By Rebecca Manuel
Happy New Year everyone! I know it’s been over a month since New Year’s and since you all returned from your various winter travels, but seeing as this is my first article of the New Year, I hope you’ll indulge me. I will be leaving JET at the end of this year’s term (sadly), so rather than go home, I wanted to see some of the big cities in the southern half of Japan. I traveled to Osaka for ten days, making day trips out to Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and Nagoya. On my last day in Osaka, I had an awkward amount of time between checking out of my hostel and making my first shinkansen. I couldn’t really go anywhere significant, but I had too much time to go sit in the station. Taking advantage of the fact that Osaka is a big, fairly international city, I went hunting for a bookstore with English books.
And boy, did I hit the jackpot.
I didn’t realize how much I missed actual, real-life, physical books. I mean, of course I could get a real book whenever I want. I could order it online or borrow it from the AJET library. And I have a fairly sizeable collection in my apartment. But I don’t really like waiting for a package to come, and for the most part, the books in the AJET library or in my apartment are old books or classics or Harry Potter. I can only reread Harry Potter so often (and believe me, “often” already exceeds once or twice a year). As for the old books or classics, I have no problem with them, of course. That said, if I want to read a new book, one that’s recommended by a friend or that I find someone raving about in a YouTube video, I can’t just pop over to the local bookstore and buy it. And I’ve missed that. Instead, I buy books for Kindle and read them on my Kindle Fire at home or on my laptop at work. But you don’t get the feel of a book that way, the weight of it in your hands, the feel of the paper on your fingers, the smell. You can’t just flip through the pages back to that passage you really enjoyed or didn’t understand. You can’t get a sense for how long the book is–how many more pages to go until you hit the climax of the story. Reading actual, real-life, physical books is just better, in my opinion.
Walking into the bookstore in Osaka reminded me of this, and is also how I ended up walking away with three big books that I had heard of, didn’t know much about or had previously disregarded, and had no idea whether I would like or not. Best impulse buy ever. In this article, I’ll tell you about the first two.
The books are called Fangirl and Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell. They’re both related, but they aren’t a series. The first book, Fangirl, is about a girl named Cath who is going into her freshman year of college. This is a huge change in her life. She suffers from some pretty severe social anxiety, which is only worsened by her twin sister, Wren. Cath has seemingly always relied on Wren; they were always together, and their friends from high school were friends with them as a pair. Yet Wren decides to reinvent herself as an individual when they go to college, essentially by cutting ties with Cath, who thus loses her support system. The book depicts Cath dealing with her anxiety, rekindling her relationship with her twin, making new friendships, attempting to take care of her single father, who takes their absence hard, and finding love.
Another very important aspect of the book is fan fiction, from which the book derives its title. Cath writes fan fiction about a series of novels that is her world’s version of Harry Potter. In fact, Cath writes THE fan fiction. What I mean by this is the fictional author of this series has yet to release the final book, and so Cath has taken it upon herself to write her version of the final novel before its release. This has garnered her internet fame. Thousands of people follow her story as she posts new chapters. Many of her readers view her version as the decisive version, tying up all loose ends, shipping certain characters together, and so on. Some journalist even write about her fan fiction. Proud of her work, Cath uses it as an escape when she doesn’t want to deal with the outside world.
Not only is Cath talented at writing fan fiction, but also at writing in general. This skill lands her a spot both in a higher level creative writing class and in her teacher’s favor. That is, until she hands in a piece of fan fiction. And thus begins her struggle to find her own voice.
This is a wonderfully complex, wonderfully slow novel. Some criticism that I’ve read about it is that it’s too slow, and to be honest not much really seems to happen if you sit down and add up the significant events. But life is full of small events, and I appreciate the time Rowell takes to fill out her characters and to build up to the few significant events. She gives us time to grow with Cath, to come out of our shells with her, to form friendships with her, and to fall in love. By the time Cath realizes that she’s in love, we feel it, too–or at least, I did–and it feels like just the right time.
Now, let me backtrack a little bit. Let’s talk about fan fiction again, because this really is important, and you’ll see why in a second. Cath’s fan fiction, THE fan fiction, is called Carry On, Simon.
And now you see how the two books relate. Carry On is Rainbow Rowell’s go at writing the final book in her own fictional series from Fangirl, based on Cath’s fan fiction. In Rowell’s interviews about the book, she talks about how she really just wanted to take a shot at writing the classic fantasy “Chosen One” story, but with a bit of a twist. I’ll tell you about part of the twist–the obvious part, especially if you read Fangirl first–but the rest you’ll have to figure out on your own if you read the book. First, let’s set the stage.
Carry On focuses on the main characters Simon and Baz, although the story is told from varying perspectives. If we’re going with the Carry On as Harry Potter comparison, Simon is Harry Potter and Baz is Draco Malfoy. Naturally, they attend a school of magic, called the Watford School of Magicks, and they are roommates, forced together by an old tradition of magical roommate selection. Simon is supposed to be the strongest magician in history, prophesied as the Chosen One sent to save the World of Mages from this great evil called the Insidious Humdrum that has been stealing magic, but he’s really just a messed up kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Baz, equally as messed up, although I won’t elaborate, is from an old family who is fighting a war against the Mage, a fairly new leader of the World of Mages, headmaster of their school, and mentor to Simon. They are seemingly opposites in all things: temperament, family connections, sides of a war. And now here’s the part of the twist that I mentioned: Simon and Baz are the primary love interest.
Depending on your view of homosexual love, this book may or may not be for you. Personally, I loved it. Love is love. Share the love. Yay love! Simon and Baz’s love is beautiful, interesting, complex, and quite well written. From the beginning of the book, you wonder how they could possibly end up together. They seem to really hate each other. Simon spends the whole first act of the book griping about Baz, complaining about how evil he is, how Baz has tried to kill him, how he’s always plotting against him. And then we see from Baz’s point of view, and suddenly things start to make sense.
Not only is their love story fascinating, but the world building is as well. Spells in this world are cast by employing popular phrases. For example, “Get well soon!” is a simple healing spell, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” can reveal someone or something hidden, and “A place for everything, and everything in its place!” is for cleaning up. It’s such a silly and quirky way to have magic work, and I think it’s great. Even the way that magic exists in the world is fascinating. It’s something that exists inside every magician, but doesn’t always come naturally. It’s also something that exists in the makeup of the world around them. It can be stolen from an area, as is proven by the Insidious Humdrum. Using it properly is reliant on the phrases of spells being relevant and widely known or used. It all seems so arbitrary and yet somehow makes total sense. I love it.
I’m not sure if you can tell by now, but I liked Carry On a bit better than Fangirl. While I loved Fangirl, I will always be a fantasy nerd at heart. But what I loved most about both books was the writing style. It is so uniquely Rainbow Rowell that I could tell just from one book. She has this way of including extra tidbits of thought or emotion in parentheses and sometimes multiple parentheses that add either more depth or more humor to the situation. And the humor… Oh my gosh, it’s like she gets my humor code so perfectly. I tend to like sarcastic, self-deprecating, witty, or silly humor. It’s the kind that makes me snigger or give a great “HA!” of startled laughter, and it’s this kind of humor that Rowell writes in spades, particularly in the character of Baz.
Then there are her descriptions. I both love and hate her descriptions. It’s like having no peripheral vision. Or like seeing everything through only a magnifying glass. She can perfectly describe the mole on a person’s left eyebrow that you really want to kiss or the feeling when the person you’re falling in love with touches your hand for the first time. But I have trouble filling in all the things around these details. To be honest, when I’m reading her stories, I don’t really care, because in the moment all I care about is that mole or that feeling.
Fangirl and Carry On are fantastic books. But I’m sure you’re all thinking, “Rebecca, you said you bought THREE books, but you only talked about TWO of them. What was the other book?” Well, that’s next time.
To check out other books by Rainbow Rowell, go here.
If you read Fangirl or Carry On, or if you have a different book that you’d like to recommend, please send your thoughts/review to: email@example.com. This is Rebecca signing off. Over and out!
BUT WAIT! Before you go! Next month is Good Morning Aomori’s 50th issue, so I will be doing something a little different for this column in celebration. Instead of writing up one of my reviews, I’ve issued a challenge to you guys! I want you guys to pick one of your favorite books and explain the plot/review it/recommend it in 140 characters or less – the same allowable number as on Twitter. I’d love to get as many of these as possible, so if you really struggle with the character count, don’t worry about it; a few extra characters isn’t a big deal as long as you’re close enough! And if anybody wants to go above and beyond the call of duty and write more than one submission, that’s totally welcome! I’ll put them in the article with your first name and last initial, but if you don’t feel comfortable with that, let me know in your message and I’ll leave out your name. You can email them to me at my email below or message them to me on Facebook.
Due date: Friday, February 26th
Happy writing! 🙂