Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Vicious

Book Review: Vicious by VE Schwab

Goodreads Description: Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

My Review: I've come to a place in my reading and reviewing of Victoria Schwab's books where I just want to smash my face into the keyboard like an overexcited puppy shouting, "SO GOOD. BOOK SO AWESOME. YOU WILL LOVE. BUY NOW. NAO." But somehow I don't think that gets my full point across, so I will try to put my OMFG into words. 

Vicious is everything I wanted in a superhero/villain story wrapped in beautiful prose. Though the story jumps around a lot in time, the narrative is clear and flows so smoothly that readers won't get confused and wonder where the hell they've jumped to next. The first part of the book focuses heavily on the characters' backstories, particularly Victor and Eli's "origin" story. The science and reasoning behind it left the book feeling very realistic, even with people summoning crazy powers. Because of the flip-flops in time, the pacing feels rather slow. But not for a moment did it drag, as the incredible characterization and the tension between finding out what happened as well as what will happen made me want to soak in every word.

And the characters, oh, the characters. I like to think that if I can predict how a character will react to or do in a situation, the character is fully developed. If I know enough about the character to know how they would act, then the author has done their job. Schwab's characters were so well developed that I could see how their beliefs and motivations converged to make them into the people they were, which was delightful. Another breath of fresh air is that few of the main characters were actually good people. They all did horrible things, but it's the devil in the details that determines why you side with Victor over Eli.

Overall, the way the story and plot came together left me unbelievably happy, especially the way the tension built over Victor's countdown to midnight. It did feel a tad Dues ex Machina when Dominic comes into the picture, as his ability lets Victor access and do things that would have otherwise been impossible. I was able to forgive this a tad in the sense that everything else about the book was marvelous. However, there is one part that truly sticks with me, but as it is spoiler-filled, I want to give a warning to skip the next paragraph if you're afraid of spoilers.

The only part that truly bothered me was after Victor's death, Dominic steals his body away. That scene ends on a solid note, however, the next scene with them has Sydney and Mitch digging up Victor's grave in order to revive him. If they already took back his body, probably to revive him anyway, why would they bury him to dig it up? So his 'corpse' could be used against Eli in trial? In which case, why did they take the body?

Alright, you're in the safe zone again. All in all, Vicious was incredible. It's another reason to love Victoria Schwab. If you consider yourself a fan of superheroes--or great writing in general-- be sure to get your hands on this.

TL;DR: Droolworthy. 5/5 stars.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Culture of Labels: Mental Health and Violence

Growing up in Canada, any kid in the ‘90s or early 00s could tell you about the commercials put out by Concerned Children’s Advertisers, a non-profit organization that puts out public service announcements aimed at kids to teach about bullying, drug use, self-esteem, etc. Even today when I turn on the kid’s channels, I may catch a newer version of one of these commercials. But the ones I watched when I was younger still ring in my head, sticking with me for reasons I never quite understood as a kid.

One in particular featured a young teenage girl on a track field, ready to leap into a sprint. And as she did, tiny labels were ripped off of her by the wind, words like whore, emo, lazy, stupid, all fell away, until it was just her, no labels holding her back.

I remember being confused by the message at the end: “Don’t Label Yourself.” What did that even mean? Surely labelling oneself had its benefits. How else did you know where you belonged? How else did you know who you were? In my young mind, things were better labelled and categorized, people were better labelled and categorized, so you knew what to expect when interacting with them.

(One of the CCA's commcericls. Their stuff is really good if you want to check it out.)

And it seems that other young people have thought this way as well. I saw the culture of labelling emerging as I was a young person not long ago, but it seems to have exploded in the years since then. Especially when it comes to mental health.

Just saying those words, mental health, people think Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. They think of the diagnoses, the illnesses in which people are classified as. And it seems these days that everyone wants to be labelled. Kids that come into our mental health treatment facility don’t want treatment, they want a diagnosis. They want a name to slap onto the crazy they feel, a name that comes with a list of dos and don’ts, or as it’s seen, list of what they can or can’t do. They’ve spent so long with all this buzzing energy within them and they want someone else to acknowledge, Yes, what you feel is legitimate. Here’s what we call it.

So, naturally, when people talk about mental health in connection to extreme acts of violence such as a school shooting, a lot of people, including those who work with mental health, are quick to say: But this isn’t a proper reflection of people with mental illness! Not everyone with a mental illness will become violent! Stop comparing mentally ill people to murderers!!

Ugh, hold up here. Are you people serious?

When someone becomes a danger to themselves or others, they are considered ‘mentally unwell.’ A person can become suicidal without needing to be diagnosed with depression. A person can go out of their way to hurt someone without qualifying for a diagnosis of ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ Just because these people aren’t diagnosed with something, DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE MENTALLY WELL.

Mental health =/= mental illness.

Everyone has a state of mental wellness that they uphold. Some people have their wellness disrupted by mental illnesses that develop, i.e., someone finds it harder and harder to function in day-to-day life as they develop depression, exhibit symptoms, and that is the main reason they are unable to function. The reason we even have a diagnosis of “depression” is simply to say “When these symptoms line up, here are the steps to treatment we’ve found that works.” All the diagnosis of “depression” means then, is the cue to use a certain vein of treatment for that individual.

But what happens when something starts affecting a person’s ability to function, but they still don’t qualify for a mental illness? I had a psychiatrist, who has been working with youth with mental health issues for a long time now, come into my office and let out a deep sigh once. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he couldn’t get a doctor to diagnose his client with bipolar disorder because she didn’t fit the guidelines of it, and he couldn’t access much help (like medication) for her unless he had that diagnosis. He said to me, “The thing is, she doesn’t meet enough of the qualifications to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but those mood swings are still there. They’re having a huge effect on her.” Because she didn’t fit the label, professionals all around her were pretending that the symptoms she had didn’t matter. When really, her symptoms and behaviours were severe enough to land her in an agency with Children’s Services.

So then what happens when we as a society decide, mental health discussions shouldn’t take place anywhere near discussions of violence or school shootings? What happens when we conveniently ignore the symptoms and behaviours of violent people because it doesn’t fit into our idea of what a mental illness should look like? I can tell you exactly what happens, because sadly I see it often in my line of work: the person and their issues are pushed to the back burner until they explode and do something that can no longer be ignored.

Do all violent people have mental illnesses? Of course not. But their mental state is jeopardized, where they don’t see the logic of how hurting others and themselves is extremely detrimental to their well-being. Many get wound up in these ideologies of “glory” and “fame” through violence, but where does that need for glory and violence come from? It stems from many places, but often builds up from feelings of hopelessness, feeling alone and isolated, projecting their anger onto other people and convincing themselves they are the cause of their problems. All are behaviours that anyone could exhibit. After all, haven’t we all wanted to blame someone else when we were angry, too emotional to see our own errors in judgement? But when those small things are left to fester within us, grow to a place where suddenly all we think are those negative thoughts, where our day-to-day functioning is impacted, then we are no longer in a state of mental wellness. We wouldn’t qualify for a diagnosis, but the condition of your thoughts doesn’t allow you to reach your full potential. You are mentally unwell and, in a lot of cases, are in need of help.

Mental health or gun control? What will keep our children safe? There’s no easy answer, but it definitely isn’t in turning a blind eye to mental health. Because we ALL have a mental health, we all contribute to it every day—weighing yourself down with stresses and taking the load off with exercise and time to reflect. It’s never a bad thing to seek help when things get out of control—or even when things are just tough, to keep things from getting out of control. After all, most people who fall into toxic thinking don’t even realize or acknowledge that they’re unhappy. They use that anger and bitterness to convince themselves they are happy, or that they’re above or smarter than the rest of the population for the way they see things.

Don’t underestimate the power of a walk outside on your mental well-being. Never underestimate how truly damaging stress can be. We deal with our mental health every day and so often we don’t even think about it, often letting our worldview fall into a “normal” and “crazy” spectrum, where we’re either one or the other. When really it’s a compounded interest of everything we think, do, and experience. It can seem far-fetched that something as simple as “toxic thoughts” could lead someone to walking into a school and killing as many innocent people as they could before taking their own life. After all, everyone has toxic thoughts from time to time. But the fact of the matter is those people who commit these horrific acts are often not mentally ill (since a lot of mentally ill people, the illnesses people think of as “the crazies,” wouldn’t even function well enough to follow through with a scheme of that scale). They are normal people whose toxic thinking led them to a place where they are very mentally unwell, often to a point they don’t realize it.

And I think that’s what frightens people the most. That’s why they use words like “crazy,” and “mentally ill,” and “psychotic,” when we refer to these people. Because we don’t want to think for even a second that those monsters could be anything like us.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Review: Survive the Night

Book Review: Survive the Night by Danielle Vega 

Goodreads Description: We're all gonna die down here. . . .

Julie lies dead and disemboweled in a dank, black subway tunnel, red-eyed rats nibbling at her fingers. Her friends think she’s just off with some guy—no one could hear her getting torn apart over the sound of pulsing music.

In a tunnel nearby, Casey regrets coming to Survive the Night, the all-night underground rave in the New York City subway. Her best friend Shana talked her into it, even though Casey just got out of rehab. Alone and lost in the dark, creepy tunnels, Casey doesn’t think Survive the Night could get any worse . . .

. . . until she comes across Julie’s body, and the party turns deadly.

Desperate for help, Casey and her friends find themselves running through the putrid subway system, searching for a way out. But every manhole is sealed shut, and every noise echoes eerily in the dark, reminding them they’re not alone.

They’re being hunted.

My Review: Survive the Night has a strong opening hook, but afterwards it kind of trickles along slowly, taking a while to get to the rave itself, let alone any of the more severe conflicts taking place. Despite this, there's a lot of character interaction and mini tensions thrown in to keep your interest until the main event begins taking place. This helps to establish the characters before they're reduced to running, screaming balls of terror. It also allowed for me to connect with Julie much more before she is killed off. This, however, is where I was a little disappointed. I wish I didn't know which of her friends would die first going in-- as was spoiled in the back jacket I read before picking it up. It made it seem like Julie would die much sooner and also left me studying her character through the lens of "this character will be killed off." Which took away from the surprise and question of it all.

What initially interested me about the book was the talk of drug and rave culture, which is something not often talked about in YA. It was exciting to see the topics taken head on, but there were quite a few ways where it fell short. The main character, Casey, is a good girl dragged into the world of drugs by an eccentric friend. This is perfectly understandable, but I feel like Casey spent too much time establishing that she was "better now" since being to rehab. If Casey was to the point that she had been put into rehab (and Shana wasn't???), which also was shown as plausible through her dependence on her pain killers, she wouldn't be able to walk away from rehab with a smile and a skip in her step. Addiction is often a lifelong struggle, which was glossed over a little too much. This was probably in an attempt to make Casey more "relateable" or to show that drugs are super bad, mmkay.

If Casey was too much of a "good girl," then Shana was too much of a wild card. Yes, her behaviours seemed in line with some of the out of control kids I see at my work with at risk kids and teens. But she needed more explanation for her behaviours. There is a moment near the end where she tries to make Casey understand why she did what she did, but there wasn't enough of that. Why did Shana feel she needed to be out of control? Why did she go out of her way to put herself and friends in danger for a good time? It didn't go into her motivation for what she did besides "fun," which was really lacking. Even the most crazy and whacked out kids I see at work have a reason for doing what they do, even if it's as (unfortunately) trite as the excuse of "My parents beat me/I had to deal with x trauma" etc. But there's an emotional motivation for their desire to do these dangerous things. The beginnings of that was there, but there needed to be more of it.

Without going into the real thoughts and feelings behind their addiction, the whole rehab/drug subplot didn't have the full impact it could. In that same vein, the author attempted to use the effects of the drugs to create an unreliable narrator. Is she really seeing her friend dead in the subway? Or is she just tripping balls? It seemed like the author could have taken that vein straight through to the end, and it would have been interesting to leave it as a "was all that real?" kind of ending. (Which it kind of seemed like it tried, but the way it was laid out made it impossible.)

In the end, what really got me about the book was the thing that ended up hunting them. It was something I didn't really expect, especially because of how the book began, but I actually enjoyed it. Again, I wish more had been done with it, a bit more of an explanation, as well as something at the end that gave closure to its existence, even if it is an open-ended "It's always just below their feet," kind of ending. As it was, I looked at the final scene in the hospital and much of the end of the book as a metaphor for Casey and her addiction. The struggle in the hospital at the end, really, made me think of it as Casey finally putting an end to her dependence once and for all. Unfortunately, this was more of my interpenetration and a bit of a stretch, and I don't think a lot of readers would see it that way. Which is a shame.

In the end, it had the start of a lot of good ideas, and is definitely reminiscent of old slasher movies, but didn't quite measure up to what it could have been.

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. So much promise, not enough payoff.