Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

When her childhood friend Davis Puckett’s billionaire father goes missing while being investigated for fraud, Aza Holmes reconnects with Davis, attempts to find his father, and struggles with her own ever-growing anxiety disorder.

My Favorite Quote

“Your now is not your forever.”

“You’re both the fire and the water that extinguishes it. You’re the narrator, the protagonist, and the sidekick. You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.”

Turtles_All_The_Way_Down_Book_Cover

What I Loved About It

All the typical John Green things.

As per usual, his prose is poignant and full of a depth many young adult novels unfortunately lack. (I’ve mentioned before on this blog Green’s quotable quotes–the sentences he writes that cut you right to the heart, his ability to put a feeling or experience you’ve had but were never able to dictate into words in the most beautiful and quotable way possible. The same is certainly true in this book.)

Green is able to chronicle his protagonist’s descent into dark “thought spirals” in a way that is–let’s be real–true perfection. (SPOILER ALERT) There are a couple pages towards the end of the book where the protagonist is fighting against her anxiety-induced need to drink hand sanitizer (to ward off the infection she is sure is festering in her stomach) that just SLAYED me. These pages in particular are incredibly well-written and a great but heartbreaking depiction of anxiety, depression, and mental health problems.

While I loved these things about the book (and all John Green books tbh), there are things about John Green books that always bother me. His depictions of many teen issues like identity, rites of passage, first love, family issues, pain, grief, and mental health are expertly written and extremely realistic, but the actual teenaged characters he creates are not so much.

His characters are always super smart and deep, philosophizing about life and death and the universe, quoting long-dead authors and poets and philosophers. And it’d be okay if one character in each of his books is a little philosophizing genius who has the maturity and literary knowledge of a college senior co-majoring in literature, history, biology, and philosophy and who maybe introduces the other characters to these things. But every single character in every one of his books is that way. The main characters. The love interests. The best friends. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

I spend all day every day with over a hundred teenagers, and sure, a few of them are extremely well-versed on literature, but none (NONE!) can quote Joyce or Morrison or The Tempest. I guess you could say reading his books could make teens aspire to be as deep or as knowledgable about pop culture and literary references as Davis or Aza are, but for me every time I read a John Green book, the characters just come across as glaringly fake. (The only exception to this for me was in Looking for Alaska. Alaska and Pudge’s knowledge felt organic and believable to me, a stark contrast to that of Hazel Grace’s of The Fault in Our Stars or Aza’s of Turtles All the Way Down.

I also couldn’t really buy into the romance between Aza and Davis in this one. Maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe that’s the point he’s making about Aza’s mental health–that it’s keeping her from experiencing a normal first love experience. I can respect that, but I also didn’t really care about the mystery of Davis’ dad’s disappearance. The only plot points in the story that I cared at all about were those that were associated with Aza’s mental health. While I found The Fault in Our Stars to be extremely overrated, I still cared about the overall plot and characters of the story. And in Looking for Alaska (Green’s one and only masterpiece in my opinion), I had a deep and visceral connection to the plot and characters. The same just can’t be said for this one. I just did not care nearly as much about any of it.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Regardless of its faults, the novel is a great and gut-wrenching depiction of anxiety. And this is something many of my students could really use. A lot of my students struggle with anxiety themselves, and many of the ones that don’t could definitely benefit from living in someone’s shoes who does have anxiety. I’m always trying to find ways to teach them empathy, but it’s hard (understatement of the century). This book is a way to get kids to realize that they’re not alone and to allow them a chance to view life from someone else’s perspective.

Just like any other John Green book, Turtles All the Way Down also introduces students to a lot of authors and quotes they otherwise would not be introduced to (regardless of the unrealistic nature of the quotes in the book) and that’s always a good thing.

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway

Overall Rating: 2.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 2/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 1.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 5 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

When Emmy’s childhood best friend, Oliver, returns home after being missing for 10 years because his father kidnapped him, Emmy & Oliver reconnect, fall in love, and learn to be true to themselves despite what their parents want for them.

My Favorite Quote

“I just hugged him and didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything to say. Sometimes there just aren’t enough words to fill the cracks in your heart.”

emmy

What I Loved About It

It’s a really interesting premise, exploring the aftermath of a biological parent kidnapping situation. I also thought Oliver was a really interesting character that kept me reading so I could learn more about him. But I thought that Benway kept something that could have dove really deep into some serious issues (I mean just imagine being kidnapped by your own parent while your other parent searches everywhere for you without you knowing. That is some messed up stuff!) very lighthearted and surface level. Emmy and Oliver fall in love and Emmy learns to tell her parents the truth about who she is because of him and that’s all nice and fluffy, but OLIVER WAS KIDNAPPED BY HIS DAD and why is this book so light and chill considering its subject matter?

Also, why does it mostly center on Emmy? I found myself caring very little about Emmy’s petty “I just want to surf but it’s dangerous so I can’t tell my parents about it” drama. Oliver was kidnapped and is trying to adjust to life with a mom that he doesn’t know because his dad took him from her and he misses his dad and this is some heavy stuff but for some reason it isn’t given the proper amount of heaviness in the novel. It also ends in a very happy “life is good” kind of way, and I just don’t think it’d be that easy for Oliver to adjust and cope after dealing with something like that.

I also feel like Benway’s prose is really good sometimes, and other times is trying way too hard to be funny or deep or relatable, and to me the trying-too-hard-ness was really obvious and took away from the book as a whole.

Overall, I liked this book. It was entertaining and fun. But the problem is that I don’t think it should be a fun book considering the subject matter.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Be true to yourself. Don’t just become who your parents want you to be, but forge a new path for yourself. All that tired teen trope jazz. Nothing much deeper than that.

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

Overall Rating: 2/5

Quality of Prose: 2/5

Quality of Story: 2/5

Quality of Characters: 1.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 0/5

How Long It Took Me To Finish: A week

A 1 Sentence Summary

When she moves to a new city and school after her friends died in a mysterious accident she can’t remember, Mara Dyer meets the handsome Noah Show and uncovers what really happened the night of the accident and who she really is.

My Favorite Quote

I honestly don’t have any quotes I loved from this book, but for the sake of continuity, here’s one that isn’t terrible:

“The two of us snuggled like quotation marks in his room full of words.”

mara dyer

What I Loved About It

At first, I was really intrigued by the mystery in the book. What happened to Mara’s friends? Why do people keep dying around her? I was also intrigued by the romance between Mara and Noah. Will they ever get together? Are the rumors about him correct?

But about midway through the book, when these questions were finally answered, I lost all interest and found it very difficult to not roll my eyes at the mawkish romantic fluff between Noah and Mara and the silly, plot-hole filled mystery that is the central conflict of the novel.

The romance, though it started out being a particularly sexy and interesting one, ended up bearing too great a resemblance to the Twilight series. Noah and Mara seem to be too deeply in love far, far too quickly. Noah is creepily overprotective and way too perfect and Edward Cullen-esque. And that part is the most frustrating of all because at the beginning of the book, it seemed like he had flaws–he was a player and a bit of an entitled but mysterious jerk–and these flaws made him a really attractive character. But then Mara realizes he likes her and suddenly, he is perfect and sweet and kind and so smart and supportive and a dog lover and trillionaire and the most attractive man Mara (and the audience) has ever seen. And for some inexplicable reason, he likes Mara immediately (even though, like Bella Swan, she’s given him no reason to garner his attention or attraction).

And don’t even get me started on the plot itself. What began as a really intriguing mystery devolved into a difficult-to-follow, cliche-filled, rushed narrative that I honestly didn’t care to know the ending of. Mara kills people with her mind? Ack. Mara has to swim across a swamp of alligators to find her brother who has been kidnapped for NO APPARENT REASON with the help of Noah who–again inexplicably–knows her brother has been kidnapped and where exactly to find him? Double Ack. Noah has a super power that means he can sense Mara’s pain and cure people and especially Mara? Ack Ack Ack. Let the uncontrollable eye rolls commence.

Though I myself found the book especially corny and unlikable, I could definitely see my students being interested in it (the way they’re still interested in Twilight though it is also–to put it mildly–pretty terrible).

What My Students Could Learn From It

Nothing at all.

Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me To Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Henry Page falls in (mostly unrequited) love for the first time with the mysterious Grace Town, who is in love with someone else, her boyfriend of many years who has recently died.

My Favorite Quotes

“When I look up into the night sky, I remember that I’m nothing but the ashes of long-dead stars. A human being is a collection of atoms that comes together into an ordered pattern for a brief period of time and then falls apart again. I find comfort in my smallness.”

“Because I never realized that you could fall in love with humans the same way you fall in love with songs. How the tune of them could mean nothing to you at first, an unfamiliar melody, but quickly turn into a symphony carved across your skin; a hymn in the web of your veins; a harmony stitched into the lining of your soul.”

ourchemicalhearts

What I Loved About It

Krystal Sutherland’s writing is very John Green-esque. The prose–and especially the dialogue–is incredibly witty and sharp, and it also has a depth to it that many young adult books are lacking these days. It gets you thinking about life, death, and love in a way that you hadn’t previously.

It’s those two things that I really liked about this book. The dialogue, which was chock-full of hilarious references and smart comebacks, was extremely fun to read at times.

Here’s a cool example:

The main character, Henry says, “This is the second straight hour I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift. She’s the only one who understands me…Who hurt you, Taylor? How can one person endure so much heartbreak?” to which his sister replies, “Are you gonna keep this bottled up inside until it manifests as mental illness?” to which he says, “That’s pretty much the plan.” His sister: “How long have you been lying in that bed for, anyway? You’re going to get deep vein thrombosis.” Henry: “Leave, Sadie. Leave me to my heartache and DVT.”

This funny exchange is immediately followed by a deep heart-to-heart covering love and what it means when a love isn’t forever and the chemical reaction in your brain when love fails and your heart is breaking.

The whole book is full of these funny exchanges and cool (and extremely current) pop culture references and quotable quotes about love and death (like the ones I included above under “My Favorite Quotes”).

And while I loved all these things about the book, there were things I didn’t love as well. I didn’t particularly like the characters. I supposed I liked the supporting characters (Henry’s sister and friends, etc.). They were hilarious and endearing and fun in their eccentricity. But Henry and Grace? I just could not root for either of them. Henry was naive to the point of annoyance, and Grace was frustrating and unappealing and even a little cruel. And I guess that’s the point. Doesn’t love make you naive? And doesn’t grief make you cruel? This isn’t supposed to be a love story you root for, but instead a case study on how first love (or really any love) doesn’t usually last, and how do we react when it doesn’t or when we’re in the midst of it but know it won’t last?

What My Students Could Learn From It

Another cool thing about this book is how realistic of a depiction it provides for teenage relationships. Henry’s obsession with becoming Grace Town’s boyfriend even though he practically knows nothing about her and only finds her attractive 20% of the time? Yeah that’s pretty realistic. Take it from someone who spends 8 hours a day with hormonal, relationship and “love”-driven teenagers. The obsession is so real. I think kids can learn from how Henry’s obsession pans out.

Other than that, I don’t think there are many clear cut lessons to learn from Our Chemical Hearts. Sutherland asks a lot of questions and starts a lot of conversations and encourages thought about a lot of things (with those magic John Green-esque quotable quotes), but doesn’t provide many clear “morals of the story.” Her ambiguity is refreshing. I think teens would appreciate the depth of some of the quotes and dialogue found in the novel, and it would get them thinking about a lot of things. And as their teacher, that’s definitely something I want novels they read to do.