Saturday, January 30th, 2010 08:41 am

Back of the book: Sixteen-year-old Melissa Austin has always worked hard to get what she wants. As the school year begins, her work is paying off. Her grades are up, and she landed a coveted spot on the high school Brain Bowl team. She and her best friend Jory Delaney, are determined to have the best junior year ever.

Then Melissa receives devastating news about her health. At first she refuses to accept the doctor's diagnosis, but as her illness gets worse she cannot deny the truth. The caring and closeness Melissa feels toward her family, and especially toward Jory, help her find the inner stength to hace the mysteries of living and dying.

Thoughts: I was bored and had an hour to kill at the library yesterday and so I sat and read through this book. Like nearly all Lurlene McDaniel books, that's how long it takes to read. She's not known for writing books that will keep you up all night.

When I was young, I used to cry whenever I read her books. They were engaging, sad, and made me think a lot about death. I remember my mother finding me crying once after finishing one of McDaniel's books, and she told me, "It's just a story, you know. It's not real." I couldn't quite explain to her that the reason it upset me so much is that because it was real to someone. Someone was, at that moment, living with and dying with a terrible disease.

But these books lose that appeal when you get older, and now when I read them, my greatest enjoyment comes from seeing what the books tell about the author. Also, seeing how many books you can write that have the same cookie-cutter story. They start off in one of two ways. 1) the female teenage protagonist is starting to show signs of health problems but denies their reality and tries to cover them up, or 2) the female teenage protagonist has had health problems all her life but doesn't want anybody to know about them. 90% of the time she's trying to catch the eye of some very attractive boy at her school. She likes shopping for clothes and makeup and cares about fashions, because that's what all girls do. Her health worsens and she finds herself in the hospital, where she avoids just about all of her friends. More often than not she meets another attractive boy there who is sick just the like, and she starts debating which of the boys she likes more and has the occasional crisis of conscience. Somebody she meets while in the hospital will die.

The books always end in one of two ways. Either the girl dies after trying to convince her friends that the world will go on without her, or she recovers enough to go back to her daily life, overcomes her challenges while still trying to hide her problems from everyone, and finds out that they boy she liked in the first place was kind of a jerk and she gets over him. Sometimes they hook up, but it's rare.

Yes, I just described the formula for nearly all of Lurlene McDaniel's novels.

She tries in each book to write the everygirl, the girl that every female reader will be able to relate to in some way and so drive the story a little closer to home. The problem with this is that she alienates every other girl, the girl who doesn't fit into the stereotype of being pretty but not thinking so, caring about fashion and makeup and boys. Plenty of times when I was young and reading her books, I wished she'd write a book about somebody like me: didn't care about clothes and makeup and boys, was actually unpopular and frequently bullies and teased, quiet with maybe one friend at a time, not very visually appealing, who'd rather curl up with a book than with any boy. I wanted her to write about someone who didn't go gently into that good night, who was bitter and angry through the whole course of her illness.

But that wouldn't have sold, because nobody wants to read about a fat ugly girl who doesn't fit in, who gets a terrible disease and doesn't use it as some big life lesson. There's no sale in that.

I wanted to write a review of this book alone, to comment on the high and low points of this particular story. But I didn't feel I could do that without comparing it to her other books, and once I'd made the comparison and showed how alike all her other books are, it felt to me like the review was done. Read these books if you're a die-hard fan of hers, you're 13 and interested in the morbid or the medical, or if you've got an hour to kill at the library.

That being said, for the sake of completion I will read the sequel to this novel, Goodbye Doesn't Mean Forever. I don't expect it to be hugely different, but I won't be accused of not hearing out the whole story when I have a chance. Especially when it won't exactly take up all of my day to do so.


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