I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Before: Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After: Nothing is ever the same.
This is my first foray into John Green’s writing, undertaken for my real life book club during our year of reading young adult literature. It seemed appropriate to include one of Green’s books, since he is sometimes credited “with ushering in a new golden era for contemporary, realistic, literary teen fiction, following more than a decade of dominance by books about young wizards, sparkly vampires, and dystopia.” (Wikipedia).
Looking for Alaska is his first published novel. One of the things that I did appreciate about it was its male narrator, Miles “Pudge” Halter. A story of a young man, written by a male author, something that we could use more of in the world of YA. One presumes that Green, having been an adolescent boy, would bring his experience to the novel and that seemed to me to be the case. Of course, my only way of judging is from comparison to my long-ago experience of being a teen girl.
I also appreciated the strong character of Alaska Young, the young woman who provides the lynch-pin of Halter’s boarding school life. She is intelligent (coaching the boys in mathematics) and a reader with a large collection of books in her room. But she is also cool, smoking & drinking & presumably sexually active (we readers only see the first two activities). She challenges the boys regularly on matters of female objectification and patriarchy. But she has a boyfriend outside of the boarding school, which makes her off-limits as a potential girlfriend to the boys—nevertheless, they all fall for the beautiful Alaska and hope to be the one to catch her fancy should she break up with Jake.
I liked all those features—so why only 3 stars? Because I felt really emotionally manipulated during my reading. My first few tears were shed in the coffee room at work, and I decided to finish up the book at home rather than cry in the workplace. For my money, Patrick Ness does a much better job at writing a YA book on grief in A Monster Calls. I cried over that one too, but it felt a bit more honest to me somehow.
Mind you, I would never discourage anyone from reading Looking for Alaska. I consider 3 stars to be a pretty good rating and I’m sure that younger readers would rate the novel higher than I do. And it certainly provides the young male viewpoint that is needed to attract young men into the world of reading.