The Fault in Our Stars (2014), by John Green

Green-FaultYou know one of the worst reading experiences, one I have only recently discovered? Being old enough to need reading glasses and reading a YA novel the last third of which has me fairly continually in tears. Yes, I am talking about the latest YA phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.

Critics have raved about this novel, calling it the salvation of YA literature, and to his great credit, the author denies that 1) YA needs saving and 2) that his book would be the one to do so. Good for him. The Fault in Our Stars is spectacular, I must admit, and tear-jerking in a way that is neither excessive (despite my previous comments) nor maudlin. He strikes an excellent balance amongst humour, pathos, and honest reflection on the world as presented by two intellectually precocious teens. Hazel’s language and awareness sometimes sit uneasily—notably her internal reflection and discussions with Augustus placed beside her conversation with Peter Van Houten—but that fades beside an existential awareness far beyond that of her peers.

It would be difficult for a narrative to support this existential non-angst were it not for the relatively unique positions Augustus and Hazel find themselves in: a cancer “survivor” and a terminal cancer “victim,” both of whom transcend the labels society casts upon them to establish a love that is both compassionate and emotionally mature. I can’t go into the plot without creating spoilers, which in some cases is not a problem, but would be for The Fault in Our Stars. Suffice it to say that the plot itself is not the driving force behind the narrative; it is somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the power of the novel.

I can see why the YA world is aflame with admiration for this novel: it is perhaps to our generation what books like Stephen Chbosky’s recently revived Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—or even earlier, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) or Judy Blume’s Forever (1975)—were in their cultural moments. This not to equate these novels in terms of literary endeavours or accomplishments, but only to say that they all speak to the ethos of their times in some important ways. But like the earlier works, The Fault in Our Stars is, as John Green himself says, only one of “more than a thousand books … read by at least ten thousand teenagers a year.” So many of these novels have so much to say; they all work together to (in John Green’s metaphor) fill our world’s YA bookshelves.

I did think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I began reading The Fault in Our Stars, which struck me as odd, because my response to novels is not generally to be reminded of another… hence my previous comments. By the end of the novel, though, I was struck by yet another comparison, however actually erroneous. The only other novel I have recently read that both forced tears and yet filled me with great joy is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). I am, as I have said, old enough that these novels are not being written to resonate with me as a reader, yet they carry such emotional truths, presented through such beautifully crafted characters, that no one—adolescent, adult, or anyone in between—can help but respond. I’ll stop gushing now, and let you run off and read The Fault in Our Stars, or Aristotle and Dante, or any other of the myriad exceptional YA novels being produced these days…

Dark Times (2006), edited by Ann Walsh

Walsh - Dark TimesI once write a chapter for a book about Robert Cormier, an author well known for his starkly realist novels for young adults. Cormier explained his novels’ popularity by stating readers “say I tell it like it is. This is the way life is, and they are tired of books where everyone walks off into the sunset together” (in Herbert Foerstel’s “Voices of Banned Authors,” in Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2002) 150). The collection of short stories in Dark Times strikes a similar note of stark realism, revealing a number of harsh incidents and situations that real teens in our world have to deal with every day. Dark Times, however (unlike Cormier’s more lengthy and troubling œuvre) contains glimmers of hope. The protagonists’ situations are not always alleviated; the adults don’t ride in on white horses to save them; there are not always happy endings and walking off into the sunset. That is not reality now, any more than it ever has been, but in these stories “as in real life, the darkness lifts” (Walsh 9). Ann Walsh has chosen stories that show readers the strength that young adults can have: perseverance and optimism even in the darkest of times.

I have to admit that I have never reviewed a collection of stories before, and I found it difficult. It seems impossible to address the collection as a whole, sufficiently, when each of the stories themselves is so rich in meaning. Dark Times comprises 13 stories, all dealing with some form of loss; each character’s loss is unique, however similar the feelings of grief can seem. In “Snow Angel” (Carolyn Pogue), adopting a cousin with fetal alcohol syndrome has a devastating effect on Mary’s family. In “The Canoe” (Lee Maracle), a son needs to restore his relationship with his distant father after the loss of his mother. In “All is Calm” (Ann Walsh), Katie struggles with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, until one of the “popular” boys in her school shares his own story. In “Kick” (Betty Jane Hegerat), Justin has to find closure when the bully who taunted him dies. In “Sisters” (Sarah Ellis), the family complications of Charlotte’s “foster grandmother” are revealed at her death, helping Charlotte come to terms with her own sister’s desertion. In “Explaining Andrew” (Gina Rozon), James feels smothered as a “baby-sitter” for his brother Andrew, who suffers from schizophrenia. In “Cold Snap” (Diana Aspin), Cassie is filled with hatred when she discovers her father is having an affair. In “the sign for heaven” (Carrie Mac), Della learns to love a little girl she is teaching sign language to, only to lose her to pneumonia. In “A Few Words for My Brother (Alison Lohans), Hailey’s adopted brother, Devin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, is responsible for the death of a friend and his other sister’s hospitalization. Hailey struggles to come to terms with her brother’s crimes and the guilt she feels for her sister’s injuries. In “Dear Family—” (Donna Gamache), Melinda reconnects with her estranged mother, who left to “find herself” as an artist in the wilds of BC. In “Dreams in a Pizza Box” (Libby Kennedy), a mother and her two daughters run from an abusive situation and end up on the streets. Struggling with illness, poverty, and homelessness, the mother does the best she can for her daughters, but in the end must leave them at a women’s shelter, where she hopes they can be cared for properly. In “Hang On” (Patricia McCowan), Kevin feels guilty when his dare-devil friend Randy ends up in a coma after a prank. The final story in the collection, “Balance Restored” (Jessi May Keller), takes us through the stages of grieving with Alexandra, whose boyfriend has died in a car crash she survived.

Together, these stories reveal a depth of human situations and responses that, taken all at once, could be overwhelming—rather like reading Robert Cormier’s novels one after the other, only (being short stories) somewhat less traumatic. Perhaps the best way to approach the collection would be to read one a day, and really think about what the story is saying. The messages are strong; each separate story—each separate voice—should be heard on its own.

Ethan (2013), by P. T. Michelle

Michelle-EthanA prequel to Brightest Kind of Darkness, Ethan gives us some of the back-story of how Ethan begins to form his connection to Nara. While the text itself gives only a short moment in Ethan’s life—from his arrival at Blue Ridge school until he meets Nara after the bomb threat—it contains glimmers of moments that help construct his self-knowledge much later in the series. P. T. Michelle obviously had the overarching narrative of her intricately constructed series well developed at this point. It was in rereading the series that I began to notice the subtle foreshadowing that Ethan contains, and saw that the more savvy of readers might not be as surprised as I was by the inklings of knowledge that Ethan and Nara use to build their understanding of the situation and their relationship.

Tag Team (2013), by W. C. Mack

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.2.

Mack-Tag TeamOwen and Russell are twins, but fraternal rather than identical. Still, they are the only set of twins in the school, and that makes them special: until the “Minnesota twins” (26) arrive. Marcus and Mitchell Matthews are “real twins” (12); their interest value as identical twins, as well as their athletic coordination as a two-person team, immediately raise Owen’s ire: “So, if the perfectly coordinated new transfer students were ‘real twins,’ what did that make us? Fake?” (13). Owen is a star on the Pioneers basketball team; Russell has his own space as an important member of the Masters of the Mind team. Owen and Russell’s world is further shaken when they discover that Marcus and Mitchell are not only athletic, but also top-grade students. While Owen struggles with his jealousy on the court, Russell tries to prevent the Matthews twins from being asked to join the Masters team. Watching Marcus and Mitchell, though, Russell begins to wonder if being an identical twin is actually better than what he and Owen share. When Mitchell—the kinder, more humble of the Matthew twins—is injured out of the game, Russell recruits him for the Masters team, convincing him with difficulty that it will be good for him to have an activity he doesn’t share with his brother. Helping Mitchell to stand up to Marcus and claim some psychological space for himself shows Russell the strength in his relationship with his own twin. Owen, too, comes to realize that he has very little to be jealous about, and all four twins learn that individuality does not preclude closeness, any more than similarities ensure it.

The plot is well structured, the characters interestingly portrayed and certainly consistent. The only thing that bothered me about this book is its overtly American setting and audience. Not that there is anything wrong with books set in the States, but readers who expect to be immersed in an educational setting they are familiar with will be disappointed. The boys play on the Lewis & Clark Pioneers team (obviously Portland); talk is all about American basketball teams and players; Owen’s jealousy over the Matthews’ “letterman jackets” (11) seems a particularly American preoccupation. The numerous little details are not sufficiently generic, and could easily alienate a Canadian reader—should that reader be expecting to see their school experiences reflected back from the pages.