Monday, January 16, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars - Review

Title: The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green

Release Date: January 10, 2012

Format/Page Count: Kindle Edition

Publisher: Dutton Children's

Purchased: Amazon

Synopsis: Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now. Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault. Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind. (FROM GOODREADS )

Expectation: I discovered John Green a while back, but kind of rediscovered him when I discovered Twitter. I've enjoyed his previous books and pre-ordered this one far in advance. Needless to say, I was dying with anticipation. Expectation HIGH.

Market/Genre: Young Adult/Contemporary


"You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are." ~ Augustus Waters

My favourite thing about this novel is the way 17-year old cancer survivor Augustus Waters loves the narrator, 16-year old terminally ill Hazel Grace Lancaster. Believe me, it was hard for me to come up with a favourite aspect of this novel. There were so many admirable qualities to THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Once John Green gets the reader into the Literal Heart of Jesus, there's no turning back. He's got you for the duration.

This is such an exceptionally intelligent story, too. Hazel is dying. She has stage IV cancer. It is in a cancer support group where she meets the handsome and illustrious Augustus Waters. Gus is one of those wonderful characters I just can't get enough of...he's got a brain, a sense of humour and a unique outlook on the world. As the reader, I waited for him to appear in a scene. I know he's going to say something brilliant and I'm going to want to quote it later. He loves life, though he knows its ugliest secrets. He is able to see beauty even when his life has been less than beautiful. But most of all, his total and all-consuming love for Hazel...Green just does this RIGHT. Augustus's adoration of Hazel is exquisite.

At one point in their early acquaintance, Hazel asks Gus, "Why are you looking at me like that?" Any normal 17-year old boy would shy away, or say something really stupid and non-committal. They would blush to a red resembling fire. But our Augustus Waters, our philosopher in the making, says, "Because you're beautiful. I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and I decided a while ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of existence."

The story is, on the surface, a story of it fights to survive while it kills its host. But a cancer story shows nothing of humanity. Cancer in and of itself does not a story make. It's actually quite a blase thing in the grand scheme of things. Under the surface, this is a love story and a human story. And a clever story.

Hazel has a favourite book. Don't we all. I don't know about you, but when I see a book referenced within a book I love...I kind of get excited. I think, 'I wonder why the author chose this book to reference...I must read it!' I search it out to read it. Well, in the case of Hazel's favourite does not exist outside the parameters of The Fault in Our Stars. AN IMPERIAL AFFLICTION was written by the character Peter Van Houten. The thing about AIA, though, is that it ends mid-sentence. Hazel would do anything to find out what happens to the characters in the book AFTER the book ends. But after sending many letters to Mr. Van Houten, and getting no reply, she has to keep wondering.

The almost perfect Augustus Waters (he is minus a leg, after all, thanks to osteosarcoma...but he is otherwise "on a roller coaster that only goes up") reads Hazel's fav. book. He then emails the author and receives a reply through the author's assistant. So begins the journey. The cancer-free Augustus uses his saved-up Cancer Perk wish to take Hazel to the reclusive Van Houten. He will stop at nothing to give the object of his affection whatever it is she wants.

Every character in this book is exquisitely written. The hardest characters to write in YA, in my humble opinion, are the parents. They are either ghosts or in the way. In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Green captures a perfect harmony with the two main characters and their parents. From Hazel's tearful father and hovering Augustus's parents and their houseful of ENCOURAGEMENTS. He just does it right.

I won't go into any more of the story, because I would only be giving it away. Just know that Hazel and Augustus fall in love--Hazel has terminal cancer--they share a love for a book that takes them on a journey--and they talk about life and death in beautiful ways. 

Memorable Quotes:

'I liked being a person. I wanted to keep at it.' - Hazel was a bit of a philosopher herself. Just a girl who wanted to live a little longer.

'...we were together in some invisible and tenuous third space that could only be visited on the phone.' - I never thought of this third space until Green spoke of it...and I knew exactly what he meant.

'I never saw the swing set again.' - Green has a great way of transferring the nostalgic feelings of the characters onto the reader.

"Grief does not change you Hazel. It reveals you." - Green also has a way of rescuing his less than likeable characters by having them say beautiful things at the right times.

'He fumbled toward Gus's hand and found only his thigh. "I'm taken," Gus said.' - I loved the comedic bits in this novel. This passage was between Gus and his friend Isaac, who lost both eyes to cancer.

Don't miss this one. It's a must read. I'm sure it'll make it to many re-read lists. It's definitely on mine. 

Expectation exceeded. I love this book. It caught every emotion. And it was will make you think. Be on the lookout for Augustus Waters metaphors!

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Book Thief - Review

Title: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Release Date: March 14, 2006

Format/Page Count: Kindle Edition, 540 pages

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Purchased: Amazon

Synopsis: It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.

Expectation: Over the years, I've heard a lot of good things about this book. But I never actually saw a copy anywhere. I know...I must have been living under a rock. Well, thanks to Twitter...I was reminded to look it up. Once I read a couple reviews, my expectation grew. I was also a little leery, because of the narrator. I didn't know if I wanted to read a book as told to me by death. 

Market/Genre: I will call this Young Adult/Literary


I will readily admit that I was annoyed before I even 'cracked the cover' of the Kindle book. I just didn't have a lot of faith in the narrator of this tale. Yes...the narrator is DEATH itself. Sometimes I really want to read a book, but go in with a bias because of a small detail I don't think will fly (bad habit).

It worked. Death was a reliable narrator (except for the irritating giveaways!). Zusak knew what he was doing.

The unique thing about The Book Thief is that it tells a story of the Holocaust from the perspective of the Germans & the Jews. And not just the Nazi Germans, but the sympathetic ones who hated the Fuhrer. The perspective of death made it even more interesting. Listening to death itself tell you how simultaneously beautiful and despicable the human race is... kind of works for me.

The main character, our book thief, is a nine-year old orphan named Liesel. At the opening of the story, it's safe to say that she is at an ultra low point in her young life. In one instant her brother dies, in the next her mother is leaving her an orphan in the hopes of giving her a better life. She soon arrives at the house of an anti-Nazi house painter with a huge heart, and his tyrannical 'wardrobe' of a wife (who, please don't be fooled, also has a huge heart). Liesel is to call Hans and Rosa Hubermann Mamma and Papa. So begins the second life of Liesel Meminger.

In Liesel's second life, she lives on Himmel Street (Heaven Street?). Her neighbour and best friend, Rudy, just wants one thing from her. A KISS. At times I wanted to hit her...just give him the kiss already. The payout on the wait, though, was well worth it. The reader will enjoy the mischief that these two get into along the way. It seems there are so many aspects to this young girl. She is serious, thoughtful, introspective, thieving, hating, loving...just a well-rounded character that we get to see in so many different roles throughout the book.

As it turns out, Liesel's foster father has a debt to pay a man who saved his life in the first war. In order to pay off his debt, he has to do something that could potentially threaten the lives of his entire household. But Hans does it without batting an eye. He is a man of of the kindest fictional characters I've come upon in a good long while.

What is this thing that Hans has to do? He takes in Max, the Jewish son of the man who saved his life. He told the man's wife that if there was anything he could ever do for her, to let him know. At the time, he could not foresee that the thing he would be doing is harbouring a Jew in his basement. But when Max shows up on Himmel Street, that is exactly what happens. He becomes a resident of the Hubermanns' basement.

Max is a wonderful character. Perhaps my favourite character in the book. He is somewhat understated. The stories he writes and draws out for Liesel are so wonderful! He is a passionate and compassionate man who falls in love with the little girl who becomes somewhat of a constant companion in his loneliness.

In one of Max's stories, THE WORD SHAKER, he tells a wonderful parable about the power of words. In the story, he shows how the Fuhrer uses words in a horrible way and how a little girl uses them in a wonderful way. It's a playful story that cracks Liesel's world wide open.

The reader is guaranteed to fall in love with Liesel, her foster parents, her friend and the neighbours who share the sad little street on which they live. And they will definitely fall in love with Max. But be prepared to be manipulated by the narrator.

There is so much to say about this sprawling book. The gist of it is the celebration of humanity, though. Even though Death did quite an impressive job narrating, it was still a bit jarring hearing about events before they happened in the narrative of the story. Death just would not shut up about the outcome. It was like a kind of bravado to say, "oh...this will happen in the end, but wait...lets hear the story that will take you there." I didn't want to know the details Death was giving me. I would have been patient enough to find them out in the natural flow of the story. For this reason, I feel the need to knock a star off the rating. But, otherwise, I honestly LOVED The Book Thief. It was filled with thought-provoking compassion and insights into the human mind. I'd call it a must read that takes the reader deeply and darkly into the darkest period of human history.

My expectation was exceeded yet again. I'm having a great streak of finding books to love. I loved this book. I do think it could have been a bit shorter...but God help me, I can't think of anything I would want to cut. As a writer, what I loved most about it was the loud and clear message about the POWER OF WORDS.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Review

Title: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Author: Jonathan Safran Foer

Release Date: March 7, 2005

Format/Page Count: Paperback, 368 pages

Publisher: Penguin

Purchased: Christmas present (-:

Synopsis: Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey. (FROM GOODREADS)

Expectation: Finally getting to this book was a long journey. And somewhat confusing. I picked it up about 10-20 times over the years. I read the synopsis. I thought I would enjoy the story. I put it down. Just before Christmas, I actually picked it up and read the first paragraph. I don't know why I didn't do that earlier. It was like I was fighting against reading this book. After reading the first paragraph, though...I knew I was destined to read it and love it. Expectation was low for years and years...and rose to a crescendo about a month ago.

Market/Genre: Adult/Contemporary


'What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad's voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of "Yellow Submarine", which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d'etre, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I'd train it to say, "Wasn't me!" every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, obviously, my anus would say, "Ce n'etais pas moi!"

So begins this glorious tale that should be incredibly sad but somehow lifts you up like a balloon and takes you, smiling, into the wonderful world of Oskar Schell!

As I said, I really fell in love with this book somewhere within the first paragraph. It makes you catch your breath...forces you to keep reminding yourself to breathe.
This is a post-911 tale. The precocious 'main' narrator, Oskar Schell, is a wonder. I found him so whimsical and honest that I made the statement, "This is my new favourite book" the second I finished reading it. Oskar thinks outside the box. He sees the world in a unique way, but he doesn't leave the reader in the dust. He takes you with him.
I don't want to say much about the story-line of Extremely Loud and Incredibly the movie will be released this month. Some may be reading it soon or watching it soon. I'll just say that it was pure delight, through and through. It was heart-wrenching and joyous. You will laugh and you will cry.
Oskar is on a be closer to his father, who passed away when one of the towers collapsed on 9/11. He wants his words, his spirit, his touch...anything. Listening to his father's last recordings on the home phone is not enough. He wants one last adventure with his father. One last scavenger hunt, like the ones his father used to send him on.
When Oskar finds a key in a vase in his father's closet, while looking for things to touch and smell to get closer to the man he misses, he decides it is part of a scavenger hunt his father planned out before he died. Following the clues he assumes to be there, he ends up digging for treasure in Central Park, searching for all the people in New York City with the surname BLACK and searching for the one lock in all of New York that his key will open...the one lock out of the hundreds and thousands of locks that are waiting to be opened.
Along with Oskar's journey, the reader is also shown the complicated and intriguing story of his grandparents. There are several threads trailing out from the onset of the book...and one is never quite sure how they will be woven together. But Safran Foer does an incredible job bringing the reader that magical place where all is intricately woven together in a lovely mosaic that will leave the reader sighing with contentment at the end.
I love quirky and I love emotional and I love a narrative that takes me so deep that the line between narrator and reader gets all squiggly and blurred. Safran Foer does this with EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. This is a book I will revisit time and again. It's simply beautiful. It's a heart-song born from a tragedy. And to think this is just one imaginary boy's post-911 experience. There are so many stories out there surrounding this tragedy. This fictional account will leave you breathless and wondering... 

Expectation was exceeded in the first few pages.

Taking Lessons from Ernest - Review

Title: Taking Lessons From Ernest


Release Date: December, 2011

Format/Page Count: Paperback, 252 pages

Publisher: Writers Amuse Me Publishing

PurchasedDirectly from the publisher

Full Disclosure: Trish Stewart is a writer friend. Our paths first crossed at Absolute Write. We share a love of poetry, A Moveable Feast and writing style. I read a first draft of Taking Lessons from Ernest a few years back. This review is of a friend's book...but it is an honest non-biased review of a book I love.

His job is unfulfilling, his girlfriend controlling, his family has disowned him, and a loan shark is circling: Eric Bastien's life is a mess. Then, as a work day ends on a high, his love life hits the skids, and he gets the phone call from his estranged mother that changes everything. "Your father's dead." Life hands Eric a great opportunity, an awkward family reunion, and an ultimatum --  if he wants his inheritance, he has to take a road trip to see his father's old Army buddy, Oliver. For most, it would be no problem. Hop in the car, placate the family, get your money: no problem. Then again, you have not met Eric, have you? Armed with his father's journal and a first edition of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Eric decides to make amends to his family and get his life back on track. What he doesn't expect is to have Ernest Hemingway's ghost along for the ride. With intentions of helping Eric get it right, Hemingway manages to complicate the situation, resulting in an unforgettable road trip. Help comes in many forms. In this case, it is Hemingway's ghost who is determined to make Eric's first draft at life a good one. With any luck, he'll succeed before Eric loses a kneecap. (FROM PUBLISHER'S WEBSITE)

Expectation: Extremely high. I was dying to read this finished version of TLFE, ever since I read the amazing first draft!

Market/Genre: Adult/Literary


Taking Lessons from Ernest is one of those books you just want to read out loud. The first paragraph had me gushing with sentiment. I had to read it to my wife. Twice. “Listen to this! Just listen to this!” It’s that kind of book.

Trish Stewart has created the quintessential MEDIOCRITY KING in her main character, Eric Bastien. Eric bumbles through life, unable to cling to any significance whatsoever. From the onset of the story, I found myself rooting for him…but I still don’t know why I did. He is just one of those souls who slips through the cracks of life. He had no passion, no drive, no commitment.

Or maybe, just maybe, that’s what the author of TAKING LESSONS FROM ERNEST wants you to believe. Maybe the story is a journey back to the passion and commitment that LIFE burned out of Eric Bastien. Stewart shows Eric how to get back to his paused life through a wonderful journey filled with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway and the guidance of his own estranged father. And through that journey, the reader can also feel themselves growing. We walk hand in hand with Eric. We get angry when he takes a step backwards, and we revel in every step forward.

Taking Lessons from Ernest is a unique look into the dangerous slide into mediocrity that each and every one of us is capable of making…and a warning to prevent us from doing so.

When Eric’s father dies, Eric is sent on a road-trip to find Oliver Crowe. Crowe was an army buddy of Daniel’s…and has obviously greatly impacted his life. Crowe was larger than life…wonderful in every way. But life has a knack of finding those mythical characters from our youth and eating away at them, making them less. Eric is not impressed with what he finds at the end of the path to Oliver Crowe. But his real journey just begins there.

In life, Daniel was no longer speaking to his estranged son…but in death he has a well mapped plan for Eric. He can—with the help of a seemingly wild goose chase with the accompaniment of A MOVEABLE FEAST and his journals from his time in the army—give Eric a journey back to the self he left behind in the chaos that has become his life.

And us, lucky readers, are along for the ride. We see Eric discovering a kinder gentler father through reading his journals. We see him aching with adoration as he makes his way through Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and we see him itching to discover just what his father wanted him to learn through his pre-planned post-mortem intervention into his son’s life. But what we also see is Eric’s complete reluctance to succumb to the lessons. This is what we love…the struggle, the pull to refuse the light into his discombobulated life. We read on because we want him to melt, we want him to take the opportunity for growth that his dead father is giving him.

This is a story of redemption. Not only is it a strong story of personal growth, it’s also one of those novels you stumble across once in a long while where you want to quote these beautiful lines of wisdom. Stewart is a fine writer. Her poetic wisdom comes through in her narrative. I think we’ll be seeing more of her. Her melodic prose is the true gift of this novel…not to mention the lessons given to the reader through the solid plotline from mediocrity to…well, something better. Stewart’s love of Hemingway comes through in every word. Through the use of his ghost as Eric’s mentor along the journey, she does a huge honour to his memory. Here’s to Eric Bastien…and here’s to Trish Stewart.

Expectation was met in spades. This book makes me want to be a better person. Stewart definitely accomplished what she set out to do with this novel! Bravo.