Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction: A Non-Fiction Review

cover art for Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction by Derek ThompsonWhat takes a song from a moderately enjoyable earworm to an unavoidable hit? How does a movie go from a solid screenplay to a worldwide phenomenon? In an age of social media saturation can any content ever really go “viral”? Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction (2017) by Derek Thompson endeavors to answer some of these questions.

Hit Makers explores what makes a hit with surprising results as he examines how exposure, familiarity, and other factors play into the often ineffable quality of popular appeal.

In chapters themed around popular music, movies, and television Thompson examines various sensations from their inception to the moment they were decidedly a hit. Examples include how “School House Rock” went from a middling B-Side song to the defining song of a generation thanks to one nine-year-old’s music collection, the origin story like legend surrounding Star Wars, and how one writer of Twilight fanfic managed to tap into the zeitgeist and create a sensation of her own.

This book is at its best when Thompson is sharing stories instead of disseminating theories and facts although those are just as fascinating to learn. Some gems include the exposure effect (being the right thing and being seen), fluency vs. disfluency (as it relates to people wanting to be shocked while simultaneously gravitating toward what they already know), as well as the principle of striving for the most advanced yet acceptable outcome in all things. There are a lot of interesting takeaways here although the ultimate lesson remains that culture is chaos and there’s no good or consistent way to predict a hit.

Hit Makers is approachable nonfiction at its best and a must read for anyone with more than a passing interest in pop culture. Recommended.

The Secrets We Keep: A Review

“But no matter what I did or how far I went for her, she’d keep me on the outside, five safe steps away from her and her inner circle.”

The Secrets We Keep by Trisha LeaverIdentical twins Ella and Maddy used to be inseparable until Maddy started to care more about field hockey and the popular crowd than she did about her quiet, artsy sister.

Ella still always come when Maddy calls. Even if it means sneaking out of her room and away from her art school portfolio in the middle of the night to pick Maddy up.

Instead of a quick drive and a painless trip with both of them home in half an hour, Ella’s car goes off the road in the midst of a bitter argument.

After, Ella is in the hospital, battered and with little memory of the accident. Maddy is dead.

Surrounded by friends and family who believe she is Maddy–convinced Maddy will be missed more than she ever will and filled with guilt over the accident–Ella makes a choice. She will become Maddy. She’ll live the life Maddy deserved. She’ll make things right.

Ella soon realizes that her sister’s  life is filled with secrets which Ella will have to understand while she tries to keep them. As Ella tries to make sense of the sister she barely knew she will also have to decide if she can continue living a lie or finally step out of her sister’s shadow in The Secrets We Keep (2015) by Trisha Leaver.

The Secrets We Keep is a story about family and grieving but also a mystery as Ella tries to understand what Maddy had done that left her crying and desperate for Ella to pick her up on the night of the accident.

Leaver begins the story with a prologue telling readers exactly what Ella has done and why she feels so strongly that she has to pretend to be Maddy (along with numerous circumstances stacking up to lead to Ella’s initial mis-identification as Maddy). The book then backs up to the night of the accident as readers learn more about the sisters’ estrangement and currently strained relationship.

There is no way to get around the fact that Maddy is a stereotypically mean popular girl before her death. An identifier which she never gets to transcend because she dies and instead it is Ella left picking up the pieces.

Unfortunately shifting the start of the novel to before the accident (and before Ella truly makes her choice as she is swept up in the post-accident confusion at the hospital) neutralizes a lot of the initial urgency. For the first seventy-five pages of the novel, readers know know exactly what happens after the accident which means that readers also know more than Ella herself.

Within The Secrets We Keep, Ella’s decision to become her sister makes perfect sense as the motivations stem from a deep sense of guilt combined with grief. But the premise begins to wear thin as the plot progresses and Ella’s secret begins to unravel.

Elements of romance and mystery move the story forward but never integrate perfectly with the main plot of Ella making peace with her sister’s death. The addition of an awkward love triangle between Ella, her best friend Josh and Josh’s two-years-younger girlfriend (who Ella strongly dislikes–and maybe feels threatened by–while refusing to acknowledge possibly having romantic feelings for Josh herself) further dilutes the core elements of the story which had so much promise.

Despite having all of the right pieces, including a great heroine and strong premise, The Secrets We Keep fails to meet its potential and instead becomes very familiar as the plot moves in directions previously handled more notably by Zevin and Oliver among others.

The Secrets We Keep blends several genres to deliver elements of romance and suspense within a story about loss and grieving that will appeal to readers looking for more of the same.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

*An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Can’t Look Away: A Review

Can't Look Away by Donna CoonerTorrey Grey has always wanted to be famous. But fame is a funny thing. You have to be famous for something. But that’s okay because Torrey found her calling at fifteen. As a beauty vlogger, Torrey is a taste-maker and a style guru with fashion tips and makeup tutorials to share. Thousands of people know about Torrey and her vlog, which also means thousands of people know when Torrey’s little sister Miranda is hit by a drunk driver.

Now Torrey and her parents have moved from Colorado to Texas. All three of them are lost in their own grief. Torrey also has to deal with backlash from her fans as details of the fight Torrey and Miranda had before the accident leak.

On top of bottling up her own guilt, Torrey also has to navigate a whole new high school. Smooth talking her way into the popular crowd and away from her chatty oddball cousin Raylene isn’t going to be easy. Add to that staying away from the oh-so-cute and oh-so-unacceptable Luis Rivera, while listening to everything he has to tell her about El Dia de Los Muertos, Torrey is going to have her hands full in Can’t Look Away (2014) by Donna Cooner.

Can’t Look Away is Cooner’s second novel. It follows Skinny which is set in the same town–readers of both will recognize familiar characters.

Conner offers a solid contemplation of fame in the modern age here as well as a moving story of grief and forgiveness. Luis and details about Dia de los Muertos customs add another dimension to this story and fit in well with the arc of Torrey dealing with her loss.

Although Torrey has stumbling blocks throughout the story, her growth from beginning to end is obvious and largely satisfying. Torrey’s early fixation on her relative celebrity is handled thoughtfully and emphasized with chapter titles and epigraphs quoted from Torrey’s vlog. Similarly Torrey’s worries over how viewers perceive her will ring true with anyone who’s ever posted a vlog (or blog) online.

Can’t Look Away is at times melancholy but it is ultimately a satisfying story about family and the strength that can come from finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: Now and Forever by Susane Colasanti, King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, Where I Belong by Gwendolyn Heasley, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

*A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality: A Chick Lit Wendesday Review

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth EulbergLexi knows she is smart and funny–even if she might not be quite as smart as her friend Cam or quite as funny as her friend Benny. Cam and Benny keep telling Lexi she isn’t bad looking, but whatever that’s what friends say. At the end of the day Lexi has a Great personality with a capital “G” making her the witty girl everyone likes.

Which is fine.

It’s not like there’s room for another beauty in her family anyway. Not when her mother channels all of their energy and time (and more of their money than they can spare) into baby sister Mackenzie’s beauty pageant competitions. Mac is only seven and she’s already spoiled and bratty, she already wears false eyelashes and needs butt glue for the bathing suit portion of each pageant.

Seriously, Lexi has enough going on without wasting even more time making herself pretty.

The only problem is Lexi is tired of being that girl. The one all the guys talk to but no one asks out–the one her long time crush Logan considers a really great friend and nothing else.

When an opportunity comes to get Benny out of his own shell and talking to a real live boy he likes, Lexi reluctantly takes it even though she has to wear actual makeup (lip gloss doesn’t count), nice clothes (no more too-big t-shirts), and style her hair (hairspray: not for sissies).

Turns out a change in appearance can do a lot to improve a girl’s social status. But family problems and new friends (and crushes) force Lexi to ask some tough questions about herself and do some things that even a Great personality won’t make easy in Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality (2013) by Elizabeth Eulberg.

At a mere 272 pages, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality has a lot going on. Eulberg touches on matters including divorce, family dynamics, beauty pageant culture (of course), even popularity and bullying. Lexi is a smart, funny girl but she is also fiercely independent and loyal almost to a fault. She is an aspiring fashion designer with dreams of leaving Texas behind for the bright lights of New York City.

There are some terrible moments for Lexi throughout the story as readers learn why Lexi decided it was easier to try to be funny than pretty. The pageant issue for Lexi’s family also comes to a head with painful results for everyone involved as Eulberg, through Lexi, asks the tough questions about what it means to parade children’ around a stage in pageantry wear. The issue is generally balanced though by the end Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality does get a bit preachy about pageant culture–not to say Lexi’s feelings aren’t justified, after everything that happens they totally are–to the point of being a bit over the top, much like pageants themselves.

But again, this is a short read.  While Eulberg touches on a variety of things, nothing is quite finished by the end of the novel as Lexi is still dealing with a very broken, damaged family and the aftermath of some of her choices throughout the narrative. There is no doubt Lexi (and even Mackenzie) will pick themselves up and start again (and I love the choice Lexi makes at the end to try and do just that) but it would have been nice to see just a bit more of that in the actual story. Similarly, Cam and Benny are strong friends and had the potential to be well-rounded characters had there been more room in the book for them to have complete stories. (Much like aspects of Lexi’s life, both Cam and Benny feature in the story for key reasons but the threads are ultimately left dangling–though again with certainty that things will work out because these characters deserve nothing less.)

As always Eulberg’s writing is funny and fresh from her clever chapter titles to Lexi’s insightful observations about both pageant culture and high school life. Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality is a great read for anyone looking for a few laughs and a lot of heart with just a touch of Texas to taste.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Nothing by Annie Barrows, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Miss Smithers by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

The Popularity Papers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Popularity Papers by Amy IgnatowLydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang. Julie’s dads consider Lydia part of the family. Julie knows all about Lydia’s crazy goth sister Melody. Together the girls make a decision to venture into the unknown as they try to crack the mysterious code of popularity in fifth grade.

With Lydia acting as chief experimenter and Julie recording their (mixed) results, the girls are confident they will succeed where others have failed. The only problems: Lydia winds up with a bald spot early on, Julie unexpectedly becomes the object of Roland Asbjørnsen’s affections, all of their parents are mad (a lot). Worse, the more Julie and Lydia learn about the popular girls, the farther apart they seem to grow.

Lydia and Julie might be on the verge of being popular, but they’re both starting to wonder if their friendship will survive in The Popularity Papers (2010) by Amy Ignatow.

The Popularity Papers is Ignatow’s first novel as well as the first book about the ongoing adventures of Lydia and Julie.

Ignatow expertly combines drawings and handwritten notes and observations to create a book with a mixed-media feel as the girls pass letters, notes, and the book itself back and forth to tell their story. By combining the girls’ exchanges with first-person accounts from both Lydia and Julie, Ignatow makes sure the concept behind her fun plot never becomes overdone.

The Popularity Papers is also funny, plain and simple. Filled with clever jokes and entertaining illustrations, this is a smart book that will appeal to readers young and old (provided they can get past the youngish-looking cover). A great choice for anyone looking for a laugh The Popularity Papers also houses my favorite ever love poem, a funny re-writing of a popular movie song, and possibly the best illustration of Thor of all time.

Possible Pairings: Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, Alice, I Think by Susany Juby, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Drama by Raina Telgemeier