Book Review: Solo

solo cover

Alexander, Kwame and Mary R Hess. Solo. Nashville, TN. Blink. 2017.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

I have a confession to make, one that might be a bit shocking to my fellow English majors: I’m not a poetry person. I have the deepest admiration for poets, and have read some pieces from Sylvia Plath and Percy Blythe Shelley that have touched me tremendously. While poems can certainly paint a pretty picture, I am drawn instead to the characterization and plot found in short stories and novels.

So, when teaching poetry to reluctant readers, I once found myself at a loss.

Thankfully, that changed when I heard about Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover, the winner of a Newbery Medal. Written entirely in narrative verse, The Crossover allowed me to teach poetic elements while also providing a timely story that kept my students engaged. I was excited to meet Kwame Alexander at BookCon so that he could sign my copy of The Crossover, and I was even more excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Solo, Alexander’s latest novel-in-verse.

Solo follows Blade Morrison, the son of world-famous musician Rutherford Morrison. Rutherford, an addict, is both erratic and neglectful, while Blade’s sister Storm is self-absorbed and shallow. As his mother died unexpectedly during his childhood, Blade’s only moments of happiness come from playing guitar, writing songs, and spending time with Chapel, his girlfriend. Blade is in love with Chapel, even though they must sneak around to see one another. Chapel’s father does not approve of the relationship—Rutherford is constantly in the news because of his bad behavior, and Chapel’s father believes that Blade will follow suit.

After his father embarrasses him at his high school graduation, Blade shuts his family out. He wants to run away with Chapel and never look back; however, in the midst of his anger, Blade receives some shocking news—he is adopted. Will he be able to locate his birth mother? Why did his family keep this secret? Will his relationship with Chapel last? Will he be able to forgive Rutherford?

Like The Crossover, Solo is written entirely in verse, but Alexander experiments with other non-traditional forms. Some sections of the novel are handwritten song lyrics, some are explanations and meditations on famous rock n roll songs, some are text messages. The unique formatting drew me in immediately. The surprises and climatic moments in the text also felt genuine, which makes it a difficult book to put down.

Perhaps verse doesn’t lend itself to a great deal of characterization, but I felt many of the female characters came across flat. Chapel, especially, is the typical high school heartbreaker.

Although Solo is lengthy, it would be a valuable text to pull selections from or read it its entirety. While it is an excellent way to introduce poetry, Solo is also poignant in its contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. This could certainly lead to important—and life changing—class discussions.

Book Review: Caraval

caraval cover

Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. Flatiron, 2017. Print.

As an aspiring author, I am always eager to hear how today’s popular writers overcome rejection and adversity.

I was fortunate to see many great young adult authors at this year’s BookCon, among them Stephanie Garber. Sitting on a panel with other YA authors, Garber talked about the sacrifices she made while penning her novel Caraval, including moving back in with her parents and dealing with various rejections from publishers. This surprised me as I’d seen Caraval’s beautiful cover on bestseller lists and Instagram posts. The humility and friendliness Garber displayed made me even more anxious to get my hands on Caraval.

Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella have grown up hearing fantastical stories of Caraval. A mixture between a carnival, scavenger hunt, and circus, Caraval takes place at a different location each year and is orchestrated by a mysterious man named Legend. Although Scarlett has longed to attend the event since childhood, she remains planted on her home island of Trisda, carefully watched by her cruel and abusive father. When her father orchestrates a marriage between Scarlett and a mysterious Count, Scarlett feels the remainder of her life has been mapped out. She might not ever get to see Caraval, but the marriage will present her with the opportunity to get away from her father and take Donatella with her.

Just as Scarlett has accepted her fate, she receives a personal letter and invitation from Legend himself. She at first resists the idea of attending, but after some forceful persuasion from her sister and Julian, a mischievous sailor, Scarlett finds herself heading to Caraval. Participants are tasked with solving a mystery using various clues spread throughout the island. After Scarlett and Donatella are separated, Scarlett is horrified to learn that, this year, the game will revolve around locating her missing sister. Scarlett must work quickly in order to locate Donatella and return to Trisda before her upcoming wedding. Will the sisters ever be reunited? Can Scarlett trust Julian? And why did Legend request Scarlett’s presence?

Although fantasy is not my favorite genre, I have read a few novels with such fantastic world building that I’ve suspended my disbelief: the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and now Caraval. This novel is drenched in imagery—rich descriptions of clothing and jewelry, vivid landscapes and interiors, various magical items and people, etc. Like all well-written fantasy novels, readers will believe the possibilities are endless for Scarlett. It is feasible that she would find a hidden passageway or take a potion that turns her world black and white or bring the dead back to life.

There are moments, however, when the descriptions in Caraval teeter toward ridiculousness. For example, a book in the novel is described as being “the color of dark fairy tales”. Two of the main characters are also extremely flat: Scarlett’s father and Scarlett’s fiancé.

Still, Caraval is a truly magical read from beginning to end, and students will be enraptured by Scarlett’s tale. There are a variety of ways to use this novel in the classroom. I’m planning on having my students annotate passages from Caraval when teaching imagery. With such lush, fantastic writing, there are few texts better suited for the job.

Book Review: Geekerella

geekerella cover

Poston, Ashley. Geekerella: A Novel. Philadelphia: Quirk, 2017. Print.

I’m 31-years-old and I love fan conventions. Go ahead—make fun of me if you want.

I’ve been to exactly three: VidCon, NerdCon Stories, and BookCon. Each has presented me with the opportunity to meet authors and online celebrities, buy cool merchandise, and fangirl with people who are just as excited as I am. When it comes to vacations, I’d take an interesting con over time on a beach any day of the week.

It’s this love of conventions—and my kinship with the people who attend them—that attracted me to Ashley Poston’s Geekerella. Reviews described the novel as a Cinderella retelling in a fan convention setting, and I simply couldn’t resist.

Danielle “Elle” Whittimer has been living a miserable, robotic life since the death of her father. She gets up each morning and cooks breakfast for her stepmother, Catherine, and twin stepsisters Chloe and Calliope. She also completes whatever chores Catherine deems necessary: cleaning the attic, shampooing the carpet, or repairing household leaks. Elle then goes to work at The Magic Pumpkin, a vegan food truck where she has only her sullen co-worker, Sage, for company. Her only moments of happiness come from watching re-runs of her favorite galactic drama, Starfield, and authoring a blog about the show. Elle hopes to one day turn her hobby into a screenwriting career, leaving her evil stepmother and life of toil behind. When she hears about a cosplay competition at ExcelsiCon—a Starfield fan convention that her father began before his death—Elle feels she might finally have a chance to make a name for herself. Will she be able to sneak away from Catherine and attend the convention? Will she find the perfect costume? And who is the mysterious boy calling himself “Prince Carmindor” who continuously sends her flirty texts?

Darien Freeman has been a Hollywood heartthrob since he first appeared on the teen soap opera Seaside Cove. Because of this, his casting as the main character Prince Carmindor in the newest movie adaptation of Starfield is unconventional and unpopular. Diehard Starfield fans haven’t hid their disappointment, railing against him in person and online. Darien has a secret, though—he too is a Starfield fan, and he wants his portrayal to be spectacular. He doesn’t want to attend ExcelsiCon, however, as it brings up painful memories of his former life and friendships. In an attempt to maneuver his way out of the con, he texts ExcelsiCon management and ends up conversing with Elle. The two grow close, though Darien manages to keep his identity a secret. Between demands from shooting the movie, strict orders from his hard-nosed manager/father, and being swarmed by paparazzi, Darien’s conversations with Elle are truly the highlights of his day. Will the Starfield movie be a success? Will Darien reveal his true identity to Elle? And who keeps leaking photos and video footage from the Starfield set?

The characterization in Geekerella is superb—there are truly no flat characters. Elle is both a pitiable and savvy Cinderella and her moments of heartbreak brought me to tears. Darien is a perfect Prince Charming who desires true, untainted affection. As dual narrators, they both have differing, unique voices. Perhaps my favorite thing about Poston’s novel is that the minor characters are so fantastic they could easily have novels of their own—Sage, Calliope, Catherine, Darien’s co-star Jessica Stone, etc. Additionally, the chaos of ExcelsiCon is described perfectly. In one scene, for example, costumed attendees from various fandoms join forces to support Elle.

Geekerella is possibly one of the best books I’ve read this year, so my complaints about the novel are mostly nitpicky. I winced at Darien’s use of “frak” as a curse word. I also wondered about the legality of Catherine’s tight hold on Elle, but there is perhaps no way around that when bringing Cinderella to the 21st century.

This novel would be a perfect, modern addition to a fairy tale unit, as many of the well-known fairytale conventions are still intact. It can also begin some great conversations about memories and legacies. How can we honor the memories of our loved ones who have passed on? How can we take the values and beliefs of our family and make them our own? If your students would enjoy a funny, well-written novel with a deserved happily ever after, you can’t go wrong with Geekerella.

BookCon: A First Timer’s Review

book con entrance

Via a Facebook ad, I saw that Nicola Yoon, Stephen Chbosky, Jenny Han, Rainbow Rowell, and Margaret Atwood were among the attendees scheduled for this year’s BookCon in New York City. The itinerary was simply too good to resist; days later, my husband and I purchased convention and plane tickets, and I began counting down the days until my arrival in the Big Apple.

Having now attended my very first BookCon, I would be remiss if I did not share my experience with my bookish readers. In short, if you have the time and resources to visit BookCon, don’t pass it up. It truly is a reader’s paradise.

Panels

Panels are always exciting for me. As an aspiring author, I gain writerly tips and tricks. As a fangirl, I get to see some of my favorite authors in the flesh. Here is a short synopsis of each of the panels I attended.

Romance and New Adult Fiction: This panel featured Young Adult/New Adult romance authors Christina Lauren, Colleen Hoover, and Kami Garcia. The women discussed the creation of “strong” protagonists, and stressed the importance of flawed, damaged, and hurt characters. The authors also discussed the unfair and unwarranted stereotype of romance novels, even though they easily outsell other genres.

new adult romance

A Spectrum of Young Adult Authors: This panel featured YA authors Adele Griffin, Jason Reynolds, and Stephanie Garber. This group discussed the unique challenges and values in writing for young people, and how many classic and celebrated novels feature teenaged protagonists. They also discussed low moments in their own lives and careers that have influenced their writing.

ya panel

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood and Showrunner Bruce Miller from the New Series on Hulu: This panel featured author Margaret Atwood and director/screenwriter Bruce Miller from the newest television adaptation. It was truly an honor and privilege to see Ms. Atwood and learn how real-life events influenced her dystopian novel. Bruce Miller discussed the challenges of bringing elements of The Handmaid’s Tale to the small screen.

margaret atwood

Transforming a Bestseller onto the Silver Screen: A Book to Film Adaptation: This panel featured YA authors Lauren Oliver, Nicola Yoon, RJ Palacio, and Stephen Chbosky. These authors discussed the sometimes lengthy and complicated journey from selling the rights to their novel to attending the premiere of the movie adaptation.

book to film

Signings/Meet and Greets

One of my only complaints regarding BookCon is the system employed to distribute signing and meet and greet tickets. Tickets go on sale on a predetermined day, and once they are sold out, there are no more chances to have a book signed by that author. I much prefer the lottery system used by other conventions. That aside, I left BookCon with two signed novels and a professional photograph.

Kevin Hart: My husband and I are fans of the comedian Kevin Hart, so it was extremely exciting to briefly meet and be photographed with him. We also received copies of Kevin’s autobiography I Can’t Make This Up.

kevin hart

Kwame Alexander: I teach Alexander’s novel-in-verse The Crossover, so I was excited to meet him in person and tell him how much the book means to me and my students. If you are having difficulties getting your students interested in poetry, check it out! I also received an early release of Alexander’s newest novel, Solo.

kwame alexander

Ashley Poston: Although I was at the Margaret Atwood panel at the time, my husband was kind enough to get my copy of Geekerella signed by author Ashley Poston. I loved this book—look for a review in the coming weeks!

geekerella

Exhibitors and Free Stuff

One of the most enjoyable things about attending any convention is exploring the exhibition hall, and Book Con was certainly no exception. There were a countless number of exhibitors (no joke—I began to count them all but tired around 200) who were pedaling a wide array of book-related wares:  books in every category you can think of, graphic novels, bookish merchandise, subscription boxes, etc. The largest booths belonged to Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, and Chronicle Books, though smaller booths by independent publishers were also well-attended. Many of the booths also hosted their authors for signings—there was a particularly long line for Chelsea Clinton’s newest children’s book. I left with enough free stuff to weigh down an entire carry-on bag: pens and notepads, tote bags and backpacks, bookmarks, pins, stickers, magnets, playing cards, posters, beach balls, eyeglass cleaners, t-shirts, headphones…the list goes on.

But all BookCon attendees know that the true jewel of convention swag is a free book, and I was fortunate enough to snag several, pictured below. Which should I read and review first?

free books

If you want to see more of my BookCon pics and videos, follow  me on Instagram @ireadwhattheyread!