Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

Carry On

My past entries here have made it clear that I am a Rainbow Rowell person. Eleanor and Park is one of my favorite books ever, and I loved Attachments and Landline. Plus, Rainbow is adorable both on Twitter and in person. (I am not a stalker, I promise.) But I was nervous when she announced that her latest release would be a sort of spin off of Fangirl. Rebecca reviewed Fangirl here on the blog, and while I think I liked that book more than she did I agreed that the pacing was a little odd. And I was pretty indifferent to a major plot point of that book–the Harry Potter-esque book series that the main character wrote epic, popular fanfiction about. Fangirl didn’t actually contain any of this fictional story, but you heard a lot about it over the course of the book. While I liked Fangirl‘s treatment of fanfiction, I wasn’t particularly interested in the wizard-y story itself–it didn’t seem worth my time to think about these characters that felt extra, extra, fictional (books within books!). So when I heard that Carry On would be an entire book those Harry Potter-like wizards fighting evil at a magical boarding school, I was not excited. But then Nicole Cliffe at The Toast (Best Website Ever) started raving about it, and The Toast published a lovely interview with Rowell. And I always knew I was going to read it, so I bought it to take on vacation. And hear me now: it was so good and I was so wrong.

Honestly, Rowell herself seems to have worked a magic trick here. Carry On is clearly inspired by Harry Potter and uses Harry Potter as scaffolding in some ways, yet has an entirely different feeling. Despite the presence of magic, it’s a bit less of a fairy tale and is grittier and funnier–it definitely has a more modern feeling that I would have predicted, based on the descriptions in Fangirl. The book is clearly meant to the culmination of a long series of adventures (as if it were the seventh Harry Potter) and it refers to all sorts of past events, but I was never lost or confused by what was happening. The writing made it feel like you were jumping right into conversation with beloved characters. Rowell also introduces some new, clever ways of dealing with magic. For example, in her world spells are not made-up Latin-y words, but are cliches or nursery rhymes or lyrics–words whose power comes from people using and knowing them. Like, there’s a scene where a u can’t touch this spell doesn’t work on a dragon because the dragon doesn’t know the song. And Carry On does something that I don’t think Harry Potter even quite manged–it tells a really charming, compelling love story, which is really the heart of the book.

As I said, I read this on vacation and I almost wish I hadn’t because once I started all I wanted to do was keeping reading. On multiple occasions I chose to read this rather than pay attention to what was around me, even though what was around me was France. (I liked the book so much, I actually feel okay about this.) This would be the perfect book for a long plane flight or rainy weekend, when you just want to immerse yourself in a new world and ignore everything around you.

Also, I want to note that you don’t have to have read Fangirl to follow Carry On. This book is completely free standing and independent of Fangirl and (I think) is much better. Although I like Fangirl more now, knowing that it eventually led us to this.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review:
Suspenseful, magical romance

You might also like: I’m going to assume that everyone has read Harry Potter and that you’ve all been listening to me and reading Rainbow Rowell’s other books. With that in mind, I’m going to recommend John Green and David Levithan’s YA writing. They both have more famous books, but their collaboration on Will Grayson, Will Grayson is one of my favorites and has a similar feeling to this. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is another solid recommendation featuring a clever magic world, although it’s a bit darker.

Books You Already Knew I Was Going To Tell You To Read

I was on the road quite a bit in December and read a whole pile of books I enjoyed. But none of them quite seemed to warrant their own review, since none of them are going to come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time here. So a list seems appropriate, so I get to mention a few things that I heartily, if predictably, recommend:

1) Landline by Rainbow Rowell. I saw Rainbow Rowell speak in person earlier this fall, and that woman is made up entirely of curly hair and charisma, and the stories she told about writing this book had the audience literally screaming with laughter. This is no Eleanor and Park, but I’m not sure my heart could handle another one of those, so this story about a marriage and a magic telephone will do just fine.

2) Dreams of God and Monsters by Laini Taylor. Quite a while back on the blog I mentioned the first book in this trilogy, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. That book was your fairly standard YA, magical realism, independent female narrator, star-crossed lover sort of story. And then book two, man, book two took a turn. It got dark and weird and tragic and bloody, and I actually put off starting the third one for months because I was scared of where things might go. But I ended up really liking how the story resolved, and I promise you, you have not read anything like this.

3) One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. I’ve already raved about Me Before You and The Girl You Left Behind, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that Moyes’s latest was equally heart lifting/breaking. (Note, because I know my readers: don’t worry too much about the dog. It will work out.)

4) The Secret Place by Tana French. This wasn’t my favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels–that would be The Likeness–but it was a compelling read. While the plot and mystery of this one didn’t grab me the way some of them have, it still delivered on the two things I think Tana French does best–unsympathetic but fascinating characters, and a romance-free vision of modern-day Ireland.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is an amazing author and I really enjoyed her two previous books: Attachments is a delight and Eleanor & Park is amazing and also amazingly tense, because dear god, those kids!

Given my own love of fandom, I was particularly delighted to see her publish a book about fanfic writers, or at least a fanfic writer. And I did enjoy this book. The characters are delightful and the plot was interesting.

That said, there was just something off about the book and it took me a while to pin down exactly what. The main tension of the story is whether or not Cath (the main character) can deal with the real world or will focus herself exclusively on fandom. This is a real crisis for many college students. However, I found two main problems with the implementation of this plot, one with the timing of the plot arc and the other with the writing style interacting poorly with the tension of the story.

The writing style is almost fairy-tale like, with a focus on significant events and turning points without getting into much of the day-to-day activities of the characters. This is a writing style I often enjoy, but when the plot tension is about whether or not the main character is doing her regular day-to-day activities, then it becomes pretty important for those activities to be explicitly addressed. There’s a real question of whether or not Cath is attending her classes, and she says she is, but we only ever see her in one of her classes. In addition, there’s a major plot point about one thing that Cath doesn’t do. But since so much of what she does do isn’t described, there’s no way to tell when she doesn’t do something. That plot point comes out of nowhere when it’s finally revealed.

The timing is also problematic. Like most stories, this one is structured with the climax at the end of the book and the end of the time period being described. It certainly makes sense to structure a story like that. But the kind of crisis that Cath is dealing with isn’t one that waits until the end of the year. When I went to college, there were members of my cohort who struggled with online and fandom obsessions. I was only introduced to fandom in college, and started being active in it in my later years, after I had gotten the hang of college itself. From what I saw, though, with others, was that the crisis came early on. They made a choice in their first month of the semester, if they could balance fandom and real world or not. If they couldn’t balance the two, and if they picked fandom, then they flunked out fast. The crisis point doesn’t wait until the end of the year. At most, it might wait until the end of the first semester.

So, the end of the book focuses on this crisis of priorities, but I had actually judged the crisis point to have long passed, and I had to play catch-up a bit when the story referenced a turning point that I didn’t even notice. It was a fun book about wonderful characters, but the timing and the tension of it weren’t very well done. I still enjoyed it, but it’s definitely no Eleanor & Park.

New Development in Publishing

I just finished Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, which Kinsey has already reviewed, so I’m just adding on that I LOVED it, and everyone should go read that, too (right after Good Omens). It was seriously one of those books where I was disappointed that it actually ended because I would have been happy to keep reading it for months.

Anyway, this is not a post about Attachments, much as I loved it. In order to get some more Rainbow Rowell after finishing the book, I immediately went on twitter and followed her, and she is currently talking about a very interesting new event in the literary world: Amazon is buying the rights to tv shows in order to try to monetize the corresponding fanfic.

It is all very new and embryonic, so no one is quite sure how it is going to work, but just that it is certainly going to change things up and it will be quite interesting to see how. Rowell and her followers bring up some very interesting points about what it means to monetize a previously free art form and to normalize a fringe culture (particularly a female-dominated creative outlet into a male-dominated media field).

Rebecca has previously given a basic overview into the world of fanfic here, and wants to think over this new development before commenting (she concurs with Rowell’s tweet, that she has many thoughts but few opinions yet on this news).

Discussing it with Rebecca, though, it occurred to me that this isn’t quite as much a sudden new development as it is being reported. Rowell brings up that every author after Stan Lee that used the character Spiderman was in essence writing fan fiction. Sherlock Holmes works continue to be published long after Conan Doyle’s death. Publishing houses have already started searching out popular fanfic authors for original works, and have even published fanfic pieces, just with changed names. So we keep moving forward at a fairly steady pace, I guess?


Eleanor and Park

Back in October, I wrote a review of Rainbow Rowell’s Attachements, mostly focusing on how sweet and charming I thought it was. Based on that, I assumed that I would like her new novel, Eleanor and Park, as well. I was not prepared for how much I LOVED this book. People, you have all got to go read Eleanor and Park.
Here is a short list of the things about this book that were awesome:
  • It’s a love story between two misfits (that’s Eleanor and Park), and for once the misfits actually seem like they don’t fit in. Eleanor is not a nerdy girl who takes her glasses off and then she’s a model–she (and, in his own way, Park) are truly complicated people who struggle to blend in and relate.
  • The portrayal of high school life–with it’s tentative and ever-shifting alliances–is as on-point as I’ve ever read.
  • The point of view alternates between Eleanor and Park, and both of their voices are so distinct and clear–it felt like I got to know two different people. I also love it when a book gives me an insight into teenage boys, and Park is a really stunning character.
  • It’s set in the 90s, so if you’re old like me, it will bring back fun memories. (They listen to the Smiths on a Walkman–raise your hand with me if you also did that!)
  • It made me cry on an airplane, but also made me so happy that I am planning to buy my own copy so I can read it whenever I want.
My library classified this as YA and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to teens, but it’s complex enough that I might consider it an adult book.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Better than words.

You might also like: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (read the book, then see the movie–they’re both good)


I’ve mentioned Linda Holmes of NPR and the fabulous Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast here before–both the blog and the podcast are wonderful places to hear intelligent talk about movies, TV, music, other podcasts, and all sorts of other good pop culture-y things. I wouldn’t have said that they talked about books that much, but I’ve gotten a couple of good recommendations from them lately. Gone Girl was something I was probably going to read anyway, and their recommendation just encouraged me, but I would never have found Attachments without Linda’s recommendation on a recent episode, so I am passing it along.

Written by Rainbow Rowell (who has maybe the best author name ever), it’s the story of a guy working in IT at a small-town newspaper during late 1999. His job is to read the employee emails that have been flagged as inappropriate content and issue warnings to the employees, but he finds himself so interested in the emails that two women at the paper are exchanging that he can’t bear to stop them. In fact, he finds himself falling in love with one of them–but can anything ever come of a relationship with such a beginning?

Does that make the book sound creepy? It’s not at all, it’s sweet! The main character knows he’s in a potentially creepy situation and spends a lot of the book trying to figure out how to make it less so. And the emails between the two women are fun, and give the book a very epistolary feeling. Plus, all the references to Y2K are sort of charmingly retro. Remember when were so worried about that? Remember when email was so new and fun? I would describe this book as light, but thoughtful–it’s a sweet romance, but the lives of the people involved feel very real and important.

So at this point, I’ve got a 100% satisfaction record with Pop Culture Happy Hour recommendations and I will do whatever they tell me to do. (But even they can’t make me read comic books.)