The Fault in Our Stars

Hazel Lancaster is sixteen years old and, by choice, her best friends are her parents. For three years she has not gone to school at all. She considers herself a grenade, one that stands only to hurt those closest to her. She keeps everyone but her parents at a distance so that when the cancers wracking her lungs finally stop being held back by the drugs, there won’t be anyone (well, almost) that will be hurt by her loss.

Then she meets Augustus Waters at a support group for teens with cancer. Gus is nominally a survivor, in remission from the cancer that took his leg, and only shows up at the support group because his friend Isaac is on the verge of losing his one remaining eye to save his life. Hazel and Gus shouldn’t really get on. They have little in common apart from cancer.

But they bond over a book about a girl with cancer that ends mid-sentence, and then embark on a joint quest to track down the reclusive author and find out what happens to all the other characters afterwards. As with most plotlines like this, however, it’s not the journey that matters, it’s the people who are on it, and what happens to them en route, that make the novel what it is.

There is a line in Les Miserables where Victor Hugo states: “It is nothing to die. It is a tragedy not to live.” John Green doesn’t need to quote the line in his novel because that’s what the entire book is about. It is a story about living, not dying. Hazel has prepared for death, but after she meets Gus she realises she no more has to sit around and wait for it to come than any other mortal.

Initially Hazel and Gus seem like the usual acerbic, slightly cynical outsider types that John Green writes about a lot. Except both of them are well aware that it’s all front, and the fact that they don’t need to put it on for each other brings them closer. Green goes places he for the most part avoided in the other two novels of his I have read (Looking For Alaska and Paper Towns). He always reined it back at the last minute, leaving his books nicer, but less honest, than the YA works of Melvin Burgess, Benjamin Zephaniah and, of course, Stephen Chbosky.

Last year I read the superficially similarly plotted Anthem for Jackson Dawes, but the novels are quite incomparable. That really was just a cancer book (however good), but The Fault in Our Stars is not really about cancer. The title comes from a line in Julius Caesar, in which Caesar explains to Brutus that fate is out of our hands. This novel is about two ill-fated people stopping using that as an excuse.

This time five years ago I was trying to write a novel about young people facing up to mortality (theirs and everyone else’s). After two years and some 65,000 words, I ran into trouble, and had no idea what came next. I never did finish it, but now I don’t have to. I can see why The Fault in Our Stars resonates with so many teens. I imagine it would have the same effect on many adults, if they gave it a chance.

When Mr Dog Bites

Sixteen-year-old Dylan Mint has Tourette’s, which automatically makes this the most profane teen novel I’ve ever read. However, it’s not just a whistle-stop tour of a little understood syndrome, because at the beginning of When Mr Dog Bites, Dylan overhears a doctor telling his mum that life as Dylan knows it will end in only a few months’ time.

Fearful of his impending demise, Dylan quickly sketches out his bucket list. The internet is no use here, despite offering hundreds of suggestions, because Dylan doesn’t want to go skydiving naked, and he would much rather have sex for the first time in a bed instead of on a train. (Naturally, that one goes top of the list.) With so much to do but so little time, Dylan decides to limit the list to three goals, and the others involve finding a replacement best friend for his autistic mate Amir, and finding a way to get his dad back from serving in Iraq before one of them dies.

Of course, it’s just possible that Dylan’s jumping to conclusions has launched him into his own little comedy of errors.

The comparisons with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time are obvious. Like Christopher Boone, Dylan is quite endearingly innocent to begin with, and the story follows his journey as he discovers the complexities of adult life. He’s basically a normal teenager with an unusual perspective on the world due to his condition, and ultimately this ends up not a novel about Tourette’s, but a story about wanting to fit in.

There’s grimness (well, it is set in a rough part of Glasgow) and sadness en route, but it ends up being quite sweet and funny. It demystifies Tourette’s, makes it seem less odd, thanks to its brilliantly written narrator.

Auslander

I’ve reviewed more of Paul Dowswell’s books on this blog than any other author’s, to some degree because his historical children’s adventures are the kind of books I had in mind whilst I was writing The Thieves of Pudding Lane. Auslander is the one that won him the awards, and I can see why. I’ve enjoyed all the others, but this one is a cut above the rest.

Auslander is the story of Piotr Bruck, growing up in a Polish orphanage after his parents were killed during the joint Russo-German invasion in 1939. Piotr is saved from an uncertain fate by Nazi pseudoscience. Though he has a Polish mother he also has a German father, and it certainly helps his racial credentials that he is a blond-haired Aryan that looks just like the boy on the Hitler Youth poster. Outcast in Poland for not being Polish enough (or rather, being a bit too German – the enemy), Piotr readily accepts the chance to embrace his German side and be adopted by a family in Berlin. He even allows them to rename him Peter.

But Piotr already has niggling doubts about the Nazi creed, even if its superiority has been extended to a poor orphaned farmboy like him. Initially dazzled by the modernity of the capital of the Reich, Piotr soon starts to see its foundations are built in the shadows, and when the war begins to turn against Germany, the true face of the Nazi machine is finally revealed. Piotr is too close to those others who have had their doubts even longer than he has, so he knows he can’t stay. Escaping an empire as big as Nazi Germany, through a warzone, is not going to be easy, however.

Most of Paul Dowswell’s books are billed as thrillers, but the best ones are strong human dramas as well. This one also treats of a theme he has explored in another book (Sektion 20): the effect on the individual of living in a totalitarian state. In Auslander, however, he comes at it from the other side – from the perspective of someone who is on the right side of the regime. Auslander means ‘foreigner’ in German, and Piotr soon remembers that he is really an outsider too.

Ultimately it is a story about identity, how it’s mostly a fiction, and how, when it’s being invented at national level, it’s more than slightly ridiculous. The stereotyping (of Jews in particular) that Piotr encounters in school textbooks seems almost comical, but Dowswell points out in his notes at the back that his examples are all lifted from actual German schoolbooks from the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, this is how anti-Semitism took root: inviting young kids to laugh at Jews, to see them as figures worthy only of ridicule. The rest would come later.

As thrilling as it is at times (particularly towards the end), this is a serious book rather than an entertaining adventure, brilliantly crafted to explore the nature of life in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, but not at the expense of the involving human story at its heart.

Final Voyage: The Audiobook

Yesterday I downloaded my complimentary author’s copy of the new Audible audiobook of Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters, which was a surprisingly exciting experience. My previous book, How to Snog a Hagfish!: Disgusting Things in the Sea, was recorded by the charity Listening Books, but is only available to their members. The audiobook of Final Voyage, however, is available commercially from Amazon or Audible’s own website. Indeed, you can buy it here.

Matthew Waterson has done a good job of narrating the text; his voice has precisely the right amount of gravitas. It’s always interesting (and a bit weird) to listen to your words read aloud by someone else, especially if you’ve only heard them in your own voice (or what you think is your own voice) inside your own head. All of a sudden you get a little bit more distance from the writing, and what looks straightforward when written down suddenly starts to sound like it could have done with losing a subordinate clause to the next sentence!

The truth is, though, I’m not really an audiobook kind of person. I remember being a member of Tape Club (don’t worry, I am allowed to talk about it) in primary school, and always searching out the next story about Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. But as soon as I was able to read the kinds of stories I wanted to read, rather than just listen to them being read, I moved on. Of course, I used to say I wasn’t an ebook kind of person either, and now the longest novel I have ever read I read on the iPad. Similarly, I was a devotee of the CD, until last year, when I only got a couple and spent far more on iTunes.

So maybe after I’ve finished listening to mine, I might be ready to listen to someone else’s audiobook. Though it’s unabridged, so there’s 5 hours and 48 minutes to listen to first.

Anyway, you can listen to a 3 minute sample on the Audible website by clicking ‘Sample’ under the cover.