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.

 

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: Carrie, Stephen King

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4/5

Bullied by her fundamentalist mother and outcast at school, Carrie White is slated to live a life of misery. Until she realises she’s telekinetic…

I’ve read quite a few of Stephen King’s books, but never got around to reading this until now. No reason, specifically, unless it’s the fact I read ‘salems Lot (Number Two) and thought it was clumsy and hard going.

What a surprise Carrie is then, in comparison. Carrie herself and Sue Snell, really the main two characters, are well thought out and three-dimensional, and I really felt for Carrie and her miserable life. And for Sue as well, trying to reach out to her in anyway she could. The fact that she left it too late is the real heart of the story, and the tragedy of it all.

King’s first book is a short tale compared to most of his others, and there’s none of the bloat that affects some of his later writing. The climax is slow and inevitable, but unaffected by that slow build. The book slips between the main events and the aftermath easily, lending a nice feel to it and breaking up the linear narrative.

I can see why King became such a popular writer after this. This isn’t a story of the boogie-man who eats children or vampires coming to town. This is an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent; her only response to bullying is to fight back the only way she knows how, with terrifying and bitter results for the town where she lives.

Extraordinary, and without doubt one of the top three King books I’ve read.

Tony’s Review: Forbidden, Tabitha Suzuma

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4/5

Lochan and Maya have been abandoned. Left to care for their three siblings by a drunken mother who’s out chasing men, a father on the other side of the planet, all they have is themselves.

Lochan suffers from social anxiety and Maya has never had a boyfriend; they see themselves more as partners than brother and sister, they always have…and so they fall in love, physically and emotionally.

I think incest is the last taboo subject to be covered by YA (although my wife said Flowers in the Attic did it in the 70s – I haven’t read it.) I’ve read books about suicide, rape, pregnancy, sexual preferences…there’s really nothing YA can’t cover anymore. Fantastic time to be reading it!

The book splits points of view between Lochan and Maya, and it was Lochan I immediately connected to. Not because of the incest angle, but because of his social anxiety. I suffered through it as a teen, and still do to some extent 30 years later. Not as bad as Lochan – no panic attacks, thankfully – but I was right back there with him, eating outside on a cold day because of the terror of being around other people. Suzuma has nailed SA, and nailed it right down to the last detail. When a teacher shows him a sliver of compassion, I nearly cried as he did.

As a result, I didn’t connect with Maya as much; almost not at all, actually. I found her to be two dimensional, but I suspect it was because Lochan was very real to me and not through any fault of the writing, which is flawless.

Suzuma draws a world full of details and life. Every character comes alive – Tiffin’s love of football, Willa’s anxieties, Kit’s teenage rebellion. This is a family full of very real characters, and the world building is superb for its little details. One complaint: She’s fallen in love with the word puce.

Now I suppose the reason the book was written: The incest angle. Apparently, even consensual incest is illegal in the UK – didn’t know that.

For me, the least interesting thing about this relationship is that it’s between a brother and a sister. All I see is two people in love. Who they choose to love is entirely up to them.

Lochan and Maya have no illusions that what they’re doing is going to end well (and indeed it doesn’t), and they admit they might grow apart and find other people to love. They know biologically they can never have children. They don’t care. What they have is each other, right now and their love is passionate, deep and very real. Also very physical, something Suzuma pushes the edges of with her intense descriptions of their intimacy.

When someone asked me what this book was about and I told them incest, they went, ewwwww. This is from someone with a very liberal mind. I thought that was interesting. It really is an ingrained taboo.

My thoughts on it: Who are we to impose our morality on them? Society says they can’t love each other. Society also once said that a man can’t love another man, or a woman love another woman, or even marry a woman with a different colour skin.

Society changes; love doesn’t.

Tony’s Review: A Streetcat named Bob

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4/5

James Bowen was a mess. He’d lost touch with his family, his music career had stalled and he was a recovering drug user in emergency sheltered housing, only a few steps away from living on the streets. He scratched a living busking on the streets of London, but had no purpose or direction to his life.

Then he saw a cat sleeping outside a nearby flat, and after some hesitation, he adopted it. It was a decision that was to change his life.

Suddenly, he was aware he had a responsibility to his cat – he named him Bob – and from that he realised he wanted to take more responsibility for himself as well. The real transformation for him is when he took Bob busking – from scratching a living, suddenly he can afford a proper meal. Suddenly he wants his life back. He’s been thrown a lifeline and he snatches it with both hands.

This deceptively simple tale gets under your skin. It slips under your guard and sucker punches you, sliding into your heart and restoring your humanity. It melts your cynicism and makes you look at the people you ignore on the street with new eyes and compassion.

Bowen alternates tales of his cat with tales of himself, his past life and his attempts to rebuild himself. He doesn’t skim his past or romanticise it, being wise enough to know he was a mess, and smart enough to know what Bob has done for him.

I nearly cried when he lost Bob for a few hours – then he found him again, even more emotional. Even more when James visits his mother and starts the slow process of methadone withdrawal.

It is an overused word and almost a cliché, but this is the most heart-warming tale: This man, slowly slipping through the cracks of society, rebuilt his life because he adopted a cat.

What could you do with yours?

Tony’s Review: The Giver

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3/5 – Spoilers throughout

When Jonas reaches the age of twelve, his career will be chosen for him, as it is for every twelve year old in the community where he lives. Some will become labourers, some mothers, some doctors.

Jonas is the reciever of memory – every memory in the history of the old world, passed on by his tutor, The Giver. The question is, what will he do with that knowledge?

This is a short book, only about two hundred pages, so it only took me a few hours to read. The premise, though an old one – Utopia with a dark heart – is unique in its width. The community (it’s never named) has pushed blandness to an art form. Even colour (somehow) and music are banned, for fear of the population going wild and rioting if they see a patch of green grass or hear some Mozart, or something. Sex is forbidden and love controlled with drugs. Procreation is moved to a rotating group of birthmothers (who are presumably inseminated artificially).

However, they have taken the smart move of delegating everything ever learned onto one person. Most Utopias seem determined to forget the past ever existed.

Early in the book, Jonas talks about elderly patients and miscreants being sent ‘Elsewhere’ and ‘being released’, and it was very obvious from the first references that this is a community that not so much enjoys euthanasia as revels in it; ‘sub-standard’ infants and the elderly all go through the procedure. So it’s no shock to witness it when it happens late in the book to a baby.

The technical aspects of this book – it’s all telling and no showing (“Jonas was angry”, not “Jonas clenched his fists”) – and the oddly stilted dialogue make this book feel like it was written in 1955, not 1993. The writing is at the level of a children’s book; this is not YA, people! Eleven year olds have moved on – you don’t need to spoon-feed them by telling and not showing.

On the other hand, that stilted approach works well in the community as presented – everyone is bland and two-dimensional as the colourless world where they live. But here’s the thing: For effect, that tell-not-show should have changed when Jonas began his lessons with The Giver. And it didn’t.

Because of that, I felt nothing for Jonas or anyone else. I didn’t connect to him because he remained so two-dimensional. He could have been given so much more depth, but he’s never given the chance before he’s running away from home.

Jonas is also very passive. His relationship with The Giver is there only for exposition. Instead of Jonas finding things out for himself, instead of him pushing the boundaries of his life, instead of him maturing into an adult, he asks and The Giver explains the world to him on a plate. Spoon-feeding again. So the hero in this book does nothing until the last twenty pages.

Let’s talk about those last twenty pages, which is when the book really starts to fall over. Jonas crests a hill, finds a sledge and slips through the snow. It’s the first memory The Giver passed on to him. I had the feeling that Lowry wanted some deep metaphorical ending, but it didn’t work for me; Jonas is obviously hallucinating, or already dead. So the passive hero who does nothing but flee dies at the end. Lovely.

I rated this three stars, but I hesitated between that and two. Lowry creates a solid world, and one that works, but the hero in it is bland, even when he has the chance to become much more. The only colour in the book comes from The Giver, and all he does is exposit.

For a better time with a Utopia with a dark heart, read Mel Cusick-Jones, “Hope’s Daughter” – teenagers who actually discover things for themselves.

Disappointing.

Tony’s Review: The Ask and The Answer, Patrick Ness

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3/5

The sequel to “The Knife of Letting Go” picks up straight where it left off – Todd and Viola have arrived at Haven…but they’ve been beaten there by the mayor of Prentisstown, who now calls himself President Prentiss of New Prentisstown.

Todd and Viola become separated, and spend the rest of the book in different camps – Viola in “The Answer” a group of terrorists / freedom fighters who want to overthrow Prentiss, and Todd, who is left with the mayor.

There are no easy answers or black and white mentality for either of them. Todd is faced with hard choices, and the President brainwashes him effectively into watching and performing acts of cruelty and torture against the indigenous population – a case study of Milgram’s experiments (http://tinyurl.com/5tjxs) on dehumanising, and a chilling echo of genocide. Dehumanise a section of your population, see them as subhuman, and you can do anything to them. Stick yellow stars on them or brand them with an iron. Lock them in a prison camp and watch over them with rifles.

Similarly for Viola, whose opposing group of women are just as ruthless as the President. They have no qualms about blowing up barracks where soldiers sleep, or using bombs that only become live when you pick them up.

There are no heroes in this book. There are no winners. Todd and Viola do the best they can with the situation they find themselves in; like a real war, their hands come out covered in blood. How they deal with what they’ve gone through is what makes them the people they are.

Only three stars though, because once again Ness leaves the book on a complete cliff-hanger – it’s becoming a habit for him. Luckily, I don’t have to wait for the sequel. And Ness’s genocide and not-black-and-white war sometimes gets lost on the way through the 500+ pages, meandering a little until it seems to find what sort of ending he’s going for.

I’m reviewing the final part of the trilogy “Monsters of Men” next month.