What Writers Should Know About Mental Health

The intersection between art (especially writing) and mental health has been observed for a long time– be it writers like Woolf and Hemingway and Plath that suffered from mental illnesses to the portrayal of such maladies in stories such as Hamlet, Speak, Looking for Alaska, and many more.

Journaling can be an effective tool for gaining or maintaining mental health (for example, see this post at NAMI) but it can also cause negative side effects such as leading to too much thinking or obsession with thoughts (as shown here at Psychology Today).

So what’s important to know about mental health or mental illness as a writer?

For writing about mental illness:

  1. Part of the reason there is so much stigma around mental illness is because the average person doesn’t know a lot about it. Limit jargon. Talk to people who have had the illness. Do your research. Go into it assuming you know nothing.
  2. Language is important. Use person-centered phrases (ie a person with depression rather than a depressed person). Stick to phrases such as “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide” to prevent connotations of sin or illegality. Stay away from words like psycho, schizo, crazy. 
  3. Don’t use diagnosis for non-person objects/situations.  The only “thing” that is bipolar is the mood of a person with bipolar depression. You aren’t OCD with cleaning unless you are scrubbing your hands until you bleed or are cleaning so much it is detrimental to your well being (yes this is criteria for diagnosis).
  4. Past diagnosis aren’t current diagnosis. Being transgender or gay is not a mental illness anymore. Neither is female hysteria (basically being a woman with an opinion or emotion). Read the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) for what currently is classified and what someone needs in order to get a diagnosis.
  5. Add content warnings and prevent details of events such as suicide. Content warnings are especially important for people who are triggered by certain material to prepare for, or avoid, such stimuli. This prevents panic attacks, flashbacks, and more. Including details about suicide (especially on the news) has been linked to increased rates of suicide.
  6. Mental illness is not a characterization or plot. Give your characters more than just a mental illness– just as people are not defined by them, characters shouldn’t be either. And although it is a tough thing to struggle with, your character should want something more than “getting better”. Rape/PTSD/etc should not be included just for a plot twist or tension.
  7. Representation of relationships is especially important around these subjects. Characters should not be “cured” by simply finding “the one”. Illnesses of any kind should not be romanticized, nor should unhealthy relationships. Recovery should not be promised, but sad endings should not be the norm either.

For all writers:

I loved this article by the Writing Cooperative about mental health risks in writers.

  1. You face a lot of rejection, solitary time, goals that feel unreachable, and an art that could allow for an infinite number of drafts. Overthinking and judgement are key to good art, but also key ingredients to negative thought patterns. Of course, not all writers have mental health issues, but it’s important to realize there is a correlation. The article above goes into the difference between alone and being depressed. If you feel on edge all the time or have trouble sleeping, you could have anxiety. If you’re even considering getting help, reach out to a primary care provider or find a therapist to get an assessment.
  2. Writing should be fun. If it’s not, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong but take a step back and look at why it no longer is. What can you change to get back the spark? Take a break? Write something else?
  3. Try to build community and support systems where possible. Just because you write alone doesn’t mean you can’t have support. Start or join a writing group to get together with people. This can allow you to write or exchange pieces for advice. Get beta readers for feedback and encouragement. Share your writing with friends and family and tell them about your goals for accountability.
  4. Have realistic goals and manage your expectations. You are no less of a writer if you only write 1 day a month or if you don’t ever publish.


Anything I missed? Comment below!

Looking to help grow your writing community? Contact me to post a guest blog here and share this on social media!

The Hating Game Review

I hadn’t had much time to read while abroad in Spain, so after settling in back in the US I bought The Hating Game by Sally Thorne since it had been on my TBR (to be read) pile for a while. (Also it’s going to be a movie soon! Yay for the trend of adapting lots of fiction recently, from To All The Boys I Loved Before to Me Before You and more).

All in all, I think I have a new favorite book. 5/5. 6/5. 10/5. I have never read a book and loved it so much that as soon as I reached the end I immediately went to the beginning and read it again. It’s that good.

Needless to say I’m very excited for the movie. Although I doubt it will be as good, the movie will be amazing if only partially as good as the book. Lucy Hale is cast as Lucy Hutton and Robbie Amell is cast as Joshua Templeton. Find out more here.

What’s it about?

Debut author Sally Thorne bursts on the scene with a hilarious and sexy workplace comedy all about that thin, fine line between hate and love.

Nemesis (n.) 1) An opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome.

                       2) A person’s undoing

                       3) Joshua Templeman

Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman hate each other. Not dislike. Not begrudgingly tolerate. Hate. And they have no problem displaying their feelings through a series of ritualistic passive aggressive maneuvers as they sit across from each other, executive assistants to co-CEOs of a publishing company. Lucy can’t understand Joshua’s joyless, uptight, meticulous approach to his job. Joshua is clearly baffled by Lucy’s overly bright clothes, quirkiness, and Pollyanna attitude.

Now up for the same promotion, their battle of wills has come to a head and Lucy refuses to back down when their latest game could cost her her dream job…But the tension between Lucy and Joshua has also reached its boiling point, and Lucy is discovering that maybe she doesn’t hate Joshua. And maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game.

What’s so great about it?

The characters and characterization are amazing. Each is three dimensional with a clear, and satisfying arc. The reader cares about them and what happens to them, but more than that, they’re just fun to spend time with. The dialogue is witty and realistic with a perfect blend of body language and words. Along that line, this book is just funny.

Any cliches that could have come up– workplace tension and romance, the under appreciated employee, family drama– was impressively unique enough to feel fresh but without being unbelievably crazy.

The subplots and plots are woven together beautifully into one story, fluctuating in tension enough to keep the reader engaged but satisfied.

Some of the typical cliches in romance were turned on their head, which I appreciated greatly. While I can’t say more without giving spoilers, the gender roles in terms of relationships were flipped in some satisfying ways.

All in all, in terms of romance novels, this portrayed a relatively healthy, realistic relationship. Something more books should do, especially if they are written as beautifully as this one.

What I didn’t like

I had to think about this a lot to come up with something. The one thing that I didn’t love was that occasionally the male romance figure (I won’t say who it is…) was borderline on consent. Not for anything serious but in terms of her trying to pull away or leave the room. This was portrayed as romantic, but came off not okay.

Where you can buy it


Barnes and Noble

Tips for Bringing Real Experiences Into Your Writing

Guest post by Patrick Bailey (http://patrickbaileys.com/). “I am a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. I attempt to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.”


Authors have always brought powerful storytelling to life using their own lived experiences. Whether creating nonfiction works to document their lives, or bringing aspects of their world into fiction works, real life events are vibrant sources of inspiration. If you are an author with a real experience that is pulling you towards writing a great story, let yourself connect to that place and share it with the world. There are some challenges with any written work derived from real life, such as writing emotions in ways other people can relate to, or being sensitive to painful topics your readers will be influenced by. Follow these easy tips to help you tell your story and bring your real world experiences into a story that matters.


Focus on the Emotions

Writing about your experiences can be done in a way that impacts your readers’ emotions without needing them to have experienced the event themselves. Doing this is most effective by focusing on the emotions behind the story you are trying to tell. Are you writing about a difficult challenge you overcame? Readers can be inspired by your perseverance and underlying motivation to succeed. Are you writing a fiction story based on real life heartbreak? Your readers can relate to their own stories of sadness or love, if you can connect with them on that level. Prizes and accolades are always given to the authors who can truly capture the human condition, so write honestly and descriptively to bond with your readers on an emotional level.


Be Sensitive

Sensitivity and respect for your readers is a trait all successful authors master over time. Of course, you have the creative agency to describe any story and situation in your own way, but there is an art to writing about sensitive topics if they are inspired by real world experiences. Authors with powerful stories can have a long-lasting impact on cultural views and stigmas, so be intentional with what you’d like your readers to take away from your story. For example, if you are writing about real experiences with death, be intentional about how your readers will leave viewing mortality or their loved ones passing. If your characters have habits such as drinking alcohol or breaking the law, consider young readers who are impressionable. This is not to prevent you from writing on your own terms, but the way you portray events and behaviors can be influential if done right.


Consult with Others

A powerful method to bring depth and inspiration to stories about real events is to consult with other people in your life. Not only does this add value to potential character dialogue and actions, but your story can be strengthened by real opinions and perspectives. For example, if you are writing about your inspiring journey towards health and wellness, consult with your health coach or nutritionist to understand how they perceived your progress from the outside. If you are writing about a heartbreak you’ve experienced, ask your therapist for ways to articulate the feelings you have felt but cannot describe. These outside perspectives can bring depth and description to your own retelling of your life stories.

Bringing your own life experiences into written work can ensure your stories are authentic and relatable. Readers are inspired and respond well to other human experiences, especially if these stories are told with vulnerability and real emotions. Do your own stories justice by taking a step back and understanding the emotions behind your journeys, remaining sensitive to topics that can impact your readers, and consulting with others when you need an objective point of view. By following these easy steps, you can create engaging written works inspired by your own life story.





Note from Molly: 

Thank you Patrick! For me, it can be hard to use these great tips while maintaining an active voice. If that’s true for you, check out these links below.

For writing emotion

Showing not telling

Another example of showing, not telling

Also, as a YA author and young adult, I agree that it’s important to be sensitive about what/how you write about topics. I want to emphasize that this does not mean to stay away from topics “just because it’s YA”. Things happen to teens, teens do things they shouldn’t, and teens are affected by real issues. Be sensitive and try to send the right message (ie don’t encourage unhealthy relationships, etc) but don’t assume teens are naive/dumb/inexperienced with these issues.

If you want to write a guest post, like this, contact me!




Hi everyone! Hola a todos. For those who don’t know and/or haven’t been following the travel side of my blog, MollyinSpain, I’ve been studying in Spain and traveling in Europe but I’m back with a post on BookTubes!


What are BookTubes? Why watch them?

Simply put, BookTubes are youtube channels by authors, for authors, and/or about books.

I first started watching them to learn more about writing and publishing. Ultimately, most of what I needed to know to self-publish I learned from various channels including KIM CHANCE for writing and publishing and TEXAN IN TOKYO for using Amazon Createspace. TEDx also has some great videos about writing and motivation.

It’s a great way to keep motivated, especially after subscribing and getting notifications of new videos, as well as learning about ways to work around areas your struggling with (writers block or characterization or whatever it is). It also makes the more solitary act of writing into something that feels more communal by hearing the struggles of other writers (speaking of, check out my post on finding beta readers.)


Why start one yourself?

Again, its a great way to build community., like blogging, but also can be great marketing. (But it’s not worth doing for the marketing if you aren’t passionate about it and/or have a lot of other platforms you’re juggling). It’s great if you like to talk more than write or want to be more visual.

Like with blogging it will take a while to grow a platform, if at all, so don’t do it only for that. Things that can help include– mentioning your channel on other social media, hosting guests or guest appearing on other’s blogs, asking people to subscribe/like during your posts, etc.


Where should I start?

A while back I posted on Twitter asking for people who do BookTubes and what channels they like to watch. And I found some really great sites I hadn’t found before.

My favorite, and go-to, Kim Chance. Kim is a published YA writer who is upbeat and encouraging while remaining real. Her videos cover almost everything a writer needs to know.

HopefullHappenings A wide range of videos, like Kim Chance, about the writing process, publishing, marketing, etc. Bonus: they’re relatively short but informational.

Mandi Lynn focuses on publishing, including everything a self-published author needs to know but also covers other important writing topics.

Francina Simone YA writer who tackles the more intangible issues of writing and especially reading like diversity, book reviews (what works and what doesn’t).

Just start searching.


Looking to learn more about other social media for writers? Check out my A Teen Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

And if you liked this post, please share it on such platforms and subscribe to my blog 🙂



On Beta Reading

So I got tagged in this post by the awesome Karma Chesnut (@KarmaMarieC):IMG_8986.jpg


I read Karma’s WIP (work in progress/manuscript) and absolutely loved it. Probably one of my favorite reads (so I’ll definitely be posting more information here when it gets published so you can check it out too).


So, what is BETA/Beta reading?

Beta reading usually consists of reading and giving feedback on a polished manuscript, either before the author has an agent or after (but before publishing). Authors usually ask friends and family as well as other writers to give feedback.


What’s the difference between a Beta reader and an ARC reader?

ARC stands for advanced reader copy. Before a book is published, but after the major edits, readers (especially reviewers and bloggers) read and recommend ARCs to promote pre-sales and sales. Most of the time there are changes made after Beta-reading, but not in an ARC (unless it is a typo, etc).


Why do it?

The more eyes you can get on your manuscript the better you can make it (and more likely you’ll catch plot holes or awkward phrasing etc.) This doesn’t mean you have to listen to everything every reader says, but the more information you have the easier it is to make an informed decision. For example if 1/14 of readers want something different you may consider it but maybe not as strongly as if 12/14 agree on something.


When should I look for someone to Beta read? After hiding my manuscript from all eyes until it’s perfect?

For my first novel, I hid it from the world until I was half way through and got stuck so I gave it to my mom for help, and then only let others read it once it was fully done. For my second, I’ve had more feedback throughout the process– friends who I shared chapters with to make sure I was going in the right direction, for motivation to write as they prodded me for what happened next, and encouragement as they told me what was working (and what wasn’t, but how to fix it).

I personally would recommend everyone have a trusted early reader (an alpha reader, shall we say) who reads as you write. You can ask them for feedback or just encouragement, whatever you need. It adds a level of accountability that can be crucial especially during the “middle manuscript sag” when motivation and hope for finishing are low. That being said, another way to get this is through critique groups.


What’s a critique group?

Usually composed of a group of writers who share parts of their work at a time (chapters, pages, etc) and give feedback to each other. This can occur online, in person, or a mix of the two.


Where can I find one?

Ask for writers wanting to make a group on Twitter (#writingcommunity). See if there’s a literary center near you (like the Loft in Minnesota). Many of these also have online forums where you can post. Go to conferences and talk with other writers. Make one if you have friends who are writers. If you’re in school, ask the English department or English teacher if they know of other writers who might be interested.


How do I know if it’s working well?

So my first two critique groups were sub-par and I thought that’s how all of them would be. In the first, I gave much more feedback than I received, was one of the only people to turn in my critiques on time, had very different view points than the other authors, and just seemed to be putting in way more than I was getting out of it.

That being said, make sure that you are getting out of it what you want and that you aren’t putting in an unequal amount. Make sure the people you are with have similar styles in that their feedback is helpful.

In my second group, we were all at different places in the writing process and wanted different things– some wanted to do writing exercises together, some wanted to share experiences, and some wanted feedback on materials. Basically it was hard to cover everything and made much of the time unhelpful for most people.

So make sure you’re with other writers at a similar stage in the writing process who want the same things out of the group.

Make sure there aren’t too many people because as great as it is to get more feedback, that means another set of pages you also have to critique.


Utilizing your critique group for more than just feedback.

If/when you go to publish, ask them to write reviews (on Amazon and Goodreads and a blog if they have them). They’re hard to come by and make a big difference in others buying the book.

Promote each other’s work on social media, blogs, etc.

Have them review query materials.

Ask them to write a review for the cover, especially if they are published or well known.


If you found this article helpful, share it on social media and follow my blog (on the menu on the right). You can follow me on Twitter at @mollyfennig .

Spain! Travel blog and tips for writing abroad

So for those of you who don’t know, I’m studying abroad in Spain this semester and taking classes in Spanish. If you’d like to follow my travels, go to MollyinSpain and subscribe to get an email (about once a week) about what I’ve been up to, including pictures. I’ve already been to several Spanish cities and Amsterdam and have trips planned to London, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, and more.

Also, if you haven’t yet subscribed to this, my writing blog, you can do the same on the menu on the right! I post reviews of Young Adult books, tips on writing and publishing, announcements, and free stories I’ve published 🙂

Currently I’m working on my third novel. How do I do that while abroad, living with a host family that doesn’t speak English, and traveling every weekend? It’s definitely hard but here are a few tips I’ve learned so far.

  1. Get GoogleDocs or some other app you can use without WiFi. I have it on my phone and set the document to “available offline”.
  2. Write in the short periods of waiting time. (I’m writing this post at the bus stop). You can also take advantage of time before class, waiting in line, plane/bus/train rides.
  3. If you are working in short chunks, it’s ok to write notes or random scenes rather than just going from start to finish.
  4. Find someone else who wants to set aside time (for reading, writing, whatever). A friend of mine here is a playwright so we are scheduling in time to meet up and write together. Great for accountability, to have someone to talk things through if you’re stuck, and to make sure it doesn’t keep getting pushed to “tomorrow” (we’ve all done it).
  5. Read. In your language or the host country’s. I bought some secondhand books for a few Euros in Spanish. Not only will it help me with my Spanish skills, (like reading any book) it’ll help me learn how great authors plot, characterize, etc, and from a new perspective.
  1. Audiobooks while you walk. Like 5, but great for running, walking, or working out. You can also read while you stationary bike at the gym. (Plus, neuroscience bonus, you remember things better if you read them while working out).
  1. If you don’t have waiting time in your day, make some. I’ll show up to school or excursions a few minutes early and write. Since you know there’s a deadline, it’s easier to keep from procrastinating. Bonus points if you’re waiting outside in the sun.
  2. Keep a travel journal or blog. Huh if only someone had an example for you to look at… like this one… it’s great to use later, for inspiration, characterization, plot, etc. You might even find some juicy descriptive sentences you can transplant into your work. Plus, as a bonus, you’ll remember more of your trip and can look back later, nostalgically.
  3. Have fun, and be kind to yourself. Push yourself to write if you can, but be ok if it doesn’t end up happening as often as you think.

Review of If I Was Your Girl

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

The premise: Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she s determined not to get too close to anyone. But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it. Because the secret that Amanda s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love? If I Was Your Girl is a universal story about feeling different and a love story that everyone will root for. 

My review: Wow. Yes. This book is amazing. 5/5 stars.

First of all, an honest and uplifting trans story with a happy ending (because not every trans/gay/etc book needs to be a sad, issues-only book!)? Love. A “own voices” author who gets everything right? Amazing. A perfect balance of issues, plot, characters, theme, and emotion? Killed it.

Unlike some books I have read (and loved) this one does not drip with complex metaphors and extensive imagery- and I am so glad. I finished the book in one sitting and was completely captivated. The voice is strong and genuine, unique but relatable, and perfectly revealing in terms of Amanda’s character. Unlike some protagonists who you feel like you know because they have a certain hobby and a common way of speaking only, I felt like I knew Amanda because I felt what she was feeling. She did have quirks (like loving Star Wars) but also seemed to be defined as much by personality and a sense of Amanda-ness as anything else (almost like real people in our real lives). (Also, Meredith, if you ever read this, please teach me your ways. I’m in awe).

The themes are not preached and thus are so much more powerful. In fact, theme is not the main concern of this book, I think, and it’s perfect. The tension is natural and the events leading to it are realistic. From the dialogue to the thoughts and motivations, human nature is accurately portrayed in a way that makes the reader feel all the feels and get swept along in the story. While one English theorist I read about in school (Catherine Gallagher, I think) argued that we like books because we like feeling “not like a character”– in our ability to discern events before they happen and take perspectives of multiple characters at once– I would argue that this book is the perfect example of a book in which the character feels human, we feel like them, and there is nothing I would rather have happen.

I loved the group of girls that Amanda is friends with– definitely accurate in terms of many girl friendships, but also slightly imperfect, as they always are, while remaining fiercely loyal and supportive. Overall it is happy, but not without struggles and not overly so as to become unrealistic.

All in all, if you like “issue” books and/or LGBTQ+ books, read this one. If you don’t, or haven’t read one before, read this one.

Review of Phantom Limbs

Image result for phantom limbs book

Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner

The premise: How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.


My Review: 4/5

This book was emotional, in a way many others aspire to be, but ultimately fail to achieve. It is honest about loss and trauma– both in what it takes to move forward and instances where time doesn’t heal all wounds.

The events themselves– from that which costed Dara her arm to the main character Otis’s brothers death– are not cut-and-dry. They are viewed differently by different people. Like in life, we don’t know exactly what happened at first, and indeed maybe never will know everything. To me, this not only felt realistic but also helped with the tension– I finished the whole book in a few hours.

The point of view was obviously male, especially because of the humor and focus Otis has. I’m a fan of YA from a male perspective, not only because of the overall lack of these books, but also as a way to encourage male readership. (Also, as we know with the rise in demand for LGBTQ and diverse books, its also important to have representation of half of the population, ie men. Not that these are the same, just that the concept of representation is similar). Having said this, some of the comments/observations were unnecessarily vulgar and while some vulgarity encompasses the lives of teenagers (and teenage boys) it was a little excessive in my view.

Other things I would have liked to be different include– I didn’t really like the way Otis idolized Meg. That his not moving on and their past history entitled him to flirt with Meg when she has a boyfriend (THIS IS NOT OKAY– YA NEEDS TO STOP PROMOTING THIS KIND OF BEHAVIOR AS ROMANTIC). That Otis views Meg as perfect, and that he sees himself as better for her because he knows things about her like her full name (um, good for you, Otis? A big part of this story is that you don’t know a lot of the things that she went through, which is definitely more important than her full name). Dara is right in many instances about Otis’s view of Meg– even if Meg had her own issues to deal with, she walked away and Dara was there for Otis. (Not that Dara and Otis need to/should be together, just that Meg and Otis’s relationship maybe isn’t the best).

I appreciated that Dara was not straight, but the book seems to need to classify her (which I have some problems with). Also, while I liked the emotion in the book and the premise, there was something lacking for me, although I can’t put my finger on it (hence 4 and not 5 stars).

*spoilers* Some random things I am thankful for– there is no cheating (at least not physically– it would have been better if there wasn’t emotional cheating as well). That Otis does not go to the Olympic trials just based on “trying hard” and “putting in work” because I think many books emphasize this, enforcing the idea that not being good at something reflects an individual failure (to work hard enough, try hard enough, etc) and thus everyone who succeeds deserves it. (Insert rant about meritocracy-based societies and the damage it does on the human psyche. Ok, rant over.)

I liked the ending too– it wasn’t too happy or optimistic to be cliche but was happy enough to merit the journey through the story and offer hope. I might have liked a bit more closure for Dara and Otis’s parents, but it’s not the end of the world, in my view, to not have them. *spoilers*

Review of Little White Lies

Little White Lies (Debutantes, #1)

Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The premise: Eighteen-year-old auto mechanic Sawyer Taft did not expect her estranged grandmother to show up at her apartment door and offer her a six-figure contract to participate in debutante season. And she definitely never imagined she would accept. But when she realizes that immersing herself in her grandmother’s “society” might mean discovering the answer to the biggest mystery of her life-her father’s identity-she signs on the dotted line and braces herself for a year of makeovers, big dresses, bigger egos, and a whole lot of bless your heart. The one thing she doesn’t expect to find is friendship, but as she’s drawn into a group of debutantes with scandalous, dangerous secrets of their own, Sawyer quickly discovers that her family isn’t the only mainstay of high society with skeletons in their closet. There are people in her grandmother’s glittering world who are not what they appear, and no one wants Sawyer poking her nose into the past. As she navigates the twisted relationships between her new friends and their powerful parents, Sawyer’s search for the truth about her own origins is just the beginning.

Set in the world of debutante balls, grand estates and rolling green hills, Little White Lies combines a charming setting, a classic fish-out-of-water story, and the sort of layered mystery only author Jennifer Lynn Barnes can pull off.


My review: 4/5 stars. 

This is not the kind of book I normally read, as a friend bought it for me, but this meant the book was refreshingly unique, both in premise and in execution. I liked that Little White Lies was funny and well written. The characters, especially Sawyer are complex and grew throughout the book. There were many plot points that were unpredictable but plausible, leaving the reader both surprised but satisfied. Just as a mystery should be. Unlike most mysteries, however, there weren’t logic-defying trails of dead bodies following a somehow-immune-to-murder protagonist. Just some good old-fashioned southern charm, little white lies, and a whole lot of secrets.

The tension continued throughout the book, which was great as a reader, but some of the stakes seemed arbitrary and/or unimportant so I had trouble feeling the way the characters did about certain threats (ie tense or scared). Some of this could have come from the fact that there were a lot of secondary/tertiary characters that I had trouble keeping track of and thus forgot how they contributed to the plot. With a few less characters, I would have loved this book even more.

I also would have liked Sawyer to do more to make the conclusion occur rather than watching a most of it fall into place. She finds out information at the end that didn’t seem to have a reason to not come out earlier and she is, in my opinion, swept along rather than integral in orchestrating the final events.

I do have to say, though, that this was an entertaining novel. I haven’t read a book quite like this and appreciated the author’s style and voice. There were hints of romance but they weren’t over-the-top or cliche, something I also appreciated. Sawyer herself was witty and smart, versed in a wonderful variety of niche areas like lock picking and medieval torture, and stayed true to who she was despite being surrounded by debutantes and similarly behaved family members.

Despite the common jump from debutante-like characters to themes about superficiality and such, Barnes did a great job exploring more unique, complex, and frankly interesting ideas within this world. For example, instead of just “perfect girl is not as perfect as she seems” or the like, even motives can be deceiving– for family, friends, and frenemies.

All in all, if you are looking for a YA book that is funny and unique, read this one. Also, if you are looking for a mystery, a book about debutantes, information about medieval torture devices, unexpected plot twists, societal drama, and a no-nonsense Grandma, read this book.


Review of A Semi-definitive List of Worst Nightmares

A Semi-definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland

What it’s about: 

From the author of Our Chemical Hearts comes the hilarious, reality-bending tale of two outsiders facing their greatest fears about life and love—one debilitating phobia at a time.
Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can’t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.

The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.

Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.

Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she’d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.


Buying the book: I got this when I was in Philly because (as we all know) you can’t pass a Barnes and Noble without going in. And then once you’re in, you can’t leave without buying a book… or three…

I was drawn to the quirky, funny title and the promise of exploring fear/phobias, especially as part of my quest to read more mental health YA books, both since my latest manuscript, Starvation, tackles eating disorders, and because I think literature is a great way to pass around accurate information on a topic that isn’t often talked about (or at least not in the right ways). Thus, having accurate information in these books is especially crucial and so reviewing them is important.

Also, for anyone studying clinical psychology or neuroscience like myself, having more experiential accounts of disorders, rather than dry lists of symptoms helps me understand each disorder better, how it feel to suffer, and ultimately, what might help alleviate the illness. This is great, too, if you know of someone (friend, family, etc) suffering and want to learn more about what it might be like, beyond symptomology. In fact, I think this book does a great job describing the physical sensations of panic/phobia/fear.


My review:

One thing I love about this book is that it talks about phobias in the way they should be talked about– as something that can be overcome. In fact, from my neuroscience background I know that anxiety, and especially phobias, are the easiest of any mental illnesses to treat. Also, treatment is done the same way Ester does it in the book– exposure.

(Although, granted, for some phobias rather than just fears, one might need more of a lead-up to exposure in order to prevent panic attacks and the like, as it happens in one instance where Ester becomes physically ill from panic and this reinforces/should have reinforced her fear).

Normally, I do not like magical realism. I like magic and I like contemporary literature but when the lines between them are blurry I struggle with it. Having said that, this was the most successful use of the two that I have yet read (although the classification of this book is less cut-and-dry– I’m not sure if its magical realism or what, but for once I don’t mind). In part, it helps mirror the Solar family’s feelings of inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, or dangerous and anxiety-producing.

The writing is funny and captivating. The concept is original but captures important (and accurate) information about mental illnesses, including the common abstraction of them as something supernatural or above human control. In this way, while the content is hard to read about, the way in which it is approached is both factually accurate and, in many ways, emotionally accurate.

Jonah’s affection for Ester was refreshing in that it was based on friendship first, but also aspects deeper than appearance– ie respect, admiration, humor, etc.

I did have some issues with the way the parents handled the kids mental illnesses, with how the ability to make the fear worse through exposure wasn’t explored, how Ester was forced to be the head of the household (especially at the end just because her mental illness was more under control/overcome and/or because she was caring enough to give her mom money for things like appliances), and how Jonah’s stealing was glorified (even if, to some degree, justified by his situation).

I keep going back and forth on Ester’s ending, too. I think, however, it fits well and I like it as a whole. Perhaps I would have liked for her to have some passion or goal in addition to what she got, but this feels fitting.

All in all, though, I thought this was a really great book. Well written. Good coverage of mental illness, especially phobia and exposure. A love plot that felt realistic and genuine. Family ties that were honest but close. Sympathy for those struggling with mental illness while still offering agency towards treatment. If you like magical realism or books that have magical elements, definitely check this book out.