Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell has become a new favorite author of mine. I think she writes the best loves scenes in YA. I loved her book Landline and related to it a lot as a working mom and as someone who married her college sweetheart. That might still be my favorite of her novels, but I’ve really enjoyed diving into her backlist.

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This is Rowell’s first novel, for adults. It’s set in 1999 and 2000, about an IT guy at a newspaper who has to read the company emails for his job and kind of falls in love with a movie reviewer after following her personal emails with her friend. The guy, Lincoln, is the protagonist, and it’s great to watch his growth through the book as he finally grows up, moves out, gets over his long-ago ex, and just kind of blossoms. The two spend most of the book crushing on each other from afar, and the tension is all about when they will finally actually talk to each other. With so much buildup, there’s a huge potential for letdown, but Rowell delivers.

Eleanor and Park

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In this intense YA romance, an overweight outcast bonds with a sweet half-Korean guy over comic books and music on the bus in 1986. The setting is crucial, informing the pop culture that the two bond over. Also, much of the tension comes from communication difficulties between the two, since Eleanor’s family does not have a phone line, and this is something that would have been unheard of even five years later. Transport the story to the present day with its cheap cell phones, and you lose about a hundred pages of angst. Eleanor’s stepfather is abusive, and she also has to deal with some nasty bullying, so her relationship with Park is the one bright spot in her life. It’s a bittersweet story, with an ending that’s ambiguous, painful but hopeful. If there’s a lesson, it might be about how dangerous it is for a teenager to depend so entirely on any one relationship.

Fangirl

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This is probably my second-favorite of Rowell’s books. It’s also her only one set entirely in the present day, rather than Rowell’s favored time period of the 80’s and 90’s. It’s about a super-introverted fantiction writer in her first semester of college. She (eventually) falls in love with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, a farm boy. The ever-so-slow progress of their relationship and his careful campaign to win her trust is super sweet to watch. The one problem with this story may be that the boyfriend is too perfect. Seriously, his biggest flaw is that he’s too happy all the time.

Carry On

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Rowell’s most recent novel is a departure from her other books because it’s a fantasy. It’s a kind of spin-off from Fangirl because it’s either the fanfiction the main character writes, or it’s the ‘canon’ she’s inspired by (I like to think it’s the fanfiction). Simon Snow, the ‘chosen one’ hero, is clearly inspired by Harry Potter, as is the setting of a school of magic. Twilight fandom might be another influence, as the other main protagonist is a vampire. Rowell was clearly also inspired by ‘slash’ fanfiction, in which two ostensibly heterosexual male characters fall in love. I always appreciate when a magical ‘system’ works on two levels, and this one checks that box. In this universe, magic gets its power from words that are repeated frequently, but must also be constantly reinvigorated by neologisms and fresh phrasing. The conflicts between two factions in the magical community seem to echo the “canon wars.”

The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

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This book is the third in the Shades of London series, in which near-death experiences give teens the ability to see ghosts. Narrator and heroine Rory pursues missing friends, living, dead and in-between, going into hiding herself and thwarting a plot to release thousands of ghosts on London. After ending of the previous book, The Madness Underneath, I was expecting this book’s narrative to go one way, toward a certain type of angst and requited but unrequitable love, and instead Johnson pulled some narrative tricks I wasn’t anticipating, focusing on the mystery and action, and creating a different type of angst after all. Two twisted, formidable villains are introduced in this installment, building my anticipation for the next book. I like this series better than her 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but maybe that’s at least partly because I just like YA fantasy as a genre so much.

The next book in the series isn’t out; I haven’t even heard the title released yet. Johnson seems to be on an every-other-year publishing schedule with this series, so I don’t expect it until 2017, but I’m looking forward to it!

Eileen

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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This short novel is an intense character study of someone who’s hard to like, but easy to be fascinated by. Eileen is incredibly strange and neurotic, repressed to the point of self-harm, but also judgmental and unpleasant to everyone around her, except perhaps two people she mistakenly idolizes (for a time) and whom she also stalks. Her life is pretty bleak–she lives with her drunk father and works as a kind of secretary at a juvenile detention facility. She tells the story from the perspective of an old woman, with this time of her life far in the past. She views this story as the time when she escaped a terrible existence and became the bolder woman she was meant to be.

The two books I’ve read that are easiest to compare to this one are Tampa, a sex-reversed Lolita in which a middle-school teacher sleeps with her male students, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, with its crazy, ostracized narrator. All three of these voice-driven books feature insane, transgressive female narrators, but also show how they are products of their environments.

How Should a Person Be?

How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti

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When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.

I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.

The Gap of Time

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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This is a modern retelling of A Winter’s Tale. I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I think that’s mostly because it’s just really hard to translate Shakespeare to a modern context. The jealous ravings of Leo (Leontes) seem even more crazed and misogynistic when it’s a rich guy in a business suit saying them, rather than an ancient king. And the tonal shift between the first and second half seemed even more jarring in print than on the stage, for some reason. More than the story, I appreciated Winterson’s introduction and epilogue about the importance of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s later works, and how this story is a kind of re-writing of Othello, turning a tragedy into a comedy.

A Thousand Pieces of You

A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

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The premise of this YA sci-fi fantasy romance is kind of complicated, but if you just go with it, you can enjoy a great love story with some startling plot twists and surprises. Marguerite’s scientist parents have discovered a way to travel between dimensions. When her father is killed, she and one of their research assistants travel to another dimension in pursuit of the killer. They travel to several different versions of reality, each creatively constructed and strange. Marguerite spends most of her time in a version of Russia where the Romanovs survived, and she is one of their descendants. There, she falls in love in a super-romantic, lusciously-described way. There is a love triangle, and then a love triangle within that love triangle, if that makes any sense. I thought the concept and the rules of these alternate dimensions were as plausibly explained as anything in science fiction, and they offer a ton of narrative possibilities and potential for conflict, which is the ultimate purpose of sci-fi complications, in my mind.

I enjoyed Gray’s vampire series, Evernight, but this series is even better. I’m looking forward to picking up the second book in the series.