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'I'm not Her' a tender teenage tale
im not her cover

‘I’m Not Her’

By: Janet Gurtler

Price: $9.99

Rating: Four out of five bookmarks

As much as I hate to admit there is a genre of literature that often gets under my skin, modern teen fiction is it (I refuse to acknowledge anything involving sparkly vampires and relationship-sadistic girls).

I understand that the teen years are fraught with high-strung emotion and the dramas of social life. But fictional novels directed at high-school readers seem to be overrun with unrealistic romances, trivial problems blown out of proportion, and most insultingly, stupid kids making even stupider choices.

That was why when I stumbled across "I’m Not Her," centering around the all too real, all too uncomfortable subject of cancer, I was curious enough to see if the author would not water down the topic simply because the book is intended for a young adult audience.

Janet Gurtler’s debut novel from 2011 explores how cancer changes the lives of one family in which the elder of two sisters finds herself diagnosed with a body-eating disease.

Kristina and Tess are complete opposites: Kristina is the beautiful, athletic, popular girl, captain of the high school volleyball team and has friends galore; Tess is the plain, bookish, introverted younger sister who strives to be on the honors society and prefers to be invisible to everyone at school.

When Kristina is diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, both of their worlds are turned upside down. Soon, Tess finds herself unable to escape the curious pressuring peers at school as Kristina recoils ever more and more away from the public, refusing to see any of her old friends.

In the midst of dealing with all of the attention, Tess finds herself having to be the strong one, as neither her health-obsessed mother or workaholic father know how to cope with their daughter’s malady.

Can Tess’ family, and her life, ever regain balance and normalcy, or has everything permanently changed for the worse?

Gurtler does a good job at creating a realistic voice for 15-year-old Tess, who is the narrator of the story — an interesting choice from the point of view of the non-afflicted sister rather than the cancer-infected one.

Tess can be cynical, tough-skinned and even callous at times, and she knows it; but she is also honest, vulnerable and compassionate toward others.

She is smart and determined, but often confused and lost. She wants more than anything to be there for her sister, but resents how Kristina’s situation has flipped her life around.

This is the kind of female heroine that young readers should connect to — one who is genuine in thought and action. She is a girl who is flawed but recognizes those flaws, who stumbles through her trials and faces setbacks, realizing in the end she has to keep going.

We do not get to delve into the mind of Kristina as much, save for the few brief conversations she has with Tess. But readers can see how she is much more than the pretty girl her friends and parents idolize.

I was trying to imagine how this book would have been through Kristina’s eyes rather than Tess’s, and I believe Kristina could be just as complex and relatable a protagonist as her sister.

While the book is mostly a character study and not intensely plot-driven, it is a touching story without being sappy or over the top. The author does not force pulling on the readers’ heartstrings, but simply lets the story unfurl itself and allows us to understand the pain and emotions of the characters.

Even though "I’m Not Her" is not an exceptionally ground-breaking novel, I still take identifiable, down-to-earth young heroines over whiny vampire lovers or ditsy teen witches any day.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on