narfna’s #CBR5 Review #81: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirl“Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.”

So I’ve had this review open and up on my computer now for days (weeks, really, since I finished the book almost a month ago now), and I just keep staring at that blank cursor, trying to figure out how to convey all these FEELINGS I am FEELING about this book.

The short of it? I loved this book, and Rainbow Rowell, miraculously, has produced not one, not two, but THREE books that I hands down LOVED this year. And not loved, like that was fun and I enjoyed it, loved like, oh man, this book stared into my soul.

The long of it? Well, that’s what I’ve been having trouble with.

“What the fuck is the fandom?”

Fangirl is Cath’s story, and in many ways it’s a very personal one. Cath is going away to college for the first time, and she’s not very happy about it. Her identical twin sister, Wren, doesn’t want to be roommates and has begun to pull away from Cath, cutting off all her hair, and for the most part, abandoning the Simon Snow fandom she and Cath had been such a huge part of for so long. Simon Snow is basically like Harry Potter in Cath’s/Rowell’s world. The whole world is obsessed with him, and no one possibly more than Cath. She takes refuge in Simon Snow when worrying about her bipolar father becomes too much, when her social anxiety gets the best of her, when she feels Wren pulling even farther away from her. And Cath has fans of her own. Her fanfic, “Carry On, Simon,” gets thousands of hits per day, and almost no one in her “real” life understands her obsession with Simon and his vampire roommate Baz (who in Cath’s world are also secretly in love with one another — so on top of being a fic writer, she’s also a slash fic writer, which puts her even more on the fringes).

Cath’s specific eccentricities aren’t ones I necessarily share, but they’re rooted in a place that feels very familiar to me. Her fear of change, her desire to lose herself in fictional worlds, her inability to connect with other people without quite a bit of effort, her fear of her dorm’s cafeteria (which is just a manifestation of the hard time she has adapting to new habits and places). But most of all, how her love of Simon Snow and the fandom she participates so actively in acts both as a refuge from the outside world, and something that further separates her from it. The ‘normals’ in her life do not understand at all what it is she does, and she takes the opportunity to use that gulf of experience to further alienate herself from those around her. See above quote, which comes form her roommate, Reagan, a brash girl who takes it upon herself to help Cath out of her shell, even though Cath would very much rather be alone.

“I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.”
“I don’t want to be your friend,” Cath said as sternly as she could. “I like that we’re not friends.”
“Me, too. I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.”

The very weird thing about Cath and people like her (me, for instance), is that as much as we crave solitude and distance ourselves from other people very much on purpose, we also simultaneously and conversely crave the lifelines that more extroverted people extend to us, and are often grateful in hindsight for the pushes from others to get us out of our comfort zones. That’s what Reagan does for Cath (and to a certain extent, it’s what Wren used to do for Cath) — pushes her outside of her head and reminds her that she’s capable of more than she gives herself credit for, and that her fears and anxieties protect her, yes, but they also prevent her from experiencing her life.

Reagan is also hilarious. I should mention that part.

And with Reagan comes Levi (delicious, delicious Levi). The two of them comprise Cath’s social circle during her freshman year, as she tries to navigate her new semi-adult life, the pressures of school, and the perils of her major (Creative Writing), which includes a very cute boy slash writing partner named Nick, and a professor that Cath very much looks up to and wants to impress.

If all of this sounds boring, I apologize. Because Fangirl is anything but boring. Cath’s inner life is rich and complicated, full of conflicting desires and feelings. Rainbow Rowell’s characters, and by extension her dialogue, fairly leap off the page. They feel real in a way that characters rarely do in fiction, and the situations they find themselves in, the things they say, feel like things people would actually say. They feel like things my friends and I would say. They feel like friends.

“I’d rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing.”

Besides the novelty of reading a book about a girl who might actually exist in real life, probably the most notable thing about Fangirl is the way that it engages with fan culture. People who participate in fan culture (and I’m not talking about casual participation here) are set apart from people who don’t. Fan culture is like Fight Club — the first rule is that you don’t talk about Fight Club Fan Culture. And not because it’s something to be ashamed of inherently, but because it’s something that people who don’t participate do not understand. And speaking from experience, regardless of whether or not non-participants actually look down upon participants, there’s this pervasive sense that the shaming is happening behind your back anyway. Fanfiction is not real writing. Fanfiction is plagiarism. Fanfiction is for people who can’t think up their own ideas.

The genius of Fangirl is that while it’s busying demystifying fans and fandom and deshaming them in the process, it also acknowledges that those are actual thoughts people might have (i.e. the reaction of Cath’s professor, or Reagan’s initial reaction — again, see above), it also suggests that the more important realization to be had here is that these are fears Cath also secretly has about herself. Cath loses herself in fanfiction for good reasons, but for bad ones as well. It’s easier for her to keep playing around in Simon’s world than to find herself in her own writing.

“You give away nice like it doesn’t cost you anything.”

So yeah, Fangirl is about growing up and writing and making friends and the power of communities and the bonds between families, but it’s also about love, something else that Cath is afraid to open herself up to. I’m not going to say too much about this aspect of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that Cath falling in love hit me like a ton of bricks to the stomach. I love how Rainbow writes Cath falling in love the same way she writes the way Cath lives, how she keeps everything inside to protect herself, and how satisfying it is when she finally lets herself give in.

I read this book fast and I read it hard, and when I was done I wanted to start all over again. Rainbow Rowell is good. She’s very good. And if she continues to write books like this, I can’t promise I won’t lose my damn mind every time I read one.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #73: Codex Born by Jim C. Hines

15824178So it’s been over a month since I finished this, and the details have largely slipped my mind now, but I do remember it being a fast, fun read. I apologize in advance for this being one of my more vague reviews — I really need to write them right after I finish if I want to be thorough.

Codex Born is the second book in Jim C. Hines’ Magic Ex Libris series, which follows libriomancer Isaac Vainio, who can do magic by tapping into the collective unconscious of the reading public and pull things out of books. Isaac works for Die Zwelf Portenære (or The Porters), a secret society of libriomancers founded by Johannes Gutenberg hundreds of years before. Only, Gutenberg is still alive, having used the magic practices he founded to extend his lifespan (possibly making himself immortal in the process) and Isaac is only starting to learn that there are many many secrets Gutenberg has been keeping from those who follow him.

The plot of Codex Born largely revolves around Isaac and a group of his friends attempting to track and eliminate a new threat to their magical world that has popped up in the form of their dead colleague Victor’s mentally unbalanced and rather power hungry father, who has gotten ahold of some of Victor’s magical inventions posthumously and is now in waaay over his head. It starts out simply with some murdered wendigos, but soon Isaac realizes Victor’s father has accidentally put himself in the middle of several factions of unknown magic, including a secret society supposedly wiped out rather violently by Gutenberg hundreds of years before, and an unknown magical threat that seems to be coming from the books themselves.

I very much enjoyed this book. There were parts to do with the central mystery of the series that were a bit too nebulous (and thus confusing for me), but I liked Victor’s father as the villain, and I liked that the real threat was only awoken on accident. Hines’s characters are a lot of fun, as is the magic system he has developed (although I did find myself wishing, with this being the second book and probably not very many to come after this, for a bit more backstory and worldbuilding — these books are just too short). I also enjoyed the development of Lena in this one, although instead of her diary entries at the beginning of each chapter, I think I would have preferred the book to just be from her POV (although I can understand wanting to keep it Isaac’s story).

There’s nothing really deeply profound about this series, but who made that a requirement, anyway? What it is is a heck of a lot fun, and I’m excited to read the remaining book(s) when they come out.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #50: You by Austin Grossman

youI really, really wanted to love this book. Like, I sat and stared lovingly at it for an embarassing amount of time, letting my hopes and dreams and fears wash over it in imaginary caresses. I mean, just look at that cover. It’s a cover that just begs for you to love it. In fact, I partially blame that cover for what came next (the rest of the blame goes to Austin Grossman and his publisher). Ever since I read Ready Player One last year, my desire for what I’m going to call ‘nerd fiction’ has increased exponentially. I’ve scoured the internet looking for recommendations, but there just isn’t that much out there.* I feel like I’ve got most of those that do exist already on my to-read shelf.

*This is where you chime in and tell me how wrong I am, that there are lots and lots of nerdy books out there, and you will give me their names.

This is precisely why I was so excited by the publication of Austin Grossman’s second novel, You, a book about gaming and gamers and stories and finding yourself and computers and technology and the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, etc (his first, Soon I Will Be Invincible, is also on my list, although I’m a lot less excited for it now than I was a week ago). Not that I had high expectations or anything.

You is supposedly the story of Russell*, a burned out 28 year old Ivy League graduate who has to go begging at his old high school friends’ doors for a job when he putters out in law school and finds himself without any other prospects. Russell ends up lead designer at Black Arts Entertainment, a company started by two of those friends, Darren and Simon. Simon is dead (mysteriously) and soon after Russell is hired, Darren jumps ship to start his own company, out from the sinking ship that is apparently Black Arts. Black Arts is in trouble because its not so secret weapon was Simon’s brain, and Simon’s brain, along with the rest of Simon, is no longer available. Russell is convinced that Simon left some genius piece of programming behind, but no one can find it, so he starts a personal quest to pay through the entirety of Black Arts’ back catalogue. The novel is mostly a mix of Russell’s workplace interactions, his game playthroughs, some flashbacks to high school, and some truly bizarre dreams that Grossman writes as if they are really happening (one involves Russell going on a date with a video game character, others involve characters giving him life advice). Parallel to Russell’s “quest”, the novel tracks the development of Black Arts new videogame, from inception to release. Will Russell uncover Simon’s secret? How did Simon die? Will the new videogame be a success and save the company from going under?

*To illustrate just how memorable this guy was, I had to go look up his name just now, and I only finished the book five days ago.

Unfortunately, we don’t really get good answers (or answers at all in one case) for any of those questions. (view spoiler)The most satisfying resolution of those I just mentioned comes from uncovering the secret that’s been hiding in the code of all Black Arts’ videogames, but that’s not saying much about it. While there was some resolution there, there wasn’t much, and it was mostly anti-climactic. We never find out how and why Simon died. We never find out if the game was a success. I don’t necessarily think those questions needed to be answered in the story Grossman was trying to tell, but the way he wrote, I expected them to be answered so when they weren’t, it just made me angry.

But frustrating plot resolution was only one of the problems I had with this book. To begin with, trying to figure out what this book is really about is like trying to unravel George R.R. Martin’s Meerenese knot. Is it about Russell? Is it about videogames? Is it about friendship? Is it about stories? I think the answer is most likely that last one, but I’ll never be completely sure. Judging by the paragraph I’m about to quote below, it’s really the story of how so many people can lose themselves in fictional worlds, and because that’s a fascinating subject to me, I probably granted this book a lot more leeway than it deserves. Just as a warning, these are the last two paragraphs in the main text of the book (there’s an epilogue as well, but it’s mostly frustrating and pointless):

“But there is only so much you can do about it. Your character is always going to be you; you can never ever quite erase that sliver of you-awareness. In the whole mechanized game world, you are a unique object, like am oving hole that’s full of emotion and agency and experience and memory unlike anything else in this made-up universe.
You can’t not be around it; it’s you, even though ‘you’ might be the last person you want to be around. But when the game, the second-person engine, starts again, it tells you about yourself, and maybe this time you will get it to tell you the thing you’ve been waiting to hear, the mighty storytelling hack that puts it all together. You’re lost in a forest, surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains. You’re in command of a thousand gleaming starships in a conflict spanning the galaxy. You and the machine, like Scheherezade and her king mixed up together in one, trying over and over to tell yourself your own story, and get it right.”

Look, those two paragraphs right there speak to me. They’re great. The writing, the ideas, the emotion. But that’s all this book had. The characters had no plot arc, no backstory, no frontstory. It was always about the game, and that titular ‘YOU’ playing through the games, like Grossman was trying to put us as the reader into a ‘YOU’ as well by making Russell as empty as possible, his very own second person engine wandering through his novel like it was a game instead of a story, which is an interesting idea, but I don’t think it worked. Ideas do not make novels, as great as they can be to think about. Ideas can be in novels, but they shouldn’t be the main point. Characters should be the point. Story should be the point. And for a book about the power of stories, you’d think Grossman would know that.

You’ll notice despite all that complaining I did up there, I’m giving the book three stars. There was stuff I enjoyed about the book. It was fascinating to see the making-of process for video games, and the history of the company was really interesting as well. Watching as Simon, Darren, Lisa, etc. built this thing from scratch, and how games have evolved in the years since was probably my favorite part of the book. Grossman’s prose is also really lovely in parts. I’m giving this book more credit than it deserves because I really liked the ideas it was playing with, and several bits of it resonated with me a lot on a personal level, but if I’m being honest, for most people this would probably be a two star book. For a lot of the reasons I mention above (technical jargon, mostly) it’s also really, really inaccessible and will only appeal to people who either a) Play videogames, 2) Design videogames, or 3) and this is the subset I belong to, understand videogames and most of the ephemera surrounding their creation and utilization, and for whom the idea of escaping into imaginative worlds, regardless of medium, is an obsession. If you don’t fit into one of those categories, this book will frustrate the hell out of you. Hell, I do fit into one of those categories, and it frustrated the hell out of me anyway.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #49: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

penumbraThere are two questions I usually ask myself as I’m preparing to rate and/or review a book:

1) Did this book accomplish what it set out to accomplish?
2) How much did I love it?

Depending on the answers to those two questions, this is why I can give four stars to a book by an author who maybe necessarily isn’t the best writer or maybe doesn’t write in a ‘respectable’ genre, or engage ‘important ideas’ in his or her writing, but I only give three (or even two) stars to that guy over there who is way smarter, has a better handle on how to write prose, and is busy engaging with some pretty heavy themes. For me, a four star book maybe has some issues, or maybe I just don’t LOVE it, but it knew what it wanted and went for it. Mr Three Star, though, he had all these ideas and it came out a jumbled mess.

In particular, I’m thinking of reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (a book that I really enjoyed, even if it had some serious pacing and characterization issues) followed immediately by You by Austin Grossman (a book I very much expected to love, but didn’t, and that’s a story I’ll save for review #50). Grossman is undoubtedly the better writer. His prose is evocative, the under the surface stuff in that novel is beautiful in parts, but overall that book was a mess. Point: Mr. Penumbra.

I’m taking an awful long time justifying my feelings about this book without actually talking about it, but this was stuff I’d been thinking about the whole time I was reading. Most people I know who have read this book haven’t enjoyed it very much, and it’s interesting to me to think about why I did enjoy it, despite its flaws.

Clay Jannon is a newly unemployed graphic designer. He passes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour bookstore and happens to see a Help Wanted sign in the window. Before he knows it, he’s the bookstore’s new night clerk. But this is a very strange bookstore. Most of its contents are strange leatherbound books with weird one word titles, and these books are never bought, only borrowed, and by very strange, often harrowed looking, customers. Clay can’t resist the mystery of it all, and soon he’s uncovering a bunch of stuff he probably shouldn’t, involving codes, ancient texts, conspiracies, secret societies, and a beautiful girl who works for Google.

It was a fast, fun read, and while there was a bit at the end that felt like it was trying a little too hard for a meaningful ending, for the most part this is actually a no bones about it thriller, just with books and nerds instead of guns and spies. It’s actually more Da Vinci Code than it is Ready Player One. Sloan does a nice job mixing the two worlds of technology and print, the old and the new, even if his characters are only empty cyphers used mostly for plot movement, and even if he rushes through a lot of stuff that I wish he had spent more time on.

Recommended if you are a bibliophile and you like mystery books with codes and secret societies. Fun, but not a favorite.