Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

St. Martin's Press
Published September 10, 2013
481 pages

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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? 

I’ve come to Rainbow Rowell and Fangirl late. This is partly because of lingering issues from all the contemporary YA I read as an actual teenager, but also because this book was so popular so quickly that my automatic reaction to distrust all popular things kicked in before it ever came out. While it sounded likea book I would enjoy, I didn’t trust myself to enjoy it without my personal biases getting in the way, so I let the hype carry it away and didn’t think much of it.

Until I saw it on the library shelf while browsing a few weeks ago and it looked cute and fluffy with cover art by Noelle Stevenson. I was in the mood for cute and fluffy, so I gave it a shot.

I couldn’t have picked a better time to read Fangirl if I had done it on purpose. From the first few pages, this book kicked me in the stomach with memories and nostalgia because I was Cath. She’s neurotic and shy and doesn’t want to leave her dorm room unless it’s to go to class. She has no intention of making friends because she doesn’t know how, and while she’s incredibly lonely, it’s a feeling that makes her more comfortable than attempting to have a life outside.

THAT. WAS. ME!

Early on, Rowell describes all the anxiety-riddled reasons Cath doesn’t want to go to the cafeteria to eat a meal, instead relying on snacks she brought from home. Every reason felt a bit like a knife in my soul because I related to every thought, every fear, ever anxiety. Returning to school after a decade of being in the working world has been a learning experience revolving mostly on how much I didn’t know in undergrad. Reading this book was cathartic, allowing me to exorcise some demons while I try not to repeat those same mistakes in graduate school. Watching Cath grow and bloom into someone with a life outside the fan fiction she writes gave me hope. I didn’t achieve that level of growth in my 4.5 years of undergrad, but perhaps I can change things now.

But this is more self-reflection and less book review, so let me actually talk about the book.

Through the lens of fan-fiction-as-escapism, Rowell creates a fully formed character in Cath with weaknesses, strengths, moments of doubt, and successes of overcoming obstacles. She’s a real person through and through. While most of the secondary characters are boiled down to their base characters (Wren is the reckless and wild twin, Levi is the awkwardly adorable boy, the roommate is the brassy and loud hot girl), it doesn’t matter because this is Cath’s world, everyone else populates it. She is the sun everything revolves around though she doesn’t even know it.

The story is well-paced with mishaps and drama puncturing times when things may have lagged over Cath’s endeavor to write the ultimate piece of fan fiction. These moments of drama rely on realistic portrayals of underage binge drinking, a parent with mental illness, an absent parent’s sudden return, and extreme anxiety, all deep subjects dealt with delicately. 

Towards the later part of the book, the romance became a little over-the-top for me, but mostly because I’ve never become obsessed with someone’s chin before (it’ll make more sense if you’ve read the book). Rowell does, however, take time to explore the thoughts of a late bloomer facing the possibility of losing their virginity. As a late bloomer myself, I appreciated the balance between want and fear that Cath fights through as she deals with expectations she puts on herself to be “normal”.

My only real complaint about Fangirl is that, after a long and steady progression of story, the conclusion came suddenly and felt incomplete. It felt as though Rowell, much like her main character, came up against an unmovable external deadline and tied up the story the best she could. It felt a little incomplete though perhaps she left it more open ended to encourage her own cabal of fan’s fictions. 

I never became enamored with the Simon Snow fiction that are interspersed throughout the book, so I don’t think I will move on to Carry On. The parallels to Harry Potter were a little too heavy-handed, though at the same time understandable for what Rowell was trying to achieve.

While Fangirl was an enjoyable read, I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if it weren’t for the situational parallels going on in my real life. While I’m not entering college for the first time, many of my recent experiences had me looking bad in sadness at the things I missed due to my own anxiety. To see a character like Cath come out successful despite hardships is a rewarding look at what-could-have-been. This was a fun and relatively quick read, though I don’t know if it will convert me back to the realm of contemporary fiction.

Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

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In the Unlikely Event
Judy Blume

Knopf
Released June 2, 2015
397 pages
Adult / Contemporary-ish Fiction / Drama

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In her highly anticipated new novel, Judy Blume, the New York Times # 1 best-selling author of Summer Sisters and of young adult classics such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, creates a richly textured and moving story of three generations of families, friends and strangers, whose lives are profoundly changed by unexpected events.
In 1987, Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life. Thirty-five years earlier, when Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling. Against this backdrop of actual events that Blume experienced in the early 1950s, when airline travel was new and exciting and everyone dreamed of going somewhere, she paints a vivid portrait of a particular time and place—Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” Elizabeth Taylor haircuts, young (and not-so-young) love, explosive friendships, A-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threat. And a young journalist who makes his name reporting tragedy. Through it all, one generation reminds another that life goes on.
In the Unlikely Event is vintage Judy Blume, with all the hallmarks of Judy Blume’s unparalleled storytelling, and full of memorable characters who cope with loss, remember the good times and, finally, wonder at the joy that keeps them going.

I am probably towards the end of a generation of girls who read Judy Blume religiously. My childhood was punctuated with the Superfudge books while Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blubber and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t were staples of my adolescence. I read Summer Sisters on a vacation with my grandmother during high school. There really isn’t much of my childhood I can remember where one of Blume’s books wasn’t on my shelf. So when I heard she had a new book out for adults, I pushed aside my stacks of science fiction and fantasy novels for an old friend who just might be able to convince me to read contemporary again.

In the Unlikely Event isn’t contemporary though. It takes place mostly in the 1950s in Elizabeth, NJ, a real town that faced the tragedy of three airplanes crashing into it within three months. While the events are real, the characters are fictional, ranging from teenage girls trying to figure out who they are to young adults trying to break away from parental expectations to parents worried about the safety of their families to grandparents trying to figure out how to start again. There are a lot of characters in this book to keep track of, many of them introduced in the first 50 pages with their own points of view narration.

Miri is the main character, and most of the other characters that get featured the most are tied to her. She’s a fifteen year old girl, discovering what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. Her single mother is trying to find the balance between letting go and holding on to her daughter. Miri’s uncle – a local journalist – is finding great success as he covers the tragedies in his home town. Miri’s best friend, on the other hand, is falling to pieces, hearing voices and possibly losing her mind. Other characters who get points of view including Miri’s first boyfriend, his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, a handful of victims of the plane crashes, and many others. Yet somehow they’re all tied together in a world that is already starting to get a little bit smaller.

This is a slice of life story with a dramatic and unexpected backdrop. At any moment, another plane could fall out of the sky, so as the reader, I was holding my breath alongside the characters until that third place crashed. Only then could I relax and watch the fallout of these disasters without fearing that any of my favorites were going to be victim of the next tragedy. That’s not to say other things don’t happen once the three planes crash, but at least I didn’t have that foreboding feeling hovering over me. It’s a very interested and effective manner of story structure that I enjoyed very much.

The story telling is very atmospheric with bits of window dressing and dialogue transporting the reader to the 1950s right alongside Miri. This is a talent that Judy Blume has always had, which I think makes me enjoy her “contemporary” works so much. She’s able to transport me to other times in the same way that a good science fiction writer can transport me to another world. Her characters are full of life and even though this book often broke my heart, it was a compelling and engaging read that I had difficulty putting down.

A conclusion at the end jumps 35 years into the future, giving a satisfying look at where all these characters end up. I loved seeing this flash forward in time, knowing which characters had satisfying lives while others may have taken more difficult paths. While the book may use the plane crashes as a story telling device, this book is very much about growing up and the lasting effects of first loves and the events that define us a people. Perhaps the nostalgia that I had while reading this book put it all in a more favorable light than had I read it without my reading history, but I really did enjoy In the Unlikely Event though my heart ached when I finished.

Review: Cut Me Free by JR Johansson

Cut Me Free
JR Johansson

Farrar, Straus, Giroux
I received an ARC from the publisher.
Released January 27, 2015
YA / Real Life / Thriller

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Seventeen-year-old Charlotte barely escaped from her abusive parents. Her little brother, Sam, wasn't as lucky. Now she's trying to begin the new life she always dreamed of for them, but never thought she'd have to experience alone. She's hired a techie-genius with a knack for forgery to remove the last ties to her old life. But while she can erase her former identity, she can’t rid herself of the memories. And her troubled history won’t let her ignore the little girl she sees one day in the park. The girl with the bruises and burn marks.

That’s when Charlotte begins to receive the messages. Threatening notes left in her apartment--without a trace of entry. And they’re addressed to Piper, her old name. As the messages grow in frequency, she doesn’t just need to uncover who is leaving them; she needs to stop whoever it is before anyone else she loves ends up dead.

Oh man, this was not the follow up book I needed after The Rule of Three: Fight for Power. I was already paranoid and hating humanity. Then I start reading this story about a 17-year-old girl, who was running from her abusive past only for it to continuously hunt her down. By the end I just wanted all of the world to die in a fire. Cut Me Free is a brutal book to get through for someone with a highly sensitive empathy switch. There were several times I had to put the book down and walk away, but that’s more a testament to the rawness of Johansson’s writing.

Charlotte spent most of her life locked in an attic, physically and mentally abused by her parents and not even existing as far as the rest of the world was concerned. After one particularly traumatic incident, she managed to escape and run halfway across the country to start a life in a world she’s never known. She contacts a forgery expert who is conveniently a very attractive teenage boy to help her start her new life and hide away from any remnants of her past that might track her down.

After saving a small girl from a similar situation, Charlotte finds her new life quickly falling to pieces as threatening notes start arriving at her apartment. Rather than run and give up the life she has built for herself, Charlotte faces the terrors of her past and the unknown horrors that might be surrounding her.

Johannson doesn’t shy away from details of child abuse. While she doesn’t relish in them either, there’s enough setup and enough implied that I felt physically ill from time to time, especially in any real-time scenes. It’s all pretty horrifying, real-life stuff that my brain can only handle a little bit at a time. Once everyone’s background is out in the open, the more thriller-based aspects of the story start roaring along and Cut Me Free becomes more of a general thriller story with a creepy bad guy.

This was one of my attempt to read outside my preferred genre and while it was a difficult read due to subject matter, it’s a well-crafted story with characters that I genuinely feared for and a plot that moves rapidly from bleak to bleaker before everything explodes into one massively heart-pounding scene. Everything was a little too “it happens in real life” for my comfort, but it’s a well-written book that easily put me out of my comfort zone. If you’re into contemporary crime thrillers, Cut Me Free is worth giving a shot.

 

I received a free ARC of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Thoughts are all my own.

Mini-Review: She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

She Is Not Invisible
Marcus Sedgwick

Roaring Brook Press
I received an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.
Released April 22, 2014
224 pages
YA / Contemporary

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Laureth Peak's father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers--a skill at which she's remarkably talented. Her secret: She is blind. But when her father goes missing, Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin are thrust into a mystery that takes them to New York City where surviving will take all her skill at spotting the amazing, shocking, and sometimes dangerous connections in a world full of darkness. She Is Not Invisible is an intricate puzzle of a novel that sheds a light on the delicate ties that bind people to each other.

Marcus Sedgwick is a very unique and interesting writer. He can take the seemingly ordinary and somehow make it feel extraordinary. While his previous work Midwinterblood had fantasy elements, She Is Not Invisible is straight contemporary told from the point of view of Laureth, a blind teenager, who fears something very bad has happened to her father. Even with the straight forward settings of London and New York City, there is a mythical shimmer of something not quite real world on top of the story simply by Sedgwick’s manner of writing.

Laureth “borrows” her precocious 7-year-old brother and her mother’s credit card after her fears about her father went unacknowledged by her mother. With the help of her brother, she navigates from her London home to New York City with no clue on the whereabouts of her father other than an email from a stranger claiming to have found his notebook.

The major plot points are secondary to the journey Laureth and her little brother takes.  Though she is blind, Laureth has developed as many secret talents as possible to hide her disability from the wider world. Just reading how ingenious she is in fooling the world and how cruel people can be to strangers was a fascinating glimpse at what those will disabilities face on a daily basis. Laureth is an incredibly independent character while having to remain frustratingly dependent on others in many situations. This is the first real time she’s been “on her own” and fending for herself, though she has put on the added responsibility of protecting her younger brother by bringing him along.

Due to that previously mentioned “mythical shimmer” element of Sedgwick’s writing, I expected a turn into the fantastical at any moment, but was completely satisfied when nothing magic or unrealistic came into play. It’s a story of misunderstandings, coincidences and what we do when we believe those we love are in danger. The climax of the story is incredibly satisfying with Laureth using what everyone else sees as her faults to protect herself and her brother from imminent danger.

She Is Not Invisible is a short, fast-paced book that is gripping in its drama and compelling in its humanity. Laureth is a unique and unexpected heroine that had a solid head on her shoulders while still being young and ignorant to the greater world. This is a lovely short book that deserves much more attention.

 

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Review: Broken by Elizabeth Pulford and Angus Gomes

Broken
Elizabeth Pulford

Art by Angus Gomes
Running Press Kids
Releases August 27, 2013
240 pages
YA / Contemporary / Comics

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Critically injured in a motorbike accident, Zara Wilson lies in a coma. She is caught between many worlds: the world of her hospital room and anxious family, and that of her memories and a dream-like fantasy where she searches for her brother Jem. Jem proves elusive but Zara s adventures in her subconscious unlock dark secrets of a troubled childhood. Zara must face up to her past in order to accept her future.

I hate to go straight into a pun, especially for a book like this but I must. Broken broke me, adding little cracks along the journey until I was lost and in pieces by the end. This is a book that is part experiment in storytelling, part journey of discovery and completely heart-breaking. The story isn’t all together new, but the method Pulford and Gomes tell their story of a teenage girl finally coming to terms with dark secrets in her past because of another horrific event makes something somewhat common into something unique.

Zara starts the book in the hospital, deep in a coma after a motorcycle crash, but she has no idea that’s what is going on. Instead she wonders why everyone is talking to her like she isn’t there and decides that she must find her brother, Jem, and bring him home. Zara’s brother is obsessed with Hoodman comics, so when he goes missing, she naturally thinks he must be in the comics and jumps into the latest issue in order to find him. What happens next is a non-linear story of self-discovery and diving into the deepest darkest parts of your mind that you’ve long kept locked for your own well-being.

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