Category: Contemporary

An Unnecessary Woman

Cover image for An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine by Rabih Alameddine

ISBN 978-0-8021-294-0

“There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment. Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear as and concise as your stories.”

Seventy-two year old Aaliya has lived a retired life in Beirut ever since her husband left her after only four years of marriage, when she was just twenty years old. Laying claim to the marital home, a small apartment in a four storey building, Aaliya builds a quiet life for herself, working in a bookshop by day, and translating twentieth century literature into Arabic by night. Each year she chooses a new project, using an English and a French translation of her title of choice as the source material for her own translations. Even the civil war and subsequent unrest that shakes Beirut cannot disturb her routine overmuch. Aaliya has held on to her home and her independence for more than five decades, despite repeated efforts by her family to claim the apartment from her, until her eldest half-brother’s latest attempt to foist responsibility for their extremely elderly mother onto Aaliya’s shoulders finally shakes her routine irrevocably.

Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel follows the first person narrative of a woman at once brave and fragile, and interrogates the difference between loneliness and solitude. At first glance, Aaliya’s routine seems solitary but purposeful. She enjoyed a long career as a bookseller until the shop closed four years ago and she retired. In her spare time, she has translated thirty-seven works of world literature into Arabic, including such massive titles as Anna Karenina and The Book of Disquiet.  But as we follow Aaliya’s train of thought over the course of a few days surrounding her brother’s unwelcome visit, the cracks in her façade become clear.

After her divorce, there are only two significant figures in Aaliya’s life, her shop assistant, Ahmad, and her friend, Hannah. However, it becomes apparent that the decades-past end of these two relationships have left scars that prevent her from forming new bonds. Even though she has lived in the same building for five decades, where her original landlord’s daughter is now the landlady, she is not close to her neighbours. The other women in her building meet every morning for coffee on the stoop above hers, but while Aaliya often listens at the window to their conversations, sharing their joys and sorrows, she never joins them, preferring to occupy herself with her translations. And although Aaliya is certainly an experienced translator, no one has ever seen her work. Furthermore, she is convinced no one would ever want to see it, since her works are translations of translations, because she has forbidden herself to translate any work originally published in English or French, the two languages besides Arabic that she speaks.

An Unnecessary Woman chronicles Aaliya’s increasingly disquieted ruminations, during a period when her usual routines can bring her no comfort. She is particularly disturbed by her inability to settle on a book to translate as the New Year approaches, threatening the very system she has built her life around. Though the action is sparse, Alameddine’s striking way with words, particularly playing with similar sounding words, gives Aaliya a strong voice. Of her early marriage, she says that she was “gifted to the first unsuitable suitor to appear at our door.” Of her mother’s inability to understand the failure of Aaliya’s marriage, she remarks “in her world, husbands were omnipotent, not impotent.” Alameddine’s metaphors are also noteworthy. “When I think of him, my memory’s eyes have cataracts,” says Aaliya of her inability to recall what her stepfather looked like. “I am my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage,” she says of her early home life. Alameddine’s carefully crafted prose and command of world literature turn this quiet work into a force to be reckoned with.

The Book of Unknown Americans

Cover image for The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquezby Cristina Henríquez

ISBN 978-0-385-35085-3

“I just stood there, staring at the flat cast-iron pan, feeling homesickness charge at me like a roaring wave, filling my nostrils and my ears, threatening to knock me down.”

The Rivera family has a happy life in Mexico, until a terrible accident sends them north to Delaware, where they hope to enroll their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel in a special needs school that will help her recover from the trauma. With barely a word of English between them, Alma and Arturo Rivera leave behind their comfortable home in Pátzcuaro in order to give their daughter her best chance at a normal life. The somewhat rundown apartment complex they move into in Delaware is inhabited by a motley crew of Hispanic immigrants from all over South America, each of whom has also had to start over from nothing in a new country. Their neighbours include the Toro family from Panama, and when Major Toro meets Maribel, he soon becomes taken with her, striking up a friendship that will quickly become central to both their lives. The two families become fast friends, but the Riveras’ desire to protect their daughter soon complicates Major’s relationship with Maribel.

The central plot of The Book of Unknown Americans is carried by Mayor, and Maribel’s mother, Alma. Though many voices speak, the narrative is passed back to them again and again. Shy, and unpopular, Mayor is struggling to live up to the legacy of his older brother Enrique, who was a popular soccer player at their high school before he left for college. Once Major sees past Maribel’s differences, their relationship quickly becomes the most significant one in his life. For Maribel, Major is the only person who treats her like she is more than her disability, and doesn’t underestimate her. Meanwhile, Alma is mainly concerned with protecting her daughter, and figuring out how to navigate their new life in America. Alma is carrying a heavy burden of guilt surrounding the accident in which Maribel sustained her injury, and tends to overcompensate as a result. While Arturo is working grueling ten hour days in the dark at a mushroom farm, she tries to protect him from her worries and concerns, and facing these challenges alone. Unfortunately, the thread of the story never passes to Maribel, who doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself.

Interspersed with Mayor and Alma’s narrations are the stories of the other immigrants who populate the apartment complex where they live. From Nicaragua to Puerto Rico to Guatemala to Paraguay to Venezuela, these neighbours have come from all over Latin America, and now relate what brought them to the United States. They tell their stories in short chapters that are little slices of life, glimpses of other situations and possibilities. Nelia Zafón came from Puerto Rico chasing the dream of being a dancer and actress. Adolfo Angelino left Mexico in hopes of training as a boxer with a famous coach. The Toro family fled the chaos and poverty that attended the fall of Manuel Noriega in Panama. These accounts often have little bearing on the central narrative, and sometimes even distract from it, but they serve to emphasize the variety of immigrant experience, and the many different roads that eventually led them to Delaware, where they form a supportive community for other newcomers.

Although simply told, Henríquez’s narrative is suffused with the sympathy and detail that is missing from much of the public discourse about immigration in America. While some of the characters are illegal immigrants, most are not, and the Toro family members are all American citizens. Major can barely even remember Panama, and struggles with the fact that he feels more American than Panamanian, but is constantly subjected to racial slurs at school. One and all, Henríquez’s characters come in search of a better life, if not for themselves, then hopefully for their children. Their voices are hopeful and seek out moments of happiness and success, even as they highlight the struggle to be accepted into American society, where they are “the ones that no one even wants to know, because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”

Words and Their Meanings

Cover image for Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassettby Kate Bassett

ISBN 978-0-7387-4029-4

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“The shrinks all want to talk about coffin yoga. They can’t fathom the way some people have no rhyme or reason to their mourning. How maybe there are more ways to grieve than the stupid fives steps outlined in their colorful pamphlets.”

Anna, once an aspiring writer, lost her words the day her uncle died. It’s been one year since Joe’s death, and everyone, from her therapist, to her parents, thinks she should be getting over it by now. But Anna hasn’t told anyone about how Joe’s death is really her fault, so she has to go on coping as best she knows how; by emulating 70s punk rocker Patti Smith, and doing nineteen minutes of “coffin yoga” every morning, one minute for every year of Joe’s life. Anna promised her parents that the “deadaversary” would be a turning point, but only because they have threatened to send her to a summer camp for troubled teens if she doesn’t start trying to act more normal. But two events really do turn out to be catalysts for change. First, she meets Mateo at her new job and strikes up a relationship. She also discovers a terrible secret Joe was keeping which forces her to question how well she knew him, even as she sets out to try to solve the mystery of his betrayal.

Words and Their Meanings is a first-person narrative that takes the reader deep into the unprocessed grief of an unhappy teenager carrying a heavy burden of guilt. Being inside Anna’s head is chaotic and angsty, in a way that is both exhausting and terribly real. If there is any drawback to the novel, it is that it is difficult to be with Anna on this emotional rollercoaster. Her grief is raw, vivid, and genuine, and beautifully counterpointed by her intense new feelings for Mateo. Anna falls for Mateo fast and hard, but can’t help feeling guilty about embarking on a romance when Joe is dead, a circumstance for which she blames herself. Her parents have also divorced in the aftermath, as her father engages in his own inappropriate expressions of grief. Her younger sister Bea copes by hiding in unexpected and dangerous places, while her mother simply tries to hold it all together.

Words and Their Meanings also comes with strong cast of secondary characters. Although he is primarily the love interest, in some ways Mateo is also a reflection of Anna as she could have been if Joe hadn’t died. He is a talented chef, on his way to a top culinary program, and a successful career, but struggling under the pressure of that future. Anna has lost or given up her words, relinquishing the pressure that went with her talent in favour of expressing herself through Patti Smith’s lyrics. But perhaps the most intriguing character is Gramps, who is the only member of the family who doesn’t seem to have been unhinged by Joe’s death. He is a rock, and a source of wisdom, but Anna isn’t really ready to hear most of what he has to say.

In addition to the strong characters, there is also a lot of beautiful writing in Words and Their Meanings. Kate Bassett hands Anna snippets of glittering prose, which managed to make me believe the extent of Anna’s potential as a writer without her ever having to write anything during the story. She lets Patti Smith speak for her instead, with daily verses inscribed in marker on her arms, and the selections are stunningly apt reflections of Anna’s struggle. The verses fade away as Anna forgets to engage in her rituals of grief, and I found myself missing them, even though I knew the story didn’t need them anymore. It left me intensely curious about the life and work of Patti Smith, a strange role model for a modern teenager if there ever was one.

Words and Their Meanings is a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. The highs are high, and the lows are low, making this an intensely emotional read from start to finish.

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Cover image for Tease by Amanda MacielYou might also like Tease by Amanda Maciel

Tease

Cover image for Tease by Amanda Maciel by Amanda Maciel

ISBN 9780062305305

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book through ARCycling. Thanks to Emma at Awkwordly Emma for passing along her copy.

“I never really understood irony when Mrs. Thale tried to teach us about it in English, but I sure get it now. Now that I get bullied for being a bully.”

Emma Putnam killed herself, and it’s all Sara Wharton’s fault, or at least that’s what everyone except Sara seems to believe. Emma was never popular at school (except with the boys), but when she tried to steal Sara’s boyfriend, Sara and her best friend Brielle hatched a plan to ensure that Emma would transfer to a new school. Unfortunately, the bullying pushed Emma over the edge, and now Sara and Brielle are going to be put on trial for stalking and criminal harassment. Her lawyers think she should make a deal, but Sara doesn’t believe she did anything wrong, and refuses to settle. As the trial date creeps closer, Sara is forced to reflect on what happened, and find a way to live with the consequences of her actions.

Tease begins in July, a couple months after Emma’s suicide. Sara is essentially under house arrest, except for attending therapy, summer school, and appointments with her lawyers. There are no legal restrictions on her, but her infamy follows her everywhere she goes in their small town. Brielle’s wealthy family is shielding her from facing the wrath of her peers and her community, leaving Sara to bear much of the scrutiny alone. The narrative moves forward from this point, but also flashes back to the school year, revealing more and more of Sara and Brielle’s vicious tactics, as they spur one another to ever more brutal pranks. This style is very effective, although it necessarily leaves Emma and her parents somewhat underdeveloped, since we only see them through Sara’s eyes.

Tease was, at times, a gut wrenchingly difficult read. Sara and Brielle were relentless bullies, slut-shaming and intimidating Emma both at school and online. For most of the novel, Sara struggles to feel any kind of remorse for her actions, seeing only how Emma’s suicide has ruined her own life. It was hard and sometimes even physically sickening to be in her head while she tried to justify her actions. If you dislike unsympathetic protagonists, this is not the book for you. But I think this book is important, because it portrays the bully as a person, rather than a one-dimensional villain. Sara doesn’t bully because she is evil; she has human motivations and weaknesses, from too much adult responsibility in her family, to a toxic relationship with Brielle. None of these factors excuse her behaviour but they are the difference between the caricature of a bully and a developed character.

Even as Sara takes some steps in the right direction towards the end of the novel, we are faced with the profound unfairness of the situation; Sara has to find a way to go on with her life, but at least she has a life to go on with. Dealing with rape, slut-shaming, cyber-bullying, and teen sex, and centering on the bully rather than the victim, Tease is inevitably going to be a controversial novel. It is ripe for discussion on a number of timely topics, and Maciel’s refusal to condemn or take sides will force readers to think deeply.

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Cover image for Blues for Zoey by Robert Paul WestonYou might also like Blues for Zoey by Robert Paul Weston.

A Guide for the Perplexed

Cover image for A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Hornby Dara Horn

ISBN 978-0-393-06489-6

“She watched as Itamar winced again at Josie’s name. There was something pleasant about his flinching, Judith noticed, a warmth in seeing him crumple. It flowed through her like a wave of hot water in a bath.”

Josie Ashkenazi is the creator of a revolutionary software program, called Genizah, which records the daily activities of its users, creating a self-sorting digital memory bank. The Genizah software is named after the Cairo Genizah, a repository of Jewish documents discovered in an Egyptian synagogue in the late 1800s which included writing by Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam, author of A Guide for the Perplexed, from which this novel takes its name. When Josie is offered a consulting gig at the new Library of Alexandria, her jealous older sister Judith persuades her to take the opportunity, despite the civil unrest plaguing Egypt. Judith dreams of three weeks out from under the shadow of her younger sister, who she works for, but when Josie is kidnapped and held for ransom, Judith slips into her life, trying to claim Josie’s husband and daughter for her own. Josie and Judith’s story of sibling rivalry runs parallel to the story of Solomon Schechter, who was one of the early scholars who studied the contents of the Cairo Genizah. Estranged from his own twin brother, his study of the Genizah papers brings him into contact with twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who are so close they have never lived apart. Earlier still, Mosheh is serving as a doctor to the royal court of Egypt, and sends his own brother, David, on a dangerous trip to Asia in search of an herb that may be able to cure his patient’s asthma. All these stories of sibling rivalry revolve around the biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers.

Dara Horn’s ambitious family drama is introspective and philosophical, delving deeply into philosophy and theology as it unpacks sibling relationships, and questions the nature of memory, particularly examining the differences between the biological and the digital. The things people choose to remember and forget are telling, and the memories held in a digital Genizah sometimes differ sharply from the way people choose to remember an event. Horn’s beautiful prose and surreal dream sequences are counterpointed but the brutality and urgency of Josie’s captivity, and interspersed with dense theological passages from the writing of Maimonides. The imagery is clever and detailed, though all of these factors taken together make for some extremely slow pacing. The multiple narratives slowly build on one another, layer upon layer. Ultimately, though the kidnapping triggers the events of the story set in the present day, this is a book more for those looking for introspection and philosophy than a mystery or thriller. The plot is secondary to the characters, and to Horn’s inquiry into the nature of the human mind.

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 

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Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.

Gone Girl

gone-girlby Gillian Flynn

ISBN 978-0-307-58836-4

All this time I’d thought we were strangers, and it turned out we knew each other intuitively, in our bones, in our blood. It was kind of romantic. Catastrophically romantic.”

On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne receives a call at work from his neighbour, who tells him that his front door is hanging open, and his indoor cat is out on the porch. Suspecting that the neighbour is being a bit melodramatic, Nick nevertheless returns home, only to find evidence of a struggle in his living room, and no sign of his wife, Amy, except for a carefully wrapped present, the first clue in their traditional anniversary treasure hunt. Emotionally closed off most of the time, or smiling at inappropriate moments, Nick isn’t easy for the police or the public to like. Under the pressure of constant media scrutiny and police questioning, his efforts to prove his innocence only seem to dig him deeper. With the police focusing almost exclusively on him, Nick attempts to follow the trail of treasure hunt clues, hoping that following his wife’s final movements before her disappearance will lead him to the truth.

Despite being more than a year late to this party, I somehow managed to avoid spoilers for Gone Girl, possibly because I wasn’t paying attention to it. For all of the buzz surrounding it, every time I picked the book up and read the jacket copy, the idea of another mystery in which the husband may or may not have murdered his wife—it’s always the husband in popular culture—simply didn’t appeal to me. However, eventually enough friends recommended it to me that I decided to read it, if only because it would also fulfill a challenge category. When I began, the only concrete thing I could remember reading about the book was that it featured an unreliable narrator, but I had no idea if it was supposed to be Nick or Amy.  This is another one of those books you’re better off knowing as little as possible about before you start reading. If you’re already going to read it, stop reading about it until you have.

Nick’s narration begins on the morning of the disappearance, and moves forward through the police investigation. His point of view alternates with chapters from Amy’s diary, beginning from the night she and Nick met, slowly unveiling their courtship, their wedding, the loss of their jobs during the 2008 recession, and their subsequent move from New York to Missouri to care for Nick’s aging parents, where their marriage slowly begins to unravel. As the two timelines begin to come together, they seem to tell very different stories about the Dunne’s marriage.

Mysteries are well known for being tightly plotted, and Gillian Flynn delivers on that score, but what really struck me about Gone Girl was the amount of character development devoted to Nick and Amy, which rivals anything I have ever seen within the genre. The characterization is both complex, and full of misdirection. Each chapter builds on the last, whether by adding new information about the characters, or perhaps twisting or contradicting what you thought you knew. The characters are as twisty as the plot.

Flynn parses out information carefully, with no guarantee that it is entirely true. Nick is “a big fan of the lie of omission,” and omit he does, keeping facts from the police and the reader alike. At the end of his third chapter he tells the police that he and Amy had reservations at Houston’s for their anniversary dinner. To the reader he adds, “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting,” but Flynn only identifies this one lie. When Flynn decides to hand out a new piece of information, she delivers it like a punch to the gut, sharp and breath-taking. Like any good mystery, Gone Girl is full of carefully delivered twists, and Flynn is a master of blindsiding the reader in the best way possible; everything makes sense in retrospect, and yet nothing was obvious. I suspect this is a book that would benefit from a re-read, as there are undoubtedly many more tiny clues and details that I missed.

Gone Girl got off to a strong start, and only got better in the second act. Yet even within the last thirty pages, I was worried that Flynn couldn’t deliver the kind of ending this book deserved. There were a few easy ways out that I could see, but I’m happy to report that Flynn didn’t take any of them. Instead, the conclusion puts the book on a whole new level of creepy, delivering one final twist that is both brilliant and infuriating. This is the sort of psychological thriller that will keep you up at night.

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2013eclecticreaderThis titles fulfills the Romantic Suspense requirement for my participation in the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.

Fangirl

fangirlby Rainbow Rowell

ISBN 978-1-250-03095-5

It felt good to be writing in her own room, in her own bed. To get lost in the World of Mages and stay lost. To not hear any voices in her head but Simon’s and Baz’s. Not even her own. This was why Cath wrote fic. For these hours when their world supplanted the real world. When she could just ride their feelings for each other like a wave, like something falling down hill.”

Cath Avery isn’t just any Simon Snow fan. The whole world is a fan of the seven Simon Snow books and their film adaptations, but Cath is a Big Name Fan. Online, where she’s known as Magicath, she’s the author of Carry On, Simon, the biggest year eight fic in the Simon Snow fanverse, and she only has until May to finish writing her version before Gemma T. Leslie releases the final Simon Snow book, and her story officially becomes noncompliant. Unfortunately, Cath has a big year ahead that could potentially interrupt her writing; she’s starting university, and her twin sister, Wren, has refused to be her roommate, so Cath is going to have to meet the dreaded new people. Since their mom left when they were kids, she also has to worry about the fact that their dad will be on his own for the first time. Despite being a freshman, she’s also gotten permission to enrol in an upper division fiction writing class, where she will have to test her writing skills outside the comfortable world of Simon Snow.

Rainbow Rowell brings the Fangirl characters to life by showing their flaws as well as their strengths, with carefully selected details. Cath fears new situations so much that she spends a month eating protein bars in her dorm room rather than facing the daunting prospect of the cafeteria. Wren may be more outgoing and socially adept than Cath, but she’s also more susceptible to peer pressure, which Cath proves largely able to resist. Their father is brilliant advertiser—“a real Mad Man”—but doing this job means not taking the medications that might help him keep his manic episodes under control. Rowell paints a very sympathetic portrait of mental illness in Mr. Avery, one more example of her ability to write misfits we can all sympathize with and want to root for.

Other than Cath’s family, there are three important secondary characters: her somewhat abrasive new roommate, Reagan; Reagan’s some-time boyfriend Levi, to whom Reagan appears to be less than faithful; and Nick, Cath’s new writing partner for class, who is handsome, but doesn’t seem interested in talking to her about anything besides writing. New friendships and new romantic prospects force Cath to confront the prejudice and confusion of people who don’t understand her interest in fanfiction. Fan fiction is such a big part of her life that others can’t really know her unless she reveals this aspect of herself. Appropriately then, Cath’s narrative is mingled with excerpts from both the canon Simon Snow works—parallel  to Harry Potter in many ways—and Cath’s fanfiction from throughout the years. These excerpts provide both a counterpoint to Cath’s everyday life, and insight into her online world. Writers have displayed a wide variety of attitudes towards fanfiction over the years, from cautiously optimistic to overtly hostile, but I can think of nothing that quite compares to the way Rowell delves into the interior life a fan with Cath’s character. (If you can think of any other similar works, please share in the comments!)

For those who criticized Eleanor & Park as a nostalgia book because of its 1980s setting, Rowell has proved that she can bring the same resonance and attention to detail to a story set in the present day. Fangirl is a coming-of-age story, but one with the ability to appeal to those who are merely remembering this stage of life, as well as those who are experiencing it. Introverts and misfits of all types will likely find Cath extremely relatable.

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Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanJust a reminder that today is the last day to participate in a Rafflecopter giveaway for a signed first edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, which I’m giving away in celebration of Required Reading’s first birthday. You have until 9pm PST to enter!

 

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2013eclecticreaderThis title fulfills the New Adult requirement for my participation in the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.