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.

Short Story Review: Kindred Spirits

kindred spirits cover

Rowell, Rainbow. Kindred Spirits. Roadswell Editions, 2016. Print.

The first time I saw Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, I was supervising a class of freshmen in the school library. Our librarian is a pro at making eye-catching book displays, and Fangirl was among the new releases. I picked it up, examined the minimalistic mint cover, read the synopsis, and checked it out immediately. And, when I was finished, I missed Cath and Wren and Levi as though they were dear friends.

So, I did the only logical thing I could think of to soothe my book hangover: I checked out Rowell’s Eleanor & Park.

And my heart exploded.

Since then, I’ve read all of Rowell’s work. I’ve devoured her novels for both young adults and adults. I even made one of Rowell’s short stories, Midnights, part of the freshmen curriculum.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rainbow Rowell at the Books by the Banks Festival in Cincinnati. After waiting in line for a photograph and her signature, my mind was a blur. When I finally reached her, I think I mumbled something about loving her books and introducing them to my students. She was as kind and humble as I’d hoped.

So, needless to say, I’m a Rainbow Rowell fangirl—pun definitely intended. She is my favorite author.

It pained me, then, that I hadn’t read her latest short story Kindred Spirits. The story was originally released for 2016’s World Book Day. Luckily for me, it was recently rereleased as an e-book with all proceeds going to the ACLU.

Days away from the premiere of the latest Star Wars film, Elena is hoping to have the ultimate fan experience. She arrives at a movie theater with dreams of camping out with other die-hard fans and becoming part of a community. To her surprise and disappointment, there are only two other individuals in line: Troy, an older, bearded gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Star Wars, and Gabe, a quiet boy around Elena’s age. Camping out is also not as glamorous as Elena imagined—she finds herself cold and needing to go to the bathroom. Will Elena be able to endure her discomfort until the movie starts? Will she be able to break through Gabe’s icy exterior? Will she have the fan experience she is hoping for?

If you’ve ever been truly passionate about a book series or movie franchise, you will relate to Elena a great deal. Her determination to have a positive experience and her enthusiasm about Star Wars is endearing. I also like that Kindred Spirits discusses what makes a fan a “true fan”—do you have to read every book, see every movie, and be bursting with trivia to be welcomed into a fandom?

Perhaps the only down side to Kindred Spirits is that it is a short story, so readers will likely finish it craving more. Rowell manages to make the main characters multifaceted despite the length of the text. Readers will want to know more about Elena and Gabe’s lives at school and home, which is a credit to the author.

Kindred Spirits and Rowell’s short story Midnights are terrific, high-interest texts that students will love. In the past, I’ve used Rowell’s texts to teach annotation techniques, direct and indirect characterization, the parts of the plot diagram, and thematic statements. Kindred Spirits also presents a great opportunity to discuss the “masks” we wear in everyday life and the various communities to which we belong. How do we tailor our personality or behavior depending on where we are or who we are with? This is a story your students will surely relate to and enjoy and with proceeds benefitting a worthy cause, this is the perfect time to add it to your e-book collection.

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!

Book Review: Save Me, Kurt Cobain

save me kurt cobain cover

Manzer, Jenny. Save Me, Kurt Cobain. New York: Delacorte Press, 2016. Print.

In high school I loved frogs, Total Request Live, posters of Volkswagen Beetles, and Nirvana.

Thirteen years have passed. I still love Nirvana.

I wouldn’t christen myself a die-hard fan, nor do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all their albums or band members or set lists. But there’s something about the music that has always appealed to me—an attraction to the sound and lyrics that I’ve had trouble putting into words.

Until I read Jenny Manzer’s Save Me, Kurt Cobain. Manzer perfectly describes Nirvana as a mixture of loud and quiet, painful lyrics mixed with childlike prose. And the way the band weaves throughout Manzer’s narrative made me an even bigger fan.

Protagonist Nicola “Nico” Cavan has a gaping hole in her life: her mother, Annalee, vanished when Nico was only four. Despite exhaustive searches and police investigations, her whereabouts remain a mystery. Now a teenager, Nico feels numb and unhappy. She is largely ignored at school and spends her free time listening to music with her sole friend, Obe, and drawing portraits in her sketchbook. Nico’s father, Verne, works extra shifts at his college security job, and there’s a growing distance between father and daughter.

Nico’s apathy toward her father turns to rage when she discovers a parcel hidden in the attic: a collection of albums belonging to her mother. Nirvana dominates this collection, and Nico also discovers an old polaroid snapshot of Annalee and a not-yet-famous Kurt Cobain. Nico was a fan beforehand, but after this discovery she sinks into a spiral of obsessive research and reading, scouring biographies, Nirvana message boards, and conspiracy theories claiming Cobain’s suicide was a murder or fabrication. Returning from a visit with her aunt in Seattle, Nico finds herself on a ferry seated across from a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Kurt Cobain. Nico knows she must act quickly and, moments later, she fenagles her way into the backseat of the stranger’s car.  Is this man the real Kurt Cobain? If so, does he remember anything about Nico’s mother? Can he possibly help solve the mystery of Annalee’s disappearance?

The symbolism in this novel took my breath away. The parallels between Kurt Cobain’s life and Nico’s—the art, love of music, rejection of social norms, depression, early traumatic experiences—were astounding. Cobain’s mysterious death is also reminiscent of Annalee’s disappearance, and both leave Nico craving answers. The recitation of Cobain facts serves as something of a security blanket for Nico, and she turns to them during stressful or tremulous moments. Careful readers will appreciate the consistency and detail found in Save Me, Kurt Cobain.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, the setting was sometimes hard to visualize. Nico travels from Canada to the States and back via ferry, walks across shorelines and highways, and sometimes finds herself on unmarked roads. As I am unfamiliar with Seattle and Canada, I sometimes felt a bit lost, though this could have very well been Manzer’s intention.

I could certainly see Save Me, Kurt Cobain being a high-interest text, especially for students who love music. Many other YA texts share this theme of protagonists clinging to certain musicians or songs (Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star immediately come to mind) so perhaps this could be an option in a larger unit involving literature circles and student choice. Nico is a main character who struggles profoundly with sadness but ultimately perseveres, making her a realistic heroine that students will relate to and love.

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.