I’m going to be real with you, Paper Towns is not my favorite book. I’ve read it two and a half times (half because I started reading it to my partner in Spring but just kind of lost steam and never finished it) and I just don’t love it. I will say that having read it a few times, it’s growing on me a little bit as I notice more things that I didn’t necessarily notice before.
Paper Towns is the story of the night Quentin “Q” Jacobsen is accosted by his frenzied next door neighbor who has climbed through his bedroom window after roughly a decade of no communication, the escapades she drags him along to participate in, and the weeks that follow.
Margo Roth Spiegelman is the greatest irritation of my life. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Life is full of irritations. But I really just don’t like her.
I’m not the only one; John Green has been asked (evidently a number of times) whether Margo was meant to be likeable and in his response on his FAQ about Paper Towns, he basically skirts the question by saying things like “I don’t really think characters need to be likable for stories to be worth reading.” and “I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books a supposed to be likable.” and even “Did I intend Margo to be likable? I intended her to be complex. I wanted her to be someone the reader could learn to empathize with, someone who makes very different decisions from most of us but whose decisions have a kind of internal consistency and integrity that makes them morally defensible.”
So basically, he says she’s intentionally garbage, but he doesn’t actually outright say it.
Q, on the other hand, is actually quite likeable, albeit a little wrapped up in his own little world. His biggest character flaw by far is his relentless fascination with Margo.
The gist of the book is that Margo and Q were best pals when they were children, but then made a traumatic discovery together that sparked some kind of twisted thought process in Margo while Q’s parents (both therapists by trade) sought to help him process what he saw. For reasons that are never fully explained (because the book is in Q’s limited point of view) Margo has gone, well, off the deep end.
Her boyfriend had been cheating on her with her best friend and when she learned about this (on top of her multiple previous runaway attempts and intense desire to leave Orlando), she suckered Q into a night of pranking, payback, and general absurdity.
And then she disappeared.
Q, reeling from the night of absurdities, becomes totally preoccupied with hunting down Margo’s whereabouts with clues she left behind. He goes alone at times and his friends accompany him at other times, and he is simultaneously tormented by the fear of Margo’s death and obsessed with the possibility that she left a breadcrumb trail to lead him to her.
My personal favorite part of the book is near the end, when four teenagers skip their high school graduation and pile in a van to (hopefully) bring the witch hunt to a close. I’ve always been a sucker for a good tale of teens traveling alone. John Green must be, too, since it’s a recurring theme in a few of his novels.
The actual ending of the novel is not just anticlimactic, but in my opinion, a major letdown. I’m sorry, but it is.
The ending solidifies for me that Margo is an unlikeable, terrible jerk.
Although honestly, if I really put some thought into it, she comes across very much like the stereotyped manic pixie dream girl but also very much like a traumatized child who grew up to become reckless because she wasn’t treated like a traumatized child when she should have been.
I spent a lot of time this year thinking about how trauma and fear impact humans, largely because of my current psychology course and the state of the world, and I find myself examining the motives behind the behavior of everyone- including characters in novels. When I think about Margo Roth Spiegelman, I mean really think about her, I just see a broken kid whose parents failed to help her heal.
As I said (not very eloquently) in my goodreads review:
Paper Towns is not my favorite John Green novel. Margo Roth Spiegelman makes me want to pull out all of my hair. Q is a likeable character who gets wrapped up in all kinds of things he shouldn’t. This book is almost like a mystery, but not quite. It is also a testimony to how trauma can effect people, especially when it isn’t adequately addressed. I’d say I wouldn’t read it again, but I’ve read it 2.5 times at this point, so maybe I would.
If you’re reading a YA novel, you’re probably looking for an emotional journey. That’s one of the conventions of the genre. It’s easily the best convention of the genre.
If you’re reading a YA novel about sick kids, you’re probably looking for an emotional journey that will obliterate you and crush your heart into a thousand pieces. I mean, if you aren’t looking for it, it will find you anyways. It always does.
Five Feet Apart is told in alternating chapters by Stella Grant and Will Newman, two cystic fibrosis patients. Stella is in the hospital for a tune up/treatment of an infection. Will is in the hospital or a clinical trial to treat B. Cepacia, a bacterial infection that is considered lethal and incurable when contracted by CFers (the colloquial term used by most folks with CF).
Stella is organized, prepared, cautious, and logical. In the wake of her sister’s death and her parent’s subsequent divorce, she is careful and calculating. She designed an app to track her medication and treatments and she obsesses over her regimen of pills, breathing treatments, and g-tube feeds. She’s a YouTube sensation, making videos about her experiences with CF and providing a little bit of information to the masses.
Will, on the other hand, is messy. He resents and rejects his treatments. He feels that his mother- desperately enrolling him in any clinical trial that might help him, moving him around the world to any hospital that offers a better prognosis to extend his short life- is forcing him to live a miserable life only for the purpose of delaying his inevitable death.
When they meet, Will is crass and crude and harsh. Stella is immediately frustrated by his attitude and his choices. Being the “control freak” (for lack of better phrasing) that she is, Stella cannot get Will and his noncompliance out of her head. She convinces him to adhere to his regimen in exchange for an opportunity to draw her, but it takes a little bit of extra coaching on her part to get him to actually follow his treatment plan.
Stella and Will grow closer as they video chat for their treatments, but because of safety guidelines and vigilant hospital staff, their friendship (or perhaps budding relationship? Flirtation?) seems doomed. When Stella has an emergent surgery to replace her infected g-tube, a dedicated respiratory therapist named Barb catches Will escaping from her pre-op room and manages to scare him into staying away from Stella.
When Will tries to distance himself from Stella, she is angry and hurt. Poe, her best friend since childhood (also a CFer, also inpatient in the hospital for treatment of bronchitis) tries to remind her of the reality she’s facing, but it just tears a rip in the fabric of their friendship.
After time passes, Poe and Stella reconcile over milkshakes and their shared fear of leaving people they love reeling when they meet their inevitable end.
As Will discovers his will to live (no pun intended), Stella’s thinking becomes more radical- she realizes that she wants to live, not just live. She took all of the right steps and she still needed surgery that put her in harm’s way. It’s like each of their personal pendulums swung the other direction, paths crossing only briefly as they barreled into a new frame of mind.
Throughout the novel there is an emphasis on the importance of staying six feet apart- this is because it has been studied and proven time and time again (and boy, is the average person suddenly aware of how important those six feet are for infection prevention…) that six feet is the “magic number” at which the risk of contracting an infection is reduced significantly. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll wonder the entire book why it is called “Five Feet Apart” when CFers are supposed to stay six feet apart to prevent cross-contamination. But after Stella’s big “break through,” she reclaims one of those six feet and decides that she will spend her time with Will five feet apart.
Unfortunately, unspeakable tragedy strikes. When Stella realizes that her best friend went his entire life without touching her to protect himself, yet still died and left his loved ones broken and devastated, it is the push she needs (or maybe would have been better off without…) to make a change in her life. She finds Will who is struggling to grasp his own mortality in the face of loss, and they set off to see the lights in the distance.
They break all of the rules an escape into closeness, reveling in the freedom of the outdoors and each other’s presence.
Life is almost taken from them, and as a continuation of the series of realizations the characters have had throughout the novel propels them forward, Will saves Stella’s life. Twice, in two very different ways.
The end of this book took my heart from my chest and stomped all over it. The idea of losing the person you love in that way makes my heart ache.
Five Feet Apart is an intriguing tale about disability, mortality, love, and loss. (And yes, I know exactly how cliché that is. If you’re not into clichés, this book may not be for you.)
There’s something poetic about the loss of love in this novel, something that makes it almost bearable to read words that would ordinarily be unbearable. And perhaps that’s this book’s greatest strength.
Five Feet Apart is a compelling and lovely story that applies an emotional journey (ala YA novel) to some of the more cliché tropes of romance genre, and it does so successfully and wonderfully. This book will tear your heart from your very chest, but you probably expected that when you heard it was YA novel about Cystic Fibrosis. There’s love and loss, but also a lot of realizations.
I have to start this review by saying that this one is a bit lighter-hearted that the previous two books I’ve reviewed- Unstoppable Moses and Everything, Everything both tackle some bigger issues than this novel. That is not to say, necessarily, that it is less profound.
Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss Listis the story of two 18-year-old college students, Naomi and Ely, who have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They live in the same apartment building, attend the same school, and spend every waking moment together.
To ensure the preservation of their decades long friendship, Naomi (interested in men) and Ely (also interested in men) maintain a “No Kiss List” which details all of the people that are off-limits for them to date, kiss, or show interest in.
Their friendship doesn’t even waiver when their parents (Naomi’s dad and one of Ely’s moms) have an affair that implodes Naomi’s life and demolishes her mother.
Until Ely kisses Naomi’s boyfriend, Bruce (the second; there are two Bruces in this book, referred to affectionately as Bruce the First and Bruce the Second).
All hell breaks loose and Naomi & Ely’s friendship comes crashing down. Only, Naomi isn’t upset about Bruce. She’s upset that her friend betrayed her and more importantly, she’s been in love with Ely all along. Naomi has to accept that Ely is gay and will never pine for her the way she has pined for him.
From this point until the end of the book, the revelations pour in for Naomi and for Ely, while Bruce (the Second) grapples with some of his insecurities. The novel comes to a close when Naomi & Ely find solace in a satisfying resolve.
Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List is written in numerous points of view- Naomi, Ely, Bruce the First, Bruce the Second, Kelly (Bruce the First’s twin sister), Robin (girl), and Robin (boy).
Admittedly, Bruce (the First), Kelly, and both Robins seem like extraneous points of view when you consider the story as a whole, but I digress. Maybe when I re-read this novel I’ll understand their pertinence. I’m a sucker for multiple POV’s anyway.
What I like most about this novel is not the plot or the lighter vibe that it emulates compared to some books that deal with more substantial life issues, but the familiarity of the character’s voices when they talk about their feelings. So much so that I’m actually working on a post that is a compilation of my favorite Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List quotes.
Sometimes I actually feel like the authors are inside my brain. The thought processes can sometimes feel so identical to things I have thought that it’s almost jarring how in-tune Levithan and/or Cohn is with the experience of being a teenager or young adult with emotions you can’t quite process.
It’s fall, y’all! I think I’ve said that about 37 times in my recent instagram posts, but oh well. Maybe you folks will learn to love it.
Is it too ambitious to call this post “Fall Book Recommendations 2020” ? I’m hopeful I’ll have another version next year.
Below is a small selection of books that either take place in fall or give me fall vibes, which I hope you will read and enjoy as much as I have.
Unstoppable Moses by Tyler James Smith
It’s no secret to most of you that Unstoppable Moses is one of my very favorite books, and I’m sure nobody is surprised to see it on this list. Unstoppable Moses takes place in a chilly Michigan October, which is a relatable experience for many Michiganders who went to fall camp (my 6th grade year, our camp experience was in late October/early November).
You can find my full review of Unstoppable Moseshere, but to summarize briefly and succinctly: this novel is a brilliant YA coming-of-age story. Moses Hill recounts his traumatic experiences while working as a camp counselor and getting a “fresh start” to be someone less iconic than his trauma had forced him to become.
Looking For Alaska by John Green
Having confessed to being a John Green fanatic, I’m sure everyone expected to see at least one of his pieces on this list. Looking for Alaska takes place in Alabama as the school year begins, which is why it evokes such strong autumnal ambiance.
As soon as I post my review of Looking for Alaska, I’ll be sure to drop a link here for you to read. In the meantime, Looking for Alaska is a novel about Miles “Pudge” Halter who attends the same boarding school his father had before him. While Miles is away at school, he makes new friends, falls in love, has some interesting new experiences, encounters a distressing event, and becomes obsessed with understanding the motives of the girl he loved while driven by guilt.
Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
This is a bit of a light-hearted exploration of friendship that I enjoyed on a much more superficial level than the other two I’ve listed here.
Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is about best friends Naomi and Ely who live in the same apartment building and have been inseparable for as long as they can remember, relying on a “no kiss list” to keep them from falling for the same boy… until Ely falls for Naomi’s boyfriend in the wake of Naomi’s dad sleeping with Ely’s mom. Chaos ensues, love bubbles up. It’s adorable. It’s funny. It’s written in several points of view. In the end, there’s a satisfying resolution that involves important realizations.
This book came to me highly recommended by a friend (and generously gifted by my grandmother, who buys me books every year for Christmas. She’s the real MVP.) and of course that set my expectations high.
Everything, Everything is the story of Madeline Whittier, an 18-year-old girl with SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) who spends all of her time in her home with just her mother and her home health nurse. Zero outside time, zero contact with any other living beings (except on very rare occasions when they are decontaminated by air showers).
The start of this book is… terrible. I’m sorry, but it is. Madeline Whittier begins her story by telling us she’s read more books than we have and it feels like she (or the author, maybe) is trying too hard to pull us in by either offending us or amazing us, neither of which comes to fruition.
After that, Madeline spends the first chunk of pages describing her mundane days sitting alone in her house with books, fonetik skrabbl, her nurse, and her mom in the comfort of a pristine, white house with ventilation to safely circulate the air. Maddy is the quintessential bubble girl.
Shortly after the novel begins, new neighbors move in to the house next door- two parents and two teenagers. Maddy can’t help but watch their every move. She documents their daily schedule and has pantomime-window-conversations with Olly (the teenage boy).
Perhaps reading this novel during a global pandemic where I have been sitting in my home much in the same way that Maddy has, was unwise. Or maybe the issue going into this was how much I know about SCID. Maybe I just shouldn’t have read it after reading Unstoppable Moses, which was phenomenal. I’m not sure.
Maddy and Olly forge a friendship via instant messaging and email, which quickly turns into a romance when Maddy’s nurse, Carla, allows them to meet.
When Olly’s abusive father punches him in the stomach on the front lawn, Maddy finds herself barreling through the air-lock system and into the outside-for the first time since infancy. Her mother is terrified and enraged and her ability to communicate with Olly is cut off, and this is when the book begins to resonate with me a little bit more.
In the absence of her ability to talk to the boy she loves, Maddy feels overwhelmed by her emotions and her desire for Olly’s attention. After approximately 30 pages, Maddy says goodbye to her mom and runs away to explore the world.
The plot twist that comes near the end of the book is something I began to anticipate every moment that Maddy was outside, but it still caught me off guard when it came.
Nicola Yoon has a voice that’s easy to follow and read, but the characters aren’t quite as likeable as some of those in my favorite novels- it’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they don’t feel like they have enough depth. But then, maybe it’s because Maddy’s been living in a literal bubble her entire life and has been sheltered from pain?
Maddy is a bookworm who enjoys honor Pictionary and architecture, but as she begins to experience life, she begins to feel more real. Perhaps that was intentional.
Olly is introduced to us as… well, frankly I felt uncomfortable with some of the descriptions of him because he just seemed really fake and weird and like the author was trying too hard to make him seem quirky. But again, as the story carried on, he grew on me.
The plot of this book was undeniably impressive and clever.
The first 155 pages are so very dull I thought I was going to hate this book. But then, on page 155, I started to feel connected to this book and to Maddy, finally. The adventure that follows is captivating and the plot twist toward the end is surreal. I don’t know if I’d say pages 155-238 & 262-the end make up for the other pages between which are incredibly boring (and sometimes feel like the characters are too obvious or trying too hard), but the middle and end of this book are truly spectacular in a way that I did not anticipate. The writing style is good, the plot is great. The background information just feels a little tedious at times. But then I guess you wouldn’t understand how monumental the plot was if you didn’t learn about how tedious Maddy’s life was prior.
Is there any better way to kick off book reviews on this blog than by reviewing a debut novel by an up-and-coming author? Perhaps reviewing a debut novel by an up-and-coming author that I’ve known since I was a small child?
I’m writing this review from a completely unbiased perspective, so I’ll get this little bit out of the way right now: Tyler James Smith, author of Unstoppable Moses, was a childhood friend of my brother, and the brother of my brother’s childhood friend. That is to say, he spent a lot of time at my house. I played with him and my older brother as a young child, and I suppose with age their friendship faded as most of them naturally do.
That being said, when I heard from his (very cool and kind) older brother that he had written a book, I was excited. And when I found out that the novel he wrote was actually a contemporary Young Adult (YA) novel, which is my favorite age group/genre, I was thrilled. I knew I needed this book.
Now that we’ve got the excitement and bias out of the way, onto reviewing the actual content of the novel.
To directly quote my Goodreadsreview (which I spouted off-the-cuff approximately nine minutes after closing the book):
Honestly, whole-heartedly, and emphatically: one of the best novels I have ever read. Very reminiscent of John Green, both in voice and content (particularly in the scenes involving walking in the cold, where I was reminded of John Green’s third of Let It Snow). The action continues to propel you forward- the reader is always waiting for what comes next- until the very end. I have never read something that so earnestly grapples with trauma and the ways in which it can manifest. This book obliterated me in the best possible way. I would give it ten stars if I could.
I’m more than willing to bet that anyone reading this would like me to expand, so here goes.
Tyler James Smith has a voice that is so charming and witty that you feel like you’re reading the words of an actual teenager who is actually experiencing these things- and I think that’s exactly how YA should be. You should feel that the narrator is really a teenager, tackling everything life throws at them with humor and emotional depth (and confusion). Smith’s voice is just that.
When I say that his writing is like John Green, please note that this is one of the highest complements I could give, because I’m a John Green fanatic.
As far as content similarities between John Green’s work and Unstoppable Moses, they are numerous.
First, a lot of the book involves traveling around in the cold. A lot of those walking-around-in-the-cold scenes involve the comical and sometimes distressing experiences of four teenagers, which is not unlike the chaos of John Green’s part of Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances, wherein three teenagers trek through the snow in search of a Waffle House.
Second, the title character finds himself searching for someone, which prompted me to draw parallels between Unstoppable Moses and Paper Towns.
In some ways, I can see also similarities between Unstoppable Moses and Looking For Alaska. Moses is dealing with a lot of guilt in the wake of a tragedy, just as Miles is dealing with a lot of guilt in the wake of a tragedy.
This book is thrilling. It may not be a thriller (though I think someone with more knowledge of the genre could probably make an argument that it fits) but it is packed with excitement that keeps you on the edge of your seat, trying to read faster and faster, and flipping pages. It took me two days to read and I spent approximately seven hours total. Sometimes I actually had to pause and go back because I was reading so fast to get to the next bit of information, I was skipping details.
From the moment you hear about Moses’ near death experience as a child, you’re ready to see what comes next. The book is a relentless series of captivating events that ensnare the reader.
When I started reading, I could not have been more taken by the premise and the opening chapter. Unstoppable Moses is the story of Moses Hill, who pulled an innocent prank with his cousin and best friend, Charlie Baltimore… which went horribly awry and landed Moses in court-ordered community service as a camp counselor.
Moses is a loveable, relatable, and understandable character. He’s experienced more than his fair share of trauma and the chapters jump backward and forward in time, recalling memories as well as living in the present in a way that feels eerily familiar.
When I messaged the author’s brother to rave about this book, he said I was the kind of reader that authors want, because I get immersed in every book I read. But this book is different. This book grabs you by the shirt collar and pulls you in. You don’t stand a chance.
But that’s not even the best part.
What I love most about this book is how flawlessly the depictions of trauma are written.
Unstoppable Moses is not just the story of everything Moses experiences in his time at camp Jaye’k (and the two substantial events that preceded it), it’s the story of Moses’ emotional journey from Super Boy… to unprocessed traumatized teenager… to more processed, more traumatized teenager.
In true YA-coming-of-age fashion, Moses learns about expressing his feelings and how to cope with the agony of being a human who has experienced bad things (or maybe just the agony of being a human).
Without giving away too many details, I can’t really explain what I mean about the trauma and how Moses grows as a person, so you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s phenomenal. It’s realistic. It’s poignant. It’s hopeful.
When we read books, they change us. They help us put things in perspective and they give us the tools to process our own experiences. I read this as an adult and it gave me new insights on myself but also the other people in my life. If Unstoppable Moses gave me new insights on myself and the others around me, imagine the profound impact it will have on teenagers.
Suffice it to say I recommend that everyone read this book.
If you enjoy:
Coming of Age novels
You will enjoy Unstoppable Moses.
P.S. I downplayed this review a lot because I didn’t want to sound like a fangirling nutjob.