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: Autoboyography

autoboyography cover

Lauren, Christina. Autoboyography. Simon & Schuster , 2017. Print.

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

There are few things as terrifying as sharing your writing with a workshop group. I kept my short stories and novels-in-progress private until I decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. Staying completely silent as strangers combed through each paragraph and pointed out every unnecessary adverb and grammatical error felt like nettles scraping across my heart. Pain aside, I emerged from these sessions a better, stronger writer. Nowadays, I look forward to writing workshops.

Students, of course, have the same feelings of vulnerability when they share their writing, particularly writing that describes or stems from personal experiences. I’ve seen kids tremble, flush, clam up, or become defiant when they are called upon to read their work aloud. Christina Lauren’s latest novel, Autoboyography, describes the process of writing alongside your classmates, but it goes far beyond the procedures of writing workshops and editing. In many ways, Autoboyography examines how writing is an extension of ourselves and how putting pen to paper helps the writer archive some of life’s most precious and heartbreaking moments.

Tanner Scott lives in an area of Utah saturated with Mormon churches and devout followers. This makes Tanner somewhat of an anomaly—his dad is Jewish, his mother a defected Mormon, and, unbeknownst to anyone outside of his immediate family, Tanner is bisexual.  By flying under the radar, Tanner carves out a happy life for himself. He does well in school, has a smattering of close friends, and is looking forward to attending college and leaving Utah behind.

At the urging of his best friend Audrey, Tanner enrolls in a class known as Seminar his senior year. Students in Seminar are expected to write and polish a fifty-thousand-word novel under the direction of their teacher, Mr. Fujita. The class will have a special addition—Sebastian Brother, a student who graduated the previous year. Sebastian’s novel was so exceptional that it was quickly purchased and slated for publication, making Sebastian something of a celebrity in their small community. Tanner feels an immediate pull to Sebastian despite his knowledge that Sebastian is both an extremely devout Mormon and the son of the local bishop. He decides to pour his conflicting emotions into his novel-in-progress. Will he work up the nerve to turn in his extremely autobiographical work? Does Sebastian share Tanner’s feelings? Will Tanner find the courage to be honest with his closest friends?

As the novel is told mostly through Tanner’s POV, it would have been easy for the book to spiral into a dislike of all Mormons and, larger, a dislike for all organized religion. Tanner, despite his occasional snarky comments, is open minded and curious, and seeks out information about the Mormon religion not in a desire to convert but to understand Sebastian’s world. In doing so, he shatters many stereotypes and misconceptions. Tanner is also a great multi-faceted character with an authentic voice.

The narration shifts to Sebastian’s vantage point mere chapters before the book ends, then back to Tanner’s, then back to Sebastian’s, then back to Tanner’s, alternating between third and first person. As most of the book was told in Tanner’s first person narrative voice, this stylistic choice rattled me. I understand that the bulk of the novel was meant to be Tanner’s book, and the writing that followed was simply the fall-out; however, it seemed too late to leave Tanner’s head and enter Sebastian’s.

Autoboyography would be a great addition to a classroom library, and especially popular among students who enjoy romance novels. The book also encourages readers to take painful and confusing moments in their life and allow those things to seep into their writing. I’m always encouraging my students to “write what hurts”, and Tanner is an excellent example of a student who used writing to sort out his emotions and make sense of his world.

Book Review: Evil Librarian

evil librarian cover

Knudsen, Michelle. Evil Librarian. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016. Print.

During the instructional day, a high school is a lively place. The halls are filled with chattering (or yelling, depending on how close you are to the end of the year), the thud of feet, and the metal clank of lockers opening and closing.

But there’s something incredibly creepy about being in a school alone at night.

Perhaps it’s the long, vacant halls, or the unexpected silence, or the flicker of the red “EXIT” signs. Whatever it is, I’m always determined to make my rare nightly visits as short as possible.

Therefore, a high school is perhaps the perfect setting for a horror novel like Michelle Knudsen’s Evil Librarian.

Cynthia “Cyn” Rothschild is having an ordinary but relatively happy junior year. She spends each school day pining over her long-time crush, Ryan, and joking around with her best friend Annie. After school, Cynthia has finally landed the coveted position of tech director for the school’s drama program. She’s determined to make the sets and props for Sweeney Todd the best they can possibly be.

Annie’s odd behavior, however, momentarily distracts Cyn from the musical. Annie admits to being head-over-heels for the new librarian, a young and attractive man named Mr. Gibson. This crush results in some uncharacteristic and alarming actions—Annie skips class to spend time with Mr. Gibson, and is spacy and unresponsive when outside the library. And she’s not the only one—other students who spend time with Mr. Gibson are also in blank, zombie-like states. Panicked investigating leads Cyn to the cause: Mr. Gibson is not human, but is instead a demon. Cyn knows she must find a solution before her best friend and the rest of the school become soulless monsters or worse. Will she find allies who believe her story? Why are Mr. Gibson’s powers ineffective on Cynthia? And how will this demon invasion affect the highly anticipated school musical?

A premise as over-the-top as the one found in Evil Librarian would certainly be ridiculous had Knudsen not balanced it out with perfectly timed and dark humor. Cynthia is a plucky heroine whose internal dialogue is knee-slappingly funny. It’s difficult, even, to decide what’s more humorous—Cynthia’s frantic lusting over Ryan, or the demons’ excitement over the school production of Sweeney Todd. The characterization, too, is very strong. The demons are deliciously evil; Cynthia and company are brave and determined to save their school and friends.

As with most horror or thriller novels, the book ends with a final showdown. Although Knudsen paints a vivid picture, it’s a short battle that encompasses only a single chapter of a lengthy novel. With so much build up and anticipation, I was left craving more. It’s worth mentioning that there is a sequel to Evil Librarian, so I’m hoping Knudsen will reveal more of the demon underworld in the next volume.

With an abundance of suspense and mystery, Evil Librarian would be a fitting addition to a unit on literary horror elements. Don’t be deceived by the funny moments, either—the book asks some deep questions. How far would you go to save your best friend? What things or people in life are worth the ultimate sacrifice? What hobbies or passions do you turn to when life becomes difficult? Evil Librarian is a fun read—students will alternate between sitting on the edge of their seat and laughing out loud.

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.

Book Review: Windfall (May Uppercase Box)

windfall cover

Smith, Jennifer E. Windfall. New York: Delacorte Press, 2017. Print.

There are several characteristics that attract me to a novel: an intriguing, unique plot, recommendations from my fellow bookworms, an author whose previous work I have enjoyed, etc. I am often loath to admit that there is one additional attribute that will draw me to a book, something that makes me sound a bit superficial and vapid.

I am a sucker for a pretty cover.

And, in my view, there are few covers prettier—or more interesting—than the cover to Jennifer E. Smith’s Windfall. I’d seen it many times on Instagram: a cascade of blue and green confetti, flecks of gold glitter, and two golden figurines: one a bear, one an alligator. I was overjoyed, then, to see Windfall in my May Uppercase Box. I read it eagerly, hoping to find similar beauty behind the cover.

Alice’s early life was marred by bad luck; her parents died only a year apart. Since then, she has lived in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Leo. Though they love and provide for her, Alice finds herself yearning not only for her late parents, but for her home state of California. She hopes to return by attending Stanford University, a college that her mother planned to attend before her untimely death. Now a high school senior, Alice spends her time reminiscing about California, volunteering, and hanging out with Leo and their mutual best friend Teddy.

Alice feels that Teddy’s eighteenth birthday is the perfect occasion to admit her romantic feelings for him. She fesses up in a birthday card and buys him a small gift: a lottery ticket with numbers that are meaningful to them both. Though she panics and diverts his attention away from the card, Teddy does receive the ticket. The next morning, she and Teddy realize that the numbers Alice selected were winners, and after dumpster diving for the discarded ticket, the two realize they are in possession of a life changing slip of paper. Teddy is now a multimillionaire, and he offers to give Alice a hefty share, which she refuses. Saddened by this rejection, Teddy’s attitude begins to shift and he makes unwise decisions. He spends money on frivolous items and is overly generous with his friends and even his teachers. Teddy also refuses to see how he is being manipulated by his father, Charlie, a compulsive gambler who has been absent for years and has conveniently returned to his son’s side. Will Teddy’s good luck destroy his friendships and his life? Will Alice ever admit her true feelings? Will she go off to Stanford and leave it all behind?

Windfall is, at its core, a love story, and the chemistry between Teddy and Alice is strong and believable. They both have shared devastations and disappointments—Alice with the loss of her parents, Teddy with the abandonment of his father. They balance each other out as Teddy is more fun-loving and goofy and Alice is more stoic and purposeful. They protect and support one another, and I rooted for them from Teddy’s introduction onward. Teddy and Alice even reminded me of one of my favorite literary couples: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series.

Romance aside, Windfall is also about becoming your own person away from the shadow of your parents or your past. Alice realizes that she is the creator of her own story and can become much more than the “orphan” label that has haunted the latter part of her life. I was surprised, then, that Alice makes the ultimate decision on where she will attend school based on her proximity to her family and to Teddy. This did not seem like the decision of a girl who was discovering and enjoying her burgeoning independence, though this was just one small thing that irked me in a largely wonderful and entertaining story.

There are lots of great ways to use this book to teach literary elements and symbolism; however, there are also great financial lessons in Windfall. Many of our students (and—who am I kidding?—many of us!) daydream about suddenly acquiring large sums of money. But, like Teddy, some teenagers spend their money impulsively and rarely think about the future. Reading this book can provide many teachable moments about the right way to spend and save. It can also lead to some great discussions about how money can change both the recipient and the people around them. When Teddy first wins the lottery, he is insanely popular and sought after. As time passes, jealousy creeps in and many of his classmates want to see him fail. There is a dark side to wealth, though this might be something students have never considered.

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!