Estelle: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Side Effects May Vary by Julie MurphySide Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: 3/18/2014
Publisher: HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: cancer, friendship, romance, parental relationships, revenge
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)

Summary: Alice and Harvey are two estranged friends who team up to complete her must-do list when Alice is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Her great strides to make things right (even by doing things so wrong) comes back to haunt her when she surprisingly goes through remission and now she must deal with all she’s said and done.

In a perfect world, we would all be wonderful at expressing ourselves (especially during sticky situations) and handle every tough break with positivity, decorum, and acceptance. Instead, humans, despite their best intentions, slip up all the time. They close themselves off from people (even the ones who care the most) and instead of making the best out of a bad situation, kind of make things worse.

I’m happy to say Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy features imperfect characters, especially the main character Alice. She’s diagnosed with cancer and her mom is lying to the family. She has every right to be angry, definitely. So she recruited her old friend, Harvey, to help her out with a to-do list of things she wants to accomplish before she dies. Most of them are over the top, crazy and insane, but the devoted Harvey is on board, even though their history — childhood friends! friends with feelings! a rift! — is still a thing.

It’s true that I’m more of a Harvey than an Alice. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I am loyal to people I care about. Sometimes too loyal. This is probably why I related more to Harvey than I did to Alice. Like her character, she was even written with a certain bit of detachment so it was hard to connect to her, especially when as a reader we are privy to her feelings but continue to watch her not use her words or tell anyone how she really feels.

Cancer is a common ingredient in books, but I loved Murphy’s unique take. In chapters that alternate between Harvey and Alice, we also switch between time periods: THEN (when Alice discovers she has cancer) and NOW (when Alice unexpectedly goes into remission). So basically Alice has to deal with the repercussions of her actions and for someone as guarded and fearful of confrontation like she is… that’s freaking scary.

I absolutely could not wait to find out how all of this would end. Would Alice let Harvey get away? Would her revenge tactics haunt her forever? Could she move forward with her second chance at life? Something so many people in her position would embrace so thankfully? (Alice is pretty much the only character I’ve ever read about who is pissed off about beating cancer.) So many characters are forced to make adjustments after Alice’s diagnosis changes and it’s really interesting to see how those dynamics play off each other.

Murphy’s writing is sharp, I love her dialogue, and even the other situations she folds in (not being ready to have sex yet, “friendly” competition, mother/daughter relationships and even son/mother relationships, bullying) fit in so naturally. I was completely hooked and read most of Side Effects May Vary in a day. (I was also focused on finding some of Julie’s homages to God Shaped Hole by Tiffanie DeBartolo, a book we both love.) While some of the time transitions were a bit confusing and I would have loved for the ending to be stretched out a bit more, the character growth, the great writing, and creative storytelling made this a winner for me.

I can’t wait to read it again.

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Estelle: The Look by Sophia Bennett

The Look by Sophia BennettThe Look by Sophia Bennett ( tweet | web )
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Publisher: Chicken House (Scholastic)
Pages: 336
Target audience: young adult
Keywords: modeling, cancer, London, siblings, family, self-discovery
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: The world becomes a confusing place for Ted when she finds out her fab-looking older sister, Ava, has cancer and must undergo treatment, and she (the odd looking one) is discovered by a modeling agency. Like always, Ava can convince her sister to do anything and Ted decides to take a chance on the modeling thing to raise Ava’s spirits. But the deeper Ted gets into this world, the more she learns about herself, her relationship with her family, and what she really wants.

As the younger sister, Ted has a tendency to follow Ava’s lead — no matter how crazy her ideas are. Even in the midst of the changes their family has overcome (their dad losing their job and them moving into a new, smaller home), Ava can still convince Ted to jingle a tambourine on the street in hopes of scoring some cash.

Instead, they get a melted piece of Starburst and a business card from a modeling scout… interested in Ted.

Now, when I first started The Look, I thought I would jump right into Ted’s successful modeling career, the younger sister finally stepping out of the shadows of her beautiful older sister who loves to surf and fawns over her boyfriend, Jesse. But instead Sophia Bennett intricately sets the foundation of a close-knit family going through many catastrophic changes, including the moment that Ava is diagnosed with cancer. There’s actually quite a lull between the opening scene and Ted actually figuring out the modeling agency was legit and heading in for her first meeting. She decides to go through with the adventure as a way to entertain Ava while she is going through the worst of her treatments.

Ted doesn’t think of herself as worth looking at at all; she doesn’t like her hair, she thinks she is too tall, and there’s that guy in her class who is always making fun of her. She thinks it’s practically a joke that an agency would pick her among the beautiful people; therefore, she has this sort of self-deprecating sense of humor that I really enjoyed. I know it was part defense mechanism but she so owned it. As she goes from audition to audition, and learns more about the actual craft of photography, you can see the character truly growing and coming into her own.

In life, I think we can all remember an instance when one part of your life was going terribly and the other was so exciting. It’s hard to choose. It’s hard to feel like you can truly be happy when something so bleak is happening on the other side, especially when this horrible thing is happening to someone you love. Bennett manages to draw this parallel without being overly dramatic or cheesy at all. All the actions and feelings from the characters were so utterly authentic that I was just drawn in more and more to the story as it went on.

All I can tell you right now is that there are some beautiful scenes in this book, scenes of endearing amounts of pain and sisterhood and what it means to be close to someone and be there for them, even if the path doesn’t seem to make sense. Ted’s determination to work hard in order to support her family is so admirable, while her parents’ faith in her, though new, is refreshing and uplifting. There’s also a boy, and deceit, and the evil truths that Ted must face about an industry that she begins to fall in love with. Bennett has concocted such a dimensional story with a backbone that begins and ends with the importance of family and knowing yourself… even if it takes awhile to get there.

As an added bonus, I loved that The Look was set in London!

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Estelle: Send Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt

october ya book releases USSend Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt ( website | tweet )
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Publisher: Walker Children’s
Pages: 384
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: cancer, popularity, secrets, superstitions
Format read: ARC from NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: For a person who is always prepared and fighting to excel in just about everything, Mia is completely caught off guard when she is diagnosed with cancer. Afraid of what her friends might think, she decides to keep it a secret from everyone except her next door neighbor/best friend, Gyver.

I’ve read quite a few books recently with main characters who were popular, rich, smart, and beautiful. (See: The Princesses of Iowa and All You Never Wanted.)  I could have easily not connected with them because they were so unlike the girl I was in high school or the person I am now. But in these novels, I watched girls grow and change and learn in a way I could totally relate to, even though our circumstances were different. Both authors managed to create multi-layered stories with flawed characters who I came to understand and root for.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same experience with Mia and Send Me a Sign. I loved that she was always looking for little signals from the universe to tell her her next move (I’ve totally done this) and her friendship with Gyver was the biggest highlight for me. But otherwise, her life and her decisions and her relationships stayed pretty stagnant in almost 400 pages.

As a character, Mia was the product of two very different parents — a dad who was understanding and needed to know all the facts, and a mother would wanted to pretend her daughter was not suffering from this disease and thought Mia not sharing her diagnosis with her friends would be better for her “privacy.” In the end, this may have been the only area that Mia was able to make some kind of breakthrough in by the end of the story.

I just wish it hadn’t been the end of them.

When I pick up a book, I’m always hoping for more than a happily-ever-after. I want these characters to come to a realization — big or small — and get to the point where you believe they are about to turn a corner or experience them actively engage in some sort of change. Mia’s friends were a big part of her world. She was popular, she had the hottest guy at school at her side (not Gvyer), and she was on her way to an Ivy League college. She “had it all” or did she? I didn’t find many redeeming qualities in her friends so I understand her hestitation in confiding in them (hot guy actually seemed to have the most heart), but even by the end of the book, I still didn’t understand her need to be friends with them.

It felt like Mia’s popularity and dedication to her academics sheltered her, and I would have loved for her to bond with someone other than Gyver. In fact, I was hoping that another schoolmate, Meaghan, might be that person. There were even the injected moments of reality from a male nurse that I came to enjoy as well.

Schmidt does present readers with a unique premise, but in order for it to make an emotional impact, Mia had to be more of an anchor than she was. I felt similarly when Magan and I read Wendy Wunder’s The Probability of Miracles; I was unable to sympatheize with the main character and after completing the book, realized my emotion meter was never raised to where it should have been.

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“Every once in a while you read a book that you’re just completely torn about. Send Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt was that kind of book for me. I liked it but sometimes I felt a little like pulling my hair out.” – Lori from Pure Imagination

Estelle: Daughters for a Time by Jennifer Handford

Daughters for a Time by Jennifer Handford
Publication Date: April 24, 2012
Publisher: Amazon
Pages: 302
Target audience: Adult fiction
Keywords: infertility, adoption, cancer, loss of parent, estranged parent, marriage
Format read: ARC from Little Bird Publicity (Thanks!)

Summary: This book details the emotional journey of Helen, a woman who after years of trying to have a child with her husband, decides to adopt a baby from China. Just as she feels her life has taken a happier and more fulfilling turn, she finds out her sister, the person who brought her up, has cancer.

“Maybe heartache was more normal than the absence of it.”

We are all too familiar with the feeling of experiencing the highest of highs when, out of nowhere, the lowest of lows comes sweeping in and knocks you completely off-balance.

In Daughters for a Time, Jennifer Handford handles that crushing heartbreak with sensitivity and raw emotion. Though I know the book is a work of fiction, Handford’s own experience with adoption elevated the book to a whole new level of realism. There were moments I was so lost in the story I forgot I wasn’t reading a memoir.

Helen had a tumultuous childhood. Her mother dies of ovarian cancer when she is a freshman in high school, and around the same time, her father picks up and leaves. Her sister, Claire, is her support system, her mother, her everything for many years. But Helen remains curious about her father (who, as an adult, she “stalks”) and wants to be able to bring up stories about her mother without Claire brushing them off. At 35, as a successful baker and restaurant owner, even after experiencing her own love story with her husband (Tim), Helen still carries this baggage. Or the complete opposite of baggage, as she puts it. A hole in her heart. Throw in her and her husband’s repeated attempts conceive a child and it’s understandable why Helen is feeling withdrawn and lost.

The true rays of light in her life are Tim (he’s a ROCK), Claire, her niece, and when she can find quiet time in the kitchen. And after much soul-searching, the decision to go forth with an adoption of a baby girl from China. Helen is just counting the many days until their new daughter will be curling up in bed between her and her husband.

You see, this novel ranges from the happy sad to the sad sad. Helen is forced to come to terms with her past, even making moves to fix things with her dad, as well as accept her sister’s cancer diagnosis. Helen questions many times why things in life can’t go right all at the time same. Why can’t she have both her child and her sister? Why does it always have to be something? Handford writes with such honesty and has crafted an engrossing tale from every angle — the adoption, the insecurities she faces as both a mother and a mother of a child who was abandoned, the sisterly bond, even Helen reliving her angsty 14-year old self when her mother was very sick. While the book covers a good span of time, I wondered if there could have been more moments of showing and less telling. In 300 pages, I was connected enough to these characters  that I probably could have read a hundred pages more if it meant some of the key moments were given more meat.

Though Daughters for a Time focuses on the bond between women as sisters, as mothers and daughters, and as friends, it lacked a bit of male perspective in some areas. For a long time, I wondered if Claire was even married. And Helen’s husband was such a great character too but he felt absent from scenes when I knew he was standing there, sharing the moment… except he was silenced. A little more testosterone would have balanced out many emotions in the story and made it even more relatable. I wanted Handford to dig deeper.

Despite minor qualms, this novel genuinely tugged at my heart strings. There’s never a perfect time to pick up a book that screams “disease” and “infertility” but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experience them. Handford takes every day, powerful issues and skillfully, weaves in bits and pieces of hope even at the darkest moments. It’s surprisingly fast paced for such heavy content too; I found myself thinking about it a lot during my reading breaks. At the core,Daughters of a Timeis about the families we have and the families we create, the ebb and flow of the healing process, and the challenges life throws us and how we react to them.

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