Memorable Quotes: Looking for Alaska

John Green’s Looking for Alaska centers on the experiences of Miles Halter, an ordinary, unadventurous teen who is looking for his “Great Perhaps” at an Alabama boarding school. While there, Miles meets, and immediately becomes enamored of, a girl named Alaska Young, who is as exciting and reckless as he is not. Miles hopes to win Alaska’s heart, or at least her full attention—but this is something no one has quite been able to do. The structure of the book is divided into before and after sections, so it is clear that something will happen to drastically alter their relationship. While the plot of the novel is interesting in and of itself, it is further enhanced by thoughtful writing that elevates each scene to a philosophical meditation. Below, I have included some of the quotes I highlighted when I read the book on my Kindle:

  • Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.
  • Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.
  • For she had embodied the Great Perhaps—she had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes, and now she was gone and with her my faith in perhaps.
  • We had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth.
  • 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.

Five Offbeat YA Mysteries

Instead of posting individual reviews for these five YA books, I thought I would group them together in one post to highlight the theme that connects them. These are all what I am deeming “offbeat mysteries,” YA books that feature a central mystery, but which are not detective or puzzle stories. In these books, the main characters, teens who possess no great deductive skills, solve unusual mysteries that are presented in ways that are variously witty, strange, and unexpected. But, for those of you who are not mystery aficionados, fear not—the books also feature compelling coming-of-age stories. Every one of them is a great read for both mystery fans and skeptics alike: they offer something original, something intriguing, and, above all, something sure to entertain.

In John Green’s Paper Towns, Quentin Jacobsen is leading a safe, predictable, and predictably boring life. Unpopular at school, Quentin, or Q, spends his time with two equally uncool friends, just counting down the days to graduation. He yearns for his neighbor, the fearless and exciting Margo Roth Spiegelman, with whom he discovered a dead body when the two were just children. But Margo is in the popular crowd, and she lives a life Quentin could only dream of: something of a myth in their Orlando, Florida suburb, Margo is said to have run off and joined the circus for a few days, and has broken into most of Orlando’s world famous attractions after hours. One night, everything changes, and Margo finally reaches out to Quentin. Could this be the start of, well if not a romance then at least a lasting friendship? After their late night adventure around town, Quentin can’t wait to see what happens with Margo at school. The only problem is, Margo isn’t at school the next day. And she isn’t there the day after that. The lone clue she seems to have left behind is a poster in her window, the window that is directly across from Quentin’s. Certain that it is a clue left specifically for him, Quentin begins a journey that takes him through Leaves of Grass, abandoned subdivisions, and some pretty harrowing situations. Along the way, he learns, finally, how to live like Margo—with courage and a sense of possibility. Written in typical witty Green fashion, Paper Towns is a quirky but wholly engaging romp that still manages to ask serious questions.

King Dork, by Frank Portman, is similar to Paper Towns in a lot of ways. For one, both feature dorky, unpopular protagonists who are a lot cooler to the reader than they are to the other kids at their respective schools. For another, their mysteries center on clues found in classic works of literature. So, basically, if you ever scoffed at LeVar Burton encouraging you to “take a look, it’s in a book,” you might want to begin drafting a letter of apology. In King Dork, the book in question is The Catcher in the Rye, and it might just hold the key to one of the central questions in Tom Henderson’s life: who was his father? He knows the basic facts, namely that his father was a detective who died in a car accident when Tom and his sister were small. But who was he beyond that? Who was he when he was 16, the same age as Tom? When Tom finds a mysterious code in his dad’s copy of the book, he immediately sets about deciphering it. As he does so, he begins to uncover much more about not only his dad’s teenage self, but also the circumstances of his death. Tom begins to wonder: Did his dad die in an accident, as he was told? Could it have been suicide? Or murder? Despite the heavy subject matter, King Dork is also very funny and clever. Tom and his alphabetical best friend Sam Hellerman form and dissolve about thirty bands in a four month period, all with amusing names like The Elephants of Style. In fact, it is Tom and Sam’s misguided attempts to be rock stars that might just be the key to solving some of the mysteries in Tom’s life once and for all.

Of course, there are a lot of interesting, innovative paths that an author can take in crafting a mystery story, and these next two novels show just how much room there is for variations on the detective figure. These next two teen “detectives,” Will Halpin and Christopher Boone, are outsiders not because they aren’t jocks or because they have nerdy hobbies—they’re outsiders because they simply don’t fit in with a society that largely does not share their disabilities. In Josh Berk’s The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, Will Halpin is overweight, the new kid in school, and, oh yeah, deaf. He has just transferred to a mainstream high school, and is trying to get by in a world that doesn’t understand, and isn’t sympathetic to, his disability. Will gets by on lipreading, which means that he is better than most at observing people. This proves to be crucial when one of his classmates meets a mysterious end at a coal mine on a school field trip. Will and his best friend, Devon Smiley, are convinced that the boy was murdered, and they decide to uncover the murderer. What could be a typical mystery with a clever gimmick is instead an insightful look at what it means to be deaf in a hearing world. Will is funny, smart, and resourceful, but he is also lonely and painfully aware that he will never quite be “normal.” The way in which Berk uses Will’s disability as a useful tool in solving the crime is ingenious, and it really elevates this novel to something more than just an amusing mystery.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, is, in some ways, the most straightforward story on this list. That’s because its narrator, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, literally cannot tell a lie (or, to be fair, he could, but he is deeply upset by the very concept). He reports every event as it happens, and has an astonishingly detailed memory, but there is one big limitation to Christopher’s story, as he tells it: Christopher is autistic. This novel is very unusual in that it is told entirely from the perspective of an autistic teenager who, though very bright, is oblivious to the motivations of those around him. Christopher’s world is very insular, his routine fixed; it is not until the day that he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, with a pitchfork sticking out of him that Christopher decides he must break some of his rules and venture out into the world. He begins writing a mystery story on Wellington’s murder, intending to solve the murder himself. What he begins to uncover, however, is something that has much more personal relevance than he could have imagined. While Christopher is certainly not what one would typically call a sympathetic character, the access into his mind is fascinating and quite thorough. Haddon captures not the autistic mind but an autistic mind in a way that is thoughtful, convincing, and very memorable.

The last book on the list, I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak, is different from the previous four in that it does not feature a protagonist who is still in school. On the contrary, 19-year-old cab driver Ed Kennedy is about as far as one can get from that: with only a high school education, and no motivation, Ed is coasting through life. He is a disappointment to his family and an affront to his own abilities. He lives, alone, in a small apartment with only his ancient dog for company, and his greatest joy comes from playing games of cards with his best friends, one of whom he is secretly in love with. Ed meets his most defining moment yet when he foils a bank robbery; not long after, he receives a mysterious playing card in the mail, on which is written three addresses, which are where Ed will find his first few assignments. Ed becomes “the messenger,” helping those in need, at the risk of his own safety and sanity. But who is sending him these messages? And why isn’t he allowed to stop obeying them? Ed becomes obsessed with catching the sender of the series of playing cards he receives, but this sender always appears to be one step ahead of him. Who knows Ed better than he knows himself…and why has he been singled out to be the messenger? Though the mystery is ever-present, what makes this novel so lasting is Ed’s path to redemption. When he starts to care, the reader can’t help but join in.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is an improbable book. Or, I suppose I should clarify, it is a book based around several bizarre (and often hilarious) improbabilities, which, in turn, cause the book’s very existence to seem strange and unprecedented. In truth, I don’t know if there are other novels out there that are just like—or weirder than—Will Grayson, Will Grayson, or if I am getting hung up on particulars, and ignoring the fact that it is, at heart, actually a pretty conventional tale of teenage friendship. What I do know, however, is that whenever I try to describe the plot—to my friends, in this review, or even just to myself—I have no idea where to begin.

Do I start with the fateful night when Will Grayson, the only high-schooler hapless enough to buy a fake ID stating he is 20 years old, meets his name twin, the uppercase-averse will grayson, in a Chicago porn store? Or do I dispense with the formality of pretending I care very much about either Will Grayson and get right to my favorite character, Tiny Cooper? And what about the central event in the story, the production of the over-the-top musical Tiny Dancer, based on the life of the aforementioned Tiny Cooper—as well as written, directed by, and starring him? How do I pull all of these threads together without making it sound like the “Twilight Zone”-inspired episode of “Glee” that no one was waiting for?

Luckily, where I always, inevitably fail, authors John Green and David Levithan have succeeded. They have managed to wrangle all of these strange and wonderful details into a cohesive story; even more impressively, they have done so together, in a collaboration that has each contributing alternating chapters. The two Will Graysons, as a result, are convincingly unique. Their stories are interesting separately, but these stories become infinitely better as they begin to intertwine with one another. The Will Graysons, by being so different, in fact complement each other well: one is gay, the other straight; one hates the world, while the other keeps his head down and stifles his emotions. They come from different backgrounds (and have vastly different views on capitalization) but each is in a similar rut, too angry or too unwilling—or maybe just too scared—to confront the world honestly.

Of course, a novel solely about these two perpetually-paralyzed Will Graysons would surely stagnate quickly, offering no chance for character development—or even action. Enter Tiny Cooper, who, as Will Grayson explains, may not be the gayest person in the world, or the largest, but who is almost certainly the largest gay person, or the gayest large person. Tiny is not only large, but larger-than-life, and his confidence in his own fabulousness is what enables him to achieve outrageous feats. Tiny inspires the first Will Grayson, his best friend, to get the girl (and a life), and the second will grayson, his boyfriend, to finally admit to himself and the world that he is gay. Tiny is, to put it lightly, a force of nature, someone who can miraculously convince his high school to let him put on the musical adaptation of his life…but who also often ends up eclipsing those around him. (No really, with his large build he literally may have caused an eclipse at some point.)

Unfortunately, with the pressures of the play, and Will’s budding romance with a cool girl named Jane, Tiny Cooper and Will Grayson begin to drift apart. They begin to forget why they were friends in the first place. Do they really care for each other, or was their friendship just convenient? A clever scheme and some last minute revisions to the script for Tiny Dancer result in an epic finale that clarifies just what their friendship is all about. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll break into song. Well, maybe.

…Even if Will Grayson, Will Grayson doesn’t inspire you to set your emotions to music, it will keep you laughing. It’s hilarious, absurd, and even kind of touching. I didn’t expect to like it (seriously, a high school musical?), but I was completely charmed. Like I said, it’s an improbable book.

%d bloggers like this: