Thursday, 22 January 2015

'The Last Leaves Falling' by Sarah Benwell - SPOILER FREE REVIEW

First off, I want to say a massive thank you to Random House UK Children's publishers for accepting my request for an early copy of this book from NetGalley, and a huge thank you to NetGalley for the service they provide. 

'The Last Leaves Falling' tells us the story of Sora Abe, a seventeen year old boy who is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as ALS, especially following the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that circulated over social media for most of last summer, but also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig's disease). In case you don't know about ALS, it is a debilitating degenerative disease that commonly occurs in older people, but can affect people of any ages, as any illness can, and sadly does. There isn't a common, widespread cure for the illness, but some sufferers can live longer than others, with death commonly occurring anywhere between two and ten years after diagnosis.
So as I'm sure you can imagine, this novel is emotional and affecting in a way that I had not been anticipating, and I am sat here writing this review feeling shocked and deeply saddened in a way that I haven't experienced from a book before.
Sora's story is so touching because it occurs in someone so young, at a time when their life should still be stretched out in front of them, not coming to a close. A lot of the novel focuses upon Sora coming to terms with the fact that he will never get to become a professor, the thing that he had yearned for all of his life, and dealing with the knowledge that his wishes will never come true. His doctor offers him a Wish4Life program, but he dismisses it with a feeling of disgust, knowing that all of his wishes are long-term, not material. I believe this is dealt with really well, because having a single wish come true at the end of your life is, in my opinion, a ridiculous notion, and it's nice to have that sentiment touched upon. I do understand that I've never been in this position, and I hopefully will never be, but I think that asking someone who should still have so much time to do everything that they've ever wanted, to just choose one thing... That seems cold to me. I also appreciated the fact that Sarah chose to write about how unfair the whole situation was, with Sora even questioning why it was happening to him, because I do think that with that happening to you you would be feeling bitter and angry at the world and all of the healthy people out there.
The progression of the disease was also written very well, so much so that it was very subtle how much had changed within Sora until it hit you in the face how badly he was doing. A lot of the time, with books that focus upon teenage illnesses, they are absolutely fine one minute and die in the next, to demonstrate how anybody like you or like me can be struck down in the prime of life, but this was written a lot more intelligently than that. Starting off with a simple trembling of the fingers, it was both fascinating and horrible as Sora's body started obeying him less and less, eventually leaving him almost completely dependent on the constant care of his mother.
However, as well as focusing on the illness, and Sora coming to terms with his diagnosis, this novel is clever in the way that it just showed Sora's days as normal, demonstrating how people can live with the disease for months or even years without it affecting them in too visceral a way. The scenes between Sora, Mai and Kaito were written in a way that was funny but also realistic, perfectly capturing the essence of new friendships in your teenage years, and the holiday that Sora and his mother take to visit his grandparents was both upsetting - as his grandparents came to terms with the fact that it might be the last time they saw their grandchild - but also enlightening, as he had fun with his grandfather and made memories that would last a lifetime.
Another thing that impressed me about this novel was the fact that it is a young adult contemporary novel that does not have a glaringly obvious romantic plot. Sora has many much more serious problems to cope with, so I'm glad that he didn't develop feelings for Mai; it was much more enjoyable to read about them as friends than to read about them falling deeply in love with each other in a relationship that was obviously going to be doomed. It's a credit to Sarah's writing that this YA novel was so absorbing and engrossing without the need to be overly romantic.
The only thing I didn't really like about this novel was the use of the forums throughout. This could have been a problem with the format I was reading it in, because I did read this book on my Kindle, but the forum dialogue just didn't run as smoothly as the rest of the novel, with it seeming disjointed and uncomfortable in multiple areas. The same can be said for the email dialogue, because that also didn't seem right on my Kindle, but I'm more than likely going to purchase a physical copy and re-read the book once it's been released, so that aspect of my opinion is likely to change.
I've heard a lot of people saying that they'd recommend this book to fans of 'The Fault In Our Stars', and I do agree with the sentiment, but 'The Last Leaves Falling' is so much better that it's likely going to blow your mind. I also agree with the recommendation of keeping tissues near by, because despite the fact that I don't cry at books, I finished this one twenty minutes ago and I still have a lump in my throat and a burning behind my eyes. Please, if you buy one book this month, buy this one. You won't be disappointed.

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