Tony’s Review: The Fault in our Stars

 

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3/5

The cancer that seventeen-year-old Hazel survived left her lungs in tatters and tied to an oxygen bottle for the rest of her life – however long that may be. Her mother suggests she visits a support group, where she runs into Augustus Waters…

This has been at the edge of my reading-pile for at least two or three years now, and I finally picked it up. (One of the reasons I delayed was Becky’s review (Here), where she rated it…okay. Didn’t set the world on fire for her. I trust her judgement on books, which is why it’s taken me so long. But I digress.)

The first thing I noticed when I was reading this – and I’m talking Chapter One – is that no seventeen year old in the history of the world talks like Gus and Hazel. I’m a pretty smart guy; I’ve know some very smart people. I have never met ANYONE who used the word univalent in a sentence. No one. People simply don’t talk like this. Hazel knows what an oncogene is; she knows the word hamartia; Why then, doesn’t she know the word ontological?

Green seems determined to be obscure and borderline pretentious with his language and his characters, and they suffer because of it. Their conversations are superficial, for the most part; cocktail party debate on the breakfast-only nature of scrambled eggs.

I got very little from Hazel and Gus but mostly surfaces. It felt like I rarely saw the places where they lived and dreamt. Because of it, they’re as superficial as the conversations they hold, and easily forgotten.

Fortunately, the dialogue settled down after a while and approached a normal level. Green definitely has different narrative voices for Gus and Hazel, there was no trouble telling them apart. His wordplay and love of puns makes the dialogue – when it does work – sparkle and shine. Make no mistake that Green is a smart guy…but he seems intent on preening his feathers and flapping his wings to show off.

There are moments which do work wonderfully well in the book. The trip to Amsterdam was the delight of the book, the real highlight. Making Hazel’s favourite author a jerk was a masterstroke: After all, you should never meet your heroes – they’ll never live up to your expectations. And because Green wasn’t too worried about showing off with the author, he’s the most realistic character in the book.

There’s a character dies in this – no spoilers as to whom – and another character goes to their funeral. I’m pretty sure…no, I’m definitively sure…that Green never went to a funeral when he was seventeen of anyone close to him. I did. And there’s no way you would act the way the character did when they were there. You don’t have the mental capacity, for a start. You’re certainly not going to fire off witty replies to people who post on a dead characters Facebook page.

An intriguing read, but it lost its way somewhere with an author determined to show off and not let his characters do the walking and the talking.

 

Tony’s Review: Every Day, David Levithan

 

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“A” wakes up each morning in a new body. “A” has done this every day for the whole of their existence, and doesn’t question it any more than we question waking up in the same body every day. Then “A” meets Rhiannon and wants to have a ‘normal’ life.

This is a difficult book to review. Not because of the content or writing. It’s a lot simpler than that, and a lot harder: “A” is without a pronoun. They are completely non-corporeal – without a permanent body. “A” is neither he nor she, and I’m going to be forced to call them It, to give them the overtones of a non-person. It feels like the wrong approach, because “A” is such a strong character, labelling them as It feels…rude. Derogatory.

“A” has a unique narrative voice, one I have never come across, or even contemplated – one without gender. Gender is so tied into every book I’ve ever read, that having a character without gender, with a constant shifting body every day is disorientating. The only way I could relate to “A” is to read them as a male character.

A female friend is going to read it and I’m really fascinated to see if she reads “A” as a female. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t projecting my male narrative voice onto “A”. I needed a gender to work with.

That isn’t an issue with the book at all by the way; just my perceptions of reading it.

The book itself is wonderful. “A” is eloquent, warm, emotive, caring, passionate. If you wanted a friend for life, “A” would be it. “A” feels every moment of every day, living entirely in the present; it’s all “A” can do before It moves on. Because of “A”‘s unique perspective on life, “A” notices details the rest of us would miss. The shoes Rhiannon wears; the callous on her thumb; the texture of sand through a host’s fingers. “A”‘s language is lyrical and powerful, the soul of a poet.

We get to touch lives from the inside with “A”, feeling the tragedy of a girl who can’t stop drinking; the first funeral “A” ever goes to; a girl who wants to commit suicide. But also the joy as well; a gay pride parade with “A”‘s host’s boyfriend. Gender or sexuality doesn’t matter to “A”; only the emotion. So we get to see “A” as girl with another girl, a boy with another boy. Love is all that matters.

Through it all, “A” loves Rhiannon; it doesn’t matter if he’s a girl or boy, black or white. “A”‘s only thought is to be back with her, and It breaks Its own rules of ‘non-interference’ to do it more and more as love takes over.

It’s great writing, but the book does have problems – hence the not-perfect rating. There are plot holes left undeveloped – most significantly, is “A” the only body-hopper? – and the subplot with a boy who remembers being ‘possessed’ by “A” just fades away. And then there’s the epilogue. It’s only eight or nine lines, but it wasn’t needed, and only left confusion.

What “A” knows, and the rest of us barely realise, is that the package love comes in doesn’t matter; only the emotion matters. It’s a message that Levithan carries off with panache and style, with wonderful passages of lyrical and emotional writing, and a tearful punch of an ending. Superb.

Just Finished…City of Bones

imageSo, this is my first book of 2016… I realise that I am about eight years late in giving this series a try, but it has been sat on my bookshelf for ages now and I just randomly plucked it off and started it over Christmas.

Overall, my rating for this would be 4* – up until about two-thirds of the way through, it was probably more of a 3*, but the writing style and ideas behind the world created in The Mortal Instruments held things together for me, when perhaps I wasn’t as invested in the characters or their actual adventure. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but I’ve found that happening with a few books I’ve read lately (including a very long trilogy that I’m just coming to the end of and will review soon).

In terms of the world created, it has a lot of typical YA supernatural elements: wolves, vampires, angels, demons… But, in here they are all in the same ‘world’ for once, rather than split into an angels book, or a vampire-wolf combo, which is interesting. I liked the idea of the city setting as well; seeing the action unravel around various parts of New York was a nice twist for me, with demon clubs and vampire hotels around every corner.

The action/pacing wasn’t amazing for me though – I never felt ‘gripped’ by the story and could easily put it down and walk away. I enjoyed the characters and the witty banter was great, but I never really bonded with them. As it stands, I’d read more in the series if the opportunity came up, but as a completed series, ready and waiting for me, I don’t feel the urge or that invested to pick up book two. In honesty, I like the sound of Clare’s second series more and so may give the Infernal Devices a go before I venture further along the paths of shadowhunters and demons…

And for anyone interested, Tony reviewed one of the ‘Infernal Devices’ novels a while ago, you can see his thoughts here:

https://asidefromwriting.com/2014/01/15/tonys-review-clockwork-angel-by-cassandra-clare/

 

Tony’s Review: Trouble, Non Pratt

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4/5

Hannah is a wild fifteen year old, who loves nothing more than drinking parties, socialising with her friends and not caring too much about school. Then she gets pregnant.

I hadn’t heard much about this book before Becky’s enthusiastic and passionate review here. I follow every one of her reviews, and she very rarely rates a book five stars…and certainly never reads a book in two days. This was one I had to see for myself…and I’m glad I did.

I was expecting some social lecture about the perils of pregnancy, and some moral lessons about underage sex (age of consent in the UK is sixteen), but there was little of that. In fact, the book isn’t really about Hannah’s pregnancy as much as it about the social changes it causes around her.

I won’t reveal the spoiler of who the father is (I did work it out fairly quickly though), and why Hannah doesn’t go to him is revealed over the course of the book and makes a major plot point.

This brings in the other main character: Aaron. Aaron is the new boy in school, emerging from some trauma he can’t deal with. He views the eddies and streams of friendships and enemies with an indifferent eye, new to all and in some ways immune.

But when Hannah needs a father, he volunteers himself to be branded as the dad. Why he does it links back to his trauma…which is another spoiler I can’t reveal.

The short punchy chapters alternate between Hannah and Aaron, and since they have very different narrative voices, it works very well. Hannah’s sister receives a pet rabbit called Fiver for instance: Aaron would have recognised the Watership Down reference, but Hannah thinks it’s how much it cost. Their outlooks and expectations were very different. No doubt that we were dealing with two different people at any point.

Minor characters were given lots of room and backstory as well. Neville, a pensioner Aaron visits, is a great character full of wit and wisdom, as is Hannah’s gran. Nobody felt two dimensional.

There were points when the plot veered into kitchen-sink soap opera, but they were isolated. Pratt does a great job of pulling at your heart and then tickling it with her emotive writing within a paragraph or two.

This is a book about the strength of family and the power of good friends; a book about finding out who those friends are and who you can count on when you need them.

In the end, it’s a happy and uplifting story, a potent and positive spin on a subject usually given more dour treatment.

Tony’s Review: Doctor Sleep, Stephen King

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4/5

Dan Torrance, the child protagonist of King’s The Shining, is now an alcoholic drifter, chased by the ghosts of his childhood and trying to drown them in drink. When he gets off a bus to nowhere in New Hampshire, his life begins to change…

Including The Talisman – Black House books King wrote with Peter Straub and his Dark Tower series, King is actually an old hand at sequels. This one doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of warmth and humour and characteristic King touches and style.

About a quarter of the way through, I realised the plot is more of a Dean Koontz feel: Troubled man helps protect precocious tele-everything teen from very real psychic vampires, learning the redemptive power of family on the way. Not that’s a criticism at all, I just thought it was interesting.

Dan attends Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the twelve steps is apologise to those you’ve hurt…and it seems like King wants to apologise to Dan Torrance for running him through the hell of The Shining. He wants to know that Dan’s life turned out all right in the end. It’s very much a story of redemption and returning sanity, a counterpoint to the damnation and slide into insanity that was The Shining.

And King’s own demons mirror the book: As a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser, he’s been at the bottom where Dan starts off. As a result Dan feels like a very intimate and personal portrait, a thin veil of King’s own fall and recovery.

As much as Dan realises he can’t escape the virtual demons in his head, so Abra – his teenage counterpart – can’t escape the real demons chasing after her: Wherever you go, there you are, they realise.

The climax felt a little rushed, but then as a book about redemption and healing, it was never really about who was going to win in the end. And, to be honest, it was pretty obvious from the start.

It’s been a while since King wrote anything as simple as splatter and gore, and the horror and the terror in this book are restrained and off-screen. No one loses a foot or does the Mashed Potato all over a giant eyeball for instance.

With such a strong young adult protagonist, it’s also a great young-adult book.

I haven’t read The Shining in a few years, and it didn’t feel as if I needed a refresher to read this. There would have been a few paragraphs that wouldn’t have made much sense, that was all.

If you haven’t read any King, this is a good place to start.

Tony’s Review: Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

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3/5

In the disintegrating world of 2044, Wade Watts, a hermit teenager, dedicates his life to discovering the online clues that could win him the ultimate prize…

The OASIS is the only place to be in the future. The world has fallen apart, and almost every aspect of humanity is pushed onto a massive online, virtual reality. Even schools and public services are in there – there’s a planet with nothing but schools, for instance. Interaction is through avatars. They can be ‘killed’ (more like a restart), but nobody really gets hurt in there. Not physically, anyway.

The man who designed this became the richest man on the planet, and when he dies, his fortune is left up for grabs for whoever can solve the puzzles he left behind, puzzles rooted in very, very obscure 1980s pop culture and gaming references.

I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not particularly skilled at computer or arcade games, so the (80s) subculture that the author immerses us in is mostly lost on me. But luckily, he explains every reference as he goes along.

In fact, he seems just to drop references in just to explain them…they don’t really advance the plot much. There’s an example where Wade travels somewhere in a Back to the Future DeLorean with a Knight Rider and Ghostbusters add-ons. It’s never used again and not mentioned, so why do it?

In the movie “Signs” a character says: “…this stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They make up secret codes and analyze Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in.”

That’s what the 80s subtext of the novel mostly felt like to me; obscure references that very few people would understand (or even care if they weren’t there). They’re just secret handshakes for the society the author moves in.

Fortunately, the main character is likable enough to keep you reading – you want this little underdog to win, especially against the corporate bullies who are willing to kill him and his friends. You want him to come out with the girl and the prize and some good friends. There are no real surprises when he does all three.

I have some grievances against the pop culture references. Where was Madonna? Where was Spielberg? Where was Tron? And one the author missed that I caught: Wade references Fantastic Voyage (1966)…why not Innerspace (1987)?

Also, since the references seemed to stretch back and forward decades a little, where was Potter World?

Wade calls his diary for keeping track of all the clues his Grail Diary, a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a nice metaphor, and it carries nicely through the book; as Jones discovers that the search for the Grail is the search for what’s important rather than an artefact, so does Wade discover that what’s important to him isn’t inside a computer, but back in the world of the real.

Tony’s Review: Insurgent, Veronica Roth

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3/5

Tris has to come to terms with killing a friend, and losing her parents, while trying to form and keep new alliances with The Factions (and Factionless). But nothing is black and white anymore…

I checked back, and it’s been two years since I read Divergent – high time I read Book Two, I thought, and I had some summer time reading space and went for it.

Despite the gap between the stories, I didn’t feel lost as to what was going on in this book. It’s almost self-contained, with enough back-story reminders to keep you on track. There’s a nice sequel hook at the end so you come back for Book Three to see how it all works out.

Roth sketches her world in rough outlines, with shades of grey and rain the predominant colours and weather, but despite that, you get a solid sense of place and are very grounded in this world and its characters.

I commented in the first book there didn’t seem to be much chemistry between Tris and her instructor, Tobias (now her lover). This time it seems more developed and the relationship more concrete. There seems to be more of a need for each other now.

Roth doesn’t hang about in this book. Her pacing is relentless; there aren’t many pages where the characters aren’t moving forwards to the next event. Tris is shifting locations constantly in this book, from Amity orchards to Candor confusing corridors. The pacing is almost too fast, and sometimes the action blurs into one.

Tris also changes alliances as her whims take her. I’m not sure I would Tris with my back in a fire-fight: She might decide the people we were supposed to be fighting have a better deal for her. It does make her character and the dynamics of her relationships more interesting though. Tris is a woman in conflict, with everyone around her and herself.

I will be coming back for Book Three…maybe in another two years.