Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A Review of Side Effects May Vary

Side Effects May Vary is a book by Julie Murphy. Alice Richardson is diagnosed with cancer, and makes a list of all the things she wants to put right before she dies. She takes her childhood friend Harvey Poppovicci with her on her adventures. Many of these involve revenge one someone who has wronged her in some way. However, when she enters remission, she realises that her actions may have consequences that she never considered. Alice must learn to live with herself, in a world she never thought she'd see.

This book is an entry into the YA Cancer books genre that has become popular in the last few years. I wanted to try and review this book on it's own merits, but I couldn't help looking up it's publication date compared to The Fault in Our Stars. TFioS: 2012 SEMV: 2014. It almost reads as a John Green checklist - dying girl, revenge list, the boy she drags along on her wild schemes, theme park break-in.

However, if you're expecting anything quite like TFioS, you might actually find yourself disappointed. I was expecting a cute contemporary romance with a background of cancer. Alice and Harvey are childhood friends, which is one of my favourite set-ups for YA, because it means it doesn't feel rushed and avoids insta-love. However, this actually feels more like the movie Mean Girls than anything else I've read.

This book is actually a completely different story to how it seems. I guess the most important thing to tell people is that Alice is not a nice person. And I don't mean not nice in the way that Cancer Teens can get away with - she's just generally an unpleasant person to know. Not every YA protagonist has to be nice, or has to be a good role model. Sometimes it's important to read about the kind of person you don't want to be. Points to her having a passion with ballet, though. Harvey is a teenage boy in all senses of the word - still immature, idolises Alice without really knowing her, lets his hormones think for him. I really don't think their relationship would survive college. College is where we start to find out who we are and where we stand, away from the people and places we've known all our lives.

As for more minor characters, her best friend Celeste is described on page 2 as "more of an enemy than a friend and always wanted what I had." It's a shame, because I would love to read about a friendly competitive rivalry between two teenage girls who are still there for each other when the chips are down. Is it too much to ask for supportive friendships in YA? However, we do see points where Celeste displays traits other than just being the bitchy ex-best friend. Later, Alice's mother, talking about said best friend says "Girls can be barbarians." I've never understood this attitude. I always had a worse time with teenage boys than I did teenage girls. The one character I did like and wanted to read more about was Dennis. He reminded me of people I know, being into video games and films, yet still having a life outside of them.

There is a lot of girl hate in this book, but I wonder if Murphy might have just been making a point about how internalised misogyny can make us perceive other girls. Much of it comes from Alice's POV, who is predisposed to see other girls as competition or threats. It is a thing that does happen, and I won't complain about it's use in fiction, since it does need to be addressed.

One of the things I liked was that Alice's physical description came from Harvey. The overly flowery way he describes her is fitting for a love-stricken teenage boy. It doesn't gloss over the bad parts of her appearance, either. Her dancer's feet are described in full detail, and her puffy face and falling-out hair from chemo are also covered.

I also thought the story might flow better if the chapters were ordered chronologically. All the "Then" chapters first, and the "Now" chapters later.

I guess, if you've enjoyed other YA cancer books, you might like this one, however it doesn't do anything groundbreaking with the genre. It's also a cancer book I would say is readable for those who don't like cancer books. However, if you're looking for something sweet and feel-good, with likeable characters, this is not the book you are looking for.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A Maelstrom of Emotions

I got a nice new dress today, and I was happy about that.

Then I felt guilty for being happy, so soon after Mum's death. Then I felt sad about that. Then, I berated myself for being sad, it's a few weeks since and I'm not the only person in the world who has lost a parent. Then, I realised the dress had pockets, so that made me very happy. Then I wondered what other people might think about me, being happy about something so shallow and materialistic so soon after Mum's death. Then I decided I didn't give a damn about what people would think.

This hasn't been an isolated incident, either. Every time I've been happy over the last few weeks, I've gone through a storm of emotions. One second I'm up, and the next I'm down. I haven't been sad all the time, and I feel guilty. I've been happy and sad at the same time, even. I've also reminded myself that Mum would not want me to be sad all the time.

I've been angry at the stroke, and annoyed that it's not really a person I can take it out on. I've unfairly blamed the NHS, who did as much as they could and treated Mum and us with the utmost respect. I've felt guilty that it happened early, and I was awake but lying in. I heard Mum breathing oddly, but thought maybe she just had a cold. Even though the doctors said that a few minutes wouldn't make any difference, I have wondered if I just found her those few minutes early, if things could change. Maybe if we hadn't gone to the zoo the day before, she wouldn't have been so tired and maybe the stroke wouldn't have happened. If I could turn back time, could I make her go to the doctors and ask them to check for a blockage and take it out before it happened? At the very least, could I tell her everything I should have told her, before she died?

I can't remember the last thing I said to her. I can't remember the last time I told her I loved her. I made bargains, I wouldn't sigh and roll my eyes if she needed help with technology and I'd do more for her around the house and I'd stop doing the puppy-dog eyes "buy me stuff" that at 25-year-old really should have grown out of.

The one thing I've noticed is that I've been concerned about how my grief appears to other people.

During Mum's funeral, me and a friend started talking about Pokémon Go. This was nice, a small way in which I connected with the various people there. I also remember how, since the game came out, Mum would roll her eyes when she saw me playing it, but always asked "catch any rare ones?" Since then, I've been wondering what other people thought about me, discussing something like that at Mum's funeral. Then I decided I just don't care.

There have been times where I've wanted to talk to people, but I haven't, because no-one wants to hear someone going on about their dead Mum all the time. So I've been telling people I'm fine. I've had people respond with "That's good," and "You're doing well." Now, I've been wondering if people thought maybe I wasn't acting sad enough.

Now, I've decided I just don't care about other people perceive it. Everyone deals with grief differently. Any emotion I experience is acceptable and valid, but not always reasonable. Sadness is reasonable, happiness is reasonable. Blame and guilt are not.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A Review of Heartless

Heartless is a novel by Marissa Meyer, the author of The Lunar Chronicles. It is a reimagining of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland from the point of view of the Queen of Hearts, set before the events of Alice. Namely, when she was a teenager. Lady Catherine Pinkerton is the daughter of a Marquess. She loves to bake, and has dreams of opening her own bakery one day. However, the King of Hearts is showing an unwelcome interest in her, but it's his mysterious court joker that seems to be capturing Cath's heart...

I'm going to start by talking about the story, which is surprisingly dark for a YA-aimed book. What's rather interesting about this is that the conclusion is obvious when you start the story. For Cath to become Queen, things can't work out with Jest and she'll have to marry the King, who she dislikes. Somewhere along the way, her personality will have to change to become the Queen of Hearts we love to hate. As the book goes on, it becomes obvious that there is more going on than it seems, and the reader starts to realise exactly what might happen to Cath.

The worldbuilding here is brilliant. It is surprisingly tricky to tell a story, while remaining within the confines of someone else's world. The "Wonder" part of Wonderland comes through nicely. Animals can talk, plants sprout based on dreams and sport is played with animals. It gives a whimsical, kiddish feel that contrasts nicely with the more serious nature of the storyline. There are definitely some parts which came directly from the book - and Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced, too. But Meyer adds enough of her own flair to her Wonderland to make it hold up in it's own right.

The characters are stellar, too, although this will surprise no-one who is familiar with Meyer's other series. Cath is a down-to-earth protagonist, much more than your average rebellious noble. She has a dream (and you know how I like it when  female characters have dreams) and it involves baking, making a nice excuse for mouthwatering descriptions of food. It also made for a great pun - not so much a Queen of Hearts as a Queen of Tarts. She is also contrasted with her friend, Mary Ann, a serving girl in her house. To Cath, owning a bakery is her dream, but she would have little idea of the work really required to put it. Waking up at 4am to bake the first batch of bread each day, and staying late into the night to clean probably wouldn't be the sort of life she'd imagine. Mary Ann has a much better idea of the amount of work something like that would entail. She's the businesswoman, and Cath is the dreamer. Cath isn't always likeable, either - she's a product of her upbringing, and sometimes behaves in ways which does remind you that she is the daughter of a Marquess. I did appreciate this as not entirely unrealistic. Jest manages to be very different yet wholly familiar from many romantic leads. He's the poorer suitor of the rich girl, but he also has a few tricks up his sleeve.

I would like to talk about how one of the people Cath knows in the nobility, Margaret Mearle, is almost completely unlikeable, and is also described as unattractive. Now, it would be one thing if this had been mentioned once, but she's never in a scene without her looks being commented on. The book is long, and can feel like the ending drags somewhat - maybe that's a consequence of a foregone conclusion? There is a lot of foreshadowing that not everything will go right for our protagonists, so don't read this one expecting a happily ever after.

You don't really need too much knowledge of Alice in Wonderland to read this book - I would recommend a refresher with the animated Disney movie - but if you liked Heartless, why not give the original a read? That way, you'll be able to see what concepts Meyer took from the original book. I recommend this for fans of Gregory Maguire - who Meyer says influenced the idea - and other untold stories, especially those featuring the villains.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Trust Me, I'm A Doctor (Who Isn't)

Trust Me was a series that ran on BBC a few weeks ago. It follows Cath Hardacre (Jodie Whittaker), an NHS nurse, who finds herself suspended from her job after attempting to blow the whistle on someone else. This was actually because there has been a few complaints raised against her, but we never find out the outcome of these. Cath takes on the identity of her friend Alison Sutton, a doctor and gets a job in a hospital in Scotland. As a doctor, under a false identity.

Whittaker, who is probably more famous already as the next Doctor, manages a stellar performance in what is at times a confusing and demanding role, tying the series together. Cath may be one of the most interesting roles written for a woman I have seen. She is a mother, but she is primarily defined in series by her career. While her love and dedication to her child is shown in the series, it is of secondary importance to the overarching story. In a role reversal, the two more important men in her life are more defined as "Cath's love interest" and "Molly's father" than by their own careers or personalities. One of the other prominent female characters, Bridget, is a complex character in her own right. She's revealed to have made a lot of mistakes on the job, is not above falsifying her reports, and has been drinking on the job. She actually shows off one of the downsides of the medical profession, which is known for putting a lot of stress onto it's employees. Cath and Bridget also pass the Bechdel test at several points.

It's possible to read Cath as a hero defined by circumstance, but if you ask me, she was the villain of the series who got away with far too much. Not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing - it is interesting to see a series where bad people do not get caught. However, in this case, I actually think the series would have been stronger if it had ended with Cath being caught, confessing everything in the face of overwhelming evidence. No-one forced her to take a false identity. No-one made her lie, and her motivations seemed to come more from anger at the NHS than desperation at her situation. It's easy to imagine a counter series where an astute young nurse investigates a seemingly-incompetent doctor, only to find out they were pulling one of the biggest cons of all time.