Jessica’s Cranky Corner: Still looking for reasons why I finished ‘Looking for Alaska’

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Oh wow…I don’t know where to even begin with this review. Okay, let’s start out by enumerating the most important elements of a good book. First and foremost a good read must have likeable, well-developed characters. Then, of course, there needs to be a plot. And let’s not forget that with every story, there needs to be believability. Even fantasy books have to be rooted in some semblance of reality, otherwise how are the readers ever going to relate to the story, the characters, the meaning of it all?!?

Now let’s dissect the many ways John Green ignored these key elements in this hot mess of YA fiction.

Likeable Characters

In this high school melodrama, I’m stuck with a whiny high school kid and his snarky clique of boarding school chums, all of whom are way too cool for school. Gee, does this sound vaguely familiar? Oh probably because the same annoying characters from Paper Towns were plopped into this book!

Remember that old MTV cartoon Darea? You know, the one about the emo monotone girl who mocked everything around her? Well if you enjoyed that, I suppose you might relate to these yahoos. I, on the other hand, got tired of the irony of it all. They were all so enveloped in their own little narcissistic worlds, save for the ringleader of the bunch, ironically named “The Colonel” who did have a few redeeming qualities. Come to think of it, this book might actually have been worthwhile if he was the lead character. But nope, we’re stuck in Pudge’s one-track mind throughout this sluggish journey of self-discovery. He’s that friend (we’ve all had one) who drones on and on about an unattainable crush, constantly ruminating about her mysterious ways. Who is the real Alaska? What’s driving her crazy mood swings? Why is she so self-destructive? WHO CARES?!? The girl in question—poetically named Alaska—is not in any way interesting, enigmatic or likeable. She knows poor Pudge has it bad, so she plays him like a fiddle, flirting, teasing and stringing him along just for fun. Playful and chummy one minute, downright evil the next (someone get this girl an exorcist!), Alaska is clearly surfing the extreme end of the bipolar spectrum. But, alas, this mysterious goddess rocks Pudge’s world, so he must make it his quest figure her out and ultimately get in her pants. And there, my dear readers, is your plot.

That's your cue to split, Pudge.

That’s your cue to split, Pudge.

The Plot

Halfway through the book I started to question when the plot would take shape. Come to think of it, that’s probably the point when you should call it a loss and toss it in the DNF pile. But like a good soldier, or idiot, I continued on. Like Alaska’s shameless teasing, the provocative chapter headings that counted down the “days before” kept me reading. What catastrophic even awaited this group of sardonic teenagers? Who’s gonna bite the big one? Please tell me it will be Alaska. Until we reach the aftermath chapters, the story slogs along at a snail’s pace. Here’s what we’ve got: Bored little rich boy demands to go to boarding school so he can find “the great perhaps.” He immediately joins the cool misfit clique (think Perks of Being a Wallflower). Then it’s nothing but chain-smoking, esoteric musings of “escaping the labyrinth” and pranks against the rich kids. When the catastrophic event finally hits, I’m already over it.

Believability

I’m sure Green has met a teenager at some point in his adult life, but it sure doesn’t show in this book. Though they were all absorbed in their narcissistic worlds (an intrinsic quality of this particular age demographic), these poetically minded kids were WAAAAY beyond their years. Apparently they are all child prodigies that can speak and think at a level that would put a 50-year-old philosophy professor to shame. That, my friends, is unfathomable. The sad reality is that kids express themselves in 60 characters or less, or whatever threshold it is that Twitter allows. I’m sorry, John Green, but the young Jack Kerouacs of the world are few and far between. I have no doubt that Mr. Green was one of those gifted kids who spent his Friday nights memorizing the famous last words of great American presidents (one of Pudge’s shticks). But the chances of finding a group of millennials who all have impressive academic hobbies such as this are slim to none. There’s this golden rule in writing called “write what you know.” Green clearly does not know teenagers. It would behoove him to spend a day studying them in their natural environment –a One Direction concert perhaps—and really listen to their dialect.

Could that be the vast wasteland of Alaska's inner arctic tundra? How very poetic.

Could that be the vast wasteland of Alaska’s inner arctic tundra? How very poetic.

On a happier note, I must admit that Green is a highly talented wordsmith. It’s easy to get lost in his lyrical prose and esoteric musings. But just like a movie can’t solely rely on all A-list actors, he can’t get by just on pretty writing. I know that YA is clearly a marketable genre for him, especially after his smashing success with The Fault in the Stars. But if he insists on creating these mythical teenage geniuses—who all seems to be cut from the same mold—these books are always going to miss the mark.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

24187925This book has pretty much everything I crave in a good YA mystery: A fearless (albeight sometimes reckless) amatuer sleuth, a simmering star-crossed romance, and mysterious suspects galore! Set in 19th-century New York, this fish-out-of-water story follows the journey of Jo Montifort as she goes undercover to hunt down her father’s murderer. Though he appeared to die by his own hand, her investigative reporter insticts tell her that something is amiss.

When Jo discovers a cryptic note at the crime scene, she has no other choice than to go against the rules of high society and set forth on her investigation—gasp—without a male escort. As she roams the filthy city streets, she soon discovers more atrocities than her father’s untimely demise. Through her naïve eyes, readers get a feel for what life must have been like for the “have nots” of the world back in the dark ages of patriarchial oppression. Could you imagine wearing a suffocating corset on a daily basis? Biting your toungue in fear of sounding too sharp-witted? Or marrying a strange man just to maintian high social status? I may gripe about modern American culture, but I’m feeling rather fortunate to be living in a society that allows me to walk the city streets unescorted in my pajama jeans and Crocs!

At 500+ pages (or 13 hours on audio), the book is a little overwhelming, especially for those youngins, but the story moves fast. I “read” this on audio and it was hard pressing the off button when Jo stumbled across a new clue, or when the romantic tension simmered to a boil between her and the handsome newspaper boy from the wrong side of the tracks. With his help, she travels to the most forbidden places—from brothels to dive bars to shipyards—and has quite a few close encounters with some nefarious street urchins. Along the way, she makes a few friends in low places: A teenage pickpocket, and a budding forensic scientist. Both prove to be quite handy as she pursues her father’s killer.

I’ll stop right here to save you from spoilers, but I will say that this book is worth your while! I’m just bummed that it’s a standalone because I would love to know what adventures lie ahead for Jo as she navigates her life as a cub reporter.