A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This young adult novel has one of the most fascinating and downright devilish structures I’ve encountered in fiction. It’s told in alternating points of view, first by Noah and then by his twin sister Jude; what makes it so excruciating is that Noah’s story is told from his 13-14 year old vantage point, while Jude’s is told when they’re 16. And in the intervening years, everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong and we don’t yet know why.

In Jude’s narrative, she and Noah have basically switched personalities. The once fearless, popular surfer girl who scared her mother with her lipstick and short skirts has become a superstitious germaphobe who makes herself look as ugly as possible. Noah, who in his story was an impassioned artist, a bullied outsider, and secretly gay, has given up his art and is now in the popular clique with a girlfriend. Finding out what happened made this a compulsive read. (Interestingly, as you read on it also turns out that things haven’t always gone quite as wrong as they appeared, because neither Jude nor Noah is aware of the whole truth and so neither is a reliable narrator.)

I had a little trouble with this at first, because I sympathized so strongly with Noah, that when Jude’s story came along, I kind of hated her. It’s unfair: both of them made huge mistakes, both betrayed each other, both have suffered greatly. Yet I found it much harder to care about what Jude was going through, and I found her romance sappy and unconvincing; Noah’s more plausible story seems to get comparatively short shrift. This feeling on my part is ironic, since the whole story is about how destructive their jealousy is to their love for each other.

Despite not liking some aspects, I found it an amazing, shattering story to read and highly recommend it. The language is just gorgeous (though each narrator has something of a verbal tic/schtick) and the story is unforgettable.

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Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

A review in honor of Rainbow Rowell’s face-off with herself in DABWAHA. How was I supposed to pick? Well, it wasn’t that hard, because my love for Eleanor and Park shines with the heat of a thousand suns and I’m so happy it won. But Fangirl is awfully good, too.

What I most love about Rainbow Rowell’s books (among with their wit, emotional resonance, perfect zeitgeist and so on) is that they make me feel like there’s a place for people like me, my husband, and my friends in romance. Not that any of her books are romances in the genre sense, but I certainly don’t care.

This story alternates between two narrative styles. Half is told in the form of chatty emails between two coworkers at a newspaper, Beth and Jennifer. The other is from the point of view of Lincoln, the guy in charge of reading any company emails that send red flags, and then reprimanding the senders. But Lincoln loves the funny, interesting emails so much, he can’t bear to make them stop, or to stop reading them.

Jennifer is married, Beth is… kind of wishing she was too, but her ultra-cool musician boyfriend isn’t into it. And Beth is the one who becomes increasingly important to Lincoln.

She and Jennifer were both funny, both caring, both smart as whips. But Beth’s whip always caught him by the ankle.

He loved the way she put on kid gloves when Jennifer talked about her marriage and Mitch. He loved the way she riffed on her siblings and her bosses and herself. He tried not to love that she could recite scenes from Ghostbusters and could name all of the original X-Men — because those seemed like reasons a guy would fall for a girl in a Kevin Smith movie.

It’s lovely to see geeky characters who are neither made fun or nor idealized.  Lincoln, who’s never quite recovered from being dumped by his first love,  would look like a total loser on paper — underemployed, lives with his mother, still plays Dungeons and Dragons with his college friends. But he has enduring qualities like loyalty, sincerity, intelligence, and respect for love and relationships. So do his college friends, who would be a bunch of stereotypical dweebs played for laughs elsewhere. Most of them are married, some to each other; they have homes and kids. They still play games because they still really like playing games. I was never much of a gamer, but most of my friends were/are, and I appreciate seeing that reality portrayed.

The book is mainly about Lincoln’s journey to full adulthood,  as he finally starts to let go of the past and blossom as a single guy, and it shows us why he’s an awesome person. He’s so tender and has so much to give; he cares in all the right ways.  We don’t see Beth other than in her emails until the end, but they show her humor and kindness, and the need she has for someone like Lincoln in her life.

This was my second read of Attachments — reading Rowell’s Eleanor and Park made me want to reread it — and on this reading I was struck by a minor subplot about a bar-hopping player type and a woman he picks up. Romantic Lincoln thinks it would be impossible to find true love in a bar, but in fact that presumed one-night stand turns into a genuine relationship. I really liked how Rowell included a very different type of person, pursuing companionship in a very different type of way, but gave him just as happy an ending.  Yes — I won’t say how it works out, but the book does have a happy ending.

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Review: The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir

Reviewed from an e-arc

This is the second novella in an oddball series partially narrated by highly intelligent — and unusually gifted — cats.  I enjoyed the first one, but my impression is that this one is even better. It’s still cute and clever, but more emotionally satisfying.

Geeks are becoming a romance trend, but our titular geek isn’t the usual hacker/gamer — he fits the more personal definition of a geek/nerd as someone who loves passionately. Emerson loves making musical instruments, and he loves owning and wearing items that make him feel connected to the past. He’s a perfect match for violinist Lola (sister to the heroine of the first book) — but he also loves her so passionately that it leaves him tongue-tied and acting like a total asshole.

When Emerson is adopted by a cat named Sam, Sam uses his innate ability to mess with people’s minds to put the right thoughts into Emerson’s mouth so he can woo Lola.  Having already had a deceptively charming chameleon of a boyfriend, Lola is wary… and of course, Sam can’t always be there (though sensing that Sam is good luck, Emerson goes to ridiculous lengths to carry him around!) And then disaster strikes and Emerson is left without his Cyrano — and without the cat he’s grown to love.

Like the first book, this one is partially narrated by Sam himself, and partially from the points of view of Emerson and Lola. It also shares the kind of distancing narrative vibe which kept me from fully loving the first book, yet the emotions came through more this time, making the romance stronger. (Emerson does a lot of his own wooing by letter, so there’s no sense that it’s all Sam and he and Lola haven’t really connected.)  I also enjoyed the wry humor, and the fact that from Sam’s point of view it’s not just a romance… it’s a bromance.

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Some really quite random thoughts on Two Boys Kissing

I saw this cartoon about parenting today and was struck by “the paradox of children’s literature — my favorite authors had no kids of their own!” That makes perfect sense to me — in fact, I’m quite startled to discover that Diana Wynne Jones did have children. No, she’s not my one of my favorite authors — though she is one of my mom’s — but she does stand out in my mind as one of the people who wrote for children in a particularly fearless way. She never worried about what would or wouldn’t work; she trusted in kids’ ability to accept, to not need things spelled out for them the way adults do.  I found that after a certain age, I could no longer read a lot of her books because I lost the ability to let them just flow over me — but my mom still reads from that accepting place, I think.

I suspect you probably do see that fearlessness more often in children’s book writers who don’t have children. They write what they want to write — they’re not thinking about developmental stages. or the fact that their own kid reads nothing but Wimpy Kid books and would find anything else too sophisticated. (Which is rarely truly the case.)

I was thinking about that because yesterday I started reading Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan and my first thought was, this is so pretentious, it’s really going to turn kids off. Then I felt like a total idiot. I loved pretentious when I was a kid. Pretentious was big and meaningful and cared about important things. Which pretty much sums up the book.

I read something wonderful online recently, which I wish I could find again, about how ridiculous it is to complain the the teens in The Fault in Our Stars don’t talk like normal teens. As if that makes it a bad book. As if teens only want to read about people who talk like them. As if all teens are the same or want the same things, for that matter.

Having had that thought, I embraced Two Boys Kissing, and got swept up in it. Mostly. There were still times I thought the writing was over the top self-consciously insightful. But then I cried like a baby.

Ten years ago, Levithan published his first book, Boy Meets Boy. I haven’t read it since, but my memory is that it’s set in an alternate reality in which being gay is just an everyday thing. Two Boys Kissing felt kind of like an answer to Boy Meets Boy.  It’s saying, no, sadly we’re not there yet, but we have come so, so far. And we’ve come there on the backs of a lot of suffering. And though suffering is not inherently a good thing, it can be very powerful to choose to suffer for what we believe in.

As the title indicates, the focus of the book is on gay boys (though interestingly, not just cis-gendered boys. I think this is the first YA book I’ve read with a trans character. I don’t even know how to tag that.) In that context especially, the author’s acknowledgements kind of freaked me out. “My editor, Nancy Hinkel, is a better reason to jump for joy than a pretty boy in his underwear…” I’m taking that as a cute way to talk about an adult, like I might call my husband and son “my boys”… but I’d really prefer not to have to even go there when reading a YA book. Perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, I can’t get all these thoughts into anything resembling a coherent narrative. But as overly pretentious and serious young adult books go, this was one of the best.

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