Looking for Alaska. A book review.

I promised to review the last of John Green’s books left for me to read (ironically, his first). I finally finished Looking for Alaska, yesterday. You can find the other reviews at the links below this one.

Looking for Alaska, like many of John Green’s books, is a young adult book featuring a number of quirky high-school characters, a love story (unrequited love, in this case), a tragedy and a mystery. Telling you any more would ruin the story, and I want to steer clear of spoilers.

Looking for Alaska

Pudge is a socially-isolated boy who is sent to boarding school in Alabama, where he meets his short but smart roommate ‘the Colonel’, part-time rapper Takumi and the love of his life: sexy, enigmatic, adorable and frustratingly annoying Alaska Young. They get up to all sorts of antics that expand Pudge’s horizons and broaden his understanding of friendship and existence.

Green likes to write from life, and most of these characters appear to be based on himself and his school classmates (right down to Green’s love of famous last words). There are a number of glaring similarities to characters from his other books, and after reading every book he’s written in a short time frame, I find that they suffer from ‘too much of a good thing’ syndrome: while I loved the book overall, the characters were a little passé. Having said all that, if I’d read this book before his others, I might not have felt this way. The ‘mystery’ of the third act was also incredibly obvious and left me wondering how bright these supposedly smart kids actually were.

If you’re a John Green fan you’ll love Looking for Alaska. Or you’ll find it a bit too similar to his other works. Either way, I love Green’s writing and look forward to his next effort.

 

* For reviews of Green’s other books, click on The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns and Turtles All The Way Down, An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines. A Book Review.

John Green has rapidly become one of my favourite authors. I’ve now read four* of his young adult (YA) novels, the latest being An Abundance of Katherines (AoK).

AoK is about Colin Singleton, a young prodigy who finds himself at loose ends after being dumped by his 19th girlfriend, all of whom have been called Katherine. His best and only friend, Hassan, a less than devout Muslim who likes nothing more than sitting around the house watching Judge Judy, suggests a road trip to cheer Colin up. An-Abundance-of-KatherinesThey arrive in a Tennessee town called Gutshot, where they meet local nerd turned popular girl Lindsey Lee Wells (with her Football hero boyfriend, Colin, or The Other Colin–TOC, as Hassan refers to him). After meeting Lindsey’s rich mother, who owns the local tampon string-making factory (the only business keeping the town alive), they gain employment conducting interviews with the town’s people for an oral history project. Colin is writing  a mathematical formula to accurately predict how long relationships will last, based on his nineteen dumpings. I won’t spoil any more of this clever and imaginative book. Aside from being a story about finding true love, AoK is also about finding and being your true self.

Green has a knack for writing interesting, humorous characters and snappy dialogue. Colin, with his genius IQ, quirky anagrams and stolid bookish ways, is no exception. Hassan is his slacker comic relief, constantly supporting Colin and putting him down at the same time. Lindsey (who you just know is perfect for Colin, no spoiler there) is smartly confined within herself, wrapped up in her handsome boyfriend and a façade of happiness.

AoK is one of Green’s funniest novels. Liberally sprinkled within are smart and amusing footnotes, which add to the experience. The math behind the relationship formula is by brilliant mathematician Daniel Bliss, and can be found in an appendix at the end of the book (the math is real).

I thoroughly recommend AoK to anyone who likes quirky, romantic novels. It’s Green’s shortest book, so you’ll finish it in no time. And be better for the experience.

* For reviews of some of Green’s other books, click on The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns and Turtles All The Way Down

Child of God. A book review.

Cormac McCarthy is a damn fine writer. He’s also a very disturbing one.

Child of God is one of his older books (1973), and tells the story of Lester Ballard, a lonely and erstwhile Tennessee hick who loses his home to live a vagrant life in the mountains. Lester comes across a dead couple in a car. It’s at this point he realises, for the first time in his life, that he can have a woman. After this, Lester satisfies his perverse lust by becoming a serial killer.Child of God

This is not a comfortable book to read (but then, most of McCarthy’s books aren’t). He eloquently describes Ballard’s dark decline with humour, compassion and a frightening edge that makes for gripping reading.

Child of God is well worth a look for anyone who enjoys exemplary writing; it’s a chilling and almost apocalyptic tale of the American South.

Two John Green Books. A review.

I recently read two John Green books, Paper Towns and Turtles All The Way Down. For those of you who don’t know, Green is a top-selling writer of literate young adult (YA) novels with a flair for smart, sassy characters and quirky humour.

Paper Towns features straight-laced Quentin Jacobsen (Q), who has lived most of his teenaged life next door to the high spirited and unreachable wild child Margo Roth Spiegelman. When they were nine they discovered a dead body, and although they run in different social circles now, they share a bond over that event. Margo decides to let Q to be her driver on an amazing night of payback, then promptly disappears. Whilst her parents are unconcerned, Q and his friends follow a trail of deliberate clues (including a Walt Whitman poem) attempting to find out what happened to Margo.

Paper Towns is a fast-paced mystery and road trip that touches on the reality and unreality of suburban life, the facade of personality and the lengths people go to find their real selves.

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Turtles All The Way Down is Green’s latest novel. It features terminally anxious Aza and overwhelmingly exuberant Star Wars fan fic writer Daisy as two teens who decide to pursue a missing businessman on the run from police, in the hope of claiming the reward. Aza used to be friends with the businessman’s son, Davis, and reuniting with him ignites a love complicated by her anxiety issues.

Turtles All The Way Down is about friendship, loyalty, first love, the incredible difficulty of living with mental illness and coming to terms with profound loss.

Green’s books are always humorous, well written and paced. He’s a smart writer, utilising his precocious teen characters to tell love stories with deeper meanings than most average YA lit. Often (at least in the three novels I’ve read so far) his leads tend to be very similar—unusually smart, funny, quirky, well-read middle class teens with a significant issue and loving parent/s—but his stories are so engaging I can overlook it.

I love that Green’s books are short. I can knock them over quickly in between uni texts and other, more weighty tomes. He is not an ‘overwriter’ (yes, Stephen King—I love your writing but your books can drag at times) by any means.

I have another couple of Green’s books on order. I guess that makes me a fan.

The Fault in Our Stars. A book review.

It seems I can’t stop reading profoundly affecting books.

A friend of mine loaned me John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the mega-selling young adult novel about two teenagers in cancer remission who fall in love. “You’ll need some tissues,” she said, and she wasn’t wrong. This book brought me close to tears on a number of occasions.The fault in our stars

The Fault in Our Stars is about 16-year old Hazel, a far too smart and interminably sassy girl permanently attached to an oxygen tank since her thyroid and lungs were attacked by cancer. She’s on an experimental drug which prevents her tumours from growing, but like many victims of the disease, she is somewhat cynical about life and her place in the world. Augustus Walters is a 17-year old interminably good looking ex-basketball jock who also happens to be smart and sassy, who lost his leg to cancer. The two meet at the local support group, hit it off and gradually Augustus’s positive world view starts to rub off on Hazel. They have a shared love for An Imperial Affliction, a book about a teenage cancer victim who dies abruptly leaving the ending up in the air. It was written by a retired author now living in Amsterdam and a big part of the story sees the two teens travelling to meet him to learn what happened to the book’s characters (An Imperial Affliction is a metaphor for The Fault in Our Stars’ protagonists and their yearning for something meaningful in a world that seems and often ends uncaringly).

I won’t spoil any more of this wonderfully written novel. John Green deserves the praise—this is a literary achievement, something much more than the average YA contemporary romance. It seethes with pathos. It’s sad, fast and funny. The characters are well developed and incredibly engaging. It’s a celebration of living for the here and now, because you never know how long it’s going to last. I found it hard to put down.

I guessed two of the major plot points—they weren’t telegraphed at all, but I knew they would happen (and no, I hadn’t seen the movie or read any spoilers), so I guess in some way perhaps those two elements bordered on cliché (or perhaps I’m just good at prediction). But other than that, this book was like a breath of fresh air (and that’s not a pun about Hazel’s lungs).

If you like tragic romance, you’ll love this. To paraphrase a line from the book: reading The Fault in Our Stars is “a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”

In The Winter Dark. A book review.

I read a lot of books, but don’t often get the chance to post a book review. Then along comes a book that stuns me into submission, like a two-by-four wielded by some grinning, dream-fisted maniac.

“If only we hadn’t had so many things to hide, so many opportunities for fear to get us.” Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark is a short (132 pages) suspense novel. It’s about an aging couple and two strangers, who live in a country valley where their farm animals are being mutilated by an unknown agency. All four are brought together by circumstance for the first time; all four hold dark secrets that are played out slowly and succinctly, a tragedy in the making.In the Winter Dark

As with Winton’s other books, it is superbly written and paced (for more about Breath, click here). His prose is like liqueur: it’s smooth and warm and something to be experienced patiently and magnanimously. There is no rushing a Tim Winton book, even when the suspense is building and you can’t put it down. Unlike some novels, which can be overbearing to the point you skip sections parsimoniously to move the story along, Winton’s stories make you savour every moment. Every turn of phrase and piece of imagery is like dark chocolate, melting insipiently on the tongue and in the brain.

The theme of cats as a symbol of our darkest secrets and fears plays a big part in this book. I’m not going to spoil the story, especially one that demands so doggedly to be experienced.

Beg, borrow, steal (or better still, purchase) a copy of In The Winter Dark. If you love a thriller and love masterful writing, this is the book for you.

Cheers

Steve 😊

Breath. A book review.

Tim Winton’s Breath is the kind of book that challenges your thinking about what it means to be a writer.

Winton’s prose flows like poetry, with immaculate meter and dialectal mastery. Breath makes me ashamed to say I’m a writer, because Winton is so good: I am not worthy. I have never been so profoundly affected by a book as I have by this one.Breath-Tim-Winton

Bruce Pike is a paramedic who witnesses the aftermath of a boy who has suffocated. It brings back memories of his past, and he ruminates on his solitary life, his parents, his love of surfing and the sea, his friendships, his jealousies, his role models, his sexual coming of age, his breakdowns and how he finds himself again. Breath is a journey into a man’s scarred psyche: it’s about facing fear, the addictive adrenalin rush of near death experience, and the profound cost left in its wake when it fails. Breath is poignant, disturbing, and uplifting, all at the same time.

Breath is not for everyone. But I dare you to read it and not come away marveling at the writing. I will read Breath again; multiple times, no doubt.

And I’ll repeatedly wish I had one iota of Tim Winton’s talent.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

PS I’m not giving up writing. This book sets a worthy benchmark to aim for. “Damn you, Tim Winton and your glorious writing!” Steve cried.

Bad Reader, Bad!

I’m a bad reader. Not a bad reader, as in slow or illiterate, but bad as in I read 10-12 books at a time and as a result often find myself returning to a book, months after I started it, wondering what happened previously. I think this has something to do with my short attention span…hey! Look, a pretty butterfly…

What was I saying? Oh, right, books. One of the books I recently returned to after a four month absence was Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, sequel to The Passage and the middle book of his super-cool post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy. If you haven’t read this yet I urge you to stop doing what you are doing RIGHT NOW, jump on a bus/train/plane/teleporter, get to your local bookshop, find they don’t stock it, argue with the shop assistant about why they don’t have the quality literary works you want in their store with them saying “look I just work here”, go back home in a bad mood, order it on the internet, wait two weeks for it to arrive waterlogged after the postal worker drops it off in a rainstorm and it’s  too big for the mailbox, dry it out in front of your old heater which sparks and nearly burns your house down, peel the pages apart, ring up the internet book seller and explain why you want another copy, they tell you they can’t as it was the postal service’s fault, you tell them huffily “that’s the last time I buy anything from you” (as you make another online purchase on their site), then read it. It’s freaking awesome and worth the hassle.books

It’s a bit easier trying to remember what you read months ago with fiction then with non-fiction. With non-fiction I may as well start the book again as I can’t remember what it was about after being away from it for a week, let alone a month (aaah, A History of the Renaissance. That was something to do with…the three musketeers? Stealing art. Lasagne. Wormholes. Or something).

I know what you’re thinking. ”Steve, why don’t you just read one book at a time?” Oh come on! That’s like saying only eat one colour m&m (and as obsessive compulsive as I am, I like all the colours. Wait a minute–maybe if I only eat all of the same colour at a time, the packet will last longer…). I like variety in my reading. And despite my claims that I do nothing all the time*, I actually have a lot going on** with my uni courses, music, gaming, TV watching, workouts, eating…okay now that I read that back, it sounds like I’m a bit of a layabout with time on my hands.

New leaf! Even though I have a lot of books on the boil, I will endeavour to finish this one before going back to another! Wow. Who would have thought reading a book from start to finish would require so much work…

Cheers

Steve 🙂

*This claim is completely unsubstantiated. Or would be, if I had the time to substantiate it. Or unsubstantiate it. One of the two. 

**The term, ‘lot going on’ is completely unsubstantiated.

Touch, by Elmore Leonard. A book review.

I just finished reading Touch, a book by Elmore Leonard. I’d read Mr Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing (which I discussed in an earlier post you can find here), but hadn’t had the opportunity to sample his actual writing. Now, I’m glad I did.touch book

Touch is set in 1977. Juvenal, a young, ex-Franciscan Missionary, heals a woman’s blindness in an apartment after she is beaten up by her abusive husband. Bill Hill, former minister and salesman, witnesses the aftermath and believes he’s onto his next big score. Lynn Faulkner, an ex-cheerleader who used to work with Bill is called in to find out if Juvenal is for real, and so pretends to be an alcoholic to get into the alcohol rehab centre he works at. Juvenal reveals he suffers the stigmata, blood weeping from the five wounds Christ received at crucifixion (hands, feet and side).

So, is Juvenal the real deal? Does he heal people? Is his stigmata real?

I’m not going to answer any of those questions, because you really should read this book. Not only is it well written (I sort of expected that, given I’d raved about his Ten Rules of Writing earlier), it pokes fun at religious extremists, schlock media shows and con-men.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s a mystery, a love story and an expose, all in one.

But you should read it and make up your own mind.

Patrick Ness is an awesome writer. But don’t take my word for it…

Patrick Ness is a great author. He writes books for young adults – teen fiction, I guess you call it. The big difference between him and many other writers of that genre, is that his books carry a weight, a gravitas, that raises them above the mob.

I read a lot of books. I’m not trying to brag, or make out that I’m better than other people who read, just pointing out that my tastes are very eclectic. I read classics, science fiction, crime, history, autobiographies, blah, blah, blah. And I think that the eminent Mr Ness is one of the finest writers I’ve read. And that’s a pretty big call.Ness

My introduction to Ness was The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first part of his Chaos Walking trilogy. I was intrigued by the title, so I picked it up. It is one of the few books I’ve read where a scene made me cry, and I’m pretty soppy. I picked up the rest of the trilogy and was astounded that young adult fiction could be so good. It’s fast-paced, riveting and emotionally draining stuff, that explores themes of misogyny, terrorism and xenophobia. Not your average kid’s book.

I’ve gone on to read A Monster Calls, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This. Ness is brilliant. Check him out.

 

Here’s another piece I wrote for Uni, that I can publish now as that course is over.

The Boat. A book review.

This is a book review I did for a Uni assignment. I got 20 out of 20 for it.  Yeah, I’m a bit proud of that.

The Boat: A book review

By Nam Le
Published by Penguin Group (Australia)
9780143009610 (pbk)
$16.95, 315 pages

I’m not big on reading short stories. I’ve always been a long-form novel kind of guy. It wasn’t until I read Nam Le’s The Boat that my opinion of short stories changed.

For those who don’t know, The Boat is the first collection of short stories from Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian who now lives in the United States and edits fiction for the Harvard Review. He has won numerous awards for short fiction and The Boat has been translated into multiple languages. The eponymous title story is used in some classrooms to teach students about the plight of refugees.the-boat-by-nam-le

The Boat is an extraordinary piece of work. It reads like a text book on how to write good short stories – any student would benefit from reading it. Every story is told from the perspective of vastly different protagonists, who vary wildly in age, maturity, and experience, and each of the stories is markedly different. Whether it’s a 14-year old gang banger/would-be assassin in Columbia in ‘Cartagena’, an aging New York artist dying of cancer in ‘Meeting Elise’, or a fiercely patriotic, Japanese girl in the third-grade in 1945 Hiroshima, Le writes each of his characters with an incredible level of nuance that genuinely engages the reader. Each story is longer than a conventional short story, giving his characters the time they need to percolate emotionally. This doesn’t diminish them in any way – I challenge anyone to put one of these tales down without finishing it.

The stories that bookend the collection are set in New York (‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’) and on a Vietnamese refugee boat (‘The Boat’) respectively. The first tells of a well-educated writer seeking his Vietnamese veteran father’s approval and their inevitable cultural and emotional distance; the last is a tale of a traumatic refugee boat journey interspersed with flashbacks to life under the Viet Cong. I suspect these are both deeply personal, however it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t – Le demonstrates an ability to realise worlds and characters with astounding detail and pragmatism.

Every story in this collection is poignant; there are no happy endings. Le writes believable stories that strive to explore the humanity of the characters and events from multiple points of view, with realistic consequences. Le changes his writing style with each piece, never allowing you to pigeon-hole him. It’s almost as if he is flexing his writing muscles for the sake of it, but each story moves with its own rhythm, textures and emotions, the like of which amateurs such as I can only marvel.

As soon as I finished The Boat I immediately gave it away to a friend – not because I hated the book, but because I was desperate for someone else to read it and experience the level of enthusiasm I had. The Boat is a truly profound piece of writing, one that affected me greatly, and I believe that it will be regarded as a classic of the 21st century.

Free-Wrench. A book review.

I recently finished Free-Wrench, an e-book self-published by Joseph R. Lallo. The book is available on Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/439135), iTunes, Amazon and other digital book stores. You can download it for free on most sites, to your tablet, e-book reader or mobile phone.free-wrench

Free-Wrench is a swashbuckling, steampunk fantasy set in a world of islands, where airships are the primary form of travel between them. The island of Caldera is isolated, by choice, from the rest of the world. Nita is a “free-wrench”, one who works the steam power plants in Caldera’s volcano. Her mother has a fatal disease, and a chance encounter with a black market skyship sees Nita taking off to become part of their crew. She plans to trade the incredibly rare “Trith”, only found on Caldera, with the Fugs, a technologically advanced race that lives in the poisonous purple fug cloud on another island, for the medicine that will save her mother’s life. The Fug limit access to technology and the steam-powered skyships, ensuring their power over the surrounding islands.

Lallo has created an interesting story and setting, that hits its stride during the third act; the skyship crew undertakes a daring robbery of one of the Fug’s warehouses. With the exception of Nita, most of the characters are somewhat two-dimensional, but later books in the series may address that shortfall. There are a few editing issues here and there, but nothing too irksome.

For a free book, Free-Wrench was an enjoyable read. It has two sequels, which I am considering buying. If you like the steampunk genre and are looking for something a little different, try it out.

You can find out more about Joseph R. Lallo and his other books, at his website http://www.bookofdeacon.com/.

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