My Only by N. K. Smith
My Review: 5 Stars
First, the official synopsis: ‘Shy, awkward Adam is resigned to sit on the sidelines of life, overshadowed by his outgoing and popular twin brother, Aaron. Adam James’ life is far from perfect. A deeply internal person, Adam is silently confused about his lot in life, including life after high school. A talented drummer from a small suburb of Chicago, Adam keeps to himself, downplaying his abilities, thinking that he is less than all those around him. By living a life of moderate isolation coupled with his ambivalence toward most people, he is unable to gain new perspectives on himself. But when a free spirited new girl with a troubled past moves in across the street, Adam’s eyes are opened to a new world of possibilities. Olivia Cartwright is a fun loving, beautiful girl whose philosophies on life give her a deeper understanding of the world around her. Previously living a semi-nomadic life, Olivia is out of her element in the quiet, slow-moving suburb of Lakeside, Illinois. An instant connection between Adam and Olivia draws them closer, but why would anyone choose him when a better version exists? What will happen when Adam’s outgoing twin Aaron takes an interest in Olivia as well? Adam has a choice to make: Keep his relationship with Olivia merely friends or fight to take it further, keep safely within the dormant cocoon he’s lived in for years or find and cultivate all of his good qualities. Which will he choose? Will the friendship with Olivia change him? Will he adopt her philosophies, or will he continue to close himself off in his own world? It seems Adam has a lot to learn about love….and life.’
Now, my thoughts: I LOVED THIS. The synopsis doesn’t do it justice. Yes, it’s an apt summary of the storyline, but it doesn’t convey the actual writing here – because this is not a unique plot by any means, and admittedly I worked out where the story was going about halfway through the book, but none of that mattered because I just loved every moment of the way the author wrote it.
The language was beautiful, and there were so many wonderful little lines that I kept highlighting. My personal favourite was near the beginning when Olivia went into Adam’s room for the first time and he tried to see it from her view, and he started wondering if he really liked Dune enough to broadcast it to everyone via posters on his walls. On that note, I loved how funny so much of the book was, despite its heavy subject. It was so well balanced with the depth of the emotions, and I loved how simply and effortlessly those emotions were portrayed. I felt like the writer really knew what she was doing, all the way through. If I were going to make any critique, it would be that the ending could have been drawn out slightly more. It felt a little quick, for me. But again, it was so beautifully worded. It really hit me, and I was crying, which is a sign of something special.
I also loved all the characters, even Aaron. I loved Olivia. I adored Adam from the very first page, and I am so impressed with how the author handled male characters. That’s not easy to do, for a woman. So many female authors lose me with their painfully unrealistic portrayals of boys / men, so this was a breath of fresh air, in that respect.
I think I’ll leave this with two final thoughts: 1) despite this book all being thoughts and feelings and sparse conversational titbits, I felt glued to it like I would to a fast-paced thriller and I could not put it down, and 2) it reminded me of Speak by Laurie Halsen, which I also loved, so if you liked that, I would recommend you pick this one up as well. Personally, I can see myself reading this again some day.
Off the Reservation by Michael Rossi
My Review: 3 Stars
This is a personal memoir of life with bipolar disorder (or borderline personality disorder – it’s not clearly identified and is sometimes referred to as one or the other). I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This is an independent publication that is generally meticulously edited. One glaring error – at one point it says, ‘Any and I’s’, which should say, ‘Amy’s and my.’ Even 80% further on into the book, that was in my head and bugging me. Otherwise, the author is very good with language.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I really enjoyed the first 70%. I liked watching the narrator (author) grow up. I say ‘liked’ but actually, it’s not a pleasant childhood. I more mean I think it was portrayed strongly, you could relate to the author in some way; you could understand and appreciate his emotions and reactions and he was suitably sympathetic, which is what you’d hope for from an autobiography. There were also some beautiful moments of writing and touching / thought-provoking reflections on life. The author makes no attempt to justify any of his ‘sins’, as he calls them, but I believe he hopes for some form of ‘redemption’ (perhaps from readers?).
This is where it gets a bit sticky, for me. First, there was a slightly challenging defensive tone to the introduction to the book that amounted to, ‘I expect you to hate me, I dare you not to. My life was so horrible, you probably won’t even believe me.’ I can only assume the author has felt this way at points in his life. However, I didn’t find anything in this book shocking. I felt more sympathetic than surprised, so in my view, the introduction was unwarranted and unnecessary, and a little off-putting before I’d even got into the book. This trickles into the book blurb, as well; if I were the author, I would amend this. There are also moments in the book itself when the narration comes across the same way, and it’s unpleasant. If readers pay to read the author’s story, I think he should tone down the ‘I expect you to hate me, so I’ll make it really clear I hate myself enough for the both of us before you have a chance to say it to me’ lines. Even the subtitle suggests the author believes he should have killed himself.
My other issue was the last 30% of the story. This feels a little awkward to say, because I suppose in a way it’s a comment on the author’s life. He said several times that the reader would disapprove or abhor him for his actions, but I felt bored. I found myself skimming through scene after scene of him taking drugs and sleeping around, because it was just so repetitive. It made me wonder how the author could stand the monotony of his own life during that time. From a writing perspective, you can’t have that much repetition. I think even memoirs need to follow certain structural conventions, so you don’t lose the audience.
Then, in literally the last 1% of the book, we’re told the author was admitted to a mental hospital. Presumably this is where he was diagnosed, because at no point in the rest of the book is this explained. I don’t know when he worked out what was wrong, or who told him, how old he was, how it affected him, etc. I would have thought the mental hospital phase of his life had impacted and changed him in some way, but we’re never shown any of it. If I were the editor, I would ask for the last 30% of repetitive sex and drugs to be removed, a page inserted to explain that by the time he was such-and-such age he was in such-and-such state and he made his suicide attempt (as described at the end of the book) and he landed in the hospital, etc. and then shown that for 30% of the word count, instead.
I would also hope for some sort of conclusion. Despite how many moments of insight the author had throughout his life, at the end there was very little. It was simply one paragraph to say all we can hope for is to find someone we can ‘tolerate’ enough to want to spend the rest of our lives with. I found this bleak beyond measure. Even if you haven’t found love or known what that’s really like, surely you can hope for something more than ‘tolerating’ your companion. Such an ending left me wondering why I’d read the last 99% of the story. Having edited someone’s memoir of life with schizo-affective disorder, it’s my view that if you’re going to write your autobiography, you ought to have something to say with it. Otherwise, it really is simply, ‘Life is hell, let me show you.’ I suppose the author doesn’t feel like things will get better, and therein lies a great difficulty: despite having bipolar disorder myself, I am a hopeless optimist and like to think there’s a point to life.
I felt this book was more about the author getting his feelings out on paper than anything else – which is fantastic from a therapeutic perspective, but I don’t know what it gives readers, especially if there’s no discussion about the diagnosis or treatment he’s undergone. You’ll only ever read this book if a) you’re diagnosed yourself, in which case you’d probably want some form of hope, b) you know someone with the condition, in which case you’d want more explanation of what’s going on, what the treatment process is like, whether that helps or not, what hospitals are like, whether there’s any hope at all for your loved one, etc., or c) you have an interest in the subject of mental disorders, in which case again you’d want some form of medical insight included. Sadly, this book doesn’t have any of that.
Straightjacket by Meredith Towbin
My Review: 5 Stars
This was one of my very favourite kinds of books: the kind where the author never tells you what is really the truth and it all comes down to a matter of individual belief. Essentially: is Caleb an angel or is he ‘crazy’? You decide.
I must admit that when I first started reading it, I worried about what I was in for, because of the depiction of Heaven in the first couple pages. Then as I read on and realised what was happening, I found myself thinking it was just so clever, and I’m so glad I carried on. If anyone else picks up this book and thinks something similar, perhaps because of their personal religious beliefs, I would urge them to keep going, because this is not the sort of book that sets out to offend anyone’s personal faith. If anything, I think it encourages it – but equally, it is not preachy in any way. It just…makes you think. And feel.
In a nutshell, Anna finds herself in a mental institution and falls in love with a fellow patient, Caleb, who insists he is an angel sent to save her from her own self-hate. The doctors all think he suffers from delusions and catatonia and keep pressing him to take medication for it, but Caleb says they aren’t delusions; they are the times when he slips back to where he came from, Heaven, and speaks to his angelic guide about his mission to help Anna learn to love herself. I don’t want to give any more of the story away, because when it hits the halfway point, things take an unexpected turn, which is one of the things I loved so much about this book.
I also loved the characters. They became real for me and I got emotionally attached to them very quickly. I adored Caleb and completely understood why Anna was so quickly swept away by him. I appreciate that while he was good-looking, the emphasis in this book was on what a beautiful person he was inside. He was also intriguing, and that formed the ‘mystery’ of this book, which kept me reading every line.
The language was beautiful and the emotions were real. I’ll admit I cried through parts of it. One reason this book resonated so much with me is that I am bipolar myself, along with other related conditions. I’m also a writer, and I get all my writing done when my moods are ‘high’, much like Caleb’s artwork in this book. I understood why Caleb didn’t want to take the medication. I understood the descriptions of how it deadened him and changed who he was, took away all his drive and passion. As a teenager, I was on anti-depressants for 3 years to treat anxiety and Tourette Syndrome and it destroyed everything that I was until I finally made the decision to come off the drugs – and it didn’t ultimately help the problems, either. I think this book did a brilliant job of portraying that, which was one of the things that made me feel so emotional.
I liked lines such as, ‘Who am I to say you aren’t really an angel?’ and something to the effect of, ‘Whether he was an angel or not, it didn’t matter,’ and, ‘I love you – that’s the only thing you need to know about me.’ I highlighted quite a lot. I thought it was a beautiful idea, that someone as broken Caleb possibly was (you never do know if he’s an angel or not) is still loveable, because under it all, he was such a good person – and that really is all you need to know about him. It was a deeply sympathetic view and I appreciate the author expressing it. I also loved the meaning of the book’s title, even if it does irk me that it’s spelt wrong (it should be ‘straitjacket’).
I also like what it says about belief…because really, who are we to say what is real and what is not? People have all kinds of beliefs and the very nature of belief is that it’s something you personally feel, but it can’t be proven wrong or right. And if someone says they’re really an angel, but they’re not harming anyone…well, you might not believe it, but who cares? Does that mean they need to be locked up and drugged out of something that brings them peace? Who’s to say what is truth and what is delusion, in such circumstances? Those are the sorts of thoughts that passed through my head as I read this.
So for me, this was a very meaningful book that I can easily see myself rereading one day, and one I would recommend to friends. I am very thankful to the author for giving me a free copy, and I am very happy to say that my honest opinion is that this book is incredible.
The Medium (Emily Chambers Spirit Medium Trilogy #1) by C. J. Archer
My Review: 4.5 Stars
This is a faux-Victorian novel about that popular Victorian fad: spiritualism. Emily Chambers is a spirit medium living with her sister Celia, after the death of their mother so many years ago. Emily doesn’t know who her father was and Celia won’t help solve the mystery. When Celia accidentally releases a shape-shifting demon, a ghost named Jacob is sent to speak to Emily in order to send the demon back to the Otherworld before it can kill anyone. But Jacob is not like the other ghosts Emily sees. He’s more solid and real, and the circumstances surrounding his death are just as mysterious as Emily’s origins. Soon, she finds herself involved with members of high society – and falling in love with a dead man.
What makes this book so brilliant is, first, the conversations Emily has with Jacob in front of her friends and sister, when they can’t hear or see Jacob. I loved how Jacob played with this and said all sorts of cheeky things about people, with them right beside him and unable to hear. The author handled these scenes well, creating humour rather than confusion. Jacob is also the first of these romantic figures I’ve genuinely liked in quite a long time. He wasn’t wooden or two-dimensional. Neither was Emily, and I appreciated that the author took the time to show them getting to know each other and falling in love. They were a believable couple and I was really rooting for them, feeling frustrated by the fact of his death and hoping for some miraculous way out of the situation.
That’s another great point about this book: the reason for the romantic tension. They had a valid reason not to be together: he was dead and she was alive. There were no unintelligible rules set by some Elvin king or whatever cockamamey idea I’ve read in a thousand other such books. The tragedy of Jacob’s early death was woven together well. I liked the idea of him regretting how he’d lived and now learning to be a better man, in death. The side characters were also strong.
I also appreciated how believable it was as a Victorian novel. The author has clearly read a lot of them, because she was so spot-on. I’ll admit at the end, I was slightly puzzled about how some of the elements of the mystery fit together, which is why I’ve given this 4.5 stars. All the same, I was completely drawn into the world of Emily and Jacob and couldn’t wait to read book 2.