Girl Against the Universe

girl universeby Paula Stokes
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars

Obviously since I’m writing about a girl actually cursed with bad luck, I had to see how Maguire handles her “curse” in our world. No magic involved, but she does have a lot of terrible events in her past that she blames herself for. They can be viewed as coincidences or the result of a curse, and Maguire decided long ago that SHE is the unlucky influence on those around her. She’s spent years holed up in her room avoiding contact with people as much as possible to prevent accidents.

She begins cognitive behavioral therapy because her mother wants her to attend a family memorial service in Ireland and that requires getting on a plane. Maguire makes a list of therapy challenges to attempt to take back the things the Universe has stolen from her: her freedom, her friends, and tennis. The cute boy with the appointment slot after hers asks for her help with some of his challenges, and *happens* to be an assistant coach for the girls’ tennis team. (A female MC who is good at sports?! Yes, please!) Before you ask, yes, their relationship is cute and complicated.

Maguire is an endearing character. I wasn’t sure how she’d be presented since she has such heavy anxiety and this naturally makes it difficult for her to do much. She is constantly worried, doing 5-second checks for danger to others, performing good luck rituals at every turn. But her voice is so smart and sympathetic and she is determined to do whatever she can to reclaim her life. At first, it’s just for her mom and the Ireland trip, but then it becomes something she wants for herself, too.

Ultimately, she realizes that once you start caring about anything or anyone, you have more to lose–and this story is her struggle to become okay with that.

The side characters could have been a bit more developed, but overall this book is excellent! Maguire and Jordy are characters with a therapist for different reasons, and they have a method that works for them. But the story stresses that this is just one method–that each person may find something else that is better for them, and that’s okay too. The romantic relationship was slow and sweet and always caved to the demands of their therapy and tennis practices. It’s balanced and well-done, with a satisfying end. Enjoy!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Girl Against the Universe is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Twin sisters Cath and Wren have always done everything together, including obsess over the Simon Snow series. But when they’re about to leave for college, Wren decides they aren’t rooming together. Cath’s anxiety makes everything about college a challenge, even the cute boy that hangs around with her roommate. This is another good look at a character trying to cope with anxiety, this time without a therapist.
  • When We Collided by Emery Lord – Vivi is staying in Verona Cove for the summer and Jonah is so cute he’ll be the perfect boyfriend.  Jonah’s family is barely getting by after his father’s death, and Vivi has her own reasons for staying distracted. An excellent story of finding love in spite of your circumstances. See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim takes an impromptu road trip back to her mother when her stepfamily lets slip that she’s sick. Mim knows she isn’t quite right herself, but she wants to know why. See my review here.
  • The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter – Cassie’s relationship with her mother has been toxic for years, culminating in Cassie spending the last 2 years in a psych ward against her will. Now college is about to start and she is released, determined to put her past behind her. But then her mother turns up promising all the love and attention Cassie always wanted. See my review here.
  • The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord – Paige’s boyfriend drowned in a freak accident the previous summer, and now she’s facing junior year as The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned, with a side of anxiety. Her attempt to make a better year for herself doesn’t go as planned, but that’s kind of a good thing. The friendships in this story are wonderful! See my review here.

When We Collided

collidedby Emery Lord
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars

It’s been awhile since I had a 5-star read! I loved this book from page 1 (but I waited til chapter 3 to commit) and I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. I’ve long admired the author from afar, on Twitter (I think that’s literally the only time this has happened to me) and I finally got around to reading this book that I bought weeks ago. So glad my best friend referred me to her a year ago! (I told you, reading more recs from friends was a goal this year–because yes, I have this kind of painfully slow track record).

The story itself? A teenage summer love story set in a tiny Californian beach town called Verona Cove. Vivi and her artist mother are there for the summer, and Vivi quickly meets Jonah (a townie) and decides he’s cute enough for a summer date. Ordinarily, this would bother me, BUT. I think this is realistic for some teens (and adults). Also both of them are clearly looking for a distraction and a summer fling will work just fine for that.

Vivi is hiding her bipolar disorder from everyone because she is determined to be better now. Jonah is surviving by a thread in the wake of his father’s death after months of taking care of his 3 younger siblings and his depressed mother. Naturally, their relationship is a mix of light fun and bitter arguments. And the best part is–they are both right, and they are both wrong. They are both broken in different ways, and their relationship isn’t going to fix that.

So much to love here: 2 distinct POV voices, present parents, sibling relationships, issues not related to the romantic relationship like money and the Future, mental health and illness, and a definite streak of feminism (which is why I love Emery Lord of course). Also you can’t help but love the symbolism behind the names–Vivi is vivacious and lively, Jonah is drowning in an ocean of pain and responsibility he doesn’t want (similar to the biblical prophet in the whale).

I love that this story includes the silly and the sucky moments of family life. Some days you’re laughing outside with the sprinkler on, sometimes you’re screaming because you can’t stand them another minute. I love that the parents have their own problems (whether it’s depression or the struggle of when to trust your kid-who-is-almost-18-but-they’ll-always-be-your-kid).

This story made me laugh and tear up and it’s just the right length. No, these characters aren’t always “likeable” (I saw that mentioned in a lot of reviews) and that is the point. They are just regular people trying their best. It would be better if we could see everyone with mental health problems that way.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, When We Collided is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes – Maguire is bad luck–terrible things happen to people when she’s around. Her new therapist suggests some challenges that will help her overcome her “curse” with cognitive behavioral therapy, but Maguire isn’t convinced it will work. Her biggest challenge becomes a fellow tennis player who has a crush on her. Will she be able to take back the life the Universe stole from her?
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Cath and Wren are twin sisters who have done everything together-including obsess over the Simon Snow series and its fanfiction. But then Wren drops the bombshell that she’s not rooming with Cath for their first year of college, and she doesn’t care about Simon Snow anymore either. Cath isn’t sure how to cope, especially when her roommate’s cute friend keeps hanging around her dorm room trying to talk to her.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not thrilled with her stepdad’s new family or their new home. When she learns her mother is ill, she takes a secret road trip hundreds of miles back to see her, and maybe learn about herself along the way. See my review here.
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – Lia and Cassie make a pact to be the thinnest girls in school. But when Cassie dies from bulimia, Lia feels haunted by her best friend’s spirit and the conviction that if she can just be thin enough, she and all her problems can disappear for good. See my review here.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Charlie is starting high school with no friends and no clue how to survive. When two seniors adopt him into their group, he has a lot to learn about life and how to deal with the secrets of his past. See my review here.
  • The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter – Cassie leaves the psychiatric hospital her mother forced her into two years previously, determined to start college and put the past of their toxic relationship behind her. But then her mother shows up promising all the love and attention Cassie always wanted, and she wonders if they can start over. See my review here.
  • The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – This is a relatively short novel about Pat and his quest to become the perfect man so that God will restore his estranged wife Nikki to him. His neighbor Tiffany has her own issues, but it takes him awhile to realize they might be good friends. The writing is great, both book and movie are excellent.
  • Made You Up by Francesca Zappia – Although not the most accurate in terms of symptoms / diagnosis, this is such a good story I couldn’t resist including it. Alex suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and is never sure what’s real and what isn’t. When a cute boy takes an interest in her, she begins to wonder whether he’s real, or if she made him up. See my review here.

The First Time She Drowned

24724627by Kerry Kletter
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 15, 2016

I fell in love with the cover for this book, then I fell in love with the jacket summary, then I finally got it from the library and I fell in love with the writing. I’d seen a few reviews commenting on how beautiful the prose is in this story and they were all accurate. From the memorable first line, “My mother wore the sun like a hat…” to the last page, the diction and imagery captured me. To me it read like an adult novel rather than YA because Cassie is in college, the tone is heavy, and the story is about the adult relationship between Cassie and her mother. There is a lot of crossover appeal here, either way.

Cassie is checking out of her mental health hospital AMA (against medical advice) to attend her first semester of college. She’s understandably more nervous than excited because she’s been sequestered from the world for two years since her mother left her there against her will. We follow Cassie as she adjusts to the real world and tries to move past the complicated relationship with her mother. But just as she decides she’s over it all and will focus on her future, her mother reappears, promising the love Cassie has craved her entire life.

We slowly see the two narratives at war in Cassie’s life: what she believes her childhood was like, and what her mother says it was like. What Cassie believes herself to be, and what her mother thinks of her. As Cassie meets more and more people who seem to react strangely to her relationship with her mom, Cassie finds it harder to decide what really happened. This novel is an incredibly moving picture detailing how insidious and toxic abusive relationships are with chilling scenes and dialogue.

I’ve had friends with relationships that reminded me of Cassie’s mom; these women would strike their daughters physically and lash out verbally in my presence; they commented on their daughter’s weight/appearance; they said no boy will ever want them unless they can change everything about themselves, and then called their own daughter a whore or a slut. And half an hour later we’d be called out for dinner as if nothing happened. It was embarrassing and heart-breaking for me, and I can’t imagine how my friends felt at the time. When you’re a freshman in high school (especially from a religious background) nobody tells you how to react or help or deal with these issues. I wish now I’d done more than just tell my parents—it came down to “it’s none of our business” and that response made me sick to my stomach. As if their life had to be in danger before anyone would intervene, but their mental and emotional stability were fair game.

This story is emotionally exhausting and important to read. So often the mental health issues behind abuse aren’t thoroughly explored (for both the abuser and the victim) and the author handles this in an expert manner. I can’t recommend this enough!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The First Time She Drowned is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – Lia and Cassie are best friends with a pact to be the skinniest girls in school. Cassie prefers to vomit whatever she eats, Lia chooses to eat nothing. But when Cassie dies, Lia feels doubly haunted by her friend’s spirit and her own eating disorder, a nasty voice in her head that whispers if she can just lose enough weight, she and her problems will disappear. See my review here.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Gabi is a self-described fat Mexican-American just trying to fit in and survive her senior year. Between her absent father’s infrequent appearances, the pressure not to be “White,” her friend’s pregnancy and her other friend attempting to come out to his family, Gabi has a lot on her plate. But writing becomes her sanctuary in this beautiful, coming-of-age story told through her diary entries. See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mary Iris Malone (Mim) is not okay with how her life is going. She’s not okay with knowing everyone thinks she is crazy. She’s not okay with her father’s remarriage. And she’s not okay with her father moving her replacement family hundreds of miles away from her mother. When letters from her mother stop, and Mim overhears a conversation that indicates her mother is ill, she wastes no time. She takes a bus to her mother. See my review here.

Sunny Side Up

24612600by Jennifer L. Holm (author) and Matthew Holm (illustrator)
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

This book. Is. Terrific. We found this on an end-cap during a bookstore event and made the best impulse buy of the year! This all-color children’s graphic novel set in 1976 addresses some surprisingly tough issues as 10-year-old Sunny spends a month with her grandpa in his retirement community. Sunny thought her family would take a beach vacation this summer, but it turns out she’s sent to her grandpa’s, alone, with nothing but old people and cats for company. But then she meets Buzz, who introduces her to comic books, and she begins to figure out why she’s with her grandpa, and that the reasons for her lack-luster summer aren’t her fault.

So much of this story is told not through dialogue, but through the art itself. It feels like an authentic preteen girl’s point-of-view, and there is humor and sadness in equal measure, much like Pixar’s film “Inside Out.” Sunny feels the invisibility of being a child, but her blunt questions come out at just the right times. The subtle commentary on feminism and comic book heroes is on point, and the characters come alive quickly. This is a semi-autobiographical story intended to help kids feel comfortable discussing their own feelings about serious family issues, and I think it achieves that. You can read it in an hour and it’s both funny and emotional. I loved this and could not recommend it more!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Sunny Side Up is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s store website, here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier – A harrowing story of 6th-grader Raina as she deals with an injury that requires multiple rounds of braces and finding out who her real friends are. This comes highly recommended, though I haven’t read it myself yet.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – When Coraline’s family moves into a new house, she discovers a secret way to live the life she’s always dreamed of. But then the Other Parents want her to stay forever, and she has to find a way to save herself and her family.
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick – This got some attention from the film adaptation (excellent) a few years ago. Hugo fixes his father’s old automaton and meets a famous film-maker through his new friend Isabelle. An interesting weave of original material with historical events, and fully illustrated.
  • How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell – A hilarious and touching account of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and his unconventional love of dragons. Hiccup recounts these adventures as an adult, complete with illustrations and commentary. The film varies greatly, but the original material is the entire basis of what you may already know and love.

Made You Up

17661416by Francesca Zappia
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars
Debut Novel – May 19, 2015

First of all, let me just say this book was really enjoyable and I read it in 24 hours. It’s interesting and quirky and cute and if you like YA at all, you’ll probably like it. But–and this is kind of a big but–I’m pretty sure zero medical research went into this book. Like….none. At all. Why is that a big deal? Because our main character and narrator, Alexandra, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. I’m honestly torn on my rating because as great as it is to depict mental health issues in YA, there’s basically no point if you aren’t going to be accurate.

Alex is charming, stubborn, and constantly fighting the knowledge that anything she sees or hears at a given time might not be real. The prologue’s story about the lobsters is one of the cutest things I have ever read–seriously, ever. You’ll probably like spending time in her head, but it shouldn’t be taken as an actual schizophrenic person’s perspective. Little things like the incorrect use of the word “delusion” bothered me (especially since specific vocabulary is a theme of the book) but I could let it go for the sake of the story. Things like characters requiring no recovery time after a concussion bothered me. Alex’s parents REALLY bothered me! But I wanted to see what happened next, and I liked Alex, I wanted to stick with her. As it turns out, the last hundred pages become a convoluted mess of complex issues and “resolutions” that makes this seem much more like a typical YA story and less like a bold step into deeper waters. I get the feeling that not only was research non-existent, but the author might not even know someone with a therapist of any kind. Putting a big bow on everything at the end (and I don’t use that expression lightly) damaged what little credibility remained at the end.

Ultimately, these issues kept this book firmly in the “fun” camp and took it out of the “meaningful” “emotional” “informative” camps. I’m interested to see what this author does next–she has a strong voice and talent, but she needs a little more precision if she’s going to continue in this vein.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Made You Up is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – I’ve heard this is a more accurate portrayal of mental illness, and compared with Made You Up I would have to agree. This is a relatively short novel about Pat and his quest to become the perfect man so that God will restore his estranged wife Nikki to him. His neighbor Tiffany has her own issues, but it takes him awhile to realize they might be good friends. The writing is great, both book and movie are excellent.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not okay–she has moved hundreds of miles away from her mother to live with her father and new stepfamily. But her mother isn’t well, and Mim decides to take a solo road trip to visit her. She is not putting off dealing with her own mental health issues. See my review here.
  • Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma – This doesn’t deal with mental health issues but it does have an unreliable narrator and a similar sense of unreality. See my review here.
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – A dark and disturbing portrayal of Lia’s struggle with anorexia and related issues following her best friend’s death. See my review here.
  • When We Collided by Emery Lord – A funny and emotional story about Vivi and Jonah, who use each other in different ways to forget their troubles, until their problems become too big to ignore. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

13573503by Stephen Chbosky
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – February 1999

This short, poignant novel is the quintessential American high school coming-of-age story.

Charlie is a shy freshman befriended by senior step-siblings Samantha and Patrick. We hear about his first year through a series of letters he writes to a “friend.” Charlie has good taste in music and books but has a hard time talking to people or making friends. Sam and Patrick pull him out of his isolation and introduce him to parties and surviving class while dealing with romantic relationships, eating at diners, family problems, and living up their last year before college. It seeps nostalgia for both high school and the 90’s at every turn, with beautifully written reflective lines from Charlie as he keeps his “friend” apprised of his adventures.

Throughout the letters Charlie becomes both more open about his feelings and more evasive about the events that caused him to spend the previous summer estranged from his friends and family, and his gradual reveal of the details and how he is healing is what gives this novel the depth and grit to set it apart from the average teenage drama.

Not that it’s all serious – Charlie’s wry sense of humor sneaks in at times, and there are enough light-hearted moments to make you wistful for the few good memories you might have from those four transformative years. The author wrote the screenplay and directed the film adaptation, which is also excellent.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – When Mim learns her mother is very sick, she runs away from her father and new stepmother to go see her. Along the way she confronts uncomfortable situations and the uncomfortable truths coming her way. See my review here.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie – Junior makes the unacceptable decision to try to improve his life and future by leaving his reservation to attend the white high school. This has a more self-deprecating tone but is a similar story of attempting to fit in when everything is against him.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – A high school first love that bets against first love not lasting. It has the same nostalgia/bittersweet vibe (this time set in the 1980s) and the eponymous characters have to navigate their family lives as they try to fit in and stay together. See my review here.
  • Luna by Julie Ann Peters – Told from the point of view of Liam’s sister, Regan, we watch the difficult and personal transformation of Liam to Luna as she embraces her transgender identity. This isn’t a perfect representation of a trans character, as the plot and characters can feel a bit shallow, but it’s still worth a read.
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green – This is a boarding school story but it captures the same mood as Chbosky. Miles is trying to find himself when he meets the most interesting person he’s ever encountered – Alaska Young. We get a taste of the uncertainty and longing of being almost-adults as they spend a wild few months together. See my review here.


5152478by Laurie Halse Anderson
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read an Anderson book since high school, but Speak and Catalyst stuck with me for years, so I decided it was time to try another one. This was the darkest by far, and although it’s short, it is a gripping and harrowing glimpse into mental illness. Lia and Cassie’s toxic friendship is sealed by their childhood trauma and desire to be attractive, but it all ends when Cassie’s bulimia destroys her. Lia is left in a maelstrom of grief, confusion, and self-loathing. She’s trapped in her own mind, and the stream-of-consciousness/present tense narration makes you feel how each day is a long battle between her dysfunctional family, food, and herself. If she can become small enough, she’ll escape everything that hurts her.

This goes into some detail regarding anorexic behaviors and the side effects. Some people wouldn’t be comfortable with including the tricks Lia uses to make everyone think she isn’t losing weight, but in my opinion this is fairly balanced with the list of terrible health problems and side effects Lia experiences. A part of Lia knows that she is sick, dangerously sick, that she doesn’t see her body accurately, but she doesn’t know how to stop. There’s commentary here too, on the failings of counselors, therapists, and doctors. They tell her she’s a danger to herself, but then go on to say “your hour is up, make way for the next patient, you’re stable” and cast her adrift. It’s a balanced, excellent story that explores a disease too often treated with insensitivity or whispers.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Wintergirls is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mary Iris Malone is not okay. When her father remarries and moves the family hundreds of miles away from her mother, Mim decides to go back to her mother alone. Her road trip doesn’t go at all like she expects. The tone isn’t as dark, but the internal struggle Mim feels is similar. See my review here.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Clay receives a collection of tapes from Hannah Baker, explaining why she killed herself. Dark, suspenseful, and challenges everyone to think about their daily interactions with someone.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Quiet freshman Charlie confronts all the “firsts” of high school while dealing with the emotional damage of childhood trauma. It’s reflective but has its lighter moments, too. See my review here.
  • Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis – A more surreal story than Wintergirls, but Maren has a lot of the same mental health issues to work through. See my review here.
  • The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter – An intense look at the toxic relationship between a mother and daughter. Cassie intends to start her freshman year of college free from her mother and her past, but then her mom turns up promising all the love Cassie always wanted. See my review here.

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