Before I Die is a superb YA debut from British author Jenny Denham. I really didn’t expect to like this book. Stories of beautiful, poetic teens dying young is a staple in novels and movies. Let’s not forget Ali MacGraw in Love Story or the absolutely excruciating Here on Earth with Leelee Sobieski. And it’s always leukemia, which fiction would have us believe is a beautiful and heroic death. Those afflicted still look stunning or sound soulful and selfless during their final hours. They’ve accepted their fate and are more worried about the feelings of everyone around them.

This book, not so much. It is poetic, absolutely. Sixteen-year-old Tessa is the most eloquent teenager in history. But she’s also angry, resentful, and realistic about having leukemia. She makes a list of all the things she wants to do before she dies (has there ever not been a list like this in the story?). Most of the things on the list are illegal, like driving without her license, taking drugs, and committing a crime. Sex and fame are also on the list, as is falling in love. All the cliches of the genre are there, but this is the first dying young story I’ve ever encountered that is told in the first person with a real focus on what the victim is experiencing. The disease is often an afterthought, a device to show true love or sacrifice or heroism. Tessa’s procedures, her pain, her deteriorating body, her changing smell–these are all laid out for the reader over the last few months of her life, right up until her final breath. Sometimes she’s a selfish monster, sometimes she’s desperate not to die, and sometimes she’s just a teenager who fights with her little brother. She’s not an icon, she’s a dying girl who knows it’s coming and brings the reader along the terrifying road to the end. It is an incredible book, one of the best I have read this year.