BOOK REVIEW | Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe

4/5 stars

This is the story of an estranged father, Lucas, coming back into his teenage daughter’s life. At 17 years old, Vera has suffered a psychotic break, and after video of her public breakdown surfaces, Lucas decides to take her with him on a trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. Lucas desperately wants to find his way back into Vera’s life, and he sees this trip as a chance to find a way forward in their relationship. A family story about Lucas’s grandmother escaping a concentration camp and eventually being release by a Nazi guard provides some of the backbone to this family saga.

The story is told from both Lucas and Vera’s perspectives, with Vera’s sections told in the form of letters she sends to her boyfriend back home, Fang. The characters are perfectly developed: endearingly flawed but self-aware and open. As Lucas stumbles through his time in Vilnius, taking in historical tours and seeking out information about his grandmother, Vera is, for a time, surprisingly stable and enjoying the freedoms afforded to her. As we begin to grasp the weight of Vera’s mental illness, a tenderness develops between her and Lucas.

Dear Fang, With Love is emotionally intelligent and surprisingly touching. Thorpe dissects so much in regards to identity, specifically how we’re shaped by the stories we’re told – and what happens when the narratives in our lives are upended. This is a great escapist book, between the history and the descriptions of life in Vilnius it’s easy to feel transported.

Vera’s letters to Fang allow us into her complex and bright mind, seeing her decline in mental health play out before us. Thorpe is honest in depictions of what living with a mental illness might look like, such as how the stigma of diagnosis and side effects of stabilizing medication can impact a person’s self- worth. The book doesn’t wrap itself up nicely, but realistically; families are complicated and life is full of uncertainty, yet somehow, in spite of impending despair, we move forward.

BOOK REVIEW | Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

4/5 stars

This is an in-depth, comprehensive look at schizophrenia and its impact on one American family.

The Galvins were a large family with 10 sons and 2 daughters. Over the years, 6 of the boys would develop schizophrenia. The children were born between 1945 and 1965, and during these years the family was sought after by researchers as potentially holding the key to the mysteries of genetics and mental illness. Why were so many children from one family developing schizophrenia? And alternately, why weren’t the others?

The book is well crafted, with chapters alternating between stories about each family member and the progress of researchers and medical experts over the years. It’s heartbreaking to see the boys, once young and healthy, become more and more disconnected from reality as they grew into young men. Schizophrenia is often onset in young adulthood, and the siblings were constantly worried about who may be the next to be impacted.

The Galvins were a troubled family, dealing with sexual abuse among siblings, and even homicide. Mimi, the matriarch, struggled with maintaining the facade of a perfect household while raising her deeply troubled children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Little was known about schizophrenia at this time, and the pressure to appear perfect must not have been easy. Don, the patriarch, was discovered to suffer from depression, leaving Mimi to wonder if mental illness must have come from his lineage. The story often returns to the notion that the ill children demanded all of Mimi and Don’s attention, leaving little of themselves for their other children.

Kokler pieced together a fascinating, albeit extremely sad, portrait of the Galvin family. He was allowed access into their lives, and spent years interviewing and learning from the survived members of the family. The greatest impression this book left me with is that schizophrenia is highly complex. It impacts everyone very differently, and to varying degrees. While some of the sons with schizophrenia were violent, angry, and predatory, others were gentle even during psychosis. People with schizophrenia are no different than those without: some are good and some are bad.

BOOK REVIEW | The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

4/5 stars

Craig Davidson continues to prove himself as an incredibly diverse and talented writer. I adored his non-fiction story, Precious Cargo, and I’ve enjoyed his horror while writing under pseudonym Nick Cutter. The Saturday Night Ghost Club felt like a nice bridge between those two worlds.

This book is an account of neurosurgeon Jake Breaker’s childhood, specifically a summer spent with his eclectic uncle Calvin. Calvin owns a shop of oddities, which soon sparks the formation of their ghost hunting club. Along with a couple friends, Jake and Calvin seek out parts of town suspected to be haunted.

The book flips back and forth in time, using Jake’s skills as a brain surgeon to serve as commentary on the significance, and fragility, of memory, and the power of the brain. After another Saturday night exploration, Jake’s parents disclose some heartbreaking things to Jake about Calvin’s past. While Jake’s family is far from perfect, they have protected Calvin from his own memories in the only way they knew how.

Craig Davidson has been a surprising and inventive author, and I’m really looking forward to see where he brings his readers next.

BOOK REVIEW | I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid

5/5 stars

I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things painted with every color in my reader’s palette. I finished this mere minutes ago, reread certain sections backwards as per Ian Reid’s subtle guidance, and am totally blown away. And I’m sad. This is a profoundly sad book. This is the sort of book that causes book hangover – this story will live with me for a while, and all other books will not stack up. The ending didn’t matter to me as the journey was so enthralling. But the ending, wow.

An unnamed female narrator is on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake. They are heading to the small farm where he grew up so she can meet his parents, but she has one thing on her mind: ending things. She has been thinking about ending things with Jake for a while, but decides to go through with the trip, thinking that meeting his parents might change her mind about the relationship.

Along the way they ask each other many philosophical questions, often alluding to the nature of relationships, how you can never truly know someone else, how your thoughts are the only thing that is real, and whether we can get through life without meaningful relationships. What ensues is, hands down, one of the most chilling and atmospheric stories I have ever read.

This book is touted as psychological horror, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, Reid has painted an incredibly eerie portrait of the old farmhouse, as well as a rural school where our characters end up, but everything going on below the surface is heavy and black once pieced together. Towards the end of the book, it’s suggested that the story is read again, backwards. Each chapter is prefaced by an italicized vignette – a conversation that is taking place about an even that occurred. I read these sections backwards, and was blown away by Reid’s process.

I’ve read many reviews that suggest this book made no sense, and I can see that if it was picked up as a typical horror read. This is not classic horror (though it can be read as such), this is pure psychological horror, dealing with a heavy topic. I don’t want to spoil this for potential readers, but go into this book knowing that everything is not as it seems, and if you enjoy books that deal with the metaphysical or mental health you’ll find a connection here.

BOOK REVIEW | Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

4/5 stars

In her heartbreaking debut, Mira T. Lee gets to the heart of mental illness. She examines the impact that mental illness has on both those living with it and those around them. Part immigrant story, part family drama, Lee has crafted a work of tender fiction that will resonate with anyone who has been touched by mental illness, and will serve as starting point for those who want to better understand.

The story centers around two sisters, Miranda and Lucia. Their mother immigrated to the United States from China while Miranda was very young, and she was pregnant with Lucia. The girls are inextricably bound, Miranda often taking on the role of protector to Lucia.

Lucia lives many lives – sister, wife, immigrant, writer. She is married twice, first to Yonah, a Russian-Jew living in the USA, and then to Manny, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. Each of these relationships serves a part of Lucia’s soul – in Yonah she finds unyielding love, and in Manny she finds family. She becomes pregnant with a little girl, and her and Manny eventually decide to move their family to Ecuador.

Miranda is dedicated beyond compare, never unflinching in her attempts to protect and care for Lucia. Lucia is living with mental illness – possibly schizophrenia, possibly bipolar disorder; she is never accurately diagnosed, which is certainly intentional. Over the years she is off and on medications, and in and out of hospitalizations. Both Yonah and Manny will discover parts of Lucia that were controlled with medication when they first met her, Miranda always there as a guide and support throughout their struggles.

The only fault for me in this book is one that I see often in stories with multiple narrators – each narrator often re-tells a scene from their perspective, leading to repetition that feels unnecessary. This is a fantastic debut, full of beauty and pain, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more from Lee.