Positively Beautiful by Wendy Mills • Estelle Reviews

Positively Beautiful by Wendy MillsPositively Beautiful by Wendy Mills ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury Kids
Pages: 368
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: cancer, best friends, planes
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: As if her mom having breast cancer isn’t hard enough, Erin finds out that she may have inherited a rare gene mutation (like her mom did from her grandmother) and she could have cancer too. Does she find out the truth now or does she forget this is even a possibility for now?

Last Friday, Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, sharing her decision to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. As the carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation, Jolie believed going through with this procedure (and, therefore, speeding along menopause) was the right decision for her — especially knowing that her grandmother, aunt, and mom all died of cancer very young. In her piece, Jolie urges women to know all of their options and emphasizes that everyone needs to choose their own path, but also makes sure we know: “Knowledge in power.”

This leads me to Erin in Positively Beautiful. Not only is she going through the motions of being a normal teenager (a mysterious boy from her class, a great best friend who starts ignoring her for a new boy, missing her dad, learning a new skill), she finds out that her mother has breast cancer and she could be a carrier of the gene mutation. Does she take the test and find out? Or does she forget about it? As you can imagine, it’s difficult to just ignore something this huge, this life altering, and Erin finds herself depending on online support from others in the same boat — most specifically, Ashley, a girl in Florida who is always trying to convince Erin to smell the roses and experience all the beauty there is in the world — especially when life seems so hopeless.

Wendy Mills has crafted a unique story here. I loved that Erin decided to take flying lessons. The late night, abandoned building adventures she took with her best friend and boys from school. Even the growing pains that Erin experienced with Trina, her lifelong best friend, when she landed a guy who finally appreciated her. To be in this position, with her mom sick and a mysterious cloud possibly hanging over her head, Erin is caught between the life of a typical teenager and a girl forced to grow up way too fast, forced to make decisions that could affect her entire life.

Shocker: we don’t always know what to do when life gets this out of hand. I won’t say Erin gets a get out of jail free card but she certainly takes an unexpected detour Survivor-style — granting her a respite — for a little bit anyway. She might be overwhelmed but she’s not silly enough to think she can escape her problems forever. Instead, supports shift and she returns to real life recharged and as ready as she will ever be to face the unknown.

While I personally may have turned down the drama in the high school aspect of this book, I thought it was great how Positively Beautiful shed light on a subject we don’t see much in young adult literature — without being preachy. It’s a book that definitely marches to its own drummer, and that’s exactly why I couldn’t read fast enough and sat in one spot until I reached the end. (Warning: tissues are not an option.)

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Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts | Estelle Reviews

Zac and Mia by AJ BettsZac and Mia by A.J. Betts ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: 9/2/2014
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: cancer, friendship, family, recovery
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)

Summary: Zac unexpectedly meets Mia in the hospital while he is recovering from a bone marrow transplant. But their friendship is short-lived when they go back to their separate lives, only for them to reunite in a surprising way.

Around its publication date, I read a lot of middle of the road reviews for Zac and Mia. Many felt their expectations weren’t met, and so, this might be one of those situations where putting a distance between reviews and your chosen reading time leads to a positive outcome because I found Zac and Mia to be very refreshing, even if it wasn’t perfect.

I find myself thinking a lot about the choice to compare a book to two other popular ones. In this case, the book was marketed as a combo of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park. But how long before this overused comparison means nothing anymore? Maybe it is helpful to the average book buyer or maybe it’s really not because I wasn’t reminded of either of them when reading Zac and Mia. Sure, there was cancer (Fault) and a boy and girl as main characters (E&P) but that was basically it. For the record, I found Fault overly pretentious, so much that any emotion I was supposed to feel was lost in a lot of big words. On the other hand, I thought E&P was charming even if it’s not my favorite of the author’s work. I realize I’m going off on a major tangent and this is a way to sell books but is it really helpful when the final product is nothing like the newsworthy titles they are relating it to? For this reader, not so much.

Anyway. I digress.

The main thing that stood out to me about A.J. Bett’s book was how she didn’t over-dramatize the cancer. We all know cancer just sucks. I’m sure we all know at least 5 people who have died from cancer. It has sadly become a word that is a normal part of our reality these days, and I appreciated how Betts explained each of Zac and Mia’s diagnoses so well, and also had them dealing with it in very real ways. Zac’s loss of friendships, Mia’s hot and cold relationship with her boyfriend, Zac knowing so much about this disease but still being surprised by its unwieldy nature, the utter devotion from family members when one of their own is diagnosed. It was a true delight to spend time with Zac’s family, especially getting to know his mother and his sister.

I was surprised the structure of the book didn’t immediately start with flip-flopping between Zac and Mia, and spent a lot of time on Zac at first. I do think that had a hand in me not getting Mia as quickly as I wanted to, but as I delved deeper into the book and got to know her better, there was an apparent change in her. (Maggie at Just a Couple More compares her to Alice in Side Effects May Vary and I can totally see that. She’s not the flat, nice character everyone wants to be friends with. She’s complicated; what a revelation!) Because we get to know Zac right off the bat and were provided with such a fuller look at his life, I felt closer to him than to Mia.

Another highlight? There wasn’t romance for sake of romance. There was attraction, yes. But this wasn’t a full-fledged love story. It was more about finding support and understanding in unexpected places, and a lot about trusting people when you are at your worst and welcoming them into your family. Zac and Mia’s friendship could have remained this momentary thing that happened in the hospital, but I think it was critical to their survival (throughout the book) that they lean on each other (despite distance).

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Zac and Mia. I loved the Australian setting, the time on Zac’s farm, and how unpredictably the story unfolded. The writing was fantastic, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Betts’ work in the future.

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Estelle: Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor

Maybe One Day by Melissa KantorMaybe One Day by Melissa Kantor ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: February 18, 2014
Publisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 400
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: friendship, cancer, high school, dance
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss.

Summary: Junior year doesn’t go according to plan for best friends Olivia and Zoe when Olivia is diagnosed with cancer. What does this mean for their dreams of moving to NYC together? Can Olivia survive this? With already so much in their lives changed, Zoe tries to be a good friend during the bad times but doesn’t always succeed. What do you do when you can’t foresee what will happen next?

Have you ever read a book that was completely addicting, really moving (enough to make you cry), and in the end, still had no idea how to rate it?

That’s exactly my relationship with Maybe One Day. On one hand, I was so thrilled to have a strong female friendship portrayed in my young adult literature. And on the other, some rough transitions, offhand comments from the main character (football players learning to rape?), and overlooked characters and situations continued to nag me and therefore, affected how I felt about the entire book.

Zoe and Olivia’s friendship reminded me of a few of my high school friendships: knowing each other since childhood, spending time together after school pursuing other passions, practically sharing family, and making plans for that future far and beyond high school and college. They were lifers. So I can only imagine how heartbreaking it was for both of them with Olivia got sick. First you guys are both cut from the New York Ballet Company, and now your partner-in-crime is laying in a hospital somewhere — hoping that treatment can zap this villainous disease out of her system.

Nothing prepares you for moments like this, that’s for sure.

I admired Zoe’s devotion to Olivia, big time. She visited the hospital, she called, she even took over her dance class on the weekends and Skyped her in when she could. But most of the time, she feels helpless. Her grades slipped because when she’s not spending time with Olivia, she’s thinking about her. Truth is, Zoe was kind of lost before this happened with Olivia. She missed dancing, soccer didn’t cut it, and maybe she just wasn’t ready to trust herself dancing again. She didn’t have something to fill her time like she used to. I can imagine how out of control everything felt for her.

We do have a potential romance with Calvin, which is kind of complicated because Olivia has a crush on him and Zoe doesn’t like him much at first. But I really liked him. Even when Zoe was difficult, he never stopped trying to be her friend. (Plus he was always there for Olivia’s brother. Nice guy.)  I could have used more of him to lighten up the book and make his story arc a bit more complete. He felt glossed over, and his chemistry with Zoe was just too good to be ignored. (Even if it was a messy pairing; in the beginning, I thought she would hit it off with Olivia’s brother.)

While I loved Zoe and Olivia’s bond, the heartfelt efforts of their classmates, how Kantor’s words made me feel so much, there was something that didn’t click for me. Was it the deep detail that was given to some scenes and not to the ones where Zoe’s character growth could have been realized? Or maybe how the first section of the book was substantially longer than the others making it feel a little uneven? It’s true the emotions were heavy in Maybe One Day and the friendships were meaningful but sharper focus on who the story was actually about would have made it entirely more effective.

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Estelle: The F-It List by Julie Halpern

The F-It List by Julie HalpernThe F-It List by Julie Halpern ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: November 12, 2013
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan)
Pages: 256
Target audience: Mature young adult (language, sex)
Keywords: cancer, death of parents, dealing with grief, bucket list
Format read: Borrowed from Alexa @ Alexa Loves Books. (Thanks!)

Summary: A few weeks after her father unexpectedly dies in a car accident, Alex finds out her estranged best friend, Becca, has cancer. She doesn’t let the fact that they are not talking stop her from rushing to Becca’s side. As her friend preps for chemo, she gives Alex the bucket/f-it list she has been composing since they were kids to accomplish “just in case.” Because she’ll do anything to make her friend happy, Alex complies and life gets interesting…

I really thought The F-It List was going to be more of a friendship story. When we first meet Alex and Becca, readers find out they were torn apart by a pretty major betrayal. I totally see how something as surprising and heartbreaking as cancer can wipe out petty problems, but still. Alex and Becca have so much to say, never hold back, but that click I was so desperate for them to have in the beginning? It just never happened for me.

While Becca is dealing with chemo, radiation, and the boy next door, Alex is determined to knock off as much of Becca’s F-It List as she can. Since the list has been around since they were young, there are some super silly things on there, and then some super racy. (This book is actually a lot racier than I thought it would be. It’s super sex positive but at the same time, ah! I was not expecting some of it to be that intense.) Alex is one of those people who puts up a lot walls and says and acts the wrong away a lot of the time. She does it with her mom and brothers, and especially with Leo, the guy she has crushed on forever who is suddenly so on her side.

A lot of Alex’s reactions are due to her lack of dealing with her father’s death. (She never seemed to grieve over it.) She also didn’t like being in control of the bad things happening to everyone around her. I totally got that. She dealt with all these life changes in unhealthy ways – sex, watching a ton of horror movies (her passion), or making a ton of jokes. As soon as she felt a little vulnerable, she would bail in any way necessary and I kept wondering when she would see what she was doing, what she was giving up by acting this way.

So it was a little hard to connect with her. Though I did like how mega-horror movie obsessed she was. It’s a rare passion to see in a young adult character and it all seemed so true to life. (Loved the Trolls 2 documentary mention and also the convention scene!) Another highlight: Alex was a high school student who had a part-time job, who interacted with her mom and brothers and was there for them.

The F-It List had so many contemporary elements that I love to see in these stories, but they didn’t gel for me. Maybe it was the lack of balance between Becca and Alex’s stories or how I wanted Leo to talk a little bit more? Being overwhelmed by the current pop culture references? Too much happening at once? (Especially for it to wrap up the way it did.) So while the premise does have promise, it was the execution that left me wanting more.

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