→ CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell: Simon's last year at the Watford School of Magicks is off to a strange start. Sure, he's attacked by a goblin on his way to school, but that's par for the course when you're the Chosen One. What has Simon on edge is that Baz, his roommate and sworn enemy, hasn't returned at the beginning of the term, and Simon is sure Baz is plotting something terrible against him. The mystery of his vampiric roommate's whereabouts has Simon too obsessed to think about the danger posed by the Insidious Humdrum, who threatens to destroy all the world's magic if the Chosen One can't defeat him.
When I began reading CARRY ON, a couple of things were very distracting. First of all, Simon's world is unabashedly inspired by the Harry Potter series, so I had constant thoughts like, "Okay, that character's the Hagrid equivalent. That's a skewed version of the Sorting Hat." Second, Simon originated inside another of Rowell's novels, FANGIRL (a story I loved), where he was the hero of a popular book series beloved by the main character, and the subject of all the fanfiction she wrote. This origin story is a little difficult to wrap your head around; Elizabeth Minkel explains it in more depth.
But the farther I got into the book, the less these distractions bothered me, because this is a strong, exciting, well-developed story in its own right. The characters are complex, flawed people faced with all the awkward realities of human interaction. The plot is fast-paced and full of surprising turns. The writing is funny and clever (with bonus language cleverness in the magic system, as cataloged by Gretchen McCulloch). In short, CARRY ON has everything that makes Rainbow Rowell's books so wonderful, and I heartily recommend it.
You don't need to have read FANGIRL to enjoy CARRY ON, and you may even find it easier to get into the story without the confusion of previous knowledge, so start with whatever interests you more. Both books are great, and so is everything else Rowell has written.
→ CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman: Caden is a fifteen-year-old boy having a difficult time functioning at home and school because of the disturbing fears that fill his head. Caden is also, at times, a crew member aboard a pirate ship bound for the deepest part of the ocean, subject to frequent taunting and torment from the cruel captain. The novel's extremely short chapters bounce Caden back and forth between these worlds to portray his descent into mental illness and his struggle to accept and comply with psychiatric treatment.
I was moved and appropriately terrified for Caden as he found reality increasingly hard to grasp. The scenes set in the real world worked best for me because that was where the stakes and my sympathies felt highest. I was less engrossed by the story of the ship, which seemed partly Caden's delusion and partly more of a metaphor. Ultimately, though, I found the book very affecting.
I was curious to read this because for a while I was working on a manuscript that also depicted a character who traveled between the real world and a delusional realm. Unlike my trunked novel, Shusterman's story benefits from a well-informed perspective. His son received a diagnosis like Caden's as a teenager, and Shusterman drew on the experiences of his son and their family to present an authentic representation of mental illness.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ At Literary Hub, Tobias Carroll looks at board games adapted from books: "New York's King Post Games held a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013 for Moby-Dick, or, The Card Game, their adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. Their version of Moby-Dick is both compelling and faithful in its translation of the bleakness of Melville's ending: rather than winning per se, a game's winner is the final player left alive after the white whale attacks."