Monday, May 30, 2011

Sex, Drugs and YA

WARNING: The following post contains spoilers on the following books: “Swoon” by Nina Malkin, “Evermore” by Alyson Noel, “Valiant” by Holly Black, “Hush, Hush” by Becca Fitzpatrick, “Speak”, “Wintergirls” and “Twisted” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott and “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. Proceed at your own risk.

The biggest irony of YA – you write about teens, but you’re not allowed to write for teens. I already talked about this at length in my Morals, Values and other Capitalizations piece, and my opinion stays the same: If you stuff your children in grown-up clothes and encumber them with your grown-up expectations, you have no right to get indignant if a YA book contains the f-bomb, or if two teens engage into something more than chaste hand-holding.

But let us ignore the sex topic for now. Instead, let’s take a look at other things that make YA books “edgy”. More specifically, I’d like to talk about how alcoholism, drugs, bullying and other similar are being treated in YA books.

Last month, I read Nina Malkin’s “Swoon”, and while I loved the story, I kept going back to that part: The heroine and her cousin talk about sex, and her cousin compares it to doing coke – the first line was amazing, but every one after that was chasing the feeling of the first. Now, she’s not a drug addict in the book, but I wondered: is that plausible? I mean, that’s what they tell us at school, right – one is all it takes. It got me thinking about the times when I read a book where heroes get high, but then seemingly walk it off without that many consequences, and I wondered why it contradicts what we were taught about drugs.

To bring up another example, I’d like to talk about a book I personally detest more than any other one in the YA Paranormal genre. Now, I usually don’t hate on books – I might not like them, but it’s never personal. But “Evermore”, in my eyes, is worse than any other book I’ve read of this genre. Worse than “Twilight”. Worse than “Hush, Hush”. Worse than “Wings” and “Fallen” and “Halo”. This book represents all that is wrong with this genre – from the stalking hero, through the useless friends, to the whitewashed, privileged heroine who can’t even pick her nose without help. What enrages me most, though, is that after the heroine finally breaks up with her stalker boyfriend, she turns into an alcoholic.

This is wrong on so many levels, not just because it highlights how codependent Ever’s relationship is, but also because it is completely redundant. At least Bella’s jumping off cliffs moved the plot, such as it was, forward. Ever’s alcoholism doesn’t really make an impact on the plot, and after a few pages, she completely shrugs it off like it’s nothing and drives over to a party to save her friends. There are hardly any repercussions for her actions, and she doesn’t seem to suffer the consequences from her addiction.

Perhaps I am not fair, since I haven’t read any of the sequels and don’t know if this problem resurfaces, but let’s face it: Alcoholism is a serious affliction. Forget the physical repercussions – there is a good reason why most people turn to the bottle, and that reason often persists even after you get over the physical need. It’s something that needs to be addressed, and the fact that Ever barely considers the consequences of her actions on her family and friends pretty much told me everything I needed to know about her character.

This is something which comes up every once in a while when I read books – a problem like alcoholism, drug addiction, parental abandonment and child abuse are just thrown into the story without having any greater significance to the plot other than just being there. It’s the same in “Swoon”. It’s the same in “Valiant” by Holly Black, where protagonist Valerie gets addicted to a faerie drug dubbed ‘Nevermore’, but gets over it pretty quickly. Actually, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for “Valiant”, not least because I quite enjoyed that book and because I think it was well thought of, even if it lacked in execution.

To a much higher degree, we have this problem in Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Hush, Hush”, where Patch, the designated love interest, repeatedly threatens and sexually harasses Nora, our protagonist. Many reviewers have commented on the deplorable way Patch treats Nora and how his behavior perpetuates rape culture, but to me (at least at first), this faucet of his character didn’t invest me emotionally. One of the downsides of reading too much Paranormal YA is that after a while all books look the same to you; I’d seen the cover and read the synopsis – I’d gotten the gist of the story. Since Patch was obviously the hero, I didn’t believe for a minute that his behavior was NOT disguising underlying attraction or that Nora was in actual danger, and I don’t think I’m the only reader who was tricked into liking the book by this false sense of security that surrounds the whole genre. No matter how dark and grimy things get, you always know that everything is going to be fine.

Is all YA like that? No, of course not. Pick up any novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. “Speak” is about the aftermath of rape. “Wintergirls” describes the heroine’s journey through anorexia. “Twisted” is about a boy who wants to fit in, but can’t, and constantly has to fight anger and depression. In essence, all of those are ‘issue’ books, but the subject matter is always handled with respect and intelligence, in a way that suggests the author understands just what she’s writing about and doesn’t just use it as a plot device in her novel.

Another example of a YA which knows what it’s doing is “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott, a truly terrifying novel that sent me hiding under the covers with my thumb in my mouth. Seriously: Don’t go reading this if you’re depressed, it will not help your case.

The difference between those two kinds of novels I just described lies in the kind of problems these are. According to Les Edgerton, author of “Hooked”, there are two kinds of problems – a story-worthy one and a surface one. A novel’s plot is made up of many small surface problems, which the protagonist overcomes in his quest to deal with the story-worthy problem. What “Swoon” and “Evermore” do with their ‘edgy’ issues is make them handy plot devices, or surface problems at best, with little or no impact to the characters’ lives.

Compare this to “Wintergirls”, where Lia’s descend into anorexia is shown in such a visceral way that the reader gets pulled into her head. Anderson writes it in such a way that it literally shows how Lia is constantly correcting herself, suppressing her desires, silencing her reason. Or “Living Dead Girl”, where Elizabeth Scott shows the complete deterioration of Alice’s morals, and brings her to the point where she would do anything, and I mean anything, to escape.

“Living Dead Girl” makes an impact because it holds up a mirror to the reader and shows them just what can happen to your soul when you’re thrust into a living hell. On the other hand, having characters who can shrug off alcoholism or shoot lines without repercussions isn’t edgy. If anything, it’s lazy writing. It shows you’d rather have your protagonist do something edgy for a few pages, thus adding some shock value to the novel, than exploring their character and how their actions affect them. As readers, we ask ourselves: “Ok, that happened. So what?”

I’m not saying that all protagonists in YA should be straight edge, clean cut, happy-go-lucky, perfectly adjusted SWASPs. Quite the contrary – the more complex the characters, the better is a novel for me. But don’t just throw in addictions for the sake of it – show us how they affect the characters, and how they react. This is essentially why we read stories – to get a glimpse from another person’s reality and see how they live through it.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? How edgy would you like your YA to be? Do you think there's a line between realism and gratuism? And, for that matter, do you think every book with a teen protagonist should be labeled as YA? Do you think the label "Young Adult" signifies the rating of the book (like PG, PG-13), or the intended audience?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A New Twist on An Old Tale

Over the last few months, I have noticed a new craze in the YA market. Retellings. The Goddess Test. Starcrossed. Abandon. The Dark Wife. Prom and Prejudice. Cinder and Ella. Cinder. Beastly. A Long, Long Sleep. Red Riding Hood. Shut out. The list goes on...

What all of these books have in common is that they are a new variation on an old story. Some of them are good, some interesting, some truly terrible... and some still in the works. But despite the fact that I really, really liked some of these books, they still fail to kindle in me the same wonder the original did.

I think the queen of fairy tale retellings is Juliet Marillier. Atmospheric, emotional and absolutely perfect, her writing reflects the true heart of what a fairy tale is meant to convey. So why do most of these other authors fail to capture the same magic?

Let’s start with the ‘retelling’ portion. There’s a nice big thick line between literally ‘retelling’ a story, and changing it so completely that it bears no resemblance to the original. A retelling is a meld of your creativity and that of the original author’s. It is both tribute and rebirth. And in order to be able to truly re-interpret something, one must understand and empathize with the original.
So if you’re planning to retell Pride and Prejudice, for example, you have to understand that it is not, at heart, a romance, any more than Romeo and Juliet is. The romance is merely a vehicle, and a heavily satirical one at that, to convey a biting social commentary on the shallowness of Regency society.

One of the reasons I intensely disliked Prom and Prejudice, for example, was because the author failed to understand this precise point. It’s no good picking up the entire cast and characters of Pride and Prejudice and transferring them to a prep school in Connecticut. That’s what is known as a cosmetic change. If you understand only the surface story, and then decide to unsubtly ‘retell’ that same story without deviating from the original one little bit, you’re missing the entire point of a retelling. Worse, you’re detracting from the very soul of the story and devaluing the beauty of the original author’s words.

And how can I forget this new, wholesale massacre of the Greek Gods? Each new retelling is worse than the one that went before. A Greek underworld in Florida? A Greek pantheon that judges people according to the seven sins? Helen as the daughter of Aphrodite? Just. Kill. Me. Now.

Seriously, if you find the Iliad too much to digest, there’s this much simpler primer called Bullfinch’s Mythology. Look it up. Buy it. Read it. Here’s the thing: Greek mythology is one of the most fascinatingly amoral mythologies in the world. And one of the most sexual. Incest, murder, rape, bestiality, you name, it’s probably there. You can’t take an entire culture like that, full of life and colour and violent emotions, and transform it into a pale, angsty, white-washed teen love story. There’s something called creative license, true. There’s also something called embarrassing lack of research.

The thing about basing your story on mythology is that mythology never really tells just a simple story. Mythological stories are not fables. They aren’t necessarily moral, but they are a reflection of the religious beliefs of an entire culture and people. The ancient Greeks were pagans, through and through. Their entire mythology is based on the deification of nature spirits. And Mother Nature? Well, she’s not what you’d call judgemental. Nasty and violent, soothing and bountiful, but always, always amoral. And so, when an entire society of people build their beliefs around these amoral deities, their way of life, their culture, is necessarily different from the Christianity-inspired moral code of Western societies today. And when you forget that, when you try to make your story more ‘politically correct’ and ‘acceptable’, Greek mythology loses everything that made it interesting in the first place. The vibrant difference that draws us to an ancient culture so unlike our own, gets lost in the all-round homogenisation common to YA lit today.

This is also a problem that fairy tale retellings face. Fairy tales aren’t pretty stories about Tinkerbell. They’re dark, they’re violent and they’re a study of human nature. Does anyone over the age of fifteen really believe that the wolf was just a wolf? Fairy tales encompass more social and sexual undertones in a few pages than most novels can in a trilogy.

As I said before, there is a nice middle ground between sticking strictly to the original story and smashing it to bits so that it’s unrecognisable. A Long, Long Sleep, for example, is a great re-imagination of the story of Sleeping Beauty. While the basic premise remains the same, the author has put a sci-fi spin on the tale, introducing several themes into the book, dealing with abandonment, change, culture shock and environmental issues. There is depth to the story. It’s not just girl meets Prince Charming, he kisses her and sweeps her off her feet, and they live happily ever after. Neither is it the exact story about a girl whose been cursed by a witch with a sleeping spell, etc, etc.

A retelling needs to be both derivative and individualistic. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? That’s precisely why retellings are harder to do than your own stories. You can’t dismiss the history and the culture that adds depth and meaning to a story.

Whether it’s Chaucer, or Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen or the brothers Grimm, Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, literature has always served as a means of conveying the mores, the culture and the history of an entire people. It is a form of bearing witness, one that lasts through the ages. To try to re-interpret this history is no easy task, and it’s not one that should be undertaken lightly. Unfortunately, most of the YA retellings I have read so far seem to have forgotten that words have weight. That ‘borrowing’ from someone means having to acknowledge the importance of their contribution. There’s a reason the classics are, in fact, classics, and while I totally appreciate, admire and encourage authors who try to situate the classics in a more modern context, and make them more relatable to the youth of today, the point of the exercise is lost, if you didn’t get the subtleties of the story to begin with.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Two Interesting Discussions on Sexuality

I don't have anything to discuss this week, so will point you to these interesting discussions on sexuality. The first is on Bransforums. They've had their very first controversial topic. It briefly touches on sex in YA.

On Writing Sex Scenes

The second is on Absolute Write. It discusses the importance, or lack of importance, that is placed on being gay in YA.

Gay Characters in Non-Gay YA Books

Feel free to leave your thoughts below.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The DNF Review

By Ceilidh

Things have been particularly interesting for us book bloggers over the past few months, especially those of us reviewing in the YA category. It seems that everyone has weighed in on the topic of what, why and how to review a book, be it negatively or otherwise. However, the topic of the DNF (Did not finish) review has been an especially
hot button one.

A few weeks ago, author Mayandree Michel blogged about the line between book reviews and book bashing, a topic my fellow torch bearer Vinaya has already discussed at length far better than I could, and while I had a number of issues with some of the things Michel said, including frequent use of the term ‘hater’ to describe critical reviews, her paragraph on DNFs seemed especially interesting to me:

“But why review a book you haven't finished? Most read because they enjoy it. If you find that you are reading a book that you are not enjoying then just put it down. And just because you find that you don't like a book, doesn't mean that the book sucks. It just means that it's not the right book for you.”

Personally, I don’t think this is a fair assumption to make. As a dedicated reader and reviewer, I want to give every book a fair chance, even if it’s something that’s not particularly suited to my tastes, and I seldom don’t finish a novel, but I have no problem with writing a piece on why I didn’t finish a book. This is mainly because it takes a lot for me to put down a book and not return to it, so if a book is so bad or so problematic that I can’t even finish it, I want to say exactly why this was the case for me. Of course not all books are for everyone, but it’s not fair and rather suspect to label everyone that doesn’t like a book as it just not being to their tastes, or giving them the dreaded moniker of ‘hater.’

There are several reasons I may not finish a book. It could be bad writing, uninspiring world-building, lack of originality, etc. The last DNF review I posted (which I didn’t give a star rating to – I think to do so is subjective to the reviewer and their own judgement call) was The Lipstick Laws by Amy Holder. The book was so uninspiring, so derivative of every high school set book or movie I’d ever seen, so devoid of wit and nuance that I just couldn’t force myself to care about it. I’ve also heard the argument that you can’t critique a book without reading it all, but honestly, if you have to read a 300+ page book and it only starts to get interesting in the final few pages, that’s not worth my time. You don’t leave all your good writing for the climax. I do think if one is reviewing a sequel that they should read the rest of the series first, unless it’s been explicitly stated that one doesn’t have to read the rest of the series in order to appreciate the other books (e.g. Discworld novels.)

I have often forced myself to finish a book I know is awful and won’t get better. If a book disgusts me and is so jam packed with disturbing messages and archaic attitudes towards women, sex and relationships that I can’t not speak out against it, then you damn well know I want as much ammunition against that book as possible! This isn’t being a hater, however you want to spin it, it’s about wanting to be informed. However, if you have such passionate reaction to a book that you have to put it down without finishing it, I still think you have the right to review it. Reviews are by consumers, for consumers. I completely understand why people don’t read or write DNF reviews, but if they want to seek the opinion of a reviewer they trust then that shouldn’t be dismissed. It doesn’t make them a hater, it makes them a reader.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Will the Real Young Adults Please Stand Up?

Reading young adult books can often be a lot like watching romantic comedy movies aimed at teenagers. There is the high school setting. You see the stereotypes and you recognize them well: the nerdy/unpopular girl, the jock or bad boy love interest, the antagonistic cheerleader/popular girl, the supporting cast made up of quirky yet baseline stereotypical characters who add nothing to the plot but one-liners, quips, and comedic relief. You know how the story goes. Heroine triumphs with the love interest on her arm. Mean girl gets her just desserts. Happily ever after for everyone else!

It sounds stupid, doesn't it? How is that a good representation of being a teenager? Yes, everyone can relate to the underdog. Yes, everyone hates the bully or antagonist. Yes, everyone wants to come out happy in the end.

But it isn't true to life.

Here on the Book Lantern, we rant about the true love trope in paranormal YA where girl meets boy and – suddenly – the two are destined to love each other for ever and ever and ever! How does this scenario relate to real life teenagers? Do I really believe that most teenagers believe that, when they fall in love between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, they will stay together with those first loves? Heck no. First loves usually don't survive – and when they do it is a rare thing. But just because it is rare does not mean it will last, what with divorce rates always on the rise. In a world where teenagers grow up knowing the pros and cons of love, marriage, and the like, how can any of us say that most teenagers aren't disillusioned by the idea of forever love?

Then you have teenagers and sex and the two ends of the spectrum where teens are either virginal or “heavily experienced.” Girls are good if they are virgins; girls are bad if they are not. Boys don't push for sex, and there are next to no hints that they are thinking about it or wanting it. Realistic? I think not.

Of course, all of these things boil down to my main issue: teenagers are not portrayed in all their shades within many young adult books. You have either too-good-to-be-true idealism or harsh and gritty realism. The unattainable perfections are glorified while the flaws are dusted under the carpet or stereotypes reign supreme in place of true characterization and portraits of real life.

I want to see teenagers as they are in all the ugliness and beauty that they are capable of having just like any other person. Teenagers can be fickle, doubtful, unsure, hateful, bitter, and misunderstood – but they can be beautiful, insightful, creative, intelligent, constructive, and reliable. Teenagers cannot fit into the stereotype boxes we align for them because people in general do not fit into boxes.

But all hope isn't lost because there are authors out there who portray teenagers realistically and powerfully. I love when authors can convince me that their characters could really exist in real life. I love when I am able to think in regards to a character, ”You are not a stereotype! Hooray for you!” or ”You're real, and I love you so, so much for it.” I love when I can think to myself, “Yes, these are real teenagers written by people who once were teenagers.”

Idealism is a nice thing. . .but truth? Truth can be ugly and painful – but it is necessary for the sake of knowledge, growth, and understanding. To impart all those things to readers through characters who are learning and growing and understanding – what a beautiful, rare thing that is. Those stories that can achieve such heights and show such reality are the ones worth keeping, cherishing, and raising onto a pedestal.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Keep Dem Women Folk Outta Ma Fantasy Books

As of 5/15/11 Rogue Blades removed all comments that accused the writer and any commentators of sexism. Note that the sexist comments still remain.

I've been temporarily distracted by the TIO threads on Absolute Write, but now I'm here and ready to write yet another post on sexism. However, this isn't your run of the mill sexism.

I've been following the comments on this article for two days now. I've determined that the sexist attitudes of these male fantasy writers are why I prefer to read Science-Fiction over High Fantasy.

Instead of continuing on a repetitive rant towards the outrageous disgusting attitudes of sexists, I will assume that all of you are well versed in that discussion. I want to talk about the way women are portrayed in fantasy.

Over on Rogue Blades, we have many misusing the word Anachronism. An Anachronism is when the Ancient Egyptians are shown to use Gameboys and play Violins. A women shown to be a strong fighter in a fantasy novel is not an Anachronism. Firstly, fantasy takes place in another universe. Secondly, women warriors often disguised themselves as men to fight in wars and many women fought in wars or led battles.

With this same attitude, we can infer that women, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans shouldn't be portrayed as anything but slaves, barmaids, and inferior human beings in High Fantasy simply because they were at one point seen as such in history; notwithstanding that Dwarves, Elves, and Dragons are allowed to exist, but a 110 lb 5'4 women is not allowed to kick major ass. To certain writers, that's simply not plausible.

I want to read more fantasy. Really, I do. But I'm unable to read it when women are constantly oppressed and seen as lesser beings in a world based on fantasy. Writers, you can create a world with any rules you choose. Yet, you continue to write sexist worlds to have your characters overcome the sexism. Can a girl fight monsters without having to deal with sexism? Does every girl have to disguise herself as a boy to fight in a war? This has nothing to do with cultural or social constructs. In your world, you don't have to have those.

I know this comes off as harsh, but please, see where I'm coming from. As a black reader, I purposefully avoid books that claim to present the "black" experience. I don't want to read about slavery or racism on a constant basis in contemporary fiction, so why would I want to read about it in fantasy? You have the opportunity to create a world that doesn't follow the cultural restrictions of our own. Please, take that and run with it. Not female warrior has to face sexism to prove that she's just as good as the guys. Not every female warrior has to be harassed, raped, or overcome the 'horrible men' to prove that she's a woman.

I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist or that we shouldn't combat it in fiction. I'm saying that in a fictional world, you don't have to follow the same restrictions of this world. Nor am I implying that every single fantasy book with a female warrior can't have sexism in it. I want the genre to get mixed up a bit. Also, I wouldn't mind having some people of color there either. The SWASP version of America doesn't exist in a fantasy world. Just remember that.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Great Books for Pre-Teens and the Young at Heart

Compiled by Ceilidh

We at The Book Lantern are big YA nerds but we’d be doing a disservice if we only raved about the books shelved in the teenage section, especially since there are plenty of brilliant, and often criminally underrated, books for the middle-grade age group that deserve your attention. I, along with a few friends and bloggers and friends who happen to be bloggers have put together a nice jam-packed recommendation post for your enjoyment. 

Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede (Blurb by LJmysticowl)

There are two entry points into Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles: the chronological order and the published order. I managed to start the series with one of the middle books, and it still didn't fail to draw me into its magical, adventure-filled world. The Chronicles are Wrede's irreverent, but loving, deconstruction of the fairy tales we all grew up on. The books are filled with dragons (and their princesses), witches (and their cats), sorcerors (and their staffs), wicked stepmothers (and their Traveling, Drinking, and Debating Society), and all the others creatures and characters without whom a fairy tale just wouldn't be a fairy tale. The first-published book is a journey of self-discovery of a very polite young man; as the journey is through the titular enchanted forest, his politeness serves him well. The first-chronologically book features a kick-ass princess who felt like she was tailor-made to be my role model. I don't think any literary character ever meant more to me than Cimorene and her swordfighting, magic-casting, Latin-learning, cherries-jubilee-cooking ways.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (Blurb by Katya)

Shelved both as YA and MG, “Leviathan” is one of those books that you might be reluctant to pick up, but you will be hard pressed to put it down once you do. It’s a novel about the First World War, and how it would have been if you added the conflict of animals vs. machines to the rest of the motives – colonies, power thirst and debts  to be paid.

I loved how Westerfeld builds this world – adding to it, rather than changing the actual historical events. As a history nerd, I realize it takes a profound and serious study of the actual war, the reasons behind it, the events leading up to it and the changes it triggered, in order to create such a convincing and ambitious book.

Another plus: Alek is a smartass and Deryn has swagger. How can you not love them?

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. (Blurb by Ceilidh)

I know I wasn’t the only one surprised to hear that “Little Britain” star David Walliams had turned his hand to writing children’s books, and I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t alone in being surprised by how good they are, especially his debut, centred around a lonely schoolboy called Dennis, raised in an ultra macho household, who finds he enjoys wearing women’s clothing as much as he does playing football. Walliams has a sharp wit and young-at-heart attitude that works well with his writing, appealing to adults as much as it does to kids. I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly he handled the potentially touchy subject of boys’ and girls’ gender roles, both with care and humour. Things are a little over-simplified but it was refreshing to read a book so full of wit and heart that didn’t treat the idea of a boy wearing dresses and make-up as something wrong or shameful. This charming book, as well as Walliams’ other children’s books, also have the honour of being illustrated by the legendary Quentin Blake. If that doesn’t make your nostalgic ears perk up, nothing will!

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (Blurb by Severus)

Cynthia Kadohata is probably one of my favorite authors. I adored Kira Kira, and so it makes sense that I would probably enjoy her later book, Weedflower. Weedflower is about a Japanese girl who is living in the time of Pearl Harbor. Her fear and shock rings in the novel, as she watches her world change around her. You are able to feel what she's feeling, and understand her. The supporting characters, such as her brother and her friend, seem real -- not like the cardboard cutouts you sometimes encounter in Middle Grade fiction. This book is able to be enjoyed by all ages, and despite the time it takes place in it is refreshingly and startlingly clean. There isn't enough praise you can shower this book in, and I would be overjoyed if more people read Mrs. Kadohata's books and enjoyed them as I have.

Redwall by Brian Jacques (Blurb by Nathaneal Smith, contributor to

When Ceilidh asked me to write about my favourite pre-teen novel, I knew what I had to write about, for as a child there was only one series of books I ever read. Discovered when I was around ten years old, Brian Jacques' Redwall series tells the stories of a group of rodents (primarily mice, but also badgers, hares, squirrels, and more) who lived in an Abbey and each book had to fight off the more violent animals that also lived in that world (rats, foxes, ferrets and weasels being the main baddies). There was a giant mountain populated by extremely violent badgers and armies of overly British hares, there were mysterious islands populated by lizards, and there were enough battles per book to elicit gleeful joy from any young boy.

Every book followed a rather specific formula: the Abbey, Redwall, would be threatened by some outside force. The peaceful abbey dwellers would be reluctant to fight, save for a couple of fiesty warrior types. There would be a quest, some comic relief, lots of feasting, even more fighting and some much beloved characters would end up dead. Yet this formula was filed with enough invention and adventure that I would read and re-read these books over and over again. In fact even now as a twenty one year old I feel a strong desire to go and pick up a Redwall book again. See you in a couple of days...

The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin (Blurb by Seneska

When I first picked up the Earthsea stories I didn’t know what an archipelago was. I soon learnt. A fantasy world based on islands was a very different concept to read about. It allows for a great breadth in cultures that can captivate and enthral, from the barbarous raiders of a rival empire to Roke’s school of magic. The characters are no less compelling. On the cusp of adolescence it is very easy to empathise with the clever, brash and tortured Sparrowhawk. The consequences of his actions and his foibles make him a very human character. His strength of character as he grows puts Harry Potter to shame. And then there is the exceptional Tenar in the chilling book The Tombs of Atuan. Trapped by exceptional circumstances her fire and bravery make her a valuable role model for any pre-teen determined to grasp her own destiny.

And in case all this wasn’t enough, did I mention the dragons?

The Children of the New Forest by Captain Frederick Marryat (Blurb by Vinaya) 

Some children's classics, like The Secret Garden and Little Women form a staple in most children's libraries. Some, however, fall into obscurity over time. One such book is Marryat's The Children of the New Forest. Set in the Cromwellian era, this is a book about the four orphaned Beverley children who are hidden from the Roundheads by an old forrester, Jacob Armitage and forced to pretend that they are his grandchildren. Suddenly displaced from their aristocratic home to a simple cottage in the New Forest, the children must learn how to adapt to the challenges of their new life.

I LOVED this book when I was a kid. My copy is in tatters, and I still go back to read it every once in a while. As with most classics written in the Victorian era, this book adheres to certain clichés, but it is the best sort of escapism for anyone wishing to be transported to another era, one of adventure, political intrigue and romance. 

Becoming Naomi LeonKira-Kira and The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Blurb by Cory) 

When it comes to my MG books, there are three that stand out in my mind: Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Muñoz RyanKira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata and The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. All three feature people of color as the narrator, one earned the Newberry Award, and another received a Newberry Honor.

If you're interested in a book with a complex family relationship, Becoming Naomi Leon is for you. It tells the story of a Hispanic girl who longs to meet her father and overcome the difficulty of reuniting with her abusive mother. Kira-Kira features a strong bond between two sisters that will bring many to tears. The author, Cynthia Kadohata, has written two of my all time favorite books. The Watsons Go to Birmingham is a hilarious story told from the perspective of an African-American boy in 1963. Christopher Paul Curtis later won the Newberry Award for his equally funny book, Bud, Not Buddy.

These books are not to be missed, trust me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Makes a Good Book?

We here at the Book Lantern always like to be honest with you readers, so here's the truth: these days, it's tough to be a book reviewer – especially one who is not afraid to give negative reviews. (Now, I'm not talking professional book reviewer, mind you, but leisure book reviewer who posts reviews to a Goodreads page or a personal blog. YA book reviewers are especially receiving a lot of flak.) Vinaya raised the question yesterday about the difference between honest and harsh opinions. With all this tension floating around between authors and reviewers and even between fellow reviewers, there's a spotlight shining on questions of opinions, tastes, and degrees of “meanness” – but maybe we should be asking ourselves this question instead: What makes a good book?

I have to say that question has been popping up in my head quite a bit over the past few weeks, whether I'm reading or writing. Sometimes I find myself stopping writing only to reread what I've written and just think, “Okay, is this good?” Now, what is good? What defines good? Should it be my own definition, someone else's, or a consensus of popular opinion?

I think it's a legitimate question that all of us should stop and ponder from time to time. A good book. Like reviews themselves, the opinion of what makes a good book is almost entirely subjective.

Here's a little exercise: Think of an old favorite book that you could reread again and again until the end of time. Got that book in your head? Can you picture it in your head almost as if you had a copy in your very hands to open and start reading right now? Good. Now think about it for a while. Pick the story apart in your head and mull over it a bit. What made you love the story? What makes you keep coming back to it time and again? What makes your mind wander back to the story and just muse about it? What qualities of that book do you just love and cherish?

Now you have some idea of what made that book good in your eyes – but what about other books? Think about some more of your favorite books. Again, what do you love about them? And, when comparing with the first book, are there some similarities popping up again and again as you think about what you loved about them? If there are, then you're on the right track to finding what you look for to make a book good in your mind.

What are the elements of a good book for me? Well, I actually think a lot of these examples I list below apply to many readers. . .so, writers, take note!

5. Realism: Relatability Meets Believability

I've found that it doesn't matter whether I'm reading paranormal, fantasy, contemporary, or whatever so long as there are realistic and relatable elements to the plot and characters. No, realism may not apply to many realms of fiction, but elements of realism always should.

You know all those little gripes that each of us have about our daily lives? Well, characters even living in outer space probably have some of their own little gripes about their own surroundings and lives too. Nothing is perfect, not even in a utopian setting, because people are not perfect. The imperfections add a relatable element whatever story is being told.

Emotion is probably the highest relatable factor for me when I'm reading. No, I may never have walked through the Forbidden Forest or gone into the depths of the Phantom's opera house, but I know the fear of strange and shadowy places hiding secrets in the darkness. No, I may never have met a sparkling vampire or kissed a werewolf boy, but I know the tugs of love and the impractical and irrational thoughts and passions that come with it. The circumstances don't matter so long as readers feel along with the characters. It's a challenge for writers, yes, but does it lead to more of a deep and meaningful story? Hopefully so.

4. Plot: The Journey, the Suspense, and the Mystery

Plot. Commonly composed of small climaxes building to one large climax that slowly peters off to a resolution of some kind. It is the make-up by which all stories, no matter the format, are molded and constructed.

See, it's easy to define plot – but it's much harder to make it. Why do I say that? Well, I've read a lot of books with great premises and plots but very poor execution. Pacing is often a big issue. Filler is another. Sometimes less is more, and everything else will just burden a plot until it's boring. Unnecessary scenes that don't add to the plot or character growth in any way, shape, or form should be edited – or cut out completely.

Personally, I like when I don't know what's going to happen in a plot. Predictability is something I tend to dislike because, in my eyes, nothing kills a story faster than too much predictability. (Now, predictability in small doses is fine – but readers don't want to be right all the time.)

The best kind of plot is one that keeps a person reading because he's so engrossed and intrigued that he just can't put the book down. A tight-knit plot with mystery and suspense will often do this – but mystery isn't something only regulated to Agatha Christie novels or any other books in the mystery genre. For instance, let me give the example of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was a gothic romance, but it had the mystery element that made every reader ask, "Okay, what's up with Rochester's house? What's on the third floor? Who's wrecking havoc at night? And why?" Even while winding a bond between Jane and Mr. Rochester, Bronte succeeded at giving a bit of mystery and suspense that kept us even more engrossed in the story.

That is essentially the number one rule of plot: keep the readers engrossed in the book and invested in the story.

3. Consistency: Keep the Facts Straight and the Plot Flowing

Consistency. What do I mean by that? Well, storytelling needs to have a flow to the writing – and there's nothing that breaks a flow in storytelling like inconsistencies in characters, backstories, or the writing style itself.

Don't you hate it when you're reading a book that's keeping you guessing – only to hit a snag and get thrown out of the story completely because you read something that just didn't make sense? Whether it's clunky writing that could have been reworded or edited better or a development in the plot that came out of nowhere, anything that could potentially compel a reader to stop reading is bad form.

I think this all comes down to writers need to know their worlds, the worlds' rules, and the characters inhabiting said worlds. Nobody like a deus ex machina; readers will settle for the 'easy resolutions' but they don't like them because they don't reflect real life (which almost always bears struggle and conflict). Happily ever afters are sought after, true, but they're much more meaningful if the characters have 'paid their dues' to earn the HEA.

Another thing: writers need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Practice will almost always lead to improvement on the 'weak areas,' but building on the strong points can help make up for a lack somewhere in a story. Setting languishing? Build on the character development and interactions. Lack of action? Make up for it with internal struggle that can sometimes be just as suspenseful if done right.

Writing is a give and take kind of craft, so anything that makes a story better in the long run is always worth it (even if it takes a lot of confusion and second guesses for it all to come together in a neat little package called a good book).

2. Writing: Everything from Prose to Description

Confession: I often know a book will be good if I am envious of the writing. While that sounds like a weird thing to say, keep in mind that I am a writer myself. If I can read a first passage in a book and think longingly, "Wow, I wish I could write like this," then that's saying something, isn't it?

Though tastes vary on what can be deemed 'purple prose' (almost poem-like writing often heavy on metaphors, similes, and evocative descriptions), descriptions aren't a bad thing since a writing style can help give a book its own specific kind of atmosphere. The point, I suppose, is again less is more. Not many readers like to barrel through paragraphs of description, no matter how beautifully written, because it slogs down the story.

The number one rule of writing again? Keep your reader reading.

1. Characters: Heroes, Villains, and Everything in Between

I'm a critical reader – probably much more than I should be – but I always fall hard for characters. I look at it this way: why read about characters I don't like? Best case scenario when I'm reading about a character? I should want to root for him/her no matter what. I should want to stand behind him/her and his/her decisions. I should want to follow him/her on whatever journey is unfolding in his/her life.

Flaws. Ambiguity. They're necessary. Why did so many of us Harry Potter fans come out loving Severus Snape, nasty man that he could be? Because he was flawed and ambiguous only to show greater depth and emotion than any reader had likely imagined.

Now that I've given some food for thought for both readers and writers, I leave the question to all you Book Lantern followers: what makes a good book for you? Make it a big question of the day. Make it a discussion. Make it the focus because, honestly, isn't a good book what anyone is hoping for any time a he or she sits down and opens a book to read?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Crossing the Line — Differentiating between Honest and Harsh

So I got my first Goodreads troll yesterday. Not as entertaining as reading it second-hand on other people’s threads, FYI. But this post is not about trolls, so you can stop backing away from the computer now. What really caught my attention was the fact that I was accused of being mean and nasty regarding a negative review of a book I didn’t like. And that got me thinking, where’s the line between a constructively critical review and book bashing?

Fellow blogger Ceilidh pointed me towards this post on author Mayandree Michel’s blog. Michel talks about negative reviews and how “There is no thin line between an honest review written with no motive other than impartial feedback, and a book bashing that is clearly intended to hurt an author or their work's potential success.”

I find myself forced to respectfully disagree. Reader’s feelings on any piece of writing are clearly subjective. What I think of as the expression of an honest opinion (“this book is derivative and not suitable for anyone looking for a fresh, innovative read”) could possibly be construed by an author, or a fan, as a ‘hater’ comment, designed to stop people from buying the book. This may not have been my intention, maybe all I wanted to do was warn people against unreasonable expectations, but when you make a piece of writing public, be it a book, a review of a blog post, you automatically relinquish the right to criticize people’s interpretations of your work. People will put what meaning they choose to your words, and you cannot stop them. But this doesn’t mean that there IS no line— it merely means that the line blurs once actual human beings get into the fray.

Now of course, as reviewers, especially reviewers of YA books, we all know that negative reviews have become the subject of great controversy in the YA world. And of course, one cannot help but agree that using a review of a book to bash an author, such as in the example provided by Michel in the post, is crossing the line. But when it comes to discussing a book per se, how does one differentiate between an honest review and a malicious one?

Opinions differ, and even the most impartial review of a book may cause different reactions amongst different people. A review that I consider merely honest could seem harsh to someone else. But despite the inherent subjectivity of reviewing, is there still that line in the sand that one can draw between being opinionated and being malicious?

Some things are obvious to everybody. Author bashing, obviously, is a big no-no for any self-respecting reviewer. Ditto, trying to conduct personal vendettas in the guise of honest reviewing. But how about this? How about if I said that that a book was sloppily-plotted and that the heroine exasperated me? How about if I said that the writing was full of clichés and the ending was contrived? Is this being ‘disrespectful’ of the author? Or is this merely an honest expression of my opinion and feelings upon reading the book?

I don’t know what to tell you, guys. This is a question that’s been bugging me, and it’s one I’d like to put out there in the blogosphere so I can get an idea of what people think. Along with another thing that’s been preying on my mind. Why are YA books the ones that are getting so controversial? I think I find more YA reviewers tiptoeing around author egos and fan trolling than any other kind of reviewer. I hate the term Twitard, but how can we blame people for using it when YA threads get more trolls than any other book reviews? When YA reviewers are the ones being told repeatedly that they should be more sensitive in their critique, that they should just abandon a book if they don’t like it, instead of reviewing it. That’s not a good culture to perpetuate, surely? So why is it being enforced on YA reviewers, time and again?

Monday, May 9, 2011

The 4H Revolution Is ON: Review of Sister Mischief

A gay suburban hip-hopper freaks out her Christian high school - and falls in love - in this righteously funny and totally tender YA debut, for real.

Listen up: You’re about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew in the Twin Cities - or at least in the wealthy, white, Bible-thumping suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. Our heroine, Esme Rockett (aka MC Ferocious) is a Jewish lesbian lyricist. In her crew, Esme’s got her BFFs Marcy (aka DJ SheStorm, the butchest straight girl in town) and Tess (aka The ConTessa, the pretty, popular powerhouse of a vocalist). But Esme’s feelings for her co-MC, Rowie (MC Rohini), a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick, are bound to get complicated. And before they know it, the queer hip-hop revolution Esme and her girls have exploded in Holyhill is on the line. Exciting new talent Laura Goode lays down a snappy, provocative, and heartfelt novel about discovering the rhythm of your own truth.

Sister Mischief is one of those books that only comes once in a while - a book about identity that, instead of making universal statements, focuses on individuality.

Have I mentioned that I love character-driven novels? Well, I do. And as far as characterization goes, this book doesn't fail to deliver - our protagonist, Esme, and her friends Rowie, Tessa and Marcy are a group of hip-hop loving, open-minded seventeen-year old girls, who strive to express themselves in a mostly Christia...moreSister Mischief is one of those books that only comes once in a while - a book about identity that, instead of making universal statements, focuses on individuality.

Have I mentioned that I love character-driven novels? Well, I do. And as far as characterization goes, this book doesn't fail to deliver - our protagonist, Esme, and her friends Rowie, Tessa and Marcy are a group of hip-hop loving, open-minded seventeen-year old girls, who strive to express themselves in a mostly Christian school, in a very Christian community.

What's this? Is my audience crying 'Easy A' somewhere in the background?

Well... I don’t know. I’ve never seen the movie. I’ve heard TGWTG talk about it, and from what I can tell, Sister Mischief is not the same, at least when it comes to satirizing the Christian right. There’s the potential for that, but thankfully, the author takes a different approach... but more on that in a sec.

This is a book about identity, and finding your place without necessarily having to be an outcast. The portrayal of teenagers is superb - throughout the book, I could feel Esme's loneliness, Tessa's confusion, Rowie's insecurity (Marcy is badass, though. She steamrolls through the obstacles and isn't afraid to say her mind). I could see their confusion, and how they turn to their own different mediums to sort through their problems. The novel explores the different ways in which religion, peer pressure, culture and even nurture can be crucial to a person's growth without, you know, getting in your face about it. Esme is a lovable, non-practicing Jewish, lesbian heroine, and you can’t help but enjoy her narration, not least because she’s constantly writing lyrics in her head for the soundtrack of her life.

Hip-hop, of course, plays a big part in the whole book, and not only as a way to appeal to the audience. The girls actually wonder if it’s their place to dabble into a genre born from oppression and a fierce fight for liberation. However, as the book progresses, it becomes very clear that this is exactly their place and their genre and their medium of expression. Finding their place in a mostly Christian community helps them face their own demons and find peace within themselves.

Oddly enough, the girl whose struggle is the most difficult in that aspect isn’t our titular character, but her friend Tessa’s. Unlike Esme, Tessa in the textbook SWASP – she’s Barbie-doll gorgeous and comes from a wealthy background, but moreover, she is Christian and believes firmly in her religion. Now, her being friends with Esme, Rowie and Marcy and supporting them poses a lot of problems for her, because she is made to feel like she has to choose between them and her religion. In the hands of a lesser author, that kind of conflict would have come out as contrived and melodramatic, but Goode handles it with a delicacy which is not often seen in YA. Tessa is Christian, but she isn’t judgmental or snobbish towards her friends. Instead, she embraces the notion of Christianity as a religion that promotes love above all else, and this is a message that makes her a much more complex character than the other representative of the SWASPs, our antagonist MashBaum who is the Marianne of this book.

Esme and Rowie's relationship was beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. I found their characterization almost painfully real, and while I wish their storyline had been more developed, it doesn't lessen the merits of it. It was strange seeing how different their sexual awakening was to them, and how it affected their relationship, both as lovers and as friends, but, again, I found it to be relatable and visceral.

All in all, this is a fabulous book, and while there are definitely some flaws to it, it is still one that I'd recommend to everyone who loves reliable, charming characters and really kickass writing.

Note: A copy of this book was generously provided to me by the publishers via NetGalley for reviewing perposes. Sister Mischief is due to come out on July 12th.
<!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-GB X-NONE X-NONE