Reviews for Before I Die

Booklist Reviews 2007 November #2
*Starred Review* Four years after being diagnosed with leukemia, British teenager Tessa, 16, knows she has almost no time left. "I want to live before I die," she says, rushing to pack in the things on her to-do list, including sex, drugs, breaking the law, driving, bringing her parents back together, and fame (sort of). On the list as well is being in love with her neighbor, Adam, with whom she has great sex, almost to the end. The details of the stages of grief (anger, denial, depression, etc.) sometimes go on too long, but each character is distinctive: Happy-go-lucky-friend Zoe, whom Tessa helps convince not to have an abortion; Tessa's father, so protective, he smothers her until he sees that Adam makes her happy; Adam, who will go off to college without her; little brother Cal, whom Tessa sublety teaches about courage, laughter, and love. The clear, beautiful prose brings out all the elemental emotions--especially Tessa's anger and frustration at being stuck in bed while others get on with their lives--and the passionate present-tense narrative will draw readers deeply into story and make them wonder, "What if it was me?" Copyright 2007 Booklist Reviews.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #6
Downham's impressive first novel is a searingly intimate portrait of a sixteen-year-old facing imminent death. When the treatments for her advanced leukemia stop working, Tessa makes a list of things she wants to do in the time she has left. Her brash best friend Zoey helps her with the illicit items (driving without a license; getting high): after all, Zoey says, "there are no consequences for someone like you." First on the list is sex, and first-time sex with a stranger is, unsurprisingly, horrible, but pursuing the list makes Tessa feel alive, regardless of the outcomes. Amazingly, Tessa's number eight is realized as she falls in love with sweet, awkward Adam; this time, sex is tender and warm. Downham deftly builds Tessa's rich characterization through her shifting emotions. She grieves for the things she'll miss, rages that Adam and Zoey have full lives ahead without her, yet thrills at the moments she has right now -- riding on Adam's motorcycle, smelling the sea, tasting a kiwi. Far from sentimental, the novel doesn't shirk the raw physicality of Tessa's illness but shares the painful tests and transfusions, the weight loss and thinning skin, the nausea and aching bones. Tessa's body lets her down before she gets all her wishes, but she continues to make her own choices to the end. Downham's imagining of these last days and hours feels intensely real; the pages are ripe with love and loss as Tessa slips in and out of consciousness, her family and boyfriend by her side. This memorable novel is a clear directive to live one's life fiercely and fully, whatever the duration. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2007 September #1
With only months left to live, 16-year-old Tessa makes a list of things she must experience: sex, petty crime, fame, drugs and true love. Downham's wrenching work features a girl desperate for a few thrilling moments before leukemia takes her away. Although Tessa remains ardently committed to her list, both she and the reader find comfort in the quiet resonance of the natural world. Tessa's soul mate, Adam, gardens next door; a bird benignly rots in grass; psychedelic mushrooms provide escape; an apple tree brings comfort; and her best friend, Zoey, ripens in the final months of pregnancy. Downham's lithe, facile writing creates a chiaroscuro of life and death, of organic growth and decay. Although Tessa begins to see herself within the natural continuum, she still feels furious with her lot. She lashes out and behaves cruelly at times, making her believable to teen readers. Because her experience feels so palpable, readers will believe that the novel's final pages might offer a crystalline vision of death. Lucid language makes a painful journey bearable, beautiful and transcendent. (Fiction. YA)First printing of 100,000 Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 August #1

The eloquent dying teen can seem a staple of the YA novel, but this British debut completely breaks the mold.Downham holds nothing back in her wrenching and exceptionally vibrant story about a 16-year-old girl with leukemia determined to do 10 things before her imminent death (have sex, commit a crime, fall in love); although her rage feels palpable, she has decided to spend her remaining time living instead of dying. The chronicling of Tessa's slow decline has the immediacy of an audio journal--painful, honest first-person descriptions almost trap the audience inside Tessa's head. She alternates erratically but realistically between emotions, and the effect is staggering. One scene, for example, begins with Tessa's younger brother burying a dead bird, the boy next door helping him in an effort to impress Tessa: at first Tessa is touched, then "There's earth on my head. I'm cold.... I try and focus on good things, but it's so hard to scramble out." Although the internal monologues wield undeniable power, some of the most dramatic scenes in the book involve Tessa's friends and familyher father's efforts to remain strong despite grief; her boyfriend's love for her; her younger brother's inability to grasp the gravity of his sister's condition (after a fight he hisses, "I hope you die while I'm at school! And I hope it bloody hurts"). Downham's writing is shockingly straightforward, and she cushions nothing for readers. In laying out so bald a story she evokes an extraordinary range of emotions, exorcised in a fiercely cathartic ending. Ages 14-up. (Sept.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2007 November

Gr 9 Up --While other 16-year-olds are thinking about getting their driver's license or who will ask them to the school dance, terminally ill Tessa is busy making a list of 10 things she wants to do before she dies. As Tessa begins to tackle her list, she learns a great deal about those around her and even more about who she is and what she wants from the life she has left. The issue of dealing with a serious illness and how it affects everyone involved, from family and friends to visiting nurses, is deftly handled and rings true. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the story does not feel as authentic, including the romance between Tessa and her neighbor, Adam, which does not begin evolving until more than halfway through the book and seems like an unnecessary afterthought. On top of that, the author piles on a teen pregnancy (Tessa's best friend) and Adam's mother's depression. The manipulation of readers' emotions is obvious as the author goes from one sobbing moment to the next, but fans of Lurlene McDaniel's books are sure to overlook these flaws.--Shari Fesko, Southfield Public Library, MI

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