Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult (page 1 of 2)

Girl Online – Zoe Sugg

With reading – as with most things, I guess – timing is everything. I saved this bit of fluff to give my bookish brain a break between Sybil and Ulysses. Girl Online is the debut novel from the young “beauty, fashion, and lifestyle vlogger” Zoe Sugg. I’ll confess right now that I’d never heard of her before picking up this book, but her author bio says she has millions of subscribers on YouTube, so clearly she’s killing it.

Girl Online was first published in 2014, becoming a New York Times Bestseller in the Young Adult category, and the fastest-selling book of that year. It also broke the record for highest first-week sales for a debut author. Not bad, eh? I guess that’s the magic of being an internet celebrity: you’ve got a built-in audience, ready and willing.

But, as always, popularity and sales aren’t always the best indicators of quality. Girl Online is hardly a literary tour de force. It’s the story of Penny Porter, a fifteen-year-old girl from Brighton (where Sugg currently lives, funnily enough), whose anonymous blog goes unexpectedly viral.

Penny mostly uses her blog to vent about her typical teen problems: school, friends, family, boys, and so on. Then, a video of an embarrassing incident at her high-school play makes the rounds on YouTube, causing her great distress… so, her parents take a convenient week-long trip to New York (why is it always New York? Why is it never Wagga Wagga or Woop Woop?). They decide to take Penny and her gay-best-friend Elliot along with them. Naturally.

I could tell straight away that Girl Online isn’t going to age well. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references that already feel outdated: Justin Bieber? What’s he done lately? And I’ll try my best not to sound like a blogging snob here, but it must be said: Girl Online is a terrible domain name! It’s so vague! Penny really needs to work on her SEO. There, that’s all I’ll say on that, but you should know that the romantic sepia-toned version of blogging depicted throughout this book drove me nuts, all the way.



Immediately upon arriving in New York, Penny meets Noah, a mysterious teenage musician (again: why? Why are they always musicians?). She falls in love with him in a New York minute, of course. Alas, her parents cruelly separate them – i.e., they take her home when their holiday/job is over, instead of suggesting that she stay there on the other side of the world with the teenage boy she just met. Noah gives her a CD with a song he wrote for her on it before she leaves (vomit).

When Penny gets home, Noah’s “big secret” is revealed (this doesn’t even warrant a spoiler warning, because it’s so bleeding obvious): he’s actually a huge YouTube sensation, with two million followers or something like that. He’s about to release his first album. He didn’t tell Penny about his “big secret” because it was so nice to be treated “normally” for once (puh-lease). Oh, and he’s supposedly dating some other big-time pop star.

Penny’s all “see ya!”, which is an uncharacteristically good call on her part. Unfortunately, she’d already blogged about the whole romantic drama in real time. A former-BFF mean girl from school manages to join the dots, and she outs Penny’s identity as Girl Online, lover of the YouTube superstar. As a result, the blog goes “viral”, garnering lots of attention (the nasty kind) very quickly. Oh, and she has a fight with Elliot, too, so it’s a rough few days for her.

Cue many, many teenage melodramatics from Penny… only they transition alarmingly quickly into genuinely severe symptoms of an anxiety disorder. And here’s what really got under my girdle: no one, not even the parents, suggested therapy or a psychological evaluation for the hyperventilating teenager. I found it deeply disturbing how nonchalant they all were about it.



Don’t worry: in the last 50 pages, Penny and Elliot make up, the mean girl cops a milkshake to the face (a shameless rip-off of that pivotal moment in The Princess Diaries), and Penny gets an avalanche of suddenly-positive blog comments. Noah shows up to apologise, and says he was never really dating the pop star, it was all a show for publicity (yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say). The song he wrote for Penny is going to be the lead single from his first album, which is just, like, totally the most like, romantic thing evahhh.

Yes, it’s a super predictable ending, but I guess it could’ve been worse. In fact, on the whole, Girl Online was not as cringey as it could have been (and probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be here). It’s far from the worst young adult book I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins: that gong would have to go to Divergent, or maybe The Maze Runner. Girl Online is definitely better than either of those. Thirteen-year-old me might’ve even enjoyed it.

There are, however, a couple of things that would hold me back from recommending it to the teens of today. Firstly, as I said, it’s very firmly anchored in the early 2010s, so with the pace of technology and culture today, it’s going to feel very dated very soon. Snapchat doesn’t even rate a mention! And secondly, again as I’ve said, I was deeply concerned by the implied messages that teenagers can treat and cure their own anxiety disorders through… deep breathing? Sheer force of will? Positive thinking? Just… honestly, where the fuck are the grown-ups here? It has the potential to be really damaging.



Sugg has said, repeatedly, that the book is “in no way autobiographical”… which just has to be a deliberate ploy to fuel the speculation that it is, in fact, autobiographical. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that, even if none of it is “real” so to speak, a lot off Girl Online draws heavily on Sugg’s own romantic fantasies. There’s a strong whiff of wish-fulfillment with the turn of every page.

And that brings us to the other elephant in the room: the nature of Sugg’s “authorship” is… controversial, to say the least. I don’t doubt for a second that Girl Online was ghost-written, but neither Sugg nor Penguin (the publishers) are willing to officially confirm it. Penguin’s only public statement has been to say that Sugg “worked with an expert editorial team to help bring to life her characters and experiences in a heartwarming and compelling story”. Surely even the most wide-eyed naive fan can read between those lines.

Sugg knows marketing, though, which is another reason the book saw such huge sales. The US and UK covers each feature different images provided by Sugg’s fans (I’m assuming for free), selected via a competition she ran on her Instagram page. What Sugg lacks in literary chops, she makes up for in market savvy! She also published a sequel the following year, Girl Online: On Tour, and another the year after that, Girl Online: Going Solo. Based on the titles, and the trajectory of Girl Online, I’m guessing that Penny goes on tour with Noah until fame tears them apart, and then she forges a new life for herself as a fabulous single girl, before either getting back together with him or falling in love with someone even better. Whether I’m right or wrong, I doubt I’ll find out for myself. Still, I’m grateful to Zoe Sugg for this easily-digestible fairy floss snack between two canonical binges…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Girl Online:

  • “Good book if you follow her online.” – david potter
  • “Ok, too much emphasis on her clumsiness” – Kindle Customer
  • “I gave it as a gift to an ex-friend. She truly liked it a lot too bad I don’t like her anymore.” – Lonya Leonard
  • “This story is so lit fam I literally can’t even like omg zoella huge reds to you girl yassss wow” – Bella
  • “Did she even write the book?” – emily
  • “O-M-G this book was a RIP OFF so BAD so terrible i HATED it i’m being REALLY nice boy rating it a three i wanted to rip the pages out of this BAD BOOK if you want to stay healthy and alive DON’T READ!” – Ashrey Cannonier
  • “amateur” – Amazon Customer

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Here’s the whole truth: I didn’t feel optimistic going into The Maze Runner. My husband had seen the movie, and he told me it was terrible (I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its movie, but still!). Plus, some ugly accusations about Dashner surfaced in 2018 as part of the #MeToo movement. But the book was already on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, so I figured I may as well go ahead. If nothing else, I suspected it would be over quickly…

… and I was right. On all counts.

The Maze Runner was first published in 2009, the first book in a young adult dystopian series of the same name. Well, it’s the “first” in the sense that it was the first to be published, but it’s actually third in narrative order (so there have been two prequels and three sequels, if that makes sense).

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a stark metal elevator. He has no memory of who he is (other than his first name), or how he came to be in that situation. Right away, I started poking holes in the premise. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right that he could remember his first name but not his last, or anything else – right? I tried to tell myself not to be such a cynical snot, but the whole premise was just so flimsy, right from the outset, that I couldn’t help myself.

The elevator brings Thomas to the Glade, a large courtyard full of boys roughly his age (we’re told later that Thomas “looks” to be about sixteen, but he talks and acts like he’s twelve). He learns that a new boy arrives each month in the same way that he did, and in the same condition (with the memory loss and everything). The elevator also brings them supplies, but no, they can’t use it to escape – they’ve already tried. Thomas’s new home is surrounded by four high concrete walls, forming a square in which the boys are held. Outside the walls, they tell him, is the Maze. They send “runners” out into the maze every day to try and map its pattern and find a way out, but the pattern changes every night. They don’t stay out there after dark, because that’s when the “Grievers” emerge. Thomas is intrigued.

Yep, this is the ol’ newbie-has-to-save-the-day trope.



The “Grievers” are spoken about a lot, and even encountered a few times, but they were really hard to visualise based on the descriptions Dashner used: slimy, but mechanic; lurching, but fast… like villainous monsters designed by committee. And while we’re all rolling our eyes (you’re with me on this, right?), let’s throw something else on top of the shit heap: the boys that live in the Glade have developed their own nonsense slang, a very obvious and very lame attempt by Dashner to give the impression that his characters are very cool and swear-y, without using any actual profanity that would offend the delicate sensibilities of school boards and over-protective parents. It’s completely transparent, nothing like the masterful effort in, say, A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, The Maze Runner had very strong Lord Of The Flies vibes, right down to the bumbling, chubby best friend.

Anyway, the day after Thomas’s arrival, the elevator comes cranking up again. This time, it deposits a girl named Teresa. She carries a note saying that she’s the “last one”, and promptly lapses into a coma. The elevator stops bringing supplies, the skies turn grey, and the doors to the Maze stop closing at night (leaving everyone in the Glade vulnerable to the Grievers). Teresa remains steadfastly unconscious for about half the book. When she finally wakes up, she and Thomas decide that they “feel” like they already know each other. Oh, and they can communicate telepathically.

RANT ALERT: this telepathy thing is the worst! It’s some of the laziest hack writing I’ve encountered in all my reading life. I suspect Dashner just retro-fitted some Special Significance(TM) to it elsewhere in the series, but I’m just going to die without ever finding out and I’m okay with that. For The Maze Runner, it seemed like a deus ex machina cop-out to allow him to have his two central characters communicate privately whenever the plot needed them to. Booooo!



Anyway, I need to charge ahead with this plot summary before my eyes start to hurt from all the rolling. Thomas manages to figure out that the Maze walls move to spell out a super-special secret code. He also figures out how and where the Grievers get in and out off the Maze. He draws the logical conclusion that the easiest way for the boys to escape is to follow them. He also gets himself “stung” by one of the Grievers, on purpose, so that he can go through “The Changing” (I’m biting my tongue, I’m biting my tongue…), because it is rumoured to bring back memories of the victim’s pre-Glade life. Sure enough, he remembers the crucial bits and pieces that allow him to put a plan together. How convenient.

And away they go, down the Griever hole. Thomas, Teresa, and Chuck (the bumbling, chubby sidekick) find a computer at the bottom, and they punch in the Maze code. Hey, presto: the rest of the boys from the Glade appear. They all learn that they are part of a WICKED experiment. No, I’m not suddenly being enthusiastic with the adjective; it stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (and if that acronym wasn’t backwards-engineered, I’ll eat my hat).

Chuck bites it, like Piggy and all other chubby sidekicks before him. In fact, he does a Dobby, throwing himself in front of the knife that was intended for Thomas. All the surviving Glade boys figure out that these WICKED government guys are bad news, and just as their cogs are turning, another team of grown ups shows up to “rescue” them.

Their saviours whisk them away to safety, which gives Dashner the chance for a whole stream of exposition to explain what the heck is going on (and set up the next book, conveniently enough). Apparently, a bunch of sun flares have ruined Earth, somehow. The world is a wasteland now, and there’s a disease (called “The Flare” – Dashner’s creative hits just keep on rolling) that’s got half the population all fucked up. The Glade boys are taken to a safe house, fed a decent meal, and they’re happy enough with that.

Then, an epilogue reveals that this apparent-rescue and supposed-safe-house are all an extension of the Maze experiment, set up by those WICKED people. *ominous chord* The End.

Ugh. I’m so glad to be done with this book – even writing this review made my eye twitch.



Here’s what I can say for it: the chapters are short. The story moves pretty quickly. Well, it has the illusion of doing so, at least. You could call it “fast paced”. But that’s all I’ve got, folks. The Maze Runner is a real stinker.

I’ve seen it compared to The Hunger Games, and although that wasn’t my favourite book of all time, it was streets ahead of The Maze Runner. In fact, the only way that Dashner bested Collins, in my view, was that he started working in the set-up for the sequel about seventy pages before the end, instead of cramming it into the final chapter. That tells me he’d always envisaged the book as part of a series arc, which is something, I suppose.

As I mentioned up top, there was a film adaptation released in 2014. I watched the trailer on YouTube, and it’s exactly as terrible as you’d expect. All in all, I’d say don’t bother, with the movie or the book. Don’t even bother buying it for the tweens and teens in your life. They’d be better off with almost any other young adult book out there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maze Runner:

  • “my mummy likess this book and me. she thought that it was wonderful. i recommend u read it. Ya yeet.” – Ms Samantha M Thomson
  • “Very disappointing. Just a lot of action. Almost like he’s trying to get a movie deal.” – consumer scientist
  • “If you like terrible prose, a dumb plot, and unrealistic dialogue, this book is for you!” – W V S
  • “All the violence and hate of the Hunger Games without the pesky storyline or plot. I kept hoping the story would develope, but no. Left disappointed.” – John
  • “Yuck, I think I’d rather have a root canal than read another book of this series.” – Amazon Customer
  • “DO NOT READ! Boring, tedious. We bought this for a multi-hour car trip and had to stop the audiobook because silence was better than this story.” – Judy-Lynn Benjamin
  • “I didn’t order this book, so I don’t know why it asked me to rate it . And my name is not Dylan .” – Dylan Chilano
  • “I utterly HATE this book no reason.” – Amazon Customer

If I Stay – Gayle Forman

Well, after my adventures with Augie March, I was looking for something a little easier to digest. That’s how I came to If I Stay, a young adult novel by Gayle Forman published in 2009. But I’d forgotten something about YA literature: even though they tend to be easier to read in terms of language and style, they also tend to tackle some really heavy topics. This one centers around a car crash, and a girl’s decision about whether to stay in the land of the living or “move on” with her deceased family. So, yeah. Not a lot of laughs to be had here!

The story opens on a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family of four, living in Anywhere USA, deciding one snowy day to go for a drive together. Then, there’s an immediate and violent tragedy: another car crashes into theirs. The two parents are killed immediately, and the kids are both unconscious, with severe injuries.

Mia – our 17-year-old protagonist – is not having a very good day.

She falls into a whacky out-of-body experience, standing over her lifeless skin suit and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. She follows herself, and her younger brother, in the ambulance back to the hospital. Her extended family rushes to be with them, and she starts to wonder why her boyfriend isn’t with them. Then, the flashbacks start, and her pre-coma life unfolds.



She grew up being the only classical music-lover in a house full of rock’n’rollers. Literally, her parents were punk before it was cool, and her little brother played the drums (or something, he wasn’t that memorable, to be honest). Mia also has a boyfriend, Adam, who is handsome and musically talented (duh), and – of course – he’s in a baaaaand. I swear, authors who write rock stars as romantic leads have never actually dated a musician in real life. They generally don’t make for stable and committed lovers. But Adam “loves” Mia, even though she’s “weird”, which makes the whole love story read like a tragic episode of wish-fulfillment. I mean, a quiet, plain girl with a rock-star boyfriend who loves her, even though they have nothing in common, and persists through her tantrums and shyness because he sees who she “really” is? Ugh.

Anyway, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about her boyfriend – fair enough, she is a teenager – and whether she should stick around in the mortal realm to be with him. By this point, her younger brother has succumbed to his injuries, so choosing Adam would also mean choosing a life of grief and poor-orphan-girl sympathy. Her grandparents are still alive, though, so she wouldn’t be entirely alone. Choices, choices…



If I were writing a high school book report, I would say that If I Stay is a book about choices. Live or die, stay or go, et cetera. Forman actually did a pretty good job of weaving in a series of smaller choices as well, in Mia’s flashbacks and reminisces, foreshadowing this big final call she has to make. Mia calls upon all these choices she’d made throughout her short life, and pretty much makes up her mind to shuffle off the mortal coil… but then, her boyfriend shows up, and has a normal human reaction to seeing one’s comatose girlfriend (i.e., he gets a bit upset), and she’s so moved by this “outpouring” of “true love” that she decides to stick around after all. Wonderful!

Some of the philosophising and musing on life and death was a bit trite, but in fairness I’m closer to thirty than twenty; I’ve had plenty of time to think a lot of this stuff through already. If I’d read this book as a 13- or 14-year-old, maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so cringey. It really started to drag a bit, especially towards the end, which is saying a lot because the timeline of the book only ran to a day.

(Oh, and there’s quite a bit of ableist language, too, which really surprised me. YA books tend to be pretty woke, so it was especially jarring, as I wasn’t expecting it. Steer clear if that stuff bothers you!)



Even though it was a bit much for cynical snots like me, If I Stay was well received, and sold gangbusters. Summit Entertainment bought the film rights straight away, but they chewed through a few different directors and lead actresses before they finally got it out. The film adaptation was released in 2014, starring Chloe Grace Mortez, and pulled in $78 million at the box office. Not bad.

And, not one to let go of a good thing, Forman also wrote a follow-up called Where She Went. It was published in April 2011, and it picks up the story a few years after Mia’s accident. She and Adam have broken up (good thing she “chose life” for this guy, eh?), and she’s moved to New York to attend Julliard School of Music. Side note: why is it always Julliard? Are there no other performance schools in the U.S.? Why don’t any of them ever come to NIDA?

Anyway, If I Stay wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great, but it was an adequate literary palette cleanser. I can’t picture a situation where I’d be pressing this book into somebody’s hands and insisting they read it, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of it either. So, take it or leave it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of If I Stay:

  • “gave as a gift. was loved.” – Kate doyle
  • “Somewhat interesting book” – erika
  • “Aside from the bad language, plot was boring, unrealistic and the ending was lame.

    SPOILER: She’s watching her body in ICU but can’t walk through walls? Her boyfriend isn’t allowed to see her in ICU? Uh, no.” – Zarabbeth
  • “Wow. I love that the story is not linear. It bounced around. I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to read about death.” – Victoria M.
  • “The book was so boring and it just lacked interestingness.” – Madie Sue
  • “This book has language, alcohol use, and possible nudity. Overall rating R. This book is inappropriate for young girls named Teresa. She is in seventh grade. She does not need to know about boys that are older than her wearing skinny jeans. Boys go in a very hard stage in their life, advancing for boys to men. This is
    called puberty and girls named Teresa don’t need to know about boys wearing skinny jeans going through this stage.
    Disappointing.
    Inappropriate.
    Uncalled for.
    Terrible.” – Amazon Customer

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

What do you know: here we have another staple of high-school reading lists that I somehow never encountered in the course of my own education. This very edition of Lord Of The Flies, in fact, once belonged to “James Wells Year 9”, according to the inside front cover. I’m sure he’s a swell kid, but his highlighting of key passages was really distracting (though it disappeared by about the half-way point so I’m guessing he never finished the book – hopefully, he found a love of literature elsewhere…).

Lord Of The Flies was William Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. It wasn’t an immediate success. It sold fewer than three thousand copies in the first year, and promptly went out of print entirely. Golding eventually found his audience and went on to have a glowing literary career, winning the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1983. He was also knighted, in 1988.

The introduction to this Faber “Educational Edition” makes some insightful remarks about the fact that Lord Of The Flies came so soon after WWII. The world had just seen previously-unimaginable atrocities, far removed from everyday life, and it had made everyone all-too aware of humanity’s true nature. “Ultimately, Mr Golding’s book is valuable to us,” the introduction says, “not because it tells us about the darkness of man’s heart, but because it shows it…” (pg. xii).

The story starts with a war-time evacuation, and a plane-full of British boys crashing on an isolated Pacific island. Golding really drops the reader right into the action; I’m not sure I would have had a damn clue what was going on if I wasn’t already familiar with the plot through the osmosis of pop-culture references. He quickly introduces two boys, the fair-haired take-charge hero Ralph and the overweight asthmatic Piggy. They find a conch, and Ralph uses it to summon all the other survivors. As far as I’m concerned, Piggy is more likeable than the rest of them put together; he insists that they “put first things first and act proper”, which made me chuckle.



The boys are a rag-tag assortment that includes a musical choir, already operating under the leadership of Jack Merridew. These boys don’t take too kindly to Ralph appointing himself head honcho. Ralph’s key policies are that they should have fun, survive, and maintain a smoke signal, apparently in that order (so he really needs to work on his priorities). The choir grumbles, but eventually submits to Ralph’s vision for life on the island; Jack decides they’ll take on the role of hunters, and they spend most of their time trying to kill animals for food. The group maintains a veneer of democracy (at first) by agreeing that whoever is holding the magical conch should be allowed to speak and receive the silent attention of the rest of the boys. I don’t know why everyone spends so much time talking about the pig’s head, when really Golding’s characters spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over that bloody shell…

They create a fire using Piggy’s glasses, a good start, but everything turns to shit pretty quickly. The boys start fighting among themselves, and let the fire languish while they hang out on the beach. Oh, and they imagine up a “beast” that they believe is stalking them from the woods. Jack Merridew lures the boys away from their “work” on the fire, with a view to hunting this supposed “creature”. The smoke signal dies out, duh, and they miss the opportunity for rescue by a passing ship.



Jack, fed up with Ralph’s pragmatism and Piggy’s whining, tries to start a new group. One by one, the boys abandon Ralph to join Jack, lured by the smell of sizzling pork (yes, they manage to kill a pig and cook it, but not one of them thinks to go fishing, for fuck’s sake). The members of the new tribe start doing weird shit, painting their faces and making sacrifices to the “beast”. Not sure what was in that pork, but it was nothin’ good. They end up beating a kid to death – Simon, the poor epileptic who had hallucinated the pig’s head talking to him in one iconic scene.

Jack’s New Tribe(TM) decide that Piggy’s glasses, the only means of creating fire on the island, are the real symbol of power. Finally, they’re thinking sensibly! They steal the glasses from Ralph and Piggy, the last hold-outs of the old group. When Ralph confronts Jack about the theft, a fight ensues, and everyone on Ralph’s side is crushed to death (RIP Piggy). The conch is also shattered in the confrontation, which is Golding’s heavy-handed attempt at symbolising the end of civility and the boys’ final transition to savagery. (Yeah, maybe scratch that thinking-sensibly part…)

Ralph manages to escape their clutches, so they hunt him through the woods, setting fire to everything in the process. He’s just about ready to give himself up for dead when he runs into a British naval officer, whose party had seen the smoke from the raging fire and come to investigate. The boys are “saved”, but they all start crying when they realise what they’ve become. The officer makes fun of them, he’s kind of a dick actually, for acting like they were at war… only to turn around and gaze at his own war ship (awkward!). Yep, Golding kept the heavy-handed symbolism going right to the bitter end.



I really didn’t enjoy Lord Of The Flies. In fact, I kind of resented it. Assigning it to school kids feels like force-feeding them a cautionary tale: “behave the way that the hypocritical adults tell you to, or look how you’ll end up!”. Really, could it be any more patronising? In the beginning, I wondered if maybe I was just coming to this book too late in life (like I did with Fahrenheit 451), but that’s not it: honestly, my anti-establishment tendencies have only softened with age. Had I been required to read this in school, I probably would have ended up sent to the principal’s office for accusing some poor English teacher, in all earnestness, of trying to brainwash us into accepting everything they said without question (yes, I was a bit of a handful). As it stands, Lord Of The Flies wasn’t a winner for me, and I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again. It’s definitely not a book I’d want with me on a desert island, even for the hilarious irony.

I think I might be the only one who’s down on it, though. Stephen King, in particular, is a very vocal fan, and has borrowed heavily from it in his own writing; he also penned an introduction to the 2011 edition, celebrating the centenary of Golding’s birth. And public interest in Lord Of The Flies has led to the release of two film adaptations (1963, 1990). Production of another adaptation, with an all-female cast, was announced by Warner Bros in 2017; before I read the book, I was all in favour of a woman-centric re-boot, but now I feel like the project will be a huge waste. The story of Lord Of The Flies is so deeply rooted in patriarchal bullshit, I’m not sure it can be saved, even if we make them all girls. I’d much rather see that film’s budget reallocated to producing and marketing a story written by women that reflects a genuinely female experience. Someday, when I run the world…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lord Of The Flies:

  • “It isn’t a story filled with hope. The human race is a disgrace.” – James Asherton
  • “‘Food for thought’, and I imagine that anyone who likes this book would also enjoy it if a restaurant hid razor blades in their dish. Like with real food, ‘food for thought’ should be enjoyable, healthy, and should not make you feel sick after consuming it. This book is garbage. It’s unhealthy, and it will likely make you feel sick. I do not recommend consuming this ‘food for thought’. I am not impressed. If someone wants to make a point in literature, there are better ways of going about it. This book is actually just malware for the brain. It’s best not to read it, but if you already did, sort it out the best you can. Good luck.” – S. DANIELSON
  • “The reviews on this book were more fun to read than the actual book itself.” – Lilian
  • “I HATED ALL OF IT. IT WAS THE WORST STINKIN BOOK I HAVE EVER READ. AND I LIKE BOOKS. @$&# PIECE A @$&$” – cat gilleland
  • “This book was only boring because it is not the type of book i like but it was interesting to read.” – jack gartner
  • “Hated it. If your looking for a book that describes the scenery 90 percent of the time. This book is for u.” – Joe Pena
  • “This book doesn’t deserve a review. With all due respect, Golding couldn’t write a good book to save his life. His writing is reminiscent of Tolkien’s; he comes up with a great story, and then ruins it with horrible writing….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I had to read this book for literature class I hated it. my teacher rattled on about the symbolizm in this book.It was so boring and kinda gory.plus no girls, wasnt they suposed to repopulate the world after nuclear war so not possible with only boys. The one thing i found interesting was how they acted like wild animals after they had been on the island a while.that was kinda cool.But it was to confusing” – Amazon Customer


Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.



Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.



You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.



Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).



I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.



The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, and I guess it does (in that they’re pretty much equally not to my taste).

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. The film adaptation was no better. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.

    

Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.



    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer


Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

As you’re all well aware by this point, I rarely buy books brand-new. In fact, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the very first brand-new book I’ve purchased for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I received a birthday gift voucher for a bookstore chain last year, and seeing as Fangirl has proved impossible to find in secondhand bookstores thus far, I bit the bullet and treated myself to a virgin copy, all shiny and new.

Fangirl was released a few years ago now, back in 2013, and yet I still see it all over #bookstagram every single day. It has a fairly standard young adult plot in that it’s a story about university students, written for high-school students. There’s an extremely earnest protagonist, Cath, who would be totally annoying except that she’s also quite socially anxious, which I found to be quite endearing and relatable. She’s nowhere near as irritating as Katniss from The Hunger Games, anyway…

Cath is a freshman student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has a sister (Wren) who is far more outgoing and sociable, but prefers to stay holed up in her room writing fan-fiction about Simon Snow, her favourite young-boy-magician-saves-the-world series (*cough*Harry Potter*cough*). Yes, people, there’s a story within a story (groan).

She has quite a bit to contend with, on the whole: her bipolar father has a full-on collapse, her twin sister has a burgeoning drinking problem, her mother has a whole new life (having abandoned the family when the girls were eight), and her primary love interest is her snarky room-mate’s ex-boyfriend. So, her anxiety is kind of understandable, really.

Still, there are a lot of unrealistic elements to the story that I found really jarring. First off, I can’t see Cath amassing a large following for her fan-fiction (she mentions frequently that she has 10,000 readers). She just doesn’t work all that hard at it, as far as I can tell. I mean, sure, it could happen… but it just seems so unlikely when she doesn’t seem to put any time or effort into developing an online presence or marketing her work. Just ask any self-published author: readers don’t materialise out of thin air, no matter how good you are.



And secondly, Cath finds a mentor of sorts in her creative writing lecturer, and I just cannot believe that a professor would invest so much personal time and effort into a student who’s so resistant (once again, no matter how talented they are). University lecturers are strapped for time as it is; they have dozens of students clamouring for their support and guidance – ones that are desperate to write and improve, no less, and don’t need to be coaxed into it the way that Cath does. Why would a professor waste her time with a student that doesn’t even seem to want to try?

Honestly, the most realistic part of Fangirl was the self-absorbed self-indulgent white guy in Cath’s creative writing class. He writes the same Manic Pixie Dream Girl character over and over again, until he starts ripping off Cath’s work and goes on to find massive success passing it off as his own. I strongly suspect that Rowell has encountered more than one of these arseholes over the course of her career, because she absolutely nailed that particular character.

I also took issue with the ending, which felt pretty anti-climactic. I’d been expecting the resolutions to all the various plot lines to be a little more clear and explicit and… well, resolute. That said, I bitched about that very style of ending when I reviewed Paper Towns, so maybe I’m just being difficult. I haven’t read a whole tonne of young adult fiction (even when I was a young adult), but I’ve read enough now to know that very neat endings are kind of a convention of the genre, and that expectation just isn’t met in this one. I found out later that Fangirl is a NaNoWriMo novel, meaning it was written in a single month in 2012, which maybe explains why the pacing was a bit funky and the ending a bit rushed and unclear. Still, shouldn’t that have been corrected in the editing process? I’m not shitting on NaNoWriMo novels by any means, but writers can hardly spend the time needed to fix structural issues and plot holes when they’re vomiting up an entire novel in a single month.



Even though the pieces didn’t click together for me personally, the critical reception of Fangirl was pretty positive, and a lot of people have praised Rowell for her realistic portrayal of fangirl-ing culture. In fact, the book was so popular that Rowell later (in 2015) published Carry On, which is technically a stand-alone story but is also the fan-fiction story that Cath was writing throughout Fangirl. I’ve seen that one all over #bookstagram too, so it clearly found an audience, perhaps even more so than the original book. I’m glad to have read Fangirl, but as I’m sure you can tell by now I wasn’t exactly a fan(girl), so I don’t think I’ll be seeking out Carry On for my next reading list. Sorry. 😐

I feel a bit shit, like I’m being too harsh; Fangirl is super-popular and has clearly struck a chord for a lot of readers. I suspect it’s great for people who really love young adult books and have already read (and enjoyed!) widely within that particular genre. If you struggle with young adult, or it’s not your usual preference, Fangirl is probably not the one to start with. The good news is that Rowell has also written for adults (Attachments, and Landline), and those books actually sound pretty good, even by my tough standards. Even though I didn’t love Fangirl exactly, I didn’t hate it so much that I wouldn’t give Rowell’s grown-up books a try. And hey, this ain’t the worst review I’ve ever given, by a long shot 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Fangirl:

  • “…. Rowell is very good with scene-setting and with dialogue, she does great dialogue, and the narrative flows very nicely — though I could have done with less of the homophile adventures of Simon Snow, which is (obviously) a pastiche of Harry Potter — which means Cath is writing a pastiche of a pastiche.” – Michael K. Smith
  • “A story about a story with no ending. Don’t waste your time.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I like the story butthe thing I hate about is, when your almost there and suddenly the author make a bunch of scenes to make you read more which I found so boring” – Melanie Anne Duque


We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

It’s a compelling title, isn’t it? We Were Liars. Hats off to Lockhart and her marketing team for that one! It’s all the more enticing for the blurb on the back, which reads: “We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense that will leave you reeling. Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just lie.”

We Were Liars was published in 2014, debuting at #6 on the New York Times Best Seller List in the Young Adult category (spending 13 weeks in the top ten), and it went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. Most impressively, in my mind, it achieved massive cross-over appeal. In fact, I struggle to think of this as a Young Adult novel at all, because even though it ticks all the right boxes and it was marketed that way, most of the people I know who have read and loved it are adult-adults. Grown ups. “Old”. It’s probably the best example, in my mind, of the way in which Young Adult fiction has infiltrated the book-buying world to become a genre and a movement in its own right.

Anyway, We Were Liars is the story of the wealthy, seemingly-perfect Sinclair family. And I mean “wealthy”, as in 1%-every-summer-they-gather-for-a-holiday-on-their-private-island-like-that’s-normal welathy. Stories about rich kids aren’t new, and they have wide appeal – think Gossip Girl, and The OC, and Beverley Hills 90210 (I’m assuming, I’m a bit young to have seen that last one the first time around). What makes We Were Liars differently is that it seems to treat issues of class and race a lot more critically than the rich teenager stories of yore, which was really refreshing. The Sinclairs appear wealthy, and they certainly have the trappings of wealth, but the irony is that none of them are actually able to support themselves without family money. The wealth, and the power it supposedly affords them, is an illusion. It’s the kids, the teenagers, the protagonists, who see through it all. It’s very zeitgeist-y, in a world where kids are leading the revolution.



So, the supposedly-wealthy white-bread Sinclairs gather on this island near Martha’s Vineyard every year… until one summer when Cadence, the narrator, is found seriously injured in the water. She suffers severe migraines and some kind of trauma-induced amnesia; she is completely unable to remember the circumstances leading up to her injury. Her mother refuses to tell her what happened, and packs her off to Europe the next summer… but then, two years later, Cadence returns to the island and begins to piece her memories back together.

The whole “Liars” thing was a bit clumsy, if you ask me. Like I said, it makes for a compelling title, and you’d think that’d be enough, but Lockhart has parlayed it into this Famous Five-esque relationship between the Sinclair cousins. Their family, unironically, calls them collectively “the Liars”, but it’s not 100% clear why until it (kind of) plays into the big shock reveal at the end… and, just, eugh. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed a reach.



Still, the relationships themselves are interesting and well-crafted. Lockhart has said she was inspired by her own fantasies of having a close group of friends growing up, and her curiosity about the potential consequences of those bonds. In fact, We Were Liars‘s appeal to adult readers is probably rooted in nostalgia for the days of childhood friendship, and a new perspective on how those children and teenagers interact with adults we know to be imperfect.

Amy Bender, from the Los Angeles Times, said that We Were Liars was “a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help”, and I don’t think I can say it better myself. The metaphor of Cadence’s amnesia was masterfully done (it mirrors the WASP-y family tradition of denial), and I haven’t seen that kind of complexity in many other Young Adult novels to date. All told, I’d say this is a good one to start with if you’re an adult-adult who’s curious as to why so many readers your age are turning to Young Adult fiction (and I’ll be writing more about that later this week). It’s definitely right up your alley if you liked The Girl On The Train, and don’t mind your female protagonists young, waify, and unreliable.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Were Liars:

  • “Meh, more teen drama than I thought it would be.” – T. Lenahan
  • “GREAT BOOK FAST DELIVERY” – Rachael
  • “Suspenseful. I identified with the central character….don’t know why. Perhaps it was the pain of growing up. Teen years are so hard.” – AvidReader
  • “Was very disappointed with this book. Enjoyed it until the end.” – Jen L
  • “The ending really makes no sense unless the characters are extremely stupid and have no common sense. Very disappointing, would not recommend.” – Juan Blanco
  • “I’m emotionally dead inside but that’s okay because it was very ver very well written” – brandi e huskey


The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

Well, it’s about time I got around to reading The Fault In Our Stars. After John Green announced the title of this, his sixth book, it immediately rose to #84 on the Amazon.com best-seller list. And that was just the title! (It’s drawn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, by the way: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.) He foolishly promised to personally sign each pre-order, which is how he ended up having to autograph every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received. That’s peak extra, right there…

Of course, The Fault In Our Stars went on to debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Children’s Chapter Books, and it remained there for seven consecutive weeks. It’s also appeared on pretty much every other best seller list known to man, it topped the Time List of Fiction Books for 2012, and recent estimates suggest that there are over a million copies in circulation. It has become the definitive sick-lit young adult novel… so, like I said, it’s about bloody time I read it.

The story follows the relationship of the narrator, 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Lancester, and her 17-year-old amputee boyfriend, Augustus Waters. They meet in a naff support group for teenagers with cancer. I appreciated Green’s skipping over all of the “life-changing diagnosis” tropes – The Fault In Our Stars is a book about living with cancer, which comes as a refreshing change of pace. However, my appreciation of the story pretty much ended there, I’m afraid.



Augustus seems to be more an assortment of affectations than an actual character. In fact, you could call him a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a way, and it left a yucky taste in my mouth. He has this whole “I carry around cigarettes but never actually light them because it’s a metaphor” thing, and I had to forcibly restrain myself from dry heaving every time it was mentioned.

I know the legions of fans out there will hate me for this, but I really wasn’t drawn into the tragic teenage love story at all. In fact, the only parts that really drew me in were the ones about Hazel’s mother. Hazel describes one particular scene where she was in the ICU, close to death, and she overheard her mother sobbing “I won’t be a Mom anymore!”. That got me right in the feels! Maybe I’m getting old…?

All that said, I’m very aware that I’m very alone in my garbage opinion. The Fault In Our Stars has received massive critical acclaim. It was praised largely for its “humour” (ha!), its “strong characters” (double ha!), language, themes, and perspective on romantic relationships between cancer patients. The very few less-than-positive reviews I came across criticised Green’s choice of subject matter, arguing that it’s exploitative – and I can see where they’re coming from. Green would have been very well aware of the attention that his book would receive, and surely he would (should?) have considered the risk of his making real-life teenage cancer patients circus acts in the lives of his fans. Ultimately, though, it seems like he couldn’t resist the temptation to write the topic that would yank (hard!) on the maximum number of heart-strings. In that, he was definitely successful.



He sold the film rights almost straight away, and the feature film was released two years after publication. It was a huge commercial success too, grossing over $307 million worldwide (on a budget of just $12 million, no less). I watched it myself, after I’d read the book, hoping I’d enjoy the story more if I was one step removed from the teenage girl narration (a la The Hunger Games)… but no dice. It wasn’t a terrible movie, by any means, but I’d struggle to recall a single moment or performance that really stood out for me, gun to my head.

In the end, I’d say the main reason to read The Fault In Our Stars is basically just to catch-up with the rest of the world. Like Harry Potter before it, there’s a whole generation coming up behind us with a deep emotional investment in this book – it’s probably going to be the reason that some teenagers decide to study medicine, or Shakespeare, or any other number of things. If the doctor treating me in my nursing home once loved this book, I’d sure as shit like to have something to say about it, in the hopes that it’d make them like me enough to keep me alive a little longer. I’m all about the long game 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Fault In Our Stars:

  • “There is literally nothing wrong with this book except for one awkward sentence about knees that I wish had been worded better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “The best part of the book is that it’s over.” – David Kim
  • “Lovely book. It’s the first time ever I was rooting for the teenagers to have sex.” – Kris Matsumoto Wong
  • “Tolerable, but not life changing” – Kenneth choi
  • “It’s basically twilight with cancer.” – janathan tatum
  • “These 1-star Amazon reviews are better written than this book….” – Lily Pop


Paper Towns – John Green

John Green is one of only three authors to have more than one book on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. This week, I’m tackling the first of them: Paper Towns. It debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2008, it won the Edgar Award in 2009 for Best Young Adult Novel, and just about every YA-reader I know has a major stiffy for Green. So, I figured it was worth a look.

Paper Towns is your standard coming-of-age story. There’s a prologue positioning the two central characters as childhood friends. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy.

Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. You have to suspend your disbelief for a minute here. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, that’s what Green chose for a plot, and I’m hardly in a position to argue with him.

There were some surprisingly clever and funny bits. I laughed out loud at the story of local figure Dr Jefferson Jefferson, who is actually not a doctor of any kind – he’s just a powerful, wealthy man who petitioned the courts to change his first name to “Dr”. That’s funny, right?! So I keep reading along, chuckling away… until we hit the first speed-bump of self-indulgent teenage wankery. Quentin opines:

“It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca, when perfectly likeable individuals such as myself don’t get to have sex with either of them – or anyone else for that matter.”

Sound the alarm, guys: our narrator is definitely a Nice GuyTM.



His (brief) moment of redemption doesn’t come until about two-thirds of the way through the novel (by which point I’d already written him off). He realises that Margo isn’t just a vessel for all of his dreams and desires – she’s an actual person, would you believe it? And he’s not subtle about it, either. He really thwacks you over the head with this life-changing realisation.

“Margo was not a miracle. She was not adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”

I was just about to score one for John Green – I was pleasantly surprised, I honestly didn’t think he had it in him – but then it all went to shit. And by that, I mean that his selfish teenage arsehole characters went back to acting like selfish teenage arseholes. Quentin skips his high-school graduation (and somehow convinces his friends to do the same), despite the fact that he is an only child and his parents are so excited and proud of him that they bought him a car. He uses that very car to drive across the country chasing after the girl, risking life and limb, with nary a thought to his heartbroken parents… only to find that she’s absolutely fine and, well, that’s kind of the end.

It’s not all terrible, though. I wasn’t a huge fan of the characters or the plot, but the “paper towns” trivia was pretty fun and it made a nice little backdrop for the story. If you’re wondering: the idea of a “paper town” is actually an old cartography trick. Basically, if you’re designing a map (back in the days before Google had street view), you sneakily add in an extra fake town in a random spot. It was an early form of copyright protection. If a cartographer saw their secret fake “paper town” on another map, they could be fairly certain that the designer had copied their design without permission. Clever, eh? Green confirms in his author note that the paper town he references in the book, Agloe, is actually real:

“Agloe began as a paper town, created to protect against copyright infringement. But then people with these old Esso maps kept looking for it, and so someone built a store, making Agloe real.”

But aside from the fun trivia (and the lols in the beginning), I didn’t find all that much to love about Paper Towns. I think Green tried to play with “dark” themes too much. He was a bit heavy handed with the death stuff (that’s him “having his cake”), but then he wraps it up very neatly in an alarmingly benign ending (and that’s him “having it too”)., The monologuing in the closing chapters was extremely tedious; it felt like very lazy storytelling. I had to keep reminding myself that I’m a bit older than the target market; maybe today’s young adults like having everything teased out in dialogue, to feel like the story has a resolution?



Bonus fun fact: Paper Towns was apparently, like all good books, banned from a U.S. school in 2014 because a local parent “disapproved of the book’s sexual content”. A few high-school boys occasionally whined about being virgins, which is enough to make anyone clutch their pearls, I’m sure. The National Coalition Against Censorship had it reinstated shortly thereafter.

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. Paper Towns is great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Paper Towns:

  • “Purchased for my adult son who is a
    Librarian to give to his 13 year old son.” – granny70
  • “This book is complete trash. I would rather read a book about a boy peeling an orange. The characters were flat and the book was just boring in general. Q was a nerdy teen and Margo was a spoiled brat, who cares. This book was a waste of time I could have spent reading The Hunger Games.” – Isabela Underdahl
  • “WOW THANKS JON GREAN U MADE ME CRY IN DIS U HOE GO SUCK A PAPER TOWN” – Xing Lee

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

Because I’m a masochist, I chose another 20th century stream-of-consciousness novel for the next read. I picked up a never-read copy of The Catcher in the Rye at my favourite secondhand bookstore, from a stack of identical perfectly-preserved copies – assumedly donated by some closed store or failed online retail venture. An auspicious beginning, no?

J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel was originally published for adults, but has since (apparently) become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation. I say “apparently”, because I’m not sure that anyone’s actually asked the adolescents; sure, there’s around 1 million copies sold every year, but I’m pretty sure most of those are mandated reading for high-school book reports. How I myself managed to escape that particular rite of passage is beyond me…

(The book’s also quite popular with murderers, as it turns out, so there’s that.)

The Catcher in the Rye has received basically endless critical acclaim, and also has the honour of being the most censored book in U.S. high schools and libraries throughout the sixties and seventies. Reasons for censorship include its frequent use of vulgar language, sexual references, undermining of “family values”, encouragement of rebellion, promotion of drinking, promotion of smoking, promotion of lying, and promotion of promiscuity. This excited me to no end! My apprehension about its style aside, any book that undermines so-called family values is one that I can get behind.


Straight off the bat, I actually liked the narrator (Holden Caulfield). He’s a bratty, rebellious teenager with a tendency towards profanity, tangential thinking, and wild exaggeration. Salinger’s characterisation was superb; it sounded like the diary of a teenage boy, you’d believe one had written it. I spent a lot of time wondering why I found The Catcher in the Rye so much more gripping and so much less annoying than My Brilliant Career. All I could come up with was the gender differential: characters that sound exactly like the type of person you know are so much less confronting than characters that sound exactly like the type of person you are.

Be warned: The Catcher in the Rye is mostly internal monologue – not a whole lot of plot. You just follow this wayward kid around new York for a few days while he drinks and smokes himself into oblivion (and chickens out of losing his virginity to a sex worker). You find out, on the final page, that he’s relating this story to you from the confines of a psychiatric hospital. Not that it’s a shock twist in the end or anything like that; you kind of get the vibe that this kid is bonkers right from the outset.



Holden’s got some interesting insights, though, and I laughed out loud more than once:

“So, I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows?”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, given my initial reservations about its style and the shell-shock of Mrs Dalloway (and, if I had to compare, I’d say that Mrs D was far more likely to make me want to kill someone, so all those murderers who loved Catcher should probably have read a bit more broadly).

Still, I’m not sure I’ll bother going back for seconds. I’d recommend The Catcher in the Rye to anyone who wasn’t forced to read it in high-school – you’ll probably enjoy it all the more for having avoided it for so long, as I did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Catcher in the Rye:

  • “DISCLAIMER: I only made it into the first bit of the book. There might’ve been some amazing twist I never reached, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue, it was just so boring. The interactions take forever and say almost nothing at all, and when they do get a point across, it’s a depressing point.” – Jesse Gibson
  • “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the author knew this or not, but the teen in this book does quite a bit of drinking and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to drink under 21. Now sure, we’ve all done it but does that make it right? Maybe. So I guess the real question here is, should we lower the drinking age? I don’t know. Ask JD Salinger.” – JACOB AND SUMMER
  • “Spoiler alert!! Book is not about a baseball player stuck in a giant loaf of bread.” – solomon glowitz

The Catcher In The Rye has one of my favourite opening lines in literature, I think it’s an absolute cracker. Check out more excellent openers from my bookish adventures here.

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