Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlWell, I’m finally done with the Great Rainbow Rowell Catchup, at least until her next book comes out (more on that later). It’s been a pretty good adventure, although I made the mistake (totally not a mistake) of reading her best book first, so even though the others are awesome I’m like, but they’re not as good as Attachments. This is clearly a terrible problem to have.

I was pretty excited to read Fangirl, due to the fact that it’s about a college kid who writes fanfiction and I was once a high school kid who wrote fanfiction (about Dawson’s Creek, natch) that I very much hope is lost to the internet these days. I’m not even sure I should have admitted that. It was really bad fanfiction.

Anyway. Fangirl. So there’s a girl, she’s called Cath, she has a twin sister called Wren, she writes legitimately good fanfiction about Totally Not Harry Potter (aka Simon Snow) in which Not Harry (Simon) makes out a lot with Not Draco (Baz), and she’s off to college. This should be a good thing, because college is good and she got into a fancy upper-level creative writing class which is awesome. But it’s not that great, because her sister doesn’t want to be a matched set anymore and so lives across campus and hangs out with people completely different from Cath and Cath is a super-introvert who could really use a built-in best friend at the moment, because college. There are boys to be reckoned with and bad grades to get over and serious family drama and fanfic that isn’t getting written because of all this, and oh my goodness I don’t miss college. Well, maybe a little bit.

Rainbow Rowell can write an awesome love story and I think that Cath and her eventual boyfriend (there are two guys and it’s not really spoilery but just in case, I’m not telling you) rival Lincoln and Beth from Attachments in sheer adorableness marred by weirdness. And the fanfiction aspect was well done, with little excerpts from both the “real” Simon Snow books and Cath’s various Simon/Baz stories in between Fangirl chapters that were appropriate to the upcoming chapters, which is a thing that I like. I also liked that you could clearly tell whether it was Cath or Gemma’s story before you even got to the credit at the end, and that Cath’s stories were clearly superior, at least as far as Simon and Baz are concerned.

So the important parts were fantastic. And there was a lot of good stuff about Cath’s family drama and how she and her sister dealt with it completely differently and how it caused issues in all of Cath’s other interpersonal dealings. And I thought that Rowell captured the essence of college life really well, from eating in the dining hall to the concept of “college time” and the fact that classes are pretty much the least interesting thing about being in college.

But certain implausible aspects of the story kept it from being the perfect book for me, starting with the fact that Cath has a non-freshman roommate and culminating in the fact that the Simon Snow novels exist in the same universe as the Harry Potter novels. Seriously, that one throwaway line about Harry Potter is still bothering me — how did Simon and Harry rise to equal prominence without lawyers getting involved?

In the end, I think it was a pretty fantastic book and that you should totally read it because omg Team Cath. You should also read it because Rowell’s next book is going to be the full-length fanfiction that Cath is writing throughout this book, and I am kind of super excited about that.

Recommendation: For fangirls of all stripes and people who went to college and want to relive it without having to go back.

Rating: 9/10

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkAfter my successful encounter with Attachments, I was very ready to scoop up this book, which is maybe just a touch more well-known and beloved. But then right when I was going to read it I read instead this post about diversity in children’s literature, which includes a section on Eleanor & Park and how it’s a little bit racist, and then, even worse, I clicked through one of the links. So I was like, crap, now I don’t want to read this book that I really wanted to read because racism, THANKS INTERNET.

So I stopped reading that part of the internet, gave myself a couple days to read other things, and then devoured E&P before I could think about it too hard.

And it was awesome. And less racist than the internet made it out to be (you’re shocked, I know).

The awesome, first. E&P is about two kids called, as you might guess, Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is the new girl in school, which would suck on its own, but even worse she’s the new girl with the weird fashion sense and complete apathy toward even pretending to make friends. On her first day she almost doesn’t have a seat on the bus but is saved by Park, a kid just popular enough to be allowed to be nice to an unpopular kid (and boy do I not miss that higher-level mathematics). At first they ignore each other, but then they bond over Park’s comic books and music (note: this book takes place in the ’80s) and start kissing and it is ADORABLE. But soon enough Eleanor’s family life catches up with her and her relationship with Park becomes harder and harder to maintain.

It’s really pretty standard YA romance, from what I’ve read in the genre, and it is unsurprising that John Green loved it. I found the flirty parts cute and delightful, I found the “Eleanor’s home life” parts appropriately awful, and I found the ending as incredibly unrealistic as any of Green’s novels, so it was basically exactly what I was expecting.

So, okay, onto the racism, which I will readily admit to not having all the answers for but which I think is less about racism as it is about Rowell going a little over the top with everything in this novel. Park is a half-Korean kid with a military dad who more or less brought Park’s mom home from Korea with him; Park is smaller and more Korean-looking than his younger brother and thus thinks that his dad likes his brother better; Park is hugely embarrassed by his mother, who can’t or won’t shed her Korean accent and love of things Korean. So, yeah, all that is pretty stereotypical.

But then there’s Eleanor: a poor white kid who is also overweight and ginger and has just been allowed to return to her drunk and abusive stepfather’s new house after being kicked out of the family for a year and now has to live with her siblings who have decided to make friends with the stepfather and leave Eleanor to fight against him by herself in a house that doesn’t have a door on the bathroom apparently so that the stepfather can creepily creep on whoever’s in there. Not exactly a winning portrait of white America there, either.

Most of the internet’s specific examples of racist or otherwise insensitive prose in the novel I thought could be easily explained by the context of the novel itself, and at first I was like, okay, so what? But then I thought of all the times I’ve been inordinately outraged over some love triangle in a dystopian YA novel or yet another use of Cleveland as a shorthand for misery and rivers that catch on fire (shut up Cleveland is awesome you’re a miserable river on fire) and I was like, oh, got it.

There is lots and lots to be said about diversity and racism (both intentional and casual) in literature, and I encourage you to read that post I linked above and all the posts it links to, which I did read after I finished E&P and which were illuminating. And if you have more links to interesting diversity posts, drop them in the comments and I will totally read them.

But back, briefly, to the book at hand. If you’re looking for a sweet YA romance with a heaping handful of melodrama, this is one of the many that exist and you will not be disappointed. If you’re looking for a sweet YA romance with a heaping handful of melodrama that is not full of either stereotypical characters or stereotypically not stereotypical characters… I really can’t help you there. Are there any?

Recommendation: For lovers of comics and ’80s music and adorable teen love.

Rating: 9/10

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell

AttachmentsRainbow Rowell has been really big in my reading circles of late, especially with a new book coming out soon and a movie in the works. And in fact I first heard about her from a trusted blogger back when Attachments came out, but at that time I was like, eh, chick-lit stuff, whatevs. Relationshippy books are not really my thing.

But when I decided to actually pick up this book and read it, I had managed to completely forget that I had ever heard anything about it, and it wasn’t until I had already fallen in love with the book on page, like, one, that I remembered. Oh, well, too late, let me just read this thing straight through to the end!

And it is SO GOOD. So good. The story takes place way back in 1999, with Y2K on the horizon and email just being introduced to the newspaper in what I’m pretty sure is Omaha, though I’m not sure it’s ever explicitly stated (big city in Nebraska, Rowell’s from Omaha, 2+2, etc.). Our hero, Lincoln, is hired by the newspaper company to read through the emails that get caught by the web filter, figure out if anyone’s breaking any rules, and then send warnings as necessary. Easy money, yes? Except there are two employees, Beth and Jennifer, whose messages to each other, at least the ones that get caught in the filter, are so entertaining that Lincoln can’t bring himself to send them any warnings, let alone stop reading their emails. It’s bad enough when he starts having a little crush on one of the emailers, but when he finds out that he might be exactly her type, things get very complicated indeed.

On the one hand, this story is absolutely adorable. Boy meets girl, girl doesn’t know boy exists, boy tries to figure out way to meet girl that’s not completely creepy. Age-old love story, obviously. And Lincoln is super relatable to probably a lot of current twenty-somethings — he’s a perpetual student who’s finally trying to get a real job but finds himself living with his mother, taking a low-skilled IT job, and generally falling into complacency. Beth and Jennifer are also great; their conversations remind me a lot of the posts of my favorite bloggers from that turn-of-the-century blogging era.

But they are not bloggers, they are private people writing private emails, and when you step out of the share-everything mentality of 2014 (she said, on her blog, which posts directly to Facebook) it is really actually very creepy that Lincoln is reading their conversations. And Rowell totally acknowledges that; Lincoln knows early on he’s being not at all ethical and later confides in a friend who reassures him that he is the creepiest creeper who ever did creep. The big dilemma of the book is less about “will he get the girl” and more about “will he give up the girl to do the right thing”, and I honestly was not sure which side of that I wanted to have happen. Such a good guy! Such a terrible situation! Augh!

Rowell handles this disparity between meet-cute and meet-creepy really really well, and she spends enough time letting us get to know all three of our main characters that I knew no matter how it ended that everything was going to be okay for them, if not for me and my emotions. Oh, so many emotions. I maaaaay have to rethink my reflexive dismissal of chick-lit-y things, perhaps?

Recommendation: For fans of hopeless romance and movies like You’ve Got Mail (my favorite from Nora Ephron).

Rating: 10/10