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What if you only had a short while to live?

That is the premise of two books I've read recently, both of which apply that premise in different ways. One has a female author and female main character, the other has a male author and male main character. The particular illnesses vary, and the plot begins at different places in the progression of the disease.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Tessa who is dying of leukemia, and only has a few months left to live. She makes a list of the things she'd like to do before she dies, and convinces her friend Zoey to help her carry it out. There's no possible recovery for Tessa, but before she goes, she wants to experience life in different forms. She wants to commit petty crimes and try drugs and have sex and more, and in pursuing her list, she finds life, but more importantly, she finds actual love.

Downham's book is excellently crafted. It is life-affirming even as it is (I'm sorry to lable it this way, but here goes) a downer because Tessa is palpably sick from page one. And she's not all the way to acceptance in her grief stages, either, so along with sadness you get a few heaping doses of anger. These are the things that make the book read as true, and part of what make it so well-done. If you are looking for excellent writing and story, it's here. If you are looking for a book you can experience as real, that will absorb your attention and remove you from the world you live in, it's here. If you are looking for light-hearted amusement, well, best look elsewhere. book (told in first person) never passes from her p.o.v., so you "experience" her death with her, in shortening paragraphs with lots of white space in between. Before I Die has moments of beauty in it and reads as true (emotionally and factually).

Deadline by Chris Crutcher is about a eighteen-year-old boy named Ben who learns, just as he's about to start his senior year, that he has a rare, incurable form of leukemia and less than a year to live. Because he's 18, Ben manages to swear his doctor to secrecy, which means that for the longest time, Ben's the only one who knows that he's ill. Ben's decision is based on his need to protect others, nothing more. Ben decides to live "balls out". He makes a list of things he'd most like to do before he dies: date Dallas Suzuki (a hot girl), play football, torment his right-wing civics teacher, help the town drunk, get a street names after Malcolm X. Ben seeks not only to live his life, but to make the world a better place for the people he leaves behind in it.

Ben is almost a full year older than his brother, Cody, but they are both in the same grade. Cody's the quarterback, and Ben's a runt; still, he gives football a go. The relationship between Ben and Cody is one of the strong points in this novel. Crutcher tells the story in first person, but unlike Tessa, Ben's a smart-ass, so his voice is breezier (glib, even, to use Ben's own term), and the fact that he keeps his condition a secret allows him to interact with others as if nothing's wrong (with him). Along the way, Ben learns the secrets of other townspeople, and learns that keeping secrets can have devastating results. Kirkus* knocked it for describing only his fatigue, but really, he describes dream-like visions involving Hey-Soos, a Christ-like figure who offers him guidance, and more. The book doesn't end with Ben's death, but with his legacy (and thinking of it makes me cry all over again).

On the surface, these are the same book: Teen MC is dying of leukemia, makes a list of things to do before they die, dies at or near the end. Both look for love and try to get some living in while they can. These books make an interesting side-by-side study for writers because they prove that the devil is in the details, and that it's not the idea that's original, it's the treatment of the idea. Downham's book ends up being about finding love and making the most of time; Crutcher's is about those things too, but overall, it's about truth.

If you're going for an engaging story with the basic plot line I've described, you can't go wrong with either book. If you're looking for an honest exploration of what it feels like, actually, to be terminally ill (and to die), go for Before I Die. If I had to pick only one to read, however, I'd pick Deadline, because I liked the main character better, and I liked the different and complicated plot threads that Crutcher chose to weave together, which include discussions of politics, incest, child molestation, manic depression and more. I'll take a smart-ass over an angstite (is that a word? let's pretend it is) any day. I'm not saying that Deadline is the better book, it's just the way my taste runs. But truly, you can't go wrong with either choice.

*But it was, after all, Kirkus, and the reader seemed to have an axe to grind with Crutcher's politics as well. And really, this is about a kid who was trying to ignore his illness as best he could, so I didn't feel I needed all the details piled on. (If you feel you'd prefer all the awful details, read Before I Die).

To quote one of my favorite movies, The Great Race, "PUSH THE BUTTON, MAX!"

Check out the snowflakes for the Robert's Snow auction being featured today, which you can find listed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha have also posted an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them. While you're there, check out Jules and Eisha's other content. Today, for instance, they interview Sheila Ruth, the force behind Wands and Worlds, the coordinator for the Science Fiction & Fantasy category at the CYBILS, and an all-around smart lady.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 24th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC)
Great reviews, Kelly! I haven't read either book yet, though I'm a Crutcher fan, coz I love a good smart-ass, too.
Oct. 24th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed them. The fact that two books with the same premise turned up on the new release table on the same day is what made me pick them up in the first place.
Oct. 24th, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the breakdown of these two books. I read (and loved) Before I Die, but I haven't gotten my hands on DEADLINE yet. Now I can't wait!
Oct. 24th, 2007 08:47 pm (UTC)
I really liked Deadline.
Oct. 24th, 2007 07:02 pm (UTC)
I was just looking at both of these books at the bookstore today. Nina and I went out to see if Uninvited was at Borders yet--nope! Anyway, that was a good rundown on both books!
Oct. 24th, 2007 08:48 pm (UTC)
Bummer - it was in force at B&N. Only my stupid cellphone won't let me email it to myself (or you) without signing up for internet for the phone. My old phone would've done it, but this one won't. Grrrr.
Oct. 24th, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC)
They both sound facsinating. And what great covers. Thanks.
Oct. 24th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC)
fascinating. (Duh.)
Oct. 24th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
Silly you - of COURSE I know you know how to spell it. And they were quite good, each in their own way.
Oct. 24th, 2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
I think about this premise quite a bit, especially when I'm in a rut. I'm going to look out for both books, even though they'll probably have me playing the blues.
Oct. 25th, 2007 12:23 pm (UTC)
They're well worth a look, and at least you know what you're in for when you open them. And both of them are on the 2008 list of nominees for Best Books for Young Adults over at the YALSA site.
Oct. 25th, 2007 12:16 am (UTC)
what it feels like, actually, to be terminally ill (and to die)

LOL, yes, because I've always wondered!

I read DEADLINE not too long ago & thought it was truly awesome. I've been curious about BEFORE I DIE since I first saw it in the store . . . I just keep forgetting to put it on hold at the library. Thanks for reminding me!
Oct. 25th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
As you already know, I liked Deadline better, in part for the reasons that the Kirkus reviewer criticized it - I liked his exploration of other topics and plot points. Before I Die is decidedly more of a downer, but, like Deadline, it manages to be uplifting at the same time. It's just a very different take on the subject matter.
Oct. 25th, 2007 04:33 am (UTC)
Wow, great reviews.
Oct. 25th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
Oct. 25th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)
An idea...
"These books make an interesting side-by-side study for writers because they prove that the devil is in the details, and that it's not the idea that's original, it's the treatment of the idea."

Wow, Kelly...this is really begging to be written as an article for someone. I know I'd benefit from you. Really, this is your query! Yes?
Oct. 25th, 2007 01:34 pm (UTC)
Re: An idea...
Huh. I never even thought of such a thing. And I have no idea to whom I'd pitch it, either. Must go ponder . . .
Oct. 25th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
Re: An idea...
Lots of your posts have such words of wisdom. (Don't give me huh again!) Wasn't this topic just debated on Verla's last week? How many idea are similiar but it's all about teh execution. People struggle with this and I think you could offer wonderful insights.

CWIM? ICL? Lots of possibilities!
Oct. 25th, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
Re: An idea...
Thanks for your encouragement, Lisa. I may just have to give it a whirl!
Oct. 25th, 2007 06:10 pm (UTC)
I definately want to read both of them.
Home alone.
With a large bowl of ice cream and a pile of tissues.
Oct. 25th, 2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't recommend back-to-back reading sessions for these two. Both need some processing time once you close them.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 28th, 2007 06:43 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if reading them will make you feel better or worse, but they are both well-done.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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