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Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

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I’ve finally found it. A book about mental illness that doesn’t a) romanticise mental illness, b) ignore actual ways of treating mental illness like therapy and medication, or c) have the character overcome her mental illness because of the healing power of love.

Norah suffers from a myriad of mental illnesses, including agoraphobia and OCD, and has barely left her house in years. But when her mom has to go away for the weekend for work, and the Helping Hands guy leaves all Norah’s groceries on the porch, out of reach, she’s helped, embarrassingly enough, by her new neighbor, Josh. And then Josh keeps coming back to chat.

There’s so much to love about this book. First of all, its portrayal of anxiety. Under Rose-Tainted Skies is an “own voices” novel, with author Louise Gornall putting a lot of her own experiences into the novel, and it really shows. The racing, escalating thoughts. The oh-so-convincing irrationality of it. It’s so convincing and realistic and makes Norah incredibly sympathetic. It’s so convincing, in fact, that I would warn readers with anxiety to be cautious while reading, as it pulls you into Norah’s anxiety attacks with her.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is a romance, but the relationship is also great. Josh is sympathetic and understanding, but he still makes mistakes. And although Norah likes him a lot, but that isn’t enough to inspire her to “get over” her problems.

Ultimately, this is a story of baby steps. It’s a story of getting better, but a reasonable amount for the course of the book, and one that’s grounded in Norah, not Josh.

Spoilers (highlight to read): by the end of the book, Norah is able to start taking SSRIs (something that isn’t inspired by Josh), and hold his hand (as long as she’s sure he’s washed it first). But she still needs to repeat the last step of the stairs to make sure she descends an even number of times, and they finish the book taking a field trip to her therapist, not to the park. She’s at the beginning of recovery, improving, but with a long road ahead.

I really, really recommend this one. If you’re looking for a good representation of mental illness in YA, this is the book to try.

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The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Unexpected Everything. I adored Morgan Matson’s debut, Amy & Roger’s Epic Roadtrip, but I was less keen on her next two novels, so although I couldn’t resist grabbing her newest release, I was readying myself for disappointment.

And I almost got it. About 150 pages into the book, I was close to abandoning it. The Unexpected Everything is a sprawling summer read — over 500 pages long — and nothing really hooked me in those first pages. I’d reached the halfway point of most contemporary YA, and I still hadn’t really connected with the book.

But I kept going for “just a little bit longer,” and somehow ended up reading the last 300 pages all in one go. The book took its time to get going, but once it did, I absolutely fell in love with the characters and the story.

At its heart, The Unexpected Everything is about friendship, family, and cute cute dogs. Perfectionist overachiever Andie ends up without any summer plans after her prestigious internship is revoked at the last minute, and after scrambling for another resume-filler, she stumbles into a not-so-prestigious job as a dogwalker.  This brings her to Clark, the cute, awkward and nerdy prodigy novelist struggling with writer’s block and dog-sitting for his editor for the summer. Meanwhile, Andie’s congressman father is also forced home for the summer after being caught in a scandal, making his usually non-existent presence suddenly very present indeed.

Perhaps one of the problems at the beginning of the novel is that the book juggles a lot of elements. There’s Andie’s dad, and Clark, and the dog walking, and her overachieving, and her grief for her mom… it’s enough to make a summer read 500 pages long, but it mean it’s not easy to get immersed in the novel’s world. By the time we meet Andie’s foursome of best friends, I was so busy balancing other plotpoints and characters in my brain that I didn’t have the energy left to connect with them immediately.

But once everything clicks into place, the book becomes fantastic. Once we connect with Andie’s lively friends, her own insecurities, her potential relationship with Clark, it’s an absolute page-turner. It’s a true summer book, about friendship and self-discovery, lazy days and unexpected drama. Matson has an incredibly readable writing style, and her character relationships (and character flaws) are spot on. If you want a contemporary novel that you can really snuggle down with and dig into, that will pull you into a world and give you a sizeable chunk of wonderful reading time with real-seeming characters, then this is definitely one to try.

Also, the cover is irresistibly cute.

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Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

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loved Jessica Spotswood’s historical fantasy series, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, so when I heard that she was releasing her first contemporary, I was desperate to read it, even before I had any idea what it was about.

In Wild Swans, Ivy Milbourne struggles with a family legacy of great talent and great tragedy. Her great great grandmother was a famous portrait painter, but killed herself and two of her daughters when she drove her car in front of a train. Her great grandmother was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, until she was murdered. Her grandmother was a famous artist, until she drowned herself in the bay. Her mother was a talented singer, at least until she ran away when Ivy was a baby. And Ivy… Ivy doesn’t know what she is. She wants to live up to her family legacy, but she’s never discovered any particular talent, and she has no idea what she wants to do with her life.

Wild Swans is a quick read (I devoured it in less than a day), but it’s not a beach read. Two big story threads intersect in the novel. The first is Ivy’s struggle to live up to her grandfather’s expectations, the promise of her family’s legacy, and her struggles with being, as she claims, mediocre. The other involves her mother, who returns to live with Ivy and her grandfather after being out of contact for fifteen years, bringing two younger daughters with her.

Despite that second dramatic set-up, this is mostly a low-key book: family drama in a small town where everyone knows your business, and a rising high-school senior who feels she’ll never live up to expectations. And it’s beautifully written. Sweet and compelling, with emotion that feels real. I noticed sentences because they hit me in the heart, not because I was thinking, “wow, the author really worked hard on that sentence.” After reading a whole bunch of artsy, overwritten YA novels, more concerned with authorial voice than engaging the reader, Wild Swans is like a breath of fresh air. Effortlessly magical.

If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the mother character felt a little one-dimensional until near the end. She’s incredibly unlikeable, cruel and destructive, and although that’s a valid character choice, there was part of me wanting to see a sympathetic side to her. It shows up eventually, but it’s complicated, and I never felt like I fully understood her perspective.

Another element that might be good or bad, depending on your taste, is that Wild Swans feels like a slice from the character’s lives over a set period of time. They lived their lives before the book began, and they continue afterward. I found the ending satisfying, but it’s not a neat ending, where everything feels tied up or resolved. The characters’ lives continue after the book closes, and many elements of that future remain uncertain. Personally, I liked this about the novel, but I can imagine that others might find it unsatisfying.

But either way, Wild Swans is a fantastic book. Great characters, great writing, and incredibly readable. It’s lowkey, and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommended!

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Easy by Tammara Webber

Over the past few weeks, people have been going crazy about so-called “New Adult” fiction: YA for college students and young twenty-somethings. Personally, I’m all for this. As someone who devoured YA fiction as a teenager, I’m eager for books about female characters around my own age, going through the problems that I’m going through now. And if those things can’t be found in general fiction (possibly in “chick lit?” But that’s not really the vibe I’m looking for), then why not create a new genre for them instead?

The big, talked-about New Adult book is Easy by Tammara Webber, an originally self-published novel, recently picked up by Penguin, about an aspiring musician who follows her boyfriend to college and then is dumped by him at the start of Sophomore year. If, like me, you’re hungry for books about “new adult” protagonists, you could definitely do worse than this story. But hopefully, if the genre expands, you’ll also be able to do better.

Easy has the distinct feel of a kind of original-story fanfiction. It is addictive and easy to read, and I was more than happy to devour the whole thing in a few hours. And it has many great elements: an imperfect female protagonist and a close relationship with her best female friend, to name two things that are rarer than they should be. But the novel is also a little bit sloppy, in terms of structure, pacing and characterization. It throws in dark elements and character histories in place of actual depth, and although it deals with serious college issues, including rape and assault, it often takes on an unnatural, preachy tone. When characters are discussing another character’s rape, they seem to move through a checklist of victim-blaming approaches, before they are quickly corrected by the protagonist and other characters. Although I think the book’s approach to assault is well-intentioned, it is also a little wooden, forcing talking points into the story and then glossing over them rather than actually making them a natural part of the plot.

If the genre is picked up by traditional publishers, with their traditional editors, it might turn into something great. I’m certainly hoping that it does. For now, this is worth a look if you want some easy-to-read college fiction… just don’t let your expectations get too high on this one.

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Know Not Why by Hannah Johnson

Howie gets a job at Artie Kraft’s Arts ‘N Crafts hoping to score with his lady coworkers. After all, girls love a sensitive guy, and what’s more sensitive than dedicating your life to selling yarn and … stuff? (Okay, so maybe it’d be a good idea to actually learn what one sells at an arts ‘n crafts store.) But things don’t go exactly according to plan. Coworker #1 is Kristy: blonde, bubbly, unattainable perfection. Coworker #2 is Cora: tiny, much-pierced, and way too fierce to screw with in any sense. And Coworker #3 is, well, Arthur. It goes without saying that he’s not an option. Right?

… Right?

Know Not Why is like an episode of Gilmore Girls in novel form. It’s the sort of story you want to read while curled up in bed (or stretched out on the beach), comforting and hilarious and banter-filled and relaxing and emotional and life-affirming and happy. It made me smile when I was feeling low, and when I finished, I was desperate for more, not because it’s dramatic or cliffhangery or action packed, but because the characters felt like friends, and I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

I don’t usually read self-published books. It seems like too much of a risk, when there are so many good (and terrible) books that have been vetted and approved by many people before reaching the shelves. If a book was really worth my time, wouldn’t it have gone through that process as well? But I was already somewhat familiar with Johnson’s excellent writing, and the premise seemed fun, so I picked up the free sample. I read it all in one go, and immediately came back to buy the rest, even though I didn’t exactly have $10 to spare. This book is fantastic. And, after reading the whole thing, it’s clear why the author chose self-publishing. Know Not Why is a delightful 112,000 word long novel that defies genre. It’s a coming of age story about people in their early 20s, who come to the realization that they don’t have the slightest clue what they’re doing in life. It’s an LGBT romance, but it’s very PG-13. Everything is about relationships and banter, with no graphic sex scenes in sight. Until the bookstores develop a section for twenty-something YA, I’m not sure where this book would fit. And it deserves to be read.

The protagonist, Howie, is a really interesting character, but one that might put off some readers at first. He’s a total Nice Guy. He wouldn’t think that he’s sexist, but he gets a job at an Arts and Crafts store and befriends his adorable coworker simply because he wants to get laid. He occasionally uses homophobic language that might offend some readers, and although the author’s writing style is engaging and hilarious from the first page, it’s initially uncomfortable to be inside Howie’s head. But that is to the author’s credit. We should feel uncomfortable inside Howie’s head, because Howie is uncomfortable inside his head. He covers up feelings of complete failure and self-disappointment and lack of direction in life with humor and false bravado, and the first part of the novel explores how those walls get knocked down and how he grows as a person into the kind and caring individual he is underneath. And his bravado-filled actions will come back to haunt him, because this story of love and friendship  features real, dynamic characters, with real consequences for their actions.

Once Howie’s initial jerkitude passes, the book is beyond delightful. It’s sweet and laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally heartwrenching in a yes, I feel that way about life too sort of way. You just want to hang out with these people and take part in their escapades. Discuss Austen with Howie’s sequel-novel-writing mom. Watch a sappy rom-com with Kristy. Have Emily knit you a misshapen hat. It’s a story about growing up and accepting who you are, even if you have no idea where you want to go, and I strongly recommend it to everyone looking for a great summer read.

Check it out on Amazon.

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