September 30, 2012

In Case You Missed It...Psychtember Week 4! (And an Extension...)


Worried that you missed a few Psychtember posts this week? Relax — they're all here!

Week 4 posts:

Guest Posts: 

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Why Bully?

How Much Should You Emphasize Your Character's Mental Illness?

Perfect Escape: A Psychtember Review

Ultraviolet: Guest Review

Fall For Anything: Guest Review

Something Like Normal: A Psychtember Review

Wintergirls: Guest Review


Jennifer Brown


Psychtember "Waiting on Wednesday" picks


Jennifer Brown giveaway (Bitter End and Perfect Escape) – US only, ends 10/10

Remember, the Something Like Normal and Streamline giveaways both end today!

Also, the YA involving mental health issues (2000-present) Goodreads list has almost reached 50 books! Let's keep on expanding it :)

I know it's the last day of September, but I've still got a few more Psychtember posts planned (that's right, there's just too much Psychtember goodness to be had!) so I'll be extending the event into October. So keep on checking back!

September 29, 2012

Wintergirls: Guest Review

Najela from Brave New Adventure is back with another Psychtember post! Today she's reviewing Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Summary:  Lia's best friend, Cassie, died alone in a hotel room after running away and since then Cassie's been trying to make sense of the 33 phone calls she left that night. Lia is racked with guilt from her best friends death, but even then, she can't seem to bring herself out of the throws of her anorexia. She constantly wants to lose weight, deceiving her family into believing that she's healthier than she already is. She's already been to an inpatient care facility, going through the motions of being healthy and being okay. Her therapists are trying to unravel Lia's issues, her parents are blaming each other for Lia's issues. 

Likes: This was a chilling tale.  It was heart wrenching to see Lia trying to solve her own problems and the adults around her not being able to help. All of the characters were flawed and real. The adults were too busy blaming each other to be helpful. They just assume Lia's okay because she says she's okay, but they don't look into the subtle signs such as her cutting up her foods, the laxatives and diuretics hidden in her room, and the fact that they don't talk to her concerning her friends death. Lia was dealing not only with anorexia, but grief as well.  The two of these combine don't make a good mix and it seems that every thing that Lia deals with becomes too much and she goes to drastic measures to deal with her grief.

Psychological Aspect: The psychological aspect of this novel was chillingly real, especially towards the end when reality was blurred. Sometimes when you starve yourself long enough, you'll begin to start to hallucinate as your body starts to shut down. Anorexia is a psychological issue in which a person believes themselves to be overweight and goes to extreme measures to lose the weight they think they have. Cassie's friend suffers from an eating disorder known as bulimia,  in which someone binge eats, then purges (vomits) the food in order to stop themselves from gaining weight.

When I thought of this story, I didn't think the reasons why Lia and Cassie had eating disorders, but when I thought about it a little more to it than that. I'm not a psychologist, but within the confines of the story, the reasons were simple. They usually always are. Certainly there are enormous reasons why a psychological disorder would start, but sometimes there aren't. Cassie started copying all the girls she met at camp and Lia started copying her. They found that these acts soothed something inside of them. It's the same way someone becomes an alcoholic or a drug addict.

Writing Tip:  Psychological disorders typically don't happen overnight, it's a gradual process. The triggers don't always have to be a traumatic experience. For the sake of the story, it could be, but it would depend on where you start.

Another Book to Read: Hunger

Najela is a graduate from UC Riverside with a dual degree in Psychology and Creative Writing and finally making the most of both degrees. She works with kids and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Exceptional Student Education. She is also working on several writing projects including a Beauty and the Beast retelling webcomic coming in late October 2012. You can follow her at her website or her tumblr.
Thanks very much, Najela, for sharing your reaction to Wintergirls!

September 28, 2012

Something Like Normal: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Presentation (from Goodreads): "When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again. Travis’s dry sense of humor, and incredible sense of honor, make him an irresistible and eminently lovable hero."

Axis 1. Characters

The characterization in Something Like Normal is wonderful. Travis has one of the most authentic and yet still appealing guy voices I've read in quite a while — and this is coming from someone who doesn't typically like 1st-person teen guy POVs. It's difficult for me to find books with a male teen narrator where I'm interested in what they're saying and can connect to them on some level, and I feel like Trish Doller really accomplished that with Travis. He's a flawed character, to be sure; his behaviour's less than ethical at times, he shows spurts of temper, and though he recognizes he has some psychological issues, he's not quite ready yet to take the step of admitting he needs help. And yet despite these flaws, there's something very attractive about him. I like his honesty, and the way he doesn't take flack from people. 

I feel like he wants to be a better person, and he realizes that he's a better person when he's around Harper, so he wants to be with her. It's neat that we get to be inside Travis' head and see him starting to fall for Harper and care about someone in a way he hasn't before. As for Harper, I appreciated that she stood up for herself and didn't let him walk over her. I think they're good for each other — Travis is pretty bitter and jaded at the beginning, and as Harper softens him up he starts to become more hopeful. She seems like a steady girl who will keep him grounded. Paige provides a nice foil for Harper, since Travis feels very differently about each of them.

Travis' dad is a very generic, "All American" sports dude. He doesn't ever really venture out of cliche, but he's obviously intended to be disliked — and he certainly succeeds at serving that purpose. Basically, he's one of those really irritating dads who want to live vicariously through their kid, and want to see their kid do well so they can be hotshots. He reminded me a lot of the jock's dad in The Breakfast Club, who's pressuring his son all the time. In short, he's a jerk.

In contrast, Travis' mom actually cares about her son, and it's really sweet to see that. I like that he's standing up for his mom, and that they're getting to know each other better after so many years of her sitting on the sidelines while his dad railed at him. 

It's clear that Travis had a strong connection with Charlie (a fellow Marine and friend who was killed) and that their friendship was very important to him. We don't see that kind of emotional bond very often with male characters (at least, not in YA), so it was refreshing to see that level of connection here.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

There isn't much action happening here, but it's quite short and surprisingly readable — I breezed through it in just a couple of days. It could have been a little more dramatic in places (for instance, the PTSD could have been amped up) and I wish a few of the storylines had been more fleshed out. I never felt like we had a good grip on Travis' relationship with his brother Ryan, so I would have liked to have seen more of that (Ryan just seems to get dropped out of the story after a certain scene). More information about the political side of things in Afghanistan would also have been interesting, although obviously that isn't the point of this book. Rather, it's all about Travis' recovery and his emotional healing process, and that is done really well.

In terms of the ending, things wrapped up awfully fast, with a lot being resolved within just the last few chapters, and I think it could have been stretched out a bit more. It seemed too neat and easy a conclusion, with a couple of "heart-to-heart" conversations that dipped into cheesy/sappy. The closing letter was a nice touch, though. While the ending is hopeful, it left me feeling sad in some ways, too. Overall, it's a kind of bittersweet book, not entirely uplifting — Charlie's dead at the beginning and so obviously he's still dead at the end. I was glad that Travis winds up in a better place emotionally, though.

Axis 3. Writing Style

Trish Doller's ear for the male teen voice is impressive. A lot of female authors writing YA novels with male perspectives don't succeed at this aspect, but the way Travis talks and thinks seems quite "guy-like". Most of the dialogue is authentic, and Doller does not shy away from coarse language/references and distasteful jokes in some situations (for example, when Travis is hanging out with his Marine pals). While crude conversation isn't something I really enjoy, I can appreciate that it feels real.
Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

Travis' main psychological problem is quite obvious: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He displays some of the classic symptoms, such as nightmares/difficulty sleeping, startling easily (gunshots set him off), flashbacks, and a dislike of talking about his time spent in Afghanistan. These symptoms fit quite neatly with the DSM-IV criteria

In addition to these, he exhibits signs of psychosis in the form of hallucinations — usually of Charlie. Apparently it's not unusual to experience psychotic symptoms along with PTSD, so this is also in line with research on trauma. 

It's interesting that we're shown a little of how another soldier has reacted differently. Kevlar turns to alcohol and thrill-seeking; he wants an adrenaline rush all the time, the kind that he got in Afghanistan and doesn't get anymore. Adrenaline seems to act similarly to an addictive substance for some individuals. I suspect these are also signs of PTSD — indeed, the upcoming DSM-V has added "reckless or self-destructive behavior" to the list. 

I would have liked to have seen the stigma of mental health issues, especially in the military, discussed a little more. It's touched on slightly (in particular, Travis states, "The evaluation is also supposed to gauge our mental wellness, but that's a joke. We say everything is okay because the fastest way to wreck your career is to admit it's not.") but not addressed in detail. I also wish we'd gotten a glimpse of Travis' therapy, but it's just mentioned at the very end in passing.
Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Something Like Normal?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I liked that it's not too preachy, and that the author isn't taking a strong political stand here. As I mentioned earlier, politics don't play a big role, but when they do surface they aren't handled in a black-and-white kind of way. 

A couple of the blurbs on the back of the book use the word "unflinching," which makes it sound like it could be gritty and violent. It's emotionally tough and depressing, definitely, and feels like this is something that someone who's come back from Afghanistan would experience, but there's nothing really graphic in here at all. In fact, I think the "grit" factor could even have been raised a bit more (although I wouldn't want it to degenerate into gratuitous violence).
Patient shares symptoms with: BADD by Tim Tharp, The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt, Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick

Patient's statement:

I lift my beer cup for a drink. Dirt fills the lines of my hand, and my fingers are stained with blood. The cup slips from my grasp, splashing beer across the top of the table. Paige jumps off Ryan's lap, shrieking something at me, but I don't understand what she's saying. My chest is tight and I'm having trouble breathing.

I have to get out of here.
Diagnosis: 4 shooting stars. This is definitely a good book to check out if you're interested in PTSD or soldiers' reactions to war, or if you're looking for a distinctive and sympathetic male teen narrator. It doesn't bring anything really novel to the subjects of war and trauma, but it excels in characterization and relationships.

This book counts towards my goals for the Debut Author challenge, the Just Contemporary challenge and the New Adult reading challenge.

Note: This book contains some coarse language/references and sexual content. 

Also, I interviewed Trish Doller earlier this month

For more information about PTSD, see here.

Guest Post: How Much Should You Emphasize Your Character's Mental Illness?

I'm pleased to welcome Dr. Carolyn Kaufman, author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology, back to the blog! I interviewed her last year for Psychtember (you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and this time she's participating with a guest post in response to a question I sent her. Take it away, Carolyn!

One thing I've noticed with many YA books is that when a character has a mental illness, the whole story becomes focused around that aspect and it turns into an "issue book." Do you think this is helpful, or would it be beneficial to have more stories that feature teens that just happen to have mental illnesses? Why?

I think “issue books” often do a nice job of showing what it’s like to deal with a psychological problem, which benefits teens who are dealing with a mental health issue in their own lives, or in the life of a friend or family member. As our ability to recognize and talk about psychological issues has expanded (and as diagnostic criteria have expanded), we’ve become more aware of psychological problems that used to get misdiagnosed or swept under the proverbial carpet. Even people who have not been directly impacted by a psychological disorder can benefit, because we all are bombarded with TV shows, movies, and even cartoons that make assumptions (many of them wrong) about what someone with such a disorder is like. Getting an insider’s point of view makes us more empathetic.

I do like stories that address psychological problems without making said problems the axis on which the story turns, however. Though many people with undiagnosed or newly diagnosed problems are consumed by the disorder that’s bogging them down, many, many people learn to manage their diagnoses. The diagnosis then becomes an ongoing part of their lives, but not by any means the thing that defines them.

In other words, when someone is first diagnosed with something like ADHD or bipolar disorder (manic depression) or panic attacks, they may go through a stage of using the diagnosis as part of their identity.  For example, they may say to people, “I’m bipolar,” or “One of my prominent characteristics is my ADHD,” or “I really have to think about my panic attacks before I can do anything else.”  But just like teens with epilepsy or diabetes learn to adapt and make dealing with the problem part of their daily routine, so too do many people with psychological problems.  And I’m not sure that’s portrayed often enough in fiction—people coping with their problems.

Granted, stories are more exciting when there’s drama and conflict, but the period when someone is first diagnosed isn’t the only time that things can be shaken up! For example, someone who has learned to manage a disorder must also learn if, when, and how they are going to tell others. For example, when and how does a 17-year-old girl who’s trying to impress her new boyfriend tell him she has a problem with bipolar disorder? There’s still a great deal of stigma toward mental illness, and it is usually much harder to say “I have manic depression” than it is to say “I get migraines” or “I have diabetes.” She will probably worry about how her boyfriend is going to take it, whether he’s going to think she’s “crazy” for having to take meds and visit a psychiatrist, whether he’ll tell other people. And even if he handles it well, what if his parents disapprove? And what’s he going to do the first time he sees actual symptoms? Will he be supportive, demeaning, afraid, angry?

In addition to that, her lifestyle may not mesh with her peers’ expectations. She may not be able to stay up all night, sleep irregular hours, eat like her body is a garbage disposal, let her blood sugar drop too low, use popular remedies (like appetite suppressants, high-caffeine drinks, or over-the-counter-cold medicine), or drink alcohol. (Yes, 17 is under the legal drinking age, but we know that many teens experiment before that.) Things like this can trigger bipolar episodes or exacerbate symptoms.

Also remember that stressors can aggravate many psychological conditions, so even a character who normally deals well can be thrown off track by a breakup, changing schools, or a parental divorce.

Finally, I think a lot of authors do extensive research to try to understand a disorder they want to portray, and we all know how tempting it is to use everything we’ve learned! But sometimes a light touch is best.  You can, like I said above, remind yourself that the disorder is a part of the person’s life, something that needs to be managed, not something that defines him or her.

I have a character who has panic attacks in social situations that involve pressure. This isn’t a huge part of the novel, and I never even name the problem (i.e. panic attacks). Instead, I just show him doing his best to deal with each attack as it comes. In a good novel, a vulnerability like this really should flare up and cause problems at a crucial moment, but again, it doesn’t need to define the character or the novel.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook!

Thanks very much, Carolyn, for this insightful look at how to write a character with mental illness without turning the story into an "issue book"!

Readers — do you like it when a book zeroes in on a particular mental health issue, or do you prefer to see stories where it's there, but not the main focal point? Can you recommend some YA books that aren't "issue books" but still accurately portray a character with a mental illness?

September 27, 2012

Psychtember Interview with Jennifer Brown (and Giveaway!)

Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List, Bitter End, and Perfect Escape, is dropping by the blog today with an interview for Psychtember! I reviewed Bitter End for Psychtember last year and Perfect Escape this time around.

Here's a little more info about Jennifer and her most recent YA novel Perfect Escape:

"I've pretty much always been a dreamer, lining up my dolls and stuffed animals on the stairs and "teaching" them things. I had imaginary friends (which was good because we moved pretty often and I pretty regularly found myself with few real ones) and would hold "conversations" with them. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was telling them stories, and it was my favorite pastime.

I never wanted to be a writer (I was going to be a teacher), even though I was always writing. My first story was a short story, written in 4th grade. It was two pages long, hand-written, and my characters had names like Donna Schlieigermeigssterkks. I showed it to my grandma, who loved it so much she called my aunt on the phone and read it to her.
Even though Grandma was cracking up while reading it, I was hooked by the celebrity of it all. Since then, I've always written, even when I thought nobody would ever read any of it.

Writing didn't turn into a dream until about 10 years ago when my husband, Scott assured me people wouldn't laugh at me. Turns out, he was wrong. People laugh at my writing all the time. It's just... well... I'm a humor-writer... laughing is what I want them to do. It also turns out he was right. Sometimes I can write serious stuff, too.
(from her website)

"Kendra has always felt overshadowed by her older brother, Grayson, whose OCD forces him to live a life of carefully coordinated routines. The only way Kendra can stand out next to Grayson is to be perfect, and she has perfection down to an art -- until a cheating scandal threatens her flawless reputation.

Behind the wheel of her car, with Grayson asleep beside her, Kendra decides to drive away from it all -- with enough distance, maybe she'll be able to figure everything out. But eventually, Kendra must stop running and come to terms with herself, her brother, and her past.

With undeniable grace and humor, acclaimed author Jennifer Brown explores OCD, the pressure for perfection, and the emotional highs and lows of a complex sibling relationship." (from Goodreads)

Now for the questions...

1.) Perfect Escape, Bitter End, and Hate List are all contemporary YA books tackling issues related to mental health and psychology. What motivates you to write stories involving these kinds of emotionally hard-hitting topics? Do you think you'll continue to write in this vein, or do you ever see yourself switching gears entirely to another style or genre?

The things I write about are things that real teens are encountering every day. I think it's important to talk about tough issues and how we can overcome them. Knowledge truly is power, and the first step to making change, and I like writing books that can help get a discussion going. Also, my wish is that my books, tough as the subjects are, will provide some hope to young adults who are experiencing the things my characters are going through.

I do think I'll continue to write these kinds of stories, always, but I love to try out new things. New styles, new genres, new audiences all interest me, so I definitely hope to write some stories in different genres as well.

2.) You clearly do your research when it comes to the psychology of your characters' behaviour. Do you find it a challenge to balance communicating facts/knowledge about a disorder or issue with making your characters and their interactions believable? If so, how do you approach this hurdle?

I actually think really understanding a social issue or the psychology of my characters helps me make them more believable. In general, what works for me best is understanding everything I can about what makes my characters tick. When I have troubles, it's because I don't know them well enough. The hurdle can sometimes be making sure the story isn't too "textbook." What is most dramatic isn't always what's most realistic. It's a fine line to walk.

3.) The term "OCD" appears a lot these days in pop culture and the media, but it's not always used correctly, resulting in misinformation about the disorder in the general public. If you could ensure that readers remembered one fact about OCD from Perfect Escape, what would it be?

I think a lot of people confuse perfectionism with OCD. You hear people say, "I've got a touch of OCD" when they really mean that they're perfectionistic about something -- they like their things kept just-so, or their house super clean, or they don't like to touch door handles of public restrooms and so forth. But OCD can be a debilitating anxiety disorder that can really interrupt someone's life. Some people who have OCD are, in many ways, held hostage by it. They might spend hours each day washing their hands or brushing their teeth, they might not be able to leave their houses or will spend so long with their rituals before leaving their houses that they're chronically late and will lose jobs and relationships or so forth.

I also think it's really important to remember that a person who suffers from a mental illness is not only that mental illness. It can be so easy to get frustrated or frightened or just want to condemn a person for their struggles, but as Grayson showed in Perfect Escape, there are lots of complexities and emotions that come with mental illness, not the least of which is the desire to be out from under it.

Also, it's important to me that people understand what it's like growing up alongside someone with mental illness. Sometimes it can be easy to ignore the "well child," in favor of the one who needs more attention. Like Kendra, sometimes siblings of someone who struggles just want to be heard, be validated.

4.) It's unusual these days to see a YA novel without a central romance, but in Perfect Escape the focus is on the brother-sister relationship of Kendra and Grayson. Were you concerned that this might negatively affect the appeal of the book to teens? What qualities would you say Kendra's and Grayson's relationship embodies that would not be present in a romance?

Really, none of my novels have much of a romantic element. You get to see glimpses here and there of Nick's and Valerie's relationship before the shooting in Hate List, and you get to see the buildup of Alex's and Cole's relationship in Bitter End, but neither of those novels really have any sort of central romance to them.

Honestly, I'm not even thinking "romantic relationship" when I sit down to write a novel. There are many relationships outside of romantic ones that are interesting and important to teens. I get a lot of reader comments about the relationship between Valerie and her younger brother, Frankie, in Hate List, so I know that teens do care about sibling relationships. I know that romantic relationships are important to teens, but so are best friend relationships, parent relationships, extended family relationships, work relationships, and sibling relationships, so I wasn't worried about teens being able to relate.

I think one thing that Kendra's and Grayson's relationship embodies that romances might not is ease. They're both comfortable just being themselves and saying what they're thinking, and not worrying about "looking good" to one another. This lends itself well to humorous moments as well as touching moments, and I think it helps us to see all the nuances of the characters a little better, because nobody is putting up any sort of front.

5.) If you could match up two characters from any of your three published YA novels — either romantically or just as friends — who would you pair, and why?

I would try to match up Grayson with the Alex, Zach, Bethany friend trio in Bitter End. I think they would accept him for who he is, and I think he could use a few more friends.

6.) You've got two more YA books coming out in the next couple years: Thousand Words, about a teen girl caught in a "sexting" scandal, and Torn Away, about grief in the aftermath of a tornado. Can you give us a few hints about what to expect from either of these?

These are two very different novels. In Thousand Words, you can expect to see what happens when a bad breakup turns into a worst nightmare. It's a worst-case-scenario of what could happen when a naked photo goes viral and gets labeled "child porn." In Torn Away, my main character, Jersey, loses everything in a tornado, and spends the summer being shuttled around to various family members. It's a story about family, and love, and acceptance.

Thanks so much, Jennifer, for these thoughtful replies to my questions!

Jennifer has kindly offered up *signed* copies of both Bitter End and Perfect Escape for giveaway.

So, here's how this is going to work:

- There will be TWO winners. Each winner will receive one copy of Bitter End and one of Perfect Escape.

The rules:

- Entrants must be 13 years or older.
- Open to US only
- One entry per person
- Following and tweeting are not necessary but always appreciated!
- Ends Oct 10, at 11:59 pm EST.
- Winners will be selected randomly and contacted by e-mail

To enter, please fill out THIS FORM. Comments are wonderful but do not count as entries.

Fall For Anything: Guest Review

Najela from Brave New Adventure is here with another review for Psychtember, this time of Fall For Anything by Courtney Summers! 

Summary:  Eddie Reeves father, Seth Reeves, committed suicide and since then her life has fallen apart. Her mother's annoying friend, Beth, has pretty much moved in for the sake of "helping" her mother, and as a result treating Eddie as a nuisance. Eddie's only constant is her best friend, Milo who has been supporting her through this tragic time. But then Eddie meets Culler Evans, a photography student of her father's, has she found someone who can provide answers to her father's suicide?

Likes: It was an okay book. I didn't know what I was expecting, it could have almost been two different stories. The story is framed as a mystery, when it really is about Eddie and her grieving process about her father. The only character that was sympathetic to her pain was Milo and she kept pushing her away. While, I wasn't too keen on the whole mystery aspect to the story, Eddie's coping and processing of the grief caused her to act out in ways that wasn't expected. The characters were very real, even if I didn't like all of them (especially Beth). As mentioned before Eddie's emotions were erractic as she was dealing with grief. This is a very realistic portayal of grief, in my opinion, as everyone responds and experiences grief differently. Had the reader been given glimpses of life before the incident, Eddie's reactions would make more of an impact.

Psychological Aspect: The psychological aspect of this books deals more with the nature of grief. The K├╝bler-Ross model also known as The Five Stages of Grief, include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross acknowledges that not everyone goes through all of these stages when a life altering event occurs and these aren't only emotions associated with grief. Emotions such as guilt and confusion can play into this as well.

Writing Tip: There are more than 5 stages of grief, but the nature of grief doesn't follow these stages. One minute, someone can be angry, the next minute they can be in denial. One thing this book does well is have triggers that bring these emotions to the forefront. Grief can cause a character to act out of character, which would have been presented in this book had scenes showing how Eddie used to be when her father was alive would have really heigtened the nature of her grief.

Another Book to be Read: I honestly don't read a lot of book dealing with grief, but grief doesn't always have to be someone dying. . Does anyone have suggestions?

Najela is a graduate from UC Riverside with a dual degree in Psychology and Creative Writing and finally making the most of both degrees. She works with kids and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Exceptional Student Education. She is also working on several writing projects including a Beauty and the Beast retelling webcomic coming in late October 2012. You can follow her at her website or her tumblr.
Thank you, Najela, for sharing your thoughts on Fall for Anything!

Readers, do you have any recommendations of other books dealing with grief?

September 26, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday: Pretty Girl-13 and The Language Inside

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine and features books that we just can't wait to get our hands on!

This week's Psychtember WoW picks are:

Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley

From the author's website:

"Angie Chapman was thirteen years old when she ventured into the woods alone on a Girl Scout camping trip.

Now she’s returned home…only to find that it’s three years later and she’s sixteen—or at least that’s what everyone tells her.

What happened to the last three years of her life?

Angie herself doesn’t know.

But there are people who do—people who could tell Angie every detail of her forgotten time, if only they weren’t locked inside her mind.

With a tremendous amount of courage and support from unexpected friends, Angie embarks on a journey into the darkest corners of her mind. As she unearths more and more about her past, she discovers a terrifying secret and must decide: when you remember things you wish you could forget, do you destroy the people responsible, or is there another way to feel whole again?

Liz Coley’s alarming and fascinating psychological mystery is a disturbing—and ultimately empowering—page turner about accepting our whole selves, and the healing power of courage, hope, and love."

This one sounds like it could have a lot to do with trauma and amnesia....looks dark! Even the title seems creepy...

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

Goodread's description:

"Emma Karas was raised in Japan; it's the country she calls home. But when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Emma's family moves to a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts, to stay with Emma's grandmother while her mom undergoes treatment.
Emma feels out of place in the United States.She begins to have migraines, and longs to be back in Japan. At her grandmother's urging, she volunteers in a long-term care center to help Zena, a patient with locked-in syndrome, write down her poems. There, Emma meets Samnang, another volunteer, who assists elderly Cambodian refugees. Weekly visits to the care center, Zena's poems, dance, and noodle soup bring Emma and Samnang closer, until Emma must make a painful choice: stay in Massachusetts, or return home early to Japan."

This one sounds really fascinating not just from a psychological perspective , but also a cross-cultural one. I have a personal interest in all things Japan (I taught English for a year there), so perhaps I'm biased, but I'm looking forward to seeing how Emma adapts to life in the US. I'm also interested in how the locked-in syndrome is portrayed, in particular Zena's interactions with Emma.

What books are you waiting for?

Guest Post: Why Bully?

I'm pleased to welcome Jessica from Confessions of a Bookaholic back to the blog for another Psychtember guest post! (You can find her post for last year's event here.)

 Why Bully?

It seems that we hear about a new case of bullying on the news daily. A case where things got out of control and the victim suffered more than we can imagine. I finished my psychology graduate program last week and my thesis topic was “the emotional responses to bullying”. I picked this topic because of the overwhelming statistics related to bullying and how much more dangerous things seem to be getting over recent years.

I found some surprising facts while researching this topic. First, a bully will suffer many side effects from the act too. For example, a bully will suffer academically and emotionally along with the victim. Second, a victim may often become a bully, and vice versa. And third, peers often see bullying as a “normal” part of growing up and they may even view the victim as someone who is “asking for it”.

There are so many reasons why bullying instances increases. It is simply easier to do with technology. Nearly everyone has a computer, phone, and social media account where messages can be sent in an instant. It gives people a way to hide behind the screen and still attack. It also makes the victim feel as if there is no way to escape the act. Teachers and school administrators are unsure how to handle bullying. Although some schools implement programs into their strategies, many of them are unsuccessful.  School officials are afraid to get in trouble if they deal with a situation incorrectly.

Young children and teens often try to ignore the problem and rarely seek help from adults. If you ever notice a situation where bullying is taking place, get help! Never stand by and think that the victim will be the one to seek guidance. They will need support and friendship. Make people aware of the fact that you don’t stand by bullying. A bully rarely works alone. They seek acceptance just as much as anyone else.

If you notice someone feeling down about how they are being treated, provide support by encouraging them to pick up a new hobby or activity. Reading is a great choice! Recommend some books with positive messages that will help the person know that they are not alone. The YA book community is always willing to share ideas on what books are best in these situations. Simple acts can really make a difference in a person’s life. No one should be alone. Never stand by and let things happen. Take a positive approach and encourage others to do the same. 

Psychology background: I have my BS in Psychology from Pikeville College in Kentucky. I just graduated with my MS in Psychology last week! Much of my graduate study was focused on bullying and cyberbullying. I hope to someday develop programs that help teens and young adults with bullying and relationship abuse.

Thanks so much, Jessica, for this look into bullying nowadays — and congratulations on completing your psychology graduate program!

September 25, 2012

Ultraviolet: Guest Review

Zahida from Musings of a YA Reader is stopping by the blog today with a guest review of Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson. Welcome back, Zahida! (You can read Zahida's guest post from last year's event here.)

After brainstorming a list of possible books to read for today’s guest post, I eventually settled on R.J. Anderson’s Ultraviolet for two main reasons: 1) I’m trying to read more books by Canadian authors and 2) I find that most books dealing with psychological issues tend to focus on schizophrenia or OCD whereas I knew that Ultraviolet dealt with synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon rather than a mental illness. Furthermore, having only read one review of Ultraviolet, I didn’t know much about its plot and wouldn’t really be able to have my opinion of it be influenced by prior reviews. 

"Once upon a time there was a girl who was special.

This is not her story.

Unless you count the part where I killed her.

Sixteen-year-old Alison has been sectioned in a mental institute for teens, having murdered the most perfect and popular girl at school. But the case is a mystery: no body has been found, and Alison’s condition is proving difficult to diagnose. Alison herself can’t explain what happened: one minute she was fighting with Tori—the next she disintegrated. Into nothing. But that’s impossible. Right?"

Overall Thoughts: While I found it easy to get captivated by the story, Ultraviolet was also very different from what I expected. The first two-thirds of the novel was set at a psychiatric institution, allowing the reader to see Alison interact with other patients, attempt to be treated, and learn more about her condition. The last third of the book, however, took a surprising paranormal turn – and resulted in my enjoyment decreasing because it was so far-fetched. I did like though that Ultraviolet was written in such a way that if you wanted to, you could just believe that Alison was making some things up (since throughout the novel you kind of question her sanity).

Best Aspect: With her descriptive writing, I thought Anderson did a terrific job of giving the reader a feel for what having synaesthesia would be like (at least in the first half of the book, before Alison’s synaesthesia becomes more like a superpower). However, since Alison never bothers to let anybody know about her unique way of perceiving things, her synaesthesia goes undiagnosed until she participates in a neuropsychological experiment. Instead, it’s assumed that Alison has schizophrenia. It was therefore also nice to see Anderson address how prior biases about symptom presentation or a lack of information can lead to misdiagnoses. 

If I could change one thing … I’d have the characters be more fleshed out. Because the majority of the book is set at a psychiatric institution, most of the secondary characters were kids with psychological problems. Although it was easy to figure out what mental illnesses they were dealing with based on their actions or descriptions, I never truly got a sense of their personality as individuals. This may partly be because Alison distances herself from her fellow patients since she has her own issues to deal with.

Final Verdict: 3.5 hearts

Thanks for having me on your blog, Danya!

Zahida blogs as A Canadian Girl at Musings of a YA Reader. Originally planning to major in genetics, she decided to take the first year psychology course offered at her university as an elective because she figured the subject material would be interesting. After having a terrific professor and not being bored at all in lectures, she decided to pursue a major in psychology instead. She also decided to major in neuroscience to supplement her knowledge about the mind with knowledge about the brain. She is looking forward to (finally) graduating in November 2012 with an Honours BSc.  

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on Ultraviolet, Zahida!

Perfect Escape: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown

Presentation (from Goodreads): Kendra has always felt overshadowed by her older brother, Grayson, whose OCD forces him to live a life of carefully coordinated routines. The only way Kendra can stand out next to Grayson is to be perfect, and she has perfection down to an art -- until a cheating scandal threatens her flawless reputation.
Behind the wheel of her car, with Grayson asleep beside her, Kendra decides to drive away from it all -- with enough distance, maybe she'll be able to figure everything out. But eventually, Kendra must stop running and come to terms with herself, her brother, and her past.
With undeniable grace and humor, acclaimed author Jennifer Brown explores OCD, the pressure for perfection, and the emotional highs and lows of a complex sibling relationship.

Axis 1. Characters

Kendra: Honestly, I found her pretty annoying through most of the book — not so much in terms of personality (although she does act kind of sanctimonious, like she knows best), but more in terms of the choices she makes, some of which are obviously poor decisions. For instance, going on this very unplanned roadtrip and worrying her parents like crazy. That made me mad, because it's so inconsiderate; I wanted her to think about other people for once! She's quite self-centered, and even towards the end she's not really thinking about what they'd be going through. Sure, she's in contact with them periodically (and rather sporadically), but she hardly gives them any information at all. I rather suspect this sort of perspective is fairly common in teens though, where they can't stretch their minds beyond their own little bubble to try to think about what their parents might be feeling.

In Kendra's defense, by the end she does think about what it would be like to be someone else — specifically, Grayson — and she finally takes in what he's saying. I'm glad she at last came to a certain realization (spoiler, highlight to read: that she can't "fix" her brother and shouldn't really be trying, that she was creating a "shadow" for him as well, and that she hadn't really thought about how it must feel for Grayson), but it took a long time! For all the pondering she does — and yes, she can be very reflective, spending a lot of time thinking about Grayson's and her motivations and behaviour, etc. — the girl is quite dense in some ways. Plus, oddly enough despite all this personal reflection, she also makes these rash decisions that seem like she's not really thinking things through at all!

I also wish we'd gotten more insight into Kendra's problems in striving for perfection. She recognizes why she does it, but I would have liked to have better understood how a certain plot got started (spoiler: the cheating storyline. As it is, it seemed like a subplot thrown in there to show that Kendra wasn't perfect, and just didn't seem that well-formed. I felt like we were missing something.)

In some ways, Kendra's very immature, but in her personal analysis she can be too mature for her age sometimes. Her level of insight is a bit too deep to be believable for a teen. 

Grayson: Jennifer Brown does quite a good job of portraying an individual with serious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It's difficult to discuss Grayson without talking about all of the psychological aspects, so an in-depth look at his character is below, on Axis 4.  

Kendra and Grayson: It's refreshing to see such an involved brother/sister relationship; it's unusual for that to be the focal point of the story in YA. Obviously in some ways Kendra and Grayson don't understand each other very well, and with Grayson being in and out of treatment they haven't seen that much of each other. When they were younger, though, they had a fairly healthy relationship, and it's good to watch them trying to renew that towards the end. There's also a bit of interesting role reversal going on, since the older brother is the one with a mental disorder; this changes the dynamic of a traditional older brother/younger sister relationship. 

Rena: I'm not sure how I feel about the addition of Rena (and Bo) to the big picture, since they seemed stuck in there more just to flesh out the cast than to have a storyline in their own right. However, I did like Rena as a person, and she makes a good contrast to Kendra — in some ways they're similar, in others quite different. Rena's a stranger, and has no history with Grayson, so she can treat him differently than Kendra does. Her role as a teen mom reflects the theme of responsibility, which ties into other aspects of Kendra's life. I must say, though, that Rena's and Bo's story could have used some more resolution; I was still curious about how things turned out for them by the end.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

The pacing of this book is really, really molasses-like slow. At least until the final few chapters, when everything comes to an emotional head. When they first start out on the road trip, there's a little bit of momentum, but then there's a huge chunk in the middle where frankly, not much happens. They meet Rena, they wander around, they stay at crummy motels, they swim in a stream, and Kendra tries to cure her brother's OCD. There's also a fair bit of repetition in Kendra's introspective analysis of herself and her brother. It would be good if she could actually accurately analyze herself, but it takes her a while. Basically, I like the idea of the premise here, but not the execution.

I thought there should have been more exciting plot points happening — after all, it's a road trip! But this is probably the worst road trip I've read about. The emotional stress that the characters are undergoing means that no one is really having any fun for most of it, and that means the reader isn't either. Basically, it's a depressing road trip. 

I wish we'd seen what happened once they returned home, both in terms of the fall-out from Kendra's past transgressions (spoiler: the cheating-on-exams fiasco) and in terms of Grayson's next steps. It would have been nice to have gotten some indication that he would be returning to therapy/treatment. He obviously has trouble functioning in some situations due to his anxiety disorders, and that's something he should get help for, particularly as it's affecting the rest of his family. The family dynamic is complicated, but we don't really get to see much of the parents, unfortunately. I hope that Kendra and Grayson tell their parents what they told each other, because while they try pretty hard to be good parents, they're not going to know everything going through their kids' minds.

There's no central romance, and while I do like a romantic plotline in my books, I think a romance would have been out of place here. It would have hijacked the whole storyline involving Grayson's OCD and his relationship with Kendra, and that is obviously the heart of this book. Not all YA books need a romance, but a lot have them, and it's kind of gutsy of Jennifer Brown to write a YA without one. (On the other hand, it might have moved the plot along a little faster!)

As for the Zoe subplot, I enjoyed the final climactic scene where Kendra defends her brother; it was nice to see her finally stand up for him, because in her own head she does a lot of blaming him and being ashamed of him. I also liked how this storyline was resolved — it's different and a little unexpected. Spoiler: it was somehow rewarding to see that Kendra wasn't so attached to Zoe and their history of friendship that she was willing to let bygones be bygones. Kendra makes the choice to dissolve the friendship, and I appreciated that she doesn't act like the perfect friend.  
Axis 3. Writing Style

I didn't think the writing style was anything really special. It's somewhat repetitive, and while the quality of the writing is pretty good, the style itself is fairly generic. It's easy to read, though, and towards the end the drama is handled quite well.

I would have welcomed some more description of the places they go (minus the motels — we're told enough about those). I know that the road trip isn't really the point of the story, but more detailed description of the scenery might have been nice. 

The dialogue is authentic for the most part, and the emotions the characters display are quite realistic. This is especially true for the interactions between Kendra and Grayson. Jennifer Brown does a good job of getting into the head of an individual whose brother has OCD, and exploring the different layers of emotion that would accompany someone who has to deal with all the consequences that come from living with him. Even when Kendra and Grayson have a "heart-to-heart," the author doesn't go over-the-top into super sappy. Really, the last couple of chapters were some of the best because all of the emotions are finally coming out after having been damped down by both characters.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

For someone trying to understand classic OCD, and what it's like to live with a family member with a serious form of it, I think this would be a good portrayal to read. Grayson displays several symptoms of OCD as well as what I suspect is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). We're told that he struggles with anxiety disorders and depression in addition to his OCD, but we're never told the specifics. I'm not so sure about the depression; he has a pretty low mood generally, so perhaps he is dysthymic, but I don't know that he qualifies for major depressive disorder.

His anxiety disorder symptoms are numerous. For starters, counting and arranging are compulsions for him, making me inclined to say that he has a symmetry subtype of OCD. Grayson also struggles with germs, so he may have the contamination subtype as well (it's difficult to say if his issues with germs are GAD, OCD, or both). Grayson has a variety of compulsions he performs — counting the number of steps he takes, counting rocks, counting numbers out loud, having one rock in each pocket, and others.

Some of Grayson's OCD behaviours make a certain sense to him. For instance, he believes he needs to quit counting on an even number to keep people safe ("He told me a year ago that if he stopped counting on an odd number, even accidentally, it meant that someone he loved would die"), which is typical of OCD. However, even Grayson himself doesn't know why he does certain actions. For instance, Kendra at one point asks him why he starts arranging rocks on the car dash; his response is a simple, "I don't know...It felt like I needed to." This "just right" feeling is fairly common in individuals with OCD. Kendra also raises the interesting point that Grayson can develop a new obsession or an old one can return, which I think is true of many individuals with OCD.

His worries — about dying of disease, danger in crossing overpasses, natural disasters — seem to fit with GAD. The focus here is definitely more on his OCD, though, since that is the more obvious issue he is dealing with. I wish we'd seen more of his other anxiety disorders separate from the OCD, but obviously in someone co-morbid for two or more anxiety disorders, there will be some entangling of the disorders. There's overlap and interaction going on, so you can't tease them apart from each other fully. That's actually illustrated quite well here in that you can't exactly separate Grayson's OCD from his GAD (and whatever else he might have), and there are obviously certain themes that cross disorders. For example, his concerns about germs seem to crop up in both in his OCD and GAD symptoms. Still, it would have been helpful to have been given a standard psychological explanation for his other anxiety disorders. Kendra mentions that he "what-ifs" and catastrophizes, which are definitely associated with GAD, but we're not privy to much detail.

Grayson also presents with a symptom that I wasn't aware was associated with OCD, but apparently can be: a throat-clearing tic. I did a little bit of research and there is an overlap in patients diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome who have OCD symptoms, and vice-versa. In fact, it looks like certain researchers have designated a specific set of symptoms "Tourettic OCD." I'm not sure that Grayson would fulfill the requirements for full-blown Tourette's syndrome, but his throat-clearing tic (and perhaps his need to tap) might qualify him for "Tourettic OCD" in addition to classic OCD. Since we're not reading the book from Grayson's perspective, we don't really know what sensations or cognitions he's experiencing, so it's difficult to say if some of his behaviours fall more into the "tic" category or the "compulsion" one.

Occasionally he'll also have an emotional/mental meltdown, which I suspect would be considered a panic attack. I think in Grayson's case these panic attacks are more strongly related to his GAD symptoms, although he also gets flustered and anxious when his compulsive rituals are interrupted.

One can't really separate Grayson from his symptoms, since they're a large part of who he is at this point in his life. However, we are shown that he has a great personal interest in rocks — and unlike his sister Kendra, who calls him a "rock junkie" at one point, I don't think that aspect of Grayson is really part of his OCD or other symptoms. Yes, he likes to count rocks, but I think the obsessive-compulsive aspect there is the counting more than it is the rocks. After all, sometimes he just counts numbers on their own, or the steps he takes. I wish this distinction had been made clearer.

Also, it should be noted that Kendra really shouldn't be trying to treat her brother.  She has no credentials or training, and doesn't even fully understand what exposure therapy is. Plus, her personal connection to him makes things even more complicated. There are just so many ways in which it could go wrong — and Jennifer Brown shows us this. It's good to see, though, that Grayson has a sense of responsibility about his own disorder and recognizes that he needs his medication.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Perfect Escape?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

Personally, I found Bitter End (which I reviewed for Psychtember last year) more gripping. Perfect Escape just doesn't have as much driving it, giving it momentum.

Patient shares symptoms with: Compulsion by Heidi Ayarbe, A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie by Matt Blackstone, Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Karo

Patient's statement:

"I couldn't count how many times I'd watched Grayson do this. When I was little, I used to wait until he was finished and then run up beside him and brush my hand through the lines just to mess them up. It made him cry and his face always got beet-red and I thought it was funny. But by the time we were ten and thirteen and he was spending sometimes four hours a day lining up his coins and pulling out wads of his own hair in frustration because he couldn't get them perfect, it wasn't funny anymore. I spent a lot of those nights sitting next to him with a ruler in my hand, helping him move coins such minuscule degrees I couldn't even see the movement. Is this good, Grayson? Does this make you happy?"

Diagnosis: 3 shooting stars. (This is my rating for the story overall, not specifically the psychological aspect.)

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.

This book counts towards my goal for the 2012 Just Contemporary reading challenge

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