6 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Joint Review: Unconventional by Matt Springer

It’s Alert Nerd Day at The Book Smugglers! Today we take a look at Alert Nerd Press – an independent digital publisher dedicated to making geek-centric fiction and nonfiction for the discriminating nerd, both online and in print.

Title: Unconventional

Author: Matt Springer

Genre: Contemporary, Fiction, Geek-lit

Publisher: Alert Nerd Press
Publication Date: April 2007 (Originally Published Feb 2003)
Paperback: 141 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novella

How did we get this book: Review copy from the author

Why did we read this book: We love the geektastic blog that is Alert Nerd, having been introduced to the folks over there earlier this year for their “That’s My Scott and Jean” bonanza. So, when bloggers/authors Matt Springer and Sarah Kuhn contacted us with an opportunity to read and review their novellas, we eagerly accepted!

Summary: (from AlertNerdPress.com)
A tale of sex, booze and geeks at Chicago’s fictional UnCon, Unconventional follows three friends as they love, laugh, and dare I say learn in a loving-yet-irreverent look at fans and fandom (oh, and one of them gets laid. Twice). From founding Alert Nerd Matt Springer, Unconventional is the first book (of millions!) from AN Press.


First Impressions:

Thea: When we were offered a chance to review Unconventional, I was pretty frakking excited. With a tagline like “A tale of sex, booze, and geeks” how could I be anything but excited? And, for the most part, Matt Springer delivers. Unconventional is an inside glimpse of a group of friends as they tackle UnConvention (Northern Illinois’ top SF convention). It’s a tale about friendships, about growing up, and, yeah, about geeks getting their rocks off to The Phantom Menace bashing and the awesomeness of Leonard Nimoy’s prosthetic ears from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Though it’s an uneven ride, Unconventional gets its message across with some touching and revealing interactions between its trio of characters. And, though it’s a bit dated, I did enjoy the honest, at times cringeworthy look at the unwashed, basement-dwelling male geek stereotype, up close and personal. Though it didn’t particularly resonate with me as a reader, it’s certainly entertaining and it has its moments.

Ana: I basically had a similar reaction to Thea when we were offered a review copy. Alert Nerd is one of my favourite sites these days and upon reading the tagline “A tale of sex, booze, and geeks” , I knew I was in for a bromance- like read and braced myself for just that. And you know. Unconventional totally resonated with me as a reader, maybe because I am geekier than I thought but most probably because I like reading about male characters’ and their struggles – it is always like having glimpses of completely alien minds. But here, they are alien not only because they are men but because they take geekdom to a different dimension (aha) , one that is far away from my own. And I loved this insight into the world of Conventions – to the point where I one day hope to be able attend one. Right now, to attend Comic Con is a matter of honour.

On the Plot:

Unconventional is the story of three friends – a “Trilogy” that has been together since bonding over the Return of the Jedi novelization back in the fourth grade. Now in their mid-twenties, Ham, Marty, and Ron are reunited and headed out to UnConvention, the year’s best SF con, where they’ll drink far too much, find and lose lovers, and get into some heated discussions about the nature of geekdom, their futures, and their friendships.

Thea: In terms of structure, Unconventional is a nice package. Alternating between a present timeline of leadup & three days spent at UnCon, and pivotal flashbacks in each character’s past, this novella is a nicely rounded and decently paced read. Initially, the story drags a bit, injecting a lot of popgeekery references and metaphors without really accomplishing anything to advance the story. That said, once the book kicks into gear at the convention and readers get to know the characters more intimately in terms of their thoughts and emotions, everything clicks.

I did have a few jarring reservations whilst reading Unconventional that do bode mentioning – the first dealing with the dated nature of the material. The novella was originally written in 2001, and as such, many of the references feel a bit tired – the annoyances of Jar Jar Binks, the cash cow milking that was The Phantom Menace, the Gollum references that were cool when The Fellowship of the Ring first came out, a lengthy metaphor about taking the red pill versus the blue pill, just to name a few. When I started Unconventional, I was under the impression that it would be a bit more current, so it was a jarring experience. That said, now knowing the time frame when it was written, I can deal. The difference between 2001 and 2009 is just an unfortunate nether-realm – the references aren’t quite old enough to be “retro” nor are they recent enough to be cool.

The good, more important thing to remember though is that Unconventional is more than a string of empty pop-geek references. Yeah, Unconventional verges on sitcom-y/stereotypical geek movie, but there are some surprisingly touching moments in this slim book, coming together nicely by the last few chapters. Though there’s a lot of the requisite aforementioned Star Wars/Star Trek/SF referencing as well as some good humored, sardonic fun poked at conventions (i.e. dudes who really should not be wearing spandex batsuits doing so onstage), this isn’t so much a book about conventions and fanboy geekdom than it is about friends dealing with their own baggage…friends who happen to be, well, huge fanboy geeks. And that’s cool. I can get on board with that.

Ana: Lord help me for I loved each and every geeky reference and even the dated nature of the novel. Actually scrap that, I wouldn’t even use the word “dated” for this since the issues raised that COULD be seen as dated feel so relevant to me. Every time they mentioned Gollum I giggled; the blue pill versus the red pill speech was totally cool and I completely understand the frustration about the Phantom Menace.

But as Thea says Unconventional is more than that – it is almost a Coming of Age story for each of the character but not quite, because of the ultimate outcome. I liked the format of the novel with each character going on its separate journey during the convention, each at some point or the other meeting another character who became an Obi Wan Kenobi them, giving life advice. It is a book about friendship and about growing up; touching on issues such as: do growing up mean growing away from being a geek? Each of the characters reaches a point where this question is raised and each relates to it in a different manner. It is, about all, a novella about identity. They all depart hoping to have mindless fun at the convention but the journey ends up being completely different from what they expected.

That are many, many Star Wars/Star Trek references and other relevant references to what geeks love and that may be jarring for those readers that do not relate so in that case, this book is certainly not a book for everyone. I also need to mention that I had a couple of problems with the episodic nature of the novel and I am sure I have seen one or two continuity mistakes (there is one scene where one of the guys asks about another character, saying that he hadn’t seen him the “whole morning”. But how could he? It was only 10am and he had just woken up. Yeah, I know. Nitpicking). But since the choppy, episodic feel of the novella is due to the choice of having each character on his own journey, this may be a moot point but still, I could have done with a smoother connection between each sequence.

On the Characters:

Thea: Here’s where Unconventional really shines – because its characters are wonderfully detailed and flawed. Any time a character makes you react strongly, it’s usually a good thing – it means the author is doing his or her job. And certainly, Unconventional had some characters that had me reacting in a strong way. Each of the three protagonists of Marty, Ham and Ron, are dudes with issues. Easily, Marty is my favorite of the lot – earnest, driven, emotional and intelligent, Marty’s an aspiring science fiction author who struggles with the decision to pursue his dream of writing, or stay on the safer career path that will keep him fed. Then there’s Ham (actual name Theo – Ham is short for Hammerhead, a minor character from the Star Wars films) – nervous, dramatic, impassioned Ham, with his convention crushes and his own share of disappointments. And finally, there’s Ron. Asshole, arrogant, selfish Ron, who gives me the urge to blindside tackle him and start eyegouging. The geek of the group who grew into a young Harrison Ford looking guy, suave with the ladies, and who honestly doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself.

Each of these characters goes through a lot in Unconventional, coming to grips with their own shortcomings, fears and hopes. And each of them has at least one moment of genuine reflection as the book progresses, taking them beyond a caricaturish rendering and making them real, flesh and blood people. Even asshole Ron has one such moment! Now that’s saying something. The dynamic between these three friends, strained as it may be at times, is what makes the book. Even if I didn’t particularly love certain aspects of these men, I can appreciate how real they are.

Ana: I am with Thea on this one – the characters are wonderful. Marty, Ham and Ron are flawed and interesting geeks, my favourite also being Marty.

These three are total, complete losers.

But given the nature of the novella, it is important to make it clear that they are not losers because they are geeks – they are losers because they are confined by this “geek” label and they do not do anything above and beyond that. As with someone says in the book, keeping life and real relationships at bay is what makes you a loser.

Ham for example is the one who is the most stereotypically geek– living in his parents’ basement, apparently satisfied with the life he leads, with the fact that he gets to spend his money with his geek stuff. This satisfaction however, may prove to be superficial and there is an amazing scene towards the ending and a breakdown that actually made me cry a little bit.

Dramatically different is Ron, he is the geek who is ashamed to be a geek and he found a way out with the fact that he is cool with the ladies – but he is stuck in the same machine over and over again and is unable to let go. He is the MAJOR loser of the book because he is an asshole to women and even to his friends. A total douchebag, it also makes him very human though.

Marty on the other hand, is the one that is able to break the vicious circle by not only embracing the inner geek but also opening up to the real world. Marty is the proof that is possible to have both.

And that is my Pearl of Wisdom for today. You can call me Obi Wan Kenobi now.

Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:

Thea: Unconventional is a book that has its moments, both high and low. It’s much more of a dude-centric, bromancy kind of story that didn’t particularly resonate with me, a female member of the geek contingent, but I enjoyed reading it, and I do look forward to more from Matt Springer.

Ana: This novella has its heart in the right place. Since I am a major fan of bromance, dude-centric stories, I loved it. If Alert Nerd keeps publishing novels like that, I predict I will read every single one of them.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

For those who have ever been to a science fiction convention, no explanation is necessary. Those who regularly attend cons understand the unique vibe one encounters when several hundred sci-fi fans gather in one place for three days of inane chatters, outrageous spending, and casual sex – or alternately three days of no sunlight, little sleep and full-on submission to total geekdom.

For those who never been, no explanation will suffice. To those who are con virgins – or “mundanes” , as non-fans are often known to con goers – attending a con might seem, in many crucial ways, like stepping into another world. A quick scan around the lobby of Schaumburg’s Hyatt Regency on the UnConvention’s opening day would do nothing to relieve that feeling. The real trick would be trying to figure out just which world you’d wandered into by mistake.

On a bank of couches, a passable Doctor Who (the fourth Doctor, by all appearances) chatted amiably with an oversized woman in a full renaissance maiden costume, her long hair braided and hanging over her ample (and amply exposed) breasts. Four guys in near-matching black t-shirts have staked out a spot near the concierge desk and were engaging in a fierce session of Magic: The Gathering on the lobby floor. In the expansive atrium area, a small crowd had gathered to watch two jedi engage in an impromptu lightsaber battle.

Everyone had their own particular quirk to flaunt, be it a costume, an allegiance to a particular subclass of fans, or even just a tiny button with the catchphrase “My friend went to the Hellmouth and all I got was this lousy pin” emblazoned upon it. In other words, it was your typical con crowd, and there’s no doubt that any mundanes stumbling upon the proceedings might start searching for the first available shuttle back to Planet Normal.

But for the UnCon community, banded together for three days each year then scattered back into the harsh winds of the “real world”, the Hyatt felt like home.

Additional Thoughts: You can purchase Unconventional online, OR you can download the novella for free in its entirety in an online PDF. The power is yours!


Thea: 6 – Good, Recommended

Ana: 6 – Good, and leaning towards a 7

Reading Next: One Con Glory by Sarah Kuhn

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1 Comment

  • Matt
    November 6, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Thea, Ana–thank you SO MUCH for your words about my book–the kind ones and the critical ones too. It means so much that you’d take time to read my stuff and write about it!

    Fortunately, I have my friend Sarah Kuhn to write from the “geek chick-lit” perspective as opposed to my “bro-mance lad lit” take on the subject! 🙂

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