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Looking for Alaska
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on March 30, 2005
...and read this book in one sitting. Okay, it's short and incredibly good, which makes it easy to bolt down. But then you are going to feel like an idiot for not savoring the pleasure, and you're going to be bleary as hell the next day (if you finish it at 4 in the morning, like I did).

This book deals with the Big Ones: suffering, loss, and grief, but it does so with such compassion and humor that the net impact is uplifting. Even the principal turns out to be a human being. There are no cardboard cut-out characters here.

Be aware that the kids in this story do what kids actually do (smoke, drink, and have sex). If that bothers you, read it anyway. There are more important things in life than observing proprieties and pretending that bright kids aren't exploratory. You don't have to approve of these characters. It is enough to love them and learn from them.
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on September 16, 2007
(This is Pat O'Donnell's daughter, not Pat O'Donnell.)
Drinking, drugs, sex, juvenile delinquency, drunk driving...these are all things you can find addressed in any public service announcement, health class, and many other sources. So why write a novel about them? Maybe the author of Looking for Alaska, John Green, felt a personal connection with these problems, a strong desire to show teens the dangers of what is now thought of as normal teenage behavior. Or maybe he thought that all of the public service announcements and health classes didn't address these "problems" well enough. John Green uses a classic example from what he considers to be an average teen's life to warn kids of the dangers of driving under the influence and general teenage delinquency. In this, the author has succeeded, as well as any health class or general warning label on a six-pack of beer does. Why not read one of those?
The answer is that John Green tries to relate this problem more closely to an average teen reading this book. Looking for Alaska tells the story of a boy, "Pudge," who transfers to a new school to get away from his boring life. While he's there, he meets lots of new and interesting friends, including the charismatic and self-destructive Alaska. "Normal" teenage delinquency ensues, climaxing in Alaska crashing her car while under the influence and dying. Now Pudge and his friends need to find the answers to some unsolved questions Alaska left behind. In order to make this story, John Green, develops strong, familiar characters, with interesting quirks. "Pudge," for example, is the familiar stock character of the awkward new kid, unsure and clumsy. John Green makes Pudge stand out from the other characters in other books of this type (there are so many) by giving him personality quirks--such as the fact that he memorizes famous people's last words. This makes him memorable, yet still easy to relate to for an average teenager.
The author's intentions in writing this book are understandable--he wishes to make teens aware of the problem that is teenage delinquency and the disasters it can cause. However, this has been done so many more times, in so many other ways, that this book is all but obsolete.
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on April 30, 2009
Due to the sections where the 2 main characters (male and female) are watching porn movies together and the comments she makes to instruct the teen boy and the sections on their rather graphic sexual experiences together, this book is VERY inappropriate for a school HS library. Language is also crude.
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on February 23, 2012
Good story, well-written, BUT: parents may want to know that by page 25, the author had dropped the "F" bomb, used the words "Jesus" and "Christ" as curses, said "ass----" and "sh--", and had made positive references to cigarettes, alcohol, teen sex, "boob"s, and pornography. In addition, many characters proudly rebel against authority, have disdain for their elders, and one character's parents are alcoholics and physically abusive.

This school is required reading at my local high school. Sigh.
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VINE VOICEon July 31, 2009
Story Overview

Miles Halter -- for all intents and purposes -- is a bit of a social misfit. He has few friends -- much to the chagrin of his doting parents. Feeling stifled and like an outsider in his Florida high school, he convinces his parents he wants to attend Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama (his father's alma mater). Although his parents aren't quite sure why he wants to leave, he explains it by sharing Rabelais's last words -- "I go to seek a Great Perhaps." (Miles's greatest eccentricity is that he "collects" people's last words.)

At Culver Creek, he is quickly befriended by his roommate Chip Martin (known on campus as The Colonel). A forceful personality who is one of the masterminds behind elaborate pranks, the Colonel includes Miles (now christened "Pudge") in his circle of friends -- which includes a Japanese exchange student named Takumi and an attractive girl named Alaska. The Colonel fills Pudge in on the social hierarchy of Culver Creek -- the boarders vs. the Weekend Warriors (the rich kids who go home on the weekend), how to outfox The Eagle (the stern headmaster), and how to camouflage smoking and hide liquor. The friends navigate the school year together -- weathering difficult classes, exploring their sexuality, planning pranks, and feuding with the Weekend Warriors.

Miles quickly falls into life at Culver Creek -- and into love with Alaska. Never having had a girlfriend, he finds Alaska fascinating. Not only is she beautiful, but she is a free spirit -- alternately fascinating and moody, friendly then standoffish. And he's not the only one with feelings for Alaska -- her captivating personality and good looks has more than one boy lusting after her. Although she has a boyfriend who she says she loves, that doesn't stop her from flirting and wrapping Miles around her little finger. But Alaska clearly has some troubles in her past that lead to emotional outbursts that confuse and frighten her friends.

After one particularly drunken night, a tragedy occurs that leaves the circle of friends rocked to their core. Amid the grief, confusion and guilt that follows, Miles and his friends look for answers to the mystery of Alaska and get a taste of what the Great Perhaps might hold.

My Thoughts

First off, a funny little story about how I got this book. I had been hearing about this book on a bunch of different book blogs and everyone kept raving about it so I thought "Well, I'll check it out." I put it on my wish list at Paperback Swap, and my wish was granted almost immediately. But when the book came, it appeared to be a travel book about the state of Alaska. "That's funny," I thought, "This sure doesn't seem like the book everyone was talking about." And it wasn't. I had the author wrong! I'd gotten Looking for Alaska by Peter Jenkins, which is indeed a book about traveling and living in the state of Alaska. So beware and don't make the mistake I did -- check the author's name closely!

Anyway, I eventually did get the right book. However, I wasn't as enthralled by it as other bloggers seem to be. In fact, the book didn't move me all that much. Perhaps this is because it is a Young Adult book, and I am anything but a Young Adult. (And just what does Young Adult mean anyway? Late teens/early twenties? Mid-teens? This is one of those categories I wasn't aware of until I started blogging, and I'm a little confused about exactly what demographic these books are supposed to be for.) However, I'm not completely immune to all Young Adult books -- after all, I was sucked into the Twilight saga as quickly and completely as any young adult. (Embarrassing? Yes, but I don't make apologies.) Looking for Alaska even won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature from the American Library Association. Surely there must be something I am missing.

Much of my problem was I just didn't fall in love with the characters. It felt forced to me that Miles collected last words -- perhaps only a device to make him somewhat interesting? Alaska struck me as a bit unstable and a tease. The Colonel was the most interesting character to me -- but only when forced to choose among the main cast of characters. Takumi barely registers except for the role he plays in the end. So the tragedy at the core of the book didn't really resonate with me -- I didn't feel the grief and agony because I just didn't care all that much.

Another problem for me was that you know something big is coming so you're somewhat prepared for it. The first part of the book (Before) is a countdown (one hundred thirty six days before, eighty days before, one day before). Then the big tragedy occurs. Then the book starts counting upwards (one day after, thirty days after). To me, this device led me to anticipate what was coming so it didn't quite have the emotional impact it might have had if I had been surprised.

I did try to view this book as a young adult might have in order to give a more impartial review, but I think there have been better books that deal with this same basic topic (Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson comes to mind -- although that might be geared to a much younger set of readers.) The thing is: This book just didn't do it for me. Although the writing is fine, I was just not drawn into the book in a way that made it memorable for me.

My Final Recommendation

I personally didn't find this book as emotionally charged and powerful as so many other reviewers indicated. In fact, I was left a bit cold by it and finished it with a shrug. However, I seem to be in the minority on this one so you might want to seek other opinions. However, if you are the parent of a teen or young adult and would like to initiate a discussion about death, then perhaps this book might be a good choice. I don't know -- maybe I should have read the Peter Jenkins book instead!
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VINE VOICEon November 2, 2009
I've been hearing about this novel for years but had just recently purchased it at the bookstore because I was running out of things to read. And this novel is a perfect example of why that is. Glowing reviews? Check. Won some prize? Check. Sounds like a winner, right? I thought so, too. Until I actually started reading it. I was hoping for it to get better, and it did for a couple of pages after "the tragedy," but then it went right back to scheduled programming.

I think the worst offence of this novel (besides being uninteresting and pretentious) is that it's totally unrealistic. One character in this novel consumes enough alcohol and smokes enough cigarettes to represent probably a high school full of kids. All these kids do is eat fried food, drink gallons and gallons of alcohol, and inhale smoke the whole day. If that's called realism, I'm surprised we have a teenage population at all!

Here's some more unrealistic or just plain annoying stuff from the novel:
***The main character, a skinny nerd, has two hot chicks going after him. Yeah, I've seen that happen dozens of times.
***All the main characters in this novel are geniuses. They rarely study, they drink/smoke the whole day, and they still have a 3.0 or higher GPA.
***Did I mention the characters spend most of their time thinking about and implementing idiotic pranks?
***This novel is filled with pseudo-intellectualism. It tries to appear "deep" but is actually pretty shallow in every way.
***There are some important questions posed in this novel: What happens to us after we die? Why is there so much suffering in the world? But instead of giving us an honest answer ("We have no idea!"), we are treated to pseudo-intellectual answers like: "Religion is important even if you don't believe in it." Or just plain lazy: "I just know there's some part of us that lives on forever. I just know it!"

Not even the brief mention of Tori Amos (my all-time favorite singer/songwriter) made me like this novel. For those who don't know who or what I'm talking about, that means: this novel was pretty bad!

The novel gets an extra star for a couple of good pages, the use of Famous Last Words (I like that kind of stuff), and of course the brief mention of my favorite singer/songwriter.

In conclusion: Run like the wind when you see this book, or, if you must read it, borrow it from the library. I wish I did.
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on March 25, 2005
Somewhere between searching for the secret to winning at Texas Holdem in Doyle Brunson's SUPER SYSTEM II, A COURSE IN POWER POKER, and envying a 101 year old lady boat captain in Jimmy Buffett's A SALTY PIECE OF LAND, I found John Green's Young Adult Novel, LOOKING FOR ALASKA.

I kept looking at the alluring cover of ALASKA on my night stand and decided that POWER POKER could wait and rushed through A SALTY PIECE.

If you have a child going to boarding school soon, goes there now or has gone there, as my son did, you must read LOOKING FOR ALASKA. If you want to understand the loneliness, happiness, mischief, joy, sorrow, sadness and a few other emotions of a teenager, you must read LOOKING FOR ALASKA. If you are convinced your teenager will not mature until much later, you better not read ALASKA. If you are concerned about the experiences that your teenager might have, do not read ALASKA. If you are a teenager, read this book!

Need help with a pair of Aces? Simple - see Doyle. Got Margaritaville on your mind? No problem - Jimmy is your man. But if you want to come of age with an extraordinarily endearing group of kids, read this book.

My son tells me it is being touted as Young Adult Fiction. I don't know about that. I can only tell you that at 64, I am a younger man for having read it.
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on June 14, 2014
It is my understanding this book gets read in schools. Not suitable reading for teens. No need to get on a parental soapbox because no one will listen. Just one dad shocked that this book's graphic content is marketed at teens and given awards. Interesting title, terrible book!
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on April 9, 2005
This is the first book review I have written and it is not a favorable one. I noticed with amazement that of the 95 reader reviews posted on this site up to this point, 92 give this book a four or five star rating. The three that didn't, rated it very low; one of those readers didn't finish the book and one seemed to have an environmental issue that seemed to color the review.

I, on the other hand, did finish the book, but only after gritting my teeth and wading through it (I am bound for Alaska in another month and wanted to get as much insight as possible).

My problems with the book are primarily the poor writing and the author's continual insertion of his own value judgments. Rather than simply allow the stories he tells about the places and people he encounters to create the images in the reader's mind, he insists on telling us what we should think and how we should feel about just about everything. An example of this is the chapter when he describes two teachers, Eric and Dean, living in Deering: "Teachers that come to the Alaska bush from hometowns in Florida or Idaho, like Dean and Eric, or other places Outside should have certain personality traits to maximize their experience. They should possess the wayward, flexible spirit of the explorer, the ability to be thrilled by the unknown, and the `I don't care what people think' attitude of the rebel." He then tries to convince the reader that Dean and Eric fit these categories by telling when they were born and some stories from their childhoods. He doesn't provide much in the way of current information about them other than mentioning some superficial, physical attributes such as "Dean was tall, well built, energetic, and handsome." I still have no idea what these two teachers are like as individuals; they may as well be polar bears wandering out on the ice somewhere.

The flow of the book is also very ragged. For example, there is a chapter that starts out about Hobo Jim and how he entertains. After a couple a paragraphs, we are on a bear adventure that happened three years earlier that had very little to do with Hobo Jim other than he was there. In the final chapter, when the family is packing up to go home, there is a passage that describes his daughter's marriage in Alaska that occurred sometime in the previous year and a half. These unrelated ramblings seem to occur for no reason at all and detract from the story.

The best writing in the book, unfortunately, is taken from passages written by Peter's daughter, Rebekah, in her e-mails and journal. Her passages, however, only highlight how poorly written the rest of the book is.

Lastly, how intelligent can an individual be who loses his father-in-law's rifle on a moose hunt (when he is carrying it on his shoulder) and doesn't even realize it? If this is what Peter Jenkins learned while he was in Alaska for a year and a half, I think it was definitely time for him to go home.

The cover of the book quotes a review that states that "On an Alaskan high, he is unmatched by Jack London or Robert W. Service..." I don't think so.
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on October 10, 2013
"So we gave up. I'd finally had enough . . ." Without giving away spoilers that is how the award-winning LOOKING FOR ALASKA ends. What transpires in this novel is an undulating tale of teenagers looking for cigarettes, wine, and sexual advance. The detumescent novel fails to define its central conflict, leaving an end with no resolution.

What separates LOOKING FOR ALASKA from author John Green's other book The Fault in Our Stars is a solid protagonist; Green gives the reader nothing to root for in his character Miles Halter. The lackadaisical attitude of Halter is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield--the differentiating factor being Halter's higher sense of purpose in seeking "the great perhaps".

The meandering characters seemingly have no aspirations outside of cigarettes and getting past "first base". Occasionally they will study, philosophize, or introduce their sentimental family histories, but a bulk of the narrative is spent on pranks, making out, drinking wine, and laying about. This is not an exaggeration. As an example: several pages were given to one of Halter's love interests (yes, the stereotypical love triangle is included) holding his manhood in her mouth, sitting still, unsure of what to do. Eventually both parties previously engaged in movement-less fellatio seek out the advice of Halter's other love interest who demonstrates to them proper technique with a tube of toothpaste as her prop. This scene serves as a metaphor for the entire book: motionless and unorgasmic. For those thinking the book gets better after the build-up to the first half, you'll be highly disappointed--it's just a tease and then a letdown.
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