Monday, May 27, 2019

Secrets of a Fangirl by Erin Dionne, 2019

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Sarah Anne loves lacrosse, and the MK Nightshade series that everyone was obsessed over in grade school. The problem is that she's still obsessed, which is way too nerdy for a popular kid like her. So she hides her geekiness with a set of rules meant to keep her geek and jock selves separate.

Except when she's offered a spot in a Nightshade fandom contest, where the winner gets to see the new movie premiere in LA. No one seems to think Sarah Anne can win, since she's up against a pair of guys in high school--but the more she's called a fake fan, the more determined she is to wipe the floor with her competition. As long as none of her friends or anyone at school knows what she's doing.

Can she keep her geek identity a secret, win the contest, and manage to keep her friends even though she's been living a lie? Sarah Anne is going to have to make some choices about what's truly important to her and which rules she's going to break to stay true to herself.

(272 pages)

I have been a fan of Dionne's books for a very long time, ever since The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet became my favorite book in middle school (I have reviewed both that, here, and another of her books, Lights, Camera, Disaster, on this blog). That's why I was so happy to receive a surprise copy of Secrets of a Fangirl.

I have to say that, at a certain level, I really do feel like this book is not for me. I am much older than I was when I fell in love with Dionne's books, and sometimes I just can't help rolling my eyes at the stupid predicaments that her main characters get into because they care so much about prestige in middle school. This is especially true in this book, because even when I was Sarah Anne's age I totally owned my love for geeky topics like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc. I prided myself on being able to beat everyone at Harry Potter Scene-It every time. And let's be honest, my geekiness hasn't exactly mellowed with time. Thus the book blog.

I do think it's very interesting to see how Sarah Anne struggles as a girl in the nerd world, though, because while I have not faced much condescension in the geek (or tech) world so far, I do know that a strong majority of guys in a room can make you acutely aware of your gender. Honestly, from my own experience, I would have thought that the runners of the contest would have tried to make a big deal of her gender to show off how inclusive they were being. I can definitely relate to her experience of being talked over on the panel, though. Guys have a tendency to be pushy talkers - especially when they are trying to show themselves off - and I know I have definitely had trouble with that in interview workshops, etc. It would be even harder to be Sarah Anne's age and be dealing with that in a high-pressure situation.

On the whole, even though I thought her friends situation was ridiculous and her self-imposed set of rules surpressing her fangirl side were painiful, I did still really enjoy reading this book and I actually found a fair bit of myself in Sarah Anne. I think a lot of other kids, especially those closer to the target age, will love it even more than I did. A quick content warning for parents, one side character does have two moms which is mentioned a couple times in passing. Other than that it's a pretty unobjectionable read, and one that some will really enjoy. Go ahead and pick it up if it sounds interesting!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, 1906

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In this much-loved children's classic first published in 1906, the comfortable lives of three well-mannered siblings are greatly altered when, one evening, two men arrive at the house and take their father away. With the family's fortunes considerably reduced in his absence, the children and their mother are forced to live in a simple country cottage near a railway station. There the young trio — Roberta, Peter, and young Phyllis — befriend the porter and station master.

The youngsters' days are filled with adventure and excitement, including their successful attempt to avert a horrible train disaster; but the mysterious disappearance of their father continues to haunt them.

The solution to that painful puzzle and many other details and events of the children's lives come to vivid life in this perennial favorite, a story that has captivated generations of readers and, more recently, delighted television and movie audiences. In this inexpensive, unabridged edition, it will charm a whole new audience of young readers with its warmth and appeal.
(188 pages)

If I had to quickly summarize this book, I would describe it as a cross between The Boxcar Children and The Enchanted Wood. It's like a non-fantasy version of The Enchanted Wood, with its clever children who move to the country and explore their new surroundings, with the slightly darker undertone (and the basic idea of living near a railroad) of The Boxcar Children. Nesbit's story never feels derivative or overdone, though. On the contrary, she carves her own place into the world of classic children's books. There is a slightly darker tone even than The Boxcar Children (which moved rather quickly past the death of their parents to focus on the characters' adventures), since the mysterious disappearance of their father and their sudden descent into poverty, and thus the move to the country, are mysteries that hang over the characters–especially Bobbie, the oldest and most sensitive of the children–throughout the book. Their mother is also clearly in great pain throughout the book, though she tries to hide her sorrow from the children.

The characters are perhaps a bit more fleshed out than their counterparts in other children's books, and Nesbit's narration is definitely funnier than most others. She even stops the narration to address the audience sometimes (including at one point admitting that Bobbie was growing to be her favorite character). I also loved the way Nesbit was so honest and didn't idealize any of the characters. When the children offer their house up to take care of an injured boy (assuring everyone that their mother is a caring person and would of course agree to this), their mother's reaction is described like this:
"Mother smiled, but she sighed, too. It is nice that your children should believe you willing to open house and heart to any and every one who needs help. But it is rather embarrassing sometimes, too, when they act on their belief."
Perhaps my favorite bit of narration comes from the introduction of the children near the start of the book, just because it introduced me to how much fun this book was really going to be:
"There were three of them. Roberta was the eldest. Of course, Mothers never have favourites, but if their Mother had had a favourite, it might have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an Engineer when he grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well."
Even reading back over that now makes me smile a bit. I just adore her narration style.

There are so many things I'd love to say about The Railway Children, but I think I will keep this review a bearable length by just mentioning one aspect of the story that I found very interesting from a historical perspective. The book was originally published in serial form in 1905, and then properly as a book in 1906. There are so many interesting references to what life back then was like, and it was fascinating how a book written so long ago felt like it almost was modern-day (except for the way the kids carried handkerchiefs and the girls wore petticoats). But I also loved seeing how well Nesbit handled gender, at a time when it's pretty much assumed that most people didn't respect females very much. In the very first chapter, before he goes away, the children's father is telling them that girls are just as clever as boys and that his daughters could be engine drivers if they wanted to. Throughout the book, Peter is seen playing with his two sisters and the few times he tries to be condescending to them they quickly dress him down, sometimes gently and sometimes with a fight. He's even shown helping around the house, setting the table and helping the girls with their washing water, etc. It's really nice to see such a respect for women in a time when it isn't really thought of as being the norm.

The only time a character says something about women that really made me stop is when the doctor pulls Peter aside after he tortured his sisters by describing lots of gory medical things. He tells Peter that women are softer because they need to be for the babies, and that while the softest people can become the strongest when they really need to be Peter should still try to protect his sisters by not talking about such things. As the daughter of a female doctor I found the doctor's explanation of why women can't bear medical things to be a bit laughable, and rather offensive, but it was meant so well–and Peter's sisters bite back so disdainfully when he tries to tell them about "girls being poor, soft, weak, frightened things like rabbits"–that I can honestly forgive Nesbit this one lapse.

All in all, this was a wonderful read that was perfect for whiling away a journey. I highly recommend it to everyone, no matter their age, but if you have a child in your life then I doubly recommend it. Books like this, when I was young, were what excited my imagination and turned me into a lifetime lover of books.