A new take on the teen-cancer novel: Side Effects May Vary – By Julie Murphy

Romance

Side Effects May Vary is about Alice, a teenage girl who is diagnosed with cancer. Knowing that she is going to die soon, she feels free to do whatever she wants, unburdened from the threat of her actions’ consequences. Consequently, she resolves to complete a bucket list, which includes performing an unexpected act of kindness and seeking revenge against people who have wronged her. She enlists childhood friend and persistent admirer Harvey for help, who reluctantly obliges, driven by the prospect of spending time with her. Fully aware of his this, Alice manipulates him into doing things for her; although Harvey is semi-conscious of this, he doesn’t care – he’s in love. Alice suppresses her true feelings for him, fearing the temporary, short-term nature of her life and succumbing to the effect this has on her decisions.

Moreover, Alice isn’t your typical cancer patient/survivor: unlike so many idealistic, exceptionally talented or love-obsessed YA characters, she is unbelievably pessimistic, self-absorbed and manipulative. She hates many of those around her, and mistreats the people that care about her. It comes as a big, not entirely pleasant shock for her when she goes into remission, as she must face up to everything she’s done, as well as figuring out her relationship with Harvey. Alternating chapters are set ‘Then’ (when Alice had cancer) and ‘Now’ (after she went into remission), with both Alice and Harvey narrating. Although officially the novel is about Alice’s bucket list and its effects, the majority follows Alice and Harvey’s complicated, ever-changing relationship.

This book is a quick, easy read, and a welcome relief from the heavier books I had been reading. I stayed interested in the story the whole way through, partly because of the suspense and interest that the unique structure brought to the novel (although at times they confused the plot), but also because it was simply enjoyable to read. It wasn’t particularly cringeworthy or unrealistic, despite its somewhat simplistic plot. It was well-written (for a YA book) – I can say this not because I noticed it, but because I didn’t: it wasn’t irritating or clunky, or even noteworthy at all, but it did its job by remaining unnoticeable, letting the plot take centre stage. This often happens in YA literature, or at least is aspired towards – and I think Murphy achieved it. 

However, there were also some issues with Side Effects May Vary: firstly, many of the characters were two-dimensional. Although this is kind of understandable for secondary characters like Deborah, it’s not sufficient with the protagonist – much of Alice’s hatred and pessimism was left unexplained, and was therefore unconvincing. Secondly, as many people have found, I grew tired of Alice and her ‘spontaneous’, egotistical and sometimes gratuitous ways. The way she treated Harvey was awful, and it was frustrating that he put up with it for so long. Finally, the ending, although effective, was unsatisfying; the book didn’t feel finished. It was a really good part of the plot, but would have been better if it wasn’t the ending – perhaps the book would have benefitted from being longer, with more time on the end of the plot.

You would enjoy this book if you’re looking for a good-quality (although not exceptional or mind-blowing) YA book: it’s short, light and easy to read, with a relatively unsophisticated plot. It’s also interesting as an insight into life with a terminal illness, and its effect on one’s thoughts and decisions.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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Far from the Madding Crowd – By Thomas Hardy

Classic Literature, Romance

This book is about how the lives of four people – Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, William Boldwood and Frank Troy – with different backgrounds and aspirations intertwine, charting their relationships through different circumstances.

I have never felt so relieved to have finished a book – Far from the Madding Crowd is ‘thick’ and heavy, despite its short length. Although it isn’t too slow-paced, or wordy, I struggled to maintain an interest in it. The cause of its insipidity is its topic: despite the beautiful romantic story suggested by the blurb, this book is about everyday life, and love, in rural England. Bathsheba Everdene, the centre of so much attention, has ordinary thoughts and feelings, most of which are self-absorbed. Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer – and my favourite of Bathsheba’s ‘suitors’ (or hopeful admirers) – is humble and understated in the way he lives his life. The only characters that seem somewhat fantastical come to their tragic ends through the course of the story. Perhaps this suggests the underrated value in living an ordinary, honourable life – sometimes, the most safe, boring option is the one that will make you happiest.

I felt compelled to read this book, knowing it to be a largely beloved classic; there is something distinctly rewarding in reading a ‘respected’ book, despite this being a poor reason for reading one. Nevertheless, I started it, determined not only to read it, but enjoy it. But frankly, I was disappointed: I tried to like it, but as I wasn’t gripped, I found it hard to pick up. I forced myself to read a couple pages every day, ploughing through it slowly and reluctantly. It wasn’t until the end that I finally began to enjoy it, when the plot gained momentum and exciting events occurred in succession. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t recommend the book at all: more than once, I came close to putting it down.

Far from the Madding Crowd is Marmite: some rave about it, whilst others think it tedious. I’m not sure which I fit under – I found a lot of it hard-going, but by the end wished I had savoured it. Overall, it’s a great, well-written book, but must be read with patience: eventually, it is rewarding. It’s good for people who like old classics for their language and history, but don’t want too long a book (and don’t mind a drawn-out, sometimes monotonous plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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