Backlist Bonus: Looking for Alaska

16167989by John Green
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 3, 2005

This was my first exposure to John Green and remains my favorite. He’s become known for a few of his own clichés (the manic-pixie-dream-girl, the awkward guy with a weird hobby who falls for her, the side-kick friends…) but this is his first book and I think that’s what makes this story feel the freshest.

Understandably, Green is a popular and thus polarizing author, but for whatever it’s worth, I think if you like one of his books you’ll probably like all of them. And if you find one isn’t your cup of tea…well, then I wouldn’t read the rest of them!

Miles “Pudge” Halter has led a dull life to this point. We find him at Culver Creek Boarding School, hoping for some adventure. What he finds is Alaska Young—the most beautiful, interesting, sexy, screwed-up girl he’s ever met—and what happens after that is not something he could ever predict.

This is a quintessential coming-of-age novel with all the required elements: boarding school, teen angst, first love, drinking, sex, happiness and heartbreak and finding yourself. Miles and Alaska are endearing characters and I enjoyed following their crazy adventures as they build a friendship that could be something more. They blunder their way through all the questions we face in high school, the ones that aren’t in text books, that aren’t covered in class. It has that Mood that happens when you follow high school’s important and mundane moments, and it addresses the fact that sometimes you don’t get a formal resolution. It’s just the right length and the characters’ dialogue is what keeps it moving. Definitely put this on your list if you’re exploring older YA.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Looking for Alaska is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not happy with her father’s re-marriage or their move. When she hears her mother is sick, she decides to go on a solo road trip to visit her. See my review here.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews – Greg lays out the hazards of befriending a girl in class solely because she has cancer. An interesting take on high school relationships. See my review here.
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell – The highs and lows of first love, especially when you know first love isn’t meant to last. See my review here.
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Clay is shocked by classmate Hannah Baker’s suicide, but even more disturbed when he receives cassette tapes that claim he was one of the reasons she did it. An emotional look at how everyday interactions can impact people.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Probably the only YA novel more quintessentially coming of age than Green’s work. Charlie has never fit in but now he’s a freshman and determined to change that. See my review here.
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Paper Towns

6442769by John Green
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars

I’ve read almost every other John Green book so I thought I’d round it out by catching this one. Obviously he has a specific style and formula for his stories, so I kind of knew what to expect, and although I enjoyed some of his other books more, this one still had plenty of hidden gems for me. There’s still some laugh-out-loud moments and thoughtful commentary (even if it feels a bit forceful).

Quentin and Margo could be Miles and Alaska but the bones of the plot are different enough that you can ignore those similarities. When Margo has Q assist with her wild night of pranks before skipping town, Q thinks he is meant to find her. While the quest to locate Margo drags on a bit longer than I’d like, I did enjoy the last third of the book a lot. We spend time on multiple characters’ opinions about why Margo ran away and what would or should happen upon finding her (or if they should even look for her to begin with) and the interplay is compelling. This is a solid entry on the high school coming-of-age shelf and having read four of his novels now, I can say if you like one of them you’d probably enjoy the rest.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Paper Towns is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Looking for Alaska by John Green – I know, but seriously, I still view his first novel as my favorite of his, and I think it’s a bit of a touchstone for YA. Also, this has the same nostalgic feeling for summer camp and high school like a few other books I’d recommend. And if you’re in high school, trade “nostalgic feeling” for “rings true but clear it’s with a graduate’s perspective.” See my review here.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – This is one of those “high school nostalgia” stories I just mentioned. This covers a longer period of time but the feeling is there. See my review here.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – Another quintessential high school story that lacks the mission of Paper Towns but fills it with all the feelings of first love instead. See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not okay with her new step-family situation. When she finds out her mother is sick, she decides to take a solo road trip to see her. This has a lot of the same vibes as Paper Towns. See my review here.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces

20702546by Isabel Quintero
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel – October 14, 2014

My best friend rec’d me this book (an embarrassing 5 months ago) and I finally got my hands on it. I am so glad I did! This book actually made me cry (a rarity) and it is amazing! I’ve read my share of YA high school coming of age novels, but this is unlike any of them. I wish I had read this book when I was in high school.

I was a little nervous when I opened it and realized it’s Gabi’s story as told through her diary, but this format is actually perfect. We get all the ups and downs of Gabi’s high school experience–the stress of class, homework, and peers–but Gabi has so much more going on than the average angst-ridden white student at the center of most of the YA high school novels I’ve read. Her father is a meth addict, her best friend just found out she’s pregnant, and her other friend Sebastian needs a home because his parents kicked him out for being gay. She’s overweight, and constantly guilt-ridden by well-meaning but conservative relatives about what “good girls do” and how her appearance is paramount because otherwise she won’t get married. College? That’s for White sluts. And anyone else who can afford it.

Gabi’s frustrated, elated, and insightful entries chronicle how turbulent high school is, and how difficult it is to grow up in a world of contradictions. Her sharp observations regarding feminism (i.e. a female’s place in the world, body image, and social status) feel smart without being ahead of her age group. She is an honest protagonist that wins you over again with each day’s account of her life.

An additional nice surprise is her poetry. A few poems make it into her diary and these enhance her senior year in ways that surprised me. I don’t normally enjoy poetry (not that I’ve had much exposure to it since English classes) but these were good. The strength of this book is the open language of the writing. It reminds of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ work–strong thoughts and emotions packed into seemingly simplistic thoughts that anyone could have, if they ever stopped long enough to think. I can’t recommend this enough!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s store website, here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings – Speaking of her style in this review, her sparse, punchy writing is amazing, and Lea’s story of fitting in as the product of two cultures sounds similar to Gabi’s. It didn’t end up taking the direction I wanted, but you decide! See my review here.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – I think of this as a quintessential high school coming of age story dealing with sexuality, race, and social class against the back drop of Typical American High School. See my review here.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – Junior doesn’t want to end up like the adults on the Spokane Indian Reservation, so he makes the leap of attending the nearby all-white high school–whose mascot is an Indian. This is probably the closest match to Gabi’s story.
  • The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes – When Minnow escapes the Community the night it burns down, missing her both of her hands and key knowledge about the world outside of the cult, the bigger question is what she knows about the Prophet’s death. See my review here.
  • Born Confused by Tenuja Desai Hidier – Dimple Lala struggles with her identity as the child of traditional Indian parents who finds that India is a trendy stereotype at her high school. Add in being set up with a “suitable boy”–who might not be as suitable as her parents believe–and Dimple has a lot to figure out before she graduates.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – A Mexican American family in the southwest is getting ready to sell their family ranch. Carolina feels caught between her parents’ wishes and her grandfather Serge declaring that he doesn’t want to leave his home. Then the story he’s telling Carolina about the past seems to be more real than make-believe. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: Eleanor & Park

15795357by Rainbow Rowell
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
YA debut – 2012

This is her first YA novel, and readers immediately agreed she captured something so special it hurts. I read this book in one six-hour spurt and I loved every page! It’s everything wonderful and terrible about high school, and it completely lived up to the hype.

It’s Omaha in 1986 – Eleanor is a redhead from the trailer park, always told she’s too heavy and not good enough. Park is half Korean in the Midwest, outcast for other reasons. When he lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus, a tentative alliance forms that leads to friendship, and begins to dip into love. They know high school love doesn’t last, but they also know this is the first good thing to happen to each of them, and they aren’t going to let it go.

The best YA captures all the feelings of teenagers without selling them short, and Rowell is superb with her details and her emotions. Everything is earnest and given the weight that it has at that time – before anyone is hardened or sure of themselves. Rowell also has a way of using universal “Is this just me, or does everyone…?” details that snap you into the moment and adds an extra layer of connection.

This is one of the best high school coming of age novels I’ve read and I can’t recommend it enough! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Eleanor & Park is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – High school freshman Charlie just wants the next four years to not suck. When seniors Sam and Patrick befriend him, he’s forced to start participating in life instead of watching from the sidelines. This is 90s and high school nostalgia at its finest, with a similar tone and subject matter. See my review here.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – If you liked Eleanor & Park but wished for an older protagonist, twin sisters Cath and Wren are college freshmen going through a bit of a rough patch in their relationship. Cath is on her own for the first time, and her charming discomfort with this will bring back every memory you’ve ever had about trying to find yourself and fit in.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – A clandestine friendship-turned-romance between cancer survivor Augustus Waters and terminal patient Hazel Lancaster is one for the ages. John Green’s quirky, gut-punching style is at its best – bring tissues! See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim isn’t handling her family’s move to the south well, especially since her stepmother revealed her mother is still in Ohio, and very sick. She embarks on a spontaneous (and emotional) road trip to visit her mother. See my review here.
  • P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han – The second in a duology (though it could stand alone), this is a sweet story of 16-year-old Lara Jean’s first romance. The romantic moments might be full of sugary thrills but there’s enough substance beneath them to make this a solid YA novel. See my review here.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This classic novel contains one of the best-known and loved romances in literature. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy can’t imagine a single thing they have in common–unless it’s their dislike. But circumstances change, and Elizabeth learns the danger of relying on first impressions. See my review here.

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