“Extraordinary Means” by Robyn Schneider

It’s been a while since a book made me cry Actual Real Tears — the kind that slide down your cheeks slowly while you try not to make a noise and pretend that you aren’t crying over fictional characters because oh man, what is your life and why don’t you have real people you care about this much? But then, partly I cried because Extraordinary Means chimed with my own experiences of illness and fear and so on, and partly because it was well written and I think it tapped into more general ideas about death.

ANYWAY. Because this made me cry, it probably warrants a proper review, even though in my disorganisation I need to start focusing on ARCs instead of reviewing so many library books.

extraordinary means

You know I feel strongly about a book when I take artsy pictures of them.

This wasn’t quite what I expected — I thought it would be a more traditional contemporary novel dealing with real-world issues in a familiar form. Instead, it’s a near-future or alt-present novel about a strain of tuberculosis that’s resistant to all current treatments (rather than just most of them), and how the modern world deals with that. In the old days, they used to send people to sanatoriums to rest and breathe fresh air, but now that we know it’s contagious, they do that AND make sure nobody can catch it from them.

Although I’m not big on the whole “dying teenagers with a penchant for the poetic fall in love” genre, especially when they’re straight, this book won me over mainly because it focuses also on friendship. It’s not just about a romantic relationship, but about a group of friends, who find a new kind of life under the threat of dying. It also explores the idea of “when you’re dead you’ll wish you had danced” (does anyone else know that song / phrase?) — that spending every day planning for the future means you don’t really get to enjoy the present.

Lane’s a hardworking high-achieving student intent on going to a great college, and instead he’s having to take time out of school to get better when they’re not even sure it’s POSSIBLE to get better. While I’m not as hardworking and none of my health problems are terminal (just chronic), I can identify with this a lot: after thinking I knew how the next few years would pan out, I ended up taking time out of uni for health reasons and now I’m a year behind where I wanted to be. I’m actually due to go back pretty soon, and I’m facing a lot of the fears about readjusting to that life and fitting back in with people that characterised this book, even though I haven’t been nearly as cut off from the outside world as the characters. So that was relatable. And I know how it feels to have a sense of being broken, because you keep getting passed around to different doctors for more tests but even when they can pin down what’s wrong they can’t actually do anything about it, so if you can’t be fixed, what else are you?

I’m making this book sound really depressing, which it isn’t; it’s got just the right balance of humour to mean that it’s tragic and it made me cry without making me feel like the world is awful and hopeless and there’s no point to anything. Quite the opposite, actually. This doesn’t pull punches or give characters the ‘get out of death free’ card that many YA novels so love to hand them, but it isn’t gratuitous, and there’s a good dollop of hope in there too. The characters are sarcastic, and tell jokes to lighten the mood, even if some of them are super dark. They make literary references and poke fun at themselves. They’re smart kids in a crappy situation, and it shows, and since that’s the kind of humour I like, it worked.

I picked this up partly because I liked the cover and partly because the blurb made me think it might be relatable. And it was. Actually, I kind of wish I’d read it when I first had to take time out, and was freaking out about the prospect of going back to uni, instead of now when I’m kind of scared but also much more ready. I think it might have made me feel a little less alone. (Though I should emphasise: not even slightly terminal.)

I confess: I didn’t particularly like the romance. I didn’t get why it was a big deal that Lane and Sadie had known each other when they were 13 and she had somehow held a grudge for four years about something that hadn’t even really happened. I guess it was there to give them shared history and make it a bit less ‘instalove’ or whatever, but I think instalove is acceptable when characters know they may only have a few weeks to live, so I probably wouldn’t have objected to it the way I usually do. Instead this random bit of backstory was a slight distraction, though maybe that’s just me. You know I’m grouchy and hard to please when it comes to romance, especially if there’s kissing and so on involved — it just doesn’t click with me. It probably would have reduced my rating of the book further if (a) there hadn’t been such a strong friendship component as well and (b) I hadn’t cried so many Actual Tears.

Because the Actual Tears are definitely significant in a review. I am not averse to crying at books. I used to do it a lot. We Need To Talk About Kevin? Properly SOBBED. Horrified, shocked, upset sobbing for hours afterwards. Or Children Of Hurin? I was crying in a library. But I haven’t cried at a book in a while because I’m a bit oversaturated with reading (see my reading challenge if you don’t believe me) and also because my current medication has made crying a less common thing in my life, randomly. If I am crying despite the meds, you know it has managed to get through to me.

I don’t even know what this review is. Positive? Negative? Just a description of the book with a few judgements thrown in here and there to emphasise that I cried and that I’m a kiss-hating monster? Maybe a bit of all of them. But there we go. It surpassed my expectations and I had a great many feelings. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and eat them for a while. I wonder if there’s any gluten-free cake in the house…

Rating: ****

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