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Paper Towns: A review

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I didn't plan on starting my review of John Green's newest book Paper Towns (2008) with a mention of Brotherhood 2.0, I really didn't. But having finished the book I find that, really, it is the right place to start.

Back when I had a myspace page, a lot of my friends were authors, library types, and bands. One of those friends was John Green who posted a bulletin about a project he and his brother decided to start in January 2007. Having noticed that they communicated almost entirely through e-mails or instant messages, Hank Green decided that he and John should communicate for a year only through daily (except for weekends and holidays) video blogs. The rules are more elaborate, but that was the basic premise. Throughout the course of the year, John and Hank exchanged a lot of videos about two things: Being a Nerd Fighter, the true meaning of Awesome, and World Suck Levels. (Fans might also remember an entertaining Valentine's Day post relating to pink wine.)

At some point during this crazy brilliant idea, John Green and Hank Green continued to work. For John Green that work was writing a book. And, maybe it's because I now know more about Green, but reading Paper Towns kept bringing me back to those Vlogs whose themes seemed to have made their way into this novel to interesting (and entertaining) effect.

Now for some linkage: The original Brotherhood 2.0 videos can be found at Brotherhood2.com. (They also have their own channel on Youtube.) Since the vlog project's end in December 2007, the Brotherhood 2.0 site has been reshaped into a Nerd Fighter headquarters at Nerdfighters.ning.com. Last, but totally not least, you can find John Green's site at Sparksflyup.com.

Now for some actual review:

Quentin Jacobsen has loved Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for most of his life. It's hard to not love someone who is equal parts phenomenon, mystery, and adventure. With end of high school mere weeks away, Q is prepared to accept that Margo will always be closer to fantasy than reality.

All of that changes when Margo, dressed like a ninja, opens Q's window and asks for his help:

"Tonight, darling, we are going to right a lot of wrongs. And we are going to wrong some rights. The first shall be last; the last shall be first; the meek shall do some earth-inheriting."

And so begins an eleven part, all-night odyssey that will change Q's life, particularly--he hopes--how his life relates to the lovely Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Before Q can find out if everything will be different, Margo disappears--on its own, not an unusual occurrence. Part of being Margo Roth Spiegelman demands the occasional disappearance to plan and execute further adventures. The strange thing, the reason Q can't pretend this disappearance is normal, is that Margo left clues. For him. As Q, with the help of his fantastically-written friends, tries to trace Margo's path he finds more questions than answers, realizing that he might need more than clues to lead him to the girl he loves. He might need to revisit everything he thought he knew about Margo Roth Spiegelman, both the person and the phenomenon.

Paper Towns combines elements of a coming-of-age story and a mystery. Q's search for Margo is, in many ways, just as important as working through the tedium and nostalgia of his last weeks in high school. The story is also very contemporary: the characters have (very clever) screen names that they use to instant message, a website not unlike Wikipedia (here called Omnictionary) finds its way into the storyline. Still, the timelessness of the story seems to ensure that this novel will not become dated as technologies change. Green's inclusion of excerpts from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass also points to this book's lasting power.

Like An Abundance of Katherines (2006), the writing here has a verve and wit that keeps readers' attention and makes the book speed along. Although Green treads similar territory to his previous novels, Paper Towns remains unique and Q's narrative voice is utterly his own. The tone here is also something new; a blend of a nostalgia and the jolt of the now as Green expertly moves between past tense and present tense narration to emphasize key parts of the plot.

Green won the Michael L. Printz Award in 2006 for his first novel Looking for Alaska. In 2007 An Abundance of Katherines (his second novel) was selected as a Printz Award Honor Book. The 2009 Printz Awards were announced earlier this year, Paper Towns did not receive a nod. All the same, this book remains one of my top five YA books written in 2008.

It took me longer to realize that there were two covers floating around for Paper Towns than it took me to actually read the novel. The first cover, yellow and bright, seems to be the primary marketing cover (appearing on Amazon.com's page for the book). But there is also a mystery second cover with a different photo and darker colors that was on my copy (and the NYPL catalog, making it much less mysterious). Without revealing too much, I wanted to mention the Two Cover Strategy because it's so apt. Margo is so iconic, so important, so multi-faceted, that it makes sense that she cannot be contained by one book cover.

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