Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Cover image of Carry OnSimon and Baz, Penelope and Agatha, the Insidious Humdrum, the Mage, and Watford – all born in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl – have their own story here. Simon’s origin story is similar to Harry Potter’s: he was an orphan living in the “Normal” world until age 11, when the Mage brings him to the Watford School to study magic. Now it’s Simon’s final year at Watford: the Mage has little time for him, and his roommate/enemy/suspected vampire Baz has not returned to school. The Insidious Humdrum still threatens the magical world, which is already divided between the traditional old families and the Mage’s revolutionary ideals.

Simon Snow is the main character, but Penny, Baz, and Agatha each get a turn to narrate, as does Lucy, whose identity (other than her name) isn’t immediately clear. Simon wants to enjoy his last year at Watford, but also to defeat the Humdrum once and for all; Penny (think Hermione with a rebel streak) is his (platonic) best friend and a talented magician whose parents are both professors; Agatha doesn’t want to be involved in dangerous adventures at all, and secretly prefers the Normal world, though she can’t admit it to her parents; and Baz, once he returns to Watford after an unexplained six-week absence, wants to decode the message his mother’s ghost left for him with Simon.

Carry On has plenty of pop culture references – the words “carry on” come from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – partly due to the fact that magic, in Simon Snow’s world, is based almost entirely on words: the more often certain words are used in specific combinations, the more powerful of a spell they become. Shakespeare and nursery rhymes, therefore, are quite powerful; cliches and lyrics to pop songs may be powerful for a time, but lose their power when they fall out of fashion. I enjoyed this not-so-subtle reminder of the power of language, as well as Rowell’s hat-tips to other fantasy novels: there are obvious similarities to Harry Potter, of course, but there’s also something Philip Pullman-esque about the way that adults are willing to sacrifice children in service to the what they perceive as the greater good.

Fangirl‘s Cath would be happy with the way that Simon and Baz’s relationship evolves, but I won’t say more than that here. The way that Rowell weaves Baz’s mother’s death and his being a vampire into the plot, however, is quite clever. Carry On absolutely stands on its own as a fantasy novel that anyone can enjoy, and those who liked Fangirl will definitely want to read it. While I prefer Rowell’s realistic fiction (or in the case of Landline, mostly realistic fiction with the addition of a magic-fucking-phone), I thoroughly enjoyed Carry On.

 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Some novels take place over the course of a day; some cover several decades. How much story is an author able to fit into 350 pages or 500 pages or 750 pages? How much they can develop their characters so the reader feels like they are real people? These questions point to the magic and the mystery of writing. A reader might pause on page twelve and wonder, How do I already know so much about these people? How did the author do that? Or the reader might be fifty pages in, thinking, Nothing has happened yet, but I sure do know a lot about nineteenth-century London. Some writers are economical; some are expansive. Either kind of book can be powerful.

storiedlifeajfikryGabrielle Zevin does a lot with a little. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is 272 pages, and it covers about sixteen years. A.J. is a widower and a bookshop owner on Alice Island; he has just told off a new sales rep, Amelia Loman, and is proceeding with his plan to drink himself to death when he discovers two-year-old Maya in his shop, accompanied by a note. Soon afterward, Maya’s mother’s body washes up on the shore, and instead of handing the baby over to social services, A.J. decides to keep her.

A.J. does the paperwork and jumps through the necessary hoops off-screen, as it were, leaving the reader to enjoy Maya’s non-christening christening party in the bookstore. Because of Maya, A.J. becomes involved in the life of the town in a way he never did before; though his wife Nic was an islander, A.J. himself was perceived as an outsider. He emerges from his shell, becoming friends with the remarkably kind and sensible police chief, Lambiase, and forging a relationship with Amelia. (Again, they surmount some practical obstacles – i.e., the inconvenience of her living on an island when her job involves so much travel – off the page.)

“Shelf-talkers” for short stories serve as section dividers. These are addressed not to the reading public, but to Maya; the reason A.J. is writing these becomes clear late in the book. Maya’s history is also revealed: Lambiase discovers it (along with the valuable copy of Tamerlane that went missing from A.J.’s apartment just before Maya’s arrival) not through detective work but when he begins to date A.J.’s ex-sister-in-law, Ismay, after the death of her husband.

The characters in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are at once easy to slot into roles, and more complicated than they appear. Books and stories play a powerful role in all of their lives, and there is a good deal of book-related wisdom throughout this novel, delivered with a light touch. “We are what we love,” A.J. finally concludes. Most people who love books (and especially those who have ever dreamed of living in a bookstore) will like this one.

 

Graduates in Wonderland

graduatesinwonderlandSometimes a book comes along, and as you read the description, you realize it ticks every one of your boxes. Here’s the tagline for Graduates in Wonderland from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: “Two best friends document their post-college lives through emails in this hilarious, relatable, and powerfully honest memoir.”

Best friends. Check. More books should have friendship at their core.

Post-college. Check. This book occupies that nebulous “new adult” space, and proves NA isn’t just YA with sex scenes.

E-mails. Check. I love a good epistolary novel, and these e-mails are really in-depth letters.

Hilarious, relatable, honest, etc. Check. I take any adjectives in a publisher’s description with a grain of salt, but as it turns out, these ones apply.

I don’t know if Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale wrote these letters with an eye toward publication the whole time, or whether they were edited after the fact (for clarity and grammar if nothing else), but either way, this is a fantastic read that I wanted to recommend to many of my friends before I’d even finished it. Because of the format (e-mail), both authors use a casual, honest, straightforward style. They reveal their fears and insecurities about their nascent careers and love lives, and they encourage each other, offer advice, and build each other up.

Graduates of Brown, the authors are privileged but conscientious. Jessica moves from New York to Beijing to Australia, while Rachel spends more time in New York before going to Paris; both of them end up in London, though the book ends before they settle there. They are both creative, and explore various career paths; they aren’t completely sure what they want to do at first. They’re also struggling with living in unfamiliar places and speaking second languages, and of course they’re both looking for The One. The e-mails strike a perfect balance in subject matter between work and romance.

They are honest: I don’t think the people I see on a daily basis realize how down I really am.”

They are funny: Get a French person to try to read the word hodgepodge out loud. They will say, ‘hogey-pogey,’ and it will be the best moment of your life.”

They are practical: Note to future selves: Never buy anything. You will just have to pack it in a suitcase one day.”

They are observant: Yesterday, I was in a park and I saw a Chinese man out walking his birds. In each hand he held a birdcage as he strolled, showing the birds the park scenery before hanging the cages from a tree while he went to go socialize with his fellow bird-walkers. I’m really going to miss this place.”

They are contemplative: Everywhere people and friendships are changing. I’m starting to wonder how many friends I’ve made here will still be friends for the long haul. How many places can you leave people behind and still expect to keep in touch with all of them?”

They are, sometimes, wise: “I feel like I haven’t lived enough to really focus on my writing. I don’t think I’m ready.” / He sounds great, but we need to listen to the warnings that guys give about themselves.” 

They have a sense of themselves in the world: These beautiful moments are a nice distraction from the stagnation of my career. (Is it stagnation if it hasn’t begun?)”

While I’m not sold on the title or the cover, I really, really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is in college now or who has graduated in the past ten years or so. It fits perfectly between Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr’s novel Roomies, which takes place in the summer between high school and college, and Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Frienda memoir of the author’s experience moving from New York to Chicago after getting married.

roomies MWFseeking BFF