December 13th, 2012

Wu for Asians!

How Green This Land

With my John Green binge over, I'm not sure what to read for my next audiobook. I'm not going to start something new before I go home for the holidays, but I will want something to jump into next year. Maybe Cloud Atlas will be free again.

Paper Towns, by John Green (read by Dan John Miller), might as well be called Looking for Margo, as it concerns a teenage boy with the hots for a mysterious, incredibly beautiful girl who has a boyfriend but strings him along for it to be useful to her. Also, there is looking involved.

Quentin Jacobsen has always had a crush on the literal girl next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (John Green characters always have full names, unless they have nicknames, like Q). But even though they were kind of close growing up as kids, they sorted into different crowds by the days of high school, she one of the cool kids notable for having all kinds of crazy adventures and he a nerd notable for not very much. Seriously, Q has almost no personality; the Publishers Weekly review calling him "milquetoast" was spot on. At least Pudge had his obsession with Famous Last Words; Q isn't even quirky! He leaves the quirkiness to his friends, Radar, who's obsessed with editing Wikipedia Omnictionary, and Ben, who's obsessed with bagging a nice honeybunny.

One fateful night, Margo shows up at his bedroom out of nowhere and enlists his help in a series of pranks. It's a fun time, and they sort of reconnect. And then the next morning, she's gone. Like...gone. Here's where the looking comes in.

Paper Towns is divided into three sections. The first and third sections are pretty good, but the second section, which is the bulk of the book, is not as engaging. Quentin is determined to find Margo, convinced that she's left clues for him to follow, and his friends support his quest as much as they can, but at some point, I realized I just did not care. For one, as I said, Quentin doesn't really have a personality. And for another, neither does Margo. She's just this mysterious ideal of a girl—and, actually, that's part of the point of the whole book, since Quentin begins to realize this about her himself. In looking for her after she's gone, he begins to learn more about her as a person and subsequently more about himself, based on his own actions. Green does make some insightful points about identity and human interaction by the end (it's not a John Green book if a teenager doesn't spout philosophical metaphors about fundamental human truths, after all).

I did enjoy the time Q spent with his friends and Margo's friends. John Green does have a knack for creating teenage characters that seem like they'd be fun to hang out with. Funnily enough, Paper Towns does display a lot of Green's quirks. The basic character types from Looking for Alaska. The video games from The Fault in Our Stars. A minor element from An Abundance of Katherines that is expanded here.

I am appreciating that John Green's books are all pretty different, but I have one more (co-written) book to go and I think he's the Neil Gaiman of YA in that he's hit-or-miss for me. I loved The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines, but Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, while I liked them, didn't do as much for me.

Popular YA authors John Green and David Levithan teamed up on Will Grayson, Will Grayson, with each author taking one of the titular Graysons. Green's Grayson is very obviously his, and I am not familiar with Levithan's work, so I have no idea how his Grayson compares. Green's Will Grayson is your Typical John Green Protagonist with a Quirky Best Friend and a Female Love Interest. Levithan's will grayson—apparently his name is always in lowercase, which does not come across in the audiobook—is a gay guy with a girlfriend and an online boyfriend. A gay male protagonist in a YA novel, you say? How cool! But ha ha, too bad, he's a jerkass.

The two Will Graysons have nothing in common but their names. That is, until their paths cross one fateful night (um, spoiler, you didn't actually think this book was about two kids named Will Grayson whose lives never intersected, did you?).

John Green likes to give his protagonists quirky best friends who are more interesting and entertaining than the protagonist and now, finally, he actually puts more focus on that character and lets him shine. In this book, we have Tiny Cooper, who basically steals the entire book: "Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large." Tiny Cooper is in love with every boy, and he is on a mission to put on his epic autobiographical musical titled, I shit you not, Tiny Dancer.

The alternating chapters are neat, especially once the Graysons intersect and you get to see some of the same scenes from two perspectives. MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl distinguish each Grayson well, and they manage to mimic each other successfully too, given that they both have to voice the other Will, as well as Tiny and other characters that both Graysons interact with. They must also be commended for singing the various songs we hear from Tiny's musical: the audiobook may lose the effect of a lowercase name, but the effect of actually hearing the songs can't be beat.

The story tackles the usual themes of romance and friendship, and it doesn't go into the really philosophical places that Green's books tend to go, not that it doesn't have some good metaphors. It mainly concerns itself with letting the two Will Graysons examine their relationships and how they interact with the people they care about (thankfully, will grayson is not a jerkass for the whole book). It surprised me by taking mature, interesting paths rather than going the cliché routes. Although I wasn't always completely engaged (I was far more interested in Will Grayson than will grayson, who definitely sounded lowercase all the time), I felt that it was a strong book overall.
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