Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I expected FANGIRL to be fun, exuberant, charming. A love letter to the Harry Potter series and the fan culture surrounding it. A book about how terrifying and miserable the first year of college can be, and how change comes for us all. Wrapped up with a satisfying HEA. And it was all of those things. In some ways, FANGIRL is a pure confection of a novel. A crisp, airy meringue of delight. Our protagonist, Cath, writes fanfiction about the 'Simon Snow' series, a thinly veiled twist on Harry Potter. This fictional blockbuster series will have eight books and the eighth book is scheduled for release just as Cath's first year of college draws to a close.

Cath spends all of FANGIRL--all of her freshman year--writing her version of how the Simon Snow series should end. She's racing against the clock, because she has to finish before the real book eight comes out and renders her own work irrelevant. I loved the way that Cath wrestles with her fanfiction; how she defends its originality but feels punctured when her writing professor criticizes her. How she loves the fan culture even though it makes her own work ephemeral.

FANGIRL brought back those years before the Harry Potter series was over and the wait seemed endless but there was always that wonderful anticipation of a new book. Of being inside the phenomenon, experiencing it as it unfolded. We (the fans) all knew something amazing was happening, but we didn't know where it would go or how it would end.

I did wish, however, that FANGIRL had dealt more with what happens when the eighth Simon Snow book DOES come out. It's the end of an era--the series is over, Cath's fic is over. She's ready for something new. That's the moment where all of the experiences she's had in the novel tip her in a new direction. The very last page of FANGIRL is an excerpt from the first page of the first story Cath writes after her fanfic. It feels really momentous, like a sea change. Like payoff.

But I wanted to know why she picked that story, and how she meant to continue. In a way, I felt like the most important part of the conclusion--the 'now what?'--was left off the page.

So this fanfic that Cath's writing is a sort of--I don't know, a symbol of the limbo she's in? A project that she started in high school and can't abandon. The crown jewel of her adolescence. By the time it ends, something else needs to begin. Adulthood, if all goes well.

Which brings me back to Cath's first year of college, which is both ordinary and excruciatingly painful (excruciatingly painful in very ordinary ways, I suppose). She's separating from her father, who's more dependent on his children than he ought to be. Her twin sister, Wren, is tired of being one half of a whole and pushes Cath away out of an understandable but immensely hurtful desire to do her own thing for a while. And that leaves Cath, always the less social/popular/cool one of the pair, struggling to make friends on her own for the first time in her life.

She has a hard time of it. The first half of the book really tugged my heartstrings. Cath's isolation and hurt are sharply drawn. It gets to the point where even her last safe place, her writing, is poisoned. There were moments when I thought to myself, "If I read all of this painful stuff and there's no happy ending, I am going to be so mad."

But there is a happy ending. As well as a really sweet, lovely, so charming romance. And Cath gets to find out, at the end of the day, that she's fine just as she is. Time happens. Change happens. Some of it hurts. But she's good.

Note: I received a free copy of this book through the the Amazon Vine program.

Also note: I follow Rainbow Rowell on Twitter & Tumblr. That's why I requested the book--I like her social media voice quite a bit. This also meant that I'd seen a fair bit of Fangirl fan-art before I started the book, & it turns out they should have come with a spoiler alert. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't known what to expect, but I certainly enjoyed it anyhow.

Review: The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

R. Lee Smith's books are not for everyone. They're full of extreme situations and tend to provoke extreme reactions--maybe you love it, maybe you hate it. This was my sixth R. Lee Smith book, and I'm firmly in the 'love it' camp. But if you're sensitive to sexual violence or violence in general--if you don't like morally grey, slightly terrifying heroes--you're more likely to fall into the 'hate it' camp.

So. The Last Hour of Gann.

It starts with our heroine, Amber, on a dystopian Earth where space travel has just reached the point of being commercialized. Her Earth-life is pretty rough, and the risk of signing onto the first space colony as an indentured worker seems worth the cash reward she'll claim...if she comes back alive.

Well, the space jaunt doesn't go as planned. The ship veers off course and, while the passengers are in stasis, travels for hundreds of years before crashing on Gann. The ship explodes. Most of the passengers die. A rag-tag band of fifty humans find themselves in a survival situation on a wrecked planet where the sun is a smudge in the sky and winter is coming.

The first half of the book is about how the survivors cope. How they band together. How they cling to lies that give them hope. And how they pick one person to soak up all their frustrations. A scapegoat who, by absorbing all that anger, greases the wheels for everyone else.

That person is Amber.

Amber knows she's never going to be the favorite. She knows she's abrasive, foul-mouthed, a bit of a downer. She tries to compensate: to do more than her fair share of work, and ask for less than her fair share of the comforts. She tries and tries and tries. It doesn't matter.

I don't think I've ever read a better portrayal of what it's like to be disliked. The itchy rage. How swallowing her resentment, letting it simmer silently beneath the surface, makes everyone hate Amber more--because they can sense it, and it's not fun.

The other survivors are caricatures. They reminded me at times of whack-a-moles. Bumbling from one delusion to another, telling themselves ridiculous stories until reality intervenes and they have to retreat and reformulate. Then they pop up again, just as crazy as before.

But it didn't matter that the other survivors are caricatures, because Amber is so real. I don't know about you, but every time I've been in a small, isolated group it divided this way. I've been part of the in group, sincerely hating the odd man out. I've been the odd man out. It's horrible, and Amber's awareness of the others--the way they become a sort of barrage, a pelting, a trial--rang absolutely true to me.

So these humans are slowly dying in an alien wilderness when (about 20% of the way through) they discover that they've crashed into a planet with sentient, humanoid life-forms. Lizard-men, or dinosaurs, to be exact.

Of course, we've known about the lizard people all along, because we've been following our hero, Meoraq, from the beginning. He's a warrior-priest in a world where there's nothing better than to be a warrior-priest. In exchange for traveling from city to city engaging in gladiatorial battles-to-the-death, he gets to enjoy all the luxuries his medieval-esque world has to offer: hospitality, material goods, and women.

His encounters with women are brief, highly structured, and mutually unsatisfying. The women are forced (by family, by low status, by barrenness) to accept the advances of a stranger. And Meoraq--the stranger in question--believes he's doing God's work.

He doesn't like it. He doesn't like a lot of things about the way his society is organized. But he's a warrior-priest and he believes that God wants things exactly as they are. So he doesn't ask questions. He just performs his role to the best of his ability.

When Meoraq meets the human survivors, he's on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Xi’Matezh. He believes that God put them in his path as a test, so he takes up the job of teaching them to survive on Gann.

As it happens, however, only Amber is interested in learning to survive on Gann. Only Amber has faced up to the fact that they're never, ever getting back to Earth. So Amber is the only human who latches on to Meoraq. She learns his language, and anything he'll teach her about his world.

The others prefer to wait for Meoraq to feed them. And then complain that maybe he hasn't done a good enough job. And then joke about how he's ugly and probably stupid, more like a dog than a person.

That's how the romance starts. Amber and Meoraq are thrown together, each for their separate reasons shouldering the thankless--truly thankless--task of keeping the human survivors alive.

Meoraq discovers that despite a lifetime of being told that the pinnacle of feminine perfection lies in silence and obedience, really, what he prefers is a foul-mouthed, disrespectful woman who knows her own mind. And he eventually--conveniently?--comes to the conclusion that God sent Amber to him as a wife.

Amber, who's spent her entire life caring for other people, finds in Meoraq someone who will care for her. When Amber is sick, Meoraq tends her. When she's exhausted, he picks up the slack--or pushes her to dig into her reserves.

Normally I'm not a fan when heroines turn weepy, but with Amber it was beautiful. We've seen how tough she can be. We know that she can suck it up, adapt and make-do. We know she'd keep on keepin' on, if she had to. When she finally lets down her guard, it was such a relief. I knew how much she had bottled inside. I knew how much she had to trust Meoraq before she could uncork that bottle and face her own emotions.

Anyway. Lots of stuff happens and I don't want to spoil any more than I already have. Amber and Meoraq find one another, and then they're tested. Personally, I preferred the first half to the second half--I thought it was tighter and more natural. But I was glued to the page from beginning to end, and I found the conclusion satisfying.

One thing I like about R. Lee Smith's books is that she often sets up a kind of culture clash. The collision highlights where each faction has gone wrong, sickened or failed. That's exactly what happens in The Last Hour of Gann. Meoraq's world is medieval-esque. Amber's is modern. Both are broken.

The question is whether Amber and Meoraq, seeing the best in one another, can change anyone else.


Review: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano

All right. I'm going to keep this short. I did not like By Night in Chile. I might not have understood By Night in Chile. But from what I understood, here's what it's about: A smug jerk of a priest makes a name for himself as a literary critic, enjoys socializing in luxurious surroundings with Chile's intelligentsia, hates the Allende revolution because it puts a cramp on his high-living style, feels the cold touch of fear when Pinochet rises to power, but mostly continues with his smugness and his parties, dies.

I just couldn't take an interest in the narrator. He was an ass. I believe that he was supposed to be an ass. But he had no redeeming qualities at all, nor was he very interesting.

The writing was mostly tedious but occasionally quite lovely. I'm going to copy out a few quotes I enjoyed but don't start thinking this is a fun or compelling book. It's really not.

"life went on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting the necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look ati t closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain." (Loc 1192)

"boredom circumnavigating the Chilean imagination like an enormous aircraft carrier" (Loc 1192)

Wait. That's it, actually. And they were both on the same page, too.

I'm willing to believe that Bolano's other books are better. But this one? Nope.

In Tags

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild, Cheryl Strayed's account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is the book equivalent of squeezing the juice out of a blister. It's both satisfying and viscerally disgusting. Her journey along the trail--a chronicle of aches and pains, foolish mistakes and leaps of faith--is the means by which she sweats out the poison of grief, regret, and self-destructive recklessness. And she doesn't spare us the details. At first, during the early chapters, Wild made me so angry. Strayed starts this 1,100 mile journey without ever having backpacked before. Without  packing her supplies into her pack to see if they'll fit, or testing the weight on her back even once. She starts in the Mojave Desert, in summer, without enough water. This made me furious; my perennial refrain, as I listened, was: You are lucky to be alive.

A personal aside: I went on my first backpacking trip when I was 2. A 20 mile trip through the Sierra Nevadas out of Tuolumne Meadows. We backpacked yearly all through my childhood. I have known the things that Cheryl Strayed discovers by trial and error--mostly error, mostly painful--for as long as I can remember. That was often the source of my frustration with the book, but also my delight. Along the way, as Strayed gains competence and trail savvy, she articulates things that I've taken for granted, has moments of realization that made me remember everything I love about the wilderness, despite and sometimes because of all the misery.

Here's an example:

"Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one." (Wild, 191)

It's the last line, especially, that got me: I was humble before each and every one. Yes.

While Strayed bumbles about the wilderness risking her life, she tells us all the other ways that she's screwed up. She is brutal with herself. Sometimes, like when she talks about getting a divorce or using heroin, she's looking squarely at major events, Disasters with a capital D, and admitting her responsibility. Sometimes, like when she spends an evening with a vacationing family and fantasizes about being adopted by the parents, she is shining a light on thoughts that are so tender and shameful they are excruciating to speak aloud, excruciating to hear.

And that's how she got me on her side. She doesn't spare herself. She puts it all out there, and while she is cruel to herself, she is kind to others. To the people she meets along the trail, so that each chance encounter with a stranger seems almost magical in the telling. To the people in her life--she makes the husband she divorces sound like a prince, her mother a mythic heroine. Wild is a sort of eulogy to both, and it is a loving one.

So Strayed has a rough time on the trail, but she perseveres. She wants to give up. She obsesses about giving up. But she doesn't give up. And when she finally starts to conquer the trail, it feels earned. It's some of the most satisfying payoff I've ever encountered in a book.

There's a moment, when Strayed is trying to communicate across a great distance with a handful of skiiers and she keeps shouting, "Where are we?", again and again until the skiiers can understand. Then the skiiers shout back, "Are you lost?" and Strayed screams, "No!" -- I felt such triumph and joy, I wished I could have been there to whoop and holler and cheer for her.

She doesn't reach the end of her trip and find out everything's fixed. It's not. But the poison is gone. I cried as the narrator read the final words--kind of hard, actually--the way I'd cried two or three times while I listened. It's a textbook Oprah pick, in that sense: an absolute tear-jerker. But it also filled me with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm. I read Wild because several people had recommended it to me, but also to prepare for a trip I'm taking at the end of the month. It got me in the exact right headspace: ready for anything, open and eager.

And it really, really made me want to undertake an epic hike. What an experience. So--definitely recommended. Read it, and be prepared to feel inspired by the end.

One last favorite quote:

"The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back." (Wild, 209)

In Tags

Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

I thought this was such a marvelous book. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly, except that I recognize two things: Empress Dowager Cixi was clearly written for an audience as clueless about 19th century Chinese history as myself, and was just as clearly attempting to counter a common narrative about Cixi, about which I was entirely ignorant. My feeling is that Empress Dowager Cixi is a great book; my worry is that I've been drafted as an unknowing foot-soldier in an academic battle I'm unable to evaluate properly. But first, oh man. I had no idea that China had been ruled by a woman for the latter half of the 19th century, and the story of her rise--even more, of her rule--is incredible. Surprising, inspiring, impressive...also sad, at times.

If I'd thought for very long before requesting the book I might have put two and two together, but this is not a cheerful period in Chinese history. If Cixi accomplished anything, it was a form of emergency triage--she arrived at the Forbidden City in 1852, during a period when China's isolationism had left it vulnerable to European powers with imperial ambitions. China, and Cixi when she held power, struggled to catch up, struggled to remain independent, struggled against the erosion of her borders as foreigners nibbled away at ports and peninsulas.

But China didn't fall. It never became a puppet. Despite military incursions by Britain, Germany, France and Japan, despite the fact that China lost most of the wars it fought during this time, the country survived. And, the author of Empress Dowager Cixi argues, much of the credit for China's survival, and for the positive changes made in the country during this time, should be credited to Cixi.

Of course, those changes are themselves depressing. Cixi's triumphs include things like building railroads and telegraph lines, founding Western-style universities, fostering a free press, sending ambassadors abroad. A lot of these changes amount to: admitting that the old ways are wrong and aping the West. It's hard to argue against the necessity of modernization, but equally hard to deny the loss of pride and identity that went along with it.

So this was a rough period for a great empire. And Cixi's greatness--the book convinced me of it; she was clever, determined, far-sighted, reasonable, hard-working, fierce--has been stuck under the shadow of hard times. But she executed some truly astonishing political maneuvers, and if you appreciate savagely intricate court politics, this book is worth reading on that count alone.

For example--this is my favorite, it made me gasp aloud as I read--Cixi had a nemesis. A man, Prince Chun, who opposed her policies, particularly her interest in the West, and expressed his displeasure at one point by arranging to have Cixi's dearest friend executed. A pretty strong warning, you might say.

But Cixi won the day.

How? After her own son, the Emperor, died, Cixi had to name a new heir. She picked Chun's only son. The three-year-old boy was taken from his home to be raised by Cixi. Neither Chun nor the boy's mother had further access to the boy. What's more, Chun couldn't protest--Cixi had paid him a great compliment, hadn't she? And he also had to withdraw from politics (a son must be obedient to a father, but an Emperor cannot be obedient to anyone, so the father couldn't disrupt the court with his presence), thus clearing the way for Cixi to rule unimpeded.

Vicious, right? Vicious, bloodless, brilliant. This woman could scheme.

But Cixi's loyalty and friendship was just as remarkable. For example--Cixi had been a concubine of fairly low standing before she bore her husband his first and only son. She wasn't very popular with the Emperor, and she wasn't officially the mother of her own child. The Emperor's wife, Zhen, was.

You'd think that Cixi and Zhen would be at one another's throats, wouldn't you? I expected a rivalry, a catfight, maybe some poison. No. Not at all. Cixi and Zhen were friends and allies. They executed the coup that first brought Cixi to power, as Regent until her son came of age, together, and ruled in tandem until Zhen's death. They made a great team, stronger together than apart.

If there's one thing I love more than the story of a woman triumphing over all the odds and gaining power, it's the story of a pair of good friends who triumph over all the odds and gain power.

There were other aspects of Cixi's biography that surprised me. How willingly and completely she withdrew from the throne when her son came of age. The second time around--after her son died, and the little heir she'd stolen from Chun came of age--things didn't go nearly so well. But that first time, after ruling for ten years, after discovering that she liked having power and had even grown popular, she gave it all up.

Empress Dowager Cixi is beautifully written. I started the book with no background knowledge at all, but I followed along easily. Chang fills in details and supplies background as needed, and has the gift of being comprehensive without becoming condescending. She paints a vivid picture of everything from the dust in the roads to the jeweled finger-protectors that Cixi wore.

That being said, it became increasingly clear as I read that Chang was attempting a rehabilitation. Apparently Cixi has been either dismissed or vilified by most historians, her accomplishments attributed to her male courtiers, her cruelties highlighted and exaggerated. Chang struck me as careful and thorough, but also very partial. And I'm in no position to judge.

Except that it was such a good, satisfying read. That I'm sure about.

Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.


In Tags