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"I told Agustus the broad outline of my miracle: diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer when I was thirteen. (I didn't tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You're a woman. Now die.) It was, we were told, incurable." -- The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

the fault in our starsThe Fault in Our Stars
John Green

I read John Green's Looking for Alaska because I enjoy both young adult literature and banned books (Alaska was challenged by parent groups around the country because it included a sex scene). I was very impressed with Green's writing, so when The Fault in Our Stars came out I put it on my to-read list as well.

To my knowledge, The Fault in Our Stars has not yet been challenged or banned, but there is a growing parental movement against "dark books" aimed at young readers, and concern over a type of YA literature sometimes labeled "sick lit." This novel is about teenagers suffering from cancer. Teenagers who will die (sorry if that's a spoiler). As such, Green's novel is both dark and sick, and I expect it is only a matter of time until some parent or religious group demands it be removed from a school library or a high school English class reading list.

Why would religious people challenge this book? I once heard a doctor say his belief in god didn't survive his first encounter with pediatric cancer (just as my own faith died when I learned about Anne Frank). The characters in this novel have lost whatever specific religious beliefs they might once have held. Yes, they cling to a vague spiritualism, a belief in something larger than themselves, but Jesus is notably absent from their lives. That right there is more than enough reason for religious groups to oppose The Fault in Our Stars. There is also a Judy Blume-ish sex scene in the book, and that is sure to draw a challenge as well. For those reasons, I'm adding a peremptory banned book tag to this review.

So, to the book. Is it good? Yes, it is every bit as good as Looking for Alaska. Green pulls you into his teenaged characters' lives, into their innermost thoughts and fears, and you finish this book feeling almost as if they were your own siblings, your own first loves, or ... if you are a parent ... your own children. Is it sad? Yes, it's heartbreaking. Is there anything to be learned from this novel? I suppose so, if "pediatric cancer sucks" counts as a life lesson.

So, why three and a half stars and not four? After all, I gave four to Looking for Alaska. Alaska felt more real to me, I guess. Not that there's anything not real about kids with cancer; not that they don't deserve to have a sympathetic novel written about what they go through before they die; not that we don't need to understand the disease and how it affects its victims and those who love them ... no, it's more that there's nothing we can do about it other than to cry, and that this novel seems to have only one purpose: to make readers cry.

a feast for crowsA Feast for Crows (Game of Thrones # 4)
George R.R. Martin

I devoured the first three Game of Thrones novels, rating each of them four stars, but found this one less tasty. Why? There's not a word in this 775-page doorstopper about four important characters left hanging from cliffs at the end of GOT #3, A Storm of Swords: John Snow, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen.

In an afterword, George R.R. Martin explains how he came to split his fourth GOT novel, which was rapidly growing beyond 1,000 pages, into two, and assures readers that in GOT #5, A Dance with Dragons, we’ll catch up with the aforementioned characters. In fact, he explains that the time period experienced by the characters who inhabit GOT #5 will be the same time period experienced by the characters inhabiting GOT #4. I suppose it was a sensible decision, but still it's a jarring one ... perhaps George should have made his afterword a foreword.

In comparison to the first three GOT novels, this one drags a bit, being largely concerned with a host of lesser characters acting out subplots on the fringes of Westeros. Oh, sure, many chapters follow the unfolding stories of Cersei, Jamie, Sansa, Arya, Brienne, and Samwell, all of whom move the main plot along smartly, but these make the chapters devoted to lesser characters and subplots seem, in comparison, like filler. Also: is it just me, or is there an overabundance of courtly Monty Pythonish kniggit talk in A Feast for Crows? I'm up to here with sigils and shields and Valyrian longswords with names and courtly lineages and Good Ser This and Good Ser That.

And yet I couldn't put it down. Salman Rushdie’s memoir (reviewed below), which I read during breaks from A Feast for Crows, is more interesting. So why not put the draggy GOT novel down and finish the better book? I can’t explain why I couldn't, but there it is. Apparently my appetite for courtly kniggit talk is stronger than I knew.

If your reaction to the first three GOT novels was as strongly positive as mine, you may be tempted to skim through this one, or even put it aside. Don't. Even though a lot of it is concerned with lesser characters, the Cersei/Jamie/Sansa/Arya/Brienne/Samwell threads are riveting, and a major part of this ongoing story. It may be a little harder to read, but it's very much worth it.

joseph antonJoseph Anton: a Memoir
Salman Rushdie

Well, here I am, three books into this collection of reviews, and already caught out in a lie. I read Rushdie's memoir during breaks from A Feast for Crows (reviewed above) but didn't finish it, despite claiming it to be the better and more interesting of the two. In my defense, my claim was true the first 300 pages of Rushdie's memoir, but then it became repetitive and I began to feel I had read enough.

I shouldn't rate a book I didn't finish, but I did read half before deciding I wouldn't get much more out of the remaining pages. The writing is of a very high quality, hence the three-star rating. The subject matter -- Salman Rushdie's life during the fatwa years (which, technically, are still going on) -- is compellingly interesting, at least at first. Rushdie's massive ego got in the way, though, and became ever more off-putting the deeper I got into his memoir. Several reviewers complain of name-dropping. I didn't mind that at first, since Rushdie moves in literary circles and I'm a great fan of many of the authors he gossips about, but after a while that too began to wear. He treats his enemies harshly, and one cannot approve of the way he treats his wives and lovers. Overall, I came to this memoir prepared to like Salman Rushdie. I came away with an appreciation of Rushdie's interesting, brilliant mind, but no fondness for the man himself.

the alchemistThe Alchemist
Paolo Bacigalupi

I rated other Paolo Bacigalupi novels at four and four-and-a-half stars. The Alchemist, I'm sad to say, struck me as a lesser work, and I was disappointed in it. The writing is up to snuff, but the story itself is very short (I read it in an evening) and I kept feeling there should have been more. Bacigalupi's other novels are based on solid environmental science and present believable future societies and worlds. This one is a fantasy, an Arabian Nights tale about a world where magic (literally, flying carpets and cloud castles) is widely practiced until an unfortunate side-effect kicks in: a world-consuming bramble that grows every time magic is practiced and comes to threaten human life itself. The bramble is consistent with Bacigalupi's science fiction (it made me think of his genetically-modified crops gone wild); magic is not. Now this is just me: I am not a fan of fantasy, and that aspect of the story leaves me cold. I recognize that fantasy lovers might have a completely different reaction to this story ... but I personally hope Bacigalupi returns to science fiction.

slatedSlated (Slated # 1)
Teri Terry

This is a pretty good start to a series of dystopian YA novels. I understand a movie is already in the works, and it's not hard to envision it as another Hunger Games. The story is set in a future V for Vendetta-ish London, a society where people are rigidly controlled by lorders (law & order forces), a society where malcontents and dissidents are hunted down and "disappeared" in most interesting ways. Younger ones are "slated," their memories wiped clean, then reintroduced to society. Older ones are ... well, who knows? This novel introduces the scenario and the engaging young protagonist, a 16-year-old girl named Kyla, but it doesn't take the reader down all the plot paths introduced here. Presumably the ins & outs of disappearing, termination, and slating will be explored in sequels. And that's fine! There's plenty here to chew on, and Kyla is a fascinating character who is ominously not at all like other slated kids. You know she's going to make an impact on society, but she's just learning her own strength in this first novel.

Teri Terry's writing is average. At least one Goodreads reader/reviewer commented on Kyla's habit of "jumping" whenever she is startled. She never twitches, flinches, goes white, or starts ... she "jumps," over and over. I suspect Terry's writing will improve as she develops this series, much as J.K. Rowling's writing improved as she got deeper into the Harry Potter saga.

The second novel in the series is out. It's called Fractured and I very much want to read it, but it's not yet available as an ebook. What the hell is up with that, publisher? The first one is on my Nook and that's where I want to second one to be as well. Get on that, okay?

live by nightLive by Night
Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane's 1920s prohibition-era crime novel takes a minor character from a previous novel, The Given Day, and follows his rum-running and organized crime career in Boston and Tampa. My reaction to this character, Joe Coughlin, was sort of meh. Even in his own novel he continues to feel like a minor player, making Live by Night seem less a destination than a detour. Nor is Joe Coughlin particularly believable, afflicted as he is with a soft heart that in any other organized crime novel would have gotten him whacked before the end of the first chapter. This is not Lehane's strongest novel, but if you suspend your disbelief in Joe Coughlin's unlikely survival as a crime figure, it's enjoyable enough.

As an aside, I'm disappointed Lehane hasn't yet tackled the Tulsa race riot of 1921. He dangled a hook in The Given Day, and does so again here, but I guess it remains a subject for a future novel. I hope so, at any rate: I know Lehane's the writer who can bring that shameful and deliberately-hidden part of American history to life.

See all my reviews

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 07:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Paolo Bacigalupi (4+ / 0-)

    Interesting comments about Paolo Bacigalupi's piece. I haven't read "The Alchemist". I admire much of his other work, but as you note, his other work is more SF than magical fantasy.

    Apparently "The Alchemist" is half of a two-fer, and the other half was written by Tobias Buckell. I get the impression the two authors are friends. I suspect Bacigalupi thought it would be interesting to experiment with co-writing with another author he likes. I notice Bacigalupi lists it on his web site with short stories rather than books.

    He has indeed stuck with his dark climate change and genetic tinkering themes in his more recent SF. You might want to check out his YA novels, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities for comparison. My only disappointment with them is that they are somewhat toned down because they're aimed at youth readers. I think he's at his best writing more mature material. He's selling more and winning more awards for those two YA books, though, so I can understand why he would stick with that.

    Thanks for contributing your perspective.


    Most models are wrong, but some are useful.

    by etbnc on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 09:28:44 AM PDT

    •  I had seen... (5+ / 0-)

      ...a comment from Paolo...somewhere...when he was talking about writing YA as opposed to adult material.  And the primary difference, he felt, in his own writing, was that kids deserved, if not a happy ending, then a hopeful one; where adults -- not so much.

      I'd disagree -- I think everybody needs hope, and that it's my job as a novelist to provide a place for people to relax and recharge before they return to the increasingly scary and dangerous Real World -- but it was an interesting take on the writer's responsibility to his readers.

      “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”~Thomas Mann

      by Rolanni on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 10:47:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'm a huge PB fan. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rolanni, RiveroftheWest, Limelite

      Also a YA fan. PB is the best current practitioner of both IMHO. I think I've read everything he's published now. My reviews of other PB books are on Goodreads, where I go by Paul Woodford.

  •  I enjoy your reviews. You give a succinct sense (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Limelite, No Exit

    of both the flavor and the quality of the writing.

    I think George RR Martin's 4th in his Epic deserves 4 stars. As you yourself said, "And yet I couldn't put it down."

    He is in danger of letting the story get away from him, of cramming so many sub-plots in that the whole thing falls apart. But he also has massive story-telling skills, and might yet pull it off, creating this generation's Lord of the Rings.

    This is the third time this week I find myself discussing this epic, so I'll quote what I already said:

    I enjoy George R. R. Martin's brave imagination. I know some people find the Game of Thrones series too brutal, because Martin will take the characters you're most attached to and spring murder and rape on them. No one is safe.

    I just know that there's something refreshing, after reading so many books with a safety-net of comfort built in, with a certain predictability - because there are so many things off-limits, which authors avoid lest they  leave too bad a taste in your mouth - there's something that just shocked me awake when I discovered Westeros (only in the first 4 books - I haven't seen any of the show).

    When you've grown comfortable with certain patterns, and moral systems, with what's allowed to happen to heroes and villains, it's exhilarating to throw half those rules out the window, and have no idea what's coming. OK, Martin's now woven such a dense tapestry that it might be harder, in the final books, to shock his readers without upsetting the flow of his plot.

    It's always far easier to be shocking, to get away with great leaps of the imagination, in the earlier chapters. Readers are more forgiving and open-minded, before they've got stuck in to your world and characters.

    I give Martin a lot of credit for his bravery. I think it goes a lot further than his moral system: what he allows to happen to his characters. His whole world has a freshness and realism that I find rare in fantasy, a willingness to break any character or lesser emotional pay-off, as long as he keeps the larger story rolling forward and thrilling his readers. . .

    I wouldn't say I love Tyrion Lannister but he fits in my larger point about Martin's brave and original vision. It was powerful work, to create a character who is such a ruthless schemer that he makes your skin wriggle, and then go deeper and broader and make him both fascinating and more sympathetic than you could have seen coming. . . .

    Martin's written a lot of fiction, and I've only read a fraction of it. But, at his best, he has all I look for in a great writer: he can handle plot, character, he has a style of his own which includes many kinds of voice, and he has a huge and original imagination.

    I have not studied him for flaws, and it's entirely possible that he's capable of gross sloppiness and self-indulgence, too. So his series might end up going the way of Robert Jordan's (especially if he ends before the series does).

    But Martin has spent decades honing many aspects of his craft, and has suddenly found himself with a massive best-seller. So he must want to leave a master-work, and I trust that he's been slowing down his output because he's absolutely determined to get it right.

    That doesn't mean Martin will succeed in his grand design. Perhaps when it's all done, we'll find that there's a hurricane-full of random chaos blowing through his cathedral, and that's what his realistic vision adds up to. But I'm pretty sure, from what I've seen so far, that Martin has all the chops he needs to make a marvelous shimmering beast, like nothing we've ever seen before - that, in a sense, all his life has led up to this chance.

    I'll at least wait, praying that he finishes his series, and not judging it until I've seen the whole thing for myself.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 01:42:13 PM PDT

    •  i thought the third was the best... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Brecht

      the fourth i liked the least and found to be a bit of a slog, but, as you say, it pulls you through because you do have the threads you've grown accustomed to...

      the fifth is more of a return to form of the first three because all the characters are settled.

      it does have a richness and gritty realism and willingness to kill off major characters which is unusual...  hard to think of another series that's done it with his regularity.

      there's no doubt in my mind martin can pull these threads together brilliantly...  will he live that long is that question.  the man is damnably slow.

      but what are you gonna do?

      Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

      by No Exit on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 12:07:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'd have been happier if I'd stopped at book three (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, No Exit

        and just waited (and prayed) for him to finish all the others. Then I could reread 1-3, and continue to the end.

        This is partly just my own peevishness. When I'm immersed in so large a world, with such a cast of characters, I want to have all the characters and sub-plots fresh in my mind, each time I start a new book.

        Did he make a mistake, spinning it out so much that he had to split his cast in half? I won't know for sure until it's all done, and I can see the whole effect of it. Tolkein did the same thing in LOTR, and I did feel that it got unwieldy and a bit frustrating.

        I sure hope he pulls it off, and that it all comes together brilliantly at last. At his best, he's a very exciting and satisfying writer.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 07:28:06 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  If you could see my TBR pile, you might ask why (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, RiveroftheWest

    on earth I'm here checking out more books I haven't read.

    Quite simply, I enjoy your honesty.  If you couldn't get through the book, you say so, and why.  You also don't seem to "jump on the bandwagon," and that's a relief.  That way when you rate a book highly I know I have to check it out.

    Thank you for the conversational and forthright reviews. They're enjoyable to read as well as helpful.

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 03:17:11 AM PDT

  •  Fair-minded and Even-handed Reviews (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    No Exit, RiveroftheWest

    Found your diary interesting because you mostly read books that I've never considered.  I share your sentiments about Rushdie -- he belabors his points even in fiction.  But I still allow him to beguile me.

    If you're willing to read more experimental fiction that might take the bad taste out of your brain left by Bacigalupi's riff on The Arabian Nights, may I suggest The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya?

    Excerpt from my book journal:

    In order to live, a story requires a teller and an audience.  In the case of Hassan, the storyteller of the Djemaa el Fna, the central square of the fabled city of Marrakesh, he involves his entire audience in the recreation of the night two foreign visitors disappeared from that very square, involving Hassan’s brother, Mustafa – a man who has sworn to pursue beauty no matter the cost, in the crime that seems to surround the incident.  We often hear that stories are the means we have invented for exploring and finding life’s truths, but in this case we see that the story’s truth may be a compilation of everyone’s lies.  Roy-Bhattacharya gives us an enigmatic tale, richly symbolic, and overflowing with the exotic variety of the inhabitants of northwest Africa.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 09:04:57 AM PDT

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