Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 1: Bomb vs The Fault in Our Stars

by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

Judged by
Lynne Rae Perkins

I would secretly like to be Barbara Tuchman.  That is, to be historically knowledgeable, to have an encyclopedic yet Big Picture understanding of history, or some slices of it.  Even just one slice.  I want to know and understand stuff.  I like knowing stuff.

But (how do I say this without embarrassing myself?) as interested as I feel myself to be, there comes a time in many nonfiction books when I begin to feel overwhelmed by minutiae, a time when I lose track of who is who.  Followed shortly by a time when I fall asleep.

When I received word that one of my books would be Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: the Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, my heart dipped a little.  Would I be able to get through it?  The book jacket was a mottled tan and had a picture of an airplane on it.  A part of me that I’m not proud of said, “Boy Book.”

I decided I would read Bomb first and save the second book, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, as a reward.

My husband was going to be out of the house all Saturday running a pond hockey tournament at the ice rink down the street.  I set myself up in the living room with a pot of coffee, good lighting and determination, and read the first sentences of the prologue:

“He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years worth of evidence.  Still in pajamas, Harry Gold raced around his cluttered bedroom . . .”

A page of black and white photos showed this Harry Gold: dressed in graduation regalia, he had a round, calmly pleasant face that would have been comfortable in a book of nursery rhymes with a cow jumping over it.

Really? I thought.  This guy was a spy?

Next came the story of how the physicist Robert Oppenheimer wandered away from the car where he had been sitting with his date, looking out over the San Francisco Bay.  Absorbed in thinking about theoretical physics, he walked and walked until, finding himself at his own apartment, he went in and went to bed.  He had forgotten his date, and his car, entirely.

One well-chosen, telling, and well-told anecdote followed another.  Before I knew it, I was eavesdropping on the conversation between two physicists sitting on a log in the Swedish snow, speculating about how a speeding neutron might cause an atom to split in the same way that a “wobbly droplet” of water can stretch, until it splits in two.  I was eavesdropping, imagining the diagram being drawn in the snow with a stick, and thinking I almost understood it.

Story by story, Steve Sheinkin pieces together the very big story he wants to tell us of the scientific and political developments that led to the making and using of the first atomic bomb.   He never lets us forget that this big story is the result of the accumulating, intersecting smaller stories, each with individuals, human beings, at the center.

We feel the physicists’ pure love of science.

We understand how different individuals made the choice to become spies.

We see half-starved Norwegian resistance fighters jumping between floating chunks of ice and climbing the rocky cliffs to destroy the Nazi heavy water plant.

We feel horror with the scientists as they realize the destructive power of what they worked so hard to create.

We experience the great multiplicity of the events that together make life, which we later call “history.”

At one particularly colorful point, I wondered if things had really happened that way or if Mr. Sheinkin was maybe juicing it up a little bit.  How could he know these things?  I flipped to the back, to the extremely clear appendix that tells just where each quote or anecdote was found.

The text is filled with striking images.  So are the 16 pages of black-and-white photos.

Together, the text and the photos help us to an understanding of this slice of history, one of the most significant of the twentieth century.

This kind of story can’t include every detail.  There were a few details I thought could have been thrown in without mucking things up.  For example, when Robert Oppenheim’s wife was mentioned,   I thought, Wife? How does this guy have a wife?  When FDR died, I thought, can you just remind me what killed him?  When the scientists knew that fallout was deadly, I wondered how they knew.  Wasn’t this the very first bomb?

But, hey — wanting to know more — that’s a good thing.  And the appendix tells me right where I can find the answers to these questions.

Steve Sheinkin, you won me over.  I am a new fan of yours and hope to read more of your books.  I am glad to know so much more than I did about this slice of time.

On day 2, I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a novel of the true love of Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers living with/dying of cancer, in Indianapolis.

Other important people are their parents, their friend Isaac who also has cancer, and a reclusive writer whose book about a girl with cancer becomes important to both of them.

Every sentence is kind of brilliant.  Okay, don’t hold me to that.  There are probably some pedestrian sentences in there.  But I was so rapt and laughing so much that I was on page 104 before I said to myself, Someone is going to die here and you’re going to be bawling before this is over.

True, and true.

That was also the point at which I wondered if the book was going to end in the middle of a sentence.  If you read it, which you should, you’ll see why I wondered.  But I decided not to peek.  And sometimes I do peek, so that is significant.

Hazel and Augustus are sharp, articulate, funny.  They are resolutely unsappy about their situations.

I was so grateful for that.   They know for real that “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

Mostly, they want a no-bullshit way of understanding life and death that allows for beauty and meaning.

Actually, what they mostly want is to live.  They want to be able to marvel at the way the light hits the grass, even when they are noticing this because they have fallen on their faces.

And they do.

But “Some infinities are larger than others.”

Their infinity includes a “Wish” trip to the Netherlands to meet the famous author.  Some important things happen while they are there.

I didn’t really buy it later in the story when circumstances brought the reclusive author from Amsterdam to Indianapolis.  I bought it even less when he was still there a week later, popping up in the back of Hazel’s family’s minivan.

“What?” I said.  Out loud.  I’m still wondering if he was supposed to be a hallucination.  Maybe I missed something.  But such was my investment in the characters at that point that I said, Okay, whatever.  To paraphrase what Hazel wrote in a letter to the favorite author, I would read a grocery list if John Green wrote it.

You might consider that last sentence a foreshadowing.

My first reaction on learning which two books I was to choose between was, But that’s apples and oranges.

It is, and it isn’t.

Each book is looking for truths, important ones.  Each book is interested in what it means to be human.  I realize the broadness of these statements could be matched by, Each book is written with words.  English words.

Fault laments the prospect of oblivion, of living and dying and leaving no trace.  And then concludes that it might not be such a bad thing.  Bomb tells us about individuals who did leave a trace, and how some came to feel deep regret, or at least ambivalence, about having done so.

I am so glad to have read both of these books.

I had some tentative ideas about how to choose one.  I considered, Which one has more post-it notes?  Each had eight.

Which one did I want to share with more people?  Again, a similar number, though different people.  How to choose?

Which one would I be reading again?

The train began to pull away. The conductor told me I could only choose one.

I reached out and grabbed The Fault in Our Stars.

For its clear-eyed funny transcendence.


— Lynne Rae Perkins

And the Winner of this match is……

For me, this is the best round of the tournament because each book—BOMB, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR—has already beaten two books to get this far. Sure, one judge can make a “wrong” decision, shutting a good book out, but it’s hard to argue that what remains is unworthy of winning the whole tournament. While it’s probably no surprise that I would have picked BOMB here, I’m starting to feel as if, indeed, there is actually no fault in the stars of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Each judge has praised the sentence-level writing, the impressive characterizations of Hazel and Augustus, and those grand themes of love and death, living and dying.

We have a history of picking the popular books that got passed over, most notably THE HUNGER GAMES and OKAY FOR NOW. Will this one join them?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

Of course. This has to happen.

But I’ve been thinking a little bit. I love The Fault in Our Stars – it deserves all the praise the judges have given it – yet I’m unsure if I want it to win. Is it because it’s a favorite? Yes. But more than that, while it’s a great book, it’s a big book. It seems as if its sole purpose is to make readers think about love, life, death, infinity, being; like Ms. Perkins, I was invested in Augustus and Hazel, but their story seems somewhat contrived, unreal. And then you get into a complicated question: is it another one of those “magical” books? Perhaps. Is that a good thing?

I really don’t know, so I’m conflicted in this battle. For Bomb, too, comments on very important issues, in a much more natural way.

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. What goes through my mind is that, unlike the Newbery, this is not a competition for the most distinguished book. It is simply a competition over which book the judge liked the best (I said this in an earlier round but I think it bears repeating). This particular battle was really hard for me to choose. With Green’s book, I know some people felt like he was manipulating their emotions, but I was enjoying the book too much to feel that way. However, I loved Bomb so much that I nominated it for North Carolina’s Battle of the Books. I placed The Fault in Our Stars in the final match (along with Verity and Ivan) so I’m glad it’s made it there — now if the undead vote can just get Verity there!

  2. I’m starting to believe YA authors everywhere have sold a piece of their soul to John Green. In exchange for what I’m not real sure. Time will tell.

    Jonathan may be right in saying that it can’t be argued none of the books remaining is not “worthy” of winning. I CAN say I’m officially at the point of not caring and actually being quite bored by the choices.. None of the books left does anything for me at all. If something really great (CNV please!) isn’t the Undead winner the rest of this battle is going to be a snooze-fest for me. I’m wondering how I’m going to write about it. This may be the shortest and least enthusiastic finals post I’ve ever written.(Particularly if Wonder is the Undead winner. I can’t even with that scenario.)

  3. I find myself agreeing with Brandy’s lack of enthusiasm. Since my personal favorites have been voted out already I am less than glued to this year’s competition. HOWEVER, I AM furiously trying to find a copy of No Crystal Stair somewhere, anywhere, at a library near me. And I never would have read Bomb without this competition. It is gripping.

    BOB is still one of the best ways to spend the end of winter.

  4. Oh, Lynne Rae Perkins, your second paragraph describes me to a T. I also really want to know and understand stuff but non-fiction books are not really my first choice. Which is why I so appreciate a book like Bomb because it was really engaging. I, too, would not have read this book if not for the Battle, and I’m really glad I did.
    But I gotta give it to Fault in Our Stars as well. I have this rule in my goodreads reviews that if I cry, the book automatically gets 5 stars. I figure that if I cry then I’ve connected with a character enough to care about them, and that doesn’t always happen no matter how sad the plot line is. And I cried so incredibly suddenly with this book. No build up. One sentence I’m fine, the next, tears are running down my face. Instant 5 star rating.

  5. Seriously??!!! I thought that the only redeeming thing about The Fault in Our Stars advancing this far is that Bomb would knock it out. How can this book gotten this far? It was so predictable and, I agree with RGN, contrived. Guess the cancer card works for books also, at least this year.

    My only hope is that Code Name Verity or, and this is a real long shot, Three Times Lucky rises from the dead. If it’s The One and Only Ivan, another book that I don’t understand what the fuss is about, I’m ready to throw in the towel. My only hope then would be the winner of tomorrow’s match.

  6. I’m with Eliza. I was starting to think that I was the only person in the world who didn’t like The Fault in Our Stars. It was in my bottom two of the 16 books. I was routing against it in every single battle. I also really hope something I like comes back from the dead. Come on, Code Name Verity! Although I would also be very happy (but surprised) with Three Times Lucky or Moonbird. Those 3 were my favorite.

  7. mags_librarian says

    I feel the same way about NF books – I always go into them so excited to learn more and then my eyes quickly start closing and… zzzzz. And, wait for it, this kinda happened to me with Bomb. I had it checked out for an embarrassingly long time and just couldn’t get into it. That doesn’t mean I won’t try again but I just couldn’t rationalize keeping it away from the public any longer. (I know, librarian fail.)

    As with TFIOS, I know there are a lot out there that disliked this book. But I, like Lynne Rae Perkins, enjoyed the two main characters so much that I overlooked any story flaws.

    But for the sake of my bracket (and the sake of my dreams) I’m still holding out hope that CNV will come back from the dead and win it all!

  8. The Kid Commentators have been the most compelling part of the battle for me so far! (It helps that their opinions typically dovetail with mine.)

    And I agree with Brandy – I’m beginning to be bored by the battle, because my favorite books have gotten voted out (except Splendors and Glooms!) and because I think the judging has been weak. Flipping coins? No analysis? I do like that Ms. Perkins made a decision and clearly enjoyed one book more than the other – though I disagree with her choice, I do respect it.

  9. Hmmm, I’m so interested in the ability to dismiss genius level writing.

    Perkins, my be my favorite judge so far. She was funny, balanced, willing to suss out faults and make a choice. (Unlike yesterday’s travesty)

    I’m looking forward to the final round. When Zombie Julie shows up in her Grandmother’s shroud, smelling of roses and ready to kick cancer’s hinney. I’ll be content to let Hazel’s story rest, but for now I’m glad it’s still breathing.


  10. Oh yes. That was the best written judgment of the tournament this year. And it helps that I love the outcome.

    Lynne Rae Perkins did not forget to be awesome!

  11. Suzanne C says

    OK I have been holding my tongue since so many folks just LOVE The Fault In Our Stars. However I have decided that since it has once again knocked out another very worthy book I must throw this comment out there.
    Yes I thought The Fault In Our Stars was really good (please don’t let your head get too big John Green – however I don’t know that everyone wants to read your grocery list… unless you promise that they would be interesting and really really unusual like no grocery list could possibly be)… however I also felt that were The Fault In Our Stars were not a “cancer” book, and if John Green wasn’t the author, people would have been more willing to comment about 16 and 17 year old kids sounding like sophisticated intellectuals… kind of like many 23 year old’s getting their masters in English and kind of trying to show off.
    If I read this as a teen I do know that it wouldn’t have trumped many of the other really incredible books we have had the opportunity to read for the Battle.
    OK I got that off my chest.. now I have to go do the dishes.

  12. I agree with DaNae and Sondy. This is my favorite of the judges’ comments so far. I initially didn’t want TFIOS to get this far, but then I re-read it this week and decided that I didn’t mind. It’s not my favorite Green (that’s Looking for Alaska) but I will not be upset to see it join The Hunger Games and Okay for Now. I was REALLY intrigued to read RGN’s comment about it feeling like the purpose of the book was to make the reader think about love and infinity; to me that seemed along the same lines as the commentary over at the Tournament of Books comparing Green to John Hughes and the significance of each for different generations.

  13. I have read everything by John Green. I also know lots of 16 year olds. I also have teenage kids. I know no one as clever and witty as Augustus and Hazel –I’m not sure I have seen any adults who can talk like that either, except maybe the many talented James Franco or some guests on the Charlie Rose Show. Although I feel that these people actually could exist somewhere, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Also, the over the top characterization of the Dutch author was annoying, sorry to say, and there were a lot of questions I had about the kid’s parents leaving them alone to wander Amsterdam–especially Hazel’s mom, who was not represented as a particularly hands-off kind of lady. Hazel’s health seemed a bit too fragile for that. But the kiss in the Anne Frank House genuinely was a touching moment (I saw the camera angle for the movie in my head as it turns a 360) along with the great characterization of the friend Issac and the video game playing and cancer group dynamics. In general, an important book.

    However, Bomb was a perfect little gem of a kid’s book–exactly the right language for young people and the right tension and excitement that justifies librarians like myself when we hand non-fiction out to readers who tell us they “don’t like that type of book” and then thank us for the recommendation!

  14. Steffaney Smith says

    When an author can criticize and define flaws in another author’s work and still claim its redeeming qualities, I say thank you for verifying why I loved that book, Lynn Rae Perkins, and if you have a list of other books that so affected you in the same manner please pass it along! I can’t wait for John Green’s next book…

Speak Your Mind