Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Read: 28 January, 2018

After a smash hit like The Fault In Our Stars, I can imagine how much pressure Green felt to follow it up without disappointing fans. Especially given how much more in the public eye he is than most authors. So it’s no wonder that, after publishing a book ever 1-2 years, we suddenly got a five year gap.

My favourite Green book is Looking for Alaska, because of the way he captured the effects of [redacted] on others – in particular, the mystery and the never knowing. But, at the same time, it was the beginning of the John Green Formula: awkward buy meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, comes to amazed realisation that she is actually a full person, he is irrevocably changed. Which is exactly the sort of realisation that 99.5% of teenage boys need to have.

Then we had The Fault In Our Stars, which broke with tradition because, for the first time, Green wasn’t writing about himself. For that book, he put on the skin of Esther Earl – a teen fan who died of cancer. Not to psychoanalyse the author, but it was the first time he moved from realising that women are people, to actually taking on their thoughts and perspectives. It was an interesting transition, quite apart from all the other stuff that TFIOS was about.

Then there’s this book, which is still from the perspective of a woman, but is also much more personal. I don’t experience anxiety the way the main character does, but Green managed to capture something in her spiralling thought patterns. Enough so that, just reading the narrative, my own stomach (never the smartest part of my body) started reacting as if her thoughts were my thoughts. Which made this a bit of a difficult – not to mention physically painful – read.

I liked the way Green avoids easy resolutions – which is something he’s always done well. I also liked the centring of friendship, and the ultimate lesson of the story. I liked the authenticity of the way the man character felt.

If you don’t like YA or you don’t like Green, you probably won’t like this. But, personally, I might be changing my favourite Green novel.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Read: 6 June, 2016

The Sinclairs are tall, beautiful, and athletic. They are old money Democrats, and they spend their summers on Beechwood island. They are liars.

This was a particularly interesting read for me because, like Gat, I have spent several summers with a similar family in their “summer compound.” I’m the same age as the cousins, and we get along well, but I’m still conspicuously not a cousin (not that they’ve ever done anything to alienate me – it’s just that they have a history with each other that I don’t share). Lockhart did a fantastic job of capturing the sense of idyll, those summer friendships, the surreal bliss of spending all summer reading books in a hammock stretched over the water, as well as how those feelings change as we get older and begin to notice the cracks and politics.

The strength of the story is definitely in the characterization – and the island itself is absolutely a character. The downside is the plot. SPOILERS: The trauma induced amnesia, the characters who are perceived as real but who are actually just figments of the main character’s broken mind, etc. It was all fine, but it’s just been done so much that I’m not sure it can be saved by even the best execution. As it was, it felt like a cheap way to jerk a few tears for the ending. Ironically, I feel like I would have been far more moved if Cadence’s illness were physical, if there had been a real accident (perhaps one that Gat was involved with and felt guilty about), and we saw her being forced to choose between between her love for Gat and her love for her family. Or even if it just explored the grandfather’s death and the mix of grief and relief that would come from it.

Despite the novel’s downside, I did enjoy it. It’s a short and relatively easy read (in terms of the mechanics of reading – the plot is, of course, rather brutal), perfect to be consumed whole in an afternoon. Essentially, this is the perfect summer book. It’s a solidly written novel with strong characters and a strong sense of place.

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Huntress by Malinda Lo

Read: 9 May, 2015

Summer has failed to come, the land is starving, and strange monsters have begun to appear. When an invitation is received from the Fairy Queen, no one thinks it’s a coincidence.

There was so much about this book that I liked, and so much that made me like the idea of the book, but I found that it just fell flat.

For one thing, there’s the non-stock fantasy backdrop (in this case, Lo has created a classical Chinese-inspired culture). It was very refreshing to see, and would have been interesting if it had lasted for more than a few pages. As soon as the initial quest is established, the questing party heads off into the woods, leaving culture behind, and the remainder was indistinguishable from any other fantasy setting (particularly the fairy town, which had absolutely nothing of note to it at all).

The lesbian romance was a draw as well, but its development felt somewhat clunky. By the end, when Taisin had to finally make the choice between her career or her feelings for Kaede, I had trouble caring much. Perhaps because the characters never felt particularly developed.

I had some problems with the ending. (SPOILERS: The whole ending, for example. The “twist” that the Fairy Queen was actually Elowen’s real mother was not only predictable and overdone, it was also utterly uninteresting. I hadn’t been given any reason to care about either character, since they had occupied such a tiny fraction of what had been, essentially, a long walk through the woods punctuated by occasional attacks, that it felt completely unnecessary. To then send Kaede on yet another quest, apparently for no reason other than to add to the page length, felt rather silly.)

Much of the book felt rushed and unpolished. The easiest example would be the baby the travellers met in Ento. As they approach and then enter the home, the baby is first crying, then begins to cry, then is asleep and coos as it wakes. It’s hard to imagine that this sort of thing survived the first edit.

And, of course, there was the POV jumping. It was all over the place. I understand that Lo wasn’t going for a straight Third Person Limited, but the POV would sometimes jump several times a paragraph, and at least a few times I caught it jumping in a single sentence. It was too much, too abrupt, and it added little to the telling.

My final major grip was Lo’s use of the word “for.” Over and over again, we saw the following construction: “So and so did this, for they wanted to.” Two sentences in a row might have the exact same construction. And it was doubly strange because it’s something that I associated with purple prose formality, while much of the narrative tone was more informal. Which, I suppose, is a bonus complaint: the tone-hopping.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, but I was disappointed by the overall sloppiness of the writing. I’d still recommend it, if only as short, fun read, but with too many shortcomings to really be taken for anything more.

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An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Read: 19 May, 2014

Colin Singleton has just been dumped by his 19th Katherine. In the throes of breakup despair, he is dragged on a (very short) road trip by his friend, Hassan, that lands the pair of them in Gunshot, Tennessee.

I felt that Abundance lacked a lot of the strength and consequence of Green’s other books. The “eureka moment” (essentially an epiphany) at the end followed by a multi-page lecture about the nature of the future and relationships and mattering was excessive and pedantic.

Other than that, I enjoyed the book. Like most of Green’s writing, I could see myself in his characters. I was never a prodigy, but I was “smart,” and I knew exactly what Colin is talking about when he reaches adulthood and, suddenly, the party trick intelligence that got him so much as a child suddenly doesn’t matter any more. I also could understand Lindsey’s end-teen search for identity. As for Hassan, I was friends with him (except he was Serbian and Eastern Orthodox).

While Hassan didn’t strike me as a stereotype because I knew him, I do see what people mean when they complain about his weight being such a feature of the story. As an “exotic,” it’s a bit of a cliché to make him physically unappealing so that he is not a threat to the heterosexual white male.

I’ve now read all of John Green’s books (not counting Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which was written with a co-author), and I have to put Abundance at the bottom of the list. That doesn’t make it bad – it was still a fun read, very funny, and contained plenty of the trivia I do so love – but it’s certainly the weakest of his oeuvre.

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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

Read: 3 November, 2013

I was recommended this book and started reading it without any idea of its contents. It made the rather surreal descriptions at the beginning, taking place at the Novanglian College of Lucidity, all the more intriguing.

The story follows Octavian, slave son of an African princess, as he is raised by rationalist philosophers. He is the subject of an experiment investigating whether other races have as much intellectual potential as whites. The potential for social commentary should be obvious.

Anderson uses a number of different narrative styles, depending mostly on the “memoirs” of Octavian, but also collecting some aspects of the story from letters and other media. It added to the aura of “authenticity” of the narrative and, handled well, was quite neat. Though I did much prefer Octavian’s memoirs to the rather lengthy section made up of Goring’s letters.

I really enjoyed Octavian Nothing. It was intriguing, and the commentary was great. Anderson also managed a really good job of replicating the style of writing of the period (barring a few very reasonable deviations for the sake of clarity).

I found it funny, sad, horrifying, edifying, and thoroughly enjoyable. I placed my order for the second volume at the library as soon as I’d finished and am eagerly waiting for it to come in!

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15 Young-Adult Books Every Adult Should Read

It’s no secret that I quite like the YA genre. I find that the books are often more imaginative than those marketed towards adults, and that they deal with more interesting issues. That’s by no means always the case, of course, but looking at the best examples of both, there are certainly far more YA books in my list of favourites than adult ones.

Mashable has come up with a list of YA books that they think every adult should read:

  1. Inexcusable by Chris Lynch
  2. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  3. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
  4. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray
  6. Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  7. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  8. Luna by Julie Anne Peters
  9. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
  10. Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
  11. Hate List by Jennifer Brown
  12. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
  13. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
  14. Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
  15. If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Of these, I can only say that I’ve heard of three, and I’ve only read one of those (The Book Thief). I’m a huge John Green fan, so I’m sure that An Abundance of Katherines is at least decent. Warm Bodies has come with mixed reviews.

How about you? Have you read of any of these? Should I prioritize reading any of them?

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Read: 10 November, 2012

I watch the Vlogbrothers on YouTube, so I’d heard a lot about Looking For Alaska, but still knew very few details. All I knew going in was that it would be about a nerdy boy falling in love with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl named Alaska.That’s it. And while my general stance is along the lines of “it’s the journey, not the end, that counts,” I actually feel that not knowing is important with this novel. Not knowing let it whack me. I generally like to think of myself as a nice person, and I want you to be whacked too.

So here’s my attempt at a totally spoiler-free review:

Miles Halter is friendless and bored, so he goes in search of the Great Perhaps in the form of a boarding school. There, his life is changed when he starts making friends, takes up smoking, and meets Alaska.

I dislike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and I found Alaska to be generally an unpleasant person. Miles and the Colonel also made a lot of very insensitive mistakes that hurt the people around them. But it captured so well my experience of being that age – the total lack of social graces, the exhibition of self-destruction, the “I’m crazier than you are” pissing contests… Have I ever mentioned how embarrassed I am of my teenage years?

But despite the unlikeable characters, Green really did capture the experience of being a teen, and he used that backdrop to explore some pretty interesting stuff (which I won’t discuss any further because… well… see above). And while I certainly wouldn’t want any of these kids in my real life, it was a riot to read about their adventures and mishaps, and their little witticisms.

Nothing I have said about Looking For Alaska has been a flaw. The ending – the epiphany, if you can call it that – was a little weak, but that’s really it. That’s the only flaw. I loved reading this book so much that I had trouble putting it down, even when my services as a parent were required. I couldn’t recommend it enough!

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