Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Review: The Fault in our Stars by John Green

In One Line:  Teenage cancer sucks, ok? (especially when you’re super intelligent)

Genre: Romantic Tragi-Comedy

The Gist:

Hazel has terminal cancer, but due to a wonder-drug, is doing pretty ok at surviving. I mean, her lungs suck, but everyone has something, right? But what we do know, from the outset, is that Hazel hasn’t got that long to live, which means she spends most of her time trying not to get too close to anybody, because she wants to limit the number of casualties when her cancer time-bomb finally goes off. But this is a John Green novel, so you are pretty much guaranteed some great character-to-character sparks, and this comes in Augustus Waters, another Big C survivor who Hazel meets at support group. They fall in love, and when Augustus uses his ‘wish’ from a cancer charity to help Hazel meet a reclusive author in Amsterdam, Things Happen. 

The Cover:

I’m going to have to be honest, my gut reaction is definite HATE. But!!! I understand what’s going on here. Because it would have been so easy to have a cover comprised of two teens embracing in a dream-like haze, or a girl (with post-chemo hair) peering over a cliff or something. I mean, this is a story just begging for a cover-cliche. The publishers haven’t fallen for anything saccharine or romantic, which I appreciate and hugely approve of, but this cover just screams to me ‘let’s just plonk the title and author on there and make it quite blue’. I mean, it’s a John Green novel. There could be at least a tiny bit of poignant symbolism on there, right?

Another side note, which was pointed out at the Piccadilly book club and which I MUST bring your attention to, because it is frankly the most amazing observation ever: below is the US hardback cover. Notice the tiny smidgeon of blue between the black cloud and the white cloud? It’s gone on the UK paperback cover!!! I just love that there must have been a meeting somewhere where someone had to say “let’s get rid of that tiny weeny bit of blue, ok?” Granted, it was a fabulous decision to make, and kudos to the person who noticed, you know who you are!

The Good Points:
  • There is no point denying it. John Green is a fabulous writer. Possibly one of the greatest YA writers of our time. His tone is light and sparkling here, which means that instead of being conscious of reading, you feel like you’re just floating through his words. I read the book in two sittings, and really hated ever having to put it down. 
  • Feelings. There are going to be lots of them, and you have to know that they are coming from the mere premise of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so nervous to start a book before, just because of all the Feels I was anticipating. 
  • All the character are brilliant. There isn’t anyone who is letting the side down, apart from maybe the assistant to Peter the Writer, who is probably just a narrative device. Of particular note is Isaac, Augustus’ soon-to-be-blind-from-cancer best friend, who is just a joy. I could have easily had a bit more of him actually. 
  • I was sort of doubtful that John Green could write a first-person female character, but I think he pretty much nails it. I mean, Hazel is actually written in this genderless way, but I suspect that that is what someone who is fiercely intelligent and dying of cancer would be like. 
The Not-So-Good Points:
  • I read this book straight after The Humans by Matt Haig, which I believe is out in May (review coming nearer publication date!). The Humans made me cry and feel really real in this horribly mortal way (the way only a really good book can) so when I came to The Fault in our Stars I was already pretty raw. I suspected that The Fault in our Stars would therefore turn me into a ridiculous puddle of feelings, but oddly, it didn’t. And I think that’s because The Humans resonated with me as something completely honest, and The Fault in our Stars felt like artifice. The Fault declares itself to be fiction in the author’s note, and as well as being a book about cancer it’s also a book about reading, so I felt a little removed from what was going on. In other words, I was really conscious that I was reading a work of fiction, and for that reason I didn’t open up emotionally to it (by comparison, I cried in The Humans because it really made me confront my own humanity). 
  • Did you guys ever watch Dawson’s Creek and were all like, ‘real kids don’t talk like that, but this is an AMAZING show’? Well The Fault in our Stars is a bit like that. I’ve never met young people who are able to articulate themselves in such an adult way (probably more than adult - I’m all grown up and I can’t articulate myself like the characters in this book!) and probably never will, but that doesn’t stop you from engaging. What I’m trying to say, is that if you’re looking for characters you can recognise for their brutal honesty and realism, you won’t find it here. 
  • There’s a book within a book thing going on here, a book that has the characters in this novel so obsessed that they journey to Amsterdam with Augustus’ wish to meet the author and find out what happens next. I feel like if this book within the book is so important, couldn’t it be a little better?
  • Because John Green declares to the reader from the outset that the book needs to be taken as FICTION, I kind of feel like I can’t criticise it, because anything I point out an imaginary Green just goes ‘but that doesn’t matter. It’s fiction’. Smooth move Green.
The Hypersomnia Test:

So the other morning I thought about having a nap, because I was tired, but I had Piccadilly book club in the evening and we were discussing The Fault, so I thought I might try and get a bit of reading done before the nap overtook me. I didn’t nap. I read this novel right through to the end without stopping. So basically this book might be the cure for Idiopathic Hypersomnia. Just saying. 

Final Verdict:

This one was always going to be a difficult read for me. I received my US hardback a year ago, and ordered it months before. In between the ordering and the receiving, not only did my Grandma develop Leukaemia, but my Grandpa (her husband) who had been living palliatively with cancer for a few years, rapidly deteriorated. They passed away last year, within four months of each other. One of the reasons my Grandpa went downhill so quickly was because he refused to wear his BiPapp machine at night, something that Hazel has to contend with in this novel. Reading The Fault was therefore never going to be an easy ride. But a year on, I read it, and I loved it. Not perhaps as much as I would have liked to, and I’m not entirely sure that it deserves the rapturous hype that it’s been getting, but this is still a wonderful novel. One that should be read by as many people as possible. 

Further Reading:

Before I Die by Jenny Downham
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

In One Line:  Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo were dead to begin with.

Genre: zom-rom-com!

The Gist:

Our narrator, who only remembers the first letter of his name (which is R, probably to be pronounced Rrrrrr) is dead. Walking dead. He lopes about his airport home, moans and grunts to his best mate M (Mmmmm), and sometimes just sits for hours at a time on baggage conveyor belts. Oh, and he eats people, just like all good zombies do. One particular brain gorge leads him to the memories of Perry, and along with it the memories of Perry’s girlfriend Julie, who is apparently next on the zombie menu. Fuelled not only with Perry’s memories but also with his own feelings, R saves Julie instead of eating her, and then takes her back home with him. What follows is the story of an unconventional awakening, and burgeoning love. 

The Cover:

First things first, we’re talking about the real cover here, not the film cover. I generally have an aversion to film covers, just so you know. This is a very classy grown-up affair, which is all very well seeing as this book rightfully sits in adult horror sections rather than YA. The problem with this cover is that it just doesn’t convey how funny this book is. Because it is funny. Really funny. 

The Good Points
  • Shining through the horror and the brutal grotesque of this book is a beautiful sweetness that really takes you by surprise. It’s really the best way to sell this book: “yes it’s a zombie romance, but it’s actually really clever and sweet!” You just end up caring So Much, and that’s a marvellously unique thing when you’re dealing with the undead.
  • A story that could so easily be silly and frankly ridiculous is told with a remarkable intelligence. It is sincere and wonderful, and it is this that makes it so much more than a book with zombies in it. 
  • There is something rather nicely parable-like about the story. It doesn’t get thrown in your face at any point (thank goodness) but I saw a message of awakening from the baggage conveyor belt of life and breaking through to a more present state of being. Or something like that.
  • Julie is brilliant. She’s spunky, sensitive, and damaged, but only in the way that all girls basically are. It’s refreshing to have a female love interest character who isn’t perfect, who is loved for her flaws instead of in spite of them. Go Julie, you rock! 
The Not-So-Good Points
  • You will probably end up having The Feels for a zombie, and some of you may not be entirely comfortable with that. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I was all like “what does it say about my self esteem if I’m falling for a guy that isn’t even alive?!” but then I realised that what I was actually in love with was the idea of a guy giving up his compulsion to eat brains just for me. Because shucks, that’s kinda romantic. Essentially it’s the Edward Cullen effect: this weird supernatural stalkery guy loves me so much that he’s going to give up EVERYTHING for me. And yes, it’s not real, and yes it’s a silly fantasy, but isn’t that what these kind of books are for after all?
  • So this book has a bit of a Romeo and Juliet thing going on, except that this completely passed me by at first, despite our main characters being called R and Julie. But if this passes you by too no worries, because the writer basically hits you across the head with a plank by giving you a proper balcony scene. Honestly, this bit stood out like the punchline in a bad joke. I hated it. I mean, I get it, it’s the balcony scene, but the lack of subtlety just made me want to hurl the book across the room (which wouldn’t have been wise as I read it on my kindle). This scene was basically the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five on Goodreads. 
  • The ending is a bit to and fro (don't worry, no spoilers!!!) - as in, first they leave the stadium, and then they go back, and then they leave again, and then they go back once more. If this was done in a funny way then this would have been fine, but it’s not really that funny. It’s just a bit confused really.
The Hypersomnia Test:

I inhaled this book. The warmth, and the humour and the unexpected sweetness just made me want it to never end. There was basically no hope of me falling asleep whilst all this was going on. 

Final Verdict:

I swear to you this book was actually written for me. I absolutely loved it (apart from that one scene I may have mentioned above). I want all books to be like this. Heck, I probably wouldn’t mind if my next boyfriend has a fetish for grey matter because of this book. I just hope that the film does it justice, because it really is an intelligent and engaging read. Our zombie narrator has a level of brevity and pathos that is as engaging as his wit and I truly hope that this isn’t lost on the silver screen, as it's this that makes the romance so believable. 

Further Reading:

World War Z by Max Brooks
Horns by Joe Hill
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Review: Undone by Cat Clarke

In One Line:  a hot mess of intense Feels, with a touch of the Mean Girls.

Genre: high school melodrama

The Gist:

The premise of this book is beautifully simple: girl loves best friend, best friend is gay, best friend kills himself, girl gets revenge. I’m so jealous of this concept that I can’t even tell you. Not only do we get our narrator, Jem, infiltrating the school’s popular crowd in pure Mean Girls fashion, we also get to read her best friend Kai’s heartbreaking letters, paced throughout the novel, written to Jem just before he committed suicide. 

The Cover:

This is a cover that promises heartache, and this is a book that won’t disappoint! My only concern is the model they used - Jem’s true self is an emo/goth type, but yes she does go blonde as per the instruction in one of Kai’s letters. And whilst it’s blonde Jem that takes up the majority of the novel, by the time we reach the end (which is I suspect the part of the book that this cover illustrates) Jem has gone back to her roots, as it were. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with the cover, it’s just that I think that the book’s narrator might have a problem with it. 

Why You’ll Love This Book
  • Pure feels. Prepare to be punched in the stomach people. You’ll want to have something light and fluffy ready to read for afters!
  • I feel that Jem is a real person. In fact I feel that all the characters in this novel are real people. I could see so many people I knew in this, to the extent that it rather creeped me out! But it’s Jem’s flaws in particular that I loved. To be able to write a character so flawed, and yet so relateable is a real achievement. One that I’m not jealous of at all. No siree. Not jealous.
  • From experience, I know that writing groups of people is really difficult. It’s a bit like juggling, with all the balls in the air at the same time. Well, I think Cat Clarke juggles really well. I think maybe in reality a group of popular kids would have been a bit bigger than the one depicted here, but if there were any more characters to write about the juggling would have been significantly more difficult! 
  • Realistic teen sexytimes! Ok maybe I thought that perhaps Jem took her bra off a little  too quickly, and when she first gets together with Lucas she does something and my first reaction was “how would she even know how to do that?” But otherwise the sexytimes in this novel are pretty much spot on. And they don’t feel at all gratuitous, which is saying something because they are really quite graphic. 
Why You May Not Love This Book:
  • Kai’s letters are a wonderful way to pace this novel. Twelve letters, one to be opened each month, means that we get the span of a year in which to watch Jem unravel. It’s a clever idea, I just wish that the letters would tell us more. I’m not sure of what exactly, but I couldn’t help but feel let down by some of the content, particularly the last few letters. I can’t remember which one it is, but there was one letter in particular that made me go “really? Is that it?!”
  • I think that if you’re of a particularly sensitive nature, you might want to leave this book alone. It’s not for the fragile-minded. 
  • There are a few lost characters, particularly the few that sit on the periphery of the main focus of the novel. I know that’s a bit the fault of the narrator, who is very single-minded, but I did find myself thinking about the other kids that are mentioned and then forgotten, like Bland Boy and Bland Girl, or Jasmine. What happened to them?
  • There is a certain sense of predictability. In fact I did guess one of the twists very early on, despite usually being quite bad at guessing these type of things. However, and it’s a big HOWEVER, even thinking I knew exactly what was happening did not prepare me for the shocker of the ending. 
The Hypersomnia Test:

Passed with gorgeous, glittery, rainbow flying colours! I’m telling you no lies when I say I couldn’t put this book down, in fact I read the entire second half in one sitting. No sleepy times here!

Final Verdict:

I’ve been reading a lot of grown-up literary fiction lately, so it was initially a bit weird to go back to YA storytelling, which is quite blatant and unsubtle. But once I got into the flow and accepted that this was not a convoluted, high-brow effort, I really enjoyed this. It’s simple storytelling, done really, really well. Jem is such a believable character, and even though the story features quite drastic events, I never felt that it was forced or unrealistic. Also, the ending. Obviously not going to spoil anything for you, but I haven’t experienced a suckerpunch like that in quite some time. Be prepared! I haven’t read any of Clarke’s other novels, but I really want to now. I just can’t believe how jealous I am of her skill and her frankly quite devious mind!

Further Reading:

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Forbidden by Tabitha Sazuma
You Against Me by Jenny Downham

Monday, 4 February 2013

Review: Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

In One Line:  Curious Incident meets FUN.

Genre: Sherlock Holmes investigates the American high school.

The Gist:

Colin Fischer has Aspergers Syndrome. You may recognise this condition from that little known book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. Well Colin is rather more highly functioning than the narrator in that book, but still all sorts of kooky. He’s also rather awesome. He has awesome parents that work for NASA, a not-quite-so-awesome brother, and a particularly awesome fascination with the world’s greatest masters of logic: Sherlock Holmes (of Sherlock Holmes fame), Data and Spock (of Star Trek fame) and John Grisham (of CSI fame). So when a gun goes off during lunch time at school, Colin is pretty much the perfect person to figure out who fired it! 

The Cover:

I was drawn to this book before I even knew what it was about, because the cover is absolutely great. At first glance you go ‘Oh look! It’s a Geek!’ and then when you read the back you’re all like ‘an Aspergers Geek!’ which means you’re pretty much guaranteed for a great story (as this is what Curious Incident has taught us). In fact, I think the faceless face on the front looks a lot like Hank Green, and to be honest this makes me love the cover even more! 

Why You’ll Love This Book
  • Have you not been following until now? The protagonist has Aspergers! And literature of all kinds loves protagonists with Aspergers! 
  • Colin is amazing. He manages to be almost entirely emotionally devoid whilst at the same time absolutely wonderful. Maybe it’s the naivety, maybe it’s the sincerity, but whatever it is, I just want to give Colin a hug (although touching him is likely to make him scream). 
  • Research! These writers seem to know an awful lot about what they’re talking about. Packed with facts and intrigues, this is the kind of book that will set you off on all sorts of of mental tangents. One fact in particular that sent me straight to Wikipedia was the one about Tommy Westphall - MIND BLOWN.
Why You May Not Love This Book:
  • I kept thinking that this book would be more interesting in the first person, rather than the third. We do get point-of-view shifts when we get glimpses into Colin’s notebook, but then the shift back to third person POV becomes a little annoying, especially as the notebook entries are so fantastically enjoyable. But maybe this decision was to stop EVEN MORE comparisons with the Curious Incident.
  • The footnotes aren’t interesting enough. I love footnotes in a novel, as they generally tend to be brilliant (see John Green’s Abundance of Katherines), but the footnotes here just weren’t engaging enough. Many contained facts that I already knew, or didn’t contain a level of depth that I thought deserving of a footnote. Overall I just didn’t see the point of them here.
  • Colin’s parents are just a little bit too perfect. And I found that creepy. 
  • There’s an influx of characters at the beginning, and I found it really hard to keep track of who was who, but I guess there really aren’t any easy ways to describe high school classmates. Also, there’s a worrying lack of cultural diversity. 
The Hypersomnia Test:

Not enough gripping relationship drama to keep me hooked, but the footnotes and the notebook entries keep the writing pacey and fresh. Given the choice between reading and napping (not that I actually have a choice - when I need to nap I need to nap) I’m afraid that sleepytime wins.

Final Verdict:

It’s a little sad that this book will unfortunately always be in the shadow of that OTHER book about Aspergers, but this is lovely read. It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not going to set the world on fire, but as a debut from two bonified geeks, it reeks of promise. It’s a gentle read, aimed at a slightly younger audience to the one I’m used to reading for, and has its flaws, but overall I can’t deny that I greatly enjoyed this, and can’t wait to recommend it to young readers. 

Further Reading:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
Wonder by RJ Palacio (read my review HERE)
Holes by Louis Sachar