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Book Review: Strong Medicine, by J.K. Hogan

Strong Medicine

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Two men who meet in a psychiatric institution couldn’t possibly find happiness together—could they?

The world seemed to be telling disgraced former child star and singer Cameron Fox that he would never be happy again. A drunken car accident gets him sentenced to a work-release at Riverbend Behavioral Health Facility.

Reclusive, traumatized writer Jonah Radley has an entire graveyard of skeletons in his closet. Jonah regularly hospitalizes himself for psychotic episodes caused by a horrific childhood trauma, his biggest secret—one he refuses to speak about in therapy.

Jonah and Cameron form a bond inside the hospital, forged in mutual pain and hope for a better life. Once they leave the hospital, they must decide if they are brave enough to explore the intricacies of living with mental illness—and find a new normal together.

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Book – Strong Medicine

Author – J.K. Hogan

Star rating – ★★★★★

No. of Pages – 278

Cover – Really nice!

POV – 3rd person, past tense, dual POV

Would I read it again – Yes. With a lot of tissues.

Genre – LGBT, Contemporary, Medical, Mental Health

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** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK, BY THE AUTHOR, IN RETURN FOR AN HONEST REVIEW **

Reviewed for Divine Magazine

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Wow! What can I say? I loved everything about this book.

When it started, I’ll admit, I found it a little strange to be introduced to Cam first, then to flashback to what brought him to the moment. It would have been best if the flashback was a prologue and the present day paragraph was the start, but I do get why the author did it. It was a sort of mysterious mis-direct, leaving us wondering if Cam was a patient before we found out his true role. It would have been really clever if the blurb hadn’t already prepared me for his role in the story.

I really loved the implication that Cameron has always wiggled his way out of trouble, thanks to his dad’s connections. But, now he can’t. It shows how much he’s relied on his dad getting him out of trouble in the past and that he’s not really prepared to deal with the consequences of his actions. Adding in the whole ‘superstar’ and ‘child star’ persona he’s had all his life, not only does his family totally remind me of the Partrigde family, but it’s another important key to Cameron’s nature. He’s never really fought for anything, stood up for anything or learned anything in all his years. He’s been spoonfed situations and forced to put a lid on his private life, even to the extent of causing himself harm. He’s as ill equipped to be in the wider world as Jonah is.

As for Jonah, even from the first, very short, scene with him, I knew I wanted to know more and that I felt for him. He touched my heart in ways that other characters haven’t managed in a long time. Although our illnesses are different, he perfectly expresses things that I’ve never found the words for. Another great example is this quote, which describes a feeling I know well, but can’t articulate.

Cameron felt an oppressive weight descend upon him, abhorrent but not altogether unfamiliar, and then he felt it the way he always did, that unbearable heaviness of being alive. That thing you felt when you lay awake at three a.m., knowing you have to get up at six and do it all over again, that never-ending Möbius strip of existence […]

What I really loved was the true sensitivity and research that the author used to write the mental health issues presented in the book. Tackling everything from schizophrenia, anorexia, psychosis, personality disorders, suicide and more, I just want to give major kudos to the author for tackling such issues in a way that opens the readers eyes to the reality of living with an invisible illness. This quote, right here, expressed so much of what is sad, but true, about the world and their perception of mental health.

Cameron was secretly relieved that no one was in restraints, or screaming and raving like he’d imagined when he first for his sentence. He knew it was…prejudiced or whatever it was called, but movies and books had given popular culture a singular view of what goes on in a mental hospital, and Riverbend didn’t seem to meet that criteria.

As characters, I had no problem falling in love with BOTH Cameron and Jonah, which – in recent books – has been a real issue for me. There was no ego trips, no posturing or judgement. Cameron is this naively innocent guy who says whatever comes to mind, even if it’s rude, insulting or just downright questionable. He’ll apologise immediately after, if there’s a need and sometimes when there isn’t, but he’s always mindful of those around him and how his actions affect others.

On the other hand, Jonah is this young man with an old soul, wounded by his past and afraid to hope, because he sees his situation as pointless from the start. Until Cameron walks into his life. As a child star from the only show that kept Jonah feeling safe and alive as a boy, there’s an immediate connection between the two that is beautifully explored, through slow and meaningful hours, weeks and months together, as they learn about each other and begin a friendship.

There’s no rushing in, with this relationship. No insta-love or anything of that sort. You can feel the two migrating towards each other, like magnets with no choice but to follow the pull. Gradually, feelings develop and they’re not in a situation to explore that. Which makes it all the better.

What was also awesome, were the realistic sex scenes. For once, there are no million and one condoms randomly on tap, when the characters want a spur of the moment tumble. There’s insecurities, questions and deliberations and smart thinking, as well as blind action. It’s brilliant and real.

The pace of this book, exploring big events by season, was fantastic. There wasn’t anything that didn’t need to be there, that wasn’t important and even all the small parts were really vital to the character growth or the progression of their relationship.

Jonah also had a great sense of humour, which drew me in right from the start. When he calls Doctor Calloway ‘the hellbeast’ and so much more, I absolutely love him for it. I’ve had a therapist and doctor or two that I didn’t like and this is exactly what happens. Just as all the medical knowledge – mental and within the resident centre itself – was well thought out, so was the execution. Flawlessly, this story delved deep into the heart of the cause and treatments of mental illness and the things that happened to a person, when under extreme mental pressure.

Every time I was in Jonah’s POV, in the first half of the novel, I felt like crying. He was nothing but this lovely, vulnerable little boy, who had been through Hell and back again, and it made my heart hurt to see him struggle so much. But, strangely enough, I felt exactly the same for Cameron, who had never had a real childhood. In a way, these characters were both the same – deprived of love and affection from a young age and put through terrible strains on their mental wellbeing – and they both broke my heart in different ways.

Can I also just thank the author for using my most favourite quote in the world to help Jonah and Cameron get through their time together?

damaged people are dangerous; they know how to survive.

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Most of all, I just loved the way the book made me feel. It was so rich and inviting, right from the start. I connected to Cameron very quickly, with a nice long scene or two, to get me acquainted with him. Then, Jonah came along with his POV and I didn’t need a long time. I just needed that one half page of his POV, I knew that I’d love him forever and nothing could change that. I was afraid, for a little while, if Cameron would be good enough for him (as I said, I’ve been disappointed with the love interest in books recently), but it was all done so expertly that I had zero complaints.

Sure, there are things I’m not saying. That’s important. I won’t give away the major plot lines or anything like that. But, it’s because I want you to read the book and experience it the way I did – blind surprise that drew joy from ever word.

Overall, I only have one thing to say….

This book shattered my heart, piece by piece, then took a final hammer to what was left with those last few words. This story will stay with me for a long, long time. It broke me, but like with Cam and Jonah, it put me back together again, too. And I’ll always love it for that.

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Favourite Quote

“Cameron vowed that as long as he was in Jonah’s life, no one would ever hurt him again. He wasn’t a hero, he wasn’t a saint, he was just a boy, holding another boy, and promising to protect him.”

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