Wednesday, October 24, 2012

REVIEW: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska
by John Green

“When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.” 

Miles Halter lives a safe, dull life. He loves both his parents, no one comes to his birthday parties, and he is obsessed with last words (of dead people, not of books, or conversations). He decides to go and seek "the Great Perhaps," as poet Fran├žois Rabelais said, and enrolls in a boarding high school in the woods. There, his life is shaken up by the family of misfit students who adopt him, especially by the funny, sexy, spontaneous and destructive Alaska.

Oh dear. I am so behind. I read this book over a month ago, and it is now fading from my memory. I am sure I have many other things to say about this book, but right now you will only get the things that made the strongest impression on me.

First, let me say that I am so incredibly late to the John Green bandwagon. I came across him as mearly a perveyor of wisdom and whimsy on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel. Once I learned he was not only a YA author but an incredibly lauded YA author, I felt I must see what more this lovable genius man could do. Why did I choose Looking for Alaska? It was the only John Green book not checked out (probably because it was in the storage closet and no one knew it was there!)

Things I remember about this book:

1) It reminded me of what I imagine Perks of Being a Wallflower is like (though I have never read it.)

2) It is so good! The style is pretty much what you would expect from John Green. Funny, with a huge smack upside the head of truth. I kept picturing the main character as either a young John Green, or a young Hank Green (his brother who co-runs Vlogbrothers), depending on what the character was doing.

3) The characters are excellent. Not a stereotype in the lot. Alaska could just be a manic pixie dream girl, but he gives her real, dark reasons for why she is so unpredictable. She must seize every moment and never stop going going going or bad things will happen. Miles' roommate, the Colonel, is another gem. You think he will be a bit of a neanderthal, but his charm, his brain and his heart just pick you up and hug you. His and Miles' relationship become one of the high points of the book.

4) This book is not just high school hyjinx. The whole time, each chapter title counts down to something. "63 days before, "50 days before," "10 days before." You don't know what it is counting down to, or whether it is good or bad. Some moments you are hopeful, but other moments you are filled with foreboding each time you see those numbers. When it happens, even though at times you think you know what it will be, it still knocks you off your feet.

5) It is one of the best studies of grief since "The Body" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Possibly better than that.

6) It is peppered throughout with brilliant scenes from Miles' World Religions class, where they study not the dry facts of religion but where, as the teachers says, "We are engaged here in the most important pusuit in history. The search for meaning. What is the nature of being a person? What is the best way to go about being a person? How did we come to be, and what will become of us when we are no longer? In short: What are the rules this game, and how might we best play it?”

7) It was almost banned in a school because of sexual content, which lead John Green to post this video, called "I Am Not a Pornographer." I am a sucker for intellectual freedom.

I recommend it wholeheartedly, and I will definitely read more if his stuff! I will leave you with an inspiring, truth-dropping John Green vlogbrothers video:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

REVIEW: Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland
by Shannon Hale
"'Have you been reading Gothic novels, Charlotte? You know what Mother would say. Women should not indulge in dark fantasies. It disrupts the proper workings of the womb.'
Charlotte snorted and coughed at once, she was so surprised. 'The proper workings of the womb?'
Eddie was trying very hard not to laugh. 'Indeed.'
'Never fear, protecting my womb from Gothic novels is my first priority.'
"I am very much relieved.'"

Charlotte Kinder has just gone through a messy divorce and needs to get away. She has no Jane Austen mania, like the Austenland heroine. She just needs a vacation from her life. So she decides to take it at Pembrook Park, the adult (no, not sexytime, just "for adults") roleplaying retreat manor house where actors and fellow guests leave modern society behind to live as Regency ladies and gentlemen. You can choose a new identity and be wooed by beautiful men and flounce around in lovely dresses. But when the games turn to ghost stories and murder mysteries, the line between reality and fiction blurs. Was that a real body in the attic, or just part of the fun?

This will be a short review, and please do not think it is short because I didn't like it. I loved this book! I devoured it in two days. I loved it more than Austenland. It seems much cleverer than the first book, for starters, both in narrative style and in plot.

For example, this little gem: "The pond lay dull and grey between the trees, no breeze to finger it's surface into uneasy ripples. The sky was clogged with clouds, preventing reflected sunlight from winking mischievously on the waves, as one might expect if the waters did indeed hide a secret. But the pond resisted all personification, neither begging for inspection nor warning of horrors best left alone. It just lay there, uninterested."

The prologue was a beautiful piece of writing. As this book is based on Northanger Abbey (as the first was based on Pride and Prejudice), Hale starts her book by explaining how her heroine is not a typical heroine. She was practical and nice, and never did anything unexpected or out of the ordinary. Even in this rather dull-sounding introduction, we manage to see ourselves in Charlotte. She is compelling in her normalcy.  The book jumps back and forth between the past events that created Charlotte, and the present as Charlotte tries to solve the mystery of the house and, in the process, solve the mystery of why she is so....nice.

I also enjoyed this more than Austenland because our heroine is not incredibly neurotic and obsessive. I felt that was a little off-putting about the first book. She went to be cured of something and finds love. Charlotte goes to escape, and finds herself.

It is less a girlish fantasy and more an actual journey of finding inner strength. And it is incredibly sexy and dangerous and gasp-worthy! There is just enough levity, and just enough darkness to thrill you.