Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’m not an automatic fan of everything John Green writes- I loved Looking for Alaska but couldn’t get into An Abundance of Katherines and never read The Fault in Our Stars. However, he is immensely talented, as this book reminded me. It’s the single best portrait of OCD I’ve ever read, probably in part because he himself suffers from this illness, as I do. #ownvoices stories can be found in the most unlikely places, and a white male superstar of YA lit has written a raw, intense novel about mental illness that I hope is not dismissed by those who are sick of his fame or think he’s overrated due to his privilege. These are valid complaints, but Turtles All the Way Down does not stop being an important book because of them.

I related to so many little details, even though main character Aza has a very different form of OCD from mine. Green gets the shame, fear, evasions, and irrationality all down on paper–the fear of getting triggered in a romantic moment, the desire not to go through with effective but painful Exposure-Response Prevention therapy, the way these bad patches reccur throughout life, the self-centeredness that happens when you literally can’t get out of your own head. If I had to recommend one book to people who don’t have this illness to understand it, it would be this one.

One thing I didn’t like was that while fandom played a part in the story, it was treated satirically (Aza’s best friend is a Rey/Chewbacca shipper ffs). Satire is fine but it meshed uneasily with the otherwise realistic portrayal of Aza’s relationship with her best friend, tested by class, mental illness, self-absorption, and other barriers. I also thought that it would be interesting to read a story about a character like Aza’s friend, who is poor, dealing with mental health issues without resources, but that would be another story entirely. It’s not just middle-class people who suffer from this illness.

However, these quibbles didn’t stop me from absolutely loving the book. In addition to the OCD parts, Green captures the importance of transient relationships. Just because a romance doesn’t last doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a positive effect overall. He also discusses an interesting problem, that of virtual vs in person romance, without dismissing one or the other.

I could ramble on further but basically: Go read it. Now.

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Phantom Pains – Mishell Baker

51nbqqngrjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Borderline, Mishell Baker’s debut, was one of the more delightful surprises of 2016–a character-driven urban fantasy that dealt with managing mental illness while also stopping evil fairy plots. Phantom Pains expands on some of the plotlines hinted at in book one–class conflict in the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and Millie and Caryl’s budding romantic chemistry. When mysterious wraiths start possessing people, and Caryl is framed for murder, Millie must clear her name before Caryl is executed by her employers, the strict Arcadia Project that regulates contact between the worlds.

Baker introduces new memorable characters, like the melancholy and loyal Unseelie king, Winterglass, and a snarky manticore. She also upends plot expectations by having the resolution be a tense negotiated solution rather than a climactic battle. And the interpersonal relationships are complex as ever.

But its frenetic pacing works against Phantom Pains. While it’s an absorbing read, I would have liked more time for the emotional aspects to sink in. With paradigm shifts every few chapters undermining what the characters and readers thought they knew, we spend too much time catching up with the latest twist and not enough time processing with the characters.

Despite this problem, Phantom Pains is a lot of fun (with a bonus Dostoevsky Easter egg towards the end), and I can’t wait to see how the plot and characters develop in the next book, Imposter Syndrome.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

borderline-9781481429788_hrA really solid debut urban fantasy with a heroine with Borderline Personality Disorder. The author has the same disorder, and it’s integral to the character. As a whole, the book is very character-driven– Millie, our protagonist, has a very strong and sarcastic voice, and since her perceptions of others are often unreliable, many reversals and reveals in their characterizations come naturally.

My favorite character was the amazingly brave Caryl. What Baker does with her characterization is something that can only be done in fantasy. Caryl, deeply traumatized by her childhood, splits her emotions off magically into a small, invisible pet dragon when she’s working. So we see her both in the grip of her emotions and artificially separated from them. Caryl believes that her rationally-set priorities are more “her” than her emotions, which Millie doesn’t agree with.

The magic system is for the most part generic, the usual bits of Irish and Scottish fairy mythologies set in a modern day city. The notable differences are a) the concept of Echoes, fey and human soulmate pairs, driven by artistic inspiration rather than romance, and b) the fact that class differences among the fey are taken seriously, rather than the Court structures being window-dressing. The second issue in particular sets up some interesting conflicts which I am sure will be expanded upon in sequels.

One of my few quibbles with this book was that the Arcadia Project, the group that smooths relations between the worlds and which Millie and Caryl work for, while made up primarily of mentally ill people, only accepts mentally ill people who are not dependent on meds, which is a really weird worldbuilding choice. There are enough narratives in fantasy in which meds are a negative force, and in this case the reasons behind this exclusion weren’t explained very well. Of course, since the Arcadia Project is ethically a bit dubious, this might turn out to be just them misinterpreting the situation or being jerks.

My other problem was that a plot-crucial betrayal didn’t seem to make sense in terms of motivation– I just think it should have been set up better.

I really loved the exploration of Borderline Personality Disorder and how to live with a disease that makes one frequently make mistakes that hurt others. Millie describes the techniques she uses to deal with her rage and her problems perceiving others’ intent. Also, I ended up sympathizing with both Millie when she lashed out and those she was lashing out at, knowing simultaneously that Millie was hurting and that she was causing pain to others.

I highly recommend this book to those looking for a fast-paced urban fantasy, but know that it is not a light read per se; it deals with heavy themes and has a body count. All of which only made it more appealing to me.