Life and Other Near DeathLibby Miller finds out (on the same day) that her husband is not at all who she thought he was, and their marriage was not what she thought it was. And that she has terminal illness.  The internal monologues make you wonder how you, too, would cope with a day like that. For me, the first half of the book was most interesting, as Libby struggles to cope with seismic shifts in every aspect of her life – her job, her home, her health, and her family.  She begins to realize that nothing at all in her life will ever be the same.  This Camille Pagan novel is written in the first-person, so we are privy to her wildly swinging emotions. Her reaction to her husband’s news is both horrifying and funny.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences  is an odd amalgam of standard fiction and chick-lit. Some of the latter’s conventions are apparent – the tone is self-effacing and self-mocking, the main character is young (ish) and attractive, and good at her professional job – though she is a PA to a horrible boss. There is a spirit of re-invention, and, inevitably, a romance with a man who is a soul-mate, rather than someone she has stayed with, out of habit.

However, the reader (or this reader, anyway) had certain expectations about the illness that were not met, so it didn’t follow a typical airport fiction trajectory.(No spoilers here).  The tone often veers into pretty dark territory – the illness and death of Libby’s mother is a driving factor in how Libby deals with her diagnosis. The result is that the reader is thrown off balance, and isn’t quite sure where the story is going. It’s a novel with a high-concept plot that delves deeper than expected.

 

 

First of all, don’t attempt to read the last third of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in public. Find somewhere quiet and private so that you can read uninterrupted (because you won’t be able to stop) and where you can sob without alarming others (because unless you have a heart of stone, you’re going to cry) On the other hand, don’t let that warning scare you off – this book is also laugh-out-loud funny. It’s raw and honest and sweet and poignant and you’ll come out the other side a little different for it.

16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has never been anything other than terminal since her diagnosis; treatments have extended her life, but there is no cure. She no longer attends school, her best friends are her parents and she has to carry an oxygen tank with her at all times. Her path is set. Then Augustus Waters – hot boy she meets at Cancer Kids Support Group – bursts into her life, and that path takes on new and completely unexpected turns both heartbreaking and hilarious. A life well lived isn’t defined by quantity; it’s defined by quality.

Hazel and Augustus find common ground beyond their illness; they laugh and bicker and watch movies together and share adventures. They fall in love. They grapple with big questions and support their friends and each other. They live the days they’re given. “It is a good life, Hazel Grace” says Augustus. And it is.

The plot here is not particularly groundbreaking or unusual – the probable outcome is fairly predictable – but the characters and their stories will keep you riveted and will stay with you long after you put the book down. Hazel and Augustus are amazing of course, but the supporting characters are also wonderful, especially their friend Issac and Hazel’s parents. There is no romanticized stereotype of the “brave cancer patient.” The people here are real – funny and sad and inquisitive and so angry, struggling with the Big Questions but also not waiting around for death. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t been touched by cancer or other serious illness in their life – either yourself, a family member or a close friend or maybe all three – and you’ll recognize these emotions as real and honest. This book takes on the fear and the unknown, acknowledges them and then does battle with them. It’s a battle well worth joining.

 

belong-to-me

Having grown up in Philadelphia and lived in New York City, Cornelia Brown believes the suburbs will be a piece of cake. Turns out the slice of the American dream that Cornelia and her husband Teo move to is just as full of drama, heartache, secrets and joys as anywhere else.

Early on in Belong to Me, Cornelia struggles to find a place among the women and families of her new neighborhood. When Piper, the “leader” of the local social network, takes an instant dislike to her, it looks like things will get ugly. But then by chance Cornelia meets Lake, also new to the area and they begin to form a bond. Not everything is as it seems – we learn that Piper is caring for her terminally ill best friend and is not quite the dragon she presents to the world, that seemingly perfect marriages have cracks and that Lake has secrets that will affect them all.

de los Santos writes about the daily living with family and children and events both large and small with grace and clarity, but she is especially good at revealing the intricaces of the friendships of women; there is a lot of emotion here, but no sentimentality. Characters are complex, with flaws, but also hugely likeable, people that you’d like to know and have over for coffee.

This is a follow-up to de los Santos first book, Love Walked In where we first meet Cornelia and Teo and learn how they got together.