Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

23734628Blurb:

Rainbow Rowell continues to break boundaries with Carry On, an epic fantasy following the triumphs and heartaches of Simon and Baz from her beloved bestseller Fangirl.

Simon Snow just wants to relax and savor his last year at the Watford School of Magicks, but no one will let him. His girlfriend broke up with him, his best friend is a pest, and his mentor keeps trying to hide him away in the mountains where maybe he’ll be safe. Simon can’t even enjoy the fact that his roommate and longtime nemesis is missing, because he can’t stop worrying about the evil git. Plus there are ghosts. And vampires. And actual evil things trying to shut Simon down. When you’re the most powerful magician the world has ever known, you never get to relax and savor anything.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Review:

When Carry On was announced last year, I couldn’t help but feel a bit extra special. In my review for Fangirl, Rowell’s previous YA novel that featured the novel-within-a-novel that eventually inspired her new novel Carry On (did you get that?), I requested that she adapt the Simon Snow scenes to a standalone book. Because in Fangirl the Simon Snow scenes were bonkers: a mash-up of Harry Potter with an Edward Cullen-esque vampire thrown in for good measure, topped off by an astonishingly well-developed mythology for seemingly throwaway scenes.

So Rainbow wrote it (for me! And I guess the thousands of others who clamored for it), and here I am, deeply downtrodden, because I have to report that this special-order book was not what I wanted. And okay, I immediately recognize that “this book is not what I wanted” is not a valid criticism. Rainbow doesn’t know who I am and she is not writing for me and that is good! Authors tend to shoot themselves in the foot as soon as they write for an audience. But the criticism holds somewhat seeing as Carry On is not Rainbow’s first Simon Snow rodeo. These characters already existed elsewhere; Carry On, as I understood it, would simply be their movement towards center stage.

Simon, Baz, Penelope and the gang have not just found the spotlight, however. They are entirely different incarnations of the characters I recall from Fangirl. And in shocking ways too. Originally, Simon and Co. were thick, meaty characters, dripping with turmoil in the face of insurmountable obstacles, but always–always–surmounting them. They managed to shine so brightly despite the fact that their appearances were intermittent and brusque. With more than 500 pages all to themselves in this novel, I expected their stories to develop in more complex and epic ways. Yet faced with so many pages to fill, they deflate to dull versions of their Fangirl selves. Petty problems rule the day; the supreme villain is rarely mentioned. Which I suppose is true in other epic fantasy novels. Harry Potter was not always thinking about Voldemort. For serious swaths of the series, he’s more concerned with Quidditch.

But Rainbow Rowell does not have the same advantages JKR had writing Harry Potter. Carry On is as if she started writing the series at Deathly Hallows. There’s so much that happened before, but we don’t see it so the stakes are so much lower. The result is a sham, a house of cards she tries to convince us is an actual house. But the little gusts the pages made as I turned them faster–eager to get to the good bits and finally eager to finish because there were no truly good bits–blew the whole house down. And then I see that Simon and everyone was just paper, thin and lifeless paper.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

18081809Blurb:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review:

Rainbow Rowell, author of my favorite heart-stuttering tales of first love Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, conquers tepid marriage in Landline. Well not so much “conquers” as “casually approaches and throws up her arms in semi-defeat.” Because while a love story comes with a prepackaged resolution—a kiss and confession of mutual desire—a story about a couple with two kids, married for 15 years, not necessarily in love, more so in shambles doesn’t really have a resolution. Sure, the embittered husband and wife can close the book with a kiss and a re-confession of mutual desire, but that’s no promise that the conflict of the 300 previous pages has been definitively surpassed. It’s probably just lying in wait around the next bend.

So what I’m saying is Rainbow Rowell has decided to attack an altogether different subject in Landline. It’s still a talky romance but it’s not romantic. It’s a harsh and measured look into sputtering relationships, into what happens post-happily ever after. I didn’t like it as much as Rowell’s YA novels, and superficially, I must admit that it’s partially due to the lack of will-they-or-won’t-they-please-please-will-they?? flirtation that accompanies two young people falling in love. But although I may appreciate it less, Rowell is no less wise when it comes to describing two older people falling in and out of love on a day-to-day basis. She has some truly fantastic musings on love and marriage, ideas that young’uns like me, people nowhere near slipping a ring on their left hand finger, might be reluctant to accept. She suggests that love is sometimes not enough, that two people can adore each other to the end of time but they will never be happy if they try to stay together. Rowell says things that her teenage characters Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi might scoff at upon hearing but then anxiously turn over again and again in their heads at night before falling asleep. These are truths feared by the young and gained only by maturity.

What I liked less is the gimmick that moves the plot forward. After skipping Christmas with her husband’s family in Nebraska to work, Georgie feels like her marriage might be over until she finds a magic phone that calls her husband Neal in the past. This unrealistic device is incongruous next to the realistic portrait of marriage. It’s also unnecessary. If Rowell wanted Georgie to compare her present relationship to her past relationship, she could have accomplished this merely by making Georgie reflect and remember. In general, the novel feels somewhat rushed, like it could have been constructed with more care and an eye on deleting superfluous scenes.

Selfishly, I want Rainbow Rowell to return to the realm of YA so I can watch two young kids kiss and confess mutual desire, i.e., fall in love. But she definitely has the skill to write about broken relationships and the (im)possibility of their repair—next time, however, she’ll hopefully do this with one less magic phone.

2.5 stars out of 5

Best Books of 2013

2013 isn’t over yet, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have one more excellent read before the year closes. At the time of this post, I’ve read a total of 95 books which amounts to 36,913 pages this year. I’ll likely add a bit to that, but for now I’m ready to proclaim my completely objective picks for the Best Books I’ve Read in 2013.

16068905Best Book About A Fictional Harry Potteresque Fan Community: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl (4 stars) is a giddy-making book, plain and simple. You will not be able to read about Cath, a fanfiction writer for the Simon Snow books (very obviously parodying the Harry Potter series), and her first year college adventures without becoming very very excited. Even though Rainbow Rowell touches serious topics like social anxiety, loneliness, academic cheating, and divorce, Fangirl is easily the most joyful book I read this year. Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (4 stars) was another favorite, though less happy and more wistful.

89717Best Book Published A Long Time Ago That I Just Read This Year: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Does the name Shirley Jackson ring a bell? She’s famous for her New Yorker short story The Lottery. Like The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House (5 stars) packs a wallop of an ending. This is not a horror novel but a terror novel. The fear lies in what we don’t see and what we don’t know. And for any obsessive book theorizers out there, those readers that love to form hypotheses about what really happened or what it all really means, this is the perfect book for you. Bonus? It’s exquisitely written (and inspired my blog title!).

2815590Best Book About A Savage Female Lumber Baron: Serena by Ron Rash

After reading the blurb for Serena (5 stars), I had the distinct impression that I was about to read the type of book where everyone dies at the end. In the least spoilery way possible, let me say that I was not disappointed. I love books that continuously shock me, where every new page promises an unexpected turn. That’s Serena. It doesn’t hurt that the titular character is one of the most tremendous female characters I’ve ever read about. I guess that’s what you get when you base a character on Lady Macbeth.

24Best Book That Made Me Want To Book A Flight on Qantas Airways ASAP: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country (4 stars) introduces readers to the enigma that is Australia. Before reading it, I knew practically nothing about this vast continent/island/country landmass isolated in the Pacific. I learned a lot but what elevates this book above a typical travelogue is Bryson’s writing. He’s absolutely hilarious, with a keen eye for good trivia and bullshit. Honorable mention for the Best Book That Made Me Want To Hike A 2179 Mile Trail: Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods.
(4 stars)

 

15815364Best ‘Self-Help’ Book That Is Actually An Incredibly Moving Novel: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Beautifully written and painfully realistic, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (5 stars) killed me. In a good way. This slim novel can be read in only a few hours. There’s so much to discuss here—the Westernization of Asia, the impact of post-colonialism, the role of women in traditional cultures—but I was more enthralled by the story. You meet the protagonist at birth and follow him to his grave. It’s impossible not to get attached.

3483Best Book With A Final Exam At The End: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Really 2013 was the year of Marisha Pessl. Though she’s only published two books, Marisha is now a favorite author of mine. Special Topics (5 stars) was actually published years ago, but I read it in preparation for Night Film (5 stars), Pessl’s 2013 release. Both are spectacular with vividly quirky characters who somewhat mask the dark perturbations moving behind the scenes. Pessl is responsible for the most shocking plot twists I’ve seen this year. As a great connoisseur of the plot twist, I cannot be more happy to have found her books.

Honorable Mentions:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (4 stars), Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (4 stars), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5 stars–but never reviewed!), Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois (4 stars), The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (4 stars), and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (5 stars)

What are the best books you read in 2013?

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

16068905Blurb: Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .

But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Review:

I pride myself on my cynicism. I pin it like a ribbon on the dark clothes I wear to broadcast my angst. So when it comes to Rainbow Rowell I’m conflicted because she’s now written two books–Eleanor & Park and Fangirl–that make me want to dress myself ROYGBIV style while frolicking in a vat of kittens.

This is not okay.

That is not to say I will stop reading Rainbow Rowell books. Because: why? Why would I deprive myself of her perfectly gooey stories that never descend to shallowness and always leave me joyous? I guess I might just have to admit that for a few hours at least, when consuming a Rainbow Rowell book (consuming being the most apt descriptor: you do not read these books, you consume them like a cake topped with gobs of frosting and innumerable sprinkles), I am more sunshine than dark side of the moon. Yes, I am now an unabashed fan(girl) of Rainbow Rowell.

While Eleanor & Park was an intense and internal tale of first love, Fangirl is a brighter, vaster tale of both first love and a bunch of things that happen when you “come of age.” Cath, a prolific fanfiction writer with social anxiety, goes to college and has to learn to navigate the real world instead of merely retreating to the safety of her fictional and internet-based world. It’s probably one of the better depictions of college—and I suppose also, young adultness—that I’ve read about. There’s drunkenness, roommate squabbling, empty nest syndrome, mental health problems, infuriating professors, dining hall conundrums, unintended makeouts, and family drama. These issues elevate the book above a standard romance. But let’s be real: I’m mostly here for the looooove and the fangirling.

First, the fangirling. Cath doesn’t just write fanfiction; she writes Simon Snow fanfiction. In her fic, Simon (picture a scarless Harry Potter) and Baz (imagine Malfoy with a dash of Edward Cullen) are not the enemies they are in the canon series but gay lovers! It’s wildly popular of course. Throughout the book, excerpts from Cath’s fanfic and the “real” Simon Snow series precede chapters about Cath’s real life, often cannily mirroring what is happening to her. I have but one request: Rainbow Rowell, write a full version of Cath’s Carry On, Simon fanfic and post it to Fanfixx.net, please & thank you. I loved these stories, mostly how they goofily parody Harry Potter. The fangirl aspect itself will be appreciated by anyone who has loved something to the point of obsession.

And now, the love story. The biggest complaint I can lodge against Ms. RR is her twee writing. Sometimes there are quotes that are cute, yes, but also demand an eyeroll. But I don’t much care because these twee statements are said by BFF-worthy characters. Cath and her love interest Levi are nerds but most importantly they’re kind. It is simply pleasant to read about decently well-intentioned people trying to figure things out but occasionally screwing up. Their romance is wonderful. It builds slowly—I’m talking Victorian style courtship—but because of its pace, everything between them feels earned. When the culminating moments arrive (and there are more than a few culminating moments; that’s the benefit of taking things slow—everything new, even the slightest touch, is a culmination), I was ecstatic. Like I’m-grinning-so-hugely-right-now-I-probably-look-deranged-ecstatic.

In truth, I am not the type to gush or squee or deem something adorable. But here I am: gushing and squeeing over this positively adorable book.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

15745753Blurb:

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

Review:

Eleanor & Park made me want to return to high school.

I KNOW.

That is an achievement I would have previously believed impossible. But this book made me feel the way I suspect everyone feels falling in love for the first time: giddy and confused; hopeful and anxious. It’s so deceptively simple; Rowell alternates between Park and Eleanor’s perspectives as they navigate their first intimate relationship, using sparse, poetic language to spotlight their emotions.

I read this with a smile crinkling my face. I tried to turn down the corners of my mouth when a character blurted “I love you” too soon. I tried to dismiss effusive descriptions like “Park was the sun” as trite. I tried—I tried so hard—to channel my inner cynic, to view this story as humdrum teenage romance muck. I failed. And so I read this story smiling.

From the moment Eleanor and Park fatedly meet on a yellow school bus and commence their relationship, their story is impressively realistic. They start by talking about everything for every hour of every day. That leads to the touching, beginning with accidental nudges and proceeding, slowly so slooooowly, to purposeful brushes of the fingers. By the time they’re in love, they barely even recognize it. It’s too late for them to wonder if the eventual pain will be worth it.

Once the protagonists’ hearts are stolen, my excited heart flutters mostly stopped and my anxiety increased because I knew there would be an end to their story; I knew it couldn’t stop with them holding hands, reading comics, and laughing together on the bus.

I was right. Eleanor and Park capture the sweetness and purity of first love and try to hold it as tightly as they can. They fail. And there is so much beauty in that.

4 out of 5 stars