Friday, July 26, 2013

The Fault (May Not Be) In Our Stars

OK. I am actually going to do this. Regardless of what the rest of the world thinks, I am going to share my thoughts on John Green's The Fault In Our Stars.

A blend of melancholy, sweet, philosophical, and funny. Green shows us true love…and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.” -New York Times Book Review

“Green’s best and most ambitious novel to date. In its every aspect, The Fault in Our Stars is a triumph.” -Booklist, starred review
“A smartly crafted intellectual explosion of a romance.” -Kirkus, starred review

“Green writes books for young adults, but his voice is so compulsively readable that it defies categorization. The Fault in Our Stars proves that the hype surrounding Green is not overblown.” -NPR

 In most instances, I find it so much more rewarding reading a book when I have heard very little hype about it. When a trusted friend or colleague hands me something and says to give it a read - they know I will enjoy it, I enter with a blank slate, so to speak.

Such was not the case with The Fault in Our Stars. There was so much buzz about this book, as evidenced by the respected reviews above. It won all kinds of awards and everyone LOVED it! However, I have to disagree with NPR - I found the hype severely overblown. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. I rated it 3 out of 5 (and I rarely give out 5s). But I just didn't HEART it, like I fully expected to. I have to wonder if I would feel differently had I not had such high expectations.

I kept coming across all these crazy gifs of ugly crying that the reader was assured to be reduced to. Now I'm not an overly emotional person. But put kids, cancer and first love together and it should definitely pull on my heart strings. The thing is, there was no crying at all. Not even a little misty-eyed or choked up. To be honest, I wanted to have emotions for Hazel Grace and Augustus, just like I wanted to like this book. I really did. I just did not feel invested in the characters enough to empathize with them. To me, they never became more than flat paper dolls of  wise-cracking adults in teen clothing. And I never "got" their relationship. The author tells me that the two teens fell in love, but I never felt it. And I wanted to feel it, as I did with the love relationship that develops between Eleanor and Park (that I talked about here). Maybe I was missing something. What did you think?

Green, John. The Fault in our Stars. Dutton books, 2012.
YA Realistic Fiction

For further information about the author consult his website here.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Wonder for Teens?

Funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, sexy and tear-jerking, this winning romance will captivate teen and adult readers alike. (Fiction. 14 & up) Kirkus Reviews

 Pretty much says it all ...

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Eleanor and Park: a novel by Rainbow Rowell. A few things I wasn't so crazy about, but there was so much I liked about this book: the depth of the main characters, the tone of the alternating third person narrative, the realism of the family dynamics, the exploration of teen relationships, and just the whole way these two misfits fell in love. Their story had me engaged and rooting for them right from the start.

A Young Adult Romance / Realistic Fiction, Eleanor and Park is not your typical romance novel. Everything is just sort of off in this book. For starters, the characters are nothing like the expected knockout couple that usually star in a teen romance. Eleanor and Park features a heavy-set red-haired girl (Eleanor) and a Korean-American boy (Park). The setting is not New York, Beverley Hills, or some East Coast beach town. It takes place in Omaha, Nebraska! I shouldn't judge. I have never been to Omaha, but I haven't seen it featured in too many romances either. And the main characters are far from popular kids who come from wealthy families. It's the gritty realism employed by the author that makes the book so impressionable. Much of what happens throughout the novel is not pretty nor nice. But the relationship that grows between Eleanor and Park is really very beautiful. And it is how Rowell  develops this first love that I found unique and compelling.

One issue that I have with Eleanor and Park is the language. There is bad language - and a lot of it. Now don't get me wrong. I can handle the language easily enough. It's just that I would love to share this story and the language creates a problem. I would never be able to purchase this book for my school library. And that's unfortunate, for Eleanor and Park was something like a 14A version of Wonder for me. There are a whole pile of Choose Kind initiatives that could be applied to this novel - if only a PG13 edition was available!

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park uses many cultural references that transport the reader back to the late eighties. I enjoyed these reminders of that decade. However, one term seemed abruptly anachronistic - "Asian." As I mentioned, I have never been to Omaha, but unless the residents there were more advanced than most North Americans, they would not be using the term "Asians" in 1986. "Oriental" was what was used in my part of the world. I think this may have been an oversight, for if Rowell was conscious of being politically correct then she should have paid more attention to constantly spelling out Park's mother's (Korean-American) dialogue in a phonetic fashion. This is just a minor point, but worth mentioning, as it didn't fit with the realness of the story.

When I first finished Eleanor and Park, the ending was a real disappointment for me . But after thinking about it for awhile, I was able to reconcile some issues and see it a little more open-ended. Maybe more hopeful than I had at first thought. It would be great to hear from people who have read the book and see what their interpretation of the ending was.

Not just for girls. And not just for teens. Eleanor and Park is a reminder that not everyone has the same advantages and blessings, but that everyone deserves to fall in love.

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor and Park. St. Martin's Griffin, 2013.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia

I could hear the sound of a steady rainfall when I woke up the other morning. As I contemplated getting up, I found myself thinking about my personal state of affairs over the past few months. There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have given almost anything to be able to lay in bed - when the pain from my back injury left me with one bearable position: vertical. The stress that I would encounter at the end of the evening when other people started to prepare for bed was almost too much - I knew what awaited me over the next six or seven hours. After going weeks without getting sleep of any kind, I found one particular position that would afford me a couple of hours of much-needed sleep - that was until the effects of the pain medication wore off, and I needed to get up, remedicate, and start walking again. If only I had been aware of Nan's Rent-a-Sister offer at that point! She sounds like the definition of an angel and would have been so appreciated. Through the grace of God, though, I somehow made it through to the other side of that very dark period. Luckily, these days, it's looking like early dawn.

But back to last Friday. Just because it was raining, and because I had nowhere that I needed to be, and I had a new book right beside me, and just because I could, I picked up that book and started to read. What a delicious feeling! It felt like a rainy day at the cottage during Summer Break. The book was this book:

It's a good thing that it was an all-day rain, because other than the odd break here and there, I stayed in bed and read all day long. Finished the book in one sitting. Touted as Gossip Girl meets Gone Girl, you may remember that Reconstructing Amelia was one of the Summer Reads that I was looking forward to enjoying this year. I was not disappointed.  It is a suspenseful  who-done-it with a heavy dose of  priveledged teenagers, secrets, lies, love, and cyberbullying.

Kate Baron, a New York litigation attorney and single mother, is left to reconstruct the life of her daughter Amelia, after the over-achiever's apparent suicide. The tale is told through alternating point of view (Kate's and Amelia's) and through the use of mixed media - facebook status updates, text messages, emails, blog posts, and first and third-person narratives. Bit by bit, by sifting through the digital footprint left by Amelia, Kate learns the true life that was lived by the daughter with whom she believed she was very close. McCreight is adept at this format. The story flows very naturally and the reader is enticed by the short sections to keep reading "just one more entry."

Having been a teenaged girl myself at one time, and having been around them practically my whole life, the teenagers in Reconstructing Amelia are believable to me. Fortunately, in my real life I have never encountered mean girls to the same extreme as in this book, but I do not doubt that they exist. Amelia's portrayal of a conscientous student who wants to do the right thing should ring true with the reader. Even good kids have stuff to deal with and this reconstruction is really a coming of age story for Amelia. Kate, herself, is a likeable and indentifiable character. As a mother I could relate to her wanting to know the truth, but being afraid of what she might discover.

 It is probably in my relation to Kate that I got thinking more about the cyberbullying issue. I found myself going "Phew! Thank God I'm not just starting out on my parenting career." I would be a sleep-deprived basket-case as a parent of young teens today. I think back on how much anxiety I experienced trying to limit exposure to negative influences and in creating a safe and positive environment for Daughter1, Daughter2, and OnlySon. While at the same time, not turning them into paranoid creatures afraid to venture out in the world. Although I often felt like " a voice crying out in the wilderness," it was a balancing act that I believe Mr. Fun and me did a decent job of - I have the sleep issues to testify to it. And this was before our full-blown digital age. Today's parents require more diligence than at any time in history. For most, gone are the days when the one family computer was situated in an open and heavily-supervised room of the house. When children asked to be logged in to the dial-up network. Our children are assualted 24/7 by outside forces - many of these are beneficial connections that certainly enhance their experiences and education. However, many more are not. I listened to an NPR segment awhile back regarding the parental role with technology. One speaker spoke about the change she has noticed in keeping in touch with her children's moods and behaviour. There was a time when a child came home and a parent could see that he or she was in a good/bad/excited/contemplative mood. Unless the phone rang, the parent would be privy to any event that occured that would change that mood. Now, with a constant connection to the outside world in their pocket, something could change in that child's world at any second. You add the annonymity of technology, some teen drama, and the normal lack of communication that many teens exhibit during these years, and a parent can be pretty clueless to what is going on in their child's world.

Don't worry. Reconstructing Amelia really isn't that deep of a novel. That's just the way my brain works. In a nutshell, it is a fast-paced, suspenseful, coming of age (in a digital world) story that features real and believable characters. The clues to what really happened are revealed gradually and lead to an ending that, although a little underwhelming, I still did not see coming. The one issue I found fault with was the way the investigating detective brought Kate along with him to interview all the persons of interest. For a lawyer herself, I would think that McCreight would have thought this unlikely, if not implausible. However, it does move the plot along and is quite handily overlooked. I can easily see Reconstructing Amelia being adapted to film.

So, what's next on my reading list?

I am just about finished Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin's Griffin, 2013) and am really enjoying this quirky YA read so far. More to come .... And guess what? It's raining again today.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Storyteller

A few weeks back, I mentioned that I was reading Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller. I described how it had inspired me to fill my kitchen with the heavenly scent of fresh-baked bread. If you have not yet read Picoult's latest novel, you may be thinking of it as a light-hearted piece about a bread baker who happens to be a storyteller. Not exactly.

I had heard next-to-nothing about the book before I started reading, and luckily the jacket description really didn't give too much away. I was thinking that The Storyteller would address the issue of the right to die, but I was not prepared for the multi-layered narrative that developed. Yes, assisted suicide does form the foundation of the basic story, but Picoult skillfully weaves several stories together while presenting themes of family, faith, forgiveness, and justice; not to mention, the cruelty of mankind - man versus man in the extreme - with the Holocaust story that occupies a majority of the novel. I couldn't help but be impressed with Picoult's research, in addition to her storytelling talents.

After a bit of a slow start (probably more on my part than that of the author's) I couldn't put the book down. Once the different plot lines became distinguishable and I could see how they related to one another, I was in a hurry to discover how it all would culminate.

Here is a synopsis of the book from the author's website:

Sage Singer is a baker, a loner, until she befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses—and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die because he had been a Nazi SS guard. And Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. How do you react to evil living next door? Can someone who's committed truly heinous acts ever atone with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And, if Sage even considers the request, is it revenge…or justice?
Although it is graphic and disturbing, I agree with Picoult's belief that Holocaust literature is important because some stories need to be told, and someone must be the spokesperson for the six million who are not able to tell their stories.

An excellent children's book to accompany The Storyteller is the Ontario Library Association's (OLA) Silver Birch winner by Marsha  Forchuk Skrypuch, Making Bombs for Hitler (Scholastic 2012).

Nominated in the category for grades 4-6, Making Bombs for Hitler is a disturbing, but satisfying read. It tells the story of a young Ukrainian girl who is captured by the Nazis in the middle of World War II and forced to work in a munitions factory. As I often do, I recommend that young students share this reading with their parents. It is quite difficult to read, and almost impossible to believe the horror that some humans have inflicted upon others. Happily, it is almost just as impossible to believe the strength of the human spirit and the seemingly insurmountable odds that some have overcome.

Of course, I cannot discuss Holocaust historical fiction without mentioning the YA read by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). In fact, I think it is time for a reread of this modern classic that is narrated by Death. It is just so well-written! Death's voice is lyrical, haunting, compelling, and at times, comedic. It is a character-driven story that I believe is more suited for adult readers; although sophisticated teen readers (grades9+) will appreciate it. I think the coming-of-age aspect of the story is what has led to it's YA classification. Death ponders the question I often ask myself: " How could the human race be "so ugly and so glorious" at the same time?"

Each of these books is a testament to the power of words; the power of stories. Today's storytellers play such an important role in our world. It is for them to give voice to those whose voice we can no longer hear.

It's time to return to something lighter - like the bread that I was thinking about when I first started The Storyteller. If you are feeling inspired, as I was, to start kneading and proofing dough, you may be happy to know that Picoult provides recipes that her character Minka uses, on her author website. You can find them here.

Now, to find my copy of The Book Thief .......