Thursday, February 10, 2011

Let's hear it for the guys

I recently got around to reading John Green’s PAPER TOWNS and Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES. Why did I wait so long? Two very different YA novels--one dystopian, the other contemporary. In surprising ways, both explore personal image and misconstrued perceptions.
PAPER TOWNS—part mystery, part coming of age, part crazy road trip--is meant to be explored, layers peeling back as you go. It’s smart, witty and unnerving.

Green dragged me unwillingly through the first part of the book. Not because it wasn’t well-written but because the character Margo made me anxious. I worried about what she was going to get Quentin, the first-person narrator, into. And that’s the point. She’s not easy, but she sure is fascinating.

Margo is bigger than life, walking the edge, and perceived by her classmates as magnificently fearless and cool. Some significant revelations and changes take place in both characters during the story, but I won’t give spoilers.

A nerdfighter stuck a post-it inside the PAPER TOWNS I purchased in a bookstore. I’d heard that some of Green’s followers were doing this, but I looked when I bought it and didn’t find a note. Then when I was half-way through reading, I untucked a page stuck in the jacket flap and there it was! The discovered note added to the experience of reading a mysterious, thought-provoking story.

One thing I love about Green’s writing (also evident in LOOKING FOR ALASKA) is that his young adult characters have substance. They read, they contemplate, they have conversations and still care about important teen stuff like the opposite sex.

In PAPER TOWNS, Quentin believes Margo left him a clue within the lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” He studies it over and over, looking for a breadcrumb trail to where she’s gone. And the novel’s title, too, is worth pondering. It refers to developments that never get built, to towns that exist only on paper.

Here’s a sample, which I hope whets your appetite:
And so we sat there, she with her nail polish balanced on the dash, and me with a shaky finger on the pulse of myself. It was a good color of nail polish, and Margo had nice fingers, thinner and bonier than the rest of her, which was all curves and soft edges. She had the kind of fingers you want to interlace with your own. I remembered them against my hip bone in Wal-Mart, which felt like days ago. My heartbeat slowed. And I tried to tell myself, Margo’s right. There’s nothing out here to be afraid of, not in this little city on this quiet night.


Westerfeld tackles body image and plastic surgery in a bold way in UGLIES. In this future world, everybody gets an extreme transformation from ugly (as in all of us) to picture-perfect pretty when they turn sixteen. Tally can’t wait, especially since her best friend’s birthday came before hers and he’s already gone to live in New Pretty Town.

Once again, I don’t want to give spoilers, but one of the things I appreciate as a writer and reader is the clear structure of this novel. It’s divided in parts like a play in three acts. Each part has a title and an accompanying quote that is spot on. So I’m going to share that much.

Part I
Turning Pretty
“Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”—Yang Yuan, quoted in The New York Times

Part II

The Smoke
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”—Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, “Of Beauty”

Part III
Into the Fire
“Beauty is that Medusa’s head
Which men go armed to seek and sever.
It is most deadly when most dead,
And dead will stare and sting forever.”—Archibald MacLeish, “Beauty”

Yeah. These are great reads. Let’s hear it for the guys.
Addendum: There's a contest going on at Wen's On Words and Upwards that you don't want to miss. Signed copies of Helen Lowe's books, and--horse lover alert--a gorgeous drawing of a horse by Wen, who is an artist as well as a writer. Gallop on over!


Yat-Yee said...

Green and Westerfeld are both such excellent writers. I was not sure how I felt about Green's treatment of the types of girls his protags are attracted to and for most of Quentin's quest, I kept hoping he wouldn't be duped.

I really enjoyed Uglies, from the world setting to the characters to the adventures.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

I adored the whole UGLIES series. Especially his world-building and slang.

Westerfeld's SO YESTERDAY is wonderful too.

Laura Canon said...

I haven't read Uglies (yet) but I loved Westerfeld's Leviathan and Behemoth.

Unknown said...

I agree with Yat-Yee about the JG's protags taste in girls--having three sons, I hope they chose a bit better! :) I also wonder why the publishers changed the cover of Paper Towns to look more like a girl book? I could see guys picking up the cover with the map/tacks but not with a big head shot of some girl. Could just be me.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yat-Yee: What I like about Green's protag choices is that they aren't always the smartest ones but the character learns important things about other people. There's always a thoughtful reckoning.

Jennifer: I so agree. Westerfeld builds his worlds masterfully, including the language.

Laura: I really enjoyed those, too. He's so good.

Elle: I would like the map cover, too, but I wonder if it would appeal to teens. There certainly is a trend of having portrait shots on covers, isn't there?
As I commented to Yat-Yee, I think Green has a reason for the choices, which lead to character growth.

Hannah said...

I loved the Uglies series!

I have not read PaperTowns yet but I have read Looking for Alaska, which was fantastic.

Most of my favorite authors are male, I think they take more risks with fiction than females.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I really need to read Paper Towns. Contemporary isn't usually my thing, but I think I need to make an exception. :)

Wen Baragrey said...

I'm a fan of John Green's, and I'm reading Paper Town's as we speak! Just bought it and got started, in fact. I finished An Abundance of Katherines not so long ago. I actually read his Zombie Apocalypse novella last night (it's available free) and loved it.

I've never read any Scott Westerfeld yet (horrors!) but I dearly want to.

Golden Eagle said...

I didn't really enjoy Uglies; I disliked Tally a lot, throughout the whole book and most of the next, although I do find the concept of "Pretties" vs. "Uglies" fascinating.

The last book in the trilogy I liked.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hannah: Looking for Alaska is one of my favorites. I like the depth in his storytelling.
Interesting thought about male authors and risk. You may be right, although I can think of a few females who've done pretty risky work.

Susan: I tend to read across genres. If an author is a good storyteller and writer, I can read almost anything. I love getting recs from other bloggers for something I might not otherwise pick up.

Wen: Ha! Did you get a nerdfighter post-it? I didn't know about Zombie Apocalypse! *runs to check it out*

GoldenEagle: I understand your feeling about Tally. She was self-centered and shifty part of the time, which made it hard to like her. But I think that was part of the weird brainwashing they were subjected to in that society. Anyway, we agree the concept is amazing.

Wen Baragrey said...

Somehow I missed it on Nerdfighters, BUT I came across it on John's blog!

Here's the link to the PDF:

He keeps saying that its terrible, and of course there's typos and all, but I loved it. Completely loved it. DFTBA!

Tracey Neithercott said...

I haven't read Uglies yet but I loved Paper Towns. It almost made me want to give up writing because I know I'll never be as clever and funny and touching as him. It also made me try harder, which I think won out. :)

Uglies is on my TBR list--I'm excited to read that, too.

Jemi Fraser said...

I read Pretties first and loved it - didn't matter that it was out of order. Fabulous writing!

Donna said...

These all sound great, but I've only read Uglies so far. Scary.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Amazing books. Truly, deeply, in every way. John Green is my hero and Scott Westerfield is becoming so. Brilliant writing, remarkable characterization.

I never gave the structure of UGLIES much thought, but you're right. It's definitely something worth investigating as a writer.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Tracey: I know what you mean. Green is so good that I feel the same way, like maybe I should give up but, no, I just have to try even harder.

Jemi: Ha! I'm glad it didn't scramble your head.

Donna: Yes, that would be a horrifying future.

Carolina: I just can't get enough of Green's books. I think you may have pointed out Will Grayson to me (via your blog). He is such a smart writer.
I loved discovering that about Uglies, because it helps me see how the plot is structured. Paper Towns is also in three parts but the meaning of the titles are more obscure. When I have some time, I'll puzzle them out of the text, where I know the answers will be(The Strings, The Grass, The Vessel).

storyqueen said...

I think I am going to have my own little boy book festival...(not little-boy-book, but boy-written-book fest.

I am dying to read The Marbury Lens...but I am a little scared, too.


Catherine Denton said...

I read the Uglies series and really enjoyed it; but haven't read Paper Towns. Yet.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shelley: You crack me up. Now I'm imagining your little boy festival!
Yeah, The Marbury Lens is intense. I thought it was stunning, but I hesitate to rec it without warning about the horror that does occur.

Catherine: Hope you do get to Paper Towns. Green is an amazing writer.

Robyn Campbell said...

Pat, I love, love, love John Green and Scott Westerfield. Two very different writers, definitely. John Green is a genius. He really is.

Did you read where Westerfield will be participating in a tribute to Joe Monti on Wedneday, March 18, where he'll be reading from Leviathan. First time in public for that book. Ever! I think it will be at the Teen Author Festival. Pretty cool. And even cooler post. You have GREAT taste in authors, pal. xxxxxooooo

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Excellent reviews - both! I haven't read either author, but I keep meaning to. I need to bump them up the ole TBR list@ :-)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Robyn: I agree--Green's made of genius. And, oh, how I'd love to hear Westerfeld read Leviathan (love me some steampunk)

Shannon: Oh. My. Yes, you gotta put them on top the pile!

The Words Crafter said...

Wow, I've not heard of either of these books, but you make them sound intriguing. Thanks for the info!

I have a goodie for you on my post today!

Jonathon Arntson said...

Awesome, awesome post. Both of these books got me to start writing.

Jade said...

Paper Towns is one of my favourite books! I have so much love for Mr Green!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

WordsCrafter: Oh, you must put these on your reading list. So good. And I'll be right over.

Jonathon: Thank you! How cool that they inspired you. You could hardly ask for better role models, could you?

Jade: Yay! Me, too. :D

cleemckenzie said...

I so loved these stories. Glad you posted about them.

Robyn Campbell said...

Was that here when I stopped by? DANG, I AM GETTING OLD. ;) Thanks for filling me in. I OWE YOU. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

This is the first I’ve heard of Paper Towns (although I have heard good things about Looking for Alaska) so thanks for telling me about it. How much to have a cult following! I definitely want to read something by this author after your review and excerpt. I’ve heard such good things about the Uglies too. You are adding to my to read list.

Sorry to be so late to visit. I’m trying to finish a draft of my WIP by February break.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lee: Hi. Glad you like. :)

Robyn: snuck it in there....

SarahL: I'm so impressed with Green. I hope you enjoy them, and best wishes on finishing that draft!

Paul C said...

Interesting reviews. I wonder what percentage of young adult novels these days are written by 'guys' and by 'gals.'