Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl comes out in September this year. This is an early review on an ARC I received at BEA.

The Premise: It’s fall semester of freshman year, and Cather (aka Cath, the Less Adventurous Twin), feels lost amongst the other undergraduates. Her sister Wren has basically abandoned her (“if we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person”); her dad is home alone and Cath worries about that; her roommate Reagan is scary, and comes with the too-friendly Levi, who is in their room all the time. All Cath wants is to be left alone to work on her massively popular and novel length Simon and Baz fan fiction, Carry On, but college is getting in the way, and college is hard.

My Thoughts: Reading Fangirl is a comforting exercise. It’s one of those books where you open it’s pages and don’t notice the words because it takes no time to be engulfed. What’s more, nothing extraordinary may be happening on the page — moving into the dorms, briefly meeting a new roommate, saying goodbye to relatives, but there is an engrossing quality to how the characters reveal themselves through their everyday interactions. Well, sort of everyday. It’s not every day you move away from home and have your support system disappear. Titular character Cath thinks that college is hard, but I think the real issue is having to do it alone. Without her twin Wren at her side, Cath is too anxious to even go to the cafeteria by herself and lives off a stash of energy bars rather than find out where it is. She sits in the bathroom stalls quietly crying while the other girls in her hall are meeting one another. She is a quintessential introvert, her mind focused on an inner world, and who doesn’t like to get out of her comfort zone. Her sister may call her 3 year (now long distance) boyfriend an “end table”, but Cath is content with things being as they are.

You know where this is going. Cath can’t have the world stay safe and easy, and it won’t pause for her. Eventually she has to interact with others and be absorbed into new people’s orbits, and no matter what she does, other people and their lives affect hers. First (and most obvious) to impact her is her sister’s desertion, a strange flip in loyalty that leaves Cath floundering, but her sister is not the only family member that can rattle Cath. In college itself, Cath can’t avoid her roommate Reagan or the ubiquitous Levi, but then there’s also people from her classes like Nick from Creative Writing and the assortment of new acquaintances Cath picks up because she doesn’t want to be rude.

What I liked though, is that Cath got to stay herself while having to accept change. This is not a story with the moral that being introverted does you no good; it’s perfectly fine to be that way. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the story is Cath’s private world and her devotion to the Simon Snow series.  Fan fiction is so popular now, it’s practically mainstream, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a story that embraces that subculture the way that Fangirl does. I don’t think of myself as part of that subculture, but even I know about ‘slash’ and ‘ships’, and there’s a certain joy in recognizing that Simon Snow is a riff on Harry Potter. Obviously (points at book blog), I get the whole fan and being into books thing, and any time Cath waxed poetic about characters she loves, or I read excerpts of Simon Snow or Cath’s fan fiction (placed like intermissions between chapters) and recognized elements, I grinned internally. I loved how this is important to Cath’s life and reflects as such in her conversations and relationshipsSimon or simply, “stories” and “storytelling” is shared ground between Cath and others and there are a lot of scenes where it is the bridge between minds.

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For all of Cath’s fangirl-ly-ness I connected with Cath while also not really connecting with her. The introverted, wanting-to-be-alone parts I could understand, but some of her more extreme coping mechanisms (like not bothering to find the cafeteria and essentially starving) I could not. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that even if I didn’t always understand her, I always felt for Cath. It was the same for the secondary characters who didn’t always make the best choices but managed to make me care about them. This is what I want New Adult fiction to be–not a marketing term that means sex, but an extension of the coming-of-age tale into a post-adolescent bracket. Fangirl captures the awkward unsure side of tasting independence for the first time.

The last thing I want to say about Fangirl is that it is surprising. There were some things that I was expecting, but in the end, this story made it’s characters a lot more complicated than I thought they were going to be, and thus bucked all my predictions. This includes a blossoming romance that I thought was going to be smooth and sweet but defied me by being almost painfully uncertain instead (and was the better for it). If you think you know what’s going to happen after reading the first 50 pages, you’d probably be wrong. The plot is essentially about relationship growth, and every single relationship Cath began in safe little boxes and mushroomed out to be unique and nuanced and entirely different beasts from which they began.

Overall: Really, really, good. I found very little to complain about, and when I did, it was always a personal reaction to a character’s actions and no reflection on the actual writing or story — not worth going over in this review.  And it actually seems to get better the more I reflect on it after finishing it. I hadn’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell before but it hasn’t missed my attention how many fans she has in the book blogging community. I waited in line for a copy of Fangirl because of the hype, and it was a very long wait. I can tell you now: it was utterly worth it.

P.S. How about that cover? I felt proud of myself for recognizing the artwork of gingerhaze.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet as far as I could tell (I searched amongst my book blog friends), but if I missed yours, let me know.

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Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson

A few weeks ago I went to the Greenburgh Library Book Sale and picked up several books, including this one. Isn’t the cover adorable? I think the wistful, fresh-faced look of the cover model is a perfect representation for what’s inside.

Psych Major Syndrome
Alicia Thompson

The Premise: Leigh Nolan is a freshman psychology major at Stiles College – a progressive school where students aren’t graded and are expected to take charge of their own education. In a small school like Stiles, this means quite a few over achievers, “freaking out about their entire academic career” a couple of months into their first year. It’s a trying time, but on top of trying to decide on a topic for her senior thesis, mentoring cynical middle school students, and dealing with other competitive psych majors, Leigh is also questioning her relationship with Andrew, her high school boyfriend and fellow Stiles underclassman. Lately their relationship has lost it’s luster, and Leigh is confused by how much she’s noticing Nathan, Andrew’s roommate who never seems happy to be around her.

My Thoughts: Well this was as cute a story as I was hoping for. I think it has the right amount of the expected love story, but it’s balanced by writing that gives Leigh a faceted and likable character. Her psychology major fits nicely with delving into her psyche.  Leigh is constantly self-evaluating and acknowledges her own quirks, which include (but are not limited to): refusing to buy a parking pass, waiting until the last minute with her assignments, and a fear of being stranded in the desert. To add to the theme, each chapter begins with a psychological term and its definition, which foreshadows what’s to come.

Ask her some psychology related thing, and Leigh can dredge up what she learned in AP Psychology and class. But for all her book smarts, Leigh is a bit naive. She still has NO clue that her relationship with her boyfriend is in trouble. When you forget a date, and so does he, it doesn’t really say you’re feverishly in love. Leigh’s roommate (and best friend) Ami isn’t enthusiastic about Andrew, but Leigh defends him:

“Ami doesn’t have the benefit of all these great memories, so she continues to think that he doesn’t treat me as well as I deserve. Which, in a way, is totally loyal and cool of her– but completely unfounded. Well, mostly. If anything, his main problem is just that he’s too smart.  He has so much going on in his brain at any given moment that it’s no wonder he’s a little absentminded sometimes.”

Leigh rationalizes Andrew’s non-attentiveness and the distancing that has happened between them since school started. To be honest, from Leigh’s workload, I can understand why it’s easy for her to do so. She’s quite busy with college herself.  Her day-to-day life involves going to class, meeting with her academic adviser, long talks with her roommate, and waiting till the last minute to do her work. (As an aside, Psych Major Syndrome captures the college experience really well — when Leigh stays up till 5am writing a 20-page essay, the details of falling asleep and waking up with barely enough time to hand it in, felt eerily familiar). But schoolwork only goes so far as an excuse, and eventually Leigh has to face what’s really going on between herself and Andrew.

In the meantime, all that schoolwork and the social life of college means that Leigh has a pretty full life, and it’s not all about her romantic relationships in this book. The interactions between Leigh and Ami, the other psychology students, her mentee, and Nathan are all natural extensions of her life and nothing ever feels forced about them. Even if I could predict exactly where the story was going to go, Psych Major Syndrome adds enough humor and color to make the predictability pleasant and comforting instead of dull. Also (and here I go back to the romance), Leigh’s happy ending is one of the sweetest ones I’ve read in a while. I ended up really liking the guy she is paired with, even if I thought he was a bit of a fantasy boy. I can overlook how Leigh acted before she figured out what she wanted because of how well this guy suited her – it all ended on just the right note.

Overall: A sweet and fast comfort read. It has a good balance between an expected plot and a unique approach to that plot. Leigh is an endearing narrator, and I enjoyed this reminder of college life.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
One More Page – ” a very entertaining contemporary YA read, even if there’s really nothing surprising about it”
A Room With Books – “Psych Major Syndrome was an okay read. Leigh was much too blind to everything around her for me really connect.”

Other:

Easy by Tammara Webber

Alright. So Angie reviewed Easy on Tuesday and by that evening I had bought the book, fully intending to hold on to it while I finished off other books I was reading. But then, I read a few pages. By lunch the next day I’d read the whole thing.

Easy
Tammara Webber

The Premise: Jacqueline Wallace is having a horrible sophomore semester in college. After 3 years together, her boyfriend Kennedy dumps her so that he can sleep with other girls. Two weeks after that, his frat brother Buck attacks Jacqueline in a parking lot and tries to rape her. She escapes only because a guy in her economics class was there.  Shaken by the assault, all Jacqueline wants to do is to move on and act like nothing is wrong. She doesn’t tell anyone what happened, but Lucas, the boy who saved her knows, and suddenly she’s noticing him everywhere. To add to everything else, Jacqueline has missed two weeks of Economics because she was avoiding Kennedy and if she doesn’t make up the midterm she missed, she’s going to fail the class.

My Thoughts: Since I didn’t really look at any reviews besides the one before beginning Easy, I was genuinely freaked out by the first few pages. I didn’t know what would happen to Jacqueline, and I had a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach when she walked to her truck and was suddenly pinned down from behind. I was relieved when a savior appeared, but after this incident I still worried since Jacqueline didn’t report Buck for the attempted rape. I’m putting that out there now for anyone for whom this would be uncomfortable with descriptions of sexual assault. My rule of thumb is not to discuss what happens after the first fifty pages of a book, so I won’t say whether things get darker for Jacqueline, but I will say that the first few pages with the attempted assault is at the threshold of what the reader actually gets to “see”.

As can be expected, Jacqueline wants to put the attack behind her.  She has a lot of other things to deal with on top of her trauma. Besides getting over her breakup with Kennedy, tutoring upright bass, and working towards her music education major, she has to save her GPA by not failing in Economics. This means getting in touch with the class tutor, Landon Maxfield. As Jacqueline’s busy schedule would have it, she can’t make any of the face-to-face session with Landon, so instead they communicate by email, and what starts off as a formal interaction (“Mr. Maxfield”, “Ms. Wallace”), soon becomes a light flirtation (“I already looked forward to his name in my inbox, our back-and-forth banter”). At the same time, Jacqueline is also noticing someone else — Lucas, the guy who saved her from Buck. He sits in the back of her Economics class, sketching instead of taking notes, makes her coffee at Starbucks (he’s the barista), and shows up at the club to ask her to dance. He’s got a mysterious bad boy edge — lip piercing and tattoos, and girls coming up to him after class. At first seeing him makes Jacqueline relive that night, but after she’s noticed him, she’s drawn in, and it looks like the feeling is mutual.

Minutes before the end of class, I turned and reached into my backpack as an excuse to sneak a look at the guy on the back row.  He was staring at me, a black pencil loose between his fingers, tapping the notebook in front of him. He slouched into his seat, one elbow over the back of it, one booted foot casually propped on the support under his desk. As our eyes held, his expression changed subtly from unreadable to the barest of smiles, though guarded. He didn’t look away, even when I glanced into my bag and then back at him.
I snapped forward, my face warming.

If you like romance with that delicious build-up of falling in love, where a couple’s addiction for one another is a force you can feel, this is probably a book you will like.  Jacqueline is decidedly pursued over the course of seven weeks by a guy who says and does all the right things. I mean, this guy is good. Things begin with light touches and long stares and progress until the electricity is fairly crackling, but this guy is also respectful and not aggressive (mysterious too). When Jacqueline’s best friend and roommate Erin advises her to “make him chase you” that’s when things get interesting. And here’s when I get contrary. Yes, I was sucked in, but my own cynicism kept rearing its head. The male romantic lead here was too much of a fantasy for me, by all accounts some sort of dream guy, showing up at just the right time to boost Jacqueline’s confidence. I couldn’t stop myself from feeling disbelieving even as I raced to finish the book. It felt like there was so much going on with him that he unbalanced the story a little.

If Easy was just about the romance, I wouldn’t have liked this book as much as I did. I liked it’s depiction of college. This is not a book where the college setting is just icing — no, this story is permeated by its setting: dorm hallways as hangout areas, lectures with auditorium seating, lugging laundry to the basement, and equal parts study and being with friends. College life is shown with ups (like independence and intense friendships) as well as downs (like rumors and clique culture). The dialogue was particularly good — utterly natural and believable. I always felt like it captured the emotions of the moment.

I also liked Easy for being a story with a positive message. It put the blame of sexual assault where it belongs and had a proactive message to women as well. Those who blame the victim and support the abuser exist here, but are clearly not in the right. I loved the message of sisterhood and of women looking out for one another, and I was really invested in Jacqueline move upwards and forward from what happened. My empathy for Jacqueline made me cheer for all the positive things that came her way. This story wasn’t perfect (see above), but it was a good one.

Overall: An entertaining New Adult contemporary with a pro-female message. I quite happily was swept along by the easy writing style, the banter of the college set, and the electric romance. Even if part of me found Jacqueline’s hero too conveniently perfect to suspend my disbelief (he fell in that uncanny valley between an awesome guy and a god), I liked this one. Definitely worth the $3.99 I spent on it.

Buy: Amazon (kindle) | B&N (nook)

Other reviews:
Dear Author – B+
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves – “I’m usually quite wary of self-published books, but Easy was worth the risk.”
Angieville – “Highly recommended, especially for fans of Jessica Park’s Flat-out Love, Jennifer Echols’ Going Too Far, all things new adult, and just substantial, swoony contemporaries in general.”

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

This is the perfect example of bloggers influencing my reading — this was only on my radar because I saw a banner on Holly’s blog. Chachic, who recently reviewed it also credits a blogger for her interest in the book. And why is this debut author getting good buzz? Well, I think what she does right is her website is nice and clean and information is easy to find, she uses social media well, and she has a nice long excerpt (very crucial). All good things, but hey, most importantly – the book is a good read too!

This review is based on an eARC copy I received via Netgalley.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
Trish Doller

The Premise: Travis Stephenson is a nineteen-year-old Marine on leave for thirty days. He’s been in Afghanistan for a year and his best friend Charlie was recently killed over there. Now that he’s home, everything that was once familiar is now strange, and Travis isn’t as okay as he pretends to be. While he’s dealing with his own messed up head, he also has to deal with his less-than-ideal family life. His parents’ marriage is strained, and his younger brother Ryan is a rival, not an ally (he stole Travis’s girlfriend and car while Travis was gone). Then he meets Harper, the girl whose reputation he ruined in middle school after a game of seven minutes in heaven led to rumors he didn’t bother to curtail.

Read an excerpt of Something Like Normal here

My Thoughts: There’s a lot in Travis’ life that he has to deal with. Non-trivial things. His best friend Charlie is dead. Travis has trouble sleeping and may be suffering from PTSD. He wants to pay Charlie’s mothers his respects, but he isn’t sure how to do that when he can’t even process Charlie’s absence himself. On leave from Afghanistan, Home has become an alien planet. He’s surrounded by a reputation-obsessed father, an anxious mother, and a brother that covets what Travis has. His parents’ relationship has deteriorated, and his ex-girlfriend Paige is with his brother Ryan now — but keeps showing up in his bedroom late at night. Every relationship Travis has is fraught with complications and unresolved issues.

Then Travis runs into Harper Gray, a girl who has every reason to hate him because he’s why the world thinks she’s a slut. After a good punch in the face, Harper is surprisingly non-judgmental, and Travis, messed up and floundering, recognizes that she’s someone that he wants to be around. Their past history and Travis being drawn to Harper now becomes another sign of changes in Travis. I’d normally question if Harper should forgive a guy who hurt her, but here, Travis is suffering already. Harper’s intuition that Travis is in pain and her decision not to hold a grudge (well, after that punch), makes her strong rather than weak. There was something quiet and right (and a little delicious) about their burgeoning relationship.

Just like Chachic says in her review, I have never been a nineteen-year-old boy, but I could see Travis fitting in with the ones I’ve known. Bonding with his friends from the unit means giving them all a hard time, and physical exertion is part of his coping mechanism. He really likes girls. And he’s realistically flawed. Actually, his younger self sounds rather immature: his treatment of Harper is one example, his rocky relationship with his ex is another (“We cheated on each other all the time. That’s the way it was with me and Paige–insane and toxic“). He STILL has growing up to do, and Something Like Normal captures how painful the process of adulthood can be. The the emotion underlying everything Travis says as he narrates underscores it. Every word seems to tell us just how cut up he is about Charlie and how difficult it is for him when he feels nothing near normal, but he’s trying hard – both to cope, and to be a better person. Thankfully this pain is balanced nicely with the thrill of finding a connection with someone who understood it.

If I had one criticism of this book it would be that there was a lot of personal drama and a short time frame. I’d have preferred more time on the romance or with his processing of Charlie’s death over some of the drama, but it’s hard to complain with all the threads so seamlessly interwoven. Travis’ thoughts of Charlie and Afghanistan, to his talks with Harper and his mom, to the friction with his dad, and the non-relationship with his brother – I was never really confused of overwhelmed by all of these, they were just so well integrated into the story.

I should also say – I really rooted for Travis. I wanted him to be happy, to find some peace over the loss of his best friend, and to get the girl. I finished the book hoping Travis would come back safely after the years he had left to serve.

Something Like Normal comes out June 19th

Overall: It doesn’t feel like I get to read many contemporary YA books told from the first person POV of a teen male, much less one in the military. Something Like Normal stands out because of its Marine protagonist, but add Travis’ painfully honest voice and this becomes a very personal, character driven story about a young man who has been changed by his experiences at war. Something Like Normal captures the mix of humility and vulnerability of his hard-earned maturity. The sweet, slow romance makes it all the better.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Book Harbinger – positive
See Michelle Read – positive
The Crooked Shelf – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive

Other links:
Trish Doller discusses her photo inspirations for the book

[Edited to add: I realized that my description of Travis’ voice as a teenage boy was similar to Chachic’s characterization, so I’ve updated to link to her review in that sentence].