Tag Archives: YA

Review: Suspicious Minds

Like many, I’m impatiently waiting for Stranger Things season 3 to drop in July. In the meantime, I was pretty excited to see the release of an official Stranger Things novel: a prequel to the TV series, titled Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, written by Gwenda Bond.

suspiciousmindsIn the novel, Terry Ives takes her roommate’s place in a mysterious government-run psychology experiment. She wants to be part of something important, and she wants the money they’re offering as compensation. She quickly befriends the other participants. When Terry discovers a strange, young child at the Hawkins National Laboratory, where they are transported for their own experiment, she must work with the others to unearth Dr. Brenner’s secrets and free the child. But the deeper they get, the more they discover that Brenner’s reach extends far beyond the lab.

” ‘You have rights. You’re Americans.’

Gloria smiled wryly. ‘When it’s our government involved, I think you’ll find our rights are often to be determined.’ “

It’s probable that the only readers this book will appeal to are going to be the ones who watch the Stranger Things TV series. It would be entirely possible to read this novel before watching any of the episodes, or at any point in the midst of them (these events take place before the first season, but they overlap with a bit of backstory revealed in the second season) but I would guess that only the most avid of Stranger Things fans who’ve devoured every detail so far borne into the world will be reaching for this volume.

Both the biggest boon and the biggest drawback to the fact that Suspicious Minds‘s readership will be largely comprised of readers who’ve already seen season 2 is that those readers will know the trajectory of this novel before even cracking open the cover, but they’re probably also the exact audience who won’t mind a bit of overlap in the face of new information. This book is in no way necessary to understanding the TV series, though it does offer deeper insight into a time period that’s barely grazed (so far) in the film.

Among the most intriguing elements this novel offers are an exploration of Terry’s character and personal history, as well as a more thorough examination of Brenner’s behavior and early days at the Hawkins National Laboratory. There are several brand-new characters that I don’t believe have been mentioned thus far in the film, though I haven’t yet done a careful rewatch to see whether there are any small connections I missed. The details and characters that readers will recognize (and there are plenty of those) do seem to match up very well- I didn’t find a single flaw or conflict between the information provided in the film and in the novel.

But Bond certainly plays it safe. Though there is mention of subjects 001 – 011, the only children present in any significant way in the novel are the two we are already aware of from the TV series. Brenner is just as cruel and influential, but he doesn’t reveal any more answers about his motives or past than he has in the film. Terry is brought to life in a way she didn’t have a chance at in the film, but all of her actions reveal a sort of inevitability toward the outcome we already know is coming- by which I mean that her personality and the choices that would lead her to Brenner are already in motion at the opening of the novel; we don’t see anything formative but rather the dusting off of the backstory we already know about. In sum, I don’t believe that those who read this novel will have any sort of advantage in understanding or predicting future seasons of the TV series over fans who skip the book and other extras and simply watch the episodes.

Which isn’t to say that Suspicious Minds isn’t entertaining. It throws the reader into the culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s the same way that the film does for the mid-80’s. There is mystery and experimental science- almost magic; the characters are compelling, their relationships strong and their enemies dangerous. If I found myself unsurprised by the unfolding plot here, I didn’t succumb to boredom.

“She’d never expected her comic books to be training for life, but then she’d never expected to have a friend who wanted to share visions via a homemade electroshock machine. It turned out the comic books had one thing right. Having powers put you in danger. Even being near people that had powers put you in danger. And being discovered by people who wanted to control those powers put you in even more. Of that she was certain.”

I did find the writing a bit bland, perhaps because the main characters here are college students and older adults portrayed in anticipation of younger readers; Bond keeps things as simple and PG as possible for accessibility across a wide range of audience members. Though it might not spark the same excitement as the film, Bond has crafted a novel in all ways acceptable in connection to the pop culture sensation that is Stranger Things.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a fun and quick read, if not quite as engrossing as the TV series. The novel in no way requires a sequel, as the next events are depicted briefly as a flashback in season 2, but there is room for continuation, as well as plenty of other characters that could be explored in the same way. I’d hoped for a little more to be revealed in Suspicious Minds since it is canon, but I was content enough with my reading experience that I would read another Official Stranger Things Novel. In the meantime… bring on season 3!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Trilogy

Back in December, I did something I NEVER do: I watched the movie before reading the book. Actually, I did this twice in the same day- to watch Dumplin’ and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I enjoyed both, and committed to reading both books. Or, in the case of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the entire trilogy. I picked up Dumplin’ in January (and adored it), and I spent last week binging To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. 

toalltheboysi'velovedbefore

Since I read all three of Jenny Han’s (YA contemporary romance) novels back to back, I’ve decided to talk about them all together in one go instead of writing three reviews. So let’s take a closer look ->

About the book(s): Lara Jean is the middle of three sisters. Her older sister, Margot, is leaving the country for college at the start of Lara Jean’s junior year. Kitty, the youngest, is a fierce nine-year-old. The girls are very close, which means Margot’s absence is a challenge for them all; but the biggest challenge for Lara Jean comes shortly after Margot’s departure, when a box full of old love letters she’s written to all of her crushes goes missing, and the letters begin turning up in the hands of the boys she liked. One goes to a boy from camp, one to a childhood friend, one to a boy who likes boys, one to the most popular boy in school, and… one to the boyfriend Margot just broke up with.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before- this was my favorite book of the trilogy because it seemed the most unique and the least predictable. Having seen the movie (even though I wasn’t paying complete attention, knowing I would want to read the books later and then rewatch the film) ruined that a little more than I’d expected. The scenes are a bit different in the film than in the book, so it was still interesting to read and compare, but there weren’t really any important differences. I spent most of this novel just reading to get through to the next one.

“Gosh. To be sitting in the passenger seat of Peter Kavinsky’s black Audi. Isn’t that what every girl has ever wanted, in the history of boys and girls? Not Peter Kavinsky specifically, or yes, maybe Peter Kavinsky specifically.”

P. S. I Still Love You- A major character who didn’t make it into the first book comes into play here in book two, but not until halfway through the book. There are a lot of cute couple scenes as Lara Jean’s current relationship finds its balance after the drama that occurred in book one, but essentially the first half of this novel felt like a waiting game. This is also the point at which the trilogy started to feel very predictable to me. There’s a definite lack of nuance- if you were able to guess who sent out Lara Jean’s letters in book one (and come on, there’s really only one person it can be), you’ll also guess who Stormy’s favorite grandson is before he appears. You’ll see that Lara Jean’s jealousy/judgment is a bit misplaced before Gen reveals the truth about her “family problems.” But there is some quality commentary on high school relationships (romantic and platonic) beneath the teenage drama.

“You only know you can do something if you keep on doing it.”

Always and Forever, Lara Jean- I just wanted to know who she was going to end up with! But it becomes clear early on that the question is not “which of the five crushes will Lara Jean choose?” but rather “will Lara Jean and this one boy stay together after graduation?” This made the lead-up to graduation a bit tedious, though it still had its cute moments. Again, there was a lot of predictability in this one. Lara Jean has her expectations for college a little too set, very early in the novel. The end of high school will mean changes for Lara Jean and this boy, and somehow she’s the only one who can’t see that.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for people who maintain neutrality in times of crisis.”

This is not my usual sort of reading fodder. I haven’t read this sort of cutesy contemporary romance since I was in middle school- I’m talking Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen. If I had read Jenny Han’s books at that time, when I was 11 or 12, I probably would’ve loved them. The biggest obstacle to my enjoying them now is that Lara Jean’s narration seems more like the commentary of a twelve year-old than a seventeen year-old. I don’t read middle-grade books anymore because I learned while trying to read Percy Jackson about five years ago that this sort of writing just does not work for me anymore. This was most problematic for me in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, though I think reading all three back-to-back helped keep it from becoming so noticeable in the sequels.

So why did I pick these up, if all evidence seemed to point to them not being to my current literary taste? Well, I did enjoy the film. And a friend gifted me the boxed set for Christmas so I couldn’t not read them. I know a lot of readers love these books, and I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Furthermore, I’m a completionist. Once I had started this story (by watching the film), I had to know how it would end. And last but not least, it is February. I wanted to read a romance.

But unfortunately, I didn’t get much from this trilogy beyond the cuteness, and that’s not something that tends to leave a lasting impression for me.

I thought that a lot of the plotting was flimsy. It should come as no shock to Lara Jean who keeps (and addresses!) personal letters that someone finds and sends them. All three of the sisters came off as much more selfish to me in the books- Margot is negative about every development at home while she is away, and the only things she does to further the plot are 1) break up with Josh at the beginning of book one, and 2) tell Lara Jean that their mother said not to go to college with a boyfriend. Kitty has one key moment, but otherwise her side plots (convincing their father to buy a dog, matchmaking between her single dad and divorced neighbor, even giving the boy crushes her seal of approval) seem largely unnecessary to the major issues in Lara Jean’s life. Lara Jean hopes for romantic gestures, and does nothing in return but bake, which is something she does for stress relief anyway. And the biggest disappointment for me is that the letters that started it all (which also feel like they were written by a twelve year-old, or younger) are just the catalyst to Lara Jean’s relationship dramas; most of the letters are out of the story already by book two, and there are only references to them by the third book.

Despite the fact that this is turning into a list of complaints, I didn’t hate the reading experience. Obviously, I was enjoying it enough to read all three books. These were super fast to get through, and I think I only spent 4 or 5 days on the entire set. I am glad that I was gifted the box set because I think I might have lost interest if I’d had to wait between volumes, but since I did have them all on hand I let myself succumb to the brief addiction. And I do know a few people who will probably want to borrow the set now that I’m finished.

Some things I liked very much: the assassins game and the USO party, Lara Jean’s impromptu trip to UNC Chapel Hill, Peter giving Kitty a ride in his two-seater on her birthday. I smiled through a lot of the dates/hang-outs and dialogue. I really liked John Ambrose McClarren, and Lara Jean’s dad- he’s a great YA-novel parent. And Jenny Han does a great job of encouraging young readers to take chances in high school, to work hard but also to try new things and talk to people you wouldn’t. I do wish I would’ve had these books when I was younger.

“I think that time might be different for young people. The minutes longer, stronger, more vibrant.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars, each. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I think book one probably would’ve been my favorite if I hadn’t already seen the film, but there were pros and cons to each that left them pretty evenly matched in the end. I’m glad Jenny Han says (in the acknowledgments at the end of book 3) that this series is truly finished, and not going to endure a spin-off “Lara Jean in college” storyline; she knew exactly where to end it. I am immensely looking forward to seeing what Netflix does with the next (and hopefully the third) film! I think this series will end up being one of those rare occasions of liking the movie better than the book, at least for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dumplin’

I watched the new Netlifx film Dumplin’ last month when I desperately needed a movie day, even though I had not yet read Julie Murphy’s novel and almost always prefer to read the book first. I was only going to watch the trailer, but then I couldn’t resist. After watching (and adoring) the film, I knew I needed to step the book up on my TBR, so I found a copy through my library and picked it up last week when I wanted something light to read.

dumplinAbout the book: Willowdean’s mom is a former pageant queen, but she’s never encouraged her only daughter to apply. At her size, people don’t exactly think of Willowdean as pageant material. But when she finds an unsubmitted application from her plus-size aunt’s teen years after Lucy’s death, Willowdean decides it’s time to make a statement- to her mom, to the mean kids at school, in honor of Lucy, and for herself. But how can she focus on the pageant when there’s a cute boy she might have a chance with, an epic battle of wills between Willowdean and her best friend, and her mom trying to turn Lucy’s bedroom into a craft room, devoid of beloved Dolly Parton memorabilia? And what about the other misfits who’ve signed up for the competition with Willowdean as their inspiration? One way or another, there’s going to be a big showdown.

“I think you gotta be who you want to be until you feel like you are whoever it is you’re trying to become. Sometimes half of doing something is pretending that you can.”

This is probably the only book I’ve read in years that I can say is completely cute without also being relegated to “guilty pleasure” territory for lack of substance. Dumplin’ the (YA contemporary) novel is just as wonderful as Dumplin’ the film, with a whole lot more drama packed in. It’s not YA fluff though- this is a book that makes a loud statement for any girl with body image doubts. I do appreciate that the movie is a bit more streamlined and less boy-focused, but I was relieved to find that there was so much more in the book that I didn’t even know to expect from the movie. The two formats make a great duo.

One main aspect that’s consistent across both mediums is Willowdean’s impression of herself. She is so set on refusing judgment from other people, and generally in front of any audience she stands up strong, knowing better than to let anyone else tell her what she’s worth. But she does judge herself. And she judges the people that she thinks are the most like her. In most books, I would’ve found this hypocrisy annoying, but it’s intentional here, and to great effect. Willowdean is a teen who learns throughout the course of the story that like most of us, she is her own harshest critic. She doesn’t want anything or anyone to hold her back on account of her size, which includes swallowing her own self-doubt.

“The way she says it. It’s not mean. Or rude. It’s true.”

On the flip side, Willowdean also needs to accept that she won’t be getting special treatment because of her mom’s place on the judges’ panel of the pageant. Refraining from holding herself back also means that she needs to put as much effort into her pageant events (and relationships) as the other girls do. If she wants to compete for any reason- whether it be in the name of revolution or in earnest for this year’s crown- she has to see the contenders as her equals, not her enemies. She has to play the game, just like everyone else.

“I don’t even want to win, but I think there’s this survival instinct inside all of us that clicks on when we see other people failing. It makes me feel gross and incredibly human.”

But this isn’t a book solely for plus-size readers. Dumplin’ is about friendship and grief, self-acceptance and acceptance of others no matter what their differences are. It’s about first love and family, coping with bullies, surviving high school. It’s about Dolly Parton and Southern traditions. It’s about being who you are, no matter what.

“You don’t always have to win a pageant to wear a crown.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll definitely be reading Murphy’s recent sequel, Puddin’, though I’m always a bit less enthused about sequels that focus on different characters than the original. I think Murphy will pull it off, though. It’ll probably be one of those books that will pleasantly surprise me when I get around to picking it up. I’m also more interested in checking out Murphy’s other publications. And I’ll certainly be rewatching  Dumplin’. Again.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading on what it’s like to be big in a world that values smallness, check out Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger. This book is more for adults, but I think younger readers could benefit as well as long as they know to expect some mature and difficult topics. Gay talks about using food to build her body like a fortress in the wake of rape, but she also talks about more everyday challenges like chairs with arms, stares at restaurants and gyms, and buying professional clothing in appropriate sizes.

Have you read or watched Dumplin’? Which format did you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sawkill Girls

My January TBR is basically my December book haul (plus a couple of library books), and luckily I ended up with quite a variety that’s helping me read more impulsively this year, despite the constriction of a monthly TBR system. I actually let a friend choose my first book of the year from my January TBR box, and she picked Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, a creepy YA fantasy that I’ve been meaning to read and finally grabbed a copy of in December. It was a great choice to start the year with!

sawkillgirlsAbout the Book: Girls have been going missing for over a hundred years on the island of Sawkill Rock. Everyone has heard the stories about the island’s magical villain, but few know which pieces of the lore are true. Zoey, the local police chief’s daughter, won’t accept non-answers about her missing best friend any longer. Marion, new to the island, becomes much more involved in the mystery than she ever would have thought possible. And Val holds the secret of generations of missing girls- a secret she’s quickly losing control of. Relationships between the three girls are complicated at best, but they may be the island’s best chance at stopping the monster as his greed and strength increase.

“Girl-ghosts swarmed Val’s brain. She could hear nothing but their wails, calling for her damnation.”

Legrand tries so hard for atmosphere, but she tries a little too hard, in my opinion. She uses a lot of visual descriptions, heavy on the adjectives, in a way that made it impossible for me to see this world beyond the page. As engaging as I found the story to be, I could never quite forget that I was reading words and turning pages.

Which isn’t to say that the book is not atmospheric or that I didn’t love the story. What gives Sawkill Girls its perfect creepy vibe is the slow addition of magical elements throughout the entire first half of the novel. The opening of the story feels so present-day and normal that I was confused for a long time about why this book is considered fantasy. Even as the magic is introduced, it feels more like metaphor or magical realism than full-blown fantasy, though it does find its target in the end. But the small, unsettling, otherworldly details really worked for me in a way that the visual cues in the writing did not. Every time I thought I had this story and these characters figured out, Legrand would throw in a whole new layer of intrigue and possibility that upturned my every assumption. That was the technique that completely won me over.

“It wasn’t in her ears as much as it was in her bones, working its way out from the inside. It vibrated in her marrow as though her entire self teemed with tiny borrowing bugs. Like summer cicadas buzzing in the trees at dusk, the cry droned.”

There were a few times when I thought the magical elements (especially Marion’s bone-cry, described above) made the girls’ sleuthing efforts a bit too convenient, but these were small moments of doubt and nothing more. Mostly, I bought into the magic and the ways that the three main characters discovered both the hidden secrets of their world, and the burgeoning powers within themselves.

Speaking of power, though this is indeed a fantasy book (despite whatever first impressions it gives), it is also very feminist and queer. Though there’s no real reason given for the monster’s need for young female victims, there is so much commentary about how these girls are strong enough to stand up for themselves and change the cycle. There are girls who like girls, girls who like boys, girls who don’t like sex at all. They all are given a voice and an audience.

“Marion couldn’t imagine a God like the one she’d grown up hearing about- some man sitting in the clouds, maneuvering the pieces of the world to suit his whims because he, of course, knows best. But she could imagine a God in the shape of an island crowned with trees, brooding in the middle of a black sea.”

One thing that didn’t work for me, both structurally and in the realm of Sawkill’s magic, was that the island itself is alive in a way. “The Rock” has its own perspective chapters woven between those of the three main characters- only a page or two at a time, scattered sparsely through the novel, but ultimately these seemed overly mysterious and gimmicky, and completely unnecessary to the overall story. The girls learn enough about Sawkill Rock and the history of its most notable inhabitants throughout the course of the novel that the Rock perspectives don’t add any vital information. I much preferred seeing the Rock through the girls’ eyes to seeing them through it.

Speaking of perspectives, I started out enjoying each of the three girls’ chapters, but about halfway through the book I’d had enough of Zoey. She’s a bit abrasive, and I didn’t always agree with the way she treats the people she loves. She wants to be accepted as the asexual, non-white, loud girl character that she is, and she should be, but the way she lashes out against her father, whose mistakes were well-intentioned, and Marion, whose crime is loving someone that Zoey despises, seem as inconsiderate as she’s accusing them of being. She’s constantly ignoring Grayson when he’s justifiably concerned, and expecting his help when she doesn’t seem to be returning the favor. She’s not all bad, of course; I think this comes down to a case of preferring one character (or in this case two) out of the perspective options- they rarely come out balanced completely even.

But I never did tire of the plot. The mystery and the obvious peril created by Sawkill’s monster kept me hooked until the very last page.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though clearly I had a few hang-ups, this book was a great start to my 2019 reading. I want to read a bit more YA and a bit more fantasy this year than I did in 2018, and Sawkill Girls made me excited for more of both. I’m on the fence about trying Legrand’s other big publication, Furyborn, as its premise doesn’t appeal quite as much to me as Sawkill Girls did, but I will be keeping an eye out for future Legrand publications!

Further recommendations:

  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a great next read if you love teen girls fighting back against the men who hurt/kill them. There are plenty more animals in The Female of the Species for Legrand readers who love the horses of Sawkill Rock, though there aren’t any actual fantasy elements. There is still murder and danger and plenty of challenged stereotypes, and it’s a good (slightly heartbreaking) time.

What’s your favorite YA standalone fantasy?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Poem for Every Night of the Year

I spent the entirety of 2018 working my way through A Poem For Every Night of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri. My enjoyment of the poems went up and down, but keeping on track with a small amount of poetry every day (or every few days, as worked best for me) was a great exercise.

apoemforeverynightoftheyearAbout the book: Esiri has gathered 366 poems (including a Feb. 29 poem in case you’re reading in a leap year) that are more or less related to the dates on which they appear. Each page begins with a paragraph introducing the poem, author, and significance of the date; these feature authors and traditions from various time periods and around the world. Following the opening paragraph is that night’s poem, which can take up anywhere from a few lines to a few pages. The book is divided into sections by month.

“My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends– / It gives a lovely light!” -Edna St Vincent Millay

I started the year with the best intentions of actually reading a poem every night. Reading poetry is a great habit to expand both the reading and writing mind, and though I do enjoy it, I don’t reach for it nearly often enough. But it didn’t take me long to fall behind, so I fell instead into the habit of reading a few poems at a time, 2 or 3 times a week, whenever it best fit my mood and schedule. By updating my progress on Goodreads at the end of each “chapter” and month, I stayed motivated enough never to fall drastically behind, which is an accomplishment I’m quite proud of. Despite my determination last January, I wasn’t actually sure I’d make it to the December poems within the first year of trying.

While I do think it’s entirely acceptable to read a book like this at your own pace and inclination, I will say that the historical significance of the poems, included in the introductory paragraphs, was one of the highlights of the experience for me. Connecting the poems to a holiday or war or event piqued my interest in the corresponding poems. Not every poem fit its date exactly, but the ones that did were more fun to read on the appropriate days.

Conversely, I found that those introductory paragraphs often also included a brief explanation of the poems’ meaning, which annoyed me, like the back flap of a novel exclaiming about a plot twist I would’ve rather discovered on my own in the text itself. It seems to me that interpreting the meaning of a poem can vary a bit from reader to reader, and is in essence the “point” of reading any given piece of poetry. I was disappointed to have that step of the reading taken away, and will admit that I often made an effort to skip over that part of the introductory paragraph until I had finished reading the poem.

Which brings us to the intended age range of this book. Perhaps because this book is categorized as YA, Esiri felt that her readers needed more help making sense of the poems she included? That, more than any of the poems themselves, felt like a possible reasoning behind slating this book for younger poetry readers. The poems vary widely, from renowned classics to children’s rhymes, to emotional responses to war. It seems there’s something here for everyone– but also that the poems themselves do not seem to be cohesively aimed at any particular age bracket. I would recommend this book primarily to readers (teens or above) interested in literary history who’ve not read much poetry before. If you do like a little help deciphering poetry, this is a great sample of the genre.

I did mark 18 poems throughout the year that I had never seen before and absolutely loved, as well as a few single lines or verses that particularly stood out to me (even some that were already familiar). But because my enjoyment of the poems varied greatly, I preferred reading a few days’ worth of poetry at a time rather than ever find myself stuck with one poem that didn’t interest me. But a year is a big commitment for a single book, and I think readers’ experiences and preferences with such an undertaking will be very different from each other.

There is a companion book of poetry called A Poem for Every Day of the Year, and though I haven’t read the companion yet I do want to mention that the night theme in this book felt appropriate to its content. Many of the poems explore night or death or war; there are a few love poems as well, but in essence this is a darker and perhaps heavier collection than I would expect to find in the companion edition. If you’d rather read something a bit contemplative and grim, this may be the poetry book for you.

“”For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea” -E. E. Cummings

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I liked some poems much more than others, I did appreciate that this book felt so manageable to keep up with and that it put me in the habit of reading poetry regularly. I do want to continue with Esiri’s A Poem for Every Day of the Year, but I wasn’t aware of it in time to start it properly in 2019 so it’ll wait at least until next year. In the meantime, I’m using my new regular-nightly-reading-of-something-that’s-not-a-novel habit to finish Aesop’s Fables, which I started over a year ago and failed to keep up with when I discovered I could only read a few fables at a time (out of hundreds).

Do you read poetry? I could definitely use some further recommendations!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was a last year’s Christmas gift that I wanted to read before this year’s Christmas. I cut it a bit close by picking it up in the week before Christmas, but I did finish in time! I even wrote most of this review before Christmas– I’ve just been bad about keeping up with blogging lately. But I’m getting back on track now.

fangirlAbout the book: Cath and her identical twin sister, Wren, have been the best of friends all their lives. When their mother walked out of their childhoods, they stuck together and built their lives with their eccentric and creative father. But when it’s time to pack up for college, Wren decides not to room with Cath, to encourage both girls to make new friends. The only friends Cath wants though are fictional– so she dedicates her first semester to completing her Simon Snow fanfiction alone. Her unsocial tendencies only get Cath so far, however, and she can’t help being caught up in some real-life experiences.

Despite my decreasing interest in fluffy YA, there’s a lot about this book that I thought would still appeal to me in my adult years. Cath is so nervous about college and unsocial without quite being rude, which fits my own experience a lot better than the excitement for change and adulthood that most people (real and fictional) seem to express. Furthermore, though I hadn’t taken to the internet with any of my own writing by the time I started college, I was writing my own fiction and had a hard time balancing what I wrote for fun with the classics and more serious works studied in proper English classes. In some ways, I related to Cath’s perspective completely, and was immediately invested in finding out how the year would end for her.

A younger me might have really loved this book. If I had read it immediately upon its release, it might have stood a better chance as something more meaningful to me than a cute break from my real adult life. But I didn’t read it at 18 in my first semester of college when YA was still one of my favorite categories to read, and at 24 I found it a bit too Quirky. (Cath’s actual name is Cather, which is supposed to fit with Wren as two halves of the single name Catherine. No one will ever be able to convince me that Cather does not sound completely ridiculous as a first name and much too reminiscent of “catheter.”)

Fangirl is also a bit too aware of its own awkwardness.

“Levi guffawed. (You don’t get many opportunities to use that word, Cath thought, but this is one of them.)

This first quote is easier to excuse because the qualification seems to come from a writing standpoint that fits Cath’s character. It makes sense that she would think like a writer, though it does give her writing a more amateurish feel to see her process this way. Admittedly, she is fresh out of high school. “Amateur” does not mean “no room for growth;” everyone has to start somewhere.

But here’s another one that just seems dumb:

“Levi’s face clouded over. Not grimly, she thought– thoughtfully. In thoughtful clouds.”

I mean, if you need that much clarification, maybe what you’re trying to say just doesn’t make sense?

I am always interested in reading about writing though, and some of the content Rowell includes about writing for college feels spot-on:

“She wasn’t going to stop typing until she had a first draft. Even if that meant typing things like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m typing right now, blah, blah, blah.

Everyone who’s ever written a paper for college should know that desperate moment well.

As you can see, Rowell’s writing and some of the details didn’t entirely work for me in this book, but I did try to overlook small qualms and just enjoy the overall story. For the most part, Fangirl is readable and it does make some good points about making room for relationships and hobbies/passions in college. I would not recommend this book as any sort of how-to-survive manual for upcoming freshmen, but I do think young readers would benefit from seeing a college story like this that promotes loyalty to oneself above the need to try new things. The new experiences will happen anyway– there’s no reason to change who you are in the search for them. The end resolution is a bit sparse, in my opinion, but this is a solid story with original characters. Bonus points for Levi’s ranch background– farmers/agriculture workers are hardly ever presented in a flattering light but I thought Rowell nailed the rural lifestyle with Levi.

On another note, I was surprised to find myself completely uninterested in the Simon and Baz excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction, even though I thought I would like that aspect of the book. I usually like fantasy and from everything I’ve heard, Carry On (the Rainbow Rowell novel modeled after Cath’s fanfiction in Fangirl) sounds promising. Maybe it’s just that we get such small snippets, some as Gemma T. Leslie’s canon Simon Snow fiction and some as Cath’s fanfiction, that it can be hard to keep the versions of the characters straight and even harder to get invested in each short scene. I still intend to read Carry On eventually, so I hope my reaction to those parts in Fangirl is not indicative of how that experience will go.

But I do love that the villain is called the Insidious Humdrum.

“That was the beauty in stacking up words– they got cheaper, the more you had of them. It would feel good to cut this when she’d worked her way to something better.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not a perfect book, but I was in the mood for something young and light and this hit the spot. I didn’t quite like it more than Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, but it did work better for me than Attachments or Landline did.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve not yet read it, Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is (I think, anyway) the best of her fiction novels. Though it is a high school romance, it focuses primarily on social issues for different minority students and it is an all-around beautiful YA book.

What’s your favorite Rainbow Rowell novel? Or, if you haven’t read Rowell, your favorite contemporary YA?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Subjectivity and Books

For over a year now, I’ve been slowly making my way through a Twilight saga reread at the pace of one chapter per day, on days I feel up to it. The purpose of the reread is to note how my reading tastes and critiquing abilities have changed in the last 10 years. By this point, I realize that I’m also reading so that I can box these books away– the Twilight saga was important to me once, but I don’t think I will ever be reading it again. For a shameless hoarder, I’m surprised by how happy I am to be saying goodbye to an entire series.

I’ve always thought there are (arguably) two reasons to read a book– for merit, or for enjoyment. Sure, sometimes the two overlap, and sometimes a reader is disappointed to stumble upon a dud that fits into neither of those categories. And of course, reading is highly subjective. One person will find art in a book that another will not, a plot arc will be enjoyable to one reader and boring to another. And yet, I picked up Eclipse this year without expecting to find merit in the story or have much fun with it– I expected to learn about myself. I can’t say that I’ve ever read with that intent before outside of assigned biology textbooks and the like, but here we are.

eclipseI suppose the first time my twelve year-old self read Twilight she thought there was merit in that book. I believe it was the first book about vampires I had read, the first book with an “awkward” narrator, the first book that was almost entirely about the romance. And it was also a major phenomenon at the time that all of my friends bought into, which was hard to resist.

I’ve always been loyal reader. I forget characters and plot and details easily, but I remember forever how I felt about a book. For a long time, I’ve remained loyal to my first bookish impressions, and am finally submitting to the possibility that while first impressions are important, they don’t need to dictate a my entire future with a book. Just because I loved Twilight in my embarrassing tween years does not mean I need to love it forever. But nor do I need to bury that experience so deeply that I can pretend that past naïve version of myself did not exist. I can grow from this.

Even when I was eventually convinced that the Twilight saga’s merit stemmed from its ability to generate a wide YA audience and start a sort of revolution for better teenage books, I still found enjoyment in the series. As I mentioned, I’m a loyal reader. Even last year when I began rereading Twilight, I found some enjoyment in the nostalgia for a long-gone era of my life and the magic that I thought I saw in this series when reading it for the first time. But now, three books in, I’m resigned to changing my mind. Eclipse was my favorite book in the Twilight saga in all of the years that I could say I still remotely liked these books. This time, Eclipse has been my least favorite read of the series so far. I find Jacob’s behavior in this volume abhorrent, Edward and all of his controlling issues boring, Bella at once overdramatic and spineless. The love triangle feels forced, the villains are hardly present in the story, and the romance no longer makes sense to me.

It’s hard to admit I may have been wrong about a book or series. It’s hard because if I was wrong once, if I need to change my mind about this one thing, how can I rely on all of my previous opinions about all of the other books I’ve read? Should I reread everything? But what if in another ten years I’ve grown enough mentally that my opinion will no longer match what it is even now? Would I have more accurate results if I simply reread the same book over and over and over until I die, noting every nuance of every opinion on every reread and trying to form one solid opinion from that massive log of data? How can I trust anyone else’s reviews when I can’t even trust my own?

The time when you read a book for the first time matters. Everything matters– your personal background, your present circumstances, the list of every book you’ve ever read before, including the ones you can’t exactly remember. Everything influences your reading of a book, to the extent that even if you reread a book immediately after finishing it the first time, you will no longer be the same person with the same opinion about that same book that you were a week ago. A review, a rating, a private impression of a book– these are snapshots that reveal as much about the reader as the text. And that is why, despite the fact that it seems an older version of myself cannot “trust” my earlier reviews, I will continue to rate and review and add to my mental store of impressions about the books I read. They’re a documentation of my reading life, and of my self.

Admitting that I no longer find any merit or enjoyment in Eclipse is a change for me (though admittedly, I’ve been completely avoiding the subject ever since I began to suspect this might be the case). Allowing myself to accept that I simply no longer feel the same about a book as I once did is a bigger change, an alteration that shows how my experience with books has changed even in the year since my post about rereading Twilight (you can also check out my thoughts on rereading New Moon this past spring). These are good changes, I think, and I’m glad that such a dismal reread inspired such a level of introspection. Perhaps there is merit in reading a book that has no merit in itself.

I do intend to continue this series reread with The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner (a between-the-books novella) and Breaking Dawn, at the same rate of one chapter per day on days that I’m interested. And I hope that those rereads will be just as fruitfully self-reflective, before they free up some much-needed space on my shelves.

Do you have a hard time rereading books that you think you’d feel differently about after time has passed? Is it easier to accept a positive opinion change, or a negative one?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant