Talking Terminal

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I can’t review these books without discussing their endings!

As a reader, I tend to avoid obviously difficult subjects, both in YA and elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t have picked up Stolen if I hadn’t been recommended it by a friend. The blurbs never scream “happy ever after” to me and while I’m fine without a neatly tied everyone-survives ending, topics like illness (in this case, cancer) tell me that this book is unlikely to end with the illness gone away and all characters surviving. As Hazel says about her favourite novel: “It’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck.”

But saying that, I am now going to talk about The Fault In Our Stars (TFioS) by John Green and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (based on an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) which both address this challenging subject. TFioS is told from the point of view of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl who is suffering from incurable lung cancer. A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is the story of Conor and how he copes with his mother’s terminal cancer.

Hazel opens TFioS by attending Support Group, as her mother has decided she is depressed. Hazel disagrees, but goes anyway. It is here that she meets our other protagonist, Augustus Waters. He is a seventeen-year-old boy in remission after losing one of his legs. He is easy-going, confident, and enjoys finding symbolism and metaphor in pretty much everything. The two swap book recommendations: Hazel’s favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, for Augustus’ book based on a videogame with “a sentence to corpse ratio of nearly 1:1”. Thankfully, Augustus is not as formulaic as his book recommendation would suggest.

The thing I love the most about TFioS (and at the time of writing I’ve read it four times and listened to the audiobook twice) is Hazel’s narrative. For so much of the book you think of cancer as a side-effect of the plot; it doesn’t get in your way. And it means you get more room to enjoy Hazel’s character, her sense of humour, her interests, her view on the world and the people she meets in it. She is very well-read, yet enjoys sitting in for day-long marathons of ANTM. Most importantly, she is not daunted by Augustus. Hazel is very much her own person.

It is this narrative that makes the highs and lows of the novel feel even more heightened. John Green does a wonderful job of creating these carefully orchestrated crescendos, then suddenly tugs you down into something softer, quieter, and inevitably more painful. It is his own reminder that while you can believe in the illusion of health that Hazel (and predominantly Augustus) creates, you are only fooling yourself. It is, after all, an illusion.

The ending is what makes Hazel even more brilliant to me: she understands that the wheels keep turning and she has to keep going, even while dealing with her grief. We know she will not ever live a long and ‘normal’ life, but she closes this chapter of her life with Augustus knowing she will carry on, for however long that will be. It is that optimism, shining through the bleakness, that makes this such a wonderful conclusion to the story. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, but Green does not leave you in total darkness.

A Monster Calls feels considerably darker as a story, and in many ways it is. This is not only because of Jim Kay’s brilliant illustrations, but because the focus is on Conor and the monster. The monster arrives every night just after midnight, waking Conor up from the nightmare he has had since his mum started a fresh bout of treatments. Finding out what the nightmare is forms the climax of the story, but in between visits from the monster we see how Conor manages day-to-day. His parents have separated and his father now lives in America; he lives with his mother and is occasionally visited by his grandma, who he makes no secret of loathing.

Conor drifts through school, and Ness makes the readers feel how he is fading. He is becoming his mother’s illness. Picked on by bullies, unable and unwilling to stand up for himself, you watch him continually self-destruct and become more and more isolated. As this happens during the day, the monster visits him during the night. He is told three stories by the monster, who insists that after these tales are told, Conor will tell him his story: the truth about what happens in his nightmare.

The story is beautifully told, and feels horribly real. It feels so real that it is impossible to distance yourself from it, and the ending will likely have you in tears. It is crafted in such a way that when Conor finally reveals happens in his nightmare, we can understand completely. He has been consistently beating himself up, letting others beat him up, because he can’t shake the guilt of what he feels. It is also made clear he doesn’t ever vent and has nobody really to talk to, which only increases his guilt. This isolation is completely understandable from our external perspective, but we see how it eats him up. When he finally lets go, it is a great weight that has lifted from both Conor and the readers’ shoulders.

While I may not frequent books that discuss subjects like terminal cancer, both TFioS and A Monster Calls are brilliantly worked (and also two of my favourite books). Neither are truly about cancer. TFioS is about first love, and A Monster Calls about the importance of letting your feelings go. Both are brilliantly crafted, and the sort of books that you are determined everyone should read. And therefore I hope you now go away and (re)read them. They are both truly excellent books.

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For all things TFioS (FAQ) : http://onlyifyoufinishedtfios.tumblr.com/

VIDEO: Patrick Ness talking about A Monster Calls

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TFIOS: 9/10

A Monster Calls: 10/10

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My Library Haul

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I’m going for a bumper review this time out – three books I got from the library a few weeks ago. The first, Stolen, I’ve had recommended to me by quite a few people; If You Find Me and Arabesque were curiosity grabs.

Stolen by Lucy Christopher is styled as “a letter to my captor”. Gemma, a British teenager, is kidnapped at an airport and taken to the remote outback of Australia. It is written entirely in second person, which adds to the disconnected atmosphere the author creates. The whole experience feels slightly dream-like and unreal, and Gemma’s voice sustains it really well. Reading it, you are sucked in to Gemma’s ordeal and with a narrative that allows such access to her thoughts, you start to wonder about the man who took her. Gemma is desperate to go home, but is also curious about her captor – she refers to what these cases feel like from the outside, watching on the news, and wondering how anyone would be able to find her in the deserted outback.

The book is well-crafted and everything feels very deliberately and carefully timed to maximise the feeling of disjointedness. Curiosity keeps both the reader and Gemma going, and the idea of stockholm syndrome is explored very well, as Gemma begins to feel some sympathy for her captor. As Gemma (and the reader) get to know him, it becomes harder to place him in the box of ‘captor’ – and Christopher does an excellent job of showing how people don’t fit into the neat little boxes we create for them. The only downside for me was that the dream-like sensation of reading it makes the book feel a lot shorter than it is – but then again, that may very well be the point.

I followed this with If You Find Me, a story about two girls who are recovered from a camper van hidden in the woods by social services. Their mother, an addict, is usually absent for long periods and leaves Carey to bring up her little sister Jenessa. Through Carey we see her limited and idealised version of life in the woods that she uses to paper over memories she would rather forget. The two are sent to live with their father, to Carey’s dismay; her mother has always told her the reason she toook them away was because of him. But the longer they stay in their new home, the happier they become. They are introduced to a new way of life, enrol in school, and begin to make friends.

This wasn’t the most grabbing of books, but Carey is a wonderful character and I wanted to find out what would happen to her. She is far older than her years and you can sympathise with her as she adjusts to a new family and not having to be so utterly independent. She can never quite suppress the past, and by the end of the book we discover why. The author manages to bundle the uncertainties of teenage years into what would otherwise be a fairly joyless story. The hope that Carey and Jenessa gain from their new home burns through and pulls you to the finish line.

The last book from this haul is Arabesque by Colin Mulhern. It is the story of Amy May, a future Olympic gymnast, and her best friend Mia, who are caught up in a botched kidnapping and are subsequently forced into becoming puppets to the criminal underworld. The short, punchy chapters work well, and offer multiple third-person limited viewpoints from which the story is told. The characters are largely superficial, which is a disappointment, and I found Mia more interesting than her friend. Amy is trapped in a house with a well-off criminal who uses Mia to get Amy to participate in a heist for him, as her gymnastic skills are ideal for the job. Mia is shut up in a porn studio, where the only thing protecting her is Amy’s co-operation.

This isn’t a challenging read and it is only the sheer speed of events that stopped me from putting it down altogether. The secondary character should never be more interesting than the main, which meant that for me the scenes with Amy dragged; I was waiting for when Mia would turn up again and to see if she manages to escape. The other thing that bothered me was the ending. For me, I turned the page and all of a sudden there was no more novel. And no, it wasn’t missing any pages. It hadn’t finished on a cliffhanger to lead into a sequel (like Ashes), or indeed a cliffhanger of any kind – it felt entirely that the author had just put his pen down and not bothered with the final two pages. Unfortunately, this ending marred my not particularly high opinion of the novel, and I was left feeling majorly underwhelmed.

Best book and recommendation from this library haul is Stolen, by Lucy Christopher.

Stolen: 8/10
If You Find Me: 6/10
Arabesque: 5/10

Divergent, Insurgent.

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Warning: spoilers if you’ve not read Insurgent!

The idea behind Divergent is that when you turn sixteen, you are tested to decide which faction you belong to: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. Tris, the main character, tests as Divergent – she does not belong to any faction. But she cannot reveal this information to anyone. So she chooses a faction, and keeps her true traits to herself.

The use of first person present is fairly fundamental in establishing the pressurised atmosphere of the novels. It begins with Tris’ test and keeps building as she joins other initiates in her new faction. As a reader you are on edge, and this reflects Tris’ feelings. She is determined to fit in, but is scared of what might happen if her Divergent skills are spotted.

The character of Four is an interesting one. He arrives to train the new initiates, and his entrance screams “potential love interest”. I was expecting Tris to follow the stereotype of becoming reliant on him, and being less able to act for herself. But she doesn’t – much like Katniss, as I mentioned in my review of The Hunger Games. And with Tris, her determination to do what she thinks she should, regardless of the consequences, heightens with Four’s presence. Another female character thinking for herself! Yay! But Four’s story arc very much engages your curiosity, and moves nicely into the plot of Insurgent.

As an outsider, Tris is a bullying target for her fellow initiates. Her family were Abnegation, which preaches selflessness – the opposite of her new faction, where you look out for yourself first of all. This is where Tris develops even more as a character; she refuses to be beaten by the bullies and so works harder and harder at topping the rankings and proving herself better than them. And people she makes enemies with in this initial phase are brought back cleverly in Insurgent. The continuity between books is great – rather than feeling like a second book, Insurgent picks up precisely where Divergent left off.

In many ways Insurgent sets up for the final book in the trilogy (due this autumn), but the repercussions of events in Divergent permeate it and tie the two tighter. Tris is dealing with the personal consequences of having killed another person, yet has chosen a faction where she must be fearless. Roth manages scenes where Tris needs a weapon but feels so completely unable to use it very well, and the impact of this on her relationship with Four (or rather, Tobias) plays out nicely. Now the faction lines are blurring, Tris and Tobias’ characters are less constrained. The two are determined to do things their own way and aren’t always honest with each other as a result. This not only makes them both more interesting characters (one might say unnecessarily ‘tortured’ when they’re at their most melodramatic) but much more flawed. As readers we are not being treated to the gospel according to Tris and Tobias, which is excellent.

Insurgent is full of unexpected surprises and twists, making what could otherwise be little more than a set-up for Allegiant a gripping story.  The Hunger Games may have all the headlines, but I’d pick Divergent ahead of it. If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t yet read this series, I’d definitely recommend a read.

Divergent: 8/10

Insurgent: 7/10

In Which I Finally Read “The Hunger Games”

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I am monumentally late to The Hunger Games bandwagon, and I finally read it so every time I go to work I am no longer berated by teenagers who can’t believe I haven’t read it. So I finally took the jump. I also picked up another promising-looking YA in the library called Ashes, by Ilsa J Bick.

Firstly, The Hunger Games. I had read the first few pages before and not really been impressed with the writing. On reading, that opinion didn’t really change – but then, The Hunger Games doesn’t pretend to be a great piece of literature. It is a page-turner, first and foremost. I didn’t initially warm to Katniss and felt the setting was in need of some proper description as I couldn’t fully imagine it. Even by the end of the book I could only really imagine the arena in any clarity. But after the first hundred pages, Katniss is well into the start of the Games and it is here that she becomes a far more interesting character.

Much is made of her ability with a bow and arrow, and it is scenes where she is applying her skill that I found most interesting. It enforces her role as the breadwinner, shows the reader about her friendship with Gale, and my favourite example was when she gets frustrated at the Gamemakers! The undercurrent of the Capitol’s control of its citizens works well, too – you don’t ever quite get sucked into the excitement of the Games, as Katniss is there to remind you that it is the Capitol’s way of showing their power over the populace.

I particularly liked how Katniss manages her relationship with Peeta. She doesn’t ever switch to the damsel-in-distress mode which is too prevalent in current YA female protagonists. You could argue that if she plays damsel in the arena she’ll just be killed, but manipulating the sponsors into offering aid is also key to the Games, which we discover as the story progresses. Hopefully this won’t change in the following books in the series.

I followed this with Ashes, by Ilsa J Bick. The premise is that an electro-magnetic pulse has been sent across the earth and has killed most of the population. The survivors either acquire heightened senses, or become cannibalistic. The whole book is very dark, and little gorier than I was expecting – Bick doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details of the packs of cannibals that now roam the wildernesses of North America. The protagonist, a seventeen-year-old girl called Alex, is hiking up a mountain when the pulse hits. The novel then follows her attempt to figure out what happened and to find safety.

Alex is a curious protagonist. Much like Katniss, she refuses to be in need of rescue, and shows herself to be smart and resourceful when she needs to be. We are told at the very start of the novel that she has a brain tumour and she has refused to keep taking treatment as nothing has been working anyway. She has decided instead to go for a solo hike up the mountains towards Lake Superior. Much is made of her inability to smell anything (a side-effect of the cancer) and this does get a little repetitive in the opening chapters. There is foreshadowing, and there is labouring the point.

The one other thing that grated in an otherwise very good novel was her use of short sentences. Bick seems a fan of the “dramatic sentence, new line, even more dramatic sentence”. This works pretty well through the book but by the final third she is overusing it and it feels like the writer going “daa daa DAAAA!” a little too often.

Overall though I found the plot was really well-paced and you were consistently wanting to find out more. After the pulse, there are no communications and the characters are left trying to figure out what happened as well as surviving constant dangers. The resultant atmosphere really sucks you in and I read this nearly all in one go. It finishes on a great cliffhanger, and I’ve ordered the sequel *YA trilogy klaxon!* from the library.

The Hunger Games: 7/10

Ashes: 7.5/10