Cephalopod Coffeehouse February 2017: A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL–A Review

0ed81-coffeehouseHi there! Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.

This month, I’m recommending Eric Lindstrom’s A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL, a newly-published YA adventure through bipolar disorder. Having read and LOVED his debut, NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST, (featuring a blind protagonist) I’m really enjoying Mr. Lindstrom’s ability to bring marginalized characters to the page in living color.

tragic-wonderfulAbout the book:
For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length. And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.

As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst—that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?

My Review:
This is a contemporary YA novel about a character with severe bipolar disorder still learning how to cope with the ups and downs of her emotional world.

Mel Hannigan is a seventeen year old girl struggling through her days with a newly (one year) diagnosed bipolar disorder. Her elder brother, Nolan, also suffered this disease, as does her Aunt Joan–who they all call HJ or “Hurricane Joan.” Nolan, who we only meet in flashback, died four years ago–in an accident that stemmed from his mania. Since his tragic death, her parents have divorced and Mel lives with her mother and HJ. She’d also lived with her grandmother, but she died a year ago after a battle with stomach cancer.

Mel works in the Silver Sands, the same nursing home where her grandmother spent her final days. It’s a touchstone place, for her, where she has many friends among the residents, including Dr. Jordan–a retired psychiatrist. He helped “diagnose” Mel before she had her first manic episode–and subsequent crash–just over a year ago, now. At that time, Mel was having a break with her group of friends, losing Annie, Conner and Zumi when she backed away following a fight and power play which coincided with an inpatient stay for treatment of her mental issues. Now she balances a cocktail of prescriptions designed to keep her moods even, and has two close-ish friends Holly and Declan, who brought her school work home over the period of her long absence and recovery–which everyone believes was for mono and bronchitis, not bipolar disorder.

When the book picks up, Annie has inexplicably reached out to leave behind childhood relics with Mel for Conner and Zumi–mementos of their friendship–because Annie’s family is moving to Paris and she doesn’t want to confront either Conner or Zumi regarding this life change. Turns out Annie isn’t a nice person, and Zumi was desperately crushing on her. Mel knows it will break Zumi’s heart, and the stress is fracturing her grip on her moods. Right about then, Mel meets David, grandson of one of the elderly residents at Silver Sands, and they strike a cautious friendship–which could lead to more. They both seem to want this, but Mel is reluctant because she doesn’t think she–the gal with the broken brain–is really worthy of love. Surely someone “normal” is better suited for everyone. Just look at HJ! She’s the life of the party and pretty, but no man will settle down with her.

Okay, so, being in the mind of a person with a mental condition like bipolar disorder is never easy. There are bouts of mania and depression, and episodes of disordered thinking and obsessive-compulsive behavior. That’s not all of the book, but those moments exist and they ramp the tension up high as we’re not quite sure where Mel will go, or what she will do, when she’s manic, or obsessive. She does a LOT of checking in with her body and mind, and talking to responsible adults about her mental well-being, with is fantastic. Her aunt’s not a great influence, because she’s sure that Mel’s missing out on life, doped up and quelled by medication. Joan is currently unmedicated, but her strong personality doesn’t sway Mel from her chosen course to medicate–because she knows how things can go tragically wrong for someone like herself–like Nolan–when there’s no meds on board. And, unfortunately, in her periods of mania she sometimes misses doses, leading to a downward spiral that results in another bad episode.

I really liked this book because it didn’t feel varnished. It was a challenge, however, to keep up with Mel, and I think I’d have liked more information about Nolan up-front. That said, going along the winding path and following Mel into the rabbit hole of her racing mind was eye-opening. Having dealt with emotional wellness issues in myself and close family members for decades now, it was a journey I’m familiar with, and felt resonated off the page. Mental illness is never an easy read, but Mel’s upbeat and committed choice for medical care was refreshing. I really appreciated the rich support network that assisted Mel, and how her fears of being abandoned once people learned her real “illness” weren’t reinforced.

There’s a hint of romance, but it’s not the focus. Instead, the real-life dramas of friendships dissolving and new ones forming are the center of the book. These stressors are common for teens, which provides the context for grasping Mel’s underlying medical problems, and makes her reaction to those stressors accessible, even in their extremes.

Interested? You can find A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and Kobo. I received a review copy via NetGalley.

Thanks for popping in, and be sure to check out the book-of-the-month recommendations from my fellow Coffeehouse reviewers…

Cephalopod Coffeehouse November 2015–NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST

Hi there! Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.

This month I’m reviewing a contemporary YA story that’s due to release next week, NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST from Eric Lindstrom. Put it on your list of books to get for anyone who enjoys a well-told story about a girl just making her way through life, and getting into some scrapes along the way. Oh, and the main character, Parker, well, she gets into more scrapes than most because…she’s blind.

Not If I See You FirstAbout the book:

The Rules:

Don’t deceive me. Ever. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public.

Don’t help me unless I ask. Otherwise you’re just getting in my way or bothering me.

Don’t be weird. Seriously, other than having my eyes closed all the time, I’m just like you only smarter.

Parker Grant doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see right through you. That’s why she created the Rules: Don’t treat her any differently just because she’s blind, and never take advantage. There will be no second chances. Just ask Scott Kilpatrick, the boy who broke her heart.

When Scott suddenly reappears in her life after being gone for years, Parker knows there’s only one way to react-shun him so hard it hurts. She has enough on her mind already, like trying out for the track team (that’s right, her eyes don’t work but her legs still do), doling out tough-love advice to her painfully naive classmates, and giving herself gold stars for every day she hasn’t cried since her dad’s death three months ago. But avoiding her past quickly proves impossible, and the more Parker learns about what really happened–both with Scott, and her dad–the more she starts to question if things are always as they seem. Maybe, just maybe, some Rules are meant to be broken.

My Review:

Parker Grant lost her mother and her eyesight in a car crash when she was 8. She developed strong friendships and an even stronger bond with her father in the last 8 years. Unfortunately, Parker’s father died three months ago and her aunt’s family has moved across the country to live in her home, with her. Parker’s developed some tough rules, meant to protect her heart, and also her mind–especially after Scott–her former best friend and maybe first love, crushed her back in eighth grade.

It’s junior year and Scott has returned to Parker’s high school. Their small town has combined two schools into one, actually, which means there are lots of new people and new situations for Parker to encounter. She meets a new “buddy” Molly, a chaperone who helps her navigate the school day. Parker and Molly strike it off, mostly because Molly’s willing to be honest with Parker–whose default setting is brutal honesty. Parker wants to be treated like a regular kid, and she strives for this. It’s what draws her to Jason, a decent guy who treats her decently.

While Parker’s life is filled with people, she’s still rather solitary. She spends a lot of time with her young cousin, Petey, and none at all with her other cousin, Sheila, despite them being the same age and being in school together. All the school politics are on display, and despite a spark between Parker and Jason, it’s clear that Scott is still in the picture, too. Always on the fringes, Scott’s filling in the gaps he knows were left behind with Parker’s father died.

I really admired Parker. She’s brash, with the understanding that it’s not easy being disabled, and it’s even worse to be considered ‘less than’ because of her disability. She makes new and unlikely friends, and tries even more unlikely feats, including running. It’s refreshing to see how she navigates the world around her, and the high school foibles–including first dates and kisses. For all her outward strength, she’s a deeply thinking girl, and willing to own up to her mistakes–when she’s able to confront them. Her unflinching honesty can be abrasive, but she applies that to herself just as much as to others.

In a litscape filled with ordinary people, Parker shines in her extraordinary will to be as normal as possible. This is a story that doesn’t have a sweeping grand gesture, more like a series of realizations that don’t lead to reconciliations. Which was perfectly acceptable. As Scott and Parker recognize: they are not their 8th grade selves anymore, and what they had then is very different from what they have now. There is 2+ years of animosity and betrayal to overcome, and it’s not flipping a switch to turn back time and reconnect. That was a striking moment for both Parker, and the reader.

So many times YA stories are too convenient, with some mid-level conflict that is easily resolved. Nothing in this book is convenient or contrived. Parker’s cousin Sheila isn’t kind. Parker’s friends are a mixture of races, genders and sexualities with really different personalities. Parker’s aunt is rigid and easily offended–not able to cope with Parker’s need for autonomy. So, it’s all a big trial for Parker, to cobble all this scrip-scrap bits of life together into a patchwork quilt of people to support and love her. Including Scott.

Interested? NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST releases Dec 1st, but you can find out more about it on Goodreads, and pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s Books. This first 9 chapters are up on Amazon and B & N for a free preview, in case you want to just check it out…

Thanks for popping in. Don’t forget to check out the other reviewers on this month’s blog hop. They always have great books to discover.