book review of Dear Cassie by Lisa Burstein

Magan: Dear Cassie by Lisa Burstein

book review of Dear Cassie by Lisa BursteinDear Cassie by Lisa Burstein <website | twitter>
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Publisher: Entangled
Pages: 352
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: wilderness rehab, cheating relationships, bad friendships, negligent parents
Format read: ARC received via Netgalley (Thank you!)

Summary: After Cassie and her two best friends, Lila and Amy, were caught with pot on prom night, she’s sent to a wilderness rehab in California for 30 days. Though the judge thinks she has a drug problem, that’s not it at all — she has a big secret she’s trying to recover from and feels she deserves much worse than living in dirty clothes without showers or proper toilets after what she’s done.

Cassie is uncertain of who she is when her story begins in Dear Cassie. She’s just been sentenced to 30 days in a wilderness rehab in the middle of nowhere after being caught with pot (that she and her best friends, Amy and Lila, stole from Lila’s boyfriend on prom night after he and his friend stood them up.)

Do you ever have the feeling when you start a book that you can’t wait to read it because the idea sounds original? That’s what I thought about Dear Cassie. I read lots of issue books, and definitely my fair share of rehab books. I hoped I’d get to see a girl come full circle with whatever problems she was struggling with. I expected a page-turner that I couldn’t put down. The wilderness rehab sounded like a brilliant idea. There’s lots of manual labor involved — there are no luxuries and certainly no pampering. It’s all about survival and working long, long days doing things you never thought you’d do.

However, I wasn’t able to embrace Cassie’s story nearly as much as I had wanted to. The story begins as Cassie’s waiting to be transported from the airport to rehab. She has an encounter with a boy named Ben who punches her buttons and makes her snappy attitude surface (and also an insta-love story that I didn’t swoon over). There’s little of Cassie’s history in the beginning, which made embracing her character description that much more difficult throughout the book. She’s supposed to be tough as nails, mentions getting angry a lot (which results in physical fights), and she’s just generally not someone to be messed with. I felt like I was told about her much more than I was shown who she was. Her reactions were much weaker, making her more vulnerable and fragile than I felt she would have been according to her character traits. Also note that I wasn’t aware at all that Dear Cassie is a follow-up novel to Pretty Amy. Nowhere in the Goodreads description was I warned, and maybe a lot more of the book would have made sense if I knew that. That being said, I don’t feel Dear Cassie should be marketed as a standalone since reading Pretty Amy seems to be a prerequisite.

Her back story was told through her journal entries where she shared pieces of her life each evening. Cassie has a problem being straightforward and honest about everything that happened, especially pertaining to the big secret she was hiding. The back and forth storytelling left me feeling a bit discombobulated. There’s a particular moment when Cassie shares details about an event with Amy and Lila that I am still not sure was true or what was assumed to be true in court. I found it difficult to piece together the sequence of events, often finding it necessary to stop reading to remember what happened when so I could understand Cassie’s actions and emotions better. (Looking back, there also wasn’t a ton of resolution between Cassie, Lila, and Amy either. If I was the only one that got sent to rehab after what they went through, I’m pretty sure there would be a lot to flesh out.)

Realistically, I would assume much more than journaling would cause a person to have major epiphanies about their life with secrets like Cassie was hiding. She would have benefited from having to talk to someone; her rehab leader, Rawe, halfheartedly tried to coax Cassie into opening up, but she didn’t seem to have the skill set necessary to make an impact. Maybe this is why when Cassie’s days of rehab were over, I felt concerned that she still wasn’t dealing with her reality very well. Sure, she wasn’t making mental threats to punch people anymore, but I didn’t find her emotional growth to be what it should have been. I felt she was still putting her faith in other people and not herself to make smart choices. Everything going forward seemed to have a big question mark and was no better off than when Cassie began her 30 days away. A few too many things were left open-ended and unresolved.

With a bit of restructuring, Dear Cassie could be a much stronger story. Cassie would have been a more believable character if I was able to see  more of her life before entering rehab. This may have eliminated some of the jarring back and forth scenes that separated me from the story, and with the addition of actual counseling supplementing the manual labor, maybe Cassie would have grown into a woman I was sure would succeed instead of one I’m afraid might not really be healed of her brokenness.

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book cover for Counting Backwards by Laura Lascarso

Magan: Counting Backwards by Laura Lascarso

book cover for Counting Backwards by Laura LascarsoCounting Backwards by Laura Lascarso
Publication Date
: August 14, 2012
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Pages: 279
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: car theft, psychiatric correctional facility, broken family
Format read: ARC from Simon & Schuster at ALA

Summary: Taylor’s dad opts for her to spend time in a psychiatric correctional facility (length of time: unknown) instead of doing probation after she’s caught stealing a car.

 

Normally, if someone’s first offense is stealing a car, they don’t typically end up in a psychiatric facility.

Probation? Sure.
Community service? Definitely.

Let this be a testament to how over-the-top Taylor’s father was. He had her best intentions in mind when he requested she be placed there, but from an outsider’s perspective, the entire family should have taken up camp in a facility. Taylor’s parents split years before and she chose to stay with her alcoholic mother, who despite many visits to rehab and attempts at AA, cannot get sober. Taylor believes her father still feels hurt that he wasn’t chosen over his wife. Life with her mom is anything but easy (though she doesn’t feel she can admit this to her dad) — she stays out all night drinking, brings home random men, can never hold a steady job, and they’re constantly moving because she’s always late with the rent.

One of my favorite aspects of Lascarso’s writing was how she made me feel connected to Taylor. I felt the anger and betrayal Taylor emoted – she was pissed at her dad and furious she had to be locked in the facility. She didn’t understand why such extreme measures had to be taken. Over time, we see the depth of Taylor’s problems — she can’t control her breathing, has panic attacks, and has been mentally fractured by her mother’s poor decisions and her father’s controlling hand.

She fights back against the system — resists therapy, neglects to do any school work, makes enemies instead of friends, and thinks of nothing other than a plan for escaping the facility.

Through an air vent in the floor, she hears someone playing music in the room directly below hers. Eventually she and the mystery person begin speaking through the ducts, but she doesn’t know who he is. One night he suggests she leave her doom room after lights out to meet him in the basement. They forge a bond in the used-to-be darkroom despite not being able to see one another; he has ways to help her escape that could prove very beneficial. Taylor continues to plot and plan her exit despite feeling like she may be running from one of the first friends she’s ever had.

Counting Backwards is an amazing tale of a girl who has really been dealt the crappiest of hands. Once in the correctional facility she has to overcome herself, as much as her past, to create a new future. Her plans don’t always work out as she wants them to, but part of the journey is seeing how she’ll deal with the speed bumps. She chooses to keep her feelings repressed, afraid of being hurt by anyone. Weathering the storm with Taylor was a unique mix of heart-break and intrigue. I pushed for her and hoped she would learn to make the right choices. Because I was so wrapped up in her voyage I couldn’t help but speed read through Counting Backwards in a few hours.

Maybe it’s just me, but rehab/correctional facility/psychiatric ward books fascinate and awe me. Counting Backwards is a wonderful debut novel by Laura Lascarso if you’re looking for a story with a very messed-up girl with a lot of repressed anger who gets herself into more than a few sticky situations.

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Magan: Clean by Amy Reed

Clean by Amy Reed
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: July 19, 2011
Target Audience: Young Adult
Format: Hardcover borrowed from the library.
Why I read this book: Does it sound crazy if I admit to being attracted to books with hard topics like rehab?
Summary: Clean chronicles the lives of five high school teenagers and we’re given an inside look at a month’s stay in rehab. Coke, meth, diet pills, alcohol – the drugs of choice are all different. As are the reasons they ended up there and began doing drugs in the first place.

Kelly is addicted to alcohol and cocaine. It all started with vodka and orange juice.

Christopher is addicted to methamphetamine. His life is perfect and he’s a Christian and there’s no way he’s supposed to have wound up in rehab.

Jason drinks anything he can get his hands on. Who cares if he has a bad attitude and temper? He’s just following in his dad’s footsteps.

Olivia is wealthy and perfect. There’s no way she deserves to be in rehab. She’s only been taking prescription diet pills.

Eva’s dad doesn’t notice her anymore since her mom died. So what if she has to do pot and take prescription pain meds to fit in with her new “friends”?

Sounds like a peachy evening read, huh? My husband looked at me like I was crazy when I described Clean to him. He asked why I’d want to read something like this. I’m just going to fess up and be completely, utterly honest with you for a minute.  I’m shaking as I type this.

I was Olivia. Go ahead – glance back up there so you can see what she was addicted to. Prescription diet pills. Mine weren’t prescription and I certainly wasn’t wealthy, but I was the high school girl who “filled out” a lot faster than all the other girls. I took diet pills and dropped weight really quickly. I didn’t eat (or barely ate), ran a lot, played every sport, and remember what it was like to feel super dizzy and push my way through it because I needed to be skinny.

That’s why I read books like Clean. To keep me real and honest.

This book wasn’t easy for me to read at all. I had a good friend to pass away in 2011 from anorexia. Not only did Olivia’s story choke me up because I personally connected with her desire to be perfect, but I LOST SOMEONE to that very same disease. Everywhere around us, people are struggling and hurting.

Every one of these kids in rehab had different struggles. We got to know all five of them from their point of view during journals or group sessions, though the majority of the story was told from Kelly and Christopher’s perspective. Reed is a beautiful author. There were a lot of bad, terrible things brought about in Clean, but she eloquently dealt with each of them. She never made me feel hatred toward any of the characters, but I also didn’t sympathize and accept their choices either. There’s a fine balance when telling a story such as this one, but I honestly don’t think that anyone could have done it any better than Reed.

If you are a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson, you will love Clean. I haven’t yet read Reed’s other book, Beautiful, but I will as soon as I can get my hands on it. She has a new novel, Crazy, coming out in June 2012.

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