Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Top Ten Reads from 2015

As we turn the final chapter of 2015, "best of" lists are popping up everywhere.
Like most avid readers, I am a sucker for recommendations from people who read a lot and really love books.

While reading tastes are highly individual, there is always some consensus:  certain books just have a can't-put-them-down quality about them.  Perhaps even more importantly, some books stick with you -- usually because they touch your emotions.  This year I read well over 100 Young Adult books -- a lot, but certainly nothing like a comprehensive sample.   There were definitely some notable trends, particularly in realistic fiction.  Mental health and sexuality/sexual identity were important issues in many high-profile books -- including the top four books on this list (three of them UKYA).

As the year ends, in a rush of activity and socializing, I am already longing for quiet January days. The truth is, I am always looking for my next best read . . .

Am I Normal Yet?, by Holly Bourne

Evie desperately wants a fresh start.  After being hospitalized for a mental breakdown, caused by out-of-control OCD, Evie has got back on track.  Enrolled in Sixth Form College, she has new friends and even more than one potential love interest.  But being let down by one guy after another is starting to derail Evie’s recovery.  Even when her friends rally to her cause, Evie feels that her facade of ‘normal’ is showing some serious cracks.  Funny, frank and proudly feminist:  this book is a fresh, authentic voice.  (UKYA.  Contains some references to sexuality and drugs/alcohol.)

The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson

David’s parents assume he is gay, but the truth is more complicated.  Although he has supportive friends, he still feels completely isolated by his painful reality:  his body doesn’t match his sense of himself.    Leo Denton is new to David’s school, but he brings a tough reputation with him.  When Leo defends David against the usual bullies, the two become allies – and then friends.     This brave, emotionally involving book explores transgender issues through believably complex characters.

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

When Fitch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower, it is debatable as to who is saving whom.  Violet hasn’t recovered from her sister’s death, while Fitch – the class “freak” – struggles with highs and lows that he cannot control.  Tentative friendship turns into romance, but can there be a happy ending for this unlikely pair?  Moving and memorable:  this relationship novel  will really engage your emotions.  (Contains some strong language, sexual scenes and emotionally disturbing material.)

The Last Leaves Falling, Sarah Benwell

For most 17 year-olds, death is an abstract concept; for Abe Sora, it is a grim reality.  After being diagnosed with ALS, Abe is trapped in his failing body and isolated in his bedroom.  Longing for anonymity, he searches for connections in online chat rooms.  Unexpectedly, he makes real friends there – and not just virtual ones.  With the help of his friends, Abe figures out how to meet death on his own terms.  Thoughtful and funny, this book takes a morbid subject and turns it into a truly life-enhancing story.  (UKYA)

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas

Deep in the winter woods, 19 year-old Feyre kills a wolf and unknowingly triggers a dark curse.  Taken hostage by the fearsome Tamlin, Feyre is trapped in a luxurious but confining world.  Despite their bad beginning, Feyre’s sympathy for her captor grows – until she is willing to risk her own life to save him.  The compelling and romantic fantasy sets the Beauty and the Beast motif in a complex faerie realm.  This is grown-up YA for fantasy lovers.  (Contains violence and sexuality.)

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo

In the mean streets of Ketterdam, six unlikely allies will be recruited to break into the unbreakable fortress of the Ice Court.  Their mission:  to liberate a scientist/inventor who holds the secret to manipulating Grisha magic.  Their price:  enough money to escape from their dangerous, dead-end lives.  This fast-paced heist story is the first in a new series by Bardugo . . . intricately plotted, with richly shaded characters.

Crow Moon, by Anna McKerrow

As the world runs out of fossil fuel, environmentally minded people have established a “Greenworld” in Devon and Cornwall and returned to the old ways of living.  Powerful witches, like Danny’s mother, work to keep out the unscrupulous gangs who would exploit the earth’s natural energy.  Danny is more interested in girls than magic, but he is drawn into the battle between the Greenworld and the gangs.  Although Danny doesn’t understand his own magic, forces on both sides need it – and will stop at nothing to get it.  This book excels at both plot and characterisation, and gives a topical post-apocalyptic spin on a more traditional fantasy landscape.  (UKYA)

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard

In the Kingdom of Norta, the Silvers are born to rule while the Reds are born to serve.  Any Red who cannot find a job will become cannon fodder in the long-running war.  Mare is a lowly Red, a former pick-pocket turned serving girl; but when it is discovered that she possesses an unusual power, the Royal Court decides to make different use of her.  Mare is transformed into a long-lost Silver noble and engaged to Maven, the younger prince.  It is a dangerous game of subterfuge, made even riskier when a Red terrorist operative enlists Mare’s help.   Twisty and unexpected, this best-selling fantasy novel will fill The Hunger Games gap.

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

In this historical fantasy, a young girl refuses to conform to the Victorian belief system that females should be ‘good’ but not clever.  Faith’s father is a renowned natural scientist whose reputation has been tainted by scandal.  When he dies under mysterious circumstances, on the remote island of Vane, Faith is determined to prove that his death was not a suicide – but rather a murder.   Applying logic, observation and misdirection, Faith is determined to salvage her father’s reputation.  This beautifully written book is a suspenseful murder mystery, but also a thoughtful analysis of women’s roles in Victorian England.

Black Dove, White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein

Best friends Delia (Black Dove) and Rhoda (White Raven) are stunt flyers during the 1920s, but the ongoing racism in the southern United States inspires a dream:  to emigrate to Ethiopia, the one African country which has never been colonized.  After a freak accident kills Delia, Rhoda is determined to keep her partner’s dream of equality and freedom alive.  Despite the difficulties, Rhoda transplants Delia’s son Teo and her own daughter Emilia to a coffee collective in Ethiopia.  But as Teo and Emilia come of age, Mussolini’s Italian army invades Ethiopia and their family is drawn into the tragic conflict.  This fascinating story highlights a cultural and historical setting that rarely gets attention in YA literature.

Still on my TBR pile:
Other YA books which have been getting lots of positive buzz include Asking for It, by Louise O’Neill; The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness; Finding Audrey, by Sophie Kinsella; An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir; Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli; Winter, by Marissa Meyer; One, by Sarah Crossan; and the list just goes on!  

Happy reading in 2016. . .

For other reading recommendations and themed book lists, visit TRAC's website

Monday, 30 November 2015

A Brighter Fear

There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind, which have lain aloof in newspapers and other neglected reading, enter like an earthquake into their own lives . . .
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda 

What is it like to live in a war zone?
Would you save yourself, if you had the chance, even if it meant abandoning your loved ones?
Would you leave your country, maybe forever, or would you take your chances and stay?

In A Brighter Fear, UKYA author Kerry Drewery imagines civilian life in a war-zone from the point-of-view of 16 year-old Lina.  As with most teenagers, Lina's life before the war is dominated by school.  As the child of educated, professional parents, Lina has devoted herself to her studies, has taken pride in her city's history as a seat of learning, and has dreamed of becoming an architect.  But when U.S. forces invade Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Lina's life becomes so narrow that it finally shrinks to the form of day-today survival.  The former realities of school, parents and friends cease to exist.

Drewery vividly describes the fear of the unknown, as the city prepares for invasion, and then the chaos and destruction which follows.  Wreckage is everywhere, as are dead bodies.  Soldiers stalk the streets in their tanks, and bombs are an ever-present threat.  Utilities are unreliable or nonexistent, as is news.  No one's home is safe. The future does not feel like something anyone can plan for or rely on anymore.

Although Drewery's story does not glorify Saddam Hussein's brutal reign -- indeed there is a subplot involving Lina's mother, who was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with Hussein's government -- it is also clear that war always brings unintended consequences.  The Americans may have intended to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq, but in reality the chaos and confusion allows sectarian violence to flourish.  Although Lina's family are Christian, she must adopt the concealing clothing and hijab of Muslims in order to protect herself from the vigilante justice of fundamentalists. And even when her family cooperates with the American soldiers, there is a high price for that cooperation.  When Lina is presented with the chance to escape Baghdad, she has to weigh the complete unknown against the present risk -- both to herself, and someone she loves dearly.

As the debate about Syrian refugees takes place in the media, between governments, and at dinner tables, it is really worth trying to imagine war-torn lives compassionately.  Hopefully, most of us will never experience life in a war-zone, but even if we have the good fortune to escape that "earthquake" in our lives there is a chance that we may come into contact with those who haven't been so lucky.  It is nearly impossible to imagine pain when we have not experienced it for ourselves, but a powerful story may come closer than anything else to bridging that gap.  A Brighter Fear is painful to read, but only because it illuminates the kind of realities that are far more painful to experience.

A Brighter Fear and other war novels can be found at "War and Remembrance" at TRAC.
For more recommendations on books which feature refugees please read this post from the Sarah Laurence blog.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


In Flanders field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below 

John McCrae 'In Flanders Fields', Essex Farm 1915

For several weeks before Armistace Day, the cheerful red poppies associated with the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal are omnipresent in England.  Every schoolchild knows that they are associated with World War I:  with 'remembrance', with honouring the dead, with supporting the armed forces.  The two minute silence is honoured all over the country, but I wonder how many young people are focusing their thoughts on sacrifices made so long ago?  For those who do not have a specific family member to remember, is there another way to make a mental and emotional connection with 'historical' events?  I would argue 'yes'.  A well-told story has the ability to powerfully concentrate the mind, and there are several recently published UKYA novels that truly do bring World War I back to life again. 

Rebecca Stevens published Valentine Joe in 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the war. Valentine Joe Strudwick was a real person; he died at Ypres at the age of 15, and was buried in the Essex Farm cemetery immortalized by John McCrae's famous poem.  In this unusual novel, a contemporary storyline is skilfully woven together with the historical one.  Rose and her Grandad are visiting Essex Farm when she spots Valentine Joe's gravestone.  Rose is still in mourning for her own father, who has recently died.  Through the device of a scrappy stray dog called Tommy, Rose manages to time-travel back to the battleground of Ypres and meet Joe.  Rose's state of mind is so attuned to grief and loss that she is able to connect directly with Joe, and in a very sweet and subtle way they each manage to heal something in the other.  History really is brought back to life in this book. 

Mary Hooper, a name particularly associated with historical fiction for young adults, has published two novels in the last 18 months which view the 'War to End All Wars' from the perspective of Poppy Pearson, a young VAD nurse.  At the beginning of the war, Poppy is working in 'service' as a parlourmaid for the de Vere family.  Poppy is intelligent and able, but social class and lack of money -- her mother has been widowed with four children -- have narrowed her options.  The war brought many unexpected social changes, particularly for women, and Poppy is able to develop useful skills, travel and mix with other social classes precisely because qualified nurses were in such demand.   Initially, Poppy is attached to a hospital in Southampton; later, in Poppy in the Field, she nurses wounded and dying men in France.  The storyline touches on how the brutality of trench warfare forced improvements and innovations in medical care -- everything from the mental illness described as 'shell shock' to experimentation in plastic surgery and prosthetics.   Throughout both novels, the broken bodies and spirits that Poppy tends to are made very real.  There is one particular scene in which Poppy has to clean up a soldier nicknamed 'Tibs' who has came straight from the battlefield. The description of Poppy cutting off Tibs' boots, and discovering an advanced case of trench foot, is not one that I will soon forget.  But having said that, the narration is far from melodramatic.  The novel has many poignant moments; but considering the source material, how could it be otherwise?
World War I changed the world in many ways, but one enduring legacy has been a change in the way war itself is viewed. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Montmaray Journals

The Montmaray Journals:
A Brief History of Montmaray (Book I)
The FitzOsbornes in Exile (Book II)
The FitzOsbornes at War (Book III)

When I was researching war novels targeted at the Young Adult audience, I came across Australian author Michelle Cooper's The Montmaray Journals -- and I suspected, quite correctly, that they would be just the sort of thing I like.  A tumultuous, dramatic time period, an eccentric family, strong female characters, action, adventure and political intrigue:  yes, please.

World War II provides an endlessly fascinating canvas for fiction, and this trilogy of novels set during the period of 1936-1944 covers far more ground than most.  This is not just a portrait; it's a vast landscape, but always with Sophia (the narrator) and her family in the foreground. If your historical knowledge is a bit sketchy, or if you were taught that World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you will be particularly (and delightfully) enlightened.  

The first novel begins on a tiny island called Montmaray in the Bay of Biscay.  The Montmaravian Royal Family has been reduced to King John (who has never recovered from losing his entire regiment to World War I), his daughter Veronica (passionate about history and politics) and Toby, Sophia and Henry (Henrietta) -- their orphaned cousins.  Rebecca, the housekeeper, and her son Simon are also central to the plot.  The author has an ingenious way of involving this miniature and seemingly irrelevant kingdom in the churning political sea of the mid 1930s.  The Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe research and the League of Nations are all plot-points involving Mortmaray and its young royal family -- whilst also giving rich historical context to the events leading up to World War II.   The best bit is that Cooper is never guilty of info-dumping.  Instead, she sprinkles and folds her historical facts into a cracking good story.

There has been a strong trend for blending "historical fact and imaginative fiction" (as Cooper describes it in her Author's Note), and I am all for it.  Elizabeth Wein's brilliant Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire used the same strategy and they are amongst my favourite war novels of all time.  Like The Montmaray Journals, they are epistolary novels:  told through a series of diary entries, they create both an intimate, confiding tone and a particularly suspenseful way of shaping a story.  The other obvious similarity between these novels is the way that young women are at the forefront of the action -- not just because they narrate the story, but because they are actively engaged in their own "war" stories.  When I was an adolescent, we only had Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl -- also a wonderful book, but undeniably a more passive point of view.

Another delight of this trilogy is the way that the author references literature and poetry, often symbolically. Sophia, the narrator the story, is a passionate reader and story-teller.  Throughout the trilogy, Sophia has a book to hand.  At the beginning, when she is far more sheltered and romantically inclined, she is reading Pride and Prejudice.  As Great Britain edges into the war, she is reading Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.  Unless you are completely unfamiliar with Dodie Smith's classic novel, it would be impossible to miss the homage to I Capture the Castle.  The FitzOsbornes in Exile begins with a deliberate echo of that famous opening line:  "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."  As the second book begins, Sophia and her family have been rescued from their crumbling castle and ensconced in their Aunt Charlotte's luxurious home in England.  "I write this sitting at an exquisite little Louis the Fifteenth secretaire in the White Drawing Room, using a gold fountain pen borrowed from the King of Montmaray and a bottle of ink provided by one of the footmen."   At the beginning of the trilogy, the parallels between Sophia and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle are so obvious that I was afraid that the novel would just be a pastiche of a beloved favourite.   Certainly the two novels share coming-of-age and first love themes, but A Brief History of Montmaray goes into quite unexpected territory -- and instead of feeling isolated in its 1930s setting, it is very much part of larger world-view.  Unlike heroines of old, Veronica and Sophia have far more to think about than the marriage plot.

In England, in November, you can see the distinctive red poppies everywhere.  We all have our own way of honouring Remembrance Day, but my recommendation is to immerse yourself in a good war novel -- or three of them, as is the case with The Montmaray Journals.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Cuckoo Song

After a mostly glorious and golden beginning to October, today was the first day when I really felt the in-betweenness of the seasons.  The wind, brisk and biting, definitely had the chill of winter.  I have been reading lots of ghost stories lately -- not really my favourite genre, but I like them when the "ghost" is more of a subtle, symbolic thing.

Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day and Remembrance Day have a tendency to slide together in England, as they all take place within two weeks and just at that time of the year when Daylight Savings conspires with the natural dying of the day and plunges us all into darkness.  If you really want to go with that mood, I don't think you can do much better than Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song.

There is a ghost in the house at The Beeches, Luther Square, Ellchester.  The father of the house may be Mr. Piers Crescent, civil engineer and designer of the railway bridges and station which will save Ellchester, but he hasn't been able to save Sebastian -- his oldest child, and only son, who died in the final months of the Great War.  Although Mr. Crescent has done his best to stop time, and wrap his daughters Triss and Pen in cotton-wool, he has made something of a bad bargain (literally) with a sinister Architect.  The entire family has been arrested in a prolonged state of grieving, and the inability of the parents to let go of their dead son has lead, directly, to the events which take place in this novel.

The War had ended, but it was not gone.  Somehow it was still everywhere.  Sebastian was the same. He had ended but he was not gone.

Like all the best children's books, this book operates on two levels -- thus making it appropriate for ALL ages. On the more surface level, this book is about a changeling (a "cuckoo") who is substituted for a real girl. Only gradually does "Triss" realise that she is actually a not-Triss -- and just a "monster" or made-up thing with an expiration date.    Unlike the real Triss, not-Triss (who later becomes Trista) is "allowed" to be something other than the "sweet, quiet, well-behaved girl" that her parents expect and want.  She has agency; she does things and makes things happen.  She eats dolls instead of playing with them.   Somewhat like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, not-Triss ventures into an alternate world -- the world of the Besiders -- and uses her wits to bargain for something which will change the outcome of not just her brief existence, but lots of other realities, too.

But there is a more complex level to this book; truly,  I think that all of the best fantasy novels have that ability to throw some light on what we like to call the "real" world.  That aspect of the book deals with the aftermath of World War I and how it impacts not just one grieving family but an entire society. The novel manages to take in the changing role of women -- and there is fascinating commentary here about the "containment" of the feminine -- but also how the war changed the "certainties" (religious faith and class structure) of the country.

One of the subversive female characters is Violet Parish, the former fiancée of Sebastian.  She has bobbed hair, rackety friends, a variety of short-term jobs and she drives a motorcycle; she drinks and smokes and is generally "fast".  She also takes in Pen and Triss when no one else will.

Once she had been 'Violet'.  After Sebastian's departure she had been 'poor Violet'.  And then somehow, in the years since his death, her name had blackened and speckled in Triss's family home, like a fruit left to rot, until it was thrown out and no longer allowed in the house.
A specific pleasure of this book is the quality of the writing; Hardinge has a wonderfully expressive way with words.  I cannot think of another writer who uses figurative language with such fresh precision.  I felt, often, the urge to copy sentences and paragraphs down -- to capture the words for myself -- just because they pleased me so much.   It wasn't a book that I would have sought out if left to follow my usual tastes, but it was a suspenseful, thoughtful and pleasurable reading experience.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Feminism in UKYA

“We need to reclaim the word 'feminism'. We need the word 'feminism' back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist - and only 42% of British women - I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of 'liberation for women' is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? 'Vogue' by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?” ― Caitlin MoranHow to Be a Woman

Feminism has been a contentious word for a while, and many young women seem to associate it, pejoratively, with certain outmoded ideas:  man-hating, for instance, or hairy armpits.  Women who define themselves as feminists are considered seriously unattractive -- or unattractively serious -- as if they can be conflated into much the same affliction.  What is even more troubling, at least to me, is that population of women/girls who think that feminism is no longer necessary because the "battle for equality" has already been won.  And yet, so many of the statistics that make up our lives (e.g., equal pay, sexual violence, rights over our own bodies) suggest otherwise.

In the past year, I've read some really strong UKYA books that take on feminist issues in ways that are brave, honest, provocative and deeply thoughtful.  These books are holding a mirror up to our society and showing us exactly how much work still needs to be done.  The word "feminism" certainly never appears in the speculative dystopia that is Only Ever Yours, but O'Neill gets her message across more than effectively.  The mirror she holds up is distorted, definitely, but anyone should feel the horror of recognition of what shows up there.  Am I Normal Yet? takes a more straightforward approach and engages in up-front consciousness raising.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was the cautionary tale for my generation of young women seguing into adulthood.  Written in 1986, my first year at university, Atwood's influential dystopia imagined a poisoned world where the birth-rate has fallen to an alarmingly low "no replacement" level.  Although the true cause of widespread sterility was more to do with chemical warfare, women get scapegoated.  The pill, abortions, educated women wanting to work rather than be mothers: all of this dangerous reproductive freedom is held up for blame.  And then it is all taken away.  Before long, women have no control over their own bodies; if they are fortunate enough to be fertile, they become vessels -- willing or not -- for childbirth

Atwood was writing in a post Roe v. Wade world, after the first (or arguably the second) wave of feminism.  She noted the growing popularity of fundamental Christianity, and her novel served as a warning that hard-won rights for female equality were a slippery slope -- and that it was frighteningly possible to slip backwards.

As I was reading Louise O' Neill's Only Ever Yours  -- which contains such deliberate parallels to Atwood's dystopic vision that it has been marketed as "A Handmaid's Tale meets Mean Girls" --  I kept thinking about Atwood's warning to women.   In both dystopias, women are reduced and confined to one of three roles:  wife/companion, concubine, or chastity/"martha" (in essence, a  desexualised cross between a nursemaid and a prison warden). They are a sisterhood which is divided in every possible way and exists only to please and serve men.

Although the creeping religious fundamentalism that Atwood identified has certainly manifested itself, perhaps even more obviously in the Islamic faith than the Christian, the most profound cultural influence of our age has been distinctly secular:  the rise of narcissism.  Social media, reality television, selfies, You-Tube, the popularity of the Kardashians, and the list could go on and on.  Can anyone under the age of 30, can anyone at all, escape from the picture-taking mirror we keep gazing into?  Our smart-phone cameras are mediating our entire existence.  The importance of physical appearance, the relentless pursuit of physical perfection and constant self-promotion are our culture's new holy trinity.  Only Ever Yours  is a truly frightening book, not only because it imagines what we could could become -- but because it identifies (and satirises) so accurately what we already have become.  When the narrator of  Only Ever Yours is punished, her internet privileges are taken away.  It is as if her very self is being erased.  "The need to record my life is as fundamental as my need to breathe.  Without MyFace, I'm floating.  I have nothing to anchor me down, to prove I exist."

In O'Neill's dystopia, women have been genetically engineered to the point that any notion of diversity has been almost entirely lost.  As with Barbies, the prototype is exactly the same with slight adjustments in eye, skin and hair colour.  Women, who are called "eves" and numbered like prints in the same series, read like a paint chart.  Isabel, or rather"isabel", as women are never dignified with capital letters, is described as:  PO1 Metallic Silver hair and #76 Folly Green eyes.  Although the girls are told that they have been "perfectly designed", they are constantly exhorted to improve themselves.  But that quest for improvement is limited, entirely, to physical appearance -- obvious intelligence, or any attempts to cultivate the mind, are discouraged.  Curiosity, like anger, is an "unacceptable emotion".   Every week the girls are ranked, according to attractiveness, and there is constant competition with no prize at the end. Although they are meant to be happy and positive, they live a goldfish bowl existence of staring at themselves all day and seeing nothing but flaws, magnified.  Eating disorders and self-harm, as exemplified by isabel, are the only outlets for mental pain -- and the only ways in which the girls can "own" or control a body that has been created for a man's eventual use.

One of the most painful aspects of the society described in Only Ever Yours is the way that women are pitted against each other in an endless beauty contest.  There is no way for friendship to survive in an atmosphere of constant competition.  The Queen Bee character is called megan, and her cunning manipulations were almost unbearable to read.  It was only after I finished the story, and had some distance from it, that I could partly admire megan for the way she utilises personal power in a pretty powerless situation.

Am I Normal Yet? is a very different kind of book from Only Ever Yours, but in many ways it is examining exactly the same kinds of pressures that are brought to bear on adolescent girls (not to mention grown-up women).  Both books show how females mentally flay themselves with negative scripts, especially ones that have to do with being attractive and/or worthy of love.  Both books deal with mental illness.  Perhaps the major difference between the books -- other than the tone, of course, because one is a dystopia which makes its point through cruel satire while the other is both humorously and earnestly realistic -- is in the portrayal of female friendship.

The protagonist of Am I Normal Yet? is Evie, a 16 year-old girl who has just started Sixth Form College.  Evie is hopeful that a new school will be a fresh start for her, but she is hiding a big secret: she suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder.   Evie is on medication and sees a therapist regularly, but she feels constant anxiety about being able to maintain the "illusion" of "being normal".  When she makes new friends, specifically Amber and Lottie, she suppresses the truth about what she has suffered:  "mainly because they seemed to like who I was and I didn't want to tarnish the illusion."

One of the big themes in Am I Normal Yet? is the relationship between the sexes.  For Evie, part of being "normal" is being in a romantic relationship -- but she keeps butting up against the harsh reality that teenage boys don't necessarily want the same things as teenage girls do.  Evie and her friends set up a feminist support group, which they jokingly refer to as The Spinster Club, but while they discuss a variety of feminist issues, they ruefully acknowledge that the conversation seems to keep veering towards boys and the mixed signals they send.  At the beginning of the book, Evie's therapist warns her against relationships with teenage boys:  "they can make you overthink and overanalyse and feel bad about yourself . . . and they can make even the most 'normal' girls feel like they are going crazy."

The girls are pretty clued-up on not relying on boys for their own self-esteem, and yet the progress of the plot makes it clear that being jerked around tends to trigger negative mental scripts -- especially for Evie, who is quite vulnerable to the bad voices in her head.  This book is terrific for educating readers about mental illness -- the character of Evie definitely "normalises" her condition by describing its symptoms and treatment in a very relatable way -- but one of the most interesting things it does it connect mental illness with the historical treatment of women.  At the end of the novel, Evie makes the point that women are far more likely to suffer from certain types of mental illness -- depression, eating disorders, self-harm -- and that they turn powerlessness inwards. "I believe the world, our gender roles, and the huge inequality we face every day MAKES US crazy," Evie tells her friends in an impassioned speech at the end of the book.  

The female friendships that Evie makes are an important part of her support system; being able to finally confide in Amber and Lottie is part of her growth.  The book sends a strong message that female solidarity is of paramount importance to female mental health.  If women don't stick up for each other, who else is going to do it?

Only Ever Yours can be found on TRAC's Fantasy reading list  and  Am I Normal Yet? can be found on TRAC's Overcoming Adversity reading list.

Author Holly Bourne runs The Site, an advice and information forum for young women.

Friday, 14 August 2015

LGBT themes in contemporary YA

I recently reread that classic YA novel The Catcher in the Rye-- one of my own adolescent favourites -- for the first time since the 1980s.  According to The Guardian, it ranks as the 72nd best novel of all time.  Robert McCrum's excellent short piece on the "defining novel of teenage angst and alienation" happens to mention that "by 1981, it was the second most taught book in the United States." Certainly it was on the required reading list of my small town Texas high school -- despite the drinking, smoking, sex and profanity that made the book so infamous.  A friend who observed me reading the book wondered if I found it "dated" in 2015.  The truth is that its 1949 New York City setting was already "historical" when I was reading the book in 1981. The way that Holden spoke, the particular slangy language he favoured, was already unrecognisable to a 1980s teenager. But the eternal, durable qualities of the book -- mostly the poignant, hilarious, distinctive voice of Holden Caulfield -- were pretty much intact in 2015, and not much diminished since my first reading experience.  The only aspect of my rereading that I found really quite different was my awareness of an undercurrent of homosexuality running through the book.

Towards the end of the book, Holden spends the night with one of his former teachers -- a Mr. Antonlini, who is presented is a heavy drinker recently married to an older woman "lousy with dough".  Holden wakes up on the couch to discover that Mr. Antonlini is "sort of petting me or patting me on the goddamn head".  Holden bolts from the apartment in a complete panic, even though it is the middle of the night.  Although he acknowledges that he might have misinterpreted the situation -- thus, making it grey area for the reader's interpretation as well -- he also comments that "when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard.  That kind of stuff has happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid.  I can't stand it." (p. 174)

My intention is neither to prove or disprove Holden's possible homosexuality -- although this blog post makes a really plausible case for the former, if you are interested -- but rather to point that how very much the world has changed since The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 . . . or even since I first read the novel in 1981.  Did I pick up on Holden's "protest too much" diatribe against all things "perverty" as ambivalence when I first read the book?  It's doubtful.  At the time, one of my best friends was a lesbian -- not that we even had a word for it, much less realised that her unhappiness might have something to do with repressed sexuality.  I thought she was a "punk" -- mostly because she favoured safety pins as a fashion accessory and was the only person I knew who listened to The Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys.  She was the first person I knew who self-harmed, and we didn't have a word for that, either.

The present generation of 13-25 year olds live in an entirely different world when it comes to LGBT rights and self-expression.  June, 26, 2015 was the landmark date on which the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage cannot be prohibited by a state.  Considering that homosexual activity was illegal during 1951, and indeed not technically legal in all states until June 26, 2003, a mere 12 years in a nation's history are the entire formative years of a present-day 25 year-old.  What might seem a gradual softening of attitude to a 45 year-old or a 70 year-old is just the way it has always been to someone who is currently 15 years-old.  No surprise then that the current generation of adolescents are entirely more comfortable with, and approving of, LGBT rights than previous generations.  This is certainly reflected in YA fiction.

One of the reasons that Holden's discomfort with "perverty" behavior so jarred is that I read The Catcher in the Rye just after completing a reading list of contemporary realistic fiction.  In I'll Give You the Sun, the male protagonist falls in love for the first time -- and has his feelings returned, although the baseball player that he falls for must battle some homophobic attitudes in the sports world.  In Grasshopper Jungle and This Is Not a Love Story, the main characters experience their sexuality as a bisexual spectrum.  Although having sexual feeling for both sexes is not presented as unproblematic, it is definitely presented as something entirely normal and typical.  In Me Being Me is Exactly as Insane as You Being You, the protagonist's father has come out as gay -- which has precipitated the parents' divorce.  Although the young male narrator has some discomfort with this change in his life, as I said in my review of this book, the discomfort is more to do with change in general than his father's homosexuality in specific.  Recently I read Holly Black's new fantasy novel The Darkest Part of the Forest in which a faerie prince is rescued by a teenage girl, but then falls in love with her older brother.  Yes, the author delights in subverting all of the usual fairy tale conventions, but she is also reflecting a world in which this outcome is seen as equally possible.

Some aspects of adolescence haven't changed all that much in the last 65 years  -- hopefully, adolescents will always be more innocent and idealistic than their life-bruised elders -- but when it comes to sexuality, it is a braver, more permissive world out there.

Visit TRAC's website to see the complete list of YA Classics and Hot for Summer contemporary fiction.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You

15 year-old Darren Jacobs is grappling with:
1) his parents' recent divorce
2) his father's coming out as gay
3) his body image
4) his sexual feelings
5) his confused emotions about at least 2 girls
6) the way that his parents suddenly seem like different people
7) the way that his parents have lives that don't necessarily have him at the center
8) general weirdness

Like Judy Blume, that trailblazer of realism in children's and YA literature, author Todd Hasak-Lawy speaks candidly about the body and adolescent sexual awareness.  Darren might be awkward and self-conscious and mute, more often than not, but the voice of the narrative is self-assured.  Darren's anger, confusion, contrariness and monosyllabic tendencies seem entirely appropriate for his age, gender and situation in life.

There seems to be a trend in realistic YA fiction for strong language (which was not so present in Blume's writing), sexuality and references to drugs and alcohol.  It may not be what parents want their children to read (ie, a sanitized version of of adolescent life), but it probably rings truer for the life that most adolescents are experiencing.  Also:  Is just me, or does it seem like LGBT themes and characters and storylines are really pervasive at the moment?  Fun Home just won 5 Tony awards, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the last three realistic YA novels I have read all feature a gay character -- and not even as the protagonist or the main theme, but in a studiously casual way . . . as if to say, "this is just our new normal".  Darren is not completely comfortable with his father being gay, but it's not really the homosexuality per se as much as the fact that his life is changing too quickly.  It's just one of many things that Darren is dealing with, and the storyline deals with it in straightforward, sensitive way.  Like most adolescents, (if not all), Darren is much more interested in his own sexual experiences than his father's.

It's difficult to stand out in a crowded YA field, but this book will be remembered as "the list" book -- and maybe for its catchy title (which suits a story in which there is father-son therapy and a love interest in rehab).  The narrative is told through a series of lists -- some of them brief, and some of them so lengthy that they threaten to stretch the concept to its breaking-point.  It is an arguably gimmicky way of telling a story, but it mostly works.  Much of the humour of the book takes place between the title of the lists and their contents.  It also is an efficient way of breaking up the text, which is always a plus for reluctant readers, male readers, impatient readers and readers who read a lot for their work (me).  Unfortunately, and this would be my main criticism of the book, the overall length of this book starts making even an indulgent and (mostly) entertained reader feel:  enough already.  Didn't YA books used to be between 180-200 pages on average?  Just because J.K. Rowling wrote door-stoppers that sold millions doesn't mean that every YA author needs to deliver such a high word-count.  This story would have greatly benefited from being more tightly edited.  It just goes on a bit too long, even though its separate parts are both entertaining and worthwhile.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Reading Aloud

When I was in graduate school, working on a M.Ed. in Reading Education, I was exposed to the ideas of Jim Trelease -- author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, and a tireless and inspirational promoter of reading aloud.  The Big Idea central to Mr. Trelease's philosophy is that we are more likely to do something if we find it pleasurable; ergo, if we can make reading pleasurable, then children (not to mention teenagers and adults) are more likely to do it.  There is a logical progression to this equation:  the more frequently we read, the better reader we will become.  The better reader we become, the more successful we will be at school (and also life -- as books are one of our best sources of emotional/ethical enrichment).  There is an enormous wealth of research in the field of education and it mostly boils down to this:  the more a child reads, the better.

This week the idea of "reading aloud" has resurfaced as a hot topic and Big Idea.

Tony Little, the retiring Head Master of Eton College, has published a book called An Intelligent Person's Guide to Education and one of his bits of advice to parents is this:  read aloud to your teenagers.  A recent article in The Times even led with this idea, perhaps because it is so basic and old-fashioned that it seems archaic . . . or revolutionary.  At a historical moment when many families are more likely to communicate by text than actual conversation, it is an idea that feels positively 19th century (pre-radio, pre-television, pre-computer, pre-Netflix).

The rationale for reading aloud has always been clear:  in the words of Mr. Little, reading aloud "develops listening skills" (which surely are on the wane) and it "fosters a love of literature". Also, when children/teenagers are read aloud to, it kindles their interest.  Over and over again, whether in my own home, in the classroom or library, or in Book Clubs, I have seen the truth of this play out.  If you read an excerpt from a book, your audience is quite likely to want to continue on with that story.  Reading aloud whets the appetite.

My daughters are both avid readers and many of my friends have asked how "I" managed to accomplish this.  First of all,  I read aloud to my children.  Secondly, I surrounded my children with books.  Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my children grew up observing me reading.  As any parent knows (or should know, at any rate), what we DO is much more important than what we SAY.  I truly believe that the best example we can set, if we want our children to be readers, is to read ourselves . . . to them, with them and in front of them.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Door That Led to Where

This is a book which deals in history, time-travel, murder, intrigue and missing persons.  It is also a book about identity – the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from.  Most of all, it is a book about the importance of work – and being given the chance to do something with your life.

AJ Flynn and his friends Slim and Leon are only 16 years old, but they have already been more or less written off as worthless and irredeemable.  Raised by inadequate parents in broken families on a grim housing estate, they have inherited a modern London which has little use for them.  They are the boys in “hoodies”; obscured, undifferentiated and up to trouble, no doubt.  Their lives have barely begun, but their futures already seem hopeless.  The novel begins with a sharp dig at a society which rates a person by their exam results:  “You will never amount to anything, AJ Flynn.  Not with one GCSE.”

The motif of magical doors is central to the plot.  A door is the device by which AJ travels back into the past, back to London in the 1830s.  Unsolved mysteries are there; missing people are trapped there.  AJ alone has the power to keep the door opened or closed; and yes, you can read that as a metaphor.  Doors are literal and symbolic both – and simultaneously.  When AJ is given the opportunity of a job interview, his whole life – both past and future – hinges upon that door.  “He wondered if by going through the door that led to Baldwin Groat’s chambers he had altered everything.  He had gone in jobless, hopeless and nameless, and come out with a job, a glimmer of hope and a name he’d never heard before.” (p. 12-13)

A door is not the freshest symbolic device, but Sally Gardner makes good use of it.  She is a writer with a rich imagination and talent for mashing up genres.  London appears, as both vivid setting and varied character, in the majority of her novels – and this is doubly true of The Door That Led to Where I,Coriander takes place on London Bridge as England sways precariously between the rule of Royalists and Puritans.  In The Red Necklace, a young gypsy boy travels between London and Paris as a first-hand witness to the French Revolution.  In all of these novels, history is liberally laced with magic – a fresh surprise for readers who think of history as a dry and dusty thing.  From cataclysmic historical events come phoenix opportunities . . . perfect for a young character who has the imagination and courage to fashion his or her life into something new.

Gardner is a writer who consistently champions the underdog.  Perhaps her best-known novel is Maggot Moon, which won the Carnegie Medal in 2013.  This dystopian story is about a young boy, Standish Treadwell, who exposes a huge lie in the totalitarian state described as the “Motherland”.  Readers with an awareness of history will catch parallels to the Nazi regime and Cold War schemes, but the setting of the book is original – and wholly in the fantasy realm.  Standish has mismatched eyes and a dyslexic brain; the whole point is that he sees things differently from most other people, and this is both advantage and disadvantage in a society that demands compliance and conformity.  Like the author, who has spoken openly about her struggles with dyslexia and mainstream education, Standish has been written off and marginalized.  But people who are at the margins, unnoticed and ignored, also have a power – and this is a theme that Gardner returns to again and again.

Although AJ Flynn has largely "failed" in the exam system, he has self-educated himself through a love of reading.  At first, the library was just a safe and quiet haven from his chaotic home life; later, he discovers the power of books.  His knowledge of Dickens gets him noticed at his first job interview, when lack of confidence and the wrong clothes would have sunk him.  Not everyone has a "Jobey's Door" to time-travel through, it's true, but books provide a door of sorts . . . the author definitely makes that point.

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@Barrie Summy

Monday, 13 April 2015

Tribute to Terry Pratchett

Walk into nearly any bookstore or library at the moment and you will see a curated collection of Terry Pratchett's prodigious literary output.  If you've never read a Terry Pratchett novel, there is no better time to begin; and if you don't trust me, then check out the testimonials from all of these well-known writers who have been influenced and entertained by his work.

Pratchett has always been an ideal writer for teenage readers.  He's all for a judicious amount of anarchy, and few writers (if any) are more closely associated with a particularly irreverent style of humour.  Pratchett writes about big ideas, and the complexity of human nature, but always with his inimitably light touch.  He uses the limitless parameters of fantasy to ponder on serious things in a humorous, sometimes even silly, way.  He is realistic about human nature, but never cynical.  Pratchett understands that human beings will inevitably lower the tone, not to mention the occasion, but that they many unexpectedly rise to it as well.

Although he is best-known for his Discworld novels, Pratchett has also written several stand-alone novels for the Young Adult audience.  Two of them, Nation and Dodger, are "more or less" historical novels -- both set during the 19th century.  But this being being Pratchett, history gets tinkered with; especially in the case of Nation, where it is spliced with fantasy alternatives.  

In Dodger, Pratchett recreates a recognisably Dickensian version of London and liberally borrows from (or pays tribute to, depending on how you look at it) one of Dickens' famous characters: the Artful Dodger, from Oliver Twist.  To further blur the lines between fact, fantasy and fandom, Charles Dickens is himself a character in the novel -- in the substantial role as a journalist/writer and mentor to the title character.  The entire novel is a wonderful Pratchett/Dickens amalgam:   It's there in the language, that rather more ornate sentence structure associated with the 19th century; it's there in the characterization; and it's also there in highs and lows of Victorian society. As Dickens did in so many of his novels, Pratchett gives us a bottom-up view of things. Dodger, an orphan, is a tosher -- in other words, he makes his "living" by skimming through the sewers -- panning for gold through mud and muck. His aim is invisibility; and if that doesn't work, he has learned how to twist and turn his way out of trouble. Dodger is the embodiment of Pratchett qualities:  practical, irreverent, resourceful, cheeky, but always very kind -- at least to those who deserve his kindness.  Evil is always "having a go", as Pratchett might say, but it doesn't get to win.

One of Pratchett's most unusual novels is the award-winning Nation, which is an alternative history of our world set during the mid-19th century.  It takes two natural disasters, a flu pandemic and a tsunami, and it sets up an intriguing series of "what if" scenarios in the shadow of Charles Darwin's game-changing discoveries.  One of the main characters is Mau, the 13 year-old boy whose entire island nation has been wiped out when he is away completing his adult-initation ceremony -- which, fortuitously, involves building his own canoe.  The other protagonist is Ermintrude, who manages to survive a shipwreck and takes that opportunity to change her name to Daphne.  Without common language or culture, Mau and Daphne must learn to both communicate and cooperate with each other.  Their mutual survival depends on it.  And like every generation before them, they must decide what to keep and what to discard when it comes to the belief systems they have inherited.  

Another reason why Pratchett is the ideal Young Adult author because he returns again and again to the theme of origins and rites-of-passage.  There is self-knowledge in the sense of knowing where you came from; but more important by far is determining where you are going.  In I Shall Wear Midnight, it is stated explicitly:  the main thing about life is figuring out who you are and what you are good at.  Sometimes, often, that means taking a firm stand.  Tiffany Aching must solve a really big problem (literally a "trial by fire") entirely on her own.  Older and more experienced witches watch from the sidelines, but it is always clear that Tiffany must act alone -- and with self-won wisdom.  At the end of the novel, when she completes her task, she dons the black robes symbolising adulthood.

Terry Pratchett's final tweet stated the very simple and most classical ending:  The End.  But as with all great writers, his stories will endure . . . and are still waiting to be discovered by a whole new generation of readers.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Book to Film

I don't know how many times, over the years, I've had a student reject a recommended book by saying:  "I've already seen the film".  With this in mind, TRAC's latest book list is focused on books which will be making their way to the big screen soon.  If you are the type of reader who won't read a story once the plot has been "spoiled" for you, then we would like to alert you so that you can get to the book first.

Some of the books on our list, for instance DUFF and The Seventh Son (based on Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice/Wardstone Chronicles series) will be released in the next few weeks.  (Both films have recently been released in the US).  Others, like John Green's Paper Towns will be part of the summer film schedule targeted at teenagers.  Then there are the complex fantasy worlds of popular YA novels like Mark Frost's The Paladin Prophecy and James Patterson's Maximum Ride series.  These books have been "in development" for a while, and may continue to languish in Hollywood purgatory throughout 2015.

I never have the "book vs film" problem for a variety of reasons.  If I see the film first, and like it, then I'm always keen to read the book and fill in all of the extra details.  No film, no matter how long, can ever be as comprehensive as a book.  Years after I began seeing the Harry Potter films with my (then) young children, I read the books.  Even though the films do a faithful, even magical, job of bringing the stories to life -- I still preferred the books -- which felt so much more "complete" in their detail.  There are a few films which manage to improve on their source material, but the majority of them don't in my opinion.

Unlike many readers (or film-goers, for that matter), I don't read primarily for plot and the story isn't ruined for me if I already know what happens.  I actually enjoy seeing how the book and film versions may differ, rather than being annoyed by changes.  Perhaps I'm in the minority in this opinion, though.  My daughter hates it when anyone "spoils" the plot for her, and a casting decision which strays from the written description of a character can send her into a frenzy of complaint.

Most films made from popular series (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) tend to be pretty faithful to their source material -- presumably to avoid reader revolt.  But it also depends on authorial clout, which tends to be proportional to the novel's success.

Lesser-known novels can get so bent out of shape by the movie-making process that their storyline and/or characters are nearly unrecognisable.  DUFF is a good example of this kind of book-to-film transformation.  Written by an 18 year-old author named Kody Keplinger, DUFF (the book) has an edginess and a darkness that the film definitely lacks.  Dysfunctional parents are an important element in the book's plot.  Main characters Bianca and Wesley both have absentee parents; his are removed from their children's lives, and Bianca's are major emotional liabilities.  The film makes the main characters next-door neighbours and almost entirely remove the parents from the plot; the entire dynamic of Wesley and Bianca's friendship/courtship is changed.  In the book, frankly casual sex is presented as an escape mechanism from emotional problems.  I can understand why the film-makers smoothed down the rough edges, and made the story more acceptable for a younger audience, but it is hardly the same story.  Sex is taken out of the equation in the film, with social media providing whatever conflict still exists in the plot . . . and it's not much. You might enjoy the film, which is rather sweet and silly; but it's no substitute for the book.  In my opinion, that is nearly always the case.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Buffalo Soldier

As I was reading my way through UKLA's longlist for 2015, I came across Tanya Landman's Buffalo Soldier.  I had two overriding thoughts about this particular book:  (1) that it was a beautifully written story of a fascinating historical subject, and (2) who will read it?  In commercial terms, it seems like a totally unfashionable book -- which will only get into adolescent hands, if at all, through the encouragement of a persuasive teacher or librarian.  I found it compelling and memorable, certainly, but can we trust in books to find their own readers?

Author Tanya Landman is British, but she has written two YA historical novels (Apache and Buffalo Soldier) that are peculiarly American in their setting and subject matter.  Set in the American West during the 19th century, they describe a time of huge turmoil.  The Civil War has (technically, at least) set African-American slaves free at the same time as the policy of Westward Expansion threatens to take away the freedom of Native Americans.  In an era where women have little autonomy and no legal rights, Landman puts a female protagonist at the center of all this cultural upheaval.  Like all best histories, the narrative simultaneously educates its readers about a specific historical moment whilst illuminating emotions and ethical conflicts which seem eternally relevant.     But here is the rub:  like Selma or 12 Years A Slave, this novel deals with some uncomfortably dark history all too vividly described.

The story begins on a Southern plantation at the tail-end of an era.  The narrator of the story is a young female slave, named Charlotte by her absent mother and called "girl" or "child" by everyone else.  In a few efficient chapters, the author gives a colorful sense of Charlotte's circumscribed life:   her place in Cookie's kitchen, her concerns and fears.  When General Sherman and his soldiers raze the plantation, those slaves who haven't run away are suddenly left homeless and quite helpless.  Rather than enjoying the glorious freedom they have been promised, they are struggling just to stay alive in the burnt-out South.  After Charlotte loses her protectors, the prospect of being alone and female is unbearable.  In a bold and desperate gambit, she disguises herself as a young man and joins the Army.  After a period of training, Charlotte (now Charley) is transported West to fight the "Indian Wars".  She has become a Buffalo Soldier.

As is so often the case with what seems improbable, there was real-life precendence for this fictional story.  Cathay Williams was a former female slave who managed to join the 38th Infantry Regiment and serve as a Buffalo Soldier for two years before her true identity was discovered.  Landman takes some dramatic liberties only in the sense that her heroine is transformed into a soldier (and sharpshooter) far superior to Cathay Williams.  Charley finds herself in the thick of it:  from dramatic skirmishes with fierce Apache tribes to the equally intense battle for respect within a mostly racist Army.  (There are a few significant exceptions.)

This book is also very much about the growth of a political consciousness.  At the beginning of her story, Charley's only motivation is her instinct for survival.  As a former slave, she has been used to taking orders and certainly accustomed to privations and abuse.  This "training" serves her well in the Army.  But gradually, as they witness a trail of broken promises, Charley and some of her fellow soldiers begin to question the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.  In one of the novel's most dramatic moments, and there are many, Charley will be forced to choose sides -- and the tough decision will be all her own.

There is a dedicated Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas, and I wanted to visit it before writing my review of this book.  But despite the interest of seeing actual artifacts (mostly farming, household and weaponry), in terms of a narrative, I really learned nothing that I had not already learned from my reading.  Whether it was the inferiority of the weapons and animals given to the Buffalo Soldiers, or the derivation of their name, author Tanya Landman had already covered it.  Rather than being a criticism of the museum, I would prefer to emphasize this as a tribute to the book.

I had intended to write about Buffalo Soldier in February, in honor of Black History Month, but really the story of the fight for equality is relevant during any month.  As John Legend and Common referenced in their acceptance speech for "Glory" at the recent Academy Awards, there continues to be great inequalities in the United States in terms of poverty, educational opportunities, incarceration and victimization by the police force.  Interestingly, the founder of the Buffalo Soldier Museum mentioned that when he had taken a group of African -American teenage boys to visit Fort Davis, where many Buffalo Soldiers were stationed, it was the first time that many of them had been out of their own "zip code" in Houston.  In other words, not only had these boys never been outside of Houston, they had never seen anything of the world beyond their own limited neighborhood.  It's difficult to imagine, really, but it certainly stuck in my mind.  It also made me think of Charley, who  had never been off the plantation until the Civil War ended in 1865.

We don't all have the same opportunities for travel, which is exactly why books -- with all of their world-expanding potential -- are such a vital resource.  I do hope that this excellent book will find readers for its journey.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Romantic clichés

It's not easy to write a good romance novel.

If there is any genre which tends to drift into cliche, not to mention emotionally unhealthy fantasy territory, it's the romance.  Blame it on fairy tales and Walt Disney films . . . which inspire most of our earliest ideas about romantic love, and then give us such limited plot points and potential outcomes to imagine.  Either you are a heroine that needs to be saved (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel), or more rarely, a heroine who wants to do the saving (Ariel, Beauty).  Either way, the story ends with a "happily ever after" and is squarely aimed at a female reader.

Hats off, then, to Daniel Handler -- who did his level best to subvert romantic clichés
in his YA novel Why We Broke Up.  Never mind the happy ending; Handler dispenses with that notion from the very title of the book.  He starts with the aftermath of a break-up of a couple of unlikely love birds, and then works his way back to the less than auspicious beginning of their relationship. 

Min is the cinema-obsessed girl with the simpatico best boy friend who seems like he might be gay, but isn't.  (Instead, he is secretly in love with her.  Yes, a cliché . . . but a knowing one.)  They are the "arty" not-quite-cool kids in school, several rungs below the athlete-and cheerleader apotheosis in the social hierarchy.  When Al (best friend) has a Bitter Sixteen birthday party, basketball god Ed Slaterton and his sidekicks crash it with all the noblesse oblige of the truly popular.  Ed flirts with Min, Min succumbs to the flattery of his attention, and next thing we know she is dragging him to an art-house film.  This is the opposites-attract kind of romance; no one really expects it to work out, and no one is really surprised when it doesn't.  Ed seems to have potential to be more than he appears to be, and Min starts falling for this possibility.  But then he disappoints; he turns out to be exactly the "player" Min suspected him to be all along; and we are all unaccountably disappointed.

Typically, in a romance, there are a variety of conflicts and misunderstandings which keep the happy couple unhappy . . . sometimes until the very tip-end of the denouement.  But the reader knows, because this is a convention, that everything will work out in the end.  So Daniel Handler writes an un-romance, an anti-romance, but with plenty of fair warning to the reader.   Read it for Daniel's clever writing and Kalman's appealing illustrations . . . but don't read it for the emotional satisfaction of a happy ending.  

Another terrific YA writer who plays around with romantic cliches is Stephanie Perkins.  In her novel Lola and the Boy Next Door, the second in a loosely connected trilogy, Perkins gives a big wink to a trite romantic convention:  that your true love might just be the boy you've known all your life.

At the beginning of the story, our heroine Lola is in love with her first proper boyfriend, who just happens to be quite a bit more experienced than Lola (in every sense of the word).  Her two Dads, (the story is set in bohemian San Francisco), don't like Max very much, but they do invite him to Sunday brunch every week -- if only to grill him.  Everything is pretty groovy . . . until, enter stage left . . . Lola's childhood crush moves back into the house next door.  Although there is some historical heartbreak and misunderstanding to clear up, it is pretty clear that Lola is going to have to make a tough choice.  Both Max (dangerous and exciting) and Cricket (nerdy but adorable) are recognizable types, but they are too well-drawn to be described as cliches.  Yes, Perkins sets up a classic love triangle, but the originality and charm is definitely in the detail.  Cricket Bell may not be the most obvious Prince Charming, but he is one of the most appealing romantic heroes I've ever encountered in a YA romance, and my 17 year-old daughter definitely concurred in this opinion.

If you are looking for the emotional satisfaction of a happy ending, do give this wonderful novel -- and indeed, the entire series -- a read.  Neither the heroes nor the heroines are passive love objects, and they all experience realistic learning curves before getting to experience "true love". 

For other romances, anti-romances -- and a few books about complicated relationships -- see TRAC's February Book List