You probably ought to know before I start reviewing this that I have read everything Rainbow Rowell has written and chances are I will continue to read everything she writes. I am, without a doubt, a fan. And the book of hers that really hooked me was Fangirl. Eleanor and Park is possibly a better book, but Fangirl just ticked all my boxes. This is important, because Fangirl is about Cath who writes fan fiction based on a series of books which feature a boy wizard at a school for wizards (no, not that boy wizard – this one’s called Simon Snow). The scenes about what’s happening to Cath are punctuated by scenes either from the ‘original’ Simon Snow books or Cath’s fanfic episodes.
So, that’s the background. Having played around with this Simon Snow character in Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell found she couldn’t let him go. Instead, she’s written her own ‘chosen one’ story, with all the hazards and magic and weird, scary creatures and knife-edge moments you’d expect from such a book, plus an imperfect hero with an adversary who may or may not actually be his saviour, and a will-they, won’t-they love story which will have you yelling ‘just kiss him, stupid!’ at the page more than once.
Fangirl made me love the idea of Simon and his nemesis, the vampire Baz falling for each other and so of course I had to read Carry On to see how things would play out. It’s a little slow to start, and there’s an awful lot of references to adventures that the characters have had in the past to get through, as though you were only catching up on a later book in a long series. What it is though it is a near-perfect parody of a chosen one story and of fanfic in general. I do wonder what someone would make of it if they hadn’t read Fangirl.
I love, love, love the design of the book. The dust jacket has the two characters’ faces in silhouette and on the boards the silhouettes are nearer, so that the lips just meet… There’s a plan of the school on the endpapers – that’s always going to win me over. There’s a ribbon page marker. Aaah! I love a well-made book. And it makes you more inclined to fork out for the hardcover when they’ve made a real feature of the design, doesn’t it. (Though tbh I was always going to buy this as soon as it came out.)
I have a couple of niggles, and chances are you’re going to read them, sigh deeply, and go ‘Really?’ in the disparaging way my daughters did. The ‘Englishness’ of the book is a little uneven. Here’s the thing: Rainbow Rowell is an American, so of course, she will have certain ideas of Britain which may be different from people who live here and she may make observations about things that people who live here wouldn’t even notice. And she’s done her research and talked to her British friends and presumably been edited by a British editor. There’s scarcely a word out of place. The dialogue’s just about perfect. But sometimes, just occasionally, there’s a dissonance to the ear of this British reader.
Take for example, the name of the school: Watford. To me, Watford is a rather ugly London suburb. I can’t make the name work as a school for wizards in the English countryside.
Carry On, the book’s title has a similar effect on me. As soon as I see those words I think of those old films, Carry On Camping and Carry On Cleo and all that. That’s my age as well as my nationality, I suppose.
Two other things in particular leaped out and hit me on the head. At one point, Ant and Dec were mentioned. Now, I find this quite difficult to explain, so bear with me. Up to the point when they’d been mentioned, I’m going along with the Rainbow Rowell fantasy version of Britain, and it’s fine because what’s she’s creating is a version of Britain which will be understandable to her American fans as well as her British ones. But then she mentions Ant and Dec, and I think, hang on. This seems like a reference which is too British. You can’t just throw in Ant and Dec. They’re not going to mean anything to a good proportion of the audience. I haven’t explained that very well, have I? Take it from me, it jarred.
Here’s another one that jarred, in a different way. When it was Christmas, Baz’s family had their Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and though Simon mentioned it, he didn’t seem to find it particularly odd. But no one in Britain has Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, not unless they are consciously following a tradition from another country. It is unusual enough that Simon absolutely ought to have questioned it.
So, niggles, silly ones.
And a suggestion that you read Fangirl before you read Carry On.
But do read it. Immerse yourself in the world of Simon Snow. Love all the sly reflections of You Know Who and love it for its own charming self. And most of all love it for Rainbow Rowell’s power to make you really believe in two people falling in love.
(And now I’ll just stroke the cover again and take a peek at the plan before I put it back on the shelf…)
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.
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