Looking For Alaska – about as good as a debut novel gets!

Looking For AlaskaIt seems with John Green I’ve approached his written work in reverse – I started out with his brilliant workΒ The Fault In Our Stars, which long time readers will remember was my favourite book from last year, and only this year, on a plane to Sweden, did I finally read his debut novel, Looking For Alaska. I’ll discuss how this in itself affected my perception of the book a little later, but first I want to discuss Green’s debut on its own merits.

I’ll start off by saying that for me, Looking For Alaska, a young adult fiction novel of just over 200 pages, is a 5 star novel. The main character, Miles Halter, quickly nicknamed Pudge by his room mate The Colonel, begins the novel by leaving his Florida home to attend a Preparatory High School in Alabama, and we learn of his passion for famous last words, in particular those of Francois Rabelais: “I go to seek a great perhaps”. Before long, Pudge is introduced to a friend of The Colonel’s, Alaska Young, and then the story really takes off, both in plot and character development.

The book is divided into a Before and After, with a mysterious but pivotal event (which I won’t reveal and which you must not skip ahead to when you read the book because that’s silly and you’ll ruin it for yourself) separating the two. Naturally, Alaska Young is at the centre of said pivotal event, as the title of the book perhaps suggests, and no doubt you’ll spend the first half guessing what it might be, and the second half reeling in the aftermath of it all, along with the characters themselves. Because of this structure, the plot is quite simple, and the theme, which is hard to reveal without spoiling the story, is also one which is addressed quite head on and in a style that we have later come to expect from Green.

But, as with The Fault In Our Stars, it is the characters that are the stand-out of Looking For Alaska. Many of the characters you just feel sorry for, particularly Pudge and his constantly unrequited feelings towards Alaska, but also The Colonel once you start to see all the aspects of his life. But while the main character might be Pudge, the story does revolve just as much around Alaska, and she herself is an utterly fascinating character – volatile, unpredictable, fierce, and self-destructive, yet lovable and loved by those around her. Most importantly, she is a deeply layered character, and we find ourselves as readers trying to pierce through her complexity right up until the end of the story, much like her friends within the novel. As I read this, I found myself thinking that everybody has had at least one Alaska Young in their lives, at least one friend or person who was similar to her, and if we had this friend when we were younger, in our teens like these characters, we probably also didn’t know how to handle them. I sure know I didn’t at that age. And that is something John Green is so good at – getting under our skin by talking about truths that are so universal and yet feel so personal and intimate.

So, as I said, I gave this 5 stars. I also gave The Fault In Our Stars 5 stars, but, really, if I could, I’d give the latter 6 stars. While Looking For Alaska is a good novel, and an amazing debut novel, it is still clearly a first book, and John Green’s ability to weave a tale, his way of exploring characters and all their humanity, and his knack for making confronting topics so real and accessible – these are all things that developed considerably by the time he wrote The Fault In Our Stars. Looking For Alaska is a great novel, but The Fault In Our Stars is a masterpiece. And yet, I am glad I read them in the order I did, as I feel I can appreciate that aspect of Looking For Alaska – watching an amazing writer finding his feet already, and knowing where he will go with his voice in the coming years.

I now need to keep working through Green’s books. Next on the agenda is Paper Towns, mostly because it’s the only other one I have and as many of you know I am on a serious book ban at the moment. But I have heard differing opinions about this one, so I am quite curious!

What are your thoughts about Looking For Alaska, and John Green as an author in general?

21 thoughts on “Looking For Alaska – about as good as a debut novel gets!

    • Ahh! If you liked TFIOS, you’ll probably like Looking For Alaska too. But it’s definitely not as good, though still great on its own merits. And annoying when I realised he was about my age when he wrote it, argh! Hahahaha πŸ˜›

      • I hear there is a scene where the protag talks about getting his first…ummm…how do I put this delicately…oral delight. Is this true?? If so, did you think it inappropriate for a young adult novel?

        • It’s interesting the response this book has gotten from people for various scenes (actually, I’ve heard negativity towards other scenes more than that one). But I think the thing is, this stuff happens with a lot of youth culture around the world, and has done for a long time, and with the growth of the internet, youth are more cluey than ever before about all these sorts of things, so trying to hide them from it doesn’t actually protect them at all. I think if this novel had a lot of things, like the drugs and sexual experiences etc, with no real and believable consequences for the characters, then I would be concerned because that would be sending out a message to teenagers “go out, do these things, you’re invincible”. But it doesn’t do that at all – a large part of their character development is from the way they deal with the consequences of their bad decisions, they way they learn and grow up from it. It very much says “teenagers are very vulnerable, and you all need to be careful and think about what you do and why you do it and what the consequences will be”. And I think that is important. Adults can tell teenagers all they like to do the right thing, but teenagers need to make the decision themselves ultimately.
          John Green, interestingly, has defended the book since it was first published too, saying that while it’s about young people he doesn’t see it specifically as a young adult novel (though it really does seem to be marketed as that).
          Anyway, it’s an interesting discussion. I can definitely see how some people would consider it inappropriate, but teaching a lot of teenagers myself in my job, they are far more knowledgeable than most adults give them credit for. So we should be guiding them in the right direction, not hiding them from things completely. But that’s just my opinion πŸ™‚

  1. Loved this book. The best line in the entire book : “You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can’t say that Alabamians as a people are unduly afraid of deep fryers.” I live in Alabama, so I know this to be 100% true. Haha. πŸ˜›

    Oh, and Paper Towns is really good, too. I think you’ll enjoy it.

    • Hahahaha I was wondering if that line had any truth to it or not! Well, now I know! πŸ˜› Deep frying is so bad hahaha. I mean it can be tasty from time to time, but generally speaking… πŸ˜›
      I tried deep fried mars bars once, they were so gross. It was local, but apparently they originated in Scotland, bizarrely. When I think of Scotland, I think of Tea and Scones, not…deep fried mars bars?! πŸ˜›
      I reckon I’ll enjoy it, but I am wondering why a number of people aren’t liking Paper Towns as much. I guess I’ll find out, if there is a valid reason! πŸ™‚

      • Oh, if you eat anything fried, it has to be from southern US. We like frying things around here. πŸ˜›
        It’s been awhile since I read Paper Towns, but I remember it having a different feel to it than his other books. It’s still a good read, though.

        • Ahh okay, I’ll remember that one day, when I eventually get around to visiting the US (which I am sure I will, but considering I’m about to move to Sweden from Australia, I might spend some time exploring Europe and maybe my birth country back in the UK for a few years first). I don’t mind frying some things. I actually have a deep fryer at home, but I don’t use it very often, and I suspect I’ll leave it with my housemate when I leave. πŸ˜›
          Hmmm I’m sure I’ll still like Paper Towns, I’ve realised I’m quite open minded about books once I like an author – it takes a lot for me to dislike a book by an author I like.

  2. I finally got around to picking up The Fault In Our Stars, after reading so many rave reviews in the blogosphere. Now you’re telling me his first novel is at least 5 stars, too? My TBR list just keeps getting higher. One of these days it will topple over and crush me! lol

    PS. Glad you liked the book and thanks for the recommendation. πŸ™‚

    • Hahaha, yeah, although The Fault In Our Stars is definitely much better. You’ll see why when you do get around to reading them. It’s hard to explain, but everybody I have spoken to who has read both books seems to agree!
      I hope you like both books when you get around to them! I should read some crappy books and purposely recommend against them to give you guys all a break, huh? πŸ˜›

  3. I’m really glad to have read this brilliant review. Right now I am getting close to John Green by reading Paper Town, which I have not finished yet, but I am trapped by many things, like the characters, the narrative style, Etc… And now … I can’t wait to finish this reading and pick up Looking for Alaska, and The Fault in Our Stars, thanks to you ! I love this blog, really !

    • Ahh okay, so you’re not enjoying Paper Towns? As I said, I keep hearing mixed reviews about that one. I suspect I will like it, but possible because I’m already familiar with John Green now – maybe it’s not a good novel to start with.
      Definitely go with The Fault In Our Stars first – it is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, and easily in my top 10 of all time. πŸ˜€
      And thank you for your kind words! πŸ™‚

      • no, sorry, I am Italian and maybe I don’t explain myself the best in english … I am enjoying very much the reading of Paper Town, and now thanks to you I am eager to read all of John Green’s work ! I have used the word ”trapped”, meaning that I can’t stop reading this book πŸ™‚ Sorry for the misunderstanding !

        • Ohhh I see! Yes, I noticed you were Italian when I went for a wander on your blog (thank goodness my internet browser has a translate function, although it’s not very good but still). I get you now, I interpreted ‘trapped’ negatively but yep I totally see what you mean! πŸ˜€

          • I must improve my english, it is the worldwide language ! I would love to do as Kuki Gallmann, a writer born in Treviso, a city near Venice, ( just like me!). She has gone to Africa. She lives in Kenya since many years, and so she knows italian, english, and swahili : she has written her books in english and then she has helped to translate them in italian ! For now, I think I should translate some post of my blog. I would love to exchange ideas and books review with many people, not only italians ! πŸ˜€
            ps : I have two blog, Lovely Records is more like a personal bag in which I throw a little of everything, things that happens to me, things I like. The other one, Lovingbooks, it explains by itself, is like a catalog I use for remember the books I read and the impression they have leave on me. It’s wonderful to talk about them with other readers !

            • I think a lot of the world speaks English pretty darn well for a second language, though. It’s sort of funny, because English is the first language in Australia, there is no common second language – when I explained to my students the other day that most of the world is bilingual, and that actually us Aussies are a bit slack in the language department, they were shocked. πŸ˜›
              That would be awesome to be able to translate your own books like this Kuki Gallmann! I need to master Swedish (particularly as I’m moving there soon), but then there are a few European languages I’d like to try my hand at after that (including Italian, which I studied very briefly in school and have forgotten almost all of it, sadly). But I think that’s a great idea about translating some of your blog posts, too! It’ll definitely garner more readers, and honestly your English is quite good – practise makes perfect! πŸ™‚
              Ahhhh okay I’ll have to check out your other blog some time as well! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you! He’s definitely an amazing author! It’s funny, one of my classes has this group of girls who are obsessed with John Green and are currently reading all his books and swapping them with each other – they’re only 15 so it’s great to see them reading someone decent! They were pretty happy when they realised their teacher knew who they were talking about too, hahaha! πŸ™‚

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