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Today I’m reviewing Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, aka the book with the best cover ever. I doubt any writer can look at this image and fail to identify with the daydreaming author locked in her story, but the combination of the girl looking a bit like me in my more casual moments and the characters in her thought bubble being just about able to pass as George and Tom (wrong hair colour to hair length split, but I’ll settle for what I can get) left me a little more overcome than most. I saw this a few weeks before it was released, and bought it the day it came out, something I usually only do for favourite authors or long awaited sequels. So, can I judge a book by it’s cover?

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THE BLURB (and I’ve got to admit, once I’d stopped cooing over the cover long enough to read the blurb, it left me even more desperate to get my hands on the book)

Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .

But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

 

THE REVIEW – 4 STARS

Why are you reading that? Something without a dragon or an elf on the cover,” the main character’s twin sister asks her at one point in this book.

I could have asked myself the same question. As a general rule, I like paranormal, fantasy, futuristic or historical books – anything that doesn’t deal with life in the here and now. Or on occasion, something serious and Booker Prize winning. So why was I making this rare foray into contemporary coming of age romance? Quite simply, the moment I saw the cover, I knew I was going to love this book. That girl, sitting there, daydreaming about her characters and typing away while her boyfriend tries to get her attention – that’s me. I’ve never actually written fanfiction (though I’ve occasionally been tempted) but I’ve read plenty of it, I’ve been slightly unhealthily obsessed with various books at one time or another, and I do a lot of my own writing. Therefore the idea of a main character who’s an obsessive writer of fanfiction really caught my imagination.

I went in with high expectations, and the book didn’t disappoint. It’s actually almost three books in one: the story of the geeky heroine Cath’s first year at university, extracts from the series she’s so obsessed with, and extracts from her own fanfiction. Themes from the two fantasy worlds intertwine neatly with Cath’s experiences in the “real” world.

Cath been an uber-fan of a Harry Potter-esque series called Simon Snow for years. Most other serious Snow fans know and love her writing, especially the epic “Carry On, Simon”, her full-length imagining of the yet to be released eighth book which she’s desperately trying to finish before the real book comes out. To some degree, her writing is a coping mechanism for dealing with the way her mum walked out on her when she was six and her loving but heavily bi-polar father. Over the course of the year, she’s torn between sinking deeper into her fantasy world or making a life for herself at college.

These sections are beautifully done. The joy of writing really leapt off the page, and there were so many comments that I could hugely identify with – some in a poignant way, others in a literally laughing out loud way. It was great to come across a book with so many nice characters. I can’t be the only person sick to death of backstabbing female friends and borderline abusive alpha male boyfriends in books, so Reagan (bitchy and edgy, but fundamentally supportive and decent room-mate) and Levi (nicest boy in the world love interest)were a refreshing change. Levi and Cath’s slowly burgeoning romance was utterly delightful.

It’s worth pointing out that Cath’s a little more extreme than I was initially anticipating. I was expecting a character who was very geeky and a bit shy, whereas she actually comes across more like someone with a serious anxiety disorder and a major self-defeating streak. This made it harder than I was expecting for me to fully identify with her, but I still loved her as a character. I also felt at times that the way nearly everyone had an “issue” (bi-polar dad! severely dyslexic boyfriend! borderline alcoholic sister!) sometimes left the book in danger of turning into a psychology handbook, but the author managed to avoid letting things get too heavy or saccharine.

The interspersed extracts from the book and the fanfic were great fun, and although it’s heavily Harry Potter based, the author did a great job of simultaneously creating both her own world and her character’s interpretation of it. That said, apart from whether or not the two males leads are kissing each other (yep, Cath’s a slash kind of girl), it was generally hard to tell which bits were “real” and which were fics. Fair enough, by the time of Carry On Simon, Cath’s meant to be writing as well as, if not better than, the original author, but she’s been doing this since her early teens and some of the extracts are from that period. A few badly written, Mary-Sue strewn early bits of her writing would have been hilarious and also demonstrated the development of her writing over time.

Speaking of writing style, I thought the author’s prose was really quite clever. In several places, she seemed to take examples of the sort of bad or clichéd writing you can sometimes get in fanfiction (over-use of adverbs, meaningless descriptions of people’s movements) and turn them on their head. “Reagan rolled her eyes again. Cath made a mental note to stop rolling her eyes at people.” “They pulled crunchily into Cath’s driveway.”

In short, I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who’s ever loved a book a bit too much. I think you probably have to have at least a passing familiarity with fanfiction to properly appreciate the book (and ideally a basic understanding of Harry Potter), but it’s a lovely story regardless. It will make you laugh, make you smile, and make you think about the right balance between your inner life and outer life. And if you’re anything like me, it will also make you want to drink a gingerbread latte, listen to Kayne West and read the Outsiders out loud, because the descriptions of Cath doing those things are just so fun and evocative.

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Has anyone read Fangirl, and what do you think?  And more generally, what’s your opinion on fanfiction? Forget glowing reviews, prizes, or bestselling status, I think few things would make me feel happier as an author than if someone wrote Cavaliers fanfic! The closest I’ve ever come was when someone wrote fanfiction of my university thesis – I kid you not.

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