Book Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean

always and forever lara jean cover

Han, Jenny. Always and Forever, Lara Jean. N.p: Simon & Schuster, 2017. Print.

The conclusion of the school year is an exciting time. I’ve always found the rituals satisfying—entering my final grades, cleaning out my classroom, and attending the graduation ceremony. Once my students cross the stage and receive their diploma, I become laser focused on sleeping late and compiling a fantastic summer reading list.

I sometimes forget, then, that those same graduates are facing a daunting task: the decision of what they will do—and who they will become—for the rest of their life.

This is perhaps what drew me to Jenny Han’s Always and Forever, Lara Jean. The book’s synopsis spoke of a protagonist who was navigating the murky waters of college applications and the maintenance  of friendships and romantic relationships outside of high school. I’d also seen the book frequently on Instagram and Goodreads as it was the long-awaited conclusion to a series. Admittedly, I have not read the books that preface this one; however, I feel it did not impact my understanding of Lara Jean’s story.

Lara Jean Song Covey is cherishing her final months of high school. Life is perfect—she has a loyal and dedicated group of friends, a close-knit relationship with her two sisters and father, and a sweet and doting boyfriend named Peter. All that she lacks is the confirmation that she has been admitted to her dream school, the University of Virginia. Peter has already been admitted on a lacrosse scholarship, and she fantasizes about what their lives will be like once they are college students. Her older sister and friends warn her not to follow a boyfriend to college, but Lara Jean shakes off this suggestion.

Her world is shattered, then, when she is not accepted to UVA. Heartbroken, she settles for a nearby university, William & Mary, and hopes that she and Peter can commute back and forth to spend time together. This plan is soon compromised as Lara Jean gains admittance to a larger, more selective college that is further away. Lara Jean feels like this might be the right fit for her; however, the distance means she will see her family and boyfriend even less. Will Lara Jean ignore her intuition and stay close to home? Will her relationship with Peter deteriorate under the pressure?

Although this is the first novel I’ve read by Han, I can tell she is a master of imagery. It was the little details that jumped out at me—the chewiness of Lara Jean’s cookies, the swiss dots on her graduation dress, the pink tulle on her prom gown, the expansive lawns and regal old buildings in the various colleges she visited, etc. Lara Jean is a girl who appreciates the little things, a trait that is evidenced by her love of cooking, crafting, and scrapbooking. The barrage of sensory detail, then, felt true to her character.

My biggest complaint is that, at times, Lara Jean felt like she was slipping into Mary Sue territory. She was universally adored, made stellar grades, and was part of a well-to-do family. Her problems felt trivial when compared to some my eighteen-year-old students face every day. I even found myself rolling my eyes at her naivete during my read. Like I mentioned earlier, I haven’t read the previous two books about Lara Jean, so it’s possible she’s had severe struggles that are unknown to me.

Still, I can see this book being a popular addition to a classroom library, especially with teen readers who love the Nicholas Sparks brand of romances. This book ultimately teaches readers that, with a little effort, they can pursue the things that make their heart sing while maintaining ties to the people they love. That is surely a sentiment that would bring a lot of peace to a graduating senior.

Book Review: Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes

the silver eyes cover

Cawthon, Scott, and Kira Breed-Wrisley. Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes. New York, NY: Scholastic, 2016. Print.

I love my students, but I don’t always understand them.

Some of their fads and interests are mind-boggling to me: SnapChat filters, fidget spinners, bottle flipping, etc. There is one area, however, where my students and I find common ground: our shared love of YouTube.

Because of this interest in YouTube, I was familiar with Five Nights at Freddy’s. I’d watched numerous YouTubers play the video game, screaming and grimacing through the many jump scares. I found the game to be mindless fun, nothing more, so the inclusion of a Five Nights at Freddy’s novel on Amazon’s YA Bestsellers List thoroughly surprised me. It was a nice surprise, though—I knew the book would likely attract reluctant readers and would be a high-interest text. I quickly downloaded The Silver Eyes and hoped nothing would jump out at me.

Protagonist Charlie has early, happy memories of Freddy Fazbear’s, a restaurant owned by her father in Hurricane, Utah. The eatery was a favorite among other local children, and Charlie spent her days snacking on pizza, playing with her friends, and enjoying her father’s creations: a group of singing and dancing animatronic animals. But when Charlie’s friend Michael disappears while at Freddy’s, the location closes and Charlie’s father becomes a suspect and social pariah. After her father commits suicide, Charlie leaves Hurricane with her aunt and does not return for ten years.

It is the anniversary of Michael’s disappearance that brings a teenaged Charlie back to Hurricane where she reunites with her old friends: John, Marla (and Marla’s younger stepbrother, Jason), Jessica, Carlton, and Lamar. The gang decides to reenter Freddy’s, now encased in an abandoned shopping center. Once inside the restaurant, they find the interior unchanged with time. The animatronic animals are still intact, yet more sinister looking and mysterious than before. The group jokes about their uneasiness until Carlton goes missing. They must locate their friend and simultaneously convince law enforcement to take them seriously. Can they trust Dave, a sickly security guard at the shopping center? Will the teens ever learn Michael’s fate? And, what is bringing the animatronics at Freddy’s to life—advanced robotics or something darker?

Just like the video game, The Silver Eyes does a good job building tension and suspense. There is one scene where Carlton is trapped within an animatronic suit (a plight that likely sounds familiar to FNAF fans), and slight movements can cause the machinery within the suit to slice into his body and puncture his organs. Yet, Carlton needs to move closer to a nearby surveillance camera to be seen by his friends. His slow, methodical movements were agonizing and kept me on the edge of my seat.

There were many stylistic choices in The Silver Eyes that bothered me—excessive adverbs and unnecessary details. Most jarring were the occasional shifts in point-of-view. The novel begins in third person limited, and all information is filtered through Charlie’s narrative lens. However, as the story continues, the action is relayed through other characters. The novel would have been stronger had the story remained Charlie’s.

As I predicted, The Silver Eyes would be a smart addition to any middle or high school classroom library. Having recently taught a unit on literary genres, I think reading excerpts from the novel would be a fun way to teach horror elements. This novel shouldn’t replace classic texts by Poe or Stephen King; however, students will likely appreciate the change of material and the acknowledgement of their interests.

Book Review: Royce Rolls

royce rolls cover

Stohl, Margaret. Royce Rolls. Los Angeles: Freeform, 2017. Print.

Last summer, I visited Los Angeles with my sister.

It was a different world.

Consistently fantastic weather, terrible traffic, expensive boutiques, glitzy people—it was foreign, yes, but also exciting. By the end of my visit, I truly loved LA.

So, when I began Margaret Stohl’s Royce Rolls—a novel set mainly in sunny Los Angeles—I was hoping to love it in the same way.

The novel follows the misadventures of seventeen-year-old Bentley Royce. Bentley is a member of the famous (or, more accurately, infamous) Royce family, a Kardashian-esque clan who has starred in their own reality show (Rolling with the Royces) for five seasons. Though she and her younger brother, Maybach, are familiar fixtures on the show, the true stars are Bentley’s sexpot sister, Porsche, and “momager”, Mercedes. Although Bentley yearns to go to college, she knows this isn’t a possibility. Reality stardom is all her family has ever known.

Due to crumbling ratings, the Royces are unsure that they will receive a greenlight for season six. While Bentley brainstorms various plotlines to save her family’s show, it is Porsche who comes up with the winning idea: the sixth season will be built around her faux engagement and wedding. After a series of auditions, the Royces are introduced to Porsche’s “fiancé”: Whitey, the son of a famous record producer. As the wedding preparations begin and chaos predictably ensues, Bentley discovers shocking information about her fake future brother-in-law. Will the wedding move forward as planned? Will the Royces become a laughing stock? Will Bentley work up the courage to pursue her collegiate dreams? And why does the novel begin with a news report detailing the fiery deaths of Whitey and Bentley Royce?

The Royces and those around them—agents, studio heads, makeup artists, cameramen, etc.—are hilariously over-the-top. Bread and carbs are the enemy, a trendy cycling class is a form of salvation, pricey brands and important names are continuously dropped, and the term “big girl” is a vicious slur. Perhaps one of the funniest aspects of the book are the footnotes littered throughout the pages. These are pieces of editing advice from Dirk, a “man-bunned” administrative assistant. Dirk’s obliviousness shines in these footnotes, and they provide some needed comic relief.

Although I appreciated the humor and social commentary found in Royce Rolls, I also found the book to be scattered and unorganized. Bentley’s characteristics and motivations are all over the place; I felt like I ended the book not knowing her at all. In one part of Royce Rolls, for example, she watches somewhat unfazed as a duck falls to its death, while later in the book she is revealed to have a soft spot for animals. She even adopts two kittens who are mentioned once, then forgotten. Although she yearns to attend college and spends her free time at a library, very little is mentioned about her time at school or the grades she earns. I was irked, too, that none of the characters were particularly likable. Though Bentley’s desire to escape the spotlight is pitiable, her actions at the end of the book are rash and self-centered. And the connection between Bentley and her love interest felt strange and forced, almost laughable.

My issues with the book aside, the satire alone would make Royce Rolls worth teaching. The book pokes fun at all types of media: reality television, celebrity blogs, entertainment talk shows, and the paparazzi. The character of Bentley Royce presents a unique opportunity to discuss our society’s current view of fame—why are so many people famous for seemingly doing nothing? Why are we more interested in a celebrity’s bad behavior than their charitable acts or redeeming qualities? Can we trust reality television shows and social media? All of this could lead to a particularly timely discussion about the validity of media, whether it be an article about a celebrity’s foray into rehab or a serious news story.

Book Review: The Burn Journals

burn journals cover

Runyon, Brent. The Burn Journals. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.

If you work with or parent teens, you’ve likely heard of the Netflix sensation 13 Reasons Why.

You might also know that the series is based on a YA novel by Jay Asher and centers around some tough topics—bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. Having taught the novel to high school juniors, I was anxious (and a little nervous) to see the adaptation. I enjoyed it overall, though some parts were downright painful to watch. I thought a few of the scenes might even be triggering to young people struggling with depression or other mental health issues.

This presents a conundrum. Many of us in the education field encounter students struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors. What books and media, then, can we bring into our classroom that will handle these topics in a sensitive and helpful manner?

I was searching for a non-fiction YA book (a rarity—I am certainly open to suggestions!) when I came across Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals. Reviews and key words revealed the book was about the attempted suicide of an adolescent boy. I purchased the memoir and steeled myself for what was to come.

Brent Runyon is fourteen-years-old and often acts impulsively. This behavior culminates in Brent tossing a lit book of matches into a gym locker, setting a t-shirt ablaze. After being told that the perpetrator of this crime will be in serious trouble, Brent feels trapped, especially in light of some earlier offenses. Brent comes home from school, douses his robe and body in gasoline, climbs into his shower, and lights a match. Writhing in pain, Brent eventually turns on the shower and then yells to his brother for help.

After being airlifted, Brent regains consciousness in a children’s hospital. Now he must face his new reality: he is severely burned, and will require multiple surgeries, skin grafts, and physical therapy before he can return to a “normal” life. Although various psychologists attempt to delve into the reasons why, Brent remains guarded and unsure of his own motivations. Will Brent tell his family about his previous suicide attempts? Will he grow accustomed to his new scars and limitations? Will he be able to recuperate and go back to school?

This book brilliantly places readers in the mindset of a teenage boy. The conversations between Brent and his friends are crass and nonsensical. His feelings of unexplainable sadness are stated plainly. The most revealing part, for me, were Brent’s thoughts regarding his out of control behavior. When Brent lights the locker on fire, for example, he says: “I don’t know why, but I grabbed them and lit one of them on fire and then, because I thought it would be funny to see everybody’s reaction, I set the whole pack on fire.” Descriptions like these—rash actions with no logical reason behind them—add to the chaos of the story.

Like most memoirs, there are moments in The Burn Journals where the action and pacing feel slow and certain anecdotes seem unnecessary. For example, Brent meets and speaks with a few celebrities during his hospitalization and recovery. These are usually short meetings, but Brent rarely has many thoughts to share afterward. This, I thought, was a missed opportunity for Brent to possibly comment on his conflicting emotions of excitement and shame or the coddling of children with serious afflictions.

Just as I would not show the television series 13 Reasons Why in my classroom, I would likewise not make The Burn Journals required reading. There’s simply too much objectionable material—language and sexuality—even though some of the themes are redemptive. Even so, I would not dissuade my students from independently reading Runyon’s memoir. In fact, I urge educators and parents to seek this book out immediately. I came away from Runyon’s story understanding more about the psyche of the children in my classroom, and that was certainly valuable information.