Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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100% fresh

We saw Lady Bird last weekend. This indie film is most famous for having attained a record 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that it got positive notices from all 195 critics who reviewed it.

It would be nicely contrarian of me to report that I didn’t like it… but I did. Set in 2002, it’s about a young woman named Christine (who prefers to be called Lady Bird) negotiating her last year of high school in Sacramento, California. Nothing epic or bizarre occurs. She tries to boost her college changes with extracurriculars. She dates boys for the first time. She abandons old friends for new. She consistently fails to please her mother.

But it works because her character and the supporting characters are so strong and appealing, with great acting that makes them all believable. And, because it presents a time of life and experiences that most of us (at least most North Americans) can relate to. Even Jean, who definitely prefers plot-driven films over character-driven ones like this, was able to enjoy the ride. For me, it didn’t hurt that it was centrally a story of women: Christine, her mom, and her best friend are the main characters. Dad, the boyfriends, the brother, were all supporting cast.


Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a new-ish Freddie Mercury biography called Somebody to Love, by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It’s hardly the first Freddie biography ever written (or that I’ve read) and I missed the fine print that this one would be particularly looking at his life in the context of the AIDS crisis. Which I pretty quickly decided was not the context I prefer to focus on. Sure, it was sort of interesting finding out just how far back the disease’s origins can be traced, and that Freddie had had an encounter with “patient zero”, and that Reagan wasn’t quite as bad on AIDS as they say (though he was pretty bad), but overall I found myself skipping over the pages discussing increasing death rates or what symptoms Freddie developed when, preferring the parts that talked about the music and the important relationships in his life.

Those parts were a reminder, though, of the extent of critical slagging Queen endured throughout their career. The reviews were not just negative—they were scathing.

A Day at the Races, 1976: “I hate this album…. All of these songs with their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep.” NME. (Hey, NME: Homophobic much?)

The Game, 1980: “Less obnoxious than Queen’s last few outings, simply because it’s harder to get annoyed at a group that’s plugging away at bad rockabilly than with one blasting out crypto-Nazi marching tunes.” Rolling Stone (Yes, Nazi comparisons are always apropos.)

The Miracle, 1989: “Addresses the question how much bad taste it is possible to cram onto one album.” The Times.

Few critics at the time seemed to recognize that Queen wrote songs that would endure, become the soundtrack of people’s lives. That in the multi-layered vocals, they developed a sound unique to them. That they four song writers each capable of writing hit songs. That they had one the best rock vocalists. That this band would come to be seen as one of all-time greats.


Both of which got me thinking of the state of professional criticism today, compared with the pre-digital era. For movies, while the influence of any individual critic has diminished compared with the heyday of the likes of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, and Siskel and Ebert, as an aggregate, they seem to have Hollywood spooked!

I find it fascinating that Rotten Tomatoes, a site I’ve been using for years, has recently become this force: How Rotten Tomatoes became Hollywood’s most influential — and feared — website

Decades ago, the only way to evaluate a movie before its release was to read reviews in major publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times. Today, moviegoers rely on the Tomatometer, a number that shows what percentage of critics recommend the film.

It’s no coincidence that the few breakout hits of the summer box office all have scores of 80% or higher… And for lesser films, a very low score can be fatal.

But for music? Aggregate sites do exist, like Metacritic—but I had to look up that fact, because I don’t use them, even though I do listen to music regularly. And the only thing I’ve read about recent music criticism is that it seems to be overly positive now. The original WSJ article is pay-walled, so here’s a report on (and critique of) that article: No, There Weren’t Only 8 Bad Albums in the Last 4 Years.

Why the difference? Well, movies are still something of an investment, aren’t they? Of time, if nothing else: two or so hours you won’t get back if you hated, hated, hated that movie. But often of money also: people still go to theatres to see movies, buy them on disc, pay to rent them, subscribe to movie channels. And they’re still expensive to make, so there’s only so many of them released each month. And there’s no Spotify of movies, really: Current movies are not in constant competition with movies of the past. If you’re into movies, you can focus on and make a decision about each.

But albums? They’re no longer distributed on vinyl discs you can play only on your home stereo system… And it’s really just about songs now, which are short, and you can listen to those anywhere, and (if you don’t mind the ads) it’s free to do so. Who needs to be warned away from a bad album when the skip button is right there? The danger isn’t in wasting time (or money) on bad music; it’s on missing out on great music because there is just so much music so easily available now. Of course music reviews are mostly positive: Recommendations are all we need.


So yeah, Rotten Tomatoes got me out to see Lady Bird, and I’m glad it did. I would point out that its 100% score doesn’t mean that all 195 critics thought it was the best movie ever, only that all agreed it was a good one. I would say that too. I liked it, but I don’t know if it’s the best movie I saw even this year: Get Out was so creative, The Big Sick did a great job of balancing the tragic and the comic. But Lady Bird was also a worthy two hours.

As for Queen, all those crappy reviews at the time never deterred me—I’m not sure how many I would have read, anyway, in the pre-digital era where British music magazines weren’t easily available. But the band read them, and yes, despite their success, it did bother them. So I’m glad that most of the group has survived to see the tide of opinion change, and that they can still play to sold-out arenas around the world (to positive reviews, at that). It’s just really tragic that Freddie didn’t live to see that, as well.

Fun way to end this:

Most of these kids actually have heard of Queen, which likely in itself says something of their legacy. But the most fun is the one little girl who hasn’t. “That’s the same band?” she comments, amazed, hearing “Killer Queen” right after “Radio Gaga”. “What is this?” she says, eyes wide, of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

That, my dear, is probably the greatest rock epic of all time.


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Books!

Vacation means more time to read, and I did get through a few works that I found worthwhile.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

md19789526807Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables, and like many people, I expect, the Anne books are the only ones of hers I’d previously read.

The Blue Castle was first published in 1926, but I first heard about it in 2017 on Twitter. Kady O’Malley (@kady) was highly recommending it, saying it’s a book she returns to annually.

I got it as an epub and, being out of copyright, it was very cheap, but also not formatted properly. It wouldn’t load at all on one of my devices, and on others, wouldn’t paginate properly. No matter; the technical glitches did not take away from the pleasure of reading it.

It’s the story of a young woman of 29, Valancy Stirling. Unmarried and expecting that will never change, she lives with her domineering mother, obediently and quietly following all house rules, though they make her miserable. She escapes only in her imagination, to a blue castle and the company of the man who lives there.

One day, in an act of minor rebellion, she goes to a doctor who is not the family physician, to find out about some chest pains that have been troubling her. The news is the worst possible: she has a heart condition that gives her only a year or so to live.

This leads to some serious introspection about how to spend her remaining days. She concludes:

I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed. After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth!

Therein lies the fun. Her domineering family thinks she has gone insane, and are now somewhat afraid of this previously meek creature who now speaks her mind and does what she pleases. With time she moves out. She meets a man. He has a house on an island. Things have a way of working out, which is not a surprising in itself, but the way in which they do is. A delightful read.

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

28964412And now for something completely different…

This 400 or so page tome indeed tells the history of Jon Stewart’s time on The Daily Show, in the words of the various people who were there: correspondents, writers, directors, producers, publicists, and Jon himself. You’ll need to have some investment in this show to find this behind-the-scenes look at how it unfolded over 17 years of interest.

For myself, I was surprised at how much of that 17 years I had watched the show. I knew I wasn’t there from the very start, when Jon took over from Craig Killborn—but I got in there pretty early, with Indecision 2000, Chapter 2 of the book.

The other surprising thing was how much melodrama and personality conflict was occurring, at times, behind the scenes in a show whose contributors don’t really make the gossip columns. I had heard about a few, like the problems between Wyatt Cynac and Jon, but most… Who knew?

Also striking was the horror they felt at what was going on in the George Bush administration. Of course, he was not a great President. But still, you can’t help thinking… Dudes, you have no idea

13 Reasons Why

mv5bytfmnzrlnwytmmfmni00ztfilwjhodgtogm5odq5ntgxzwuwl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_This one is not a book. Well, it is a book, but I haven’t read it. What I have done is watch the Netflix series based on the book, some months after most other people did.

Though definitely aimed at young audience, Jean and I got totally hooked on this thing. Whenever we had some lounging time at our hotel on our week off, we’d put another episode on. We finished up shortly after we got home.

Partly thanks to the performances of the two leads, it seemed important to find out what part Clay had played in Hannah’s suicide. In the book (I read afterwards), Clay listens to all the tapes  in one night. In the series, he gets through only about one per episode, allowing the series to progress in both real time and flashback, which is often handled rather deftly.

I’m not sure how a season 2 of this will work, but I’ll likely be checking it out to find out.

A Man Called Ove

18774964This was our vacation audiobook, because it had really high ratings on Audible.com. (Highest rated ever, by the way, is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.) It’s a translation of a Swedish novel, and has also been made into a movie (that we haven’t seen yet).

Its central character, Ove, a 59-year-old recently (and unwillingly) retired man, is initially pretty unlikable—unfriendly, blunt, critical. But he’s unlikable in an entertaining, often hilarious, way, so we can stick with him.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about what led to this point in his life. How he was raised. The people he’s lost along the way. His innate nature.

This is set against the event of a young family moving in next door and insinuating themselves into Ove’s life whether he likes it or not. His interactions with them, along with the gradually unfolding story of his life, makes Ove an increasingly sympathetic character. Even though he never becomes a warm and carefree one.


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

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Post-its for possible future travels

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

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As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

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Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

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And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

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The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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Sounds of 2016

My opinion of this year’s top music? That I probably didn’t hear most of it. Last year, under Adam Lambert’s Spotify / Twitter guidance, I actually heard a fair amount of the top 40. This year Adam had other priorities (tours, movies, TV shows), so I reverted to more typical behaviour for someone my age, and listened more to older stuff.

Still, some audio releases of 2016 managed to grab my attention.

Albums

The Hamilton Mixtape

We went to New York this year, but did not see Hamilton, the Broadway musical. I tried for tickets, but without really knowing much about the play, other than that it was super-p0pular. We did see the New York Library exhibit about Alexander Hamilton’s life, however, and it certainly was a colourful. So on my return, I finally listened the musical soundtrack, and really liked it. I definitely got into the story line, and a lot of the songs are just catchy. They’re not all hip-hop, but I liked those ones, too, generally.

So The Hamilton Mixtape, a collection of covers, re-imaginings, and out-takes from the musical, was the only album I got my hands on the day it came out. It did not disappoint. It just highlights why this story of someone from so long ago resonates today.

Favorite track: “It’s Quiet Uptown” by Kelly Clarkson, though it always makes me weepie

People are already weeping over Lin-Manul Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape

Carly Rae Jepsen: E*MO*TION Side B

It actually took me a few listens to really get into the original E*MO*TION album, but I had no such trouble with Side B. Why these particular tracks didn’t make the original cut is a mystery, as they seem as strong as those.

Favourite track: “The One”

The Queen Extravaganza: A Night at the Apollo Hammersmith Live

The Queen Extravaganza are the officially sanctioned Queen tribute band, and on this outing they tackle the entirety of A Night at the Opera—something the original band never did. The do an impressive job of it. And then we get some other Queen hits.

What’s particularly striking about this band, though, is just how much singer Marc Martel sounds like Freddie Mercury. You’d occasionally swear this is a new recording by him, which is a mix of awesome and weird. The album is not available for streaming, but must be acquired from Pledge Music.

Favourite track: “The Prophet’s Song”. I dare you to not be impressed by it.

Queen Extravaganza – Seven Seas of Rhye – Live at the Apollo Hammersmith

Alysha Brilla: Human

Not every song is a home run, but this is an uplifting, positive release from this hometown artist.

Favourite track: Bigger Than That (“You put up a wall, but I’ll climb it like a cat. Cause I am bigger than that.”)

(David Bowie’s Blackstar is also worth noting, but you all knew that already.)

Songs

You’ll notice a prevalence of artists of a certain vintage here…

  • Bonnie Raitt: Need You Tonight—Sexy cover of this INXS song
  • Beyoncé: Formation
  • Roger Daltrey: Let My Love Open the Door—Who singer takes on this great Pete Townshend solo track, for charity
  • Brits 2016 Bowie Tribute, featuring Lorde—Fantastic job
  • Paul Simon: Wristband—So funny . Rest of the album is rather good, too.
  • Tanya Tagaq: Rape Me—Haunting cover of the Nrvana song. Her album has made many “best of the year” lists, but I haven’t listened to it all yet.
  • Lady Gaga: Grigio Girls

And I also liked everything Adam Lambert released this year:

  • The two dance track collaborations: “Can’t Go Home” with Steve Aoki and “Broken” with Tritonal
  • The cover of George Michael’s “Faith”
  • His Rocky Horror songs; Hot Patootie (Bless My Soul) and Science Fiction
  • And his single, performed on American Idol and featured in numerous sports broadcasts: “Welcome to the Show”

Gorgeous official video for Welcome to the Show

Concerts

Did pretty well with live shows this year, and since I blogged about each at the time, I don’t have it go on about them again. In order of greatness:

  1. Adam Lambert: Original High Tour (Berlin, Germany)
  2. Tanya Tagaq, Intersections concert with KW Symphony (Kitchener, Canada)
  3. The Who: Who Hits 50 tour (Toronto, Canada)
  4. Alysha Brilla: Album release party (Waterloo, Canada)

(You know it’s quite the year if on my favourite bands of all time is third!)

Via semi-legal webcast, I also enjoyed the Queen + Adam Lambert Rock in Lisboa, and by totally legal national broadcast, the Tragically Hip’s last show of their tour.

Podcasts

It didn’t occur to me to compile a list of particularly good podcasts, but I did spend part of the Christmas break working through Wired’s recommendations. Good list, though I have concluded I’m not really a fan of fiction podcasts, even if well done.

Audiobooks

trevor-noah-book-born-a-crime-stories-from-a-south-african-childhoodEasy, because I only finished one (not enough road trips this year): Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. This book has been well-reviewed and I can assure you, it’s deserved. His life is fascinating, and he tells it well.

Trevor Noah was born in South Africa, during the Apartheid era, of a black mother and a white father. Their relationship was illegal; hence, “born a crime”. He spent much of his early childhood indoors. When out with either of his parents, a ruse was necessary. He’d walk with a lighter-skinned friend of his mother’s, and his mother pretended to be maid. He walked across the street from his father.

Apartheid ending just changed the complications of figuring out where he fit in.

Though it’s his life story (and does not include the tale of how he became a successful comedian in South Africa, and ultimately star of The Daily Show), his mother is the real star here. What amazing woman, to be so strong and independent in a society that gave her no training or support for being so.

Noah does narrate the book himself (unabridged) and does a great job of it. It’s fun hearing him read out the various African languages and to get the proper pronunciation of everything. It wasn’t a very easy life, but as comedians will, he pulls many funny moments out of it nonetheless. One of the best things I heard this year.

 


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Huawei Honor 8 and Kobo Aura One

Because Canada is backward in terms of cell phone service, I experience the wonders of unlimited data only when I travel. (Within Canada, even if I were willing to pay for unlimited data, no one would sell it to me. Not in my province, Canada’s most populous.) So while in New York, back in October, we wandered the streets with my Nexus and a Roam mobility SIM card, confident we could Google Map, museum-narrate, and Open Table to our heart’s plan.

And indeed, the cell service phone service was fine. The phone itself, however, was not. It was a bit of an aged device, and it kept doing Weird Stuff. Mysteriously battery draining. Locking. Randomly rebooting.

Enter Huawei

So when I saw the Huawai Honor 8 on sale ($50 US off) at B&H in New York, I could not resist. And I did not even know, when I made that decision, that when shopping in person at B&H, they thrown in a bunch of other stuff free. So I left the store not only with my new phone, but a case for it, an SD card, premium over-the-ear headphones and a leather case for those, and some mini photography accessories (those, I handed over to Jean).

The Honor 8 is a generally well-reviewed phone, with specs that, apparently, put it nearly up there with iPhones and Google Pixels that cost twice as much (or more). The only real criticism I’ve read is that of Android purists, who object to Huawei’s practice of modifying the interface to make it look more like an iPhone. (They do this to please customers in their main market, China.) That doesn’t overly bother me, since it still basically acts like an Android—including the ability to customize it yourself to make it more Android-like.

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As a light cell phone user, it’s more phone than I need, really, and some of its features—such as the apparently great camera (Jean was amazed that it came with an aperture setting)—are somewhat wasted on me. Still, I’m quite happy with it overall.

The good

The size and look. While it has a somewhat bigger screen than the Nexus 4, it’s still very slim, very light, and so fits quite nicely in the hand. It also has this attractive glass backing (so glad my free case was transparent) and a beautiful collection of photos that appear on the lock screen.

huawei-honor-8-phone-28_1

Until I got an Honor 8, I thought I didn’t care how my cell phone looked. Turns out I do.

Battery life. It charges quickly, and holds a charge well. As a light user, all I do is plug it in for about 10 to 15 minutes each morning for more than enough juice for the day. While I haven’t tested this, I suspect I could go three, four days on a single charge.

Performance. Responsive, responsive. Every app I’ve tried loads quickly, smoothly—unless there’s some problem with the app itself.

Gorgeous screen. So sharp and clear. Text is easy to read, despite the screen size. Pictures look fantastic.

Fingerprint sensor. Easy to set up, and now I can unlock it with my finger. And get the notification bar down by sliding my finger the sensor. (I can’t quite get the hang of the double-tap to launch my calendar, though.)

Maintenance notifications. It warns me if an app is consuming a lot of resources, which is particularly appreciated when on data. It weekly (you can adjust timing) prompts me to clean up cache, to keep things humming. And although this was annoying at first, you must individually allow app notifications. I now realize the benefits of not being bothered by apps I don’t care so much about.

Storage: It has a lot (32 GB), even without the extra SD card. I’m using only a small fraction now, but nice to know that much more is available.

The bad

Too tempting. It’s new, and it’s fun, and now I’m going slightly over my small data allocation just about every month. (Once because I clicked a YouTube link without realizing what it was, which—even though I shut it down as quickly as I could—was immediately followed by a text from my cell phone provider that I’d already reached 50% usage. That’s the downside of responsiveness!)

Yet another connector. It requires a USB-C, which isn’t all bad: It’s two-sided, and has therefore put an end to my struggles to get the mini-USB inserted right side up. But it does mean that full collection of devices requires not one, not two, not three, but six different types of connectors!

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Connectors for, respectively, cell phone, eReader, small tablet, foot pedal, large tablet, iPod classic #maybeIhaveTooManyDevices

Kobo Aura One

Unlike with the cell phone, I wasn’t a smart shopper of this device at all. Instead, I was one of those silly “early adopters” who tried to get my hands on it as quickly as possible, and therefore (of course) at full price.

And it wasn’t easy. This eReader also generated many good reviews, and at launch, simply didn’t produce enough devices to meet the demand. Stores had no stock, so I ordered online, but it was back-ordered, then delayed from that. I ended up getting it just days before the New York trip, at which point a search for a case proved equally fruitless. It’s not a standard size, so only the “official” one would do. I went most of the trip without one, and managed to avoid dropping it. On the last day in Montreal, I found and bought a case at Best Buy.

At full price. Of course.

And how is it? It’s fine. It’s an eReader, so it doesn’t do anything more exciting than let you load and read books. But it is a step up from my previous Kobo (which Jean has inherited).

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The good

Screen. It’s slightly bigger than the usual eReader, but not so big that it’s awkward. It’s still a thin, light device you can manage with one hand. And the bigger size means less frequent page turning. And it’s definitely sharper than the old eReader.

Back-lighting. It automatically adjusts to the amount of light in the room, and also to the time of day, screening out more and more blue light as it gets later. You can override anything of this if you want, but I find it works well. And since I do read a lot in bed, I appreciate anything that potentially aids in good sleep.

Waterproof. Though I have yet to immerse in the tub, apparently I can.

Speed. It’s truly amazing how quickly new books are downloaded onto this device.

Library ebook borrowing integration. My local library is part of the Overdrive ebook borrowing program (most North American libraries are), and now that I’ve set up my Kobo with my library card number and separate Overdrive login, I can very easily load library books onto the device. No more having to do that on the PC using Adobe Book Manager.

When “shopping” for ebooks on this device, I get the Kobo store buying option of course, but if my library does have it available, I can borrow it right then, or put it on hold. The book loads like any other, but expires at the end of the loan period, leaving a preview version behind. I used this, for example, to borrow a Montreal travel book for the trip.

Storage: It also has a lot (and I’m also using only a small fraction of it at this time).

The bad

Typing. It’s just no fun typing on this thing. No auto-correct. Not that responsive. Fortunately, being an eReader, typing is definitely a secondary activity. But still, hate when I have to do it.

Battery life. Honestly, it’s still excellent, far exceeding any cell phone or tablet. It will last weeks. Just not quite as many weeks as the old eReader. You have to pay for that extra processing power somehow.

Pocket integration. I do use Pocket, but I log in via Google, and that simply doesn’t work on the Kobo. I apparently need a dedicated Pocket account, but how do I do that without losing all the articles already saved? So I’ve yet to figure out how I might access my Pocket articles on this device.

Huawei Honor 8 at B&H

Kobo Aura One at Indigo


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Carry on

Rainbow Rowell’s novel Carry On has an unusual genesis.

412xh9uvpbl-_ac_ul115_It originated in one of her previous novels, Fangirl, in which the main character, Cath, is obsessed with a Harry Potter-like series of books about a teenage magician named Simon Snow. So obsessed that Cath writes a lot of fan fiction about it. Cath’s big goal is to write her own version of the final Simon Snow book—in the form of a long story she calls Carry On—before the official book is released.

So Fangirl contains supposed “excerpts” of the “official” Simon Snow books, along with bits of Carry On along with other Simon fan fiction Cath has written over the years.

And Carry On is Rainbow’s Rowell own take on these characters; that is, she’s not attempting to write it in the voice of Cath.

As it was somewhat whimsically chosen as our book club selection, I had the rare opportunity of comparing my reaction to it with that of two people who, unlike me, had not read Fangirl.

In the beginning

Carry On cover

Carry On is written with the assumption that you have read the previous six books (that don’t really exist). It doesn’t fully explain this world; it refers to previous battles and other characters without extensive elaboration.

This, I was somewhat expecting. My friends were not, and were initially somewhat mystified by it.

All of us, however, shared the “holy shades of Harry Potter” syndrome in that the beginning really seems like the start of any Harry Potter novel, with Harry—sorry, Simon—having a miserable, lonely summer among the “Normals”, then having some adversity in trying to get to his private school for magic people. There we find his smart friend Penelope, the great Mage who runs the school, the eccentric gardener Ebb, mortal enemy Baz, and so on. All so Harry Potter-ish, it’s quite distracting.

The plot thickens

Fortunately, as the novel continues, it diverges enough and develops the characters sufficiently that you do stop mentally matching them up with JK Rowling equivalents and just enjoy the story on its own merits. We all found the plot engaging enough and quite appreciated the storyteller’s humour. For example, one of my favorite bits is that Penelope’s roommate is literally a pixie (named Trixie) who is indeed, quite manic!

The book’s use of spells was also very interesting (see A linguist live-tweets Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On). The idea is that spells are based on English idioms, sayings, poems. The spells can gain or lose potency over time as the phrase itself become more or less popular in the vernacular. So those good with words tend to be more powerful.

Song lyrics can be particularly magical, and of special delight was that this song played a key role in the plot:

 

(On an unrelated note, the Bohemian Rhapsody Reinterpreted video, featuring ballet dancers, a choir, and a string quartet accompanying Queen, is awesome:

)

Spoilers for those who haven’t read Fangirl:

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About my last post

I’ve admittedly had some relapses in my “ignore the election” resolve, but the previous post was actually written before said resolution. I sent it as a letter to the editor, but it appears it’s been rejected. As I actually spent a lot of time writing that sucker (takes so much longer to write less!), I just wanted it published somewhere!

(And by the way, Braid used the exact same line to avoid an all-candidates debate on Science held at University of Waterloo.)

Still, sorry for adding to the discussion of topic that I know Canadians are tired of, and non-Canadian don’t give a fig about. (But just for the record, progressive Canadians: Please do get out and vote!)

And frankly, though voiced in a bit of jokey way in my “shit’s making me crazy” post, it’s pathetically absolutely true that my mental health degrades when I pay too much attention to politics. It literally sucks the joy out of my life. And I can’t write about something without thinking about it.

So it’s time this blog got back to the admittedly trivial topics that actually make me happy to ponder.

Starting with a poll in which none of the results could be depressing.