Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Review: The Book Thief




The Book Thief 

Markus Zusak 
(2006)


It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau. This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.


There’s no point in leaving it to question. This is not an easy-to-read book. Initially, I found the prose discombobulated, often grasping for unique ways to convey simple imagery. After two false starts and a significant break between each, on the third try, I finally pushed through the opening chapters
and boy, I’m glad I did. Whether through adjustment or appreciation, the writing style now seems so befitting, I can’t imagine how this story could be told in any other way. What I once perceived as jarring now fits perfectly into the wartime narrative and the constant fear of what may come. Conversely, there’s little in the way of mystery; we know what’s coming. We’re reminded of both the characters’ and our own mortality throughout, given the identity of the narrator. Overall, the effect is one of profundity which resonates long after finishing.

I’ve read criticism regarding the portrayal of Leisl, the protagonist and narrator’s obsession. Some take issue with her closed, wariness, forgetting or dismissing the trauma and secrets she carries and instead of interpreting her as flat or poorly written. In some ways, I can see why some have this opinion, although it’s not one I share. Death conflates her personality with his* own fascination. Not in an inappropriate, Humbert Humbert way, I hasten to add. However, Death builds an air of mystique about Leisl from his own romanticism of humankind which doesn’t align with the depiction of the character. If you’re unable to extrapolate who Leisl is from how she’s perceived by the narrator, it’s easier to mistake her defensive behaviour as one-dimensional. It’s in her relationship with Hans Hubermann, Papa, where we see who she really is: a lost child, desperate for love.

As a general rule, if a book makes me cry or laugh it’s automatically raised to 4 stars. If it makes me do both, it’s 5 stars all the way. While The Book Thief didn’t make me laugh (more like smile periodically, thanks to one Rudy Steiner), I’ll admit to having a weep at the end. Perhaps my maturity or understanding of war - WWII in particular – caused me to shed a tear and kept this story in my mind long after reading. Nevertheless, I prefer to think it’s because this is a special book, uniquely told, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up part of the national curriculum.

5/5 Stars




*hers/theirs/its

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Get Some Diversity Part Two (ROYA #30)

The time is always right to do what is right” 

--- Martin Luther King Jr.

For a long time I’ve purposefully created diverse, non-stereotypical characters in my fiction work. It’s something I remain passionate about the further my career develops. My initial reasons for doing this stem from a desire to create fresh, colourful stories with interesting characters and atypical scenarios. Essentially breaking the monotony of what crosses my path through mainstream avenues. I’ll admit, my motivations are selfish because all I want is to create the type of stories I enjoy reading. However, it turns out it’s not just me; many want the same thing from entertainment. It's widely recognised that lack of diversity is a huge problem in Hollywood, and too often in fictional stories, non-white characters are portrayed as stereotypes

Let's just go ahead and stop this. We don't want it, we see it for what it is, and there's only so much we can ascribe to suspended disbelief. What's more, those of us who write children's fiction and YA are often creating the main source of information through entertainment to which our readers have access. Yeah, that's right. We are mixed up in this nonsense whether we like it or not. It’s some responsibility, the magnitude of which a growing number of authors recognise, but there’s still a lot of work to do. How? Well, we can all start by interrogating some of our choices as writers and readers. 

“So sometimes fiction is the only medium in which these children engage with the lives of others. Therefore, we need books which talk — not as information or as education, but simply as the setting — of diverse kinds of lives.”
--Sayoni Basu of independent Indian publisher Duckbill Books

Thankfully, things are changing. It's a slow, gradual shift, but it's happening. Blockbusters like Disney's Moana show non-white protagonists as having stories which are compelling to audiences from all walks of life. The Lego Batman Movie has a brown-skinned leading lady, voiced by the drop-dead gorgeous Rosario Dawson, and proves non-white characters can fit perfectly into a story with little-to-no relevance to the plot. Change is happening, and it's marvellous. Yet, even with this progress within the mainstream, a quick search for upcoming teen titles yields a plethora of movie and book posters featuring predominantly white characters. Promo shots with token cast members are like prizes in a lucky dip: they're nice, but you don't know what you're getting, and although it might be something good, it could also be tat chucked in to add bulk to the bucket.

Hard as it is to believe, I’ve heard a number of reasons why writers don’t have a range of diverse characters in their stories. Of course, each excuse can be easily dismissed under the slightest interrogation. Here is a selection of the most common reasons given for avoiding diversity in fiction:

“Of course all the primary characters are white and straight. It’s a Viking/Norse myth/ pick-a-white-scenario saga, it has to be authentic.”
What, so there were only straight Vikings? Right. I happen to think a story about an asexual Viking who struggles with all the raping and pillaging sounds compelling, but maybe that’s just me. Even if sexual preference isn’t relevant to the storyline, there’s still the question of racial diversity. The Vikings made it as far as North Africa, Constantinople, and even North America. Given it’s now believed they returned from raids with women and slaves, it’s unlikely their homeland’s population was as white as the snow that falls there.


“I’m a straight white person and I write about what I know.”
Okay. Are all of your friends straight and white? If so, maybe it’s not just your writing that needs a little diversity. Seriously, I’ve lived in a backwater town, and when I say backwater, I mean like sewage backing up the drains. Sure, it was predominantly white, but other than my husband, the person with whom I conversed the most was the owner of the Post Office, an immigrant from Pakistan. Lovely chap. My point is there are answers to this issue just outside the box. Go on. Open the box. Jump out. It's fun out here, and there's cake we can eat too.


“I don’t want to stick random characters that aren’t white/straight/”other” into the story. That’s forcing the issue and it doesn’t make good reading. Besides, it’s not relevant to the plot.”
Since being white isn’t always relevant to the plot, why does being anything other have to matter so much? People want to SEE diversity in the story; see themselves and more than one version of humanity. Can’t there just be a smattering of differences with which readers can identify? Representation matters, and someone’s ethnicity and sexuality don’t have to have any bearing on what’s happening in the plot. They don’t always have relevance in life, do they? Diversifying your story – or as readers, what you look for in a story – can be as small as what a secondary character is named. 
Yes, writers, all this takes effort. Yes, it’s deliberate and risks coming across as contrived. BUT the result has the potential to positively influence a young audience.  If you feel like it’s forced, find a way to fix it – you’re a writer, adapt! Being a writer means committing to continually develop your skills. Diversity should simply be another string to your bow. Readers, if you’re not happy, here’s the solution: Put the book down and find another. If you can’t, DEMAND one. Because if there’s no demand, things will continue in the same, white, heteronormative cis-biased vein and we’ll all be bored to tears. Don't know where to begin? Social media, bookstores, in your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are all good starting points. The power to effect change resides within us all, and in the digital age is well within our capabilities.

When it comes to tackling the subject of diversity in entertainment, I've barely scratched the surface. It's a topic I'm passionate about, and I'd like to leave the door open for further musings at a later date. However, I'll conclude the second installment of this part-rant-part-observation with a proposal and a call to arms. If you want a more compassionate society, then demand diversity and representation in all forms of entertainment. Especially for children and young adults. Don’t sit back and take mediocrity. You deserve better. We all do.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Review: Anna and the French Kiss


Can Anna find love in the City of Light?
Anna is happy in Atlanta. She has a loyal best friend and a crush on her coworker at the movie theater, who is just starting to return her affection. So she's less than thrilled when her father decides to send her to a boarding school in Paris for her senior year.
But despite not speaking a word of French, Anna meets some cool new people, including the handsome Étienne St. Clair, who quickly becomes her best friend. Unfortunately, he's taken —and Anna might be, too. Will a year of romantic near misses end with the French kiss she's waiting for?


I'm a sucker for romance and have a soft spot for the teen variety. Underneath its glacial layer, my heart is gooey as a syrup-soaked sponge. When it comes to fiction, my cynicism and skepticism are always at odds with my immaturity and longing for a happy ending. I admit to racing through Anna and the French Kiss.  I'll go ahead and say it: I liked it. It's a guilty pleasure. There's no denying it's an easy read which, when it comes to romance, I'm all for. I zipped through it and couldn't put it down. I think it's the fastest I've got through a YA since I was in high school. Nevertheless, there are aspects which don't sit right with me, and I can't move past them enough to find true, unadulterated enjoyment from having read this story.

The parts which make this story work are the sweet romance - it is properly cute - the believable dialogue, and the convincing portrayals of teen angst and behaviours. Even though it's been twenty years since I was seventeen, I do remember how awkward things could get between friends. Yes, there are times when the characters act poorly towards each other, but I don't see their conduct as unrealistic. Far from it. They're normal teens who make mistakes, hurt each other, and generally act within a bubble of self-centeredness. In that regard, Stephanie Perkins gets it spot-on. The dialogue is much more characteristic of teens than John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, (which, I know, isn't hard), and in general the prose is wonderfully authentic. Also, the dynamics of the characters' friendships are ultimately more satisfying than the usual All Boys Like The Main Girl and All Girls Like The Main Boy. However, it barely scrapes past this particular aspect as it's stated pretty much every girl in school fancies Étienne, while Anna has some sort of romantic affiliation with almost all the teenage males.

The secondary characters were slightly more interesting than the average YA supporting cast, but the "villains" were sadly standard fare. It's a shame the female antagonists are considered slutty while the protagonist is literally virginal. It's a tired trope that feeds into slut-shaming, sexism, and rape-culture. I expect better from YA romance these days, but then again I'm numb enough to the tropes to bypass them in search of The Big Love. Sadly, the relationship between Anna and Étienne isn't a healthy one, which makes these smaller quibbles stand out.

The characterisation of the lead love interest is where I begin to take issue. Étienne St. Clair is nice - I use Anna's description of Every. Single. Guy. - and there's plenty about him to like. I could never quite pin down what his hair was meant to be doing, but that isn't so important. He has personality, he's funny, intelligent, and we're assured he's beautiful, but not too perfect. Now, I love a flawed character, I do. But I believe there's a big difference between a flawed character and a romantic lead who's weak. I don't mean physically weak, and I'm not talking about the various fears he expresses throughout the narrative. Those are rather endearing. But Étienne St. Clair is weak-willed and has a weak mind, and it's seriously off-putting. Of course, paired with Anna's hypocrisy and inability to see what's right in front of her, they make a great pair. Then there's Anna. If I have to read one more book where Blondes = Boring or Bad, Brunettes = Beautiful-But-Don't-Know-It-and-Are-Therefore-More-Desirable-to-Boys I will break something pretty and grind it under my heel. The whole clumsy shy cutey-pie thing has been done to death. Despite this, Anna's relatively interesting, witty albeit universally oblivious, and refreshingly well-rounded for a YA female protagonist. However, based on their actions, or rather, Étienne's actions throughout this book, I don't see a happy future for them. And that's a major turn-off, which puts my whole Reader Experience on a bummer.
3/5 Stars



Monday, 13 February 2017

GREEK WARS by E.A. Weston ~Release Blitz~


Greek



Pick a House and Start the War… Andy Morgan is diving headfirst into a new college and a new life. After all, it's the best way to escape the heartache of her past and move on to new and exciting things. Unfortunately for her War has begun making her choose a side and thrusting her into the spotlight. When a rival sorority starts poaching another sorority's legacies, it's war a Greek war. And not all is fair in Delta Kappa battle. When the DG’s partner with the DK’s, there's more on the line than bragging rights and new pledges. Nicole, the president of DK, is set on redemption but she’s not only trying to win back her legacies, she wants her Ex, Riley, back. Except Riley has his sights on someone new and Andy just might be the pawn in a Greek game she wasn't quite prepared to play. Now, it's up to Andy to teach the star quarterback a few tricks of her own--while taking down Greek row – one house at a time. About the Author E.A. WESTON was born and raised in Dublin Ireland. She now resides in southern California. She is the best-selling author of New Adult contemporary, paranormal, and Fantasy romance novels. She has written and published fifteen works of fiction including the Blackrock Series, The Avalon Series, and the Lupo Legacy mini series. Earning awards for cover design, and in multiple romance categories for her Blackrock series including best steamy NA romance. www.eaweston.com / @ek8010 / Elizabeth@eaweston.com Copy/Paste HTML below :D

51eMmYZxm4LOUT NOW! The highly anticipated NA release by E.A. Weston if finally here!

Pick a House and Start the War…
Andy Morgan is diving headfirst into a new college and a new life. After all, it's the best way to escape the heartache of her past and move on to new and exciting things. Unfortunately for her War has begun making her choose a side and thrusting her into the spotlight.
When a rival sorority starts poaching another sorority's legacies, it's war a Greek war. And not all is fair in Delta Kappa battle. When the DG’s partner with the DK’s, there's more on the line than bragging rights and new pledges. Nicole, the president of DK, is set on redemption but she’s not only trying to win back her legacies, she wants her Ex, Riley, back.
Except Riley has his sights on someone new and Andy just might be the pawn in a Greek game she wasn't quite prepared to play. Now, it's up to Andy to teach the star quarterback a few tricks of her own--while taking down Greek row – one house at a time.

About the Author

E.A. WESTON was born and raised in Dublin Ireland. She now resides in southern California. She is the best-selling author of New Adult contemporary, paranormal, and Fantasy romance novels. She has written and published fifteen works of fiction including the Blackrock Series, The Avalon Series, and the Lupo Legacy mini series. Earning awards for cover design, and in multiple romance categories for her Blackrock series including best steamy NA romance.
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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Get Some Diversity: Part One (ROYA #29)


Without getting political, it’s safe to say the world would benefit from a little more compassion and understanding right now. The rise in hatred and intolerance across the globe is hard to ignore. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. correctly identified lack of communication as the root of the problem. However, tackling such a gargantuan issue is daunting. It’s difficult to see how one person can make a difference. But we can. YOU can. And it all starts with something as simple as reading a novel.
“We must promote, persuade, and provoke our young readers to pick up those books that broaden and challenge our understanding of what it means to be another and to be ourselves.” 
---Alegria Barclay, excerpt from Building Empathy Through Reading  regarding Black Lives Matter 
Books have the ability to reach people and communicate ideas. Their influence is undeniable. Yet, for a long time there wasn’t enough accurate representation in fiction, particularly in books geared towards children and teens, to foster an empathetic outlook. Somehow the default settings in YA tended towards white, heterosexual, gender binary characters, often from middle-class backgrounds. I’m not suggesting stories with these characteristics aren’t or can’t be enjoyable, but constantly having to relate to them when you see nothing of yourself is tiresome. Moreover, if you do identify with some or all of these traits, failing to read stories about those who don’t can narrow your lens of perception. 
Can books really have such a huge influence on younger readers? Absolutely! Sometimes fiction can be a young person’s only route into experiencing the lives of others with whom they have little in common.  On the flip-side, some children and teens rarely see themselves represented in fiction, which poses another problem. When they’re continually presented with books in which people like them are secondary characters, or aren’t even there at all, they begin to perceive themselves as having the same relevancy. These youngsters don’t deserve to think of themselves as invisible or secondary characters in life. They have a right to see characters similar to them as the hero, adventurer, vanquisher of evil, and star in the spotlight. This isn’t purely for entertainment’s sake. It’s about giving kids a chance to feel as though they’re part of this world.

To see oneself in the pages of a young adult book is to receive the reassurance that one is not alone after all, not other, not alien but, instead, a viable part of a larger community of beings who share a common humanity.--- Michael Cart, Expert for children’s and Young Adult Literature, excerpt from The Value of Young Adult Literature 

Thanks to movements like We Need Diverse Books and Ramp Your Voice this is changing, and diversity-deficient fiction is counteracted with multiple constructive campaigns. Now it’s easier than ever to find books featuring a wide range of cultures and backgrounds, and work by authors of different ethnicities. All you need to do is get your hands on one, read it, and if it’s good, recommend it to people. If you have the urge to do more than that, why not gift a copy to a friend or family member? It’s that easy. By doing this, you spread awareness and subsequently contribute towards culturing compassion and understanding in society. You become a transmitter through which the book communicates with the world.

If you’re keen to take that extra step towards diversifying your reading, here’s an idea for how you might go about it. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to ensure the next five books you read sit outside your usual scope. Avoid the temptation to select something from a genre you don’t read and instead look to switch-up the human element. For example, if you typically enjoy books by men, pick one by a woman. Find something by a transgender author. Choose a book with a POC protagonist if most of the characters you usually encounter are white. If you tend towards authors who are straight or gay, seek out work by openly bi, ace, or pan writers. Above all, actively hunt down work by writers from cultures and backgrounds that contrast with your own. These are just a handful of suggestions to which you are by no means limited. There are thousands of ways to diversify your reading, and the more you read and share, the greater your contribution to spreading compassion and understanding. In the meantime, if you’re unsure of where to start, check out this list on Mostly YA Lit. Or if you’re into sci-fi & fantasy, take a look at Diversity in YA’s list.

Next week, I’ll continue this topic by looking at how readers and writers can interrogate artistic decisions when it comes to diversity in fiction. Until then, happy reading!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Problem With Forever Love (ROYA #28)

There’s something special about teenage romance. The butterflies, blushing, jangled nerves whenever that special person is close enough to touch. It’s intense, all-consuming, and when it’s good, it’s great. Holiday romances, one week flings with a classmate, stolen kisses with a friend in a moment of confusion, or unrequited infatuation, they all have one thing in common. Teen romances – usually – end. And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to acknowledge that at the time, but it’s nevertheless true. Teen romances are rites of passage that bring us one step closer to self-definition, something we strive towards throughout our teens and early twenties.  So why do so many contemporary YA books portray teen romances as lasting a lifetime?

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. “YA fiction doesn’t have to be realistic!” and “I don’t want the reality, I want the fantasy/ love the happily ever after.” Sure, I understand the appeal. But hear me out. As adults, we can suspend our disbelief and decipher fact from fiction. However, the trend for Forever Love in YA movies, TV, and books is having an impact on how teens perceive romantic relationships. As literature teacher Cheryl L. Dickson points out in The ALAN Review:

“Each adolescent is certain that his/her love is true and will result in a lifelong commitment. Each one dreaming of the emotional fireworks, picnics on the beach, a honeymoon in Paris, and the names of his/her first-born… I then realize how disappointing it can be when their dreams of romance and love are crushed.”

Adolescent and adult relationships are different.  The motivation behind most teenage romance is not emotional intimacy, but convenience, status, and appeasing their egos. Admittedly, that sounds negative, but it’s all part of growing up. Teens are hardwired to seek relationships that benefit themselves and aren’t normally willing to put another’s feelings before their own. It’s well established that teenagers are more susceptible to media influence.  Consistently offering unrealistic representations of teen romance in mainstream books, TV, and movies isn’t just irresponsible, it’s harmful.

It all comes down to expectations. If there were enough depictions of realistic teen romance in popular entertainment, then adolescents would have a better understanding of what to expect from a relationship. Instead of adopting a wait-and-see approach, many teens enter their first romance assuming it’s the love of their life. As a result, they’re more likely to forgive mistreatment and abuse for the sake of maintaining their relationship. Especially when male love interests in YA are portrayed as controlling liars who’re excused for their behaviour because they’re super hot (I’m looking at you, Twilight). I could list a plethora of YA books which conform to this type, but I want to avoid giving away any spoilers. Because of this unattainable aspiration for Forever Love, teenagers will go to lengths to hold the interest of their girl/boyfriend, compromising their appearance, character, and sense of self-worth. Of course, when the relationship inevitably turns bad or fizzles out, the impact can seem life-altering. As adults, we know this isn’t the case, but as teens, almost everything seems like it will change your life forever.  Their feelings are valid and should be respected when representing teen romance in fiction and entertainment that's specifically aimed at them. They shouldn’t be made to feel as though they’re incapable or not deserving of a relationship when in actuality the relationship is an ideal which doesn’t exist.

You might be wondering if YA and teen fiction have always been this way. Simply put, no. The concept of Forever Love rose in popularity around the start of the noughties and is yet to see a decline.  As a 90’s teen with a voracious appetite for fiction, I can confirm none of the contemporary books aimed at my demographic had lifelong romances. At least, not the ones I read, and I read a lot. Of course, the market for teen/YA fiction is relatively new, and the general acceptance of teens as a demographic originated as recently as the 1950s.  Social standards were different  then, of course, and the legal marrying age drops the further back in history you look. Yet, celebrated books considered suitable for adolescents such as Little Women (1868) the Little House [on the Prairie]  series (1938), rarely portray protagonists in long-term relationships before their twenties. In Anne of Green Gables  (1908) it takes five books before Anne’s married, and by then she’s twenty-five. 


There are contemporary YA books out there with more accurate depictions of teen romance, and they need to be championed.  I just have to find them first. If you have any suggestions of great YA with a believable romance, please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.


Thursday, 19 January 2017

When Adult Books Have Teen Protagonists (ROYA #27)

The first “adult” book I read featuring a teenage main character was Alice Walker's The Color Purple. It was recommended in one of the many teen mags I bought regularly - it’s a ‘90’s thing - as the perfect antidote to a bad break-up. In truth, reading in general can be an antidote to almost any heartache, so long as you pick the right book. At the tender age of sixteen, devastated after being dumped by a guy I’d only just forgiven for cheating on me, I needed a point in the right direction. It worked. In around three chapters my mind was open to the bigger picture. Those of you who’ve read The Color Purple will know it’s not what's considered a suitable book for children. But for teenage me, it was pivotal in my understanding of oppression as both a concept and the reality for many. I gained a valuable lesson on heartache and strength beyond the confines of romance.

When it comes to YA, the general rule of thumb is that the protagonist must be a teen. I completely agree with this and struggle to imagine a successful example of breaking this rule.* However, I’ve lost count of the supposedly “adult” books which have relatively young teenagers as main characters. Examples of these are Sue Monk Kid’s The Secret Life of Bees, Jane Harris’ The Observations, Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, and Jenny Fagan’s The PanopticonHere’s the thing, if stories like these are about what can happen to adolescents, shouldn’t teens be made aware of their existence and have easy access to them? Just because they don’t end neatly, have adult themes, and harsh lessons doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile reads for teens struggling to deal with their emotions.

Of course, like I said last week, I am a YA impostor. I read books specifically targeted at teens, for numerous reasons.  But I remain convinced that, just as adults enjoy books aimed at teens, so too should teenagers know they’re not restricted from reading adult fiction. We  can all enjoy both. When I needed a copy of The Color Purple, I was lucky enough to find one in my High School Library (thank you, Mr Clarkson!). Should it be left to librarians alone to bridge this gap? Or do we, as a society, have a duty to step-up and encourage reading which breaks the rules of a perceived demographic? Obviously, I favour the latter. I’m not saying we should start handing out copies of War and Peace to all thirteen-year-olds. I’m merely suggesting some as young as that have the capacity to comprehend and connect to Tolstoy’s epic through the journey of the many young characters.

A quick check of contemporary online magazines, especially those targeted at teens, will show a tendency to remain within the parameters of age-specific recommending reading.  Perhaps it’s always been this way, and my happening on an article which broke that rule all those years ago was pure chance. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is we have an opportunity as a society to provide perspective through all forms of literature, and teens have as much right to that information as adults.


*If you have an example, please leave a comment with details.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

YA Impostor (ROYA #26)

It’s true. Despite being a thirty-something mother with greying hair, a passion for early mornings and elasticated waistbands, I read books aimed at teenagers. Why? The simple answer: for research, because YA is primarily what I write. There’s so much about it I want to challenge as a writer. Yet, when it comes to reading for fun, I confess to being frequently drawn to YA stories. And I’m not alone. 

Although some people still hold the notion that adults should be embarrassed reading YA, the fact is over 55% of YA readers are adults. [But really, who cares what someone else is reading, unless it’s 1) Amazing, 2) Spectacularly awful, or 3) Meh?] Of course, like many readers of YA, I enjoy adult fiction too. From a young age, I’ve read books unsuitable for kids. Liking one is not a rejection of the other. Reading The Fault in Our Stars as an adult left me contemplating the value of life, even if teenagers don’t actually talk the way John Green writes them. Then again, at thirteen I read The Exorcist and hold the same opinion of it now as I did then: William Peter Blatty waffles. What a person chooses to read, when they happen to read it, and how much enjoyment they get from it isn’t cut and dry. It’s simply not down to age.

Don’t be angry at those who’ve never tried it. When you’ve not read much YA, it’s tempting to assume the majority are childish, predictable, or lacking complexity. Of course, some are, but there’s equally superficial adult fiction. Choosing to give YA or even children’s fiction a miss on these grounds isn’t just inaccurate, it’s a crying shame.  I say this because I’ve been there.  In 2002, I distinctly recall scoffing at the notion of reading Harry Potter because it was a children’s book and lived to eat my words.  If you know someone reluctant to try YA because it’s not “proper reading” then recommend Markus Zusak's The Book Thief or Are You Experienced?  by William Sutcliffe. Alternatively, remind them The Catcher in the Rye and Sunset Song are both coming-of-age novels, the YA of the time.

When it comes to depth, there’s plenty in YA to offer satisfying reflection from an adult perspective.  No matter what I read, save for the likes of Peepo and Goodnight Moon, I form a critical opinion. That’s who I am. I don’t forgive YA for poor writing, lack of profundity, or thin characterization, and I don’t tolerate them in adult fiction either.  Personally, I can’t be bothered with obligatory graphic sex scenes and blatant titillation in fiction, which are all too common in adult books.  Seriously, fiction is not my go-to for those things! Often, it seems the only reason they’re put there is to ensure a book will appeal exclusively to “grown-ups”. As established by my reading The Exorcist at thirteen, that’s not how it works.  

Fine, reading YA isn’t particularly ambitious, but I get annoyed if I have to get my head round every book I read. I shouldn’t have to toil over a book in order to appreciate its significance. Besides, sometimes it’s good to stay comfortable and get carried away by a story. It’s not about clinging to the same things I loved at thirteen. What I value is connecting with the part of me that’s still young, recalling a time when everything was urgent and vital, but from the position of an experienced adult.

Simply put, I can’t see how I’d benefit from limiting myself from YA except for research purposes. So I’ll remain a YA impostor until the day I no longer enjoy reading YA books.  Which doesn’t look to be any time soon. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading or Writing YA Historical Fiction (ROYA #25)

Greetings, Readers of Young Adult! 

Having recently devoured several historical genre novels, I thought I’d share my selection process for finding relevant, purposeful YA historical fiction. As it happens, it’s also how I sense-check any new writing projects I’m tempted to set in the past. So, for readers and writers alike, here’s my Sense-Check-List questions for getting the most from stories set in a historical context. 

1) Is the period crucial to the plot?

Or, simply, could the same story be set now? If yes, there’d better be a darn good reason why it’s not. When it comes to overall satisfaction, that well-deserved four or five star rating, stories which depend on perceived romanticism of bygone eras have a tendency to disappoint. Not in a hurl-it-at-the-wall-after-three-pages sort of way, but they often lack poignancy, something real history offers in abundance. I can sniff out a yarn that relies on corsets and fluttering hearts instead of an exciting plot. Usually from the cat-and-mouse romance slapped all over the blurb and the unmistakable whiff of misogyny from the male love interest. There’s nothing wrong with portraying rampant sexism and other uncomfortable realities of history. In fact, I’m all for it. But unless there’s something important the story aims to convey about the chosen era, there’s nothing to gain from a historical setting. Except, of course, the story contains an important message we might benefit from now or in the future. 

2) Is the historical setting significant now?

Sometimes, a story is set in the past for the purpose of drawing parallels to present major happenings. These stories are important. All too often we humans fail to learn from our own history. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, there are subjects a contemporay audiene is reluctant to consider, but which provoke engagement when presented in a historical context, like Yongla by Guy Lane. There are also situations where readers and writers are restricted from tackling certain subjects and must settle with symbolic representations of current events. Anyone familiar with Arthur Miller’s only historical play, The Crucible knows what an allegory is. When Miller wrote The Crucible, Senator Joseph McCarthy lead a witch-hunt for communists hiding in the government, education, and the arts. To avoid risking persecution – which he didn’t – Miller fictionalised the Salem witch trials to exemplify the absurdity of convicting people without concrete evidence. However, these days writers can create with impunity, and readers can enjoy pretty much anything without fear of imprisonment. Without a valid reason to use a historical context to highlight a contemporary issue, what reason is there to set a story in the past? Why not just read or write about what’s actually happening now? Unless, of course, your reason for choosing historical fiction is personal.

3) Are you avoiding technology?

For many, reading YA is an escape from reality, especially those who dislike the societal effects of continued technological advancement. It goes without saying that smartphones have dramatically altered the way we communicate. Some adults find comfort in reading about a time before mobile phones and the internet. And that’s okay. For those too young to remember, it can provide insight into a world unknown. However, it’s a thin premise on which to build a story and would likely prove a dull book. As a writer, I’ve learned to embrace tackling technology in fictionbut it can be daunting for those of us who were born before the 90’s. Nevertheless, a story has a better chance of being understood by a wider audience if it’s told in a context relevant to when it’s released. Declaring yourself a Luddite is no excuse. There has to be a stronger reason for a story to be set in the past, something the reader can emotionally invest in.

4a) Dear writer, is it the era you grew up in?

If so, here's something to consider. Like many writers, this July I was hooked on P.S. Literary agent Maria Vicente’s #100Queries on Twitter. Ms. Vicente tweeted her responses to the queries in her inbox, providing insight into how agents view submissions. One particular tweet caught my attention.

Maria Vicente: “YA Contemporary. Unnecessarily (it seems) set in the recent past. Write for teens today, not for teenage you. #100Queries”


Last year I finally got around to reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. I’ll admit to having mixed feelings. Although I loved the book, I couldn’t help wonder why it was set in the 80’s and assumed it was based on the author’s life. I mean, the comics are still in print, playlists are the new mix tapes, and as far as I’m aware, school buses still run in the states. There’s even a solution to why one of them wouldn’t have a phone or access to the internet. So I kept wondering - Who’s the story for? It’s the same question I ask myself when it comes to my own work. Rainbow Rowell is able to break the rules because, well, she’s Rainbow Rowell. As for the rest of us, we need to remember who we are writing for, because if it’s for yourself, I’ve got news for you. It’s unlikely it’ll get picked up by an agent unless you can argue the case for how the reader will benefit. And if you self-publish, you may find your readership struggles to connect with your story. Then again, some readers will identify because it’s set during the period in which they grew up. .

4b) Dear reader, is it the era you grew up in?

If it is, that’s hunky-dory – we all like to reminisce. But you still want to read a compeling story, right?  Sure, it’s great to remember giving out phone numbers on the backs of bottle labels that can easily be lost - plot twist! Date hairstyles, clothes, general use of cigarettes and casual sexism – I get it. BUT, it’s not enough. Trust me. Even the shallowest reader needs that payoff at the end, and it’s never going to happen if the story holds nothing stronger than a hairdo set with Brillcream. Often, a visit to Goodreads for a scan of the reviews will give you an idea of whether or not the book you’re interested in has substance. Because, even if you’re in it for the nostalgia, you might want to ask yourself…

5) Is it purely for cosmetics?

Yep. Some stories rely on cosmetic novelty. If you’re familiar with the Indie Publishing scene, you’re probably no stranger to this concept. We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if I see a picture of a fashionably beautiful girl with HD brows and a tan wearing Tudor garb, I’m out.  Just because a story is set in Ancient Rome, the Inca Empire, or the Tang Dynasty, the plot doesn’t suddenly become interesting. Sure, I can imagine the attractive people, picturesque landscape, and glorious weaponry. I don’t want to read about the same visuals repeatedly, though, like being reminded of a character’s eye colour on every other page. It happens. In these instances, it’s perfectly acceptable to hurl the book at the wall after three pages and start another story. When I pick up a book promising historical tales, I want the author’s research to seep into my mind through the gaps between the words from the first page.  If I find I’m reading description after description instead of gaining a sense of time an place from the language, narration, and characters, I grow tired and move on. Good historical fiction doesn’t rely on long descriptions, gimmicks, or fancy costumes.


Sadly, a lot of guff gets punted about because it’s titillating, and titillation sells. If you’re happy reading or writing that, then good on you, there’s no shame in liking what you like. However, if you appreciate, or are interested in finding captivating, historical fiction, YA or otherwise, then the above check-list should steer you on the right path. As for you writers, I hope what I’ve shared makes sense. If you have any further thoughts or questions, please comment below.