Carry On Book Review

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Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Fangirl Book Review

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Review:

Oh man, I loved Fangirl so much. A crazy amount. Instant favorite.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not 100% sure that part of that wasn’t the absolute joy of recognition. Cather (Cath) Avery, the titular fangirl, is a fan of “Simon Snow,” a blatant stand-in for Harry Potter, and I was certifiably obsessed with Harry Potter for years, including – yes – both reading and writing fanfiction. (Cath’s favorite ship, Simon/Baz, seems to represent Harry/Draco, and I was more of a Remus/Sirius girl, but still.) Rainbow Rowell has written about her experience in the Harry Potter fandom and she nails a lot of things about being in fandom and the appeal of fanfiction, how it feels to love a world so much you just want moremoremore forever. Infinite variations.

Of course, everybody’s experience of fandom is different and Cath’s is not representative of all fangirls. For example, Cath is curiously shut away from the social and communal aspects of fandom – she takes her own fanfiction so seriously that she doesn’t read other people’s fanfiction in order to avoid being influenced by it too much, and that’s very, very different from the experience of most fans I know, who thrive on the conversation that takes place in the course of storytelling in such a collaborative community. However, I’ve noticed that my own real-life social anxiety is reflected in my fannish life by my tendency to lurk, and Cath’s anxiety is much worse than mine, so I didn’t regard her behavior as unrealistic or an inaccurate representation of fandom life, just a reflection of her own personality. Again, everybody’s experience of fandom is different, and I don’t think Rowell intended for Fangirl to represent fannish life in general, just the life of one fan in particular.

In addition to the fandom aspect, Fangirl is set in Nebraska, and the Nebraska that I know. (Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is also set in Nebraska – North Omaha, specifically – but a neighborhood I’m not as familiar with.) Although I didn’t go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my mother did, and I’ve been going to campus for my entire life (literally – my mom was still a student there when I was born.) The Dairy Store on East Campus does make really good ice cream. Morrill Hall really does have the largest mammoth fossil ever found. (Nebraska is much better for fossils than most people would guess – see also Agate Fossil Beds and Ashfall Fossil Beds. Yours truly found a pretty awesome fossil turtle shell along the Niobrara River as a kid.) Cath’s South Omaha neighborhood is also much more familiar to me than Eleanor and Park’s North Omaha one – I’ve been to Jacobo’s, for example, and while I personally prefer El Alamo to the taco trucks, I know what Cath’s talking about. Jim Flowers is my favorite weatherman, too. The Bookworm is one of my favorite indie bookstores. Like Levi and Reagan, I grew up in rural Nebraska (though a totally different part of the state than Arnold) and I share Levi’s obsession with bison – “Cows good, buffalo better” is an actual line of his dialogue and I may or may not have cheered (totally did) – and interest in sustainable range management. The only thing I did notice that the book got wrong was that it describes the winter of 2012 as being extremely cold and snowy, when it was actually one of the warmest and least snowy in Nebraska history. (Freakishly so, in fact.)

So reading Fangirl was so fun for me. These are my people, you know? On multiple fronts. It took no effort whatsoever to identify with them.

On top of that, I genuinely enjoyed the romance and was grinning like a total sap by the end. Although not as intensely emotional as Eleanor & Park, you could definitely see Rowell’s fandom influences in the book’s excellent UST. I also enjoyed the positive depiction of female friendship and the great (often witty) dialogue.

The only real complaint I have is that the excerpts from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s fanfiction didn’t really seem to connect in any way to Cath’s story. They were interesting, but they were just there, and I did find myself skimming them more often than not as the book progressed. I would have liked to see Cath’s coming-of-age journey as she gained more confidence and came to terms with her various family members, friends, and romantic interests reflected through the themes in her writing.

As you might guess, I recommend this book especially strongly for people with experience in fandom (or who are at least sympathetic to the existence of fanfiction), and to people who like books with strong local flavor. It’s also a great choice for anyone who’s simply looking for a sweet college romance.

In short, a fantastic read and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

(By the way, although I haven’t read any of it, there is totally Fangirl fanfiction. There’s even Simon Snow fanfiction. If that isn’t fitting, I don’t know what is.)

Update: Rainbow Rowell has written a book about Simon Snow’s adventures! Carry On will be released October 6, 2015.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Book of Enchantments Review

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Review:

Book of Enchantments is a collection of short stories by Patricia Wrede, author of my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. It really shows off her versatility as a writer, as the stories are written on a variety of themes and in a variety of styles. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy and it’s been awhile since I read some of the stories, but as best as I can remember them, here are my thoughts on each:

  • Rikiki and the Wizard – This is set in the shared world of Liavek, which I am unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. It was originally published in The Players of Luck.
  • The Princess, The Cat, and the Unicorn – I was already familiar with this story due to its inclusion in The Unicorn Treasury, but I’m very fond of it, so it was nice to bump into it again. It’s set in the same Enchanted Forest as the one in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but doesn’t have any of the same characters. However, the story is very similar in style and tone to the series, with another unconventional princess trope-busting her way through an encounter with a unicorn.
  • Roses By Moonlight – A fantasy about fate and choices inspired by the story of the Prodigal Son.
  • The Sixty-two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd – A humorous story about a young woman whose family is cursed with lycanthropy. It was originally published in A Wizard’s Dozen.
  • Earthwitch – I honestly can’t remember this one.
  • The Sword-Seller – This one is set in Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I’m also unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get much out of it either.
  • The Lorelei – As you can probably guess, this is a story about the Lorelei myth of Germany. I remember enjoying it, particularly because it has a teenage girl rescuing a boy, rather than vice versa.
  • Stronger Than Time – A melancholy Sleeping Beauty AU in which the Prince didn’t come.
  • Cruel Sisters – A retelling of the same legend told in Loreena McKennit’s The Bonny Swans.
  • Utensile Strength – A funny story featuring Cimorene, Mendanbar, and Daystar (among others) from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, as well as the Frying Pan of Doom. (Comes with a recipe for Quick After-Battle Triple Chocolate Cake.)

In general, I prefer Wrede’s humorous stories to her more serious ones, so I’d say my favorites were “The Princess, The Cat, and The Unicorn,” “Utensile Strength,” and “The Sixy-Two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd.” However, I enjoyed most of the stories. Like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, it’s also great feminist fiction – nearly all of the stories have female protagonists, with a variety of personalities and skills. There are also several nice depictions of supportive female family relationships and friendships, as well as some that are more dysfunctional.

Although several of the stories (especially the Enchanted Forest ones) are suitable for younger audiences, I’d say most of them are better for young adult and adult readers, rather than children.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

The Only Alien on the Planet Book Review

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Review:

This is another book that originally caught my attention due to the cover, which featured a rather beautiful but blank-eyed teenage boy dressed in white and floating in mid-air. In between the cover and the title, I thought it was going to be some sort of science fiction novel, but the description on the back introduced me instead to a boy named Smitty Tibbs who never speaks and never smiles, and the new girl in town who decides to try and befriend him.

Well, I was intrigued, all right, and ended up devouring the novel within a few hours.

It’s a very intense read that touches on some serious issues of abuse and neglect. As an adult, I have a little trouble suspending my disbelief that no professional tried to delve deeper into Smitty’s voluntary muteness and refusal to interact socially before a couple of high school seniors started nosing around and trying to break through his shell, but as a teenager I found the book riveting. And really, despite those little niggling doubts about its realism, I’ve continued to enjoy its presence in my periodic re-reading rotation as an adult. Like The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, another of my teenage favorites, it benefits from a smart and likable (though flawed) narrator with a set of loving and supportive family relationships and friendships. The central romance is slow to develop and much more complicated than Kate’s thanks to the severity of Smitty’s condition, but sweet to watch as it (and Smitty) finally unfold.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Children of the River Book Review

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Review:

Children of the River is another of my favorite YA romance novels. It tells the story of a Cambodian refugee girl named Sundara who escapes from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge with her aunt and uncle and flees to America. I’m ashamed to say that before reading it for the first time around age 14 or 15, I knew almost nothing about Cambodia, and nothing at all about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the death of up to 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, so it was a very eye-opening book for me. In addition to information about the Cambodian genocide, the novel also has many interesting details about Cambodian customs and traditions, as well as a nuanced depiction of the struggle many immigrants face between preserving their own unique cultures and blending in with mainstream American society.

It’s also a very sweet romance. Four years after her escape from Cambodia, Sundara falls in love with an American boy named Jonathan, which creates new complications in her life, as Cambodian culture practices arranged marriage and good Cambodian girls like Sundara are not supposed to go on dates. (Especially not with non-Cambodian boys.) Sundara and Jonathan are both changed by their relationship, and the book has a very satisfying conclusion.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman Book Review

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Review:

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, by Louise Plummer, is one of my favorite YA romance novels. It’s an extremely witty and tongue-in-cheek read, in large part because of the great use of first-person narration. Kate is a very intelligent and charismatic heroine and she narrates as if writing a romance novel based on her own life, complete with frequent consultation of The Romance Writer’s Phrasebook and hilarious commentary on the bodice ripping descriptions she finds there. She is also (speaking as a fellow tall, plain-ish nerd with bad eyes) extremely relatable, so I’m sure there was some wish fulfillment involved in my enjoyment of this book when I first read it as a never-been-kissed teenager. However, I’ve found it equally enjoyable as an adult.

Another thing I liked and found relatable was the portrayal of Kate’s family. As someone who really didn’t have a rebellious teenage phase and whose relationship with my parents ranged from pretty good to great even at the height of my puberty-induced hormonal moodiness, I really enjoyed the depiction of a loving and mutually respectful parent-teen relationship. (There’s also a great depiction of female-female friendship, in keeping with the book’s feminist themes.) The novel is set over Christmas break in Minnesota, and Kate’s (mostly) happy family life and Swedish Christmas traditions add to the cozy, comforting atmosphere, making it an especially good read for the holiday season or the sorts of days when you don’t feel like doing anything but curling up with a blanket, some tea, and a good book.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Eleanor & Park Book Review

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Review:

A fairly angsty teen romance between an Irish/Korean boy and an overweight redhead with a bad family situation, set in a working class neighborhood in Omaha in the 80s. Beautifully written, and I thought it did a good job of capturing the intensity of young love, and the teen years in general.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)