The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same books over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Meet Hazel. She’s got cancer. It started as thyroid cancer, but now it’s in her lungs. There is no cure, but there is this miracle drug, Phalanxifor (Green points out in his acknowledgements that it’s a made up drug.), and although Hazel’s lungs are practically useless and she has to be hooked up to her oxygen tank all the time, she does okay. Except for, you know, the depression. Or whatever.

Her parents insist that she go to the  cancer survivor’s support group meeting – which she had grown to “to be rather kicking-and-screaming about” – and it is there that she meets Augustus Waters.  He’s in remission after losing his leg below the knee from “a little touch of osteosarcoma.” Her immediate reaction: he’s hot. From this point on, I flew through the pages of  John Green’s YA novel The Fault in Our Stars, alternately laughing and crying.

Telling you much more about the plot won’t actually do the book any justice. Besides, it isn’t so much about what as it is about to whom. The Fault in Our Stars is driven by the magic that is Hazel and Augustus.

Their relationship begins over an exchange of books (be still my heart). Hazel lends Augustus her favourite novel,  An Imperial Affliction, the story of Anna, a girl with a rare cancer of the blood. But, Hazel says:

it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in AIA, Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.

Hazel has some unanswered questions about An Imperial Affliction. She has tried for months to get in touch with the book’s author, Peter Van Houten. When Augustus actually makes contact with Van Houten, it sends the pair on the trip of a lifetime.

But much of that is plot and while the story might be predictable in many ways, there is nothing ordinary about this novel. Nothing. Hazel has been sick for a long time; she has already come to terms with her mortality. What she doesn’t know how to do is live. Augustus is the perfect antidote to her doldrums, beautiful and funny.

And make no mistake – this book is funny. These kids know how to laugh at themselves. When  Isaac, another member of the support group, loses his remaining eye to cancer he says: ” …people keep saying my other senses will improve to compensate, but CLEARLY NOT YET. Hi, Support Group Hazel. Come over here so I can examine your face with my hands and see deeper into your soul than a sighted person ever could.”

As if navigating the thorny path to adulthood weren’t difficult enough, the teenagers in this book must also contend with bodies that have forsaken them.  It is also heartbreaking to watch Hazel’s parents try to protect their daughter, even when they know they can’t. As a mom myself, I can only imagine how horrific it must be to care for a terminally ill child.

Augustus sums it up best: “…the thing about pain…it demands to be felt.”

Absolutely my favourite book this year.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.

A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England.  Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.

When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.

The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.

A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.

I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going.  The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.

 

Drowning Anna – Sue Mayfield

When Anna Goldsmith moves to Yorkshire from the south of England, she finds the transition difficult – that is until Hayley Parkin, the most popular girl at school, takes Anna under her wing. Sue Mayfield’s YA novel Drowning Anna unspools the story of Anna’s relationship with Hayley, which deteriorates almost as quickly as it began.

As Melanie explains:

Hayley Parkin goes off people. I don’t know why. Perhaps she gets bored with them. Perhaps she runs out of things to buy them. Perhaps she can’t stand competition. She doesn’t seem to need a reason. She drops people.

Drowning Anna combines third person narration with Melanie’s reflections and entries from Anna’s journal. From all these different points of view, we come to understand what has driven Anna to such a commit such a drastic act. Anna is a very relateable character. She’s smart, athletic, musical and attractive – but she’s also 14 when the story starts and given to bouts of self-doubt. Hayley Parkin is not the only thing wrong with her life: her teacher-mother is stressed out and moody, her doctor-father is never home; her older brother, Tom, is busy with his own life and doesn’t always live up to expectations – meaning there is extra pressure on Anna.

None of that explains, however, why Hayley decides to focus so much malevolent energy on Anna. She starts small by ignoring her, but it doesn’t take long for the harassment to extend to mimicking her accent (which, granted, means less in a Canadian context but having lived for a time in the UK, I understood this as a tool of torture), isolating Anna and actually physically hurting Anna.

Hayley, it seems, has a lot of charisma. The other students want to be in her orbit, but it feels sort of like, “keep your enemies closer.” We don’t ever get a clear understanding of why Hayley is so hateful, but it hardly matters. At the end of the day, Hayley will have to live with her choices.

Mayfield really captures the very particular cruelty of teenage girls. Anyone who has ever been bullied will see themselves in Anna Goldsmith.

The Returning – Christine Hinwood

I read a lot more Young Adult fiction.  I do it so that I can have conversations with students in my classroom. I read some YA because it sounds interesting to me. Recently, I volunteered to help review some books for the Dept of Education, books which have been selected for possible inclusion on the sanctioned reading list and thus destined for English classes in middle and high school. That’s how I came to read Christine Hinwood’s debut novel, The Returning.

The Returning, a Printz Award winner, is the story of how the aftermath of a domestic war between the Uplanders and Downlanders affects a disparate group of people including Cam Attling (a returned soldier), Pin (his younger sister), Graceful (Cam’s fiance) and Lord Gyaar (the man who saved Cam’s life). It’s alternate historical fiction – which reads like fantasy because the world is sort of, well, otherworldly. Is it the past? Future?

While not without its merits, Hinwood’s book didn’t appeal to me. The story is elliptical in nature, jumping around in time and place – never settling with one character long enough to allow the reader to really get to know them.

Cam is the only man from his village to return from the war and he’s having a difficult time adapting to life back on his father’s farm. Other villagers always want him to talk about what happened to their husbands and sons and brothers, but Cam just wants to forget. But it wasn’t just Cam’s war  – the world has changed for everyone. Da explains the war to Pin as a rock that has been:  “thrown and done, but the ripples do take longer to spread and flatten. That’s what this is, the ripples.”

I understand why Hinwood didn’t want to focus entirely on Cam – the war has affected many other people (including those from the winning side) – but I just couldn’t seem to keep everyone straight. Perhaps it was all the strange names: Diido, Hughar, Acton. Maybe it was the unusual way the characters spoke – although the writing was often quite beautiful. Maybe Hinwood was too ambitious, trying to capture the aftermath of war for too many players.

I just didn’t  feel like I truly knew any of the characters and so, for me, The Returning just didn’t have the emotional impact I had hoped it would

Jane – April Lindner

Although I read it almost 40 years ago (and, oh, it pains me to say that!) Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the story of  Jane, an orphan who is mistreated by her awful cousins and finally finds love and a home at Thornfield Hall, the estate of the enigmatic and darkly handsome Edward Rochester, has stayed with me my entire life. I remember the specific feeling of satisfaction I had while reading it – my first ‘adult’ novel; but, more than that, I fell in love with Jane. I felt, in her, a kindred spirit –  a bookish, sensible and rather plain young woman – someone I could relate to.

I tell my writing students that  we tell the same stories over and over and our real job as writers is to find fresh and inventive ways to do that: to make the old new. Perhaps that explains the glut of sequels and prequels and little women turned zombie killers on the bookshelves these days. Despite my reservations about these books, I have to say that I have a few on my bookshelves; mostly these books are ones I hope I can pass on to my students.

April Lindner’s book Jane comes with the tagline “What if Jane Eyre fell in love with a rock star?” Lindner herself is a Jane Eyre fan and claims that as much as she “love[s] the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs … if I had to choose between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, I’d be on Team Bronte.” She wondered why there wasn’t some sort of Jane Eyre redux and thought it might have to do with some of the complicating factors of the original: a crazy woman locked in an attic could hardly happen with today’s modern medicine.

Still, Lindner decided to see if she could finesse Jane’s story into the 21st century.  Sadly, I can’t say that she’s altogether successful.

Jane Moore has to leave her East Coast college after the death of her parents. The stocks they left her turn out to be worthless; her older siblings did marginally better, but she isn’t close to them. At all. In fact they are horrible. Unlike Bronte’s Jane, though, we aren’t given any real insight into why the family dynamics are so messed up. So, we just have to accept that Jane’s stiff-upper-lip is because of some deep-rooted childhood trauma. So, without a degree or money, Jane decides to become a nanny. Lucky girl, she gets to work for Nico Rathburn – über famous rock star guy. Seriously, if there is a bigger star on the planet, we don’t know who he is. Jane sort of knows who Rathburn is because her brother used to blare his music all the time, but Jane is above all that.

Off Jane goes to the Thornfield Park where she meets various employees of Rathburn’s and his five-year-old daughter, Maddy. She’s also warned to stay away from the third floor because, despite Nico’s wealth,  “the floorboards are old and rotting.”  Nico, when he finally shows up, is prickly and kinda hot. And despite the awkward conversation between them, it’s not long before Jane realizes she’s in love with Mr. Rathburn (yes, she still calls him that!)

Here’s where I started to giggle. We are expected to buy into this relationship – and yet I never believed any of it. All their conversations were extremely awkward and somehow inappropriate. I’m not just talking about the age difference (Jane is 19 or perhaps 20 and Rathburn has had one marriage, one child with another woman and scads – by his own admission – of liaisons with groupies and super models). He seems to have no problem revealing very personal details to Jane, almost from the moment he meets her. But he also has no problem fawning over a beautiful photographer, ostensibly to make Jane jealous. Really? Nico seems less tortured and more torturer.

There’s no emotional center to Lindner’s Jane. Ironically, the novel ends up being as glossy and superficial as the magazines Jane manages to avoid after she runs away from Nico and his dark secret. (Which also, really?)

If Jane manages to encourage a new generation of readers to pick up Bronte’s vastly superior novel, that will be an accomplishment. But I can’t imagine any fans of the original thinking this update has anything much to offer.

 

He’s After Me – Chris Higgins

When smart but plain Anna meets Jem in Chris Higgins’ novel He’s After Me, her life is falling apart. Her parents have recently separated, her mother has retreated from the world and her younger sister, Olivia, is suddenly dressing far too provocatively and hanging out with kids that Anna doesn’t particularly like.

Jem is, well, electrifying. “…his smile faded and our eyes held and that’s when it happened. A charge passed through me like an electric shock.”

The first person narration sweeps the reader along and allows us to see both Jem’s many charms and also Anna’s growing doubts about the intensity of  her first serious relationship. Her best friend Zoe sees it though. “He’s got inside your head, Anna! He controls you. Can’t you see it?” she says.

But Anna can’t – or won’t see it. As Jem leads her further and further away from the safety of her life, she takes risks and chances she would never have previously considered.

That might have been enough to drive this YA novel’s breakneck pace – but there’s more. Someone seems to be watching Anna and Jem.

And so love’s arrow finds its target.

And she’d seemed like such a sensible girl too, not the kind to lose her head over some bloke.

That’s love for you.

Anna is a likeable character. I found myself really turning the pages to find out what was going on – wavering between believing in Jem’s charms and wanting to scream at Anna for not seeing through them. The anonymous third person kept me guessing, too. So, in that respect – good little page turner.

But I didn’t like the ending much.

Evidence of Blood – Thomas H. Cook

Jackson Kinley, the protagonist of Evidence of Blood,  is a true-crime writer. His career has brought him close to unimaginable horrors: rapists and murderers and people who torture others for pleasure. Kinley (as he is most often called) seems somehow immune to these horrors. Perhaps it’s his IQ, which is reportedly off the charts. Perhaps it’s his own childhood – he was raised by his grandmother in backwater Sequoyah, Georgia. Whatever the reason, Kinley  is able to face the dark deeds of the world’s most reprehensible criminals without flinching.

His armor is breached, however, when he gets the call that his childhood friend, Ray Tindall, has been found dead. He returns to Sequoyah and learns that Ray was trying to uncover the truth about a murder which had occurred many years before.

Thomas H. Cook  – as those of you who are regular readers here already know – is my favourite mystery writer. True, I am not a mystery scholar by any stretch, but an accidental discovery of his book Breakheart Hill several years ago has turned me into a fan and I have read several of his books (and I am thrilled to know there are more waiting to be read.)

Cook is particularly adept at creating nuanced characters and Kinley is no exception. Kinley’s past is deeply rooted in Sequoyah, but even he is unaware of just how deep those roots go. He can’t help himself – he’s an investigator and the shocking death of his oldest (and perhaps only) friend, has him sifting through the past. Ray, it turns out, was looking into the mysterious disappearance of Ellie Dinker, a sixteen year old whose bloody dress was found on a tree branch in 1954. A man was sentenced to death for that crime and Ray was trying to prove his innocence.

Like all of Cook’s novels, the mystery will keep you guessing. I tried out several potential (and I thought entirely plausible) solutions and was still surprised at the end of the book. I like the way Cook writes; his are literary mysteries. I feel like the craft of writing is just as important to him as telling a cracking good story – which he does. You keep turning those pages.

As Kinley follows Ray’s paper trail, interviews the players who are still alive and recalls childhood memories, he slowly begins to understand the implication of Ray’s words to him at one of their final meetings: “It’s better to know, don’t you think, Kinley? No matter what the cost?”

If you like well-written  mysteries, you really can’t beat Cook.

Things You Either Hate or Love – Brigid Lowry

Georgia is the 15-year-old narrator of New Zealand  novelist Brigid Lowry’s YA book, Things You Either Hate or Love. I was smitten with her almost as soon as she opened her mouth to announce:

I like to think of myself as a brilliant creative person, but sometimes I just feel like a sad lonely girl with a big bum.

Georgia is madly in love with Jakob, the lead singer of a funk band called Natural Affinity. She spends long hours talking to his poster – free therapy – and plotting ways to earn money so she can fly off to Brisbane to see his band in concert.

In an effort to make some money, Georgia tries (and fails) at babysitting, working in a video store and then a bakery, before finally landing as a cashier at the local supermarket. When she isn’t moaning about regular teenage stuff (her mother, school, friends) she’s trying to navigate the fraught path from childhood to adulthood.

Georgia is charming and funny, but lacks any real confidence. She is a character that would definitely speak to a lot of girls. She certainly spoke to my former self. When she ends up working with Hunter, the gorgeous boy who used to come into the bakery, she can’t help but develop a bit of a crush. But she’s sure Hunter could never be interested in a girl like her.

If I have any complaints about the book it’s that the girl on the cover is a misrepresentation of the Georgia in the book  – although I have no doubt that Georgia is nowhere near as plain as she thinks she is. Also, Georgia contracts glandular fever and loses a lot of weight…just in time for the book’s happy ending.

That said, I really enjoyed Things You Either Hate or Love. Georgia is lovely and her trials are relate-able without being overwrought. It is a skilled writer who can make a book without an overabundance of teenage drama compelling and entertaining.

Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness

My love affair with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy began with The Knife of Never Letting Go. The next book, The Ask and the Answer was also fabulous. Last night I finished the third book, Monsters of Men. I am not ashamed to say that I cried.

Monsters of Men begins on the eve of war. Todd and the Mayor, and  Viola and Mistress Coyle are not only at a stand-off with each other, The Spackle (the indigenous people of New World) have risen up to annihilate them. War proves to be frightening and messy and dangerous.

The flames spill out from the top of the horned creacher and cut thru the middle of soldiers and men are screaming  and burning and screaming and burning and soldiers are turning back and running and the line is breaking and Angharrad is bucking and bleeding and squealing and we’re slammed by a wave of men retreating and she bucks up again and-

The lines between hero and villain, good and evil, are  blurred in Monsters of Men. I found my feelings about the Mayor constantly changing. Is he a decent man caught up in extraordinary times? Is he a master manipulator? Is he a monster? Mistress Coyle didn’t fair much better in my estimation. Viola and Todd ask the same questions about the adults nearest them and as they aren’t physically together for much of this book, they also ask it of each other. How have circumstances changed them?

There’s also a new point of view to consider in Monsters of Men: the Spackle. For the first time we get to hear their noise. Truthfully, I found some of this bothersome because of the names they ascribed to things: the Burden, the Clearing, the Knife, the Sky, the Source. I was caught up in the narrative and it slowed me down trying to figure out who or what  they were talking about. Nevertheless, the Spackle are no longer a faceless enemy – if they ever were the enemy at all.

There are big questions to be considered in this novel, in the series as a whole. Despite the fact that Chaos Walking is marketed as a Young Adult series, Ness doesn’t shy away from asking them. Why do we fight? What does it mean to be human? I even think there is something in the books about this information age – the constant bombardment of data and noise we endure every day. With no quiet space to think, don’t we all have the potential to be driven a little mad? Alternatively, can’t we use this information to better understand and empathize with each other?

As the Mayor says to Todd near the end of the book, “War makes monsters of me, you once reminded me.” It is messy business, to be sure. But there is great humanity in these books. And Todd and Viola, as characters, will be with me for a long, long time.

A Must Read series!

Gone – Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson

Connor, the 17-year-old protagonist of Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson’s YA novel, Gone, is straddling the  fence between innocence and experience. He has just graduated from high school, lives with his Aunt Syl, and visits his father in a nursing home where he has been living ever since he crashed his car while driving drunk. His mother is also a recovering alcoholic.  He is certainly vulnerable to the advances of Corinna Timms.

Ms. Timms was one of Connor’s high school teachers.

Zach…called Ms. Timms serious babe material – too bad she was their teacher. Connor called her, just to himself, beautiful. Half the time in her class had been spent trying not to stare at her, then failing his resolve, ducking his head when she turned around from the blackboard and caught him.

For the nanosecond that their eyes locked – what?

It’s this what that drives the narrative of Gone. As Connor moves through his days, avoiding his mother, working at Chow Line, hanging with his friend, Zach – he does his best to avoid thinking about his growing feelings for Ms. Timms. But it is clear to the reader (and Connor’s closest friends) that something is happening. And make no mistake – the fuel for Connor’s growing obsession is hormones.

Connor’s feelings for Ms. Timms are, in part, exacerbated by his parental issues. When his father dies and his mother, newly sober, comes to town, Connor is forced to confront some of his painful family problems. By then, though, things with Ms. Timms have crossed the platonic line and his world spins off its axis.

Gone is not a love story. Ms. Timms has her own demons. In the end, she comes across more as predator than genuine friend. And while Connor’s world does shift dangerously off track, he is a smart kid and I suspect that he’ll be okay in the end.

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of YA tea. But it’s intelligent and well-written, although there is some strong language. Obviously.