Side Effects May Vary – Julie Murphy

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This book makes me have conflicting emotions. The main character, Alice, has discovered that she has leukemia and only has months to live. Her childhood friend, Harvey, decides to care for her while hiding his feelings, that he is hopelessly in love with her, even though she has been totally ignoring him for the last couple of years. The trouble is that Alice isn’t very nice. In fact, she is a total user who knows that Harvey is in love with her and will do anything she asks.

It all starts with an unfortunate incident where Alice and her boyfriend Luke sneak out of school and go back to Alice’s house. They see something that they weren’t meant to see and Alice swears Luke to secrecy. Unfortunately he is also seeing Alice’s frenemy Celeste and the next day everyone knows. When Alice is diagnosed and realizes that she is not going to make it, she makes a bucket list of revenge. She dumps Luke and gets revenge on both him and Celeste, as well as doing some other stuff like sneaking in to an abandoned camp and smoking pot.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Just as she thinks that she is on her last legs and got all the revenge out of her system, a visit to the doctor’s tells her that she has gone in to remission. She no longer has cancer and is going to live. She finds out the night after Harvey has told her that he loves her. She says it back and then realizes that she is not ready for that kind of commitment and panics.

As she recovers and goes back to school she starts to ignore poor old Harvey and he is in total turmoil. Then she takes up with another boy (can’t remember his name but it doesn’t matter, he isn’t around for long) and Harvey finds out. He tells her enough is enough and goes off with someone else. I won’t spoil the ending but, suffice to say, I still feel conflicted. Alice is not a nice person. Harvey is a nice person but a total doormat. I don’t think that Alice really cares about anyone except herself, and the problem is that because she is dying everyone thinks they should feel sorry for her. There is a really horrible incident towards the end where the people she has been really mean to get their revenge on her, and I just kind of felt that she deserved it! Anyway, you read it and decide what you think.

It’s a good book because it makes you ask yourself whether you would do the same thing in her shoes. If you knew you were dying would you get back at people or would you let the bitterness go and fundraise or something. I like to think I would do good things  but, I’m pretty sure I would give some people some home truths as well! But also, just because you think you should feel sorry for someone, if they are as horrible as Alice is, do you still need to be nice to them?

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If I Was Your Girl – Meredith Russo

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If I Was Your Girl is essentially a love story between a boy and a girl. The problem is that the girl used to be a boy. And the boy doesn’t know.

Amanda is leaving her old life behind and goes to live with her dad after an incident at school where she is badly beaten up. Her parents divorced when she was six. Her dad was a typical ex navy tough guy who wanted to teach his son baseball and his son wanted to do baking instead. ‘Andrew’ finally gets the courage to tell his mum that he wants to be a girl and she supports him through the process. He eventually has gender reassignment surgery but cannot seem to mix in at school. The other kids obviously knew him from before and he is mercilessly bullied. Eventually they decide that he should go and stay with his/ her dad who he hasn’t seen since the divorce.

At her new school, Amanda has never been Andrew and has no intention of telling anyone her secret. She is immediately chatted up but the local football team including a guy called Grant who is talking to her on behalf of his friend Parker. Amanda just wants to keep her head down and get on with school but, and this is mentioned many times over the course of the book, she is very attractive and can’t help getting male attention.

She falls in with a group of girls and meets another girl, Bee, in her art class who is bi sexual. She then figures out that Bee has something going with Chloe, who is in her friendship group but neither of them want anyone to know. This is small town America and people who are different are singled out. This reinforces Amanda’s desire to not tell anyone what is going on with her. But, her  friends are really nice and she starts to live the life she has always dreamed of. She goes to parties, meets boys and generally does girlie things.

Amanda and Bee are supposed to take an art class together but the teacher is off sick and they have never covered it. They hang out and smoke dope and generally relax. Eventually Amanda tells Bee her secret and then things start to unravel. In the meantime, Amanda is falling in love with Grant. Grant is a lovely guy who really makes her feel special, but she doesn’t feel that she can tell him the truth, she is worried about his reaction. So she leaves it and lets the relationship continue. Her dad is also concerned about it, considering he was hoping that she would stay out of trouble. The ending is as you would expect but it is no less brutal for that.

Meredith Russo is transgender and has been living as a woman since 2013. I have read quite a lot of books recently about young people and how they are struggling with their sexuality. Some are good. Some are really not! In fact, there is a comment from Alex Gino on the back of the book and I really did not like their book, George (see review).

What I liked about this book was that it was so normal. Girl meets boy, they fall in love and should live happily ever after. You get glimpses of what Andrew’s life was like, the choices he makes, the support group and the number of people who can’t live with the prejudice and commit suicide. But, at the end of the day, Amanda is a someone who has already lived through a lifetime of pain and misunderstanding, and she is only 17. The subject was dealt with in a sensitive but truthful way, there will always be people in the world who hate what they don’t understand, and that’s just down to ignorance. I’m not sure that in this country they would allow a young person to go through all the surgery etc. at such a young age but he obviously felt it was the right thing for him. It’s a great book with a really important message that makes you think about the characters long after you have finished the book, and it gives me hope that the future is a more tolerant and welcoming place.

As I Descended – Robin Talley

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This is the third Robin Talley book that I have read now; I loved The Lies We Tell Ourselves but really wasn’t keen on What We Left Behind so I went into this with a bit of trepidation.

The premise of the book is thus: Maria and Lily are room mates and lovers at a creepy boarding school in America called Archeron Academy. The school is built on an old slave plantation and there are more than a few ghost stories attached. There is a big lake in the middle of the campus where, allegedly, three students  drowned and current students are now forbidden to swim in it. The lake is also supposed to be haunted by the students who died.

Maria is kind of the second best. They are in their senior year and students are competing to win the coveted Cawdor Kingsley Prize, which gives them a free pass to college. When the book opens, Lily and Maria, and Maria’s best friend Brandon are playing with an Ouija board in the old plantation dining room. They ask it a series of questions and open up a link to the spirit world. Before they can close it again, the ancient chandelier falls on the board and smashes it. Maria is haunted by her memories of Altagracia, her maid from when she was a child, who spoke to spirits and was interested in the occult.

The only thing standing in the way of Maria winning the prize, and being valedictorian (top student in the year) and football captain is a girl called Delilah. Lily wants Maria to win the prize so that they can go to the same college and be together forever. She encourages Maria to go out with Delilah ( a known drug user) the night before a random drugs test (Brandon gives her the info) and slip a drug that she uses into her drink. Then Delilah will be caught, she uses all the time anyway and the girls don’t think it’s fair that she always gets away with it; Maria will win the prize, get captain of the team and valedictorian and life will be perfect. Except something goes wrong.

After a tragic accident the situation spirals out of control and Maria and Lily get more and more paranoid. Shove in the ghosts as well and this book gets more exciting. I’m going to give you a final clue and tell you that the book ends on the sports field which was originally called Dunsanane and you will obviously guess that the book is based on the play Macbeth.

Very loosely based I might add! Maria and Lily are obviously meant to be the Macbeths and Lily does a good job of winding Maria up. Eventually though it’s a little unclear whether either did anything because they wanted to or because they were possessed by evil spirits.  Mateo is the hero, Brandon’s boyfriend becomes suspicious of the two girls and decides to do some investigating.

I enjoyed this book a lot more that What We Left behind, although I didn’t think the characters were as deeply constructed as they could have been. There wasn’t much of a back story on any of them and I felt I would have liked them more if there had been. I didn’t really care if Maria succeeded or not, or was consumed by the evil spirits and went mad! The other aspect to the  story was obviously the  ghosts and whether they were real or just the figment of the teenager’s troubled minds. You’ll have to read it to decide that one; I’m still not sure. I’ll tell you one thing though, I am so glad I never to went to boarding school!

All in all, a good read. I would recommend to anyone who is studying Shakespeare as it gives the story a modern twist and it will help you to see the psychological aspect of the story. Was Maria so blinded by what she felt she deserved that she would do anything to get it? Did Macbeth want to be King so badly that he was willing to kill or did Lady Macbeth talk him in to it with clever words and some magical trickery?

What Light – Jay Asher

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This is a good book to read at Christmas time. Sierra and her family live on a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Once a year for a month they go to California where they have a tree lot where they sell the trees. This has happened every year since Sierra was born. She has two sets of friends, Liz and Rachel in Oregon who she spends most of the year with, and Heather in California who she only gets to spend a month with. Liz and Rachel are a bit clingy and the first couple of chapters see them prepare gifts for Sierra and tell her how sad they are that she is going. She will miss them too but she also misses Heather and her family and can’t wait  to see them. The tree lot has also  been in her family for two generations and is under threat because they don’t make enough money from it. Sierra doesn’t want this to happen.

You don’t get much background on Sierra, just what’s going on at the time; you do find out that she has had boyfriends before but the only mention of it is that she only does worthy relationships and doesn’t see the point of just dating.

When she arrives in California we meet Andrew, a guy who works on the tree lot and asked her out last year. He is a bit of a nasty piece of work; don’t like Andrew! Sierra’s dad doesn’t let her go out with any of the boys that work on the lot, even though she must be about 17, and makes them do horrible chores if they so much as look at her. Heather also has a new boyfriend called Devon who she is planning on dumping after Christmas, he’s boring apparently.

After a couple of days of setting up, a cute boy with dimples appears and buys a tree. She describes the boy to Heather who immediately tells her that this is Caleb, and he’s bad news. When he appears the next day and they start talking Sierra decides she wants to give him a chance and find out more.  Sierra and Caleb start to see more of each other and she slowly teases out of him what’s  going on. I won’t spoil it for you but it’s a bit random. She also discovers that he is buying Christmas trees out of his own pocket and delivering them to people who can’t afford to buy their own. As  they slowly fall for each other (given that she is only in town for a month it took them ages to kiss!) she needs to decide whether the Caleb she knows now can make up for the rumours she has heard about the old Caleb.

This is a quick read at just under 250 pages and it was nice enough to keep me interested until the end. I didn’t really feel any emotional attachment to any of the characters although, the end did make me a bit teary! If you like a bit of cheesy romance at Christmas  time  then this is the perfect book for you – and a very different feel to 13 Reasons Why which was quite depressing!

PS> the only thing that really blew my mind was that afterwards, when looking for a picture of the cover photo, I discovered that Jay Asher is a man! I really wasn’t expecting that given that the main character in this  book is a girl and it’s written so well. It did explain why Sierra was a little emotionless though, and the description of feelings wasn’t really there. Still, it was well written and enjoyable.

The Sun is also a Star – Nicola Yoon

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Firstly, the book cover alone makes this book amazing. Look how they made it!

Secondly, I was a little disappointed with Everything, Everything and went into this book thinking that it would be sort of the same quality. Girl with some weird thing wrong meets boy with some issues, they fall in love super quickly and then live happily ever after. Well, the only similarity is that girl meets  boy and they fall in love super quickly – or at least one of them does. Prepare to be blown away by this book – it’s a-maz-ing!!

At the beginning of the book we meet Natasha. We learn that she lives in New York with her mum and dad and brother, Peter. She was born in Jamaica and her dad came to the US to make it as an actor. She and her mum follow him over when she is 6 and they outstay their visa. She is now in the position where, after her dad has been arrested for Drink Driving and told the police that he is living in the US illegally, they are 12 hours away from being deported.

Daniel is of Korean origin and lives with his mum and dad and older brother Charlie. Charlie has a big chip on his shoulder and hates Daniel (this is never fully explained, although Natasha has her own theory). Charlie has just been sent home from Harvard after one  term. Daniel’s dad owns a black hair care product shop in New York (apparently it’s a thing for Korean people to own black hair care shops New York). Daniel is on his way to get his hair cut before he has an interview for a place at Yale to study medicine. Unfortunately he doesn’t want to be a doctor, he wants to be a poet.

Natasha and Daniel meet through a series of events and Daniel falls in love at first sight. Natasha has a lot on her mind and is hoping that she can persuade an attorney to help overturn her case. She is also a scientist and doesn’t believe in the romantic notion of love at first sight. Daniel tries to change her mind through a series of questions and some time spent together in between their respective appointments.

The book is written as a split narrative so, although Daniel thinks he is having a hard time convincing Natasha that she likes him, we know he isn’t. There is also some lovely asides from bit part characters in the book, like Irene, the guard at the Immigration Centre or informative chapters about the meaning of Irie. The neatness of the way the author summed up what happened to the characters, the explanations by Natasha’s dad as to why he was doing what he was doing, all make for a really clever and involved book.

I read this book really quickly and the characters are people that I will remember for a long time. The weight of expectation on second generation immigrants really made me feel for Daniel. The helplessness of Natasha to stay just because her parents had made a mistake made me see the injustice of the immigration system. Natasha had lived more of her life in America then in Jamaica, she had no connection to it yet she also had no legal connection to America.

You will read this book and connect to the events going on in America at the moment. When racial intolerance is rife this book brings it back to us that America is made up of so many different nationalities and cultures and they can all live together under one flag but, they will always have their own culture and identity and we must respect and embrace that. The kids in this book don’t want to be what their parents want them to be, they want to just be themselves, and this is a struggle in itself. The cultural baggage that they carry round from their parents is heavy, and it weighs them down. This might be the clue to the problem with Charlie.  It also demonstrates how powerfully love can hit you, and change you, and when you fall in love for the first time it will blow you away. Maybe it already has…

Further Reading: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E Smith.

 

Everything, Everything – Nicola Yoon

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I think the mistake I made with this book is that I read Holding Up the Universe first and really enjoyed it. Then I went straight on to this one and it fell a little short. Not because it’s not a good book but just because I got a little fed up of kids with things wrong with them who then fall in love with someone who also had something wrong with them. Why can’t people just fall in love….

Moving on… Madeline has this thing called Severe Combine ImmunoDeficiency or SCID which means that she can’t leave the  house because she is super allergic to everything and it could kill her. Her house has been specially adapted so that anyone coming in has to go through a special airlock and be screened. She lives with her mum, who is a doctor, and a nurse who comes in every day called Carla. Her dad and her brother were killed in a car crash and her mum is a little over protective (another helicopter parent).

One day she  hears moving vans and, when she looks out the window sees that a new family have moved in next door. One of them happens to be a boy called Olly, who is easy on the eye, really good at climbing things (parkour) and always wears black. He has the room across the way from her and they start communicating. He sends her his email address and they start to IM. A relationship develops and eventually they persuade  Carla to let him in the house. He has problems with his dad, who is a drunk and beats his mum up.

This is where things start to unravel and I’m not going to tell you too much more after this point because it will spoil the story. Needless to say, all is not as it seems. The ending was a little unsatisfactory as I wanted to know more about what happened. It is cleverly written and I liked the use of notes, emails and quick chapters. It makes the book go really quickly and you will finish it in no time. Sometimes that’s nice and satisfying!

I also liked the characters. Madeline wasn’t too whiny and Olly was a nice boy who you would like to have as your boyfriend (if you were 18) and I hope that his life is improved by meeting Madeline. All in all, a good debut novel but I can’t wait to read The Sun is also a Star (Nicola Yoon’s new book) and see if it is any better. A nice romantic book with a twist and I suspect, the start of some good things to come.

Holding up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

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I have literally just finished this book and I only started it yesterday. It is 388 pages of sheer joy. I really super enjoyed All the Bright Places and wanted to really like this one too. In fact I read my review of ATBP just now to remind myself of why I liked it and at the end of it I wrote, ‘this book is life affirming’. Well hold on to your hats people, this one is even  better!

The book is written as a split narrative by Jake and Libby. Jake is a bit of a high school player. He has an on again off again girlfriend (see mean girls everywhere) and we first meet him through a letter he writes to Libby. Libby is the other narrator. In the letter, Jake tells Libby that he has a disorder called Prosopagnosia. It means that he cannot recognize peoples faces, ever. But, no one else knows that he’s got it so he can’t recognize his family, or friends or his girlfriend and he has a series of identifying features that means he knows who they are. For example he assumes that his parents are his parents because they are in his house every day. There is also his adorable brother Dusty, who wants to carry a purse (I think this is American speak for handbag) to school and gets beaten up for it and another brother called Marcus. He exudes this kind of confidence which is just a front for the fact that he cannot recognize anyone.

Libby is famous for being fat. Not just fat but so fat that they had to knock down half her  house to get her out because she was  too fat to fit through the door. She was hospitalized and hasn’t been to school for years. Before the house incident she was home schooled by her dad after her mum died from a massive brain hemorrhage. She has since lost 300 pounds (21 stone!) and has decided to get back in the game and go back to school. There she confronts the bullies who picked on her when she was 10 and after an unfortunate incident with Jack in the cafeteria, finds herself in detention for a few weeks. The POV of Jack is written so well that I would almost believed that the author had the condition herself.

What follows is an unconventional love story, but one that will warm your heart. It’s a little bit like Thanks for the Trouble in that it is redemptive. Both Libby and Jack need to be saved in different ways. Libby might not look like she needs much help; she’s smart and sassy and wants to take on the world, but she needs to feel valued and Jack helps her to do that. Jacks needs are more obvious. He needs help with his disorder and figuring out how he is going to get through life dealing with it.

Jennifer Niven writes in such a way that you will want to read on and on until the last page, and then miss the book and the characters once you’ve finished. I already miss Jack and Libby and their crazy world. I miss the way  that Jack describes Libby as being full of sunshine. I miss the way she goes through life hurting but willing to fix things, to change things. There are the usual mix of the mean girls and stupid jocks and geeks and nerds and bullies, but there is also Jack and Libby; and they are perfect for each other.

I know that you will love this book. I know that you will read it and take these two into your geeky booky hearts and keep them there. They deserve it, and you deserve to enjoy it with them. But I also want you to feel sorry for those people that say ‘I hate reading’ because they will never get to experience what you have just experienced.

Spread the word.