Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult

Paper Towns – John Green

John Green is one of only three authors to have more than one book on The 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 teenaged 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

 

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The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Remember that bargain bin, where I picked up Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Right next to it was The Book Thief, number one book on the Dymocks 101 of 2016, marked down to just $4. Seemed pretty reasonable!

This is one of the books on The List that I’ve heard plenty of, but not heard much about. I was pretty sure it had been made into a movie starring some not-unheard-of people but, gun to my head, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about the story. Ah well, an EXTRAORDINARY #1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER is probably not to be sneezed at.

I’m not gonna lie: it starts out pretty heavy. Turns out, it’s narrated by Death (how post-modern!). Death tells us we’re in Nazi Germany, it’s cold as balls, a kid dies on a train, and his mother and sister have to bury him quick smart out in Woop Woop before they carry on to dump the remaining child with a foster family. Liesel – the still-alive kid, who turns out to be the protagonist – is freaking the fuck out. She steals a book from the gravedigger, even though she can’t read at all. Clearly, this story won’t be fun for anyone involved.

The story builds up to a rollicking pace rather quickly, but the writing style takes some getting used to – lots of short, bursty sentences that are Laden With MeaningTM. Some of it was actually kind of pretty, but I couldn’t shake my suspicion that Zusak was just trying a bit too hard.




He crams the book chock-full with misery and unfortunate events. The foster family is no Brady Bunch, and just as Liesel starts to settle in they start harbouring a Jew in the basement, feeding him scraps and surreptitiously emptying paint tins of his piss outside. It felt for a minute like the foster mother was being set up as the “bad guy” (nope, that’d be Hitler), but I liked her most of all – she told everyone to lick her arse if they disagreed with her. Liesel develops a close relationship with her foster father (Hans), who starts teaching her to read, then she figures out her mother was taken by the Nazis for being a communist and Hans smacks her for saying she hated Hitler in public. The story continues in much the same vein: people die, people get sent to concentration camps, kids steal food to eat, and places get bombed. Zusak fully takes us through how much the Nazis sucked.

The narration-by-Death is a cute quirk, but otherwise The Book Thief is a super-familiar narrative. I think we’re all well aware that the Nazis were awful and literacy is important, and there wasn’t really anything else new or revelatory. I don’t think I got anything out of The Book Thief (aside from the cool narrative technique) that I didn’t get already reading The Diary of a Young Girl when I was twelve.

On that note, though, we really should keep in mind that The Book Thief – despite its heavy subject matter – is Young Adult fiction. That means it’s not a very laborious read for the grown-ups, which makes for a nice change of pace. I’d say The Book Thief is great for someone on the upper end of the Young Adult age bracket, who’s just starting to learn about WWII… or for anyone who wants to feel smart without having to work too hard for it. 😉

No need to steal it, like our young protagonist: buy it here for the best price instead (and KUWTP will get a tiny cut!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Book Thief:

  • “Sentimental rubbish with obvious characters, most of which were stolen from Great Expectations.” – Maurice Lucas
  • “I cold have done without all the cursing. The beginning was plodding and slow; the characters were flat. Deeper character development would have added layers to this story and made it much more interesting. The only one I really empathized with was the narrator, ‘Death’.” – L. H.
  • “Too confusionly written. Jumped around too much. Movie much better.” – Tip Top lady bug
  • “8///(&+;+&:::)___444)==4)))_))&))222gfytrydghjhhfvcbchfgcytrdyfy Guv fffffffffgfffffffffffffffffgfgffffffffffffffffff strategic planning to find the first place for those of you can bring some if the movie and I think the movie and its first place in fact the world is not only the movie was the movie is a lot more to BEEN Isabel” – izzyb0430@gmailIsabel

 

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The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

And here we are! If you’re new to Keeping Up With The Penguins, you might need to check out the About page to work out… well, what this is all about.

This is the first cab off the rank, the book that finally got me using my commute for something other than reading work emails and tagging friends in memes on Facebook. I started with The Hunger Games simply because I already owned it; a few years ago, I picked up at a Big W for the princely sum of $2.37… and then never looked at it again. Until now.

Released in 2008, The Hunger Games is a New York Times bestseller, and the first in a trilogy of young adult dystopian novels (it’s definitely the only book to which that sentence could ever apply, right?). Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they made a few movies out of it.

To summarise the plot and get that out of the way quickly, in a post-apocalyptic North America, a wealthy evil dictator makes each of the poverty-stricken districts surrounding a luxe capital supply a boy and girl once a year to fight to the death in a reality TV show. Winners get spoils and riches (like food, and not-dying). The social commentary is probably a revelation to the teenaged target market, and has already been discussed at length elsewhere I’m sure (in many a high school book report, at least).

The Hunger Games - President Trump Can't Do That, Can He? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s no great shock that Collins is cited as saying that modern reality television served as a source of inspiration (clearly referring to The Bachelor). She recounts an almost-too-good-to-be-true story of channel surfing and flicking between scenes of people competing for a prize, and footage of the Iraq war. It’s not the most believable origin story (J.K. Rowling had the idea for Harry Potter while staring out the window of a delayed train and watching cows in a field, after all), but it’s nice and neat, isn’t it?

The story begins with the narrator – Katniss, the very-average-teen-girl-who-is-very-obviously-going-to-have-greatness-thrust-upon-her – insisting that “there’s nothing romantic between her and Gale”. Ergo, there’s definitely going to be something romantic between her and Gale before the credits roll. Sure enough, by page 453, it’s all “I can’t explain how things are with Gale, because I don’t know myself”. HA!




As it goes on, I literally laughed out loud on several occasions at the characters’ nonchalant descriptions of rather graphic violence. I’m kicking myself for not writing down an example (and too lazy to go back searching for one), but it’d be something to the effect of: “Oh, that guy? Yeah, the other guy beat his head in with a shovel, so he’s no problem *shrugs*”. I know it’s a comment on our culture’s desensitisation to brutality (particularly that inflicted on or by people of colour), and how it’s all perpetuated by the 24-hour news cycle… but it was also really funny. Other highlights included the narrator’s repeated descriptions of delicious lamb stew on rice, which were enough to trigger an intense craving for Indian food in this reader.

The story ends on a glorious cliffhanger – which, in the age of dime-a-dozen young adult trilogies, we all know means $$$. I can just imagine Collins putting an early draft – with a more resolute ending – on her editor’s desk, and getting an immediate “nuh-uh”. The Hunger Games would have stood perfectly well on its own, with a few tweaks in the final pages, but who cares about “perfectly well” when there’s a goldmine to be dug in the pockets of millennials?

My impressions of the book were definitely coloured by the film – and, in an unexpected plot twist, I actually thought the film was better. It was somehow more complex, perhaps because the viewers weren’t exposed to the keep-it-simple-stupid train of thought of a teenage girl narrator. The film had a subtlety that you just can’t get when the protagonist is spoon-feeding to you her every supposition.

On the whole, I think I enjoyed it, in a way that makes me sound (and feel!) like a condescending arsehole. I had a few chuckles. I didn’t get lost or confused (though the plot did randomly accelerate in places). It was light enough to ease me into this whole project without making me regret the idea entirely. I probably wouldn’t read The Hunger Games again, but I’d happily give my copy to a 13-year-old cousin who needed something to do on her Christmas holidays.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hunger Games:

  • “Loved the book, but it is dumb to make me review with minimum amount of words. Sometimes there just isn’t much more that needs to be said.” – Gretchen B. Hitchcock
  • “Just not my kinda book my daughter got it” – Carol Paulen
  • “I read the whole thing” – Teo

 

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