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!
December 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
Tell me, reader, are you a self-professed bibliophile? A lover of literature? A fan of fiction? If so, this book is for you.
Or are you a techie, trending the most up-to-date applications on the internet? This book is for you too.
Maybe you’re the quintessential thinker, Saint-Exupéry or Jostein Gaarder style? Then this book is for you.
This first novel by Robin Sloan is a quaint gem, blending story, technology and philosophy into a heartwarming page-turner. Old meets new meets the universal in this memorable triptych, which is a mystery, romance and fantasy rolled into one.
Sounds confusing already? It might. But Robin Sloan never lets you feel it, even as the characters fly from West to East (San Francisco to New York, to be precise), fall in and out of love, discovering and losing great secrets before rediscovering them. At its simplest and deepest, his message is a tribute to the power of friendship and the importance of faith in those whom you love. Which is not really a new lesson for anyone, is it?
Twenty-something-almost-thirty year-old Clay Jannon is a San Francisan IT savant recently retrenched from his job as web designer and social media manager of a tiny bagel outfit, which went under in the recent fast-food industry slump. To Clay, it was a “great food-chain contraction” that left “bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake”, which gives you an idea of Sloan’s flair for the imaginative and dramatic right from the start.
Clay is demoralised by his mediocre accomplishments, especially when compared to those of his peers. Walking around his city, Clay stumbles upon the titular bookshop which eventually becomes his new place of employment. The eccentric owner, Mr. Penumbra (which owner of a dusty little bookshop would not be eccentric?), hires Clay on the spot after he successfully answers some questions, chiefly: “What do you seek in these shelves?”; “Tell me about a book you love”; and “Can you climb a ladder?”
As he serves as book clerk, Clay soon learns that there is a deeper meaning to at least one of these questions, playing host to a slew of puzzling patrons who seem less interested in the bookshop’s main fare than the mysterious volumes tucked deep inside the shadowy shelves he dubs the “Waybacklist”. Together with his friends, Clay digs deeper into the secret of Mr Penumbra’s bookstore and realises that the readers are really searching for the answer to Man’s greatest question of all: “How do you live forever?”
Top-secret cults, baffling codex vitae (roughly translated “book of life”) and sinister robed figures feature prominently in the story, and you might be forgiven for thinking this is not totally out of Da Vinci Code territory. Yet there are pleasant surprises via Sloan’s injections of modernity; with a background involving a stint at Twitter and colloquialism. Ruby, a programming language, is “friendly, accessible poetry”, while Hadoop (a large-scale data-processing software) and Mechanical Turk (a web service that can request for human assistance with various tasks) becomes “King Hadoop and ten thousand Estonian footmen”. Even Google itself features in lots of code-cracking and impressive displays of technology. It doesn’t hurt that Clay and more than a few of his friends happen to be really smart and/or good with computers–his buddies include a Google employee, a special effects artist, and a self-made CEO of a software company. Just how lucky can one get, really?
Sloan would argue that such characters are essential to the story, because each of them has a particular role to fill. Clay is the rogue who does the dirty and dangerous work; Kat, his love interest, is a wizard of data and code, while his childhood best friend Neel is the warrior with a horde of gold to boot (fun fact: he made his money inventing a software that allows computer game and movie companies to create really realistic-looking boobs). In searching for the answer on how to live forever, the characters and their journey attain a kind of immortality themselves — through the literary motif of the quest. That Clay’s all-time favourite book was a fantasy tome is no coincidence; even the author returns from the grave to give help and reveal himself as a secret cult member. Yet the final treasure for these characters isn’t gold or even mere heroism, but the wisdom that immortality can come in more than one way or one form.
Sloan’s novel reveals nothing new, no lesson that was not already apparent. His gift is the combination of seemingly disparate ideas, transformed into alchemical perfection. For any book-lover who has bemoaned the death of brick-and-mortar bookshops while fervently clutching a Kindle in his hand, any technophile who still yearns for the good old schooldays of yore playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, this story will help them bring those threads together, with the assurance that eternal life is available to all and that “all the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight”. It is a story will make you pause, wonder and understand, eventually, the truth of how to live.
This review was written by a guest writer for The Novelettes, Nicola Cheong. Thanks Nicola!
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