10 Best Fiction Books About Mental Illness

IMG_8691May is National Mental Health month. If you’ve been a subscriber of this blog for awhile, you know that I’m passionate about destigmatizing and discussing mental health. I like writing about characters who struggle with mental health issues. In fact, I have a novella coming to E&GJ Little Press soon about a man struggling to deal with a mentally ill woman he once loved. Stay tuned…

Memoirs aside, my main problem with mental health in fiction is that it’s not portrayed well. Often times, the mentally ill character is frightening, or a caricature. But I shouldn’t complain, because at least authors are trying to portray these characters in a positive light. We’re all talking about mental illness, which isn’t something we did in the past. But I caution you to use stories as a bridge to discussing mental illness. Don’t assume you know what someone’s going through, just because you read about it. Even if it is accurate, everyone’s experience of mental health is different.

I’ve taken this opportunity to list my 10 favorite books that portray fictional characters with mental illnesses. In no particular order…

  1. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Naess Thirteen-year old Conor has a monster come to visit him, and helps him deal with grief over his mother’s illness. This story was great because it shows how people can grieve before an event happens. So often, we think of grief as a discrete event, occurring after a loved one dies, and having an ending point. Through the story, this demonstrated that grief can begin in anticipation of a loss. Genre: Young adult
  2. All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven Violet and Theodore are on opposite ends of the social spectrum, but are both contemplating suicide. They become friends and start a project together. It’s told in dual point of view, and both of them are heartbreaking. But as one of them starts to recover, the other gets worse. It’s a powerful, haunting story. Genre: Young adult, but may not be appropriate for all teens
  3. Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon Maddy can’t leave the house because she’s literally allergic to everything. Olly moves in next door, and Maddy watches him, getting more and more interested in his life. They become friends, first messaging, and eventually, Maddy risks her life to meet him in person. I can’t tell you why this book is about mental health without spoiling the ending; but trust me, it’s not a rip-off ending where Maddy’s crazy and everything’s a dream. It’s fantastic. Genre: Young adult
  4. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell Cath struggles with anxiety. So much anxiety. When she goes to college, she expects to live with her twin sister, but her sister wants them to meet new people. At first, Cath makes it to class, but can’t even go eat dinner alone. But eventually, she makes friends and some of her anxiety eases up. And, like real life, Cath isn’t the only person in her family who’s struggling. Genre: Young adult
  5. The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick I talked about this one during my A to Z blog, so I’ll be brief. But I liked this one because Pat just got out of the mental hospital and is learning how to live, and his romantic interest, Tiffany is strange and does unexpected things. But they find something in one another that’s important and lovely. Genre: General
  6. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher This book (and the TV series on Netflix, which I haven’t seen) have become very controversial recently. Books about suicidal characters are nothing new, but this book is under fire because it’s about a girl named Hannah who leaves tapes for 13 people, explaining how they contributed to her suicide. Some people who kill themselves want revenge against people who wronged them, and Hannah gets it. There’s also a part where she tries to get help, but the counselor brushes her off. It’s portrayed as if Hannah did everything she could have to get help (though she doesn’t). I debated about putting this book on the list. I liked it, but I’m an adult without suicidal thoughts, and not going to be triggered by a book like this. For a teen who’s contemplating suicide, this could be a dangerous book. If you like dark books, this is an excellent one, and it does a good job of showing how bullying can contribute to suicide. But it’s definitely not for everyone. Genre: Technically Young Adult, but not appropriate for all teens
  7. All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark  Laurie is kidnapped as a small child, and returned years later. She leads a normal life until after her parents die, when her history of trauma from being kidnapped and her subsequent dissociative identity disorder come to the surface. Honestly, I don’t know how good of a depiction of dissociative identity disorder this is. I’ve never worked intensively with someone with the disorder. From what I’ve read about the disorder, the book seems well-researched and legitimately portrayed. In any case, I love this book. Genre: Thriller
  8. 600 Hours of Edward, by Craig Lancaster Edward has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome. His life is a set routine. When a new neighbor with a nine-year-old son move in, things change for him. At first, he struggles with the change, but over 600 hours, his life becomes different and better. I liked this book because of the way it portrayed his OCD. Too many books and movies just go for obsessive cleaning, but the disorder is about so much more than that. It’s a fast read, and I loved all the characters. I especially loved how the neighbor, at first, reacted to Edward with fear. Because that’s what would happen in real life, and the book doesn’t shy away from ugly truths. Genre: General
  9. The Silver Link, the Silken Tie, by Mildred Ames This is one of my all time favorite books. I just randomly found it at a flea market one day, and it seemed interesting, so I picked it up. Tim has always felt out of place, ever since a family tragedy that he feels responsible for. Felice has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is an orphan, and an outcast among her peers. When the two of them are thrown together, working on the school newspaper, they absolutely hate each other at first. Though they don’t fit in anywhere else, they find that maybe they fit together. Genre: Speculative Young Adult
  10. Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock This is a book about two girls who experience abuse from their father. The sisters decide to run away from home to escape the abuse… the ending is one you won’t forget. This is a fantastic, underrated book. Genre: General

If you’ve read any of these, did you like them? Why or why not?

On Wednesday, I’ll post my list of best non-fiction books about mental illness.

 

O is for On Writing

Unknown-2On Writing, by Stephen King, is probably one of the best books on writing that any writer can read.

It doesn’t matter if you like Stephen King’s books; what he has to say about writing applies to everyone.

The book is part memoir, part writing instructions.  I like much of what Stephen King writes (I’m a horror fan, after all), but I think that this book would appeal to people who aren’t fans of horror.  He talks, at times, about where different ideas for his books came from, which is interesting.

Some of what he talks about is basic (like avoiding adverbs) and some is more advanced, but all of it is a good reminder of how to write better.

This was the first writing book I read.  I was doing a lot of reading online, trying to find advice on how to improve my writing.  There’s so much writing, and while a lot of the advice is repetitive (like avoiding adverbs), some of it ends up being contradictory.  No one can deny that Stephen King is a successful author, so he must know something about what he’s talking about.

I think what struck me most about it was how simple some of the advice was, but what a huge impact it made on me.  Not only was it a good book about writing, but it was also entertaining and encouraging.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

– Stephen King

Not Realistic Enough?

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix AZ Photo credit: Doree Weller

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix AZ
Photo credit: Doree Weller

I recently reread one of my all time favorite books from when I was a kid, Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink.  Out of curiosity, I went on Amazon and read the reviews of the book, and was a little surprised that people commented that the book was unrealistic.  A ten year old and twelve year old get launched on the lifeboat and stranded with 4 babies… of course it’s not realistic… and who cares?

I don’t read books for realism.  If I want realism, I go to work, where it’s real every day.  If I wanted realism, I’d read or watch the news.  (Though it’s debatable how realistic the news is, since they play one story over and over and over and don’t report everything).

Books are an escape to a better time and place.  I recently read The Glimmer Palace, by Beatrice Colin.  While it was a good book, with well-drawn characters, and ultimately was a compelling read, I felt gypped.  The back promised an “orphan girl’s journey from poverty to film stardom, set against the grand backdrop of World War I Berlin, the cabaret era, the run-up to World War II.”  What I got was a novel that felt like largely historical fiction.  It was gritty and dirty.  I learned much about the wars and the poverty, but not very much about cabaret or silent films.  The book promised a payoff that (I felt) it never delivered.  But the book felt realistic.

Bah!  Who needs it?

Some people like realistic fiction, and while I’m all about things making sense in the context of the universe created, I personally want happily ever after.  Of course, if I’m reading horror, I want to be scared.  I guess I just want to know what to expect; there’s a difference between living up to my expectations and being predictable.  I prefer an interesting journey that might make me doubt the destination, but ultimately pays off my expectations.

I don’t like it when reading a book is like expecting to go on vacation to a tropical paradise and ending up on an iceberg.  Neither are bad, but if I’m expecting to end up on the beach, I want to end up on the beach.  I’d go on vacation to an iceberg, but I’d know what I was going into before I started the journey.

Realism is overrated.  Expectation is not.

How do you feel about realism in what you read?

G is for Greatness

Photo credit: Doree Weller

Photo credit: Doree Weller

I have a lot of different books, and enjoy reading a lot of different types of fiction.  I might enjoy a book a lot, but that doesn’t mean that the author achieved any greatness.  So what’s the difference between a book that achieves greatness and a book that I merely enjoy?  Note: these are my opinions, and I don’t like literary fiction, so I’m only talking about genre fiction.

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.” -Hebbel

1.  It makes me feel, deeply.  If a book achieves greatness, I’m probably laughing out loud in spots and/ or crying in others.  It’s a book that makes me connect with my own humanity and the humanity of others.

2.  It entertains.  I know that some people think that entertainment is overrated, but I don’t.  I don’t mean that there has to be juggling clowns, but just there’s a story.  If there’s no plot, I’m not interested.  It’s why I’m not a fan of literary fiction.  Maybe The Red Pony by John Steinbeck is a classic, but it’s also BORING.

3.  The language flows and there is a distinct style.  This one probably is one of the most basic tenets of writing, but it’s important.  Maybe most people won’t know why what they’re reading moves slow or even though something is interesting, it just doesn’t keep them reading, but the reason is probably the writing.  Writers have distinct styles, like flavors.  They use words in a certain way, and that certain way has a melody to it.  A writer can be technically correct, and still not have that flow and distinct style, and I think it takes practice rather than teaching to learn it.

4.  The writer is willing to take chances.  Great writers don’t just write the same stuff over and over again.  They write the different and the unique.  They write what they have to write, and not what others have told them.  Dean Koontz talks about how early in his career, he was told that he needed to stick to one genre so that he didn’t confuse readers.  He gave us more credit than that, and the result is some books that break the rules and that I’ll never forget.

5.  They don’t give up.  No matter what.  Writing is hard work, and people who tell you it’s not have never sat facing a blank screen and then poured themselves out onto it.  Even for writers who have achieved greatness, it usually takes getting through rejection after rejection after rejection.  But a true writer has the words inside, and nothing can stop the flow.  They might get discouraged or angry or depressed.  But the words have to come out, so they keep writing and keep submitting.

There’s no recipe for how to achieve greatness, but every book I think qualifies has these qualities.  What are your thoughts?

A Beautiful Thing

Bahamas... this picture is a mini-vacation.

Bahamas… this picture is a mini-vacation.

I’d hit a dry spell with writing for awhile, where I mostly couldn’t think of any fiction.  I tried to find ideas for stories… and nothing.  I’d try to sit down and write, and it just didn’t work for me.

It didn’t help that I’ve been busy.  I started a new job, it’s Christmas, and I’ve been sick.  But a funny thing happened the other night while I was making Christmas cookies… an idea popped into my head.  I saw these two characters, clear as day in my head.  I knew who they were, what they wanted, and why it would be hard for them to be together, even though they wanted to.  The beginning, middle, and end came to me.  They’re in my head; they talk to me during the day.  They tell me their secrets.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had something so compelling in my head, and I’m pretty excited about it.  I still don’t have time, but because it’s important, I can find time, even if it’s only 20 minutes.  I guess in some ways I’ve been blocked.  I’ve been writing blogs, but three years into it, it’s a routine for me.  I’ve never quite made the fiction writing part of my life into a routine, probably because it’s more fun than chore.

So I have a new story in my head, and I’m making new friends.

It’s a beautiful thing.

A Little Encouragement

Vancouver, BC; Photo credit: Doree Weller

Vancouver, BC; Photo credit: Doree Weller

Most of the people in my life aren’t readers, and they mostly aren’t interested in reading my stories or talking sticky plot points through with me.  I’ve come to terms with it, and since I mostly write for myself anyway, it’s okay.

When I submit something for critique, I ask for honest, unbiased feedback because my goal is to be published, not to get a pat on the back or get compliments.  My skin is thick, so I can take the negative and channel it into something positive and constructive.

I recently submitted Chapter 2 of the novel I’m editing.  Again.  I love this story of mine.  I love the characters.  I love the dialog.  And I love the plot.  I love everything about it.  I recently got three critiques on the story, two of which were helpful.  The third person who critiqued me gushed about my story.  But it wasn’t just, “Hey, I loved this chapter.”  He got specific about what he loved, quoted dialog he particularly liked and told me that my descriptions were great.  I struggle with descriptions, so this was so nice to hear!  He asked good questions about the story that will help me make it better.

It re-energized me.  I’ve started to feel a bit apathetic about writing, and I wasn’t sure why.  I think that in part, it was because I’ve lacked any kind of encouragement for so long.  I really didn’t even know I was missing it.  A little encouragement goes a long way.  I guess I need to remember that.