Book review: The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Reading a book about teenagers with a terminal illness who meet in a cancer support group is not recommended the week after your best friend has died from a terminal illness. But I did it anyway. Why? Well, firstly because I’m an idiot. I had a masochistic desire to reopen the wounds caused by grief and see how much they bled (a lot). But mainly I read this book because books have always been how I cope. As a child stuck in a small town they showed me how limitless the world inside my head could be. As a lonely teen they were constant companions. I chart moments in my life by what I was reading when it happened, those books forever fixed in amber so evocative of a particular time and place.

The Fault in our Stars will forever remind me of the dark days after Lianne died and no matter how much the sun shone it did not touch me. But I shall be forever glad I read it.

Here’s the blurb:

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, 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.

The book follows Augustus and Hazel as they try to track down the reclusive author of Hazel’s favourite book which ended mid sentence and find out the fates of the characters. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to spoil how the story unfolds. But you need to read this book.

This book is bitter and joyous, angry and so true about death and the reality of watching people we love die. It is the first book I have read in a long time which does not gloss over the reality of dying as beautiful instead its painful, ugly and. I loved it so much that I find it so hard to pin point the magic of why. Why is it easier to talk about things we hate than things we love?

The title is a play on a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves”

The book takes exception with this idea that fault rests with the individual as opposed to fate. Far too often bad things happen to good people like Hazel, like Augustus, like Lianne. The fault is not in the individual  but in the stars that good people die in agony and the world keeps turning all the same.

This book is filled with so many good quotes, I felt like I was scribbling down something every other page. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes and why:

“That’s the thing about pain…it demands to be felt.”

I have always been very good at functioning through pain. When I was 16 I walked until the soles of my foot peeled off. I was so distracted I only noticed because my shoes started filling up with blood. So when bad things happened I would shut them away in a box until I felt able to deal with them. Compartmentalise, baby. Grief does not work like that. In the days and months after her death grief has flattened me like a tidal wave and I have no choice but to sink. Feelings demand to be felt.

“The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.”

When Lianne wasn’t sure about the course her tumours might take and whether it would effect her memories she asked all her close friends to write a history of our friendship with her. I tried but I only got as far as 18. There were too many memories, I kept forgetting the order and it made me realise that one day I’d be the only one that remembered some of these stories. And I’m no good at remembering. She was the memory keeper with her diaries and mementos. The memories already seemed faded, who will remind me what age we were, what were wearing. What’s the point of saying ‘Do you remember when?’ when there is nobody to finish those thoughts off.

“The voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.”

After Lianne was diagnosed they told her that with the type of the tumour she would be extremely lucky if she lived two years. In the end she lasted five. She fought tooth and claw for that time to say goodbye, to settle her affairs, to tell us she loved us over and over again. But it wasn’t enough. If she’d lived ten, fifteen, 30 years it wouldn’t be enough. When you love somebody it never is.

“The only person I really wanted to talk to about X’s death with was X.”

After I heard I just kept thinking uselessly I need to talk to Lianne but there was a void where she should be. I was 14 when we met but I already knew how rare it was to have the kind of friend you could talk to about anything. I was already a proto-counsellor in the making but Lianne was the person who counselled me. All I wanted to do after she died was talk to her. I kept staring uselessly at the telephone number on the my phone as if somehow I’d be able to get through to her.

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”

I hate pain and will do anything to avoid it if I can. It says something about what type of person Lianne was that being her friend was worth for me the pain of saying goodbye to her.

This is the power of art that it takes an experience so deeply personal and expands it until you realise that you are not alone. Thank you, John Green

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The Hunger Games: film vs the book

(I thought I’d published this a month ago but I forgot to, so here it is.)

My name’s Rowan and I’m a middle age fangirl. In the past I have been obsessed with (in no particular order): Buffy the Vampire Slayer, My Little Ponies, L J Smith books, Jem and the Holograms, Veronica Mars, Around the World in 80 days, The Chronicles of Fire and Ice, and most recently the Hunger Games. I devoured the books in a New York minute and was ridiculously excited to see the movie adaption the weekend it opened with my fellow fangirl and our respective other halves. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was pretty amazing. Jennifer Lawrence has some huge shoes to fill by taking on the role of Katniss and boy did she deliver. In short, the film rocked. But was it better than the book? Let’s use science* to find out! It goes without saying but spoilers ahoy!

*completely biased opinion.

The film is better

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence can act. I mean I knew this from Winter’s Bone but she is amazing as Katniss. It’s a tough role given how much of Katniss emotions are held behind a stoical façade, but the emotional intensity she bought without saying a word. Loved it! Furthermore she’s hardcore. I haven’t been this into a strong heroine since Buffy and Veronica Mars and you know how much I love them. The contrast between her open hostility towards her mother and the sweetness with which she mothers Prim showed you exactly why she would volunteer. In a scene that actually gave me goosebumps.  Girl is going to get an Oscar one day, you can count on it.

District 12 vs the Capitol

The contrast between the downtrodden Appalachian District 12 with its muted colours staffed with Deadwood extras and the vibrant, glossy, modern Rome design of the Capitol was brilliant. I can’t convey how odd characters like Effie Trinket with her bleached brows, oddly coloured wigs and oversized shoulders look in contrast to Peeta and Katniss. It’s a perfect visual representation of the fin di siecle atmosphere of Panem.

That’s my fancy dress costumes sorted for the year now

Although an honorary mention goes to Seneca Crane’s facial hair. It makes me long for perfectly crafted topiary beard of my own. Except that would be weird. Shine on tragic Seneca you crazy diamond. (I digress but it was only in this movie that I truly understood the cleverness of Collin’s allusions to ancient Rome. The director highlighted these parallels with Seneca’s final scene with the bowl full of nightlock berries recalling the end of his poetic namesake. Well played Gary Marshall)

Caesar Flickmann

I love Caesar Flickmann, I love Stanley Tucci. He’s the perfect actor for flashy, vacuous, but very good, at his job talk-show host. I loved the way the film used Caesar and his Mogadashu sidekick  (seriously look at that hair) as expostion bots explaining the tracker jackers, commenting on who had died and the change in the gamekeepers tactic. The book is quite claustrophobic with it’s narrow first person focus on Katniss and although I wished the film had been more in the style of the Truman show, where we see Panem citizens watching the action inside the Hunger Games, I did appreciate the widening of perspective we did get.

District 11 uprising

Which brings me on to the uprising in District 11 as they watch Katniss sing a dying Rue to sleep then cover her dead body in flowers a revolution breaks out. OK, they may have cut out the scene where they send the bread, weep. But it effectively demonstrates how small actions in the arena can have a huge effect.

The sponsor scenes

In the book they seemed the ultimate deux ex machina of authorial intent. Uh-oh Katniss has got hideously wounded send down some medicine from her sponsors/god/me the author 🙂 But I minded it less in the book even if they did omit the scene where Katniss drugs Peeta to attend the feast at the cornucopia, where she can get medicine for him. Girl is cold and that’s why I love her.

The book was better

The ambivalence of Katniss and Peeta’s motivations

If I hadn’t read the books in the film I would assume that Katniss is actually falling for Peeta in the Hunger Games softens Collins satirical attack on reality show romances. I love in the book how mixed up Katniss’ feelings are for Peeta in her need for survival which contrasts completely to what she decides to do in Catching Fire. Also throughout the book she constantly doubts Peeta’s motivations: is he playing her for the cameras? Thereby justifying her actions. There seems no doubt in the film that Peeta loves Katniss, therefore the scene where we discover he has teams up with the Tributes is robbed from its power as we know he’s doing it for her. Unlike in the book where it casts real doubt on whether he was always pretending to love her? Only towards the end of the book do we realise that Peeta truly loves her in contrast to the film where it seems clear all along.  When Katniss reacts to the gamekeepers reversal on two tributes surviving, by drawing her knife of Peeta it makes her a much more complex and dark character than in the film. Effectively showing how much the games has warped her from the girl she was back in district 12

Violence

I reread the books before watching the movie and the descriptions aren’t actually that violent. However, because of the difference in medium your imagination can fill in the gaps in a book in a way it doesn’t do in the film. And my imagination, likes blood and lots of it. Look I get why they made this film an 12 so that it would make more money. But it’s a film about teenagers killing each other for our amusement. I think we need to vicariously get off on the violence but be simultaneously horrified by it to understand the attraction-repulsion felt by the Capitol vs the Districts. The camera style made it incredibly hard to see what was going on in the fight scenes. Also cutting moments like when Peeta defects to the darkside and finishes off the girl that started the fire to show he’s part of the Tributes (and also we later realise to protect Katniss makes him a much darker character in the book).

Haymitch

Sorry Woody Harrelson but book Haymitch with his bitterness and anger at the Capitol is so much better than film Haymitch. I was really sad they moved his entrance in the film to the train and opposed to IMHO in the book where during the drawing ceremony he falls up the steps drunk showing to the world and Katniss and Peeta the complete lack of help they have in the games. In the book the vehement dislike between him and Katniss is great and the way they come to uneasy understanding that are both unlikeable survivors is really strong. Here’s hoping they ramp up the rage for Catching Fire because I know Harrelson can rock that out.

Avox

In the book the Avox are servants in the Capitol who have had their voice box surgically removed so they are mute. Katniss recognises her Avox as a girl she saw on the run in the woods of District 12. They only appear in the background of the film which is a shame as I think they encapsulate that there are worst things than dying in the arena.

The mutts

In the books the mutts are creepy mutations with the faces of dead tributes. The ultimate horror for Peeta and Katniss is that they have to defeat the people they just killed. Like a real life version of those horrible dreams you have when you are trying to kill somebody and they just won’t die. In the book they are ‘magically’ generated creatures. I know the Capitol a monopoly on technology but why couldn’t the dogs have rised from the earth in cages instead of appearing like flickery magical apparitions. It really took me out of the film. Not to mention the effects are awful.

The camera style

The handheld filming style made me want to be sick. I mean, I get it the lack of budget meant that filming around the effects saved a lot of time and money. But before I got used to the filming style I spent the first ten minutes of the film trying not to puke into my popcorn. Not the ideal start.

Result

5 vs 6. You win this time book. But only just.

In short see the Hungers Games and read the book. They’re both brilliant.

Our book-themed wedding?

We are having a book-themed wedding. There I said it, now I have to leave.

Weddings don't need to be themed Belle!

Before we got engaged, I would mercilessly mock the concept of themed weddings. ‘Isn’t the theme I’m getting married enough?’ Back then, I wasn’t really sure if weddings were for me (HA!). I didn’t want to get married in a church, have my dad give me away and dressing everything up with a naff theme wasn’t going to change that.

Past me was scornful of themed weddings and muscly 🙂

But then I got engaged and I discovered wedding blogs filled with people who were doing it differently. Personalising their wedding with the things they loved whether it was superheroes or the sea. I gradually discovered that themes didn’t always have to be naff.

I suppose I could come around to the idea of a themed wedding

But I didn’t really think that a theme would be right for us until we found our venue. The minute I walked into the Library at the Elvetham I knew like Eliza Bennett and Pemberley this was the one for me. Yes, they had me at Library 🙂

All these books just for me

It was HWSNBN who first suggested that we have a book themed wedding, and I feel little guilty because it’s inspired by what I love not HWSNBN. He self-admittedly has read maybe twenty books in his life compared to thousands I’ve devoured.

Although I am absurdly grateful we don’t have a Myers Briggs themed wedding (HWSNBN’s passion, don’t ask).

HWSNBN clings harder to Myers Briggs than the Beast to his rose

You see, I’ve loved books for as long as I could remember. Ever since I learnt to read books opened up new worlds for me, they were a diversion and a lifeline. I read everywhere: on buses, on bikes and anything from horror to literary fiction.

But I've never read to sheep, a new goal

Even my favourite Disney film, do you know what it is yet, I love because the heroine is as book obsessive as I am. And she’s brunette too, v rare for Disney. And she marries a hairy-man beast. Really the parallels are endless.

HWSNBN

As a wannabe writer and life-long bibliophile it seems only natural that books should heavily feature in one of the greatest stories of my life: my marriage to the man I love.

He can’t buy me a library (yet), but we we are holding our wedding reception in one. WIN!

Not that I'm hinting, but look a Library

I’m so excited to be finally emerging from the theme-closet and over the next month or so I’ll fill you in on all the bookish details from our bookmark invites to our book covers guestbook. Bet you can’t wait?

So, so excited

Poetry

I read a book last night that I loved: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin. Its the story of Liz who dies in a hit and run accident when she’s fifteen. She goes to Elsewhere, an afterlife, where she learns she will never have grow up. She will never drive, never go to university, get married or have children. Instead her body will get younger and younger until she is reincarnated.

It’s a beautiful book, that I will probably rave about later when I have my thoughts in order. There’s a passage near the end that had me sobbing. Its a tender mediation on all the experiences Liz will never have good and bad. The words chosen make this section read like a poem and reminded me how much I love poetry.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was at school I hated poetry, because I found it difficult to understand. It seemed impossible to me that such a multitude of meanings could be compacted into such a small space. Unlike novels poetry does not necessary have to have a narrative thread running through it. You can play with form, syntax, punctuation, meaning. But slowly I started to fall in love with poetry for all the reasons I had hated it (I’m contrary like that). I also briefly flirtated with writing my own obscenely terrible (but creatively satisfying at the time) poetry.

After reading Elsewhere I knew that I wanted to read some good poems. But most of the poet websites out there are just plain ugly, and even worse hard to use. Among the best are university sites. All I want is aesthetically appealing or at the very least clean looking website, with a brief context of the poets life or type of poem below. But there doesn’t seem to be anything like that out there.

However I did rediscover this fantastic E. E Cummings poem, carry your heart with me.

carry your heart with me
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)
i am never without it (anywhere i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
i want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Perfect 🙂

Cherchez la femme


I’m about a midway through a book that a number of people have recommended to me. Its a first novel from a celebrated young adult novelist. And its good. The language is crisp, the dialogue funny and realistic, its rife with the little embarrassing details, the first person POV effortlessly conveys the arrogance and uncertainty of a certain type of intellectually advanced (if not psychologically) adolescent male (not that I would know :)). But I keep on stopping, and having to put the book down.

The main problem I have with this book is its central concept. The main character is obsessed with an ephemeral, mercurial, troubled girl who is obviously going to come to a bad end. This is foreshadowed by the title and a stylistic conceit of counting down to an event.

We never know much about this girl, unlike the rest of the characters her behaviour is oblique and inconsistent. Now, I get it. This is because the narrator never really understands the girl she’s a cipher for desire, for unrequited love, for femininity. But its been done before; and better.

I have read about a version of this girl in over a hundred different books but I have never met her. Maybe I’m the wrong gender, but I don’t think its that. I think its because she only exists in fiction. In a type of literacy fiction written by a late twenties male author looking back on his misbegotten youth and idolising/destroying the memory of that girl he wanted but could never have. I’m not asking for realism in character creation because real life people are more boring, more inconsistent, more fragmented than anything in fiction. However I need some suggestion that characters are more than a cardboard cut out representing the fickle of nature of women.

Because of my awareness of this literary trope when I read this book instead of dissolving myself in a fictional world I am constantly aware that the characters are fictional, the story is contrived, I can see the strings behind the puppets. Like Brecht’s epic theatre but for books. Now that can work in some stories (Jasper Fforde) but only when the disconnect is intentional. It is not here.

The second issue is that this type of story has been done better elsewhere. For example in the Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides where at least there was the impression that the girls had some kind of interior life. I understand that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, that all writing is interrelated to what has come before. For example in horror you can work within genre assumptions (sexually active blondes who are too stupid to live go into dank basement and become killer fodder) or play against them (Buffy (oh how I miss Buffy!) and Scream (which is meta enough to outlines the ‘rules’ of horror while still working within them)). But you should still add your own interpretation on things and this book takes too much and adds too little.

So I’m torn. A lot of people whose opinions I respect love this book. I hate not finishing books but this book is infuriating me. I can see that the author is a good writer but the lazy misogyny sticks in my craw. Maybe I am missing the point? Or I am just being grouchy because I’m underslept, I have a contact stuck in my eye, and a million Londoners are probably going to vote in an ineffectual fascist just because they like his hair? OK rant over, back to work.

Free booksies


Everybody knows that I 1) love books, 2) love free books, 3) love Neil Gaiman. So I was very excited to see that American Gods has been made available online free in a one month trial. Not only should you head over there to read it asap as its really good. (American gods is a fantastically imaginative mediation on what would happen if the old gods from eygpt, norse, greek, india etc made their way over to America). You should also go over there because Harper Collins free trial should definitely be encouraged. There are also a lot of other free books encompassing a variety of genres.

Earlier in the week I read this article about Random House removing DRM protection on audio books simply because DRM is ineffective. Well done to Random House! All of this combined with the rise of the Kindle reader is pointing to interesting times ahead in the world of books. I don’t think that advances in technology will ever make the tactile experience of reading obsolete. But I can definitely see the advantages of being able to carry a library of 5oo books on something a little bigger than a ipod. Anything that aim to make reading more accessible is good by me.

The book journal

For Christmas this year my best friend Bunny gave me a book journal. An A5 size notepad with sections neatly divided into books read, books to read, and books lent/borrowed. This was the perfect gift for me. I am a notorious bibliophile, if I don’t have a stack of ten books to read next I get antsy. I have a wide and varied palette, I read: sci fi, fantasy, ya, ya, ya fantasy, ya sci fi, literary fiction, classics, crime, historicals, romance, auto/biographies, non fiction etc. However apart from one notorious summer when I counted the number of books I read (80), I’ve never kept a record of the books I read or reviewed them.

Recently I’ve begun reading in a different way. I still read for pleasure, to devour stories, to dive into imaginary worlds, to immerse myself in the thoughts and feelings of characters. Now I’ve started deconstructing books, pulling them apart to examine the mechanics of structure/plot, characters, description, and dialogue. This is because instead of reading from a consumer point of view I’ve started writing seriously for the first time.

I have been writing stories from as early as I can remember. An overly imaginative (read delusional :)) child I would walk down the end of the garden and tell stories to the vegetable patch and the fairies I believed lived in the fronds of the rhubarb and slept cradled in the pea shells. But this was the first book I ever finished. At the moment I’m neck deep in revisions which are more taxing and strangely more rewarding than I ever could imagine.

So in order to procrastinate a little bit more I’ve decided to blog about the books I read, as well about the revision process (lots of pathetic moaning ahoy) and anything else that catches my fancy. Stay tuned…