Saturday, February 02, 2013

Thought Provoking Novels

The Fault in Our StarsGreen, John. The Fault in Our Stars
10 January 2012, Dutton Juvenile

Hazel has struggled with cancer for three years, first undergoing surgery for thyroid cancer, which then spread to her lungs. She is no longer in high school, but taking some college courses, and is tired and wants to disconnect from everything. Her parents make her go to a cancer support group, and it is there that she meets Augustus. He was a basketball player who lost a leg to cancer but is doing well, and the two become friends. Hazel's favorite book is the avant garde An Imperial Affliction, and August reads it as well. The two decide that they have to contact the author, Peter Van Houton, who lives in Sweden, to find out what the rest of the story is. Augustus still has a "Make a Wish" he hasn't used, and plans to take Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet the author. The trip goes well in some ways, but the author is a drunken, difficult man who frustrates them both. When they return from the trip, things take a turn for the worse.
Strengths: Green knows his core audience. Hazel and Augustus are really smart kids who love books and are able to grasp the reality of their situations without being sentimental or maudlin. The new kid-with-cancer stereotype seems to be the kid who complains occasionally but is grateful to be alive, and who makes fun of the perception that kids with cancer are noble and brave. The love for this book is unending-- I have heard from several high schoolers who have enjoyed this.
Weaknesses: Aside from An Abundance of Katherines, I've never been fond of Green's work, which is weird, because as a teen I would have been his target demographic-- smart, quirky, outspoken. This was certainly clever, had its moments, was well-written, but didn't knock my socks off. Since this is not a middle grade book due to sex, occasional language, and polysyllabic introspection, it doesn't really matter.

Under Shifting Glass Singer, Nicky. Under Shifting Glass. 
19 February 2013, Chronicle Books
Copy Received from the Publisher

Jess is still struggling with the death of a beloved great aunt with whom she shared a love of piano playing when she has to deal with another family hardship-- her mother gives birth to a set of conjoined twins. Jess' supportive family pulls together to deal with this, but it is still difficult. It doesn't help that her best friend, Zoe, is kind of grossed out by the twins and increasingly interested in things that Jess isn't. When Jess finds an odd glass bottle in a desk left to her by her great aunt, she feels that it is somehow imbued with special powers. For a school project, Jess and Zoe interview a woman at a Buddhist temple about her beliefs, and Jess becomes more and more convinced that the bottle somehow holds the fate of the twins. Clem and Richie are scheduled for surgery to separate them, but share a liver, and have numerous health crises before the surgery can occur. Jess employs a lot of magical thinking to help the twins (making snowmen in their likeness, playing the "sidewalk crack game"), and discovers secrets about her great aunt that she didn't know. Will the bottle really help the twins survive?
Strengths: This is a beautiful book (Chronicle uses the best paper around) and is written in very lovely, lyrical prose. Jess' emotional state is realistically and painfully portrayed, and I can't think of another middle grade book that includes conjoined twins.
Weaknesses: Very British and rather odd. I can't for the life of me think of a single student in my school who would want to read this, so I'm sending it on to the public library. I found the Buddhist philosophy interesting, but students will probably just be baffled at the discussion of what happens to spirits when they die. (They hang out until a man and woman have sex, and then go into new babies.)

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket Boyne, John. The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket.
2 August 2012, Random House
Book from Young Adult Books Central and reviewed there

Eleanor and Alistair Brocket are perfectly normal, as are their children, Henry and Melanie. When Barnaby is born, however, he upsets their perfect life because he does not obey gravity-- he floats. This poses many problems, especially as Barnaby grows older. He is sent to a school with very low expectations-- Graveling Academy-- where he doesn't learn much but at least makes a friend before the school burns to the ground. Barnaby's parents make him wear heavy sandbags so he doesn't float away, but after he inadvertently calls attention to the family, his parents decide that dealing with him for eight years is enough, and his mother takes him on a walk and cuts holes in his sandbags. Floating away, he runs into two friends who are in a hot air balloon. They think that being different is a fine thing, and take Barnaby back to their coffee plantation in Brazil before putting him on a plane back to Australia. Instead of going there, Barnaby goes to New York City, where he has several adventures while trying to locate a friend of the coffee plantation owners. Barnaby continues his travels, meeting all sorts of eccentric people who embrace their own differences, but eventually comes to the attention of an evil man who runs a "Freak circus". In escaping that, he ends up being rescued by a space shuttle. When the astronauts bring him home and reunite him with his parents, doctors examining him after his adventure tell his parents that his antigravity condition could be fixed. While his parents are ecstatic, Barnaby is sure that he doesn't want to change who he is, and decides to set off on his own yet again.
Strengths: This book would be good for fans of Roald Dahl who enjoy reading about really horrible adults. This also struck me as a bit like The Little Prince. Barnaby is able to travel all around the world and meet people who have very large differences, but can still celebrate those differences.
Weaknesses:  This was a rather odd book. While fans of British children's fiction will adore this, it might be a hard sell to the average US young reader. I will probably be sending my copy on to another school library.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reviews.
    A number of my readerly pals agree with you when it comes to John Green. I get it, & I definitely have read books featuring too-smart, too-quirky, over-the-top characters I simply don't believe. For me, though, Green's characters are stunningly authentic. I teach middle school, & for years our local high school AP English class did an end-of-the-year poetry reading. I loved attending because invariably, my squirrelly, awkward, shy, 7th graders had turned into amazing young men & women ready to take on the world with that peculiar immortality only 17-18 year olds have. These kids are the ones I find in John Green's books -- I really do love these kids.

  2. My oldest might like a few of these. We love your book reviews!

  3. I do love your thoughtful reviews. I'm still on the fence about reading The Fault in our Stars.

  4. I tried to read Barnaby and ended up bailing. It was just to... odd? Preachy? Something for me. I thought it had a good message, but took too long in getting there.