A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Kids will learn something about the side effects of chemotherapy and a little about ballet and dancing en pointe.
Love is scary, because being loved by someone gives you power over him or her. True love conquers all, even a mean girl.
Positive Role Models
Protagonists Alice and Harvey, who take turns narrating the story, are juniors in high school and indulge in such classic teen hijinks as sneaking beer and cutting school. Harvey is essentially a good kid who encourages Alice to do the right thing, but he's far too much of an enabling doormat to be a truly good role model. Alice is a straight-up mean girl who humiliates, bullies, or uses everyone. Not even a cancer diagnosis is enough to make her a sympathetic character. Harvey's mother and Alice's parents are involved and engaged with their kids, showing responsible adult behavior and loving guidance without being overbearing.
Violence & Scariness
Alice punches a bully in the nose and draws blood. A coppery taste from bleeding gums is mentioned. A homophobic bully is in turn bullied via public humiliation.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
There are about a dozen scenes of kissing and light making out, with the description limited to mentioning the kisses' locations (mostly on the lips, with a few instances of neck and shoulders) and intensity. Several make-out sessions almost lead to sex, but something always puts a stop to it; the brief descriptions stay above the waist. Harvey and Alice have sex once, but it's not described; they use a condom. A minor classmate character has a pregnancy scare. Several descriptions of bras.
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Teens frequently use swear words, including "f--k" and its variations, "s--t," and "ass" with variations such as "smartass" and "a--hole." Other strong language they use occasionally includes "crap," "sucked," "chickens--t," "bulls--t," "pissed," "turd," "bitch," and "damn." "Boobs" occurs once. The backseat of a bike is referred to as the "bitch seat." Rare instances of name-calling include "pansy," "whore," and "faggot." Neither Harvey's mother nor Alice's parents censor their language in front of their kids, and they're heard swearing a couple times.
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Products & Purchases
Harvey's Geo is mentioned several times. Other products mentioned once or twice include Muzak, Range Rover, Oreo, Lifetime, Tramadol, Adderall, Jack and Coke, Sprite, and Jetta.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Teens matter-of-factly sneak beer on several occasions but don't seem to particularly enjoy it. Harvey drinks a Jack and Coke at a bar but also drinks water and soda there. A teen describes another as "plastered" at a party. Adults drink wine with dinner and when socializing. Adults at a party smell of cigars and beer. Teens assume that everyone in high school has smoked pot at least once. How to make an apple bong is described without specifics, and Alice and Harvey smoke from it what she thinks is marijuana but turns out to be pine-flavored tobacco. There's speculation about snorting Adderall. Tramadol is mentioned once. Since Alice is a cancer patient, she takes painkillers, some of which she describes as the "good stuff:" After taking some, she drifts in and out of consciousness.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Side Effects May Vary is a teen romance involving a girl who's so mean that even a cancer diagnosis doesn't garner her any sympathy from the reader. Although true love and forgiveness conquer all, they wait until the last minute to do so, and most of the events serve as a catalog of what not to do. The typical teens use a lot of strong language, most frequently "f--k," "s--t," and "ass." They also sneak beer and smoke what they think is marijuana but turns out to be tobacco. Kissing and making out above the waist occur frequently but without descriptive detail.
Is It Any Good?
In SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY, first-time author Julie Murphy presents a complicated, sophisticated teen romance between high-school juniors Alice and Harvey. Teens will find the characters believable and enjoy following their relationship as it matures along with Alice and Harvey themselves. Each character's inability to choose the better path, even though they all fully recognize their own weaknesses, can sometimes be frustrating. It keeps Alice, in particular, from being truly relatable, as she consistently hurts those around her.
Harvey and Alice take turns narrating the story, which gives a refreshing and balanced perspective to events. But they also go back and forth in time somewhat unevenly. Even though the chapters are labeled "Then" and "Now" at the beginning, it's sometimes hard to follow or to reconstruct the time line of events. The writing's solid and mercifully devoid of schlock but lacks any kind of unique spark to elevate the novel above a genre piece.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.