Archive | August 2012

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Who doesn’t love John Green?  My first John Green experience was An Abundance of Katherines, which I read a few years ago.  I didn’t read another of his books until I picked up Paper Towns for Traf Reads last summer.  I was reminded of how much I liked his style, and went on to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson (which he co-wrote with David Leviathan) and, this spring, The Fault in Our Stars.  I would have loved these books anyway, but having after Traf’s Skype experience with John Green this year (Thanks, Ms. G!) I love them even more because I feel like I know more about the person who wrote them, if that makes any sense.

However, I had yet to read Looking for Alaska, Green’s first and perhaps most well-known book.  That finally changed a few weeks ago.  Now, the problem with reading a book that’s been out for a while is that you hear a lot about what other people think, and that sometimes builds a book up too much. I was afraid that Looking for Alaska would be a let-down.

It wasn’t. Image

In true John Green style, the characters in LFA are real teenagers with flaws.  They’re not total goody-goodies, but they’re not so “badass” (can I say that?) that you think they’re over the top, or don’t like them, or want bad things to happen to them.  You like Miles and Alaska and The Colonel and all of their other friends.  The adult characters also seem real, but they don’t get in the way of a good story.

LFA is set in a boarding school that is apparently a lot like the one that Green went to as a teenager, so I won’t make my usual comments about the boarding school being unrealistic here; I trust Green’s memory.  As with many books set in similar schools, the setting is necessary for the plot to unfold as it does.

The plot is clearly delineated here as “Before” and “After”, with the days being counted down.  What the event in the middle of “Before” and “After” is is obviously a surprise (unless you’re like me and peek ahead.  Don’t be like me.).  The three main characters and a few of their friends form a close-knit friendship that sees them doing fun stuff and dumb stuff, but taking care of each other in the absence of their families.  It is this “taking care of each other” that provides us with the main conflict.

I think I’ve laughed in every John Green book I’ve read, and probably cried in half of them.  (There’s one that I don’t recommend reading on public transit. Ask me if you want to know which one.  Actually, there are two. ) Green is so good at making you feel when you read his books, and I love him for it.  Looking for Alaska made me feel, and I don’t know what more you can ask for from a book.

~Ms. J.


Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

(Disclaimer: We got this book on the recommendation of Ms. Brown, who had been reading it with one of her senior classes.  It’s definitely meant for an older audience, and I wouldn’t really recommend it for Grade 7s and 8s.  If someone had said that to me about a book when I was in Grade 7 or 8, it would have basically guaranteed that I would read the book, and I know that a few of you may do just that.  Just read the review carefully, so that you know what to expect.)

Beauty Queens is a weird, satirical hybrid of Lord of the Flies, Lost, and any cheesy teen beauty pageant you can think of.  It is complete and utter fiction, and you just have to go with it.  The narration,  which is in the 3rd person omniscient, switches focus between 4 or 5 of the main characters, but it doesn’t get too confusing. The story sometimes switches to another setting, but I can’t say too much about that without giving away an important part of the story. Mixed in with the narrative are pageant-related fact sheets for each of the main girls, and a number of “A Word From Your Sponsor” sections, which is where much of the satire can be found.

The plot is interesting and takes enough turns that it’s not as predictable as I first thought it would be.  The book is a solid 390 pages, so it could drag, but Bray’s writing style is different enough that I read this in 1 or 2 sittings; I’m sure the mixing up of perspectives added to the interest level, as the featured characters are all quite different, and there isn’t a chance for the narrative to get stale.

The characters themselves are difficult to describe in a quick review.  They are all pageant contestants, but they don’t fit into the stereotypes you might have in your head thanks to Toddlers and Tiaras.  The contestants all have different motivations for their participation in the pageant, and their reactions to the plane crash that landed them on the island (oh yeah — there was a plane crash) are just as different.  I felt at times that Bray pushed too hard to have these capital-D “Different” characters, and wasn’t sure if I was supposed to learn a lesson from each.  I did like the characters, but it felt, at times, like there was a politically-correct checklist being followed to ensure that various races, religions and other factors (which I’ll get to) were represented. I have no problem with that at all, but found that Bray really emphasized it at times.  However, if she was trying to get the island to represent a microcosm of the world, then I understand what she was doing.
Bray also made sure that a number of different realities concerning sexual identity and gender identity are represented. Again, I think it’s really important that these realities are represented in YA fiction, but it just seemed as though Bray was trying to cover all of the bases.  It did add interest to the characters and the story, but it just seemed like the odds were a bit unrealistic.  Also, some of the issues were, in my opinion, a bit overblown; when you read the parts about the Wild Girl, you might understand.

One thing I really liked was the message that girls don’t always have to be pretty, or co-operative, or “tame”.  It’s sad that it takes a deserted island for the girls in the story (some of them) to figure this out, but it does get a lot of time in the book, and it was good to see that focus.  With all of their challenges and differences, the girls work together as a team, without losing sight of themselves as individuals — or, in the case of some girls,  gaining sight of themselves for the first time.
The book worked for me, but like I said, I think it’s meant for older teenage readers.  There’s a fair bit of violence, some sexual content (not much, but some) and a level of satire that might be missed.  With that being said, it’s still an interesting story, and I don’t want to stop anyone from reading a story that interests them.  Give Beauty Queens a shot if you’re looking for a book that’s not like a lot of the YA fiction out there.

~Ms. J.


The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

“My hopes, my dreams, my life…it’s over. The only one who seems unfazed is Dr. Wells. ‘How are you feeling,’ he asks. I just stare at him. What am I supposed to say? Fine? He inspects my chart. ‘So let’s have  look, shall we?’ He pulls the covers of my lap, and I find myself face to face with the truth. My right leg has no foot. No ankle. No shin. It’s just my thigh, my knee, and a stump wrapped in a mountain of cause. My eyes fill with tears.  I turn away to see my mother fighting back tears of her own. ‘It’ll be okay,’ she says. ‘We’ll get through this.’ – The Running Dream – pg. 4-5.

Jessica is a track star at her high school. She was born to run. It’s her everything. Every morning, at 6 am, Jessica and her dog are out, tearing up the neighbourhood on their morning run. Five glorious miles. The wind in her hair, the sound of her foot steps. Jessica loves everything about running. She especially likes the feeling of placing first at area track meets. One day, while returning from a very successful meet, Jessica’s school bus is hit by a dump truck. This is where our story starts. Read More…

close to famous by Joan Bauer

If the name Joan Bauer is familiar to some of you, it might be because you read Hope Was Here for the Coming of Age book circles in Secondary 1.  I enjoyed the realism of that book and that’s why I chose to read another Joan Bauer novel.

close to famous is a happier novel than HWH, perhaps because the protagonist, Foster,  is younger. She’s also somewhat naive, but she changes and grows up over the course of the novel.

Bauer addresses many real-life issues in this novel, but not to the point that the reader is overwhelmed.  Foster’s problems aren’t common, but they are within the realm of possibility.  At no point did I think, “Now this is too far-fetched.”  All of the sub-plots worked together.

One fault that I had with the book was the sheer number of characters. I sometimes had to backtrack to remind myself who a character was.  Considering that I read this book in the space of a day, that shouldn’t have happened.  Losing one or two of the more minor characters wouldn’t have had a huge impact on the story.

However, like in HWH, the characters that Bauer creates are nice, good people, with a few jerks thrown in as foils. Foster is one of these good, nice people, and you can’t help but like her.  She’s been through a lot, but doesn’t take it out on anyone around her.

The book is set in a small town which the author names and sets in a state.  It’s generic enough that it could take place anywhere, though.

The end leaves the reader wondering “What next?”, but it’s a hopeful ending, and I was okay with not having everything all wrapped up in a tidy package.  close to famous is a cute book and an easy read; I recommend it to anyone who has read and enjoyed other novels of Bauer’s.