November 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
So, I just voted in the Goodreads Best Books of 2014. I’m not the greatest advocate of Goodreads, given its affiliation with Amazon, but I voted in the poll for two main reasons:
- Much as we may hate to admit it, Goodreads is an important platform for authors, especially up-and-coming ones. Authors frequently request that if you enjoyed their book, you should leave a positive or starred review on Goodreads. I can’t review every book I read, so I do sometimes like to do this for the books I enjoyed. To be a ‘Goodreads Best Book’ is quite a boon for a book, so why not put my two cents in and help out the authors who have made my year awesome?
- I really like filling out surveys.
Oh, and I really only voted in categories where I’d read more than one of the books. Just FYI.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld was, hands down, the best of the selection. This book is magical and sorrowful, and exceptionally moving. The author knows what she’s talking about, as she has worked closely with death row inmates. Read The Enchanted, and you might find yourself rethinking how you see death row criminals. Especially when you get to the unexpected, agonizing reveal at the end.
Tough choice, but had to go to Queen of the Tearling. One of my two favourite fantasies of the year, tied with Kim Wilkin’s Daughters of the Storm. If Emma Watson’s endorsement of QoT isn’t enough to tell you that this book is amazing, take my word for it: this is the next Hunger Games.
Best Science Fiction:
For someone who doesn’t think they read SF, this was a surprisingly difficult choice. It came down to a trade off between Annihiliation by Jeff Vandermeer and Lock in by John Scalzi. Lock In won out, due to the sheer obsession that it incited in me for the short time it took to read it. The concepts and the plot will have you thinking long after you finish it!
I was torn between three contenders for this one. I loved Sarah Lotz’s The Three, was glued to Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, and The Girl with All the Gifts had me in its thrall from its first page to the last. All of these deserved my vote and the exposure that the Goodreads Best Book title might provide. However, at the end of the day, I wasn’t 100% sure that Girl with All the Gifts is true horror. Gotta make a decision somehow, so I scratched it. And The Three was pretty scary, but it didn’t incite the gleeful revulsion that Broken Monsters did. So, my vote went to the latter, with honorable mentions to two other books I really did love this year.
Graphic Novel and Comics:
Saga. Always Saga. Nothing further.
Debut Goodreads Author:
Red Rising by Pierce Brown, which is one of the few books I have read twice this year. Honorable mention to QoT, which I almost voted for again, I loved it so much. Side note: pretty excited for Son of Ares to come out in Jan!
We Were Liars by E. E. Lockhart. What a wonderful book. It’s impossible to tell you why, because of the twist at the end. The twist that you might see coming, that might sound predictable if I were to explain it to you, but which feels like an ice-cold glass of water poured slowly over your head as you come to realize you’ve been fooled all along… We Were Liars.
YA Fantasy and Sci Fi:
Titles I considered nominating were: Red Rising (again); Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods and Monsters; and Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi. Dreams of Gods and Monsters was out of the running for one very simple reason – I haven’t read it yet. I loved DOSAB so very much that I keep finding reasons not to read Dreams of Gods and Monsters, because I simply can’t bear for it to be over. This might be a reason to vote for it in and of itself, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Ignite Me. Red Rising obviously got scratched from this section because I’d already voted for it, and I wanted to share the love.
I would never have picked up Shatter Me, if it wasn’t for the recommendation of one of my dearest friends. Earlier this year, I burned through Tahereh’s trilogy obsessively. Ignite Me has everything – beautiful, poetic writing; a wonderful protag; a really exciting magic system; a dystopian society to be scared of, and a very intriguing romantic lead. (shoutout to Chapter 62!) I LOVED it, and it’s one of my favourite books of the year.
Did you vote in the Goodreads Best Books awards? Who got your vote?
July 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
Three years after his success in the infamous Hailey trial, Jake Brigance’s clientele are nearly non-existent. He’s still recuperating from the Klan attacks on his now destroyed home, and he’s barely scraping by financially. Although the Clanton community respects Jake for the stand he took for Carl-Lee, the town is still divided by deep-seated racism.
Dying of lung cancer, wealthy lumberyard magnate Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on Sycamore Row. The day after Hubbard’s suicide, Jake receives a handwritten letter from the deceased man. The letter contains very specific instructions for Jake: Hubbard has written a new will, one that abolishes all of his previous wills, and he wants Jake to defend it in court.
Previously, Seth Hubbard’s substantial estate had been left to his two greedy children. The new holographic will, however, stipulates that 90% of his fortune goes to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang.
Eager for the work, Jake takes on the responsibility of defending the will. Unsurprisingly, the former beneficiaries of the Hubbard estate contest the new stipulations, arguing that Lettie exerted undue influence over their dying father. Lettie herself is less happy about her potential inheritance than she is confused about why she’s been chosen as its heir.
Did Seth have a reason to leave his money to his housekeeper? Or did he do it just to antagonize the children who abandoned him in his illness? Did his children deserve to be publicly shamed by the insinuation that they are nothing but selfish money-hounds? Where is the long-lost brother to whom Seth has left five percent of his estate? And why did he disappear in the first place?
With an unprecedented fortune on the line, Clanton is once again catapulted into a racial conflict. The trial looms closer, and the significance of Seth Hubbard’s decision becomes apparent – but unless Jake and his legal team can uncover his reasoning, their case seems doomed.
Sycamore Row is the sequel to A Time to Kill, which is one of my very favourite novels, but I didn’t rush out and buy Sycamore Row when it was released. The premise didn’t exactly grab me. ATTK is about a murder trial – how could a will contest possibly be as exciting?
Well, it’s not. There’s not as much on the line as there was in the Hailey case of ATTK, and somehow, it doesn’t matter as much. But I enjoyed Sycamore Row as much as ATTK, although for different reasons.
While A Time to Kill is dark and suspenseful, Sycamore Row is more focused on characterization. For fans of ATTK, it’s interesting to see how Jake and his family have coped with the aftermath of the Hailey trial. Because the plot of A Time to Kill is so absorbing, it’s easy to forget how great Grisham’s characterization can be. Rufus Buckley, made famous by Kevin Spacey in the ATTK film (in something of a pre-Underwood performance, if you ask me), shows up again in a rather different capacity than when we last saw him. Lucien Wilbanks, still a drunk, is determined to re-sit the bar exam and practice law again, inspired by the intrigue of the Carl-Lee Hailey case. And Harry Rex, vile as ever, is still the greatest legal mind in the area.
I particularly liked Portia, Lettie Lang’s daughter, who returns to Clanton from deployment in the army. Determined to help her mother win the money that could change her life, Portia takes a position on Jake’s team as a paralegal. Polished, articulate and a formidable academic, Portia is something of an outcast in her family. But her dedication to her mother and her determination to ensure a fair verdict is both moving and inspiring. Even better is her relationship with Jake – Portia has no qualms about giving her boss her honest opinion, even to the point of argument, but Jake respects her all the more for it. Unlike in ATTK, though, where Jake and Roark came close to having an affair, Jake and Portia’s relationship is wholly platonic, and I loved seeing it unfold.
A sequel twenty-five years in the making, Sycamore Row is a worthy successor to Grisham’s wonderful breakout novel. Although the plot doesn’t move as quickly as ATTK, Sycamore Row does still have some twists up its sleeve. It also takes an insightful look at the way that wealth and its transfer can affect people, both as individuals and a community at large. Regular readers and my real-life friends will know that I never really recuperated from the season finale of True Detective. Something about that show…I can’t even really explain it. It’s like a part of me got stuck in the South with Rust and Woody, searching for the King in Yellow. Ever since the end of TD, I’ve been drawn to books set in the South. So I enjoyed Sycamore Row for the chance to return to the South, to the troubled town of Clanton, amongst characters I was happy to see again. Recommended!
June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
On Black Friday, 2011, four planes went down at exactly the same time, in four separate corners of the globe. Only three children survive – in Japan, Hiro; in America, Bobby; and in the UK, Jess, whose twin sister and parents perished.
With no explanation as to why the planes crashed, the survival of the children – dubbed ‘The Three’ by the ravenous press – is nothing short of a miracle.
Bereft of their parents, The Three are placed into the custody of their next-of-kin. While their new guardians are overjoyed to have them alive, each becomes concerned, and then disturbed, by the children’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.
For me, horror novels present the ultimate obstacle in the suspension of disbelief. In order to accept that Carrie is going to rain fire on her bullies, we first must accept that she has telekinetic powers. Somehow, I find it harder to accept this version of reality than the one i in which a Ministry of Magic hides an entire population among everyday British citizens. Maybe that’s because horror, as a genre, doesn’t need to establish an entirely new world from the ground up in order to set the stage for its conflict.
The Three is a horror novel for skeptics. For one thing, it doesn’t take a great leap of faith to imagine the terror that would arise from four planes going down at the same time in different parts of the world. With this narrative device, Lotz draws upon an all-too-familiar fear that the world as we know it is about to change. As I didn’t really have a problem believing that planes could be the modern harbinger of “end times”, the novel sucked me in from the get-go.
All over the globe, people are reacting to the events of Black Friday. In America, Pastor Len believes that The Three are the first of the four horsemen, and that their arrival is a sign that Judgment Day is close at hand. Evangelism borders on mass hysteria as the Bible Belt latches on to Pastor Len’s message. In Japan, a cult forms around Hiro, the six-year-old survivor of the plane that went down in Osaka. Hiro’s eighteen-year-old cousin, Chiyoko, whose family is bound up in the creation of “surrabot” androids, is now his primary carer. Chiyoko’s online conversations, detailing how she feels about the events of Black Thursday and Hiro himself, form the basis of Hiro’s story. This was my favourite subplot of the novel. In England, Paul struggles to care for his niece Jess as her behavior becomes increasingly disturbing.
The Three is written in an epistolary format – that is, as a series of documents and clippings. It’s also a book within a book, given that the majority of the novel is taken up with excerpts from investigative journalist Elspeth’s narrative history of Black Thursday and its aftermath. This format, which readers might recognize from the recent horror hit World War Z, tends to officiate a horror story in a way that traditional prose cannot. For the skeptical reader, it can be tough to accept not only the apparatus of horror, but also a single, or limited, perspective of the event. The story of The Three is more believable because of the number of people telling it, their various relationships to the incident and the children themselves, and their differing characters. Each of the characters brings a different set of biases, personalities traits and circumstances to the Black Thursday tragedy, and through their collective perspectives, we see an ominous truth being shaped.
The narrative emerges piece by piece from all over the world. It’s a slow burn, and at first, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The lack of specificity lends an unshakeable sense of eeriness to the novel – the reader is constantly questioning the nature of Black Friday and The Three, because something simply doesn’t feel right.
The uneasy feeling of foreboding culminates in an epilogue that can only be described as downright scary. Elspeth, the author of the “book within a book”, decides to revisit the story of The Three, and travels to the infamous suicide forest in Japan. What she finds there will likely have you sleeping with the light on for a few nights after you finish the book.
Why would they need a reason? Why do we hunt when we have enough to eat? Why do we kill each other over trifles? What makes you think they needed any more motivation other than to simply see what might happen?
The Three is a horror novel for people who think they don’t like horror novels. Lotz is a master of suspense, and her characterization is far better than I’ve come to expect from the horror genre. With the international scope of World War Z and the intensely personal nature of Dictaphone transcripts, internet conversations and journal entries, The Three leaves no stone unturned. If you’re in the mood for something scary, this novel is worth your time.
Want a copy? Brisbanites, head to Pulp Fiction’s new store on Adelaide Street! Visit their Facebook page here. Wherever you may be, be sure to support your independent booksellers!
May 10, 2014 § 3 Comments
I started this book once before, and only made it about fifty pages in. For some reason, it just didn’t strike me as anything special. The protagonist was odd, and I couldn’t relate to her. I found the setting alienating, and couldn’t get a clear picture of the “otherworldly” element. In all honesty, I just didn’t get it, and I didn’t believe the hype (haa). Next!
When I attempted Daughter of Smoke and Bone for a second time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness I’d tried again. If I hadn’t, I would never have had the opportunity to immerse myself in one of the most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve ever come across.
Karou is an art student at a specialist college in Prague. She has a reputation for oddness: her blue hair seems to grow out of her head that way, and her drawings of mythological characters seem to have a life of their own. Strange things seem to happen around Karou, but when her friends ask her about it, she simply deflects their questions with a wry smile and a vague response.
Unlike her best friend Zuzanna, Karou has no family in Prague. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have family anywhere on Earth. Nobody seems to know how she ended up in a tiny artist’s college in Prague, or even why she can speak fluent Czech. Karou, it seems, is a mystery.
Unbeknownst to her classmates, Karou has access to numerous portals to another realm. When she steps through one of these scattered doorways, Karou comes face to face with chimaera – hybrid beasts that wouldn’t be out of place in Pan’s Labyrinth. A gorgon-esque woman with the body of a snake and the torso of a human and a huge beast with the head of a ram and the legs of a lion greet her when she crosses the threshold from the human realm into Elsewhere – these are Issa and Brimstone, Karou’s surrogate parents.
Although her chimaera family is even more caring than the average human parents, they have never truly revealed to Karou how she came to be in their care. Brimstone, a merchant who specializes in the trade of teeth, sends Karou all over the globe in search of his unusual produce. Despite this, however, she has no idea what he actually uses the teeth for. With no context for her life, and an endless stream of questions about her very existence, Karou lives with a perpetual feeing of emptiness.
I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot of the novel. Not really knowing much about the book meant that it had every capacity to shock and surprise me – which it did, in spades. Instead, I’m going to tell you the top five things I want you to know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone:
1. It is not – repeat, NOT – another YA paranormal romance. While there is a romantic element, it quickly becomes apparent that the focal relationship is only a catalyst for a much more interesting concept: war. And once the war arrives, the romance (quite rightfully) dissipates.
2. While we’re talking about things that this book is not, let me just say that it is not another urban fantasy. In fact, by the time you get to the second book, you’ve almost entirely left the human world, so there’s nothing urban about it. I think it would therefore be fair to class Days of Blood and Starlight as hard fantasy. And, you’ll be pleased to hear, there’s not a vampire in sight.
3. In a quietly unassuming way, all of the female characters in the novel are heroic. Karou herself is a beacon of strength, particularly in the face of borderline depression, but even the peripheral women are awesome. Zuzanna, Karou’s best friend, is brilliantly drawn and aggressively fierce, and it’s worth reading this book for her character alone.
Side note: Zuzanna and her boyfriend Mike bring a much-needed light-heartedness to the story, as well as a certain romantic element which is not dependent on a “will they or won’t they” dynamic. Mik and Zuzanna have their own mini-novella, Night of Cake and Puppets, which is adorable and funny, just like they are.
4. I don’t really believe that this is a YA novel. The plot is more complex than most other YA books I’ve read, and the themes and concepts it addresses feel more like adult fiction. While I unashamedly adore YA fiction, I do feel as though Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a more fulfilling read because of its maturity.
5. Please, please don’t judge this brilliant book on this very poor cover art. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is so much more than this silly cover. It’s not about masquerades and balls (although there are some in there) and boys and pretty magic. It’s about war, identity, cultural heritage and friendship. It is a dark, moody novel, and it deserves so much more than this vapid design that gives it no edge over all the cut-copy paranormal YA on the shelves currently.
So there you have it. I hope I’ve convinced you to read it, because you really should.
1. Apologies for the lack of reviews of late – I’ve recently begun studying a Master of Information and Library Management, and I’m still getting the hang of balancing work, study, blogging and reading!
2. Pulp Fiction is MOVING. If you’re in Brisbane, go check out their 20% off sale to grab a bargain before they move to their new premises (which are very close by – details will be posted soon on their Facebook).
April 12, 2014 § 1 Comment
The first in a new trilogy, Midnight Crossing is the first book Charlaine Harris will publish after the conclusion of the Southern Vampire Mysteries (sometimes known as the Sookie Stackhouse series, or more recently, the True Blood books). As an author, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish a new book after the completion of your best-known series. It must be even more daunting to face a fandom that was, by and large, unhappy with the way you ended that series. Such is the dilemma Charlaine Harris faces, with the release of Midnight Crossroad.
I was lucky enough to receive a highly anticipated ARC of Midnight Crossroad from Pulp Fiction Booksellers. I loved this book, and I am interested to see how fans of the Sookie Stackhouse series are going to respond to Harris’ new direction.
Midnight is a middle-of-the-road town in Texas, consisting of a diner, a church, a New-Age store, a gas station, a nail salon-and-antique store, and a pawnshop. The town is populated almost entirely by the proprietors of those businesses, and the very occasional passer-by.
Manfred, a sometime genuine and oftentimes fraudulent psychic, moves to Midnight in the hope of starting afresh. He quickly becomes accustomed to the insular community, and learns that the Midnighters don’t take kindly to personal questions. Secrets aside, however, the Midnight residents happily take Manfred into their fold, and he finds himself establishing a home in the unusual town.
When one of his neighbors suggests a “welcome to Midnight” picnic in Manfred’s honor, the whole town treks out to a picturesque mountain spot. The social occasion is brought to a screeching halt when one of Midnight’s citizens stumbles upon a dead body – unmistakably that of Aubrey Hamilton, former girlfriend of the pawnshop owner, Bobo.
The confirmation that Aubrey was murdered, and not just a runaway, throws Midnight society into disarray. Knowing that the killer had to have been one of their own, the Midnighters become suspicious and frightened.
The usually conservative members of the community find themselves having to disclose more and more about their pasts and their unusual abilities in order to avoid being targeted as Aubrey’s murderer. Before long, Midnight is embroiled in a conspiracy involving bikers, white supremacists and a mysterious legend that may or may not have a basis in reality.
Midnight Crossroad is most definitely not the SVM. For one thing, it’s far more serious than the Sookie Stackhouse books. In the SVM series, Sookie’s sassy narration could lighten even the gravest predicaments (pun intended – sorry…). In Midnight Crossroad, Harris employs a third-person omniscient narrator, with multiple points of view – quite a change from her usual MO. Instead of forming a comfortable relationship with a single, familiar narrator as we did with Sookie, readers will instead find themselves immersed in the community of Midnight. It’s quite an eerie effect, especially as we begin to unravel the truth of Aubrey’s murder.
While the Sookie Stackhouse books were arguably focused on romance, Midnight only gives it a periphery acknowledgement. Manfred finds himself drawn to one of Midnight’s most mysterious citizens, and Fiji, the town witch, is trying to suppress her feelings for Bobo, but it’s only a small part of a much more interesting narrative.
Most fascinating to me, however, was the fact that any reference to the supernatural was extremely casual. Fiji is a witch, but the full extent of her abilities is left largely unexplored. Manfred comes from a family of genuine psychic ability, but we’re not really given any insight into whether he’s just carrying on the tradition, or if he’s got a true gift. Lemuel is a vampire, but he’s not one of Bill or Eric’s brethren. He seems to subsist on energy, rather than blood – although he did mention that “the synthetic stuff” just doesn’t cut it for him, a reference Sookie’s fans will appreciate.
I knew very little about Midnight Crossroad when I started it, but I did expect that it would be another addition to Harris’ canon of supernatural or paranormal works. It’s actually quite difficult to define, now that I’ve finished it, because the references to the supernatural elements of the town are so minimal that it could almost be classed as magical realism. Overall, it gives the impression that there is much more to the town of Midnight than this first book has divulged.
I loved Midnight Crossroads. I missed my bus stop on not one, but two separate bus trips because I was so engrossed in it. With a few small alterations, this book could have been “twee” or overly kitschy, but Harris confidently walks the line between intriguing darkness and heartening community. Midnight Crossroads was an excellent follow-up to True Detective, as it carried on the Southern Gothic theme, but also served as a reintroduction to genre fiction (I had been suffering a bit of genre burnout beforehand). I recommend it not only to Sookie’s fans, but to anyone who is fed up with traditional urban fantasy. If you aren’t quite ready to let go of the eerie South yet, pick up your copy of Midnight Crossroad on release day.
Midnight Crossroad is released in America on May 1, and in Australia on May 6. Please order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers – you can add them on Facebook here.
I received a reviewer’s proof copy of Midnight Crossroads in exchange for providing my honest feedback to Pulp Fiction Booksellers. The copy I read was not the final edit, and may be subject to publisher’s editing prior to its publication. Thanks again Beau, Iain and Ron for providing me with this excellent book.
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March 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Please note: The article contains discussion of the author’s treatment of rape and female circumcision in the context of a book review.
Oneyesonwu was born of rape. A Nuru man, who wanted to impregnate her with a light-skinned baby, raped her mother. Instead of reviling her child as a lifelong reminder of her brutal assault, Onye’s mother speaks her truest wish – for her child to become a sorceress.
Forever labelled as Ewu, the product of rape, Onyesonwu becomes resilient to the prejudice she faces every day. As she grows up, she discovers that her strength also manifests in supernatural abilities. Her mother’s wish has come true – Onye is Eshu, a sorceress.
As a child, Onyesonwu meets another Ewu – a boy named Mwita, who is also a gifted healer. It soon becomes apparent that Onye and Mwita are destined to belong to one another.
Even though she knows her mother and her beloved stepfather love her, Onye feels responsible for the shame they have faced throughout her life, as the parents of a Nuru-Okeke Ewu. When she turns eleven, Onye makes the irreversible decision to go through with the Eleventh Rite, which she knows will bring her family honour and respect. In undertaking this enormous procedure, she is bonded to the three girls of her Eleventh Rite group – Diti, Luyu and Binta, her friends for life.
Despite the abuse she suffers on a daily basis, Onye lives a happy life. She longs to develop her magical abilities, and seeks an apprenticeship under a teacher who might be able to facilitate her learning. Although Aro, the teacher of magic, rejects her at first, Onye’s need for tutelage becomes great when it becomes apparent that her biological father intends to find and kill her.
Nnedi Okorafor was inspired to write Who Fears Death by a Washington Post article entitled “We Want to Make a Light Baby”. This distressing article brings to light the horrifying experiences of dark-skinned Sudanese women who are raped by Arabic men who hope to impregnate them. The victims believe that the rapes are a “systemic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.”
This unimaginable concept forms the basis for Onyesonwu’s story. Fuelled by her rage against the man who raped her mother, Onye is motivated to overcome the societal expectation that she is fated to become nothing more than a violent criminal.
But Who Fears Death is more than a revenge story. In a place where outrage could have dominated, love is ever-present. Okorafor tenderly explores the nature of love in all its forms – romantic, cultural, platonic, familial and sexual. In fact, sexuality is a major focus of the book. It is linked throughout to Onye’s decision to undergo the Eleventh Rite when she comes of age. The Eleventh Rite is, as you might have guessed, is Onye’s circumcision.
I know that other reviewers have been disturbed by the circumcision scene, but have liked the rest of the book – I don’t really understand how they can separate the one scene from the remainder of the book. Onye’s decision to undergo the Rite is integral to the narrative of Who Fears Death. She, Binta, Diti and Luyu spend the rest of their lives together trying to cope with the decision that they made as children. Their circumcision not only affects their relationships with one another, but deeply shapes the way in which they relate to the opposite sex. Each of the four girls comes to bitterly regret the decision they made at age eleven, but they also respect the ritual and its cultural significance. Their struggle to overcome the expectations of the Okeke culture in order to do the right thing for themselves as individuals makes for an emotionally difficult read, but Okorafor handles this with poise and sensitivity.
Who Fears Death will not disappoint fans of traditional fantasy. There is a prophecy, a Chosen One, a wise old elder who begrudgingly passes his magical skills on to the younger generation, a young magic user whose powers are not wholly within her control, and a quest for revenge that has the potential to destroy our hero. There’s a Scooby Gang of sorts, hellbent on following our hero to the very end, and a love to transcend the ages.
The post-apocalyptic African setting brings us to a new world, where traditional culture has merged with the harsh necessities of life in the post-nuclear desert. And our hero is, in fact, a heroine – Onye is the indisputable centre of this novel. Her life force and her magic are the centre of the storm that she wends throughout the Okeke and Nuru societies. Onye is brave, irrational, frustrating, loving and beloved. She’s unforgettably powerful, in every sense, and she’s stronger than I can summarise in any text less than the length of the novel itself. Onyesonwu – Who Fears Death? Not she.
I can’t recommend Who Fears Death to everyone. It comes with a trigger warning for rape and FGM, even if it is exceptionally well handled. It’s a very emotional read, and although there’s a lot of love to the story, there isn’t as much happiness as traditional fantasy readers may expect. But it is as moving as it is original, and I’m pretty certain that it’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.
As ever, I implore my Brisbane-based readers to make the trip to Central Station to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to grab a copy of Who Fears Death. Add Pulp on Facebook here, and check out their Twitter here. Also, I have Twitter too! Check out The Novelettes on Twitter here.
January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
If you’re into Young Adult Fiction, chances are that one author made it happen. To paraphrase another editor, what writers like J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins started, John Green finished with his small but exquisite collection of novels about adolescent life that tell it like it is. But how and why has Green succeeded in winning the hearts of so many, when many more before him have tried and, if not failed, then not succeeded on the same scale? How did a young author from the American Midwest write novels that got the entire world (including a good number of adults) to fall in love with fiction for youths all over again?
Put simply, Green knows his teens. With his background as a youth chaplain and drawing from his own days at boarding school, he’s created a world of beautifully rendered youths who go about life, love and sometimes, death. His characters harbour deep crushes on the opposite sex, played out through snappy comebacks, thoughtful insights and intellectual referencing (think Walt Whitman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even wholly original Mathematical theorems). More often than not, they encounter a crisis, which forces them to re-examine the beliefs they’ve held all along, whether about themselves or about the people around them. And it’s in re-evaluating their lives that Green draws the reader in: we, too, with the characters, are brought around to a new perspective that stays in our minds and lingers in the heart long after the story is over.
Amazingly, Green has built a strong following of his works based on these few similar plot elements, so what exactly works so well for him? To me, it’s the understanding he displays, not just of what it means to be a teenager, but also what it means to be human. After all, the questions of love, life and death don’t only plague us during teenhood, but continue to haunt us even as we grow older. Green’s teens, despite their age, bring to the story reflections that somehow make sense even to adults. There are life lessons that we should already know but don’t – love the person, not the idea of them, for instance – or new interpretations to things that we take for granted – the cliché, for example, that remembering the dead through writing will somehow immortalize them in memory. Together with his band of wisecracking, painfully insightful, prematurely mature youths, Green manages to reach out and touch us deep within a place that we may have long forgotten about or assumed could no longer be moved.
Green’s latest novel and most successful work to date, The Fault in Our Stars, deviates slightly from the pattern described above. His protagonist is not a boy but a girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster, and from the onset her fate is never anything but determined – “her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis”, as the novel puts it. She starts the story not attracted to anyone, and in fact determined not to be, because in her mind terminally ill people like her are “grenades” who will eventually blow up and hurt the people around her for life. Against all odds, however, Hazel meets Augustus “Gus” Waters, a stunningly good-looking cancer survivor who falls in love with her and whom she grows to love in return.
As we have come to expect of Green’s protagonists, Hazel is wonderfully fleshed out, if not in body, then at least in character. She is smart and well-read, and finds in Gus an intellectual opponent worthy of verbal sparring. Their conversations are an enjoyable cocktail of philosophical musings, nods to authors both famous and fictional and inside jokes (“Okay? Okay.”). Perhaps such humorous wisdom is due to their accelerated adulthood; both teens are forced to grow up far too soon with the cancer clock looming over them, constantly and conspicuously ticking away their life. Yet ironically, in numbering their days, Green has created characters that are more vivid and full of life than one would expect cancer patients to be (incidentally, a stereotype that Green hoped to correct in writing this book).
The pair’s budding relationship, as the upcoming movie poster puts it, is “one sick love story”. Gus is inexplicably (to Hazel, at least) attracted to Hazel from the first, and refuses to distance himself from her despite her warnings: “All efforts to save me from you will fail”. The two gradually bond over their mutual love of Hazel’s favourite novel, the fictitious An Imperial Affliction, and Gus, in a gorgeously Cinderella moment, plays fairy godfather when he spends his cancer wish from the Genies (a play on the real-life Make-a-Wish Foundation) on trip for himself and Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the novel’s famously reclusive writer, Peter Van Houten. From there, the pair’s romance is sealed and sees them through the second half of the story as an unexpected discovery turns Hazel and Gus’s lives upside down forever.
This story is unmistakably a tragedy, and Green himself acknowledges as much through the title’s nod to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and explains further via the character of Van Houten, who notes in a letter to Gus that “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars”. Both Hazel and Gus are marked with a sense of fatality through their battles with cancer and respond in different ways: Hazel desires to live an ordinary life without hurting anyone, whereas Gus fears oblivion and not leaving a significant legacy behind. Yet, there is also love among the ruins, through Gus’s unflinching devotion to Hazel, and the latter’s eventual reciprocity (“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”); Hazel’s words, which also close out the book, carry a promise of eternal commitment to Gus.
As with Green’s other novels, The Fault in Our Stars contains the perfect blend of likable characters, witty humour, poignant scenes, topped off by Green’s splendid writing. In addition, it offers a reassurance somewhat to the fear of mortality, through the reversal of a age-old mantra: that while we are in the midst of death, we are too in life.
This review was written by Nicola Cheong, a guest writer for The Novelettes. Thank you Nicola!