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Title: What's Left of Me (The Hybrid Chronicles Book 1)
Author: Kat Zhang
Published: HarperCollins, 2012
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 390
Total Page Count: 211,310
Text Number: 643
Read Because: recommended by Jen Campbell, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Everyone is born with two souls in one body, and usually one soul recesses and dies. But Addie and Eva are both still alive, and this is a dangerous secret to keep. This is yet another high-concept YA dystopia, and an approximately convincing one: the premise isn't too tortured, the use of pronouns justifies the first-person narrator and sells the concept, and the result is a quick hook and swift readability without too many suspension of disbelief-violating moments. It helps that the romance is relatively minor, and has human complications without being a love triangle/star-crossed/another genre cliché; it helps more that the core relationship between the sisters is intimate and complex. The readability stumbles a bit when Eva makes stupid mistakes--they're understandable given her life experiences and age, but they're also overbroadcasted and frustrating. It stumbles again in the middle section, which has outright unpleasant themes (that said, I'm particularly sensitive to narratives about institutionalization/denial of autonomy and identity/forced medical procedures) and a slow plot, mostly due to under-characterized and predictable villains. I find it difficult to be objective about this book: It's an above-average take on the genre, acceptably convincing, supported by sufficient emotional investment; it doesn't go above and beyond, but also refuses to succumb to obvious pitfalls. And I found it intensely, offputtingly stressful. This last I think is a personal quirk, and won't carry into the sequels; but I don't think the overall quality compels me to continue the series.

I do wish that any consideration were given to the existence of real-world Dissociative Identity Disorder/related experiences.

Title: A Taste of Honey (The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps Book 2)
Author: Kai Ashante Wilson
Published: Tor, 2016
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 160
Total Page Count: 211,470
Text Number: 644
Read Because: continuing the series, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Snapshots of a life of a young lover and his first love. Once again, Wilson's writing is a pleasure. It's vibrant and playful, with an engaging use of language; oversized relationships and characters coexist with unusual genre-bending worldbuilding and issues of race, culture, and class. It's profoundly original, and manages to be both challenging and engaging. I didn't love A Taste of Honey as much as The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps--it's a smaller story; there's a similar combination of interpersonal and worldbuilding, but the worldbuilding has a more restricted effect on the plot. That said, it's interesting to see a wider view of the same setting, and this gave me the style and core elements that I came looking for.

Title: Planetfall (Planetfall Book 1)
Author and narrator: Emma Newman
Published: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2015
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 330
Total Page Count: 211,800
Text Number: 645
Read Because: multiple recommendations, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A small colony on a distant planet is threatened by a human outsider whose arrival uncovers secrets about the colony's origin. The book's speculative elements—the colony's 3D printing and communication network, the nearby alien structure and its effect on humans—are compelling, and inform everything from daily minutiae to the mystery plot to the colony's religious origin. The protagonist, Ren, has a distinct and precise voice, focused equally on engineering and the human condition; her comorbid mental illnesses are central to her experience as well as the plot's mystery. The depiction of these illnesses is complicated—it's unflinching, compassionate, but also exploited to build drama; upsetting to read at the best of times, but sometimes unjustifiably so. The ending abandons the local, colony-level scale for something more transcendental; I think it works, but it also compromises the pacing and tone. This is one of the more absorbing reading experiences I've encountered in a while: it has a great voice and protagonist, it's astute and wrenching and intriguing, and Newman has a phenomenal eye for detail; but too much is dictated by the murder-mystery plot—and those contrivances sometimes override the more successful, subtle elements.

I had an incredibly difficult time assessing my reaction to how Planetfall handles mental illness; thoughts on that below the cut, & beware spoilers. Originally posted on Tumblr.

I’m having a difficult time processing my feelings about how Planetfall handles mental illness.

Ren’s anxiety is ridiculously well-handled, top to bottom, and I think this has a lot to do with Newman’s personal experiences with anxiety.

Ren’s hoarding disorder is a plot point, but also convincing, but also ruthlessly exploits forced treatment/social stigma … feelings? empathy? tension? drama?

The reveal that the people who have been perpetuating the worst of the above are—objectively and/or situationally—Bad People does a little to redeem things, but makes the hoarding feel even more like a plot point.

The anxiety-related descriptions of thought processes/panic attacks/coping mechanisms hit too close to home and were unpleasant to read, but not in a proactively harmful way; it was an aspect of myself externalized and represented, and respected, and given sympathy. A+ thanks fellow feeling representation etc.

A lot of that carries into the hoarding, and there are thematic ways the hoarding ties into the anxiety, the trauma, even some of the plot reveals, that make it a human experience as opposed to a spectacle. Ren’s narrative and motives are the book’s highlight, given some room to quibble re: "I had repressed this one key thing, but only that"—which almost works b/c of how Ren self-censors a lot of her thoughts and therefore narration, but still feels too complete and too convenient to the plot.

But the forced treatment/social stigma encountered as a direct result of the hoarding went too far for me, and I almost stopped the book there. By the house intervention scene, I had a real sense of that awful thing we do with mainstream/moderate mental illnesses, where we try to universalize that experience & the treatment of it—recognizing (rightly) that it’s bad, but not realizing there could be things which are worse, or less acceptable, or less treatable, and in the act both silencing and harming those we intend to represent. I found it profoundly upsetting. That said, I’m sensitive these things in particular, so my threshold is low & I could be projecting onto/reading into.

That’s not the ultimate intended message. The instigator of the forced treatment has ulterior motives, the instigator of the stigmatizing is just an ass; verdict is, even people with unpretty mental illness should be given autonomy and respect, presumably all crazy people are still people, cool, thanks. But those complicit in the intervention and stigmatizing are completely ignored when the larger plot takes over the action, and there are no longterm consequences—a mixed blessing, as it’s a relief for Ren & the reader to be exempt from them, but a missed opportunity to actually ... make someone with a hoarding disorder a participating member in their own decisions, treatment, or life.

It feels like a plot point; it feels like a contrived mystery, like narrative insincerity, a little too convenient, like a tool to increase the tension and manufacture sympathy, like a way to create antagonists. I know Newman cares about mental health disorders, about treating people with them like people; she does a phenomenal job depicting the illness she has, and there’s aspects of that in the hoarding & throughout Ren’s PoV. But I sort of still feel like she fucks it up.

When I first heard about the reveal of Planetfall I ended up writing

I get an icky feeling when mental illness is a plot twist, when reviews say "this character’s mental illness is central to the plot, and I don’t want to spoil what it is..."

even when they’re otherwise sympathetic and/or informed depictions of mental illness

and not because mental illness doesn’t have a major narrative impact, believe you me

but because when mental illness is significant enough to be central, to function as narrative lynchpin, then the mental illness is (in my experience, this is a subjective rant, etc.) never a secret to begin with.

more as a general rant about this trope than a specific reaction to a book I hadn’t read. Planetfall goes above my initial opinion, b/c of the repression aspects, but mostly b/c it’s also such a good depiction of anxiety and the ways in which it is never secret, always present, affecting Ren’s entire story. And there’s so much foreshadowing to the hoarding that if you go in knowing the reveal, there’s not much reveal at all—it is part of her everything. I respect and value that.

It still feels like an exploited plot point & I can’t shake that impression.


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