Quick Look: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenI’m a little late jumping on the John Green love bandwagon, and I don’t want to dwell on it, but let’s just say I read Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars and started watching his video blog and now I adore him.

One thing I noticed with The Fault in Our Stars is how this book is both very sad (the main character, Hazel, is 16-years-old with terminal cancer who falls in love with a boy who’s had his leg amputated from his own cancer) and very, very funny. Often, these two things occur simultaneously, like when Hazel finds out she’ll be able to go on a trip to Amsterdam, and she says to her lungs (which don’t function properly) “Keep your shit together.” Green does this in bigger ways, too, resulting in scenes that must have been so difficult to craft but wind up revealing something so very true about people.

There is one scene in particular that I have been quoting to people since I read it, because it struck me as very empathetic, harsh, sad, and also kind of funny. Hazel is talking with her friend Isaac, who has just had his second eye removed because of his own cancer. Prior to the surgery, his girlfriend broke up with him, “so she wouldn’t have to dump a blind guy.” Now, he’s trying to figure out why she won’t get together with Augustus, who she obviously really likes.

“Do you like him?” Isaac asked.

“Of course I like him. He’s great.”

“But you don’t want to hook up with him?”

I shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“I know what you’re trying to do. You don’t want to give him something he can’t handle. You don’t want him to Monica you.”

“Kinda,” I said. But it wasn’t that. The truth was, I didn’t want to Isaac him. “To be fair to Monica,” I said, “what you did to her wasn’t very nice, either.”

“What’d I do to her?” he asked, defensive.

“You know, going blind and everything.”

“But that’s not my fault,” Isaac said.

“I’m not saying it was your fault. I’m saying it wasn’t nice.

At first glance, this seems pretty harsh, as it looks like Hazel’s blaming Isaac for getting dumped. But really, she’s just pointing out the truth — for a 16-year-old girl, having your boyfriend go suddenly blind is an emotional shock, the need to be there for him is overwhelming, and while it’s obviously harder for Isaac, he can’t get out of the situation, while she can. This is where the subtle humor comes in, through Hazel’s deadpan assertion that, even though Isaac can’t help it, his cancer (which, as other parts of the book establish, is a part of the sick person, is the sick person) is being pretty mean to his girlfriend. You may cringe, but you also have to chuckle. And then you understand the truth. Most people can’t handle a situation like this, it’s overwhelming, and causes them to be bad people and dump their sick boyfriends, so no, it’s not a nice thing to do to them. It’s really sad, kind of funny, and ultimately empathetically honest about what people are really like.

YA Lit: In Darkness, Blue Bloods, & All These Things I’ve Done

Lately I’ve really been soaking up young adult literature, in part to start things I’ve been thinking about reading, and also, honestly, to catch up on what I feel like I should have been reading.

In Darkness by Nick Lake, Printz AwardFirst there’s In Darkness by Nick Lake. I took this book out after I’d heard that it won the Printz award, honestly surprised that no one else was anxiously waiting for it. The book starts right after the Haiti earthquake from 2010 from the point of view of a boy called Shortie, who is trapped inside a hospital in utter darkness. Losing hold due to lack of food and water and the complete darkness, Shortie starts up a conversation with the reader, going back through is memories about his twin sister and the violent life he leads in the slums of Haiti. This would have been fascinating enough, but then we fly back to the 1700s, when the Haitian slaves revolted for their freedom, and we are in the mind of their real life leader, Toussaint L’Overture. The novel switches between the two of them, as their minds are somehow connected, and we see how the violence of the revolution is reflected in the violence of the present, and vice versa. It’s a super engaging book, with characters you like so much you feel nervous for them the whole time. And as an added bonus, this book gives a real view of what Haiti is like now, something we really like to forget about, and also a lesson in a really important revolution that I can’t for the life of me remember learning in school.

Blue Bloods by Melissa de la CruzI took things more to the supernatural side with Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz, and I have to say I was exceptionally disappointed in this book. The premise was interesting — vampires are actually creatures cast out from heaven that reincarnate themselves to exist through time, and now make up some of the most powerful families in America. But de la Cruz’s execution is so hackneyed. Characters are suddenly in another place at the start of a chapter, at peace in one moment and then in danger the next, so I had trouble keeping track of what the heck was going on, and at one point the author tries to turn so many twists in the plot at once that instead of being shocking, it’s just annoying. Character’s actions are often needlessly over the top, and too many of them fall into YA tropes — main character is dumpy looking but actually just doesn’t know how pretty she is, blonde popular girl is a complete bitch and doesn’t like the dumpy main character at all, blah, blah. Really, it was just a frustrating book, and I don’t see myself going back to this series at all.

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle ZevinFinally, I also started reading Gabrielle Zevin’s dystopian novel, All These Things I’ve Done. It’s the near future, somewhere in the 2070’s if I’m doing my math right, and everything’s a mess. Water is rationed, and things like chocolate and coffee are prohibited. Anya is the daughter of a mob boss who used to run the chocolate business in town before he was murdered when she was 9. Now she lives with her brother, her sister, and her ailing grandmother, and does her best to keep the family business out of their lives. But that doesn’t quite work out that way as her brother starts a job with her cousins and her ex-boyfriend is poisoned by the chocolate she gave him. I had a few nitpicky problems with this book, like how about halfway through the story is suddenly interjected with what I assume is commentary from the future by Anya, and instead of helpful and interesting I found this awkward and distracting. But overall, I loved this book. The main character isn’t whiny, she take initiative with everything. She also has priorities that she sticks too, like putting her family first. I often read a scene anxiously, expecting the story to turn in a usual, disappointing way, but then Zevin would surprise me in the best way possible. This is a finely crafted book, and I can’t believe that out of all the YA dystopian fiction I constantly hear about that this isn’t one of them. I’m just waiting to finish up some other books I have on hand before I snatch the rest of this series straight off the shelves.

Reading List: A Storm of Swords, The Uglies, Sailor Moon

The new season of Game of Thrones aired on Sunday, and that re-inspired me to continue to rereading of the whole story. I dropped off on that partway through A Storm of Swords, not because the story isn’t interesting the second time around – far from it, I’ve picked up on so many things I didn’t notice/forgot in the slew of information. It’s actually because I was finding it too stressful to read again. The first time, I didn’t know what horrible thing were going to happen to my favorite characters – now I know, and I’m full of dread as I anticipate someone getting killed/raped/kidnapped/beaten up. But, I must make it through! (and I must read A Dance with Dragons...)

I’ve also started Uglies, the first book in another young adult series by Scott Westerfeld. So far Westerfeld is showing the same amount of writing skill as he did in Leviathan, but I also got so much more enjoyment out of Alek and Deryn’s characters. Let’s see if I wind up enjoying Tally and Shay as much.

I’m also finally going to pick up the third volume of Sailor Moon; I bought it a while ago, but it’s been sitting on my shelf, unread. I need to get through it so I can finally justify buying volume 4!

What do you plan on reading this week?

What I’m Reading: City of Glass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Lately I have been reading a lot of young adult literature, taking advantage of my employee discount and library to get most of it.

Yesterday I finished City of Glass, the third installment of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. In this book, Clary goes to Idris to find the cure for her mother, and of course while she and all the other Shadowhunters are there, Valentine attacks and threatens the Shadowhunters with either genocide or slavery. This volume had some very interesting twists, but I tended to figure it out about 200-300 pages before the characters did, which only made me want to shout at them. I also feel that Clare cheats with character deaths: obviously not wanting to kill one of her main characters, she kills a side character that they are close to, sending everyone into sadness. While I canunderstand the pain the characters feel… I didn’t feel it myself. This person just wasn’t built up enough, so that when he died I felt “Oh.” instead of “Oh no!!!” By killing this character, it gave Clare the opportunity to have the other characters be very distraught, without actually getting rid of someone her readers loved. So, cheating.

Now, the way this book ends, just about all of the loose ends are tied up, and it’s very conceivable that everyone could live happily ever after. She even untwisted the twist that snarled up the romance! Except, there are three more books to go. While there are some things that are hinted at that could cause problems later on, it’s not enough that I can see a story that carries on through three more books. Maybe there’s another twist that I’m not foreseeing, but right now I’m worried that the other books are going to feel very forced.

With impeccable timing, just as I was finishing City of Glass I was alerted by the library that one of my requests came in: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. In this book, Karou is a human girl raised by demons. She now exists in the human world, going to art school, and in what she’s allowed to see of their world – Brimstone’s shop, where he exchanges wishes for teeth. So far, I’m enjoying the way Taylor mixes the fantasy into the reality of the book. Even though it starts with Karou on her way to art school, Brimstone and the other demon characters come up naturally in her inner dialogue. We are gradually introduced to this part of the world, instead of being suddenly shocked with it. It makes the story weirder, and so much more appealing. I’m not too far into it yet but this is probably a book I’ll finish in a couple of days.

Teen Lit: Long Live the Queen by Ellen Emerson White

Long Live the Queen is the third book in the President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White, and while I never read the first two I found it pretty easy to jump into the thick of things: Meg Powers’ mom is the president of the United States, and recently was shot. While she’s recovered now, the president still lives with the pain from her wound, and Meg, along with her two younger brothers, have to deal with the beefed up security that prevents them from doing a lot of what they want to do, like Meg’s tennis. Even while it was easy to get into, the beginning of the novel was a little boring, and I actually went a couple of weeks between reading the first couple of chapters and the rest of the book. I picked it up again, and finally got to the part where Meg’s secret service agents are killed ans she’s kidnapped, and suddenly everything picked up.

Aside from the kidnapping scene, there isn’t a lot of actual action in the book. Meg is locked in a room, not given any food or water, and is assured by her kidnapper that he will, inevitably, kill her. As Meg is locked up, starving, the novel begins to take place in her head, and we begin to almost primarily read her inner monologue as she thinks about dying, the pain from her injuries (not only are her teeth ripped out, but her kidnapper breaks a variety of her bones), worries about her family and ex-boyfriend, and struggles not to blame everything on her mother. Later, her kidnapper chains her up in an abandoned mine and leaves her to slowly die.

There were quite a few interesting things about this book. First, that White doesn’t shy away from letting her main character get hurt – the kidnapper doesn’t just hit her, he dislocates her kneecap – something which authors are usually too afraid to do. Then, there’s the way that Meg gets away: I won’t spoil too much, but not only does Meg escape on her own power, rather than getting rescued, but she does it through a pretty big sacrifice. Finally, Meg’s kidnapping and torture doesn’t even take up half the book.

You would think the climax of this story would be when Meg finally gets away, but there’s still nearly 200 pages of story after this happens. Obviously a lot of drama comes from the time in which she was tortured, but it also comes from her recovery. She has to heal her physical injuries, as well as overcome her fear, depression, and general apathy toward life. I sped through the chapters where Meg struggled to survive, but I was just as rapt by this part, where she struggled to want to live.

Ellen Emerson White overdoes the interior monologue a bit, and the beginning of the novel is a little dull. (Also, I get it, she’s from Massachusetts, she likes the Red Sox, OK, stop saying that.) Also, many of the injuries she gets made me squirm in my seat, so if your even a tad more squeamish than I am, you might have a hard time getting through parts of this book. But once this book takes off it really grabs you. I don’t know that I’ll go back to the first books in the series, knowing what will happen to Meg, but I’ll probably seek out the fourth one.

Teen Lit: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Recently I finished reading Graceling, a young adult fantasy novel by Kristin Cashore. The main character of Graceling is the Lady Katsa. Katsa has a special power – a Grace – though it’s not one that she takes much pride in. Her Grace is killing, and her uncle, King Randa, uses this power to strike fear in his enemies. She feels smothered by her uncle’s power over her, but Katsa still goes behind his back to create the Council, a group of people, slowly spreading through the seven kingdoms, that tries to right the wrongs committed by the various kings. It’s on one of these missions that Katsa meets Prince Po. The two work together to figure out why someone would kidnap his grandfather, uncovering a sinister plot that could affect everyone in the kingdoms.

A big problem I had with Graceling was the disproportionate way things were drawn out. Many parts of the book, which I would have pegged down as important, happened in a snap. The first meeting with the main villain turns into a run for their lives so quickly that I had to go back and reread the part two more times just to figure out what happens. Much later, he’s defeated almost as quickly, and then everything unfolds in a good way as the witnesses, previously covered in a mind fog, quickly come to the understanding that Katsa did the right thing. A bit too easy. Then there are other parts that are just dragged out. Katsa has quite a few inner thoughts, but these needlessly circle around – frustrating when I just want her to get back to the journey. And the end of the book is one of the longest I’ve seen, lasting chapters after our villain’s been dispatched. I can see how this might be needed; Graceling is the first of three books, and there is some set up to what I suspect is in at least one of those sequels. I only wonder if Cashore could have found a way to pare that part down.

There was plenty to love about Graceling, though. First of all, Katsa kicks all kinds of butt. Not only is she the most physically strong character in the story, but she also shows how a woman, even one who initially feels pressured into situations, can have and obtain quite a bit of autonomy. She’s a bit like this at the beginning, but especially by the end of the novel she proves that no one can tell her what to do or make her give up any part of who she is, even the person she loves more than anyone. Katsa is exceptionally dense when it comes to anything dealing with emotions, but it’s also refreshing to see a lead female character that isn’t overcome with emotions on a regular basis. And despite the problems with pacing, the writing is very well done, and aside from Katsa I found myself loving just about every character, like her love interest Po and the small-but-tough Princess Bitterblue.

Overall Graceling was a good read. It has many of the elements people look for in young adult fantasy literature – special powers, steamy romance, and a badass female character to boot. Still, my pacing problems put this book lower down on the list of suggested reading.

What I’m Reading: Behemoth, Ender’s Game

Have you ever found a book that you physically couldn’t stop reading? Those are the best. Nothing in life matters until you’ve gobbled up every last page. Obviously I read a lot of books, but I don’t always find something that I simply can’t put down. Recently, though, I managed to find two that I utterly devoured.

First up was Behemoth, the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. This is Westerfeld’s steampunk retelling of World War I, and I was already hooked after LeviathanBehemoth just gave me more of what I wanted. More crazy beasts, more machines, more alternate views of history. And, most compelling for me at least, more of a love story. At this point in the series Deryn is still keeping up her facade as a male airshipman, and while it’s starting to crumble around other characters – Count Volger, a girl from Istanbul, and Dr. Barlow’s new critter the perspicacious loris – Alec is still utterly clueless. This makes the love story rather one-sided, but it also has me anxiously flipping through the pages to figure out when the big reveal will come. The setting is great, and the overarching story is fascinating, but even with that what Westerfeld does best is characters. I love all of them, not just Deryn and Alek, is what pulled me through this book, and got me to run out and buy Goliath as soon as I could.

And have I mentioned how intensely detailed the art is? I have to keep myself from flipping ahead to each picture lest I spoil myself:

Another book I read over the weekend is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. We can add this onto a list of books I probably should have read a long time ago. I picked this up on a combination of a passing recommendation from my mentor, and also because I’m reading Orson Scott Card’s craft book on character, so I thought it might be nice to actually read a story he’d written. This book is wordy and a little intense at times, but I managed to pack it away in about three days. As with Westerfeld, I’m going to lay the reasoning for this with the characters. Though there are some (violent) fights, and there is some action going on with the war games in the battle school, a lot of the story really takes place within Ender’s head as he deals with a load of crap: being a Third (families normally have only two children due to overpopulation); his jealous, psychotic brother; being forced into isolation; his jealous, psychotic classmates; and finally, knowing that he’s the best, and that all of humanity is depending on him to defeat the alien “buggers” before they come back and destroy Earth. One of the things that I find most touching about Ender is that he has a complete lack of desire to hurt people, but he is constantly and purposely put in situations where he must harm others, and sometimes even kill, all because his teachers know that this will turn him into the person who can save them. This is what made me love Ender, that he has to keep winning, fighting, and hurting to stay alive and get better, but he hates himself for it because he thinks he can’t help being a killer, even when everyone else knows that he’s just a gentle soul.

I’ve already gotten the sequel to both of these books. Now the big question is: which do I read first?

What I’m Reading: A Hat Full of Sky

Considering how enamored I became of Terry Pratchett after reading Men at Arms and The Wee Free Men, it’s taken me a surprisingly long time to scoop up as many copies as I can and read until I can’t see straight. Maybe it’s because there are so many Disc World books that without suggestions I don’t know where to go next, maybe it’s because I thought The Color of Magic was only okay, or maybe it’s because the Pratchett books I did read were for school, and who the hell has time to read for fun when you’re in a graduate program. Whatever it is, I decided to shovel out some time and dig into those books again.

I decided to take it easy and get back into Pratchett with A Hat Full of Sky, the sequel to The Wee Free Men. We’re with Tiffany Aching again, and she’s on her way to the mountains to learn “haggling” from a real witch, Miss Level. The book is, of course, peppered with Pratchett’s wonderful, almost inexplicable humor. When Rob Anybody, a Nac Mac Feegle, refuses alcohol because he’s worried, his wife screams that he died: “He’s deid and still talkin’!” And one of my favorite bits in the book is funny in the way he words it, and the way he talks about something very, very true:

In the cupboard drawer under the sink, forks, spoons, and knives were all in neat sections, was was a bit worrying. Every kitchen drawer Tiffany had ever seen might have been meant to be neat but over the years had been crammed with things that didn’t quite fit, like big ladles and bent bottle openers, which meant they always stuck unless you knew the trick of opening them.

But aside from the humor, what makes this book so enjoyable is Tiffany. An 11-year-old girl who’s smart, brave, clever, and talented, and yet still worried about boys and upset when others are laughing at her. I want her to succeed, I want her to get credit, and yet I understand when she lets things pass her by. I’ll probably snag the next one, which I believe is Wintersmith, next time I get to the bookstore, and I’ll probably have just as hard of a time putting that one down.

Links: What Books Say

The New York Times posted an interesting short article on what the books you own might say about you. One of my favorite quotes the author, Leah Price, brings up is from etiquette guru Emily Post, who to my delight actually spoke against using unread books to fill your home – because really, there’s nothing more fake than displaying books you never have touched. The article doesn’t actually tell you how to figure out what your books are saying, but it is an excerpt from Price’s upcoming book, so I’m interested in reading more. (Just what I need, books about books.)

With my own shelves full of comics, children’s books and YA novels it’d be interesting to see what my books say about me – but it might not be anything too strange. According a Boston Globe article, young adult literature is basically outselling adult fiction, mainly because so many adults read YA themselves. It irks me a bit that it apparently started with Twilight, but that logic makes a lot of sense, and hey, whatever keeps people from asking me awkward questions about why I’m reading kids stuff.

Also on Shelf Awareness, a short blip on Barnes & Noble hints that they may be offering physical/digital book bundles. About time, I say. DVDs have digital copy – what the heck took books so long? The link is here but be warned, there’s another freaky-as-hell James Patterson picture, for god knows what reason.

What I’m Reading: Finishing Diary of a Wimpy Kid and City of Bones

I finished up two separate books over the last couple of days, which is always a nice accomplishment. While I was waiting for AAA to show up and start my car for me yesterday (more on this later? Maybe?) I took out my library copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules and polished it off. This book was just as funny as the first one, and I continue to love all the illustrations. As I was discussing with a coworker earlier this week, what makes the story so appealing is that Gregory actually isn’t the nicest kid around. He’s not some example of what a kid should be – he’s actually kind of a dick, and a terrible friend. And it’s great, because if I’m remembering my childhood correctly, kids ALWAYS act like little jerks. They pick on each other, ignore each other for stupid reasons, use each other so they can be more popular and fit in. It’s just what kids do – I did it, you did it. It’s just about being a kid. Combined with the fact that they’re hilarious, it’s no wonder every kid I’ve ever seen gobbles them up.

I also finished City of Bones, flying through the last 200 pages last night and this morning. I have some general problems with the book, like with how long it takes Clare to get through scenes (does she really need that many chapters to rescue Simon?) And I really think she uses too many words to describe the action. But it was exciting, and I still like the characters. And a sudden twist means the romance portion won’t go the way you expect, though it involves a little bit of squick (if your read the book, I’m sure you know what I mean). So, while not the greatest books, I really enjoyed it. I just hope City of Ashes is still at the bookstore tomorrow…

Now that that’s done, I need to get some writing in… but I’m definitely starting Leviathan tonight.