I was first introduced to Rainbow Rowell (as an author, not personally) by browsing the YA section at a bookstore, where I came across Fangirl. (Since I got out of cataloging, this is essentially how I pick up books now.) A book – a novel – about fandom, by someone named Rainbow? It seemed unreal. I was sold. Shortly after I finished it, a friend, not knowing I’d just read Rowell, recommended me Eleanor & Park. So I read that, too. You know how these things go. Which did I like better, the book about a struggling romance between two incredibly awkward teens for whom nothing really goes right, or a book about an introverted fanfiction author navigating the waters of college freshman-dom? Answers, and spoilers, to follow…
Back in the day, I devoured all of the Sweet Valley books. The drama in them was intense: a party every other weekend, a dance every weekend in between, clothes-swapping, place-switching, boyfriend-stealing, and an endless string of insane jobs and hobbies. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield have led, by the time they turn seventeen (ending the Sweet Valley High series and starting the well-meaning but far inferior Senior Year series), the lives of roughly a hundred and thirty-seven people. So how do you top that nonsense? When you’re Francine Pascal, you go back in time and create an elaborate family tree for the Wakefield clan, in two books of the Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefields of Sweet Valley and The Wakefield Legacy. Spoilers, and complete and total popcorn-munching ridiculousness to follow…
Long-time readers of this blog, and long-time knowers of Casey, the person, know that I have a mild obsession with Alice (as in, “in Wonderland”). The books themselves are full of whimsy but also very true observations about childhood, adulthood, and the way the two coincide. Moreover, I think Alice is a positive protagonist, heroine, and character, particularly for young girls (or females of any age, really) (or dudes, too, I guess).
So in reading Morton Cohen’s book Lewis Carroll: a Biography, I was delighted to come across this bit of business:
In both cases [of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass], Alice should meet a strong male rescuer, a Prince Charming, and they should fall in love and live happily ever after. But she does not. She succeeds, but not through the formula of grand romance. Instead of honeyed happiness, she gains confidence, a way of dealing with the world; instead of love, she finds advancement, recognition, acceptance.
Isn’t that an amazing thing to read? Both Cohen’s synopsis and as a concept itself, of a girl going on an adventure and coming out of the process with all sorts of self-knowledge to take on the entire world. That’s just amazing.
I know I’ve ranted and raved on here often enough about sacrificing plot for romance, or the insistence of having romance when it isn’t necessary, just for the sake of having it, or because the author (or the agent, or the editor, or the publisher, or someone’s well-meaning mother or writing group) thinks that it has to be included for anything to be taken seriously or have meaning or sell well (or all three). So it’s delightful when I have instances when romance is secondary if it’s included at all, a reminder that there are multiple kinds of stories and multiple kinds of characters, and not every female character has to fall into a neat little category. And lest anyone think that doesn’t sell, Cohen points out to us that neither Wonderland nor Looking-Glass has ever gone out of print (since the 1800s!), and that as of 1993 (the Carroll biography was published in 1995), over seventy-five editions and version of Alice were available in all sorts of media. Ladies (or small Victorian children) are doin’ it for themselves.
The reserve list at my local library for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was so long that my request expired before I ever got a copy, and I had to put in another request. The level of enthusiasm on display here began to make me wonder, though; the last time I saw that much excitement for a book not about boy wizards was The Da Vinci Code, and that was a hot mess. Fortunately, The Fault in Our Stars was worth the wait. Spoilers to follow…
We’re not supposed to judge books by their covers. It’s a life lesson, and sometimes also a literal lesson about books. There’s no corresponding adage about book titles that I’m aware of, but sometimes you read a title and think you know the contents of the book. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is probably going to be about a dude named Harry Potter and a chamber, one that likely is or holds secrets. There’s nothing wrong with that; titling is hard, and sometimes even when you do get it right, publishers or whomever want to change it for you. But my point, buried somewhere in here, is that when I came across a book called Princess Academy, I had a pretty good idea what it was about. Two words, very specific, very straightforward. But Shannon Hale’s (Newbery-winning) novel is kind of anything but that. Spoilers to follow…
I remember precisely when I first picked up my copy of Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. (See my previous post on the subject; a comment from a friend inquiring if he was in fact the one who sold it to me (he was! This was ages and ages ago) got me thinking about this subject in general.) I think, much like major world events, the brain tends to hold on to smaller, significant, personal experiences, like where you were when you first read, or even first heard of, a book that would end up changing your life.
Some other significant personal experiences with me and books:
- I don’t remember when I first actually read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I really don’t. I was behind the times when that ‘trend’ came about, my parents found out about it first (Dad worked in a library and bought home everything ever). I distinctly recall we were in the car driving to my grandmother’s when they were listening to Sorcerer’s Stone on audio book. I fell asleep, because I often fall asleep during long car rides. My mother came by later that night to inform me of a passage I’d missed but she thought I would enjoy:
[Dumbledore] smiled and popped the golden-brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, “Alas! Ear wax!”
I don’t have the functional mental capacity required for audio books. I can’t even listen to podcasts. I put on background music when I do anything (to this day, I can’t listen to OK Go’s “Get Over It” without somehow imagining Professor Snape, because I had a promotional CD of the single that I played on literal loop for the entire duration of the day I spent in my room reading Order of the Phoenix). So obviously I had to go and read the series eyes-to-page, as is my wont. And thus an addict was born.
- More on addiction: I distinctly recall the day Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (my current re-read!) came out, because my friends were in town visiting for the weekend, an infrequent occurrence, and I spent my day on their couch trying to simultaneously interact and also read about wizards. The best guest is the one who sits on your couch and reads without talking to you.
- My all-time favorite book, Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, was consumed on a night train ride from Chicago. I have re-read it without fail every year since (I need about a year to digest everything in it, and to cleanse my memory sufficiently so that all of the twists and turns and lyrical dances come as a fresh new surprise), but I always remember that first glorious time.
- I distinctly recall the day, in my very first library job, where it was pouring rain and my coworker and I had no patrons, and I sat behind the desk while the rain thundered on the roof, reading Dean Koontz’s Phantoms for the first time and getting terrified out of my mind. (Say what you will about Dean Koontz, his early stuff before it became all about psycho killers was very good and sufficiently scary.) Ambiance can sometimes be everything.
- That particular job is also where I first discovered Lemony Snicket (do you like how I’m slowly going backwards in time?), and had ready access to A Series of Unfortunate Events, to consume more or less in one sitting, up until the point where I had to wait an agonizing year between volumes, causing entirely too much stress and worry about those darn orphans of misfortune.
So where were you when you first read something that changed your life?
When my mother (hi, Mom) asked me if I’d read the latest Mary Roach, I got confused, thinking she meant one of the many mystery writers she and my father inexplicably read. (Mysteries in general are not my thing, I tend to not trust any character involved and assume they all did it.) But long story short, I was mixed up and no, I had not read the latest Mary Roach (Gulp, if you couldn’t figure it out from my post title), so I got right on that. I’ll put the usual spoiler cut, but it’s nonfiction about what we eat, how we eat, how we digest, and how we expel all of that from our bodies. It’s not as gross as it sounds.
Pete Hautman’s Mr. Was is not a book I’d ever really think to pick up for myself, had it not come on the recommendation of a friend. On the surface, it seems like a story about spousal abuse and time travel. But it’s also a poignant story about loss, betrayal, and the impact of war on individuals. (And also spousal abuse. It’s bad, folks.) Spoilers to follow…
I really have no good opening patter about Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. Like other books I’ve maligned on here, Seraphina dangled tasty treats in front of me. Unlike other books I’ve maligned on here, rather than pulling them away much like Lucy van Pelt conducts football practice, the book actually let me devour those treats, as a dragon would devour the head of a prince. Allegedly. And those are two of the book’s treats right there: dragons and murder mystery! Spoilers to follow…
The story of Cinderella is the story of a servant girl whose fairy godmother grants her splendor one night so she can go to the ball, win the heart of the prince, get married and live happily ever after.
The story of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is the story of a girl who is the victim of a fairy ‘blessing’, and goes on a quest to find a way to break her curse, only to end up unsuccessful and in servitude, and in a letter-writing friendship with her local monarch. Do you love retellings of fairytales? I think we’ve established that I do. And both Ella Enchanted and the character of Ella are fantastic. Spoilers to follow…