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mental illness

REVIEW:  The Body in the Woods by April Henry

REVIEW: The Body in the Woods by April Henry

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Dear readers,

Help me. I think I’ve done something to anger the universe. Why do I say that? Because I am lost in a swamp of books that, at best, can be described as meh. And at worst –

At worst, I get The Body in the Woods.

The premise is promising. Teenaged volunteers for a local search and rescue team stumble across a dead body while looking for a missing autistic man. Investigative shenanigans ensue. I can dig this. Search and rescue volunteers? Awesome. Teenaged amateur sleuths? I loved Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew as a kid. How can this go wrong?

Plenty of ways, apparently.

Let’s start with the three main characters: Ruby, Nick, and Alexis. Were their characters poorly fleshed out? Yes, but that’s not actually my complaint. All three of them have rather problematic depictions.

First, we have Nick. Nick’s father presumably died fighting in the Middle East and because Nick idolizes him, he dreams of becoming a soldier and living as a hero. And for various reasons, he’s prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizing. Perfectly reasonable characterization. Then we discover Nick also has ADHD and I start to squint. Nick’s ADHD is referred to multiple times in the story as something both his mother and older brother worry about and I found myself asking that if this diagnosis is so well-known, is there any treatment happening? Is he taking medication? I don’t remember either being the case but if I’m wrong, please correct me.

But the main reason for my squinting at Nick? He’s a creeper. During the sections from his perspective, we see him ogling girls, finding excuses to talk to disinterested girls and thinking up ways to touch them. What the hell, I’m supposed to sympathize with this guy? Combine this behavior with the fact that Nick has ADHD, and I feel uneasy with the narrative implication.

That brings us to Ruby. Ruby is prone to obsessive behaviors. She’s viewed as strange by pretty much everyone around her. I read her as being neuroatypical — but perhaps undiagnosed. It’s not just the way she fixates on things. It’s the way she doesn’t understand human relationships and interactions and the way she assumes “roles” (“Good Daughter,” “Best Friend”, etc) when dealing with people. It’s the way she doesn’t know what’s appropriate behavior in various situations. I’m on board with all this but the way the narrative treated her — Ruby is played up as the odd duck and class weirdo. There are scenes where, due to her inability to read other people and determine what’s appropriate, the other characters find her annoying and I personally thought the narrative reinforced this impression.

Which brings us to Alexis. Alexis is poor. Her mother is mentally ill. Bipolar, of course, because all the “bad” parents of YA have bipolar disorder as far as I can tell. And this is not the dubious depiction of bipolar disorder that we see in books like Fangirl where the manic phases coincide with creative highs. No, this is full out off her meds and needs to be committed because the mother is a danger to herself and others but especially her daughter.

I don’t even know what to do with Alexis’s backstory. It’s classic “child takes care of mentally ill parent” played for sympathy and pity. Poor Alexis! She has such a hard life! No dad in sight, she lives off food stamps, and has a sick mom who refuses to take her meds!

Any one of these characters presented alone probably would have made me squint but all together? Side eye. Maybe the narrative is not intentionally saying anything but it’s definitely implying some things I don’t like. I don’t think I’m imagining it. There are some hinky things being said about people with mental disorders and who aren’t neurotypical, right?

As for the actual plot, save me. It was a mess. After finding the body, the team of Ruby, Alexis, and Nick decide that they can do a better job than the police themselves. Well, no, Ruby does because her obsessive behaviors make her pay closer attention to details than the police themselves and through the powers of Google, she quickly realizes the police have overlooked the fact that there is a serial killer on the loose targeting homeless girls.

(I am not even joking.)

Because of this, Ruby recruits Alexis and Nick in her impromptu investigation even though they’re not actually friends. Why? Because Ruby doesn’t have friends (she’s the class weirdo, remember?) but since Alexis and Nick were on her SAR team, they’ll help her, right? And they sort of do — except Nick uses the opportunity to inflate his own self-importance and Alexis vanishes for several chapters because she has to look for her mentally ill mom who has run away from home. But that subplot is not really extraneous because Alexis’s search leads her to mingle with homeless people (which included sleeping in a homeless shelter) and that offers her some insight into the case!

In case it wasn’t readily obvious, these were not the shenanigans I had hoped for when I picked up this mystery thriller. Of course, there are the more familiar tropes: multiple suspects, red herrings, wrongful arrests, and the killer targeting one of our protagonists. But combined with the other things, I just couldn’t take any of it seriously. If you’re going to include mental disorders in your book — even if it’s not the focus as in a problem novel — please treat the subject with the care it deserves. Not as a convenient plot device or personality quirk.

I just can’t recommend this book to anyone. It does move fast so I can see why some readers would find it a quick read but the characterization left much to be desired. That’s not even addressing the issues regarding mental disorders. It is the first of a series and based on the premise of the next book — budding creeper Nick is the main suspect of a murder because he’s a loner who plays first person shooters — it continues along the same vein. F

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  The Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher

REVIEW: The Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher

 

“Henry meets Christa on the west tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, just as they’re both about to jump off and kill themselves. Despite his paralyzing depression—and her panic over a second bout of cancer—they can’t go through with their plans knowing that the other is going to die. So they make a pact—they’ll stay alive for 24 hours, and try to convince each other to live.

From the Staten Island Ferry to Chinatown to the Museum of Modern Art—Henry and Christa embark on a New York City odyssey that exposes the darkest moments of their lives. Is it too late for them? Or will love give them the courage to face the terrifying possibility of hope?”

Dear Ms. Maher,

When Jane sent me the email with the blurb of your newest novella I told her, something like, “That’s just different enough that I’m interested in trying it.” I mean I honestly can’t think of another romance story that starts with a duel/dual suicide gone wrong. Maybe that’s not the response that every author dreams of but it got me to read the book, right? I mean no disrespect to anyone going through the mental and physical pain these two characters have to deal with but the set up of the story is truly unique.

The Bridge - Rebecca Rogers Maher

The Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher [Contemporary]( A | BN | K | S | G )

From the beginning the story takes on a grim humor that had me laughing. Christa and Henry have both chosen the same early morning time and place to jump to their deaths off the Brooklyn Bridge. They’ve even thought about which side would be better to jump from – as they discuss later in an almost surreal scene while they eat ice cream – and come complete in black clothes so as to be less visible and thus stoppable. When what they think will be a private last moment is abruptly squashed by the presence of the other, annoyance is the emotion that quickly surfaces.

“What the hell are you doing up here?
Of all the things she could have said, this is not what I expected. She looked fragile a minute ago, delicate. I’d feared scaring her.
But I’m the one who shrinks back now.
I could say the same thing, after all. I want to say the same thing. What the hell are you doing up here ruining my perfectly good suicide attempt? Was there a sign-up sheet or something that I didn’t know about? Or more succinctly: Get out of my way. But there are some rules of civilization you can’t flout, even in extremis. A question is asked; you must answer it. Not to do so would be rude, and I’m not a rude person. Even when being yelled at by a stranger.

But they’re basically good people and what quickly follows – once they both acknowledge that the moment to jump is past for the morning – is the desire to help the other. To show him/her that s/he does have something to live for. To save the other as his/her last good deed on earth. Over an early morning breakfast they make their bargain. Each has three things they will do together over the coming 24 hours and maybe, though neither plans to change his/her mind, the other will have a change of heart.

Christa and Henry both have eminently – I hesitate to use the word – good reasons for why they plan to commit suicide. Perhaps understandable is a better choice. He’s lived with a lifelong depression while she’s facing a second diagnosis of breast cancer. Once the other is told what is behind these choices, Christa and Henry both fight each other’s decision.

Readers will have to decide how to view Christa and Henry’s backgrounds and choices but you do a good job in presenting them without judgment and describing what might be incomprehensible to anyone who’s never faced what they do. Henry is exhausted by living in a tornado of mental pain and despair while Christa views facing another round of debilitating chemo treatments, with the very real possibility of dying anyway, as an endless desert to cross with no water or help in sight.

While Christa and Henry might not totally understand each other’s reasons, and their discussions do lead to arguments about whether or not those should lead to the finality of suicide, they do understand each other’s pain. Finding someone who does that without then resorting to pat “feel good” answers or knee-jerk reactions begins to build links between them that leads to feelings each doesn’t particularly want. An awakening of emotions – including pain – like raw nerve endings suddenly stimulated. They both thought they were numb to this but discover differently.

I like that punches aren’t pulled. Christa and Henry are honest about why they ended up on that bridge. Some readers will understand and some probably won’t. Their issues aren’t made light of and are still there when the book ends. The things they didn’t want to face still exist and just maybe those things will win in the end. Who knows? But for now, they’ve found each other, hope and a new will to try again. And I’ll say that I appreciate this unique book that presents characters with bone deep issues that can’t be solved by a quick conversation or better communication. B+

~Jayne

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