Aug 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Book cover for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
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In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.

A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like

If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.

Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.

Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.

The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.

As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.

The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.

Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.

Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

Prince is judging you.

I can almost taste the cheese.

Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.

“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”

“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”

Hashtag ThingsTeenagersWouldNeverSay.

Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.

The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.

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Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars

Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

May 1, 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book cover for BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
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When Samantha “Sam” Kingston dies in a car crash, she finds herself reliving the same day, her last day, over and over again. In her efforts to get time and her life back on track, she finally sees how much pain she and her friends have caused others. Will she be able to fix what she’s broken?

Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day

Sam is a bully, a mean girl. With her friends, she rules the popular roost of Connecticut’s Thomas Jefferson High School. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Sam knows what it’s like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be the butt of the joke, and she knows how precarious her position at the top is. It can depend on something as seemingly unimportant and random as a girl grabbing her hand and asking her to join in on a practical joke. Knowing this is what makes Sam all the more desperate to remain on top, no matter what it takes. If that means calling girls “sluts” or “bitches” or “psychos,” so be it. If it means sabotaging others, cheating on tests, and lying, she’s in.

The way Sam and her friends bully their fellow classmates is real and raw and had me cringing over things I remember happening in my own high school. Author Lauren Oliver is fairly quick to get to the root of bullying, that it always goes back to some personal fear or pain. Teens spread rumors so no one will notice their own flaws and secrets. That’s an important lesson for young readers who may be used to seeing the black and white view of bullies versus “nice kids.” It’s more complex than that, and Oliver embraces the complexity.

There’s a lot of Mean Girls to be found in this book—enough that I sometimes wondered just how much Before I Fall was inspired by that film—but it ultimately goes to much deeper, darker places, to the twisted and truly cruel games some are willing to play.

Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single [rose for Valentine’s Day]. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.

When Sam finds herself caught in her own version of purgatory / Groundhog Day after a fatal car accident, she at first doesn’t take the hint. She continues to plow her way through people, doing and saying as she pleases, regardless of the harm she might cause. Sam eventually sees the error of her ways, though, and tries to fix all she’s broken or helped break. Deep down, she knows this is the only way she and those she’s hurt will find peace.

I like the book up to this point, but the conclusion muddles Oliver’s messages. What Sam decides she needs to do to make things right makes no sense and would actually have lasting, negative consequences. She decides to sacrifice herself for another person. Because doing that won’t cause any lasting damage, right? Worse, the resolution, if it can be called that, leaves many other problems hanging. There’s no resolving all the slut- and virgin-shaming. Issues concerning drunk driving, eating disorders, date rape, predatory math teachers, and more hang as loose ends. And Sam never even begins to get her friends, who have always joined in on the bullying, to change their ways.

Sam maybe couldn’t fix all the problems mentioned in the book, but some of the issues Oliver raises here are huge, and it doesn’t feel right that so many are never properly addressed. If we aren’t going to censor YA novels—and I absolutely do not think we should—then authors of these books have some duty to address the more complex subjects they let surface in their writing.

In a similar vein, there’s a boy, Kent McFuller, in all this, because it’s apparently impossible to write books for girls without some romance. Kent’s my other complaint. (The characterization of boys in Before I Fall is extremely lacking.) Kent’s thankfully not “the bad boy” Sam shouldn’t want but “can’t help” but want; in fact, he’s the really kindhearted boy. The problem, instead, is that he shouldn’t like Sam at all. It takes an absurd amount of cruelty—of abuse—for Kent to even remotely consider disliking Sam. If we’re going to complain about the young adult books where nice girls go for bad boys and put up with their abuse, I feel obligated to complain about the young adult books where nice boys go for bad girls and their abuse.

Before I Fall is a pretty good book, even if Oliver creates a big story with lots of problems that aren’t ultimately set straight. The characters and dialogue go a long way to salvaging everything, and there are still a few valuable lessons to be found here.

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Quotes from Before I Fall

Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.

She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.)

This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.

Dec 26, 2012

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Book cover for THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS by Karen Lord
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With planet Sadira destroyed, the few remaining Sadiri—mainly men—seek refuge on Cygnus Beta, a veritable melting pot of refugees, races, and cultures. It is here, with the help of biotechnician Grace Delarua, that they search for distant Sadiri cousins with whom to reunite and potentially marry. Their journey takes them far and wide into different places and cultures, all of which have some relation to the now lost Sadira. Along the way, Grace connects with and befriends the reserved Sadiri people, changing her life and theirs forever.

Genocide Shouldn’t Be Lighthearted

Karen Lord’s debut, Redemption in Indigo, has been on my reading list for quite a while, but having never gotten around to it, I jumped at the chance to receive a review copy of her latest book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and was lucky enough to receive one from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. When I read the official book summary and saw Lord’s writing was compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s, I thought this was going to be an enjoyable reading experience. Alas, some things are not meant to be. The Best of All Possible Worlds is not anything like what its cover and official summary suggest.

There’s no doubt this book has an audience. Many reviews for it are very positive. But I don’t think I’m part of that audience, and I have doubts as to whether most other science fiction readers will be either. Outside of a few humanlike aliens with “psychic mind-linking” capabilities, this is very fanciful science fiction—and, sadly, not that interesting of a fantasy. It’s a far cry from being the social commentary on genocide and racial/ethnic integration I thought it would be. Stripped of all its needless subplots, the story is primarily a run-of-the-mill romance, right down to its stereotypically over-emotional female lead, Grace Delarua.

Joral leaned forward and said earnestly, “You seem to be very sad about leaving. It is all right if you wish to cry, First Officer Delarua. We will not think badly of you. We understand this is common behavior for many Terran females.”

“Well, I’m Cygnian,” I snapped. “And I wasn’t going to cry.” I swear, nothing irritates me more than being overemotional in front of a Sadiri. They make me feel so silly.

It’s Grace Delarua’s first-person perspective you’re mostly stuck with, with occasional (better written) stints in a third-person perspective that focus on the activities and feelings of her eventual (obvious) love interest, Dllenahkh. I unfortunately found it difficult to care about either character, though, never quite connecting to Grace’s unrealistically haywire emotions or Dllenahkh’s forced alien qualities. (He is similar to Spock from Star Trek.)

It doesn’t help that countless one-dimensional minor characters come and go for no good reason. This unfocused plotting means that by the first quarter of the book, Grace has had multiple jobs, taken numerous trips, and visited her sister’s family. The latter subplot could give soap writers a run for their money.

“You bastard,” I said. “I warned you: if you hurt her, if you hurt any of my family, I will deal with you!”

“I’m not hurting them,” he protested. “I take good care of them. They’re happy.”

“Happy little puppets,” I spat, gripping my right wrist in an effort not to slap him. “I should report you to the authorities.”

“You won’t,” he said simply. “You love me. Never stopped.”

Such melodramatic scenes are common in the book.

The problem with The Best is that it’s too superficial, and no amount of melodrama or tangents can mask that. There’s not much in the way of world-building, there’s little effort to flesh out main characters, the dialogue tends to be forced, and the story is too predictable from the beginning. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Then again, in a book that is at least somewhat about people being displaced after highly successful genocide, it’s awfully lighthearted. It feels as though readers are meant to find it cute and amusing that many of the Sadiri men are looking for wives who more closely match their genetic and racial makeup so they can produce, I suppose, purer babies. I find that creepy, not cute—not the ingredients for romance.

Qeturah almost laughed out loud. “Relax, Delarua. It’s a compliment … I think. She was saying that you should be registered on the special list for potential Sadiri brides, and when I pointed out that there was an upper age limit for that, she suggested that extending your fertile years would take care of objections.”

I was already dazedly shaking my head at the wrongness of it all.

“Don’t worry. I told her that with the amount of Ntshune heritage you have, you’ll probably be able to have children for quite a bit longer than the average Cygnian. I estimate you have another twenty-five years, maybe even thirty.”

Because, really, what’s the value of a woman who can’t birth children?

The Best feels a lot like a first draft: something with a glimmer of potential that hasn’t yet been realized. For all these reasons, I can’t give this book the positive review I was hoping to, and I think it will be some time before I try another novel by Karen Lord.

Aside: It appears Del Rey / Random House rather distastefully opted to use a white-skinned woman on the book cover, even though Grace is said to have “cedar-brown skin” (chapter eight, “The Faerie Queen”).

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Aug 17, 2012

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Book cover for TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson
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Told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily is the story of a young girl struggling to understand herself and cope with the looming unfairness of womanhood. When she meets Peter and the lost boys, she believes she’s found where she belongs, but what will she give up to join them? Should she have to give up anything at all?

Anderson Embraces Complex Subjects in Peter Pan Reimagining

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s beautiful, poignant writing style carries you away to the jungle island of Neverland, a place where mystery and magic live and where some faces are ageless. Most of us won’t have found Neverland intriguing since early childhood, but I think even skeptics will like this one.

Retelling a children’s story in a way young readers will love it isn’t necessarily difficult, but Anderson goes beyond retelling Peter Pan. She re-imagines Neverland and its characters in a way many readers of all ages will enjoy (and maybe feel a little dread over). It’s no small feat to recreate Peter Pan in a way that doesn’t conjure up Disney characters or various actors; however, Anderson achieves all this and more in Tiger Lily.

The story is told from Tinker Bell’s perspective. But Tinker Bell—like all faeries, we’re told—is mute, and so while the occasional first-person opinion surfaces, the majority of the book is told from Tinker Bell’s semi-omniscient point of view. She can have no verbal communication with the characters she’s observing.

Tinker Bell is obsessed with watching the unpretty, proud native girl known as Tiger Lily—and with good reason. Tiger Lily is a walking mystery. She’s a girl who was found orphaned in the woods and raised by the Sky Eater tribe’s shaman. She’s a girl who doesn’t quite know how to be the person others want her to be, or even what kind of person she wants herself to be. She’s an intense character, and her village senses and reacts to the darkness of her personality. Sometimes they are in awe of her. Other times, they fear and hate her. They are her family, but they don’t understand her. A part of them doesn’t want to understand her.

Tiger Lily’s tribe particularly doesn’t understand when she nurses a shipwrecked Englander back to health. Sky Eaters hold a belief that coming into contact with Englanders makes them age and die as other non-Neverlanders do. When Tiger Lily’s efforts are discovered, she is harshly punished for her transgression.

It’s through these events that Tiger Lily eventually meets Peter Pan and the lost boys. They are an infamous bunch in Neverland, rumored to be psychotic murderers of mythic proportions. But the gossip is mainly that—gossip. Peter and the lost boys who follow him are only teenagers hiding from pirates, trying to survive the island’s wilderness.

In Peter, Tiger Lily finds a kindred spirit. He may be boisterous, while she is quiet, but they share a wild restlessness and rivalry that is both good-natured and stubborn. They also share an intense feeling of fear due to their own private circumstances. Being brave and proud, neither fully reveals this to the other. They fall in love slowly and awkwardly—innocently. This is where most young adult books settle the romance with nice, neat bows, but Anderson isn’t here to tell anyone a love story—at least not a typical one for young adults. She’s here to remind readers that life is rarely so nice, rarely so neat.

This is one of a very few young adult books I would give to young women without millions of disclaimers, such as, “Don’t you ever do this for a boy,” or “You know not all girls behave this way, right?” Beyond the fantasy elements in Tiger Lily, there are important life lessons that are applicable to real life. Some of these lessons are obvious and seen in many books, but others are more subtle and less common. And Anderson actually covers a couple of topics—(trans)gender equality and the effects of colonialism—that few young adult authors would dream of tackling, much less in the speculative fiction genre.

Anderson should also be commended for avoiding two tropes she could have easily fallen victim to with this story: what internet and TV lovers might call Mighty Whitey and Noble Savage. Tiger Lily’s tribal life isn’t played up to the point of becoming a spectacle, and there’s no Great White Savior to be found here. A lot of Peter Pan stories of the past and present have—accidentally or not-so-accidentally—drawn attention to racial stereotypes. Initially, I was sad to see Anderson make Peter an Aryan’s dream—defining his looks was something Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, consciously avoided—but I later understood Anderson’s reasoning.

Fairy tales often have blatant good and evil themes, but in Tiger Lily, decisions made with good intentions don’t always yield positive results, the bad guys sometimes have a reason for being bad, and sometimes love doesn’t save the day. Sometimes love isn’t enough, or it isn’t what you thought it might be. For a short book that makes use of a very old story, Anderson covers a lot of new ground. Many fantasy readers will love this, and it would make for a wonderful gift for teens.

Buy Tiger Lily from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from Tiger Lily

“I think we could be good friends,” he said, falling into step with her. “It’s perfect because I wouldn’t fall in love with you, like I do with the mermaids. Girls always seem so exotic. But it would be okay with you, because you’re more like … you know. Not like a girl.” He shrugged.

Human hearts are elastic. They have room for all sorts of passions, and they can break and heal and love again and again. Faerie hearts are evolutionarily less sophisticated. They are small and hard, like tiny grains of sand. Our hearts are too small to love more than one person in a lifetime.

An unspoken rivalry threaded their relationship, in which Tiger Lily thought that if she could keep up with him, she could hold tighter to him.

Nov 3, 2011

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Book cover for THE GARGOYLE by Andrew Davidson
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Self-destructive after a life of bad luck and bad choices, a man’s drunken car accident leaves most of his body covered with life-threatening burns. While he struggles to survive in a depressed state in the hospital, a mentally disturbed woman helps heal his psychological wounds with stories of their past lives as lovers.

The Power of Storytelling

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle opens with its narrator, a cynical, unnamed man with an unfortunate past. The narrator has narrowly survived a horrific car crash of his own, drunken making and must now begin a new life. His body is so completely burned that he is unrecognizable, a grotesque, patchwork figure reminiscent of gargoyles. This is a far cry from the man he was, one whose handsomeness made life easy and gave him a rather successful career as a porn actor. As he slowly recovers in the hospital, he reflects on the painfulness of his childhood, the imperfection of his former life, his selfishness and vanity, and, most of all, how much he wishes he could have it all back, if only to be out of his scarred body. As his depression worsens, he dreams of committing suicide once he’s released from the hospital.

But there are people around him determined to see him not only survive, but thrive, with the life he has been left with, scars and all. One person invested in his well-being is a mentally ill woman by the name of Marianne Engel. She’s an unpredictable artist—she sculpts grotesques/gargoyles—with a personality that changes from day to day, if not by the hour. She’s absurd, she’s weird, she’s crazy. She believes God speaks to and through her. Despite all this, the narrator is intrigued by her, and she shows him love when he feels no one else does. If nothing else, he can halfway accept love from her, as she is broken, too.

Of course, Marianne would show him love, as part of her insanity—or is she insane?—is that she believes she and the narrator were lovers…hundreds of years prior to their meeting in the hospital. She believes they are reincarnated souls, together again to right the wrongs between them, but also destined to repeat some of their worst mistakes, too. To prove the “truth” of this to the narrator, Marianne tells him the story of their supposed past, hoping to coax memories out of him while he heals.

If The Gargoyle were simply about a broken man whose relationships heal him, it would not be an original plot, but Davidson would write the hell out of it. But after the first quarter to half of the book, the story stops being about the narrator’s physical and emotional struggles as a burn victim and starts being about his relationship with Marianne Engel and the stories she’s telling him, which include not only their supposed past love stories, but similar “forever love” stories about other side characters in the book. Davidson wants you and the narrator to question whether Marianne Engel is possibly telling the truth, whether reincarnation and a love you would die for are possible. As a lover of fantasy fiction, that plot doesn’t scare me off; it’s just the way Davidson presents it that is frustrating.

The Gargoyle has all the traits one expects from a good book—well-rounded characters, a strong and original narrator, and interesting plot points. If you take all of the various mini-stories as Marianne tells them, and review them individually, some, perhaps even most, are good. But when you put the straggling pieces together to make a single work, things don’t mesh so well. The parts that make up the whole are too different to blend smoothly. In other words, you are likely to enjoy part of the whole, but not the whole itself. It’s the same way I love tomatoes, chocolate, and garlic, but don’t want them in a soup together.

Perhaps the problem is that I was not invested in the narrator’s relationship with Marianne Engel—past or present—and so a meandering exploration of it failed to grab me. The story I was interested in was their mutual recoveries through each other and the people from the hospital who cared for them. Whether their healing and leaning on each other meant they ended up together or not didn’t matter to me. When Marianne’s stories go on for so many pages, taking us away from her and the narrator’s present struggles, the book’s tone changes considerably. In some respects, this becomes a big romance, even if the narrator is an unconventional lead and the writing is “deeper” than what one often sees in the romance genre.

Wasn’t the idea of a mentally ill woman caring for a physically and emotionally scarred man enough of a plot? A highly-detailed reincarnation backstory seems superfluous.

I loved the narrator in The Gargoyle and don’t regret reading the book. But after all the dramatic lead-up, the ending is anticlimactic. Readers are never given a definitive answer as to whether Marianne is insane, but it’d be hard to think of her as otherwise, even after our narrator has some “spiritual experiences” (after going off of morphine) that seem to lend credence to her tales. In the end, the narrator is healed and whole in a way his body never can be, but some of his journey is marred by the tangential side stories.

I can see myself reading other books by Andrew Davidson in the future because he is indeed a good writer. Even so, The Gargoyle does read and feel like a first novel, so don’t be surprised when you encounter bumps in the road.

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Quotes from The Gargoyle

I understand that some people find God after misfortune, although this seems to me even more ridiculous than finding Him in good times. “God smote me. He must love me.” It’s like not wanting a romantic relationship until a member of the opposite sex punches you in the face. My “miraculous survival” will not change my opinion that Heaven is an idea constructed by man to help him cope with the fact that life on earth is both brutally short, and paradoxically, far too long.

Boredom was my bedmate and it was hogging the sheets.

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