Book Review: Counting Backwards

Posted May 22, 2015 by Lyn Kaye in book review, Lyn / 6 Comments

Book Review: Counting BackwardsCounting Backwards by Laura Lascarso
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers on August 14th, 2012
Genres: contemporary, young adult
Pages: 279
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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Three weeks ago I tried to run away from home. Now all I want is to go back.

When troubled Taylor Truwell is caught with a stolen car and lands in court for resisting arrest, her father convinces the judge of an alternative to punishment: treatment in a juvenile psychiatric correctional facility. Sunny Meadows is anything but the easy way out, and Taylor has to fight hard just to hold on to her sanity as she battles her parents, her therapist, and vicious fellow patients. But even as Taylor struggles to hold on to her stubborn former self, she finds herself relenting as she lets in two unlikely friends--Margo, a former child star and arsonist, and AJ, a mysterious boy who doesn’t speak. In this striking debut, Laura Lascarso weaves together a powerful story of anger and self-destruction, hope and love.

At the start of the year, I was on a contemporary kick. When I stumbled over this on Book Outlet, I was really drawn in by the psychiatric correctional facility. I am all over that.  Mental help? The chance to see a character that isn’t Ms. Perfect? Please, let me have that! When it arrived, I had to pick it up ASAP and read it.

I was a little shocked, and I really disliked the book, at first. But about halfway in, it really started to turn around for me, and I slowly began to appreciate the novel for what it was – it wasn’t about a chance for redemption or pity, a cry for attention, but about a girl who is battling herself, and must decide how she will win the fight against her biggest enemy – herself.

Border Leaf

The characters started out very 1D and almost bland, but I was surprised to see some growth among the gaggle of people over the course of the book. Taylor’s focus, from the introduction, is to escape from her seemingly unfair punishment, meted out by her overly strict Native American father. Taylor’s complicated relationship with her parents slowly comes to light over the course of the novel. She holds quite a bit of anger and resentment towards her father, and as the story progresses, it is understandable why she places a large portion of the blame squarely on him. He did confess that he left Taylor and her drug-addicted mother behind for greener pastures. However, when her father is finally able to defend his position, we learn his side of the tale when he confesses his attempts to “save” his daughter from the situation. Taylor’s natural tendency to defend and care for her mother, a responsibility that should not be placed on any underage person, has turned her into a distrusting, angry youth. Sadly, this happens too often in society – a switch in the roles of the child and the caregiver. The interactions between the three of them were honest to life and very intriguing.

We do have our manic pixie girl best friend, but Margo was still a delight. A perfect blend of quirky fun, drastic characterizations and a solemn voice of reason, Margo was everything I loved in a sidekick. I often found myself relating to her, since I have a flair for the dramatic. Her own backstory did not turn out to be a huge pity contest, but instead, allowed Margo to bestow some sagely advice to the struggling Taylor.

Since this is a YA book, we also come to the obligatory romance. However, it was tastefully constructed. The male protagonist doesn’t come along to save Taylor, but instead acts as a companion, and in the climax of the story, ends up as the target of Taylor’s frustration.  AJ, like many others in the novel, slowly won me over. Taylor seems to have good taste to fall for a redhead 😛 His gentle nature and backstory gave him some life, and just like the other characters in the book, his reason for his detainment was so horrible.

The setting was a bit of a surprise, since this place is basically prison for teens. I couldn’t understand why some of the events would be allowed in a mental institution, such as a gang of bullies cutting off Taylor’s braid (that was MESSED UP) but after it was slowly made out to be a correctional institution, not a mental institution. The events that happened inside this place caused some chills and some strong reactions. This was not a pleasant place.

What I enjoyed the most from this book was the slow progression of Taylor’s internal struggle. To say the least, this girl has some anger and anxiety issues. She knows this, but it is the fuel that keeps her alive and going. Cornered and trapped, she begins to claw away at her containment. She doesn’t want help. She wants away. Watching her go from an angry, fearful teen to someone who is willing to try to break her old habits made for a wonderful novel. Taylor slowly begins to bloom and address some of her issues, and even makes peace with one of the girls who attacked her at the start. This was such a pivotal and emotional part of the book. It wasn’t an 80s huggy-touchy-feely scene, but mentioned in passing as we watch the friendship grow. But to me, it was a monumental event. The two of them never acknowledge what happened or discuss it, but they form a neutral truce out of necessity. The more I read young adult titles, the more I love to see an accidental and somewhat uneasy alliance crop up, because life isn’t always a Lifetime movie. You have to make the best with what you have.

My issues came about with the dismissal of medication to regulate anxiety and the attitude towards addicts. Tracy does bring up the use of medication to treat anxiety, but she simply blows it off and tells her to use breathing exercises. Authors: there is NOTHING WRONG with taking medication to treat anxiety! For some people, it isn’t a lifetime medication, and it can be used short term! You can use both counseling, coping mechanisms AND medication all at once! Please stop villainizing mental illness medications. You’re adding to the problem.

Second, I’m a bit distraught that Taylor believes her mother made the choice to be a drug addict and a drunk, instead of seeing it as a serious illness.  The end of the book does help Taylor see that getting better is a choice you can make, but I was hoping she would link her own anxiety with her mother’s issues and see that her mother does have a sickness, but doesn’t want to be treated for it. We’re left with Taylor still blind to her mother’s own illness, even though her mother claims that she does have a problem. Taylor, instead, believes her mother is using it as an excuse, instead of seeing it as a confession. No one CHOOSES to become a drug addict.


I started out really disliking this book, but it gets so much better. I was also mistaken in thinking this was set in a mental institution when it was more like an alternative juvie.

Counting Backwards is an insightful and, at times, entertaining look inside the world of  therapy and juvenile criminal behaviors.

 Lyn Sig Plant

6 responses to “Book Review: Counting Backwards

  1. I’m in need of some non-perfect characters, because to be honest, Ms. Perfect is boring. They’re always the same. Besides, I haven’t read many books that deal with mental illness and I really want to. Lovely review.
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  2. Interesting review. Eh, the way the author handled mental illness in this one makes it seem like one I would need to skip. There is nothing wrong with using medication to treat anxiety. And alcoholism is a serious disease. Those two things would annoy me, I think.
    Cynthia recently posted…Friday FindsMy Profile

  3. Ahhh, I love how you ended you started your review — “it wasn’t about a chance for redemption or pity, a cry for attention, but about a girl who is battling herself, and must decide how she will win the fight against her biggest enemy – herself.

    I can probably count the number of TRULY different main characters I’ve come across, who aren’t badass with a sword, or have a strong sense of loyalty toward their family, or is stupidly brave and yet still so admirable. They’re nice to read about, but sometimes I just want someone who isn’t Ms. Perfect, like you said, and who is actually genuinely relatable (because even though I say I relate to sci-fi/fantasy heroines in books, in actual fact I think I just mean that I like them). I’m glad that Taylor turned out to be that kind of protagonist!

    And whoaaaa, applause for the romance that wasn’t life-saving! Seriously, how realistic is it that every nice and cute-looking guy can cure all problems? I’m intrigued about how AJ becomes the object of Taylor’s frustration, and of course, being a redhead is always a plus. 😉

    I never realized that villainizing mental illness medications were a thing. I mean, there is a lack of it in mental illness books, but I never thought that people were actually against it? I’m not an expert or anything, but I agree, I think this adds to the problem more than anything. I guess it’s hard to shake off the impression that taking pills turns you into some nutjob — as portrayed by the many pill-popping mentally ill mothers I’ve seen in YA lit. T_T

    Anyway, really happy that this turned out to be such a great read for you, even if you didn’t like it at first! Awesome review, Lyn!
    Megan (ง︡’-‘︠)ง recently posted…Find Me, If You Can… (Tag)My Profile

    • I sadly see a lot of YA novels treat doctors, medication and therapy as something that is negative, like it is cheating or choosing the easy way out. I have seen a slow shift towards a healthier message of mental illness and such, but I still see some problematic ideas pop up from time to time.

      Sometimes, I just want a story about a girl who is trying to defeat herself, and I was happy to get that kind of book!
      Lyn Kaye recently posted…Book Review: The Witch HunterMy Profile

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