Carry On by Rainbow Rowell: my favourite books

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is a book I had to buy as soon as I heard about it. Having read Fangirl, which was my inspiration for studying creative writing at university, I was invested in the outcome of Baz and Simon’s final year at school.

I love that this book came about not as a way to write what Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, imagined the end of Simon and Baz’s story to be, nor as what the fictional author of original story writes after the events of Fangirl. Instead, Rowell has stated that she was intrigued by these characters and their stories, and that’s what compelled her to write Carry On. And this shines through in her writing, which I found difficult to stop reading.

Carry On was Rowell’s first foray into fantasy writing, and in a sense, it shows. The scenario and characters seem somewhat derivitave of the Harry Potter series, but when read in the context of Fangirl, this makes sense. Books that reference popular culture soon become outdated, (and although I don’t know for sure I would imagine come with all sorts of copyright issues), so by creating a fake series within the world of Fangirl, the idea of the world is recognisable to a contemporary audience, but the book is not as dated as it would otherwise be. There are clear differences that do set Rowell’s work aside from Harry Potter, but these largely feature as the narrative develops, in the characters’ motivations and the plot twists.

One key area in which Carry On differs from the Harry Potter series quite obviously is in the LGBTQ+ representation. Baz identifies as queer from the first chapter, and Simon finds himself having feelings towards Baz the more time he spends with him. Simon and Baz’s same sex attraction is explored well, and it is not their entire identities. Spoiler alert, but they also have a happy ending, which is delightfully refreshing. As critics such as Karen Coats and Robert Bittner have noted, Young Adult fiction is a source of relationship, sexuality, and sex education for young people who feel otherwise embarrassed to discuss their own experiences as queer and questioning young adults. Normalising the experiences of gay/bi guys through two very different characters, Simon and Baz, who happen to both be attracted to guys but define themselves and negotiate their own sexualities in different ways, is so helpful in negotiating this issue.

As a fantasy debut and what is essentially fanfiction, Carry On is a lovely and important story, and I can’t wait to read any other fantasy that Rainbow Rowell produces. I am currently enjoying the run of the comic book series Runaways that she is writing, with Kris Anka illustrating, and would recommend that for anyone who enjoyed Carry On.

 

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Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: My Favourite Books

The first time I remember hearing about Call Me By Your Name was when one of my friends was telling me about some of the controversy surrounding it on Twitter after the announcement that the book was being made into a film. Shortly after, the same friend read the book in an inordinately short amount of time, and was begging everyone she knew to read it. I put it off, despite being intent to read the book before the film came out (which I didn’t manage to do, but due to the film’s very limited release in the UK I wouldn’t have been able to go and see it in the cinema anyway), and finally got around to reading it in December of last year.

The novel follows Elio, a teenage boy at the novel’s start, and how his life is changed when Oliver comes to stay at his family home over the summer. It’s a coming-of-age romance story, heartbreaking and beautiful.

I loved this book from start to finish. Every single sentence seemed so well constructed, so carefully thought out, that I wanted to stop reading every five minutes so as to savour my experience of the reading this book for the first time for as long as possible. Aciman uses the first person perspective in such a way that reading the book feels like Elio is talking to you personally, not just telling a story to the world, but revealing himself intimately (both emotionally any physically…) to the reader. The ambiguity of the ending of the novel feels like the only ending that it could naturally have, leaving the reader to decide how Elio and Oliver’s relationship ends.

This book is beautifully evocative, and upon finishing it I wanted to read it over and over again until it was burned onto the back of my eyelids. If it has somehow passed you buy (even though the film has been nominated for so many awards this season), it’s my turn to beg you to read it, and experience this story first hand.

The Staircase

The edge of the carpet is fraying,

peeling up – it will soon be nothing.

it used to hold such fun,

bum slides down, crawls up

but now it only holds stains.

The house is no longer yours,

but the bannisters bear your fingerprints,

marks from a time when you were carried

on the shoulders of your father,

from back when your mother knew your name.

Boxes sit at the bottom of the staircase,

but you feel the need to sit here a while,

take it all in,

before you had this house over to new memory makers.

Lycanthropuppy

Connie looked up at her two parents, trying to hear what they were muttering about. Normally, it wouldn’t bother her – she knew that adults often had conversations that kids like her weren’t supposed to be privy to – but the way they kept looking over at her had piqued her curiosity.

‘I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to keep her inside whenever there’s a full moon, Lisa!’

‘I just don’t think she’s ready-’

‘We can supervise her in the garden, that’s how my parents helped me my first time.’

‘Are we going to play in the garden?’ Connie started to bounce with excitement, thinking of the trampoline and how much more fun it would be to bounce in the dark than during the day.

Her mother sighed. ‘Yes, sweetie, we are. Shall we get some warm clothes on?’

Connie was more willing to cooperate than she ever had been. She took the stairs at a sprint and got changed within a record time. Her mother had picked out some of the dirtier clothes that Connie didn’t really like anymore for her to wear, but the prospect of playing outside after dark had left her too excited to complain.

When she came downstairs, Connie’s dad was already waiting by the back door. ‘You ready, sweetie?’

Connie nodded, her bunches swinging back and forth against her neck.

‘Remember, whatever you do, don’t fight it.’ Her dad’s words confused her, but she thought that, like most things that she didn’t understand, they would soon make sense.

Her mum’s hands pinched her shoulders as her dad opened the curtains, and then the door. The cold January air rushed in, and Connie rushed out of the door to meet it. She was halfway across the garden before she realised that her parents weren’t next to her. She turned around to try and find them, but they were nowhere to be found.

In their place stood two wolves that barely fitted through the door, their eyes kind and their fur thick across their back. Connie was mesmerised. The bigger one had eyes the colour of her mum’s eyes, the same bright blue as Connie’s, and its fur shone chestnut in the moonlight. The slightly smaller one had her dad’s hazel eyes, and its coat was a dark brown peppered with grey.

She heard her mother’s voice, although the wolf’s mouth didn’t move. Remember what your dad said, Connie, don’t fight it.

Fight what? was all Connie had a chance to think before she felt an odd pain in her arm. She looked down to see that it was warping and sprouting hair, and as she watched, the pain spread through her body, causing her to fall to all fours. She tried to scream for help, but her tongue lolled in her mouth, too big for the tiny space. She curled up where she had fallen on the ground and began to cry, the sound coming from her totally alien.

The pain stopped, and she opened her eyes and sat up. Everything was in a greyscale; she couldn’t see any of the fun colours of the plastic windmill or the trampoline. It was only then that she realised that she wasn’t even sitting up, she was leaning on her hands like a dog. She tried to lift up her arms in front of her face to look at them and couldn’t get them any further than parallel with the ground. She looked down and saw that they were covered with fur, claws and paws where her hands used to be. Connie began to panic.

I know it’s scary, sweetie, but don’t be scared, we’re here.

Her father’s voice in her head did nothing to stop her panicking, and she tried to stand up, wobbling on all fours. She tried to speak again and heard a yap. Her heart started racing as she stumbled across the garden. Everything was taller than she was, and she couldn’t see the wolves anymore.

Connie started to run, quickly adapting to the four legs rather than the two she was used to. She fell over the hose pipe, landing on her back and letting out a squeak.

Stop running, Connie, let us help you.

She could no longer remember who Connie was, or who the voice belonged to that was in her head. She wriggled her way back to standing, and made a break for the gap that she could see in the fence, finding that more appealing than anything that this garden had to offer.

Connie, no!

She felt a scratch against the back of her neck, but the hole in the fence seemed to be perfectly shaped for her, and she left whatever had scratched her behind.

I told you she wasn’t ready!

Stop arguing and get her back!

The argument faded out as she bounded underneath fast moving cars that darted above her. Some of them swerved, some of them slowed, and some of them ran straight at her, but somehow she made it to the other side of the road unscathed.

Without warning, her nose seemed to open, and she felt as though she were standing in the middle of a bed of flowers, all of the smells so interesting, and so different from one another. She had just picked one to follow, one that smelt of freshly baked cookies, when she felt hands slip around her belly and lift her skywards. She snarled and tried to escape from the hands, but her arms and legs were now useless, and her neck wasn’t long enough for her to bite the hands. She settled for yapping, and yapped as she was put in the back of a car, yapped as the car moved to wherever it was going, and yapped as she was taken out. She could hear a conversation going on between the owner of the hands around her and the person standing opposite her, who smelled like something she couldn’t distinguish but wanted to eat very badly.

The hands cupped around her entire body as they started moving again. She wriggled as much as she could, intrigued by all of the different smells drifting past her nose and curious about all of the other dogs in this place.

She was placed down on a blanket. Two metal bowls were placed in front of her, one with food in it, and one with water in it, and she attacked both with equal vigour. The owner of the hands patted her on the head and stroked her as she ate, saying things that she couldn’t make out.

As soon as the owner of the hands left, she looked around to see that she was in a cage. She yowled, unable to protest the entrapment in any other way. Using her paws did nothing, and she found her head and her teeth to be of little use. She fell asleep with her paw against the cage, too tired to carry on.

When Connie woke up, she was completely naked, and very cold. She couldn’t remember why she was in a cage, or why she was surrounded by dogs, or why her entire body ached. She started to cry, a real wail that made the dogs around her restless. Their barks and yowls only made Connie cry more.

‘I want my mummy,’ she cried, head on the blanket that did nothing to warm the cold cement floor.

‘Jack! I found her!’

Connie looked up to see her mother, dirty and haggard, running towards her, a bundle of fabric in hand. ‘Mummy!’ she squealed, standing up and jumping over the tiny cage barriers.

Her mother wrapped a blanket around her and then squeezed her in a tight hug. ‘Don’t you ever run off like that again, okay?’

‘Okay,’ she said, her voice muffled by her mother’s fleece. She was unsure of exactly what she had done, but flashes of the night’s adventures were coming back to her now.

‘I’m so sorry, Georgie brought her in last night, and we didn’t even think. Good to know you’re showing her the ropes now though.’ The woman behind Connie’s father had wet hair and was wearing clothes that made it clear that she’d got dressed in the dark in a rush. Connie felt sheepish at the sight of her, and turned her head back into her mother’s coat.

‘We’ll get her out of here, sorry for the trouble. Thank you for looking after her.’

‘No problem at all.’

The car ride back home was quiet, her mother focused on the road and her father staring out the window. Connie tried to stay awake, but her eyes drooped as the road wound back to her home. Once home, Connie’s mother took Connie up to have a bath and get some clean clothes on, still silent.

The silence was only broken once all three of them were sitting around the table, eating their breakfasts.

‘Now Connie, you have a month before the next full moon. Next time, no running off, okay?’ Her mother’s voice was stern, her eyes showing no sign of tolerance.

Connie nodded as milk from her cereal dribbled down her chin.

‘Okay then, let’s get to work. You have a lot to learn, little pup.’

The edge of the desert

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw a cube, large, reflective, hovering above the sand and stirring up dust. You told me not to touch the cube, that the cube was dangerous, that I would see the cube and would be tempted by the cube. I couldn’t resist its iridescent surface, I needed to know how cool it felt under my fingers. It was as if the cube called to me, silencing the yammering in my head, and I was at peace.

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw them, and I knew they would help me. You told me to ignore them, but I knew you just didn’t know, because you hadn’t touched the cube, even though you’d told me you had because no-one who had touched the cube would ignore them . I couldn’t ignore them. It was as if we existed in different dimensions.

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw their teeth, I saw their syringes and their body bags. You told me to run and never look back, pretend I couldn’t see them, until they gave up. I couldn’t leave you, you took my hand and ran with me, but I couldn’t shake them. It was as if I belonged to them now.

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw them take me. You told me that you loved me, and that it would all be okay, but I could see you were crying. I couldn’t believe you, not when you handed me over to them. It was if this was what you wanted.

The Gallery

Footsteps pass in front of them first, the workers:

the milkmaid carrying two urns of milk under a glowing moon,

the farmer leading his cows down to the river, burning in the heat of the rising sun,

the watchful shepherd, shivering, hungering, and waiting.

Through the glass doors, the girl stares from under fifteen layers of petticoats,

curious as to the events taking place on the other side.

Her brother scorns her, young though he is, knowing that their role is in this room,

talking to the old man and woman whose powdered faces lead them to an early grave –

they all look down their nose at the glass doors.

The dog by the girl’s feet yaps, yearning to break free and paddle in the untamed stream

that passes through the workers, sick of the neatly trimmed grass

being the only outside beneath his paws.

These huge oil figures are immortalised apart,

destined for years of separate rooms, seperate lives,

no matter where their gazes may lead.

Angel Wings

‘Congratulations to the graduating class 203!’ The angel that had taught us everything we needed to know to be guardian angels stood in front of the waiting crowd, basking in their cheer. From where we stood at the side of the stage, I couldn’t see a single space for anyone else to cram themselves into.

Alicia grabbed my hand and squeezed it, and I smiled at them, trying to appear reassuring and naturally cringing away from the sweat pooling between our palms.

‘After a rigorous training program, these students have risen to the occasion, and have now earned their wings!’

Alicia looked at the wings on their back, red and black striped with ‘training’ plastered across them. ‘What if my wings look ridiculous?’ They chewed on her lower lip as they whispered, muffling everything they said.

‘I have been to every graduation since I could toddle around, and that has never happened. You’ll be fine.’

They screwed up their mouth and frowned. Before they had a chance to respond, our teacher began to call names.

Alicia was first, and their training wings disappeared with a flash. Left in their place were blinding white feathers that stretched from their neck to their lower back. Everyone cheered as they blushed, their innocence proudly on display. Nathaniel followed, and they roared as their wings flamed behind them. Nor’s strut was rewarded with glistening peacock feathers, Danni got peach pink wings that sparkled, and Greg got red racing stripes down black feathers.

My name was called, and I stepped on to the stage, ears ringing. I knelt down on cue and closed my eyes. I felt my training wings changing, morphing on my back. I waited a second before opening my eyes for the cheer that had followed everyone else’s transformations. The room remained silent.

I opened my eyes and looked around to see wide eyes and slackened jaws. I turned my head away from the mirror and reached up to feel the feathers, but the range of textures and sizes I felt only confused me more. Turning to the mirror, I saw an amalgamation of feathers; different sizes, colours, and designs sticking out at such different angles I couldn’t take it all in. I looked for Alicia, hoping for some reassurance, but they just stood with their hand over their mouth, eyes wide.

I looked up at my teacher, whose face was ashen. They made a motion with their hand for me to leave the stage, as they clapped and cheered. The audience half-heartedly joined in, and then began murmuring as soon as I was out of their sight.

Alicia had their arms outstretched for a hug. I walked straight up to them, wrapping my arms around them and putting my head on their shoulder.

‘It’s going to be okay,’ they said, squeezing me tight.

‘I look like an idiot,’ I said. The tears found their way free of my eyes and soaked into Alicia’s jumper.

‘Come on.’ Alicia broke the hug, took me by the hand and led me away from the stares and the whispers.

 

I couldn’t escape the weird looks no matter where I went. Word had got around about the disastrous ceremony, and the wings weren’t exactly easy to cover up. It wasn’t so much the looks or the muttering that I minded, it was what the wings said about me. Why were my wings, the things that were supposed to reflect my soul, so disgusting to look at?

Alicia was the best friend I could have asked for, staying by my side whenever they could, and helping to distract me. Whenever we had a spare moment, we sat in the library and tried to find out if there was any way that I could change my wings.

It was on one of these research sessions that I just gave up. ‘There’s no point anymore, Alicia. We’re going to get assigned to our protectees in two days, so I’m just going to have to get on with what I’ve been given.’ I gestured to my wings, but Alicia was ignoring me, their finger sliding over the pages of the book in their hand. ‘Alicia, I said give up.’

‘Hold on, I think I’ve found something.’

I sighed, preparing for some nonsense about wing transplants.

They closed the book, holding their finger inside it to bookmark the page. ‘Close your eyes. Put all of your energy and focus into your wings.’

I did as they said, muttering under my breath about how stupid and futile this all was. ‘Alright, now what?’

‘Think of doves, and only doves.’

I did as she said, thinking of flying doves and letting them cover my mind’s eye.

I heard Alicia squeal. ‘It worked!’

‘What worked?’ My eyes flew open and I tried to look at my wings. My hand stretched behind my back and instead of the mess that my fingers had found before, my hand was met with smooth, soft wings, all carefully arranged to point the same way. ‘How…’

Alicia opened the book and showed me the page. ‘You have chameleon wings! Pretty rare, super cool, you can change them into whatever you want them to look like.’

‘Anything?’

They looked back to the book. ‘Anything made of feathers, it seems. It’s weird, now that you have your proper wings it makes perfect sense. You do tend to blend with any situation you’re in.’

‘Um, thanks?’

‘It’s a good thing! Anyway, no-one realised because chameleons are super rare, and the wing granting ceremony usually gives them whatever wings they think they should have. Look, it explains it all right here.’ Alicia pointed to a paragraph about halfway down the page, and I took the book off them and started reading the passage.

‘What do I do now then? Do I have to tell anyone about this?’

‘I guess you would have to tell whoever is in charge of assignments – they assign you based on whatever place’s idea of angels, in case you’re seen.’ Alicia moved in front of me and gently closed the book over my hands. ‘But for now,’ they said, eyebrows wiggling with mischief, ‘I reckon we can just have some fun with it. After all, you need to know the limits of your power before you use it, right?’

‘You do have a point.’ I grinned, put the book down, and focused on transforming my wings into the most ridiculous things I could for the next three hours, having the most fun I could remember having for a long time, happy to finally be able to celebrate who I was.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: My Favourite Books

Of all of my favourite books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is one I often forget when people ask me about my favourite books. Not that it’s a bad book, or forgetable in any way, but just as a reader of largely fantasy books, or at least books with some sort of supernatural element, Eleanor and Park is somewhat more understated; there’s no magic, nothing out of the ordinary, just a beautifully realistic love story.

I discovered Eleanor and Park after reading another of Rowell’s books, Fangirl, which I also love. As soon as I finished Fangirl, I immediately went to my nearest bookshop and sought out anything else by Rowell, and Eleanor and Park was on a display table. (Briefly taking a tangent, I am loving the new run of Runaways that Rowell has a large part in the writing of, and I would recommend it to anyone, as you don’t have to have read any of the previous Runaways to be able to follow what’s going on. Anyway.).

The book is set in the 1980s, and centres around the two characters of Eleanor and Park. Both of them, typically, don’t quite fit in with the world of high school. Park is half Korean, which makes him an outcast in Omaha, Nebraska, where almost everyone is white, and on top of that, he is obsessed with music and comic books. Eleanor is even more of an outcast, wearing men’s clothing a lot of the time, a little chubby, with a head of bright red hair. Park realises how much of a target Eleanor is for the bullies at their school, and so offers her the seat next to him on the bus. As is to be expected, a relationship blossoms between them.

The novel explores issues of race, class, family, and so much more. At the novel’s open, Eleanor has just returned from a year spent living with her uncle after she was kicked out of her home by her stepfather, who abuses her mother and her siblings. The conflict between Eleanor, and to a lesser extent also her siblings and her mother, and Richie, her stepfather, is central to the story, but amazingly it never errs from realistic throughout the novel. The story, whilst heartbreaking, is firmly rooted in the reality of life for many people, which makes it all the more poingnant.

One of the other things I loved as well was the mystery of the novel’s ending. Leaving a story so open ended is something that I rarely enjoy, but Rowell does it so well that it still feels like a satisfying ending. By the end of the book, you know the characters so well that you know what most likely happened, but you can never be sure. The ending also fits with the reality of the novel – you don’t ever know exactly what’s going to happen in life, and that’s okay, as a lot of the time you just have to go where life takes you.

Everyone who I have leant this book to have told me that they cried reading it, and in my opinion moving people to that extent is a clear signifier of a good book. All of this is why Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park will undoubtebly remain one of my favourite books, quite possibly forever.

 

Under the customer service smile

The clock on my car

(which is always seven minutes fast)

tells me that I am three minutes late

and I sigh

the click of my seatbelt unfastening

making my heart flutter and thrum. A new day

in this hellscape begins.

The next time I get in this car, I will be

exhausted, probably

will not have eaten for ten hours,

and have been standing up for

just as long, and unless

my boss has had her 9am pinot grigio,

will probably have been yelled at at least twice.

The gravel slips under my feet

I sneak a glance through the window,

I don’t see them,

I am relieved, for a second.

I greet my colleague, who is clearly high, again,

greet the chef, already busy chopping –

he inhales his way to an early grave regularly

in pursuit of five minutes of peace.

We all brace when the boss walks in,

wanting to be a victim of just a patronising word

and a smile, rather than face her full wrath.

I give a rueful smile to the regulars in for lunch who say ‘it must be wonderful

to work here.’ I clock out

at half past six, stomach growling, head misting,

and drive home along roads stained with tears.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

My favourite books: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was recommended to me by many people before I actually read it. If I’m completely honest, I only got round to it because it was on the reading list for one of my modules this year (it was subsequently removed, much to my dismay, but that’s another story). I don’t know why it took me so much convincing – I love Greek and Roman mythology, I love the Iliad, and I’m always excited to read books with LGBTQ+ representation, and this book ticks all of those boxes. No wonder then that before I had even finished it, it had made it into the list of my favourite books.

This book is just beautiful. I cried throughout the book – I started bookmarking every time the book made me cry, which considering I knew the ending, and how Miller consistently foreshadows the ending through Achilles’ happy arrogance and Patroclus’ reluctant happiness, was a lot. I ran out of post-it-note bookmarks. This, coupled with the gorgeous poetic descriptions of the landscapes and events of the novel, makes it into one of those books I stayed up until 2.30am to finish, at which time I messaged my friend in tears and she immediately knew what I had just finished reading.

I don’t feel that my love of the Iliad was a necessary pre-requisite for reading and loving Miller’s novel either. Most of my friends that have read the book and love it had no idea what was going to happen, giving them a completely different experience of reading the book. Either way, I do not know a single person who has read The Song of Achilles and not enjoyed it.

This book is the book that I always recommend to people without exception when they ask me for book recommendations, so I felt it most remiss not to mention it here on my blog when I have this favourite books series. If you haven’t yet read it, do so. I sincerely promise you that you will love it.