Monday 10 June 2013

Summer Reading - Elizabeth Wein, Cathy Brett, Rachel Ward, Laura Jarratt, Phil Earle and Teri Terry BRING ON THE JOY.

In two weeks, I am going on what is really my first ever proper summer holiday. Beach. Ice cream. Sun. Sea. Ice cream.

This gives me the perfect excuse to kick back, relax, and spend a month's wages all in one go. Yes, it's find-some-books-on-Amazon-and-order-them-through-my-local-indie time (which adds to the financial cost, but saves on the moral one).

I've already started. I am practically drooling over here.

Elizabeth Wein's new book Rose Under Fire is out, and I am HANKERING to get my hands on a copy. I predict that this one will be finished and my face tear-streaked by the end of the two hour flight, demanding to be re-read once I get to the hotel. Those of you who have read this blog before, or indeed EVER SPOKEN TO ME, will know that I rarely shut up about Wein's last book, Code Name Verity. In fact, I like it so much that I've written not one but two review of it - on this blog and on my other blog, Space on the Bookshelf.

Then there's this one:

I'm a big fan of Cathy Brett. Quite frankly, I think she's awesome. And her new book Everything is Fine (and Other Lies I Tell Myself) is already picking up stonking reviews... (If you haven't ever heard of Cathy Brett, this might give you an idea as to her particular brand of awesome.) This book seems to me to have been packaged a little more 'seriously' than her previous books, and judging by the pace building up behind it, it's going to do great things for her. Also: one of the best titles of the year so far.

And this one...

Rachel Ward's Numbers series is something I have longed shouted about, and I was wondering what was coming next from this terrific writer - and here it is! On the surface of it, The Drowning looks very different from the dystopian thrillers of the trilogy that came before, but Numbers was always gritty, and books two and three are very dark and disturbing. I strongly suspect that when the same style and pace is taken into a contemporary thriller, the results will be unflinchingly horror-filled. (In a good way, of course!)

Oh, Laura Jarratt's By Any Other Name. I loved her debut, Skin Deep. A great British teen romance. So I can't wait to read this next one!

Phil Earle's Heroic has been picking up some great reviews, but to be honest, I'd read this whether it had great reviews or not, because his debut, Being Billy, and the follow-up Saving Daisy, were brutally honest and brilliant.

And to complete the line up - Fractured, by Teri Terry. Teri is a good friend of mine, and I read this when it was a manuscript. But I know that some exciting things happened to it after I originally read it, so I'm eager to spot the changes and just generally enjoy it all over again!

I think, seeing as I'm building my own summer reading list, that I should offer up a recommendation, too! And, without hesitation, it's Pantomime, by Laura Lam. I want, nay NEED, to review this book and shout about it to EVERYONE I KNOW, but sadly, any kind of good review would ruin the book entirely. So I'm restraining myself. But go read it. It will be different from any teen fiction you've read before.

I'd love to hear other suggestions if anyone has any! Particularly suggestions of debuts - I seem to have LOTS of follow-ups on my list!

Monday 20 May 2013

Representing sexual diversity in YA - David Levithan, Malorie Blackman, same sex marriage and a long way to go

Tomorrow, the debate on marriage equality in the UK moves to the House of Lords. It's been an agonising wait for many, and given the coverage it's getting and the politicians who are coming right out (no pun intended) and saying that they don't see a need for marriage equality, I imagine (and fear) that those people might find themselves waiting a while longer.

Quite obviously, given the amount of time I spend talking about John Green here, this is not a blog on politics. But it is a blog about fiction for teens, and here's where culture and politics are mixing in a way that you hope can only mean better things for the next generation of adults.

A favourite author of mine, David Leviathan, has a new book coming out in August (hurry up, August!) called Two Boys Kissing. The cover looks something like this:

Two Boys Kissing is the story of Harry and Craig, two 17 year-old boys determined to break the Guinness World Record for the longest ever kiss. All 32 hours of it, to be more precise. And it's well timed, too, being published a decade after Boy Meets Boy, David's debut.

Many YA writers, when asked about the issues, sex and violence they put in their books, argue that books are an important and safe way for children and teens to explore the world. I completely agree, but I also think that books are an important reflection of the world, and that when books fail to represent significant parts of our culture, children and teens are being failed. Of course, that doesn't only go for sexual inequality - it goes for all sorts of diversity issues, and the growing representation of LGBTQ teens is only one way in which diversity in books is increasing.

A while back, I read a great article on Atlantic Wire, written by Jen Doll. In it, Levithan says:

"Every now and then there's a moment when people are grumbling and saying publishers are still scared [of books featuring LGBT characters], but from my point of view that’s 100 percent false. I have not had any experience of people not wanting to share these voices and stories. Any perceived resistance is from people who aren't plugged in, whose ideas of what the publishing marketplace is are 10 or 20 years out of date."

I feel there's a bit of a dichotomy here. Whilst I do read quite a number of American books featuring LGBTQ characters, I would say that although the numbers of similar characters in UK books are increasing, they aren't increasing very much.

One memorable British book I read recently, though, is Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry, in which the main character's brother is gay, and suffering at the hands of other (school)boys for it. It's a beautifully written book, and the culmination of that particular storyline is in equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful. I read another, simply stunning book a few weeks ago that I'm dying to talk more about here but, alas, it would give the entire plot away. (Sorry. But not really. It was an awesome read.)

Doing a bit of research for this post, I found a piece on the Guardian website from a couple of years ago. It's reporting some news from the States - two authors who were advised to 'straighten out' their gay main characters in order to be published. I can't imagine that this is something that happens very often these days, but the article was of particular interest, because of a mention of Malorie Blackman in the same article:

"Although Blackman experienced only positive reactions from her agent, publisher and readers at her inclusion of a gay younger brother in her novel Boys Don't Cry, she said that, when she was starting out as a writer 20 years ago, she was asked to make a black character white."
She goes on to say (very succinctly!):
"Are we still not over this nonsense?" 

Now, I haven't written this blog because of personal experience. This is not a case of somebody getting up on a soap box to shout about something because they feel it is unfair to them personally. But nevertheless this is something that I feel passionate about.

I look at people very dear to my heart, and I think: when you grow up, I want you to be able to choose. I want you to feel free to love whomever you love, and to be able to celebrate that in the same way as anybody else.

And quite honestly, the more diversity of all kinds is represented in literature for teens, the better off we'll all be.

Monday 29 April 2013

Matt Haig and Snobby Readers

Last week, Matt Haig posted this blog post on Book Snobs. It's caused (and is still causing) a bit of a furore amongst readers, with some surprisingly intense comments left on both the blog piece itself and Matt's Facebook page.

Here's what the post was about: people who are book snobs can damage other people's willingness to read and can destroy their own and other people's enjoyment of books. At least, that's what I got from it. It's a funny and ever-so-slightly serious list of reasons why Book Snobs suck, including:

"If something is popular it can still be good. Just ask Shakespeare. Or the Beatles. Or peanut butter." 
"You don't have to be serious about something to be serious about something." 
"Snobs are suckers, because they have superficial prejudices." 
(I particularly like that last one.)

And one of the reasons I loved this blog post so much was because of the title of this blog: Let's Get Serious. It's called that because it's largely about more literary children's fiction (including Matt Haig, as it happens), because that's what I like. I also read more commercial fiction - including Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Maggie Stiefvater and Derek Landy. I grew up on Sweet Valley High and Enid Blyton and the Animorphs series - not exactly Carnegie fodder. But I LOVED them. I had a lot of fun reading them, and, more so than almost any other stories from my childhood, I have very fond memories of them.

A couple of years ago, I went to hear a (literary) YA author talk at a festival. It was AWFUL. The author spent the first ten minutes ranting about Stephanie Meyer, and they pretty much lost the hundred-strong audience in thirty seconds flat. Nobody likes someone who criticises others in their field for no apparent reason. The existence of Twilight doesn't affect the quality of any other book. Each book is its own thing, and each reader has their own tastes. I don't need to sit in a stuffy room listening to an author who was long a hero of mine disparage somebody else. I can't say exactly what Matt Haig means by the term 'snob' because it's a hard term to define, but I do know that looking down on (or up at) people because of what they read is just non-sensical.

I like the video shown above, by author Kate Harrison. in it, she says, "I want my books, even if they're just entertaining, to make a kind of a difference to people's lives. And probably I shouldn't apologise for entertaining people, because I think it's a really noble cause."

Well said.

Let's be honest: there's no reason AT ALL why Matt Haig's blog post should have caused so much upset. It's basically saying: let people read what they want to read. If they want to read Twilight, let them read it without making them feel bad about it. If they want to read Martin Amis, let them read Martin Amis. It's OK if you don't want to read either of those - it's OK if you prefer Jodi Piccoult or Terry Pratchett or Patrick Ness - just don't make other people feel bad for liking what you don't.


Monday 22 April 2013

Books Within Books - Hiding one world within another

As if offering up one world on a plate wasn't enough to quench readers' thirst, some books can't resist offering up more than themselves. You open the front cover expecting one book, and instead: you get two. Or three. Or several. These books are the hussies of the literary world, shamelessly name-dropping titles and characters in the name of storytelling, absorbing other titles and plots and characters into themselves.

It's a tactic I love.

Especially when the author references a book you've read. It's a chance to feel like you've been wrapped up in the book - it's taken you in. (And it's a chance to feel just a little bit smug that you understand the references and in-jokes.) After reading this piece on the Guardian website by Julia Eccleshare, I've been tempted to find some of my favourites...

There's the obvious ones - Matilda and Inkheart. Reading Matilda was how I first heard of Moby Dick and Charles Dickens. And I loved how much she loved books. I have no idea how much I liked books before I read Matilda, but I know that once I started reading it, I fell in love, and it's a love that will never grow old. (It also taught me that liking books is OK. Actually, it taught me that liking books is pretty darned cool.)

I came to Inkheart much later, but I wish I'd read it as a kid. The quotes at the start of each chapter would have made me feel so included and smart, and Meggie and Mo, live for books.

I bet if I'd read it as a kid, I'd have dreamed of being Mo when I grew up. (I still do, but don't tell anyone.)

Using books within books does lots of things. If you've read the books, it makes you feel included. If you haven't, it makes you feel like the characters (and by association, you as the reader) are smart. Often, it's a trick used to amplify an aspect of the story. It might be a character's infatuation with Romeo and Juliet, for example, or Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights. In fact, when it comes to teen fiction, it's usually one of these. I'm not sure why exactly - perhaps because they are books and plays that most teenagers would recognise and still think are intelligent.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green (I swear, one of these days I will write a blog and not mention John Green) (ALL LIES) provides a window into his own love for literature and writers. One of the main characters, Alaska, has an obsession with books, in particular The General In His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the main character himself is caught up on people's last words. Both characters' literary fixations play an important part of the story, reflecting on both the characters and the plot.

Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park is a little different, using comic books, especially the X-Men, to connect the two main characters, b
oth of whom feel different and alien. I've never read a comic book, but darned if I didn't want to by the time I'd finished with this book. (Which I haven't reviewed here yet, but I'd recommend it with everything I have.)

And then there's one of my all-time faviourites: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. It's a bit of a cheat, because it doesn't contain a real book. But it's so genius in its execution that I had to mention it here. It's a true book within a book. Goldman's aim was to abridge the original The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern, which contained too much description of scenery and history for Goldman's liking. So dotted throughout the book are Goldman's notes on what he's cut out and why.

But of course, S. Morgenstern doesn't exist, and neither does his original book. It was all about Goldman playing around with the value that we put in books and stories. It's incredibly fun and has fooled an incredible number of grown adults (which only makes it more fun).

Mainly, I suppose, writers are book fans, and some of that is bound to seep into their stories, and how can characters who love books ever be a bad thing? More, I say, MORE!

Monday 15 April 2013

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars and Sick Lit

Some months ago, when John Green's The Fault in Our Stars was finally published in the UK to great hoorah and much tumblring, there was a bit of backlash in the press.

It all started with a piece in the Daily Mail, calling TFiOS "mawkish at best, exploitative at worst". It was a typically brow-beating and spectacular piece of journalism and accomplished very little except to earn its very own backlash, including this piece in the Guardian, and this piece on the Strange Chemistry blog and quite frankly I could go on here forever. Some contemporary teen authors even agreed with the Daily Mail - for the responses from Meg Rosoff and Anthony McGowan, see this blog from author Keren David.

I am late to the party, largely because it's taken me this long to gather my thoughts. For the most part, it's not worth responding to anyway, because it's something of nothing, but still, it's been bugging me.

So after several months of thinking, of losing sleep and pulling my hair out and generally not living life to the full because I'm always thinking about the question of whether 'Sick Lit' is right or wrong or, indeed, anything else, what conclusions have I come to?

I just DON'T CARE.

I think if a book is well-written and engaging and creates an emotional response because as a reader you connect with the characters and the situation they're in, then I'll read it and think it's a good book. I might not like it; it might not be my sort of thing, but that's a different matter, and has nothing to do with whether a book is good or not.

And whether the central characters have cancer is not one of the factors I use to determine a book's placement on a scale of sucky to total genius. It just isn't. It's like saying you don't like a book because it's set in Philadelphia. (HINT: the book isn't going to be about Philadelphia.)

I don't know about you, but I've never seen a section in Waterstone's with a garish sign reading "Cancer Section", and I've never recommended TFiOS by saying "You should read this. It's got awesome cancer."

Besides, we've always liked a bit of death with our romance. The death scene in Romeo & Juliet is only catastrophically heart-breaking because it involves the loss of unlived love. I'd have loved to have seen the Daily Mail put Romeo & Juliet on their list of sick lit. Perhaps there are letters written to head teachers every day begging schools to ban such radical examples of teen sex, murder and suicide, all in the name of love.

There's a beautiful scene in TFiOS, where the two main characters, Augustus and Hazel, visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. It reflects on lives lived in forced and involuntary cages, and the sometimes resentful but mostly OK nature of those lives, and the fact that they are lives lived at all and that's what's important and remarkable. It's a scene between two cancer patients in the house of one of the most famously trapped and short lives, and it's not about death. It's about the other thing.

And I think that's something that anyone can relate to, regardless of their age, but it's something particularly true of teens. There are too many things that make you feel trapped as a teen to bother counting, and there are very few ways out of most of them.

There's a reason that this book is being passed from rucksack to rucksack in schools around the country, and it isn't because it's a story about cancer. Trust me.

The fact is that TFiOS, along with so many other 'sick lit' books, is FULL of life, despite everything that conspires against it. It's quirky and funny and the first love between Augustus and Hazel is the first love that everyone wants to have, because it's smart and sexy and just downright awesome (minus the cancer). This is a story of love against the odds, and battles won and lost, and countless other cliches that could be applied to most famous books in our history.

And you know why they can be applied to most famous books in history?

Because The Fault in Our Stars is nothing new.

(It's just exceptionally well-written.)

Friday 5 April 2013

It's a truth universally acknowledged that Romance will ALWAYS be popular... The Return of the Romance in YA

It has been TOO LONG since I blogged. I know, I know, I'm a bit rubbish, but truth is that I haven't had much time for reading recently. And then when I did have time, I found it hard to get back into the swing of things. I tried picking up some of my favourites, but nothing was working.

Everything felt a bit too... serious. (Which I think you'll agree, given the title of this blog, is somewhat ironic.)

So I did what any fan of books does when they're feeling a bit stuck in a rut. I took a recommendation and ran with it. The recommendation was for this:

Specifically, it was for anything by Gayle Foreman. And goodness me, did I fall in love. In this, the 200th anniversary year of Pride and Prejudice, it seems that Contemporary Romance is coming back to bite Paranormal in the you-know-what (pardon the almost-pun).

God, I love both these books so much. In fact, I am currently in the process of buying everything that Gayle Foreman has ever written. Gayle Foreman is an American writer, and I found her books so refreshingly devoid of death and illness (and vampires, of course) that I started hunting down more American writers to sooth my reading woes.

Soon I found...


And finally a British writer...

And then some more American writers - lots of them in fact, in this superb collection of short stories...

Along with most of the characters in these books, I AM IN LOVE. There's something about YA romance that is absorbing and reflective without getting too heavy.

Confession: I usually avoid romances like the proverbial plague. I always had this idea of them as soppy and wet and... well... everything I dislike.

But the romances that are hitting the shelves now are none of these things. Instead they are smart and sassy and, goddamit, they're funny.

Gayle Foreman is one clever cookie - her books are undeniably her, but they're also very different from each other. I'd particularly recommend Just One Day (the sequel Just One Year is an agonising several months away, but I'm fairly certain I'll be recommending it you very soon). Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss may sound like a book only thirteen year-old girls would enjoy, but it is truly AWESOME. The perfect romance, and incredibly funny and smart.

Laura Jarrett is the only British author I've shown here. I could be wrong, but I can't find much in the way of Contemporary Romance on UK shelves, written by UK authors. But more and more American writers are appearing on bookshop shelves - so many, in fact, that it seems that Romance is truly on the up. Which isn't surprising, given our recent leanings towards all things dark and fetch-the-kleenex-please sad.

So I have my fingers firmly crossed that the next year will bring more like Laura Jarrett, because, quite honestly, I think we could all use a bit of romance.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Bernard Beckett, Genesis and some of the best teen fiction you will ever read!

Confession: I'm a little bit in love with Bernard Beckett.

Well, his books, anyway.

I first stumbled across Bernard Beckett when a friend gave me a copy of August for my birthday. Reading August was such a new experience – a YA different from any I’d ever read – that I immediately went out and bought Genesis, Beckett's best-known novel. It sounds stupidly simple, perhaps, to say that I am a fan because reading his novel was a 'new experience', but in the current market, finding a novel that offers something completely different, something surprising, is rare, and having read my second Beckett, I think I'm probably right in saying that rare is something he consistently manages.

If you've never read Beckett, you should know this: he writes unique books. 

These books are intricately-woven: stories about people and circumstances, love and hate, faith and religion, history and the future.

Take August, for example. On the surface, August is about a teenage boy and girl who are stuck in an upturned car following a crash, left to keep each other conscious all night by telling their stories. As we, and they, learn their stories, they start to weave inescapably together.

Underneath all that, though, is a brilliant mind at work. Beckett deftly weaves in complex discussions on philosophy, religion, faith and free will, all in a way that is necessary and relevant to the plot and characters. 

Genesis does the same sort of thing. The story centres on Anax, who is taking an examination in front of a board of her peers. If all goes well, she will find herself a member of the Academy. The book has an unusual format – it is essentially a transcript of Anax’s conversation with the Examiners. When I think about it, this format shouldn’t work at all! It shouldn’t be captivating or interesting or unputdownable, but it’s all of those things.

As the Examiners set about asking Anax a series of questions on her chosen subject, you get wrapped up in the history of the world she finds herself a part of, and you start to find out a little about what Anax believes her place in that world is.

The unusual format of Genesis

Her chosen subject is Adam. Adam was a man who brought about the downfall of an entire society, and Anax is endlessly fascinated by him. As she answers question after question, we learn more about Adam, but also more about Anax’s obsession with his life. Into this scenario, Beckett weaves a discussion on society, economics, government and Artificial Intelligence.

Even as I write those words, I wonder how Beckett has turned such a thing into a book so full of magic as Genesis, but he has. He is a clever, clever writer. Everything stitches together, everything adds up, and every sentence boils with intent and thought. As Patick Ness puts it on the cover blurb: “A very different Young Adult novel... that will make smart teenagers feel very respected." 

I couldn’t agree more. but I also think it's a fun, thrilling, absorbing novel, and I for one am off to find more like it!