Friday, December 16, 2011
On October the twelfth, the finalists for the National Book Award were announced, and the YA category boasted some fine titles. Later, however, a sixth book was added to the list, Franny Billingsley’s “Chime”. It turned out that it was the original contender, and the book that was announced in its place, Lauren Myracle’s “Shine”, was shortlisted because of miscommunication, but the judges had decided to have six finalists instead of five because of the book’s merits. And then, a few days later, Myracle was asked to withdraw in order to “preserve the integrity of the award and the judges’ work”, a request she complied with.
Lauren Myracle: “How I Was Un-Nominated For the National Book Award”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-myracle/lauren-myracle-national-book-awards_b_1019972.html
What did the interwebs think about that? Here are two pieces, one by YA author Libba Bray ( http://libba-bray.livejournal.com/62266.html) and the other by Isak (http://isak.typepad.com/isak/2011/10/shine-on-the-unbelievable-treatment-of-lauren-myracle.html).
My opinion, when first hearing about this was: “Who cares for how many nominees there are, when there is only one winner?” Truly, the words of someone who isn’t fully aware of the implications. Within a few hours of browsing various articles, I realized that apparently things are more complicated.
But hey, the NBF decided to donate to a charity, didn’t it? Surely some good came out of the whole thing.
No. I don’t think so.
This situation wasn’t about the money, money, money (Jessie J or ABBA, take your pick), nor was it about some shiny sticker on the front cover. Anyone reading Myracle’s account can see how deeply this whole ordeal affected her, but I don’t think people understood what exactly this kind of thing might mean to an author.
Here’s how I see writing: It’s a lonesome, difficult work, without much visible recognition or reward (NOT monetary reward, for anyone about to quote Cyn Balog). Ask anyone who wrote or attempted to write how many hours they put into it, and they won’t be able to tell you because it is just that overcompassing. You spend months, years of your life, planning, reading, writing, researching, rewriting, looking for representation, rewriting some more, fighting with your editor, and then with your copyeditor. You do all this not knowing for sure if any of your hard work will pay off, and if anyone at all will deign to leaf through your book
Even with publication, an author’s work isn’t over. They have to promote, tour, write a better second book, somehow deal with negative reviews. They do it with grace and patience because that’s just how it is and you have to accept that not everyone will love what you do. But it doesn’t matter, because any real acknowledgement, like an email of thanks from a grateful reader or a nice review, makes the whole thing worthwhile.
To be nominated for the National Book Award isn’t just your book gaining critical acclaim, but also having your hard work being noticed and appreciated. The debate wasn’t about whether Shine deserved to be part of the nominee list, or even whether rules needed to be bend to allow for one more finalist in a group of five.
It’s about acknowledging the work of an author. It’s about noticing a book and giving it its due credit. It’s about an author being humiliated because apparently a human mistake could not be tolerated.
In that context, the resolution (the NBF donating to a charity specifically orientating to stopping hate crimes) is satisfactory.
But it doesn’t make the NBF look any better. No matter what they think on the matter:
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Between Shades of Gray (Ruda Sepetys).
Rightfully included amongst this year’s William C. Morris award finalists, this is one of the most heart-wrenching YAs I have ever read. Centred on a little known incidents of World War II Lithuania, where millions of Baltic state residents were arrested and sent to prison camps in Russia, Between Shades of Gray is at heart a simple story of a young woman forced to grow up fast as horrific events she cannot control unfold around her, yet its power lies in its simplicity. Sepetys’s prose is strong and purposeful. Every moment works, seemingly effortlessly, to tell a story in such a matter-of-fact manner that you can’t help but be completely taken in by its power. It’s a book that doesn’t rely on absolutes (some of the prisoners can be pretty unlikable, and the heroine has some moments of almost grating self-pity); these are humans, with all the shades of gray contained within. Even if you’re not a fan of historical fiction, I heartily recommend this book. It’s not an easy read but it’s one full of emotion, outrage and most of all, hope.
Across the Universe (Beth Revis).
Speculative YA and I haven’t always gotten on. Sometimes our relationship is so antagonistic I wonder why I bother with it sometimes. While I am admittedly a sci-fi fiction novice outside of Star Wars, Across the Universe began with a bang and kept me gripped throughout. While certain elements of the story will feel familiar to some, it’s the mood of this book that stood out to me; one of almost unbearable claustrophobia and just a hint of paranoia, as Amy tries to find her way in a closed off society of the future that has reverted back to simpler modes of life just to survive. The intricacy of Revis’s world-building was something of a godsend in a year of dystopian fiction relying on a singular concept with little thought given to it afterwards. It’s a story with risks and consequences, one where issues of race, identity and sex are handled maturely and consistently with the society’s rules, and one where my expectations were subverted. I don’t often commit to series these days but this is one I will definitely be investing in.
Sister Mischief (Lauren Goode).
Despite the continuing pushing forward of the dystopian YA trend, one that left me feeling rather unsatisfied, this was truly the year of great contemporary YA for me. The first time I read the blurb for Sister Mischief, I cringed a little. A teenage lesbian Jewish rapper from Minnesota? It sounded like the set-up for an SNL sketch! By the time I’d read about 100 pages of Sister Mischief, I was ready to fall to my knees and beg forgiveness for ever doubting it. Sometimes you just love a book wholeheartedly. It doesn’t happen very often for me but it did with Sister Mischief. It takes skill to create not just one but several complex, interesting teenage female characters from elements that so easily could have slid into parody, and to do it with such love and humour. Multiple issues of identity and finding your own voice are handled with aplomb, encapsulating everything that makes being a teenager so much fun and such a frustrating experience. Sister Mischief has enough diversity, humour, love, issues and creativity to fill 10 books.
Shine (Lauren Myracle).
Like Sepetys, Lauren Myracle has the enviable talent of being able to say so much with so few words. This is a book that does not shy away from the ugliness of humanity. The story unfolds like a good mystery, revealing the world to the reader piece by piece as the masks of small-town sweetness and hospitality slip away to fully reveal the darkness underneath. The smallest characters are fleshed out suitably to avoid the all too easy stereotypes of the small-town south and even when tackling issues such as sexual assault, homophobia, religion and crystal meth, the story does not once slip into preaching. The simplicity of her prose in telling such a difficult and all too relevant tale – a gay hate crime occurs in small town America, forcing the tight-knit community to confront its deep seated bigotry – makes Shine a gripping and realistic piece of contemporary YA, even when tackling issues more commonly found in soap operas. Myracle does not dumb down her story for the YA crowd; she simply presents this world as it is. While the National Book Award mess may have overshadowed the story for a while, this is a book that deserves attention.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
So, December is nigh, holidays are around the corner, and soon we shall be handing in our last pieces of coursework for the semester. Very soon, people will start churning out their favourite things for the year, New Years Resolutions and all sorts of lovely things. And since we at The Book Lantern are always ahead of the curve, I only thought it nice to put out my top five favourite books this year.
Why top five? Well, for one thing, not to bore you. For another, my colleagues will probably give their own lists too, and I wanted to leave more room for creativity. Here are some things you should know about this list. First of, it’s only books that have been released in 2011. Second, those are books that I have read, so if you don’t see 1Q84 or Scrivener’s Moon or Miss Pergrine up here, it’s because I haven’t gotten around to them. Third, no indie authors (I’m planning a separate countdown for those).
And finally, it’s either standalones or the first books in a series, so that you may add it to your NaNo Gift basket or your Christmas shopping lists (oh, capitalism, how I love you).
So, without further ado:
#5 Ward Against Death by Melanie Card
I got this book as an e-galley, but to my shame never got around to reading it. Then my friends gave it some rave reviews, and I just had to get it on the Kindle.
I don’t regret it for a minute.
What can I say? It’s an amazing book. Ward is such a refreshing hero, so different from all the stalkers and all the jerks in YA these days, I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Celia was also wonderful – inventive and smart, and so delightfully ruthless that you can’t help but enjoy her character. The two of them make a combo worth tramping even Alona Dare and Will Killian, two of my favorite characters of all time, and that’s saying a lot.
The story is intricate too, set in an alternate reality reminiscent of 16th century Italy, full of magic and assassins and secret orders. In two words – PURE WIN!
#4 Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Berzenoff
The thing about books with LGBTQ characters is that they rarely get enough limelight. It’s no secret they are heavily underrepresented in YA, and it’s even worse when you consider what treatment those characters get.
So yeah, it is a pretty big deal when a book not only has gay characters, but has them as the main characters. Now that’s something.
But Brooklyn, Burning isn’t just that. It’s a story about loss and overcoming hardship and the beauty of the human condition.
Also, the main character plays drums. How awesome is that?
#3 Sister Mischief by Laura Goode
Contemporary YA is often underestimated for not having enough room for variation. What people don’t understand is that most YA dystopias are hardly more than that, with some ‘what ifs’ sprinkled in.
Sister Mischief is a book that would revive your belief in the genre. Gutsy, beautiful and badass, much like its heroine, the story draws you in from the first page and grips you to the end.
Not to mention the romance is pretty damn wonderful. Esme and Rowie are two teenagers who definitely have some baggage, but their relationship is a powerful one, and it would leave a lasting impact.
#2 Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
When you hear WWII stories, you probably think that it would be about Nazi Germany. Why doesn’t anybody remember Russia used to be allies with Hitler, though? Is it because they switched sides that people forgot that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were obliterated from the maps for years on end?
This is the story of a young girl, Lina, whose family gets taken by the NKVD and who gets sent into a worker’s camp in Siberia.
It’s not a gentle book. It doesn’t pull any punches when it tells you about people living in inhuman conditions, nor does it belittle the beauty of life. Lina’s is a story that will stick, because she is so very relatable – a girl, forced to grow up too fast.
#1 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (by an idea of Siobhan Dowd)
Siobhan Dowd was one of the best YA authors. No, I mean it. Hers are the stories I expect to last and still be read in twenty years time, simply because her characters connect with you like few others can.
Patrick Ness took her idea and created a story that is not only worthy of the idea, it is powerful enough to knock the breath out of you. Connor, the main character, gets visited by a monster one night, and that monster promises to tell him three tales. The third time, the monster would ask for Connor’s truth, or eat him alive.
In spite of the fantastic elements, though, this is actually a story about many things – grief and loss, triumph and joy, hatred at its worst and love in all of its shades of gray. It’s a story that will make you reflect, and appreciate those you love all the more better.
So that was my top five list. I hope you guys liked it, or if you didn’t, I’d love to hear what your favorite books this year were. Stay tuned for more, and Happy Holidays!
Thursday, December 8, 2011
The 'R' Word, Part 2, or “Why authors should never use their books to settle petty personal issues.”
A few months ago, I wrote a piece in relation to House of Night author P.C. Cast's defence of her repeated use of the word 'retard' in her series after a commenter on her website confronted her about it. I had many things to say about the issue regarding the use of incendiary language, its play in our literature and so on. In particular, it was Cast's attitude towards the commenter and the issue in hand that disappointed me the most. I understand the urge to be defensive of one's work, especially when faced with censorship, however this issue has now moved beyond an isolated internet argument and into the New York Times best-sellers list. For those in need of a quick reminder, the original commenter on Cast's post linked to the website “The R Word” (which is wrongly linked here, which I presume is either a mistake or Cast not wanting to link to the real website). In a second instance in the book, the website is mentioned again:
"Aphrodite, stop sayin' retard!" Stevie Ray shoued at her. "I swear you need to check out www.r-word.com. Maybe you'd learn that some people get their feelin's hurt by the r-word."
Aphrodite blinked several times and then scrunched her face. "A Web site? Seriously.
"Yes, Aphrodite. Like I have tried to tell you a bazillion times, using the r-word is demeaning and just plain mean."
Aphrodite sucked in a deep breath and let out a rant. "What about a site for the c-word-as in cunt, which demeans half of the world? Or wait, no. Let's keep it the r-word site only make the r-word rape, which does more than just hurt upper middle class mommies' feelings. Or-"
"Seriously," I stepped between them. "We get it. Can we go back to the Shaylin and the True Sight issue?"
"Yeah, whatever," Aphrodite said, flipping back her hair.
"Aphrodite's mean, Z, but she makes a good point," Erin said.
I glared at Shaunee who only nodded enthusiastically, but didn't chime in. My head felt like it was going to explode. "Ah, hell," I said, throwing my hands up in frustration. "I can't remember what we were saying before the retard part."
(Destined. Pages 95-96. Quotes provided by my friend Midnight_Kiss.)
First, let's begin with the content of the novel.
I have only read the first book in the House of Night series so I cannot comment on the overall quality and content of the series. I am aware that Aphrodite is the female antagonist (and I had many complaints with her stereotypical slut-shaming characterisation in the first novel when I reviewed it for the original Sparkle Project). If her repeated use of such language is Cast's way of characterising her antagonistic nature in an attempt to provide a contrast to the 'good' girls of the series, not only is it extremely unconvincing and weak writing, it's also contradicted by other characters's actions in previous novels. I recall instances in the first book “Marked” where the heroine Zoey use the 'R' word, as did one of her friends, Heath, and she did not condemn him for doing so:
'“Forget them! They're retards.” Heath said, giving me his puppy-dog look...' (Marked, Page 173, found on Amazon.com)
If you are going to (lazily, in my opinion) characterise your antagonist in such a manner, don't make it acceptable for other characters to use the term without the same level of condemnation. On top of that, Aphrodite's argument is insulting on so many levels. Because there are more women on the planet than mentally challenged or disabled people, they have more right to be insulted by an incendiary term? Because the disabled and their allies have no feelings or are not worthy of such right to outrage? To paint those who criticise use of the 'R' word as 'upper middle class mommies' with hurt feelings is akin to use the 'political correctness gone mad' angle, a common trope of those who think having free speech gives them the right to be a monumental jerk. Combating the use of ableist language, as well as sexist, racist, transphobic, etc, language, is a serious issue with many supporters across the gender, political, class and racial divide. People and organisations like http://r-word.org work extremely hard to bring light to issues that have been ignored or dismissed for too long. These people deserve our respect and our support, not our mockery. I myself have been accused of being an over-sensitive liberal and a member of the “word police” when I expressed my anger over Ricky Gervais's repeated use of the term 'mong', which he deemed okay because he says he didn't use it to insult those with Downs Syndrome. In both instances, to Cast and Gervais, I say this: That's not the point! Yes, words to change meaning but you do not get to decide what is and is not acceptable. The word 'retard' is substituted frequently for the word 'stupid' but it's still an ableist slur who's primary definition is related to the disabled. For the record, I also strongly disagree with using the 'C' word as an insult as well as casual rape jokes, but I have a feeling Aphrodite's argument is not supposed to be taken seriously.
Aside from this, there is also the issue of Cast's actions. Here, she has clearly taken an instance from her public life, albeit one that I doubt every reader of her books will be aware of, and inserted it lazily into her book for a cheap laugh. For those unaware of the context, the scene is simply another excuse to deride the female antagonist in the laziest manner possible. For those of us who are aware, it's a display of serious immaturity, joyful ignorance and a complete lack of class. It's bad enough if you can't deal with your criticism in a concise and mature manner on your own website, but to take your personal beef and insert it into your book for people to pay and read it is, and I don't use this word lightly, pathetic. It's a tactic of pettiness and fear – why have this discussion where the other side can reply when you can create a one-sided mocking fest and charge hard-back cover prices for the privilege? It's not just taking a personal grudge and deriding it for a few laughs (if you also remember, Cast made comments about Laurell K Hamilton in another House of Night book for apparently no reason), it's taking a serious issue for which you were called out publicly and rubbing your wilful ignorance in people's faces. I had hoped that Cast could have taken the time to visit the linked website and make an effort to understand why this issue is so important and causes such reactions in the world, but she has shown herself to be completely unwilling to learn.
I've heard the argument that such language and attitudes are acceptable within the context of the novel because Aphrodite is the antagonist, but that argument never held water for me, and it does so even less with the above quote. I'm anti-censorship but I also firmly believe in the responsibility of free speech and the power of words. That's why I'm calling P.C. Cast out on this. There are people more informed than me who have read the entire series and are able to provide a consice, detailed analysis of the series, but on this issue I think Cast's own words speak for themselves. These are the actions of a school-ground bully, not a best-selling author of young adult fiction.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
I don’t have to tell you dystopia is big. Look at the hype surrounding Divergent, Legend, and Shatter Me, three books that spawned movie deals before they hit the shelves. And that doesn’t account for the countless other dystopias like Wither, Delirium, and Enclave.
Teenagers are rebellious creatures, so it’s no surprise that dystopia is popular. Star-crossed love is so much more interesting than normal love. And who doesn’t want to read about some badass chick fighting an evil totalitarian government?
But is this really what dystopia is about? It seems like the current crop of YA dystopian novels fall into one of two categories:
a) Whimsical worldbuilding: These are your high-concept “What if?” scenarios. What if you could cure love? What if classes were divided by language? What if society was divided by virtues? What these “What if?” scenarios tend to have in common is that the worldbuilding is not only completely implausible, but that they have no roots in "real" society. As Vinaya mentioned earlier, Dystopia is supposed to be a distorted mirror of our own world, a premonition, even. These worlds are not premonitions -- they are gimmicks.
b) Pointless evil: Dystopias where the evil totalitarian government only serves as something for the protagonists to rebel against. These novels aren’t about the horrors of eugenics, human experimentation, mass murder, etc. Sure, these tropes may exist, but only to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, and to give the supergenius protagonists an excuse to fight something.
I won’t disagree that some of these are good stories, regardless of worldbuilding issues. However, when we constantly focus on the “next big thing,” we often overlook the dystopias that are true to our world. I’m not just referring to adult classics, such as 1984, Brave New World, A Handmaid’s Tale, etc. I’m referring to books on the YA shelf.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is actually a post-apocalyptic book, not a dystopia, but since the subgenres tend to fall under the same umbrella, I think it is worth mentioning. Ship Breaker is set in a post-global warming world, where oil shortages rule the economy, major hurricanes are the norm, and there’s a massive income gap between the rich and the poor. Nailer’s world is gritty and repulsive, and he is constantly forced to choose between loyalty and survival.
M.T. Anderson’s Feed is, if anything, more terrifying. In this novel, everyone (who can afford it) has internet reception in their brain (called “the Feed.”) The characters are constantly bombarded with advertisement, have no reason to actually learn anything since they can just look it up, and are completely oblivious to the fact that the world is collapsing around them. The protagonist, Titus, isn’t some sassy revolutionary like today’s YA heroes/heroines—no, he’s as much a victim of his society as everyone else is, and that’s why this book is so scary. Would you recognize a dystopia if you were living in one? Also, this book came out in 2002—years before the concept of iPhones and on-the-go internet. Premonition, much?
A dystopia isn’t supposed to be something that can be overcome by a group of plucky teenagers, rousing speeches, and epic fighting skills. If totalitarianism and ignorance were this easy to defeat, they wouldn’t exist in the first place.
No, the scary dystopias are those who grin at you and say “What the hell are you going to do about it?”