse, rape, suicide and drug use.
Rep: LGBT, mental health
Rating: planchet-3

When we talk about mental health rep in YA, up until just a few years ago The Perks of Being a Wallflower was held up–is still often held up–as the best or only example.

Thankfully, we have more options now.

Charlie is starting high school. And through a strange set of circumstances that are never really explained, he decides it’s a good idea to start writing letters to someone who doesn’t know him, telling them his deepest, darkest feelings. 🤨

A few days into the school year, this shy, quiet kid makes friends with a group of seniors, and is drawn into a much more mature world than he expected. This is perhaps best illustrated when he reads a poem to all of his friends. It’s very obviously a suicide note, but the subtext goes completely over Charlie’s head, leading to several moments of very awkward silence in the middle of a party.

It’s hard for me to describe a plot for this book, because it feels more like a series of smaller stories that are interlinked; a slice-of-life book about a 15 year old boy.

The thing about this book is that the one theme running through it all is that all of the kids are abused in some way–emotional, physical, psychological. Which is important to show, but I would have like to see one person with normal, healthy relationships.

Which is another thing–Charlie’s relationships with his friends struck me as very odd. He’s often a passenger, rather than an active participant, though he does mention in his letters he’s trying to fix that. But it still felt like the power balance between him and his two best friends and his eventual girlfriend is way off.

The book put me in mind of My So-Called Life, which makes sense as it deals with a lot of similar issues in the same time period. It also made me think of The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider.

I think, more than anything, this book highlighted how much things have changed in the last *mumble mumble* years. At the time this book came out, I wasn’t even in elementary school yet, but so many things that were normal and acceptable back then are no longer viewed that way, like the toxic masculinity surrounding Charlie at home, and the behaviors some of the characters exhibit.

I still have divided feelings about this book, so it’s hard to give it a proper rating, or even to decide if I should recommend it. I think there are a lot of important things in this book, but I also think that we can do better.

My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

Genre: YA Contemporary
Format read: audiobook
Content Warnings: mental illness/suicidal ideation (triggering)
Rep: POC (Turkish), mental illness
Rating: planchet-3

**This review contains spoilers**

Okay, I’m just going to lay it out this: In this book, 2 depressed teenagers make a suicide pact because they both want to die, but are scared to do it alone.

I knew this book dealt with mental health, but that’s basically all I knew about it going in.

Aysel’s father ruined her life when he got arrested for murder two years ago. Now her entire Kentucky town hates her for what he did.

Even more, Aysel hates herself. Her father suffered from mental illness (it’s implied to possibly be bipolar disorder, but ever specified; he was undiagnosed until his arrest), and Aysel feels herself capable of the same erratic and violent behavior. With no future ahead of her she determines to end her life before anyone can get hurt. Ignored by her mother and her step family, friendless, she feels the world is better off without her.

Online, she meets Roman, a boy her age from the next town. The two of them set a date for the act. Roman holds his cards close to his chest, unwilling to divulge much of his life or why he wants to die so badly. But in order for their plan to work, the two of them need to convince his mother that he’s “better,” reaching out and making friends so he’ll be able to get out of the house when the time comes.

And that’s all I’m willing to write about the plot. As someone who has struggled with depression for most of her life, and long periods of suicidal thoughts and self harm, this book was triggering to read. At times, I thought the rep was really good–depression has manifested differently for each of them; sometimes as sadness, lethargy, numbness, or anger. No one ever judged their sadness or deemed it unworthy.

BUT. My problem comes about 3/4 of the way through the book. And this is where the spoilers start.

As their partnership turns into friendship, Aysel starts to fall for Roman. When she finally realizes this, suddenly she wants to live again. All of a sudden she realizes her family has been reaching out to her the whole time. She signs up for a science program at the encouragement of her teacher.

She doesn’t reach out and meet new friends, or form tighter bonds with her family. Her annoying sister is still super annoying and rude. She has one heart-to-heart with her mother that somehow fixes all the tension and distance that has been between them since Aysel was a year old and her mom walked out and remarried. Aysel becomes convinced she can use her love to save Roman’s life.

This is a prime example of a character being “saved” by “twue rrove.”

when-anyone-uses-term-true-love

I hate it when this happens in fiction. This is not how depression works. It’s not how love works, either. Yes, it’s important to feel loved. To have connections. But it doesn’t suddenly fix everything or make depression go away overnight. While I did like Aysel and Roman as a couple, the whole situation just pissed me off.

Up to that point, I would say the book had good rep for mental health, but the ending means I can’t rate this book higher or recommend it for those suffering from depression.

As for the Turkish rep…Aysel is 1st generation Turkish-American. Her father was a murderer, and her mom walked out and has done everything she can to distance herself from her roots. The only thing recognizeably Turkish about Aysel and her upbringing is her name.

Realistic? Yeah. I know there are a lot of people who have come to the US with the intention of shedding their past wholesale. But is this good rep? As a white woman born to a family that has largely been in the US since the 1600s, I’m not the one to make that call. If you’ve read this book, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

“I’ve often noticed that people equate ‘having a sense of humor’ with ‘being an insensitive moron.’” –Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Genre: Contemporary YA
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: bullying (implied), anxiety attacks
Positive rep: mental health (social anxiety, depression
Rating: planchet-5

Audrey has always been a bit quiet. Reserved. Shy.

But after an Incident in March, she’s left unable to function in society. She doesn’t leave the house except for therapy sessions, wears dark glasses even indoors, and has panic attacks at the thought of using the phone, texting, or even emailing.

Her world has shrunk down to the size of a pin, encompassing just her parents and two brothers. Since The Incident, not even her best friend tries to talk to her anymore.

But when her older brother decides to enter a videogame competition and his teammate Linus starts coming over regularly to practice, it turns Audrey’s safe place upside down. Suddenly there’s a stranger in the house, and he’s not familiar with all the unspoken rules the family has adopted to help her cope–like not mentioning her dark glasses, or that the den is off limits to everyone but her.

As Linus starts coming over more often, however, Audrey starts to think he might not be so bad. Certainly not so bad as the people who caused The Incident and left her terrified of people in the first place. In fact, Linus has been challenging her boundaries–in a good way.

The thing I really loved about this book is that while there is a romantic subplot, it’s extremely minor–the story focuses more on the friendship between Linus and Audrey. And while they do get together, it’s not a case of “I’m in love, I’m cured!” Linus helps Audrey build a support system, which then allows her to heal.

I wish I’d had this book back when I was in high school and college. It’s the sort of book I wanted when I was writing The Evie Cappelli Series.

I loved all the characters, including Audrey’s wacky family. With such a closed set, the story really has to be character driven, and Sophie Kinsella does a great job of creating funny, distinct, realistic people to populate Audrey’s life.

My only complaint about this book is that we never get any information about what exactly The Incident is, though in the long run the details don’t really matter. What matters is that Audrey has suffered a trauma, and it is taking her a long time to recover from it.

If you are struggling with mental health, this is a great, light-hearted book to pick up on a bad day.