Category Archives: have you heard about this great book?

Paper Towns by John Green

Image from wikipedia.com

Image from wikipedia.com

Summary

Quentin (Q) has always had a crush on his next door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman.  She is way out of his league, so he settles for admiring her from afar.  Then, one night she invites him along on a midnight crusade for revenge.  After one night of pulling pranks, she is gone.  Q is determined to find her and with the help of his friends, he searches for the clues she has left behind.  As he tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to Margo, Q learns more about her (and himself) that he thought possible.

Review

There are many similarities between Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns.  The dynamic between the two characters is almost identical–an impossibly beautiful, smart, and funny girl and the average boy who pines for her.  However, in Paper Towns, the author explores the concept of how we imagine other people.  Paper Towns has been criticized for its one-dimensional characters, but Margo is intended to be one-dimensional at first.  With Q for a narrator, the reader only gets his perspective which is clouded by his infatuation with Margo (Green, n.d., Questions).  As Q finds the clues Margo left behind, he begins to learn more about her private self vs. the public self everyone knew at school.  Green uses this process of discovery to raise questions about the self.  A person’s public persona is often very different from how she acts when she’s alone.  Which of these personas is more genuine?  Can there be only one true persona?

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass plays a central role in this book and it is often taught in schools in conjunction with Paper Towns.  Whitman’s quote “I contain multitudes” illustrates Green’s message that people are multifaceted and whole (Green, n.d., Questions).

Paper Towns works on a number of levels.  As mentioned above, it is a wonderful introduction to the concept of the self and how our view of others defines who we are.  Quentin is in love with Margo, but how much does he really know about her?  What does Q’s view of his dream girl say about himself?  Green says that Margo’s last name (Spiegelman) “means ‘mirror-maker’ in German…Margo functions as a mirror to other characters in the novel.  What they see when they look at Margo ends up a lot more about them than it says about Margo herself.” (Green, n.d., Questions).

Secondly, it’s a great mystery.  Green won the Edgar Award for Paper Towns in 2009.  The story slowly unfolds and the reader learns about Margo right along with Q, who thought he knew her very well.  To determine the meaning of the clues, Q must try to think like Margo.  As he gets better at looking at things from her perspective, he begins to form a more complete idea of her complexity.

Thirdly, it has teen appeal.  The mystery structures the story and keeps it from getting bogged down in philosophy.  Q might be quietly pining away for the girl who barely knows he exists, but his friends Radar and Ben have big personalities and provide comic relief throughout the book.  The characters pull a series of midnight pranks and go on a marathon roadtrip, activities that would certainly hold a teen reader’s interest.  There is an element of improbability to the story–Margo’s character is outlandish and “larger than life” and the characters engage in activities, such as breaking into a theme park at night, which might seem unlikely, but not impossible.  Much like An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns does not portray anything that is literally impossible, and therefore the book balances on the edge of what is believable.   Paper Towns reads like someone recounting their favorite, crazy memories from high school.

 

Book Pairing Idea

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Although these two books are vastly different in terms of genre, setting, and plot, they both explore what it means to be human and how we perceive each other, especially in relationships.  Discussed as a pair, these two books would create very interesting discussions.

 

References

Green, J. (2008).  Paper Towns [Kindle edition].  Retrieved from Amazon.com

Green, J. (n.d.). Questions about Paper Towns (SPOILERS!). In John Green:  New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from http://johngreenbooks.com/pt-questions/.

 

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Looking for Alaska by John Green

Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

Summary

Miles Halter is looking for his “Great Perhaps.”  Sick of suburbia, he sets out to live a life of possibilities.  His journey takes him to a boarding school in Alabama.  At first, he is discouraged by the mediocre campus and the heat, but then he meets Alaska.  She has more personality that anyone Miles has ever met.  In Miles’ words, “If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was  a hurricane” (p. 87-88).  The book details the misadventures of Miles, Alaska and their friends as they break the rules and test the boundaries of school, friendship, and life.  Green has said that this story is very loosely based on events from his teenage years, but the story is so fictionalized that he hesitates to make the comparison.  (Green, (n.d), Questions).

Review

At first glance, a reader may think this book is somewhat unremarkable.  The relationship between the two main character follow a typical stereotype:  the impossibly beautiful, funny, smart girl and the geeky, average boy who falls for her.  This dynamic is repeated in Green’s Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines.  However, Looking for Alaska is not just another teen romance.

Miles takes a World Religions class which he believes “might be an easy A” (Green, 2005, p. 31).  Through this class, the reader is introduced to many religious and philosophical concepts.  Each student must come up with the most important question and then describe how three major religions would answer the question.  When tragedy strikes, Miles is forced to consider these questions and how they relate to his own life.

Alaska’s question is “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?”  Her character brings an element of depth to the story.  She is beautiful, smart, and funny–the typical “perfect girl.”  But, as her question suggests, there is something darker to her character.  One day she is enthusiastically planning a prank with her friends, the next day she shuts down and refuses to answer any “how, when, why, who or what questions” (Green, 2005, p. 167).  Although her mental state is never fully explained in the book, the reader could deduce that Alaska is mentally unstable from her dramatic mood swings and erratic behavior.

The inclusion of religious and philosophical concepts takes Looking for Alaska to the next level.  The book asks the reader:  What is the meaning of life?  Perhaps more importantly, how can we find meaning in a world that refuses to give us answers and seems so random? (Green, 2005, p. 230).  This book is rife for discussion and would make an excellent teen book club selection.  Teens are considering questions about the nature and meaning of life but often do not have an outlet to express themselves on the topic. Reading and discussing this book would be an excellent introduction to philosophical inquiry.

Green doesn’t tie up the story with a neat bow.  Major events are left ambiguous and he never provides a clear answer to the questions he poses about the nature of life.  As he writes in the Looking for Alaska discussion guide, “I wanted to know whether it is possible to live a hopeful life in a world riddled with ambiguity, whether we can find a way to go on even when we don’t get the answers to the questions that haunt us” (Green, 2005, p.230).

Green’s willingness to confront life’s ambiguous nature is arguably his most notable strength as a YA author.  By allowing his characters and plot to retain an element of mystery, he is challenging teens to think and engage with his work as well as preparing them for literature they will encounter as adults.

 

References

Green, J.  (2005).  Looking for Alaska.  New York, NY:  Dutton Books.

Green, J. (n.d.). Questions about Looking for Alaska (SPOILERS!). In John Green:  New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 7, 2014, from http://johngreenbooks.com/alaska-questions/.

 

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An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Image from wikipedia.org

Image from wikipedia.org

Summary

Colin is a child prodigy who fears he has already peaked and will contribute nothing of note for the rest of his life.  He has had 19 girlfriends named Katherine and has been particularly burnt by the most recent break-up.  In an attempt to save himself from future heartbreak, he sets out to determine an algorithm to predict the course and duration of romantic relationships, called the “Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability.”  Colin’s best friend Hassam takes him on a road trip to break him out of his rut and their adventures cause Colin to reevaluate his life view.

 Review

To elaborate upon the math and other topics in the book, Green uses footnotes, which is something you don’t see every day in YA literature.  The footnotes serve their purpose to provide further explanation and give the story almost a textbook, all-knowing feel which goes well with Colin’s cerebral character.  Green says he got this idea both from reading textbooks in college and from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  Here are Green’s thoughts on the purpose of footnotes and their place in fiction from his website:

“Footnotes can serve as a way of attempting to achieve that precision and clarity.  But I think that at least on some levels, precision and clarity are in competition with each other.* As discussed in the novel, human memory is not in the accuracy business; it’s in the narrative business. Colin eventually starts to feel that when it comes to being understood, telling stories empathetically works best.


* Like, eventually footnotes and endnotes and footnotes-within-footnotes and so on in the ceaseless attempt to be clear in precisely what you are trying to say leads to the reader being confused and annoyed and altogether less engaged” (Green, n.d., Questions)

There is a strong sense of improbability bordering on impossibility in this story.  For instance, as the author mentions on his website, it’s improbable that a child genius with limited ability to relate to others would have 19 girlfriends, it’s nigh impossible that all of them would be named Katherine (Green, n.d., Questions).  A reader may write this off as hyperbole or an unrealistic portrayal.  However, the author brings up an interesting point by classifying the book as magical realism (Green, n.d., Questions).  In this light, instead of seeing these improbable events and circumstances as unrealistic, they instead can be viewed as a somewhat whimsical, overdone version of the truth.

Other thoughts

By celebrating math, anagrams, and intelligence, the character of Colin could be seen as a nerdfighter.  His interests are not mainstream, but instead of abandoning them and following the crowd, he delights in learning and making connections between ideas.  The book focuses on his journey from being “book smart” to learning from experiences and human connection.

By using mathematical theories as a central theme in the book, the author encourages teens to explore topics outside their area of expertise.  Green admits to being a poor math student.  He even went so far as to choose his college based on their lack of a math requirement.  However, he developed an interest in math later in life and chose to explore that interest in his writing (Green, 2006, Author’s Note).

 

 

References

Green, J. (2006).  An Abundance of Katherines.  New York, NY:  Dutton Books.

Green, J. (n.d.). Questions about An Abundance of Katherines. In John Green:  New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://johngreenbooks.com/katherines-questions/.

 

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You might be a book nerd…

I don’t usually post links to other blogs, but I couldn’t resist sharing “15 Undeniable Truths about Book Nerds”  I can certainly relate.

In other book news, I received a review copy today!  It’s a new middle grade novel entitled The Expeditioners (by S.S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy).

Here's a look at the cover, the rest of the book features wonderful illustrations.(Image:  www.amazon.com)

Here’s a look at the cover, the rest of the book features more of these wonderful illustrations.
(Image: http://www.amazon.com)

This is a busy week for me, but I plan to read and review it as soon as I can.

Do you have any good book news today? (finished a great book, just started a new book, discovered a great new author, or something else?)  Feel free to share in the comments!

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Best Books I Read in 2012: Adult Fiction

I had to alter the title for this post, because as I was going over the best adult fiction I’ve read in 2012, I realized that some of it wasn’t published this year.  I tend to read the current middle grade and youth fiction books, but sometimes adult fiction slips by me.  So, here are a couple books from 2012, and one book that was too good not to include.  (Again, this list is comprised of my favorites from the year, so I’m sure there are books missing from the list.  Feel free to add your choices in the comments).

Best books published in 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Image from: rainydaybooks.com

Once in a while I read outside my comfort zone.  This time it paid off.  Gone Girl is one of those books that you literally cannot put down.  Gillian Flynn has a knack for combining characters you love to hate with a compulsively page-turning plot.  I loved this book so much I read her debut, Sharp Objects, and currently have about 30 pages left in her sophomore novel, Dark Spaces.  All of them are must-reads in my book!

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Image from: usatoday30.usatoday.com

2012 was certainly a good year for apocalyptic fiction.  As we all mused about the events of 12/21/12, some authors actually plotted out what the end of the world might be like.  For me, this wasn’t a perfect book, but it did make me wonder about the apocalypse.  Would people turn on each other?  How fast would society crumble?  Also, KTW’s theory about how the world ends (it simply begins to slow down, which wreaks havoc on the length of our days and the entire ecosystem) seemed very plausible to me.  I’m also a big fan of adult literature from a young person’s perspective (Julia, the narrator of this story, is 14 at the time of “the slowing”).  We made it through 12/21/12, but the apocalypse and everything associated with it is still an awesome topic for fiction.  (I have to include Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr. as another fantastic book about the end of the world).

Best books that I read in 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Image from: tumblr.com

This is one of my favorite books of all time.  I know I said that quite frequently, but Karen Russell managed to tell this story in a way that made me re-read paragraphs.  I would read along and then get stuck on one beautiful line, and think “who writes like that?”  Nothing in this book is stale or cliche.  Karen Russell creates a world and then invites you along for a ride in the alligator-infested swamps of the Everglades.

What were your favorite books from 2012?  Which ones are you looking forward to in 2013?

Happy New Year’s Eve and see you next year!!!

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Top Books of 2012: YA and Middle Grade Fiction

The end of December causes us to look back on everything we did (or read) during the past year.  Here are my picks for the best YA and middle grade books of 2012 (limited to what I actually read, so I’m sure I’m missing more than a few good ones!)

I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a book that is all the way at one end of the spectrum (either amazing or horrible) I tend to flip to the author’s photo many times as I read.  If it’s a great book, I’m in awe, thinking “How could you have written this?”  (If it’s bad, I’m thinking the same thing, but more along the lines of “How could you have written this???“)  Anyway, for this wrap up of the year, I thought I’d feature the books with their creators.

YA

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Image from: amazon.com

This book came out all the way back in January, but I still think about it a lot.  In fact, I read it twice.  Once on vacation, and I listened to the audiobook several months later.  If I could find the audiobook version with John Green as the narrator, I’d love to hear that story again.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Image from: johncoreywhaley.com

A coworker recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did.  It’s one of those books that makes you invest in the characters, to the point where what happens to them seems like it’s happening to you.  This is another book that I think about often, and the fate of the characters at the end is still up for debate!

Every Day by David Leviathan

I read this on NetGalley, and it was the first time that I willingly read a book on a computer screen.  David Leviathan is capable of writing from many different perspectives (the main character in this book switches bodies every day) while giving each one complexity and depth.

Middle Grade

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Image from: andersonsbookshop.com

This book broke my heart (in a good way).  I felt for August as he tried to make it through the jungle of middle school with a facial deformity.  This book has been embraced by librarians who realize that middle grade students need stories about what they’re really going through:  bullying, prejudice, cliques, and discrimination.  It’s not always easy to read about, but books like these can be a lifesaver to a kid in need.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Image from: andersonsbookshop.com

Rebecca Stead mixes quirky characters with an intriguing mystery.  I can’t think of a kid who wouldn’t get caught up in this book.

What was your favorite middle grade/YA book for 2012?  Tomorrow:  my favorite adult fiction from 2012.

 

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Snow Day Reads

Today, we Mainers are experiencing one of the only benefits of winter–the snow day.  Aside from shoveling, these days are perfect, unexpected days off.  I plan to spend most of mine picking up from Christmas, but as a reward in the afternoon, I plan to start reading a new book.  Here are my choices (with descriptions from Amazon):

Black Boy, White School

Image from dclibrary.org

Image from dclibrary.org

He couldn’t listen to music or talk on the phone without her jumping all over him about what they listened to up in Maine, or how they talked up in Maine, or how he better not go up to Maine and start acting ghetto.

Maine.

Anthony’s mother didn’t even know where it was until he’d shown it to her on a map, but that still didn’t stop her from acting like she was born there.

Anthony “Ant” Jones has never been outside his rough East Cleveland neighborhood when he’s given a scholarship to Belton Academy, an elite prep school in Maine. But at Belton things are far from perfect. Everyone calls him “Tony,” assumes he’s from Brooklyn, expects him to play basketball, and yet acts shocked when he fights back.

As Anthony tries to adapt to a world that will never fully accept him, he’s in for a rude awakening: Home is becoming a place where he no longer belongs.

In debut author Brian F. Walker’s hard-hitting novel about staying true to yourself, Anthony might find a way to survive at Belton, but what will it cost him?

This YA book set in Maine sounds very promising!  I will definitely read it soon, but I’m not sure if today is the day to start it.

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Image from:  goodreads.com

Image from: goodreads.com

In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don’t know you’ve lost someone until you’ve found them.
 
1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.
 
At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.
 
An emotionally charged coming-of-age novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this one is awesome (I love the title, too).

 

Dark Places

Image from:  gillian-flynn.com

Image from: gillian-flynn.com

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club . . . and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members–including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.

Not my usual read, but Gillian Flynn is now one of my favorite authors.  If I do start this one this afternoon, it will be a long night because her books are impossible to put down!

 

What’s your favorite snow day read?

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