Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

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Favourite Quotes:

“See, anxiety doesn’t just stop. You can have nice moments, minutes where it shrinks, but it doesn’t leave. It lurks in the background like a shadow, like that important assignment you have to do but keep putting off or the dull ache that follows a three-day migraine. The best you can hope for is to contain it, make it as small as possible so it stops being intrusive. Am I coping? Yes, but it’s taking a monumental amount of effort to keep the dynamite inside my stomach from exploding”.

“Beauty comes from how you treat people and how you behave. But if a little lipstick make you smile, then you should wear it and forget what anyone else thinks”.

“Social Convention dictates that I must deny being pretty, but I am… pretty. It’s one of the only things I have that makes me feel normal. Of course, I pervert that normality by embracing my looks. <..> This is mine, one of the only things about me that I actually like. I own it. And Social Convention will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands before I ever give it up”.

 

Norah Dean lives with agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder. She is homeschooled and spends most of her time at home with her loving mother. For her, even a walk to the car can cause a panic attack. Her illness might not be visible, and the media might make people believe that she doesn’t look “mentally ill”, but Norah is sick. And a new boy-next-door isn’t a cure.

But Norah’s chance encounter with the new neighbour is not something she can ignore. Luke is a sweet kid with an air of mystery around him and he seems to be interested in Norah. She is keen, too. And if she were a “normal” kid…

 

I’m sorry. I seem to be unable to write a decent summary for “Under Rose-Tainted Skies”. And I’m not too fond of the Goodreads summary either. It’s making it seem as though romance is the solution to mental health issues. It is NOT. And the book makes it abundantly clear. In fact, I see the Goodreads summary as a disservice to this amazing novel – it is not a “romantic” story. It’s more of a character study that features some romance.

And I can’t emphasise enough how important this book is. How it can help young people understand mental health and its impact on one’s everyday life. “Under Rose-Tainted Skies” is brutally honest, doesn’t beat around the bush or shy away from heavy topics (TW: self-harm). Norah’s daily struggles felt incredibly real – not least because the book is told from her point of view and a lot of it is her thought process. These kinds of introspective books are what the world needs in order to smash stereotypes about mental illnesses. Norah makes a reference at some point to one such stereotype – “People always seem to be expecting wide eyes and a kitchen knife dripping with blood”. Thing is, most people who suffer from mental health issues are not like that. Norah isn’t like that – she is a conventionally pretty girl who is an overachiever. However, the fact that her OCD and agoraphobia can’t be seen with a naked eye – just because she doesn’t “look mentally ill”, doesn’t mean that she isn’t struggling with them on a daily basis.

I cannot speak for people who suffer from OCD or agoraphobia. But I have been treated for depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder in the past, and to this day I struggle with anxiety. Fortunately, I have more Good Days than Bad Days now, but, as Norah said, “anxiety doesn’t just stop. It lurks in the background like a shadow <…>, and the best you can hope for is to contain it, make it as small as possible so it stops being intrusive”. I was first diagnosed during my second year of University which is when I was first prescribed medication and CBT. They did help me get through exams, and little by little, I learned to somewhat cope with my anxiety. It has reared its ugly head again when I was in law school – a very stressful time for me, for many reasons. I did seek help again, but I wish I had done so months earlier. Years earlier, even.

Why didn’t I? Well, like many other millennials, I had fed into the narrative offered by the media that stigmatised mentally ill people as “weak”. Plus, I was an only child and was brought up to believe that you only do enough if you get the best grade, or get promoted. A lot of my anxiety struggles did have to do with my envrionment and background, and not to mention the lack of a support system. I was living 2,000 miles away from my family, my low moods and anxiety made me pull away from friends, and while I was in a relationship, it wasn’t the best one. Besides, relationships aren’t a cure to mental illness, as I’ve already pointed out. Unfortunately, the society where I currently am doesn’t buy that and most people believe that getting married and starting a family is all a woman can ever need. Not a helpful narrative, AT ALL.

So I do wish, as I’ve said, that I’ve gotten the help I needed earlier. The UK university that I was at had an excellent mental health center, and the counsellor had a daughter studying to be a lawyer, so she understood and was able to help. I believe that, if “Under Rose-Tainted Skies” had been released in 2009, I would’ve asked for help much earlier. And I genuinely believe that others like me would also have done so.

Everyone experiences mental illnesses differently. Perhaps you can relate to Norah’s experience, or maybe yours are vastly different. Whatever the case might be, DON’T SUFFER IN SILENCE. ASK FOR HELP. IT’S OK TO DO SO. Books like “Under Rose-Tainted Skies”, “Cracked Up to Be”, “Speak” – hell, even the classic “The Bell Jar” – aren’t just useful – they’re mandatory for everyone who wants to learn more about mental health, people’s experiences with it, or just needs someone to relate to. And if we get more books like that, I believe we can, slowly but surely, smash the stereotypes about mental health altogether and help more people get the help they need.

Well, this review has turned into a personal essay, hasn’t it? I’ll finish with this – buy/borrow “Under Rose-Tainted Skies” and educate yourself. You won’t regret it.

 

Recommendations:

You might like “Under Rose-Tainted Skies” if you liked:

Cracked Up To Be” by Courtney Summers;

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath;

“Paper Butterflies” by Lisa Heathfield

 

Have you read “Under Rose-Tainted Skies”? Do you have favourite books that depict mental illness realistically and not just use it as a plot device? Drop me a comment and don’t forget to visit my Etsy charity shop before you go! 🙂

Book Review: Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

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Favourite quotes

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved the woods, the cool sweep of browning greens, the canopy of leafy sky. Hidden in the trees, she picked flowers and dug for worms, she recited poems, timing the words to the bounce of her feet in the dirt. In the woods she met a monster and mistook her for a friend. Into the woods they went, deeper and darker, and carved a sacred ring around a secret place, where the monster dug out pieces of the girl and buried them in the ground so that the girl could never truly leave, and never bear to return”.

“What it would be like to be one of them. To have power, be seen, be heard, be dudes rather than sluts, be jocks or geeks or bros or nice guys or boys-will-be-boys or whatever we wanted instead of quantum leaping between good girl and whore. To be the default, not the exception. To be in control, to seize control, simply because we happened to have a dick”.

“Girls today had to be made to believe. Not just in a higher power, a permanent record, someone always watching – girls had to believe that the world was hungry and waited to consume them. <…> Girls had to believe there were limits on what a girl could be, and that trespass would lead to punishment. <…> They had to believe that life was danger and that it was their own responsibility to stay safe, and that nothing they did could guarantee that they would.”

“Girls had to believe in everything but their own power, because if girls knew what they could do, imagine what they might.”

 

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

“Girls on Fire” is a story of three girls whose complex relationships have taken them places they could never forget and put them through hell from which they can never recover. Hannah Dexter is practically a nobody in her junior year of high school. After a particularly nasty incident of bullying performed by Nikki Drummond, Hannah meets Lacey – a rude, abrasive, gorgeous Kurt Cobain fan. Soon the two girls become practically inseparable. Hannah becomes Dex and transforms into a badass, brooding girl who is up for any challenge Lacey throws her way. The bond that soldified in dtheir shared hatred for Nikki Drummond is getting stronger and stronger with each passing day. How intense can a friendship of two girls get and how will they deal with the fatal consequences of their activities?

Meanwhile, a tragedy strikes Hannah’s town. A popular guy Craig, who happens to be Nikki Drummond’s boyfriend, shoots himself in the woods on Halloween night for seemingly no reason. The town is terrified – there are rumours going around about a Satan-worshipping gang of misfits who really drove Craig to suicide, and secrets that remained buried until now by Dex, Lacey, Nikki and everyone else in town are threatening to emerge, destroying the girls in the process. How much are they to blame for everything that’s going on? Will Dex and Lacey be able to save each other from everyone around them or is it each other they need saving from?

 

I must warn you – this is not a happy book. It is very intense and deals with very, very dark subject matters. The themes featured include Satanism, bullying, sexism, homophobia, suicide, murder and rape. So if you feel like spending a day reading a heartfelt novel, put “Girls on Fire” aside for the time being. If, however, an intense mystery with an all-female leading cast is what you’re after, Robin Wasserman’s latest novel needs to be in your hands right now.

Robin Wasserman uses tropes we’ve all seen many times – a teenage party gone wrong, a suicide that’s not all it seems as a flap of a butterfly wing that sets events in motion, a (literal) Chekhov’s gun, a disturbing relationship of a teenage girl with an older man, a transformation of an unpopular girl, parental neglect, and several others. This amount of tropes might seem overwhelming at first, but Wasserman entwines them so masterfully into one long, emotionally draining story you never feel like there’s “too much” going on at the same time. On the contrary – you’re emotionally exhausted at the end of every chapter, but not enough to make you stop reading, and you’re too addicted to the story and invested in the characters to stop at any point, whether it’s just after Hannah meets Lacey and becomes Dex, or after Lacey goes one, two, three steps too far as the book progresses.

The aforementioned tropes work exceptionally well in the atmosphere Wasserman masterfully pushes the reader into. “Girls on Fire” does tell you explicitly a couple of times the time period it’s set in, but even if it didn’t, Wasserman’s incredibly atmospheric writing tells you pretty much from the first chapter onwards. The early 90s were not a good time anywhere in the world to be a girl, and apparently Pennsylvania was no exception. Sexism, racism, homophobia, bullying were much worse back then than they were today, and not once does Wasserman try to gloss over those subjects. In fact, she makes them run through the veins of the book and be the primary cause of the events that transpire in the course of “Girls on Fire”. Everything in this book – fashion choices, music choices, attitudes, expressions, relationships and so on – are so incredibly 1990s. It is a testament to Robin Wasserman’s writing talent that the reader feels as though they’ve been sent back 25 years and are faced with the grim reality of that setting. “Girls on Fire” was very emotionally draining for that very reason and I still feel the chills I got from certain chapters (well, the majority of chapters, really) when I read them. You can see that my “Favourite quotes” section is unusually long this time – that would be because there are so many compelling, chilling passages in almost each chapter, I had a very hard time picking them out.

The author presents us with three very different main characters – Hannah “Dex”, Lacey and Nikki. The first two girls are first-person narrators, and up to a certain point, we only see their “antagonist” – Nikki – through their eyes. Hannah is the misfit who transforms into a badass, Lacey is the headstrong Nirvana fan accused by the town for being a Satan worshipper, and Nikki is the mean popular girl. Except when they aren’t. Hannah and Lacey desperately need each other, but would they have if it weren’t for Nikki? This question, buried underneath the layers of faux Satanism, complex relationships and emotional intensity of obsession, does appear to be the very question the author poses to the reader. Of course, “Girls on Fire” wouldn’t have been the book it is if there was a short answer to that question. First of all, the characters are incredibly complex and multi-dimensional, and even by the end of the book, we still don’t know them well enough to answer the author’s question. Second of all, all the narrators of this book – Hannah, Lacey and the third-person “parent” narrator – are incredibly unreliable. They’re in fact so unreliable that they could give Gillian Flynn’s narrators a run for their money, in my opinion. And finally, the reader doesn’t know the answer to the questions because the characters don’t have one either.

“Girls on Fire” was a disturbing, provocative, dark and emotionally exhausting ride. And I am not ashamed to admit that I rode the wave of all that emotional intensity over a weekend with very few pauses. However, I did need a long break from emotional books after I finished it. I could write a lot more about “Girls on Fire”, but instead I suggest that you buy the book when it comes out in a month.

 

Recommendations

You might be interested in “Girls on Fire” if you liked:

“Some Girls Are” and “All the Rage” by Courtney Summers

“Dare Me” by Megan Abbott

“Dangerous Girls” by Abigail Haas

 

Have you read “Girls on Fire” yet? Do you like stories of destructive female friendships? Let me know in the comments!

 

Book Review: Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

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After recovering from the awesomeness of Courtney Summers’ writing in “All The Rage”, I naturally purchased all her books. While “This is Not a Test” wasn’t really my thing, I nevertheless had high expectations of “Cracked Up To Be”.

Our heroine, Parker Fadley, is a senior at an American private school. Former captain of the cheerleading squad, valedictorian candidate, girlfriend of the star basketball player – those are the labels that used to apply to Parker. But that’s not the case anymore. The young woman is skipping classes, showing up to school drunk, and has even been placed under the suicide watch at one point. Why is Parker pushing everyone away, doing this to herself? What could possibly have happened to make her like this? Her parents and former friends have no idea that Parker just wants to be left alone and is lashing out on everyone because of something that happened last summer. What did she do? And what does it have to do with her missing classmate?

The best thing about “Cracked Up to Be” was the main character, Parker. I can honestly say that she’s one of the realest protagonists I’ve come across this year. She’s unlikeable, flawed, snarky and very, very well-rounded. After she lives through a traumatic event which she believes she could’ve prevented, she becomes crippled with self-loathing, suicidal thoughts and starts showing up to school wasted. She becomes obsessed with wanting to disappear, but for some reason, her friends and the new kid Jake are determined to get in the way. She believes that she doesn’t deserve that, and indulges in self-destructive behaviour to keep them away. As I said, she’s not very likable, which made her all the more compelling and relatable.

I understand addictive personality and obsession with being perfect all too well. Fortunately, nothing as horrible as what happened in the book has ever happened to me, but I absolutely understood where Parker was coming from. Even at school and university, I was either stressed out because I wasn’t getting perfect grades, or because I didn’t feel like I was doing enough. I hear being an only child is a factor, and both Parker and I are sibling-less. Being an overachiever has always come naturally to me, and unfortunately, it hasn’t always ended well. Although Parker never says it, it’s quite clear she has addictive personality, and when a perfectionist with an addictive personality is trying to self-destruct, they usually accomplish it. Speaking from my own experience, I can honestly say that Parker didn’t have the support she needed. Her parents were wonderful people, but it’s quite hard to help someone in that situation. Especially when they don’t want any help. This is the reason why I’m in the minority and actually liked the ending of the book – it was exactly what Parker needed. And I’m very happy to add her to the list of the heroines that are incredibly relatable to me for the reasons I explained in this paragraph. Veronica Mars, Spencer Hastings, Kate Beckett, meet the newest member of “Kate’s favourites” club – Miss Parker Fadley.

Courtney Summers really knows how to write complex, real characters – I saw that quite vividly in “All the Rage” and, although I didn’t love the plot, “This is Not a Test” had a great cast of diverse, well-rounded personages. “Cracked Up to Be” is the same way – Parker Fadley is the real star, but the supporting cast is also very real. And the tears that filled my eyes on the train to work when a certain event happened in the last 1/4 of the book were very real too. “Cracked Up to Be” was a fantastic read, and I’m happy to rate it 8/10.

Favourite passage

“I never understood how I was supposed to work as a person or how I was supposed to work with other people. Something was really wrong with me, like I felt wrong all the time. I longed for some kind of symmetry, a balance. I chose perfection. Opposite of wrong. Right. Perfect. Good.

I get caught up in the outcomes. I convince myself they’re truths. No one will notice how wrong you are if everything you do ends up right. The rest becomes incidental. So incidental that, after a while, you forget. Maybe you are perfect. Good. It must be true. Who can argue with results? You’re not so wrong after all. So you buy into it and you go crazy maintaining it. Except it creeps up on you sometimes, that you’re not right. Imperfect. Bad. So you snap your fingers and it goes away. 

Until something you can’t ignore happens and you see it all over yourself”

Recommendations

You might like “Cracked Up to Be” if you liked:

“Veronica Mars”

The Walls Around Us” by Nova Ren Suma

“This is What I Want to Tell You” by Heather Duffy Stone

“Pretty Little Liars”

Have you guys read “Cracked Up to Be”? Are you fans of Courtney Summers? Do let me know!

Book Review: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

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Recommended by Manda of bookmad.

Warning: discussion of sexual assault

Romy Grey is a high school student in a small town where everybody hates her family. So when she accuses Kellan Turner, the son of a local Sheriff of raping her on a night out, nobody believes her and she is shunned by her peers and everybody in town. Nobody believes the girl who “lied” about the town’s golden boy. The only place where she can be somewhat safe from being the town pariah is the diner at the edge of town where she works, where nobody knows about what happened to her and she doesn’t have to endure the daily humiliation. However, when she and her fellow classmate, Penny, go missing one night after being last seen at the diner, the only people who want Romy back are her mother and stepfather – the rest of town wishes that she had never been found and that the resources of the police department had gone to finding the other missing girl – the girlfriend of Kellan’s brother Alek.

Having a family that is hated by the entire community is exhausting, but recovering from one of the most heinous things that can be done to a person is something else entirely. Romy wears her armour – red lipstick and blood red nails – to keep herself from falling apart completely. At school, she is constantly dehumanized and humiliated by her classmates. The Sheriff and other adults who own the town despise her. Her mum and stepdad do their best to support her but they don’t understand what is happening.

 

“All the Rage” is my first Courtney Summers book, and it most certainly won’t be the last. At first glance, it features elements I don’t normally like – present tense and first-person narrative, time jumps and girl-on-girl hate. However, Summers manages to take all these things and make them into a very gritty, very realistic work of art that leaves you crying and fuming long after you finished the book. It’s not a happy, fluffy book – it is a very real portrait and a painful, anger-inducing reminder of how rape culture and sexism (more on that below) are still bleeding through our fragile society. Summers’ genius use of present tense and Romy Grey’s first person perspective doesn’t sugarcoat things and makes the reader sympathise with our heroine more while experiencing a very real need to rip Kellan Turner into very little pieces and beat the crap out of his father and brother and the rest of Romy’s tormentors. The use of imagery also adds fuel to the anger you experience – for instance, Romy’s armour of red lipstick and red nail polish. Firstly, allow me to say that I absolutely love make up and love reading about it, whether it’s used as a plot device in a romance novel or as something else entirely, like in “All the Rage”. The detailed description of Romy carefully applying her lipstick and nail varnish adds to the overall haunting tone of the novel in such a way that makes you praise Summers’ writing genius and crave more and more. The fact that Romy’s colour of choice is red only adds more fuel to the fire, so to speak. I love that the cover design features that barely-there touch of red on Romy’s face and hands. In fact, this is one of those covers that is PERFECT for its book.

“Anytime something bad happens to a woman close to me, it’s how I think. I have a daughter” – Romy’s coworker about a missing girl.

“I hope it’s not a girl” – Romy when her love interest’s sister gives birth.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a body”. 

Above, I listed the three quotes that are, in my opinion, the most powerful ones in the book. “All the Rage” is set after Romy’s assault – it’s not a He Said, She Said story – that occurs off-page and before the story takes place. This is a story of a girl who is driven to an insane amount of self-loathing by the body shaming, victim blaming and other terrible things her classmate put her through. It pains me to say, but millions of girls go through what Romy went through every day. Millions of parents (well, good ones anyway) go through what Holly, Romy’s coworker goes through every time a girl is murdered, assaulted or missing. And Romy knows that too. Her self-loathing is so strong that she actually hopes that her boyfriend’s sister’s newborn baby isn’t a girl. No woman or man should ever endure victim blaming – sexual assault is NEVER, NEVER, NEVER the victim’s fault.

It doesn’t matter how much alcohol they had in their system.

It doesn’t matter what they were wearing.

It doesn’t matter how well they knew the perpetrator.

It doesn’t matter how “smart”, “handsome” or “popular” the rapist is.

THE BLAME FOR VIOLATION OF A HUMAN BODY IN SUCH A DISGUSTING WAY LIES ONE HUNDRED PER CENT WITH THE BASTARD WHO COMMITTED THE ACT, NOT THE VICTIM.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s 2015, shouldn’t everyone know this by now?

Yes. Yes they should. Yet millions of women and men are raped every day, and the majority of rapists get away with it. The media attitudes don’t help, either (kudos for Summers for not shying away from calling it out on this!) – “We’re so eager to point fingers at this boy – but how much of the blame truly falls on him? It’s sort of inevitable, isn’t it? What happened?”. 

I do wish that this quote was a one-off comment only occurring in fiction. But we hear thousands of such comments every year – from the media, the Internet, from the people we know, and even from the law enforcement. I used to live in a place where it was quite common for female rape victims to be told something like: “You’re a girl – you’re supposed to be f*cked” by law enforcement professionals. It makes me sick.

This is why books like “All the Rage” are so important. I consider myself to be a very cynical person with very few romantic notions about people but I’m not yet jaded enough to believe that things can’t change. I’m a writer – I know about the power fiction can have on people. When Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak” first came out, it had a tremendous impact. My edition contains dozens of quotes from letters Anderson received from victims of sexual assault, so if hundreds of teenagers were brave enough to speak up, maybe there is hope yet.

No rating this time – I merely urge all of you to read this book at your earliest convenience.

 

Favourite quotes

“Anytime something bad happens to a woman close to me, it’s how I think. I have a daughter.”

“It’s amazing how bad you can make the truth sound. As long as you keep it partially recognizable when you spit it out, a crowd will eat it up without even thinking about how hard you chewed on it first.”

“Poison. It’s traveling my veins, turning my blood into something too sick to name. It works its way through me, finds my heart and then – every vital part of me turns off.”

 

Dreamcast

Romy Grey – Ashley Rickards

 

Recommendations

Personally, I believe that everybody should read this book. The two books and the TV series below are also very good at exploring themes like sexual assault and rape culture:

“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson

“Easy” by Tammara Webber (I know it’s a romance novel but it’s one of the few that deals with sexual assault properly)

Veronica Mars – and I don’t just mean the TV series. After I finished “All the Rage”, I wanted to binge on Veronica Mars for the upteenth time. I suggest that you watch the series, then the movie, then read the two books. The latest book deals with rapes of sex workers really well. 

Have you read “All the Rage” or any other Courtney Summers books? What are your favourite feminist contemporaries? Please let me know!