Thursday, 26 November 2015

Morally Complicated YA Recommendations

I'm sure some of you have seen all of the Scott Bergstrom nonsense all over twitter the past few days, but for those that haven't, I'm just going to briefly sum it up:

Debut author dude gets impressive publishing deal for his previously self published YA book. Fair enough. But the article announcing it and interviews he's done have him saying some things that are incredibly ignorant, sort of arrogant and a bit on the narrow minded side?

I have other issues with his book, but I'm trying to reserve judgement on that for if I actually read it (for now, it's sounding an awful lot like a man trying to write from the perspective of a teenage girl without actually understanding teenage girls -- and all the bits of it I have read from the self published version support that and have been awful on multiple levels)...

So this post isn't going to be about that. It's going to be about the fact that in the interviews and articles he kind of trash talks the YA that is already out there, and implies he's bringing something new to the table (he actually goes as far as to insult YA dystopia in the book itself -- well, in the self published version at least).

That -- no. That's not cool. You don't write for a category, and use its audience for your own gain, while trash talking your peers (and sort of being unintentionally insulting towards its readers in the process). He claims that most of the YA out there isn't morally complicated and he's dismissive of genres in YA that aren't his own (which sort of read like "well, those ones are morally complicated but they don't count because they're X genre and they're just a metaphor for high school, so...").

I could get so ranty about this, but to be honest, I can't be bothered. Other people have already said what I would've said anyway... What I do want to do is recommend some morally complicated YA books.

And, just to clarify before I begin, these will be a variety of different types of moral complexity.

Perhaps the main characters aren't transforming themselves into lean ninjas and traipsing on a killing spree through the dark corners of Europe (à la Taken)...but let's be honest, that isn't the kind of moral complexity that young adults are likely to face on a daily basis, it's not the kind that many (or any) are likely to actually relate to in a real way. The moral complexity that we see more often in YA books? It's subtle and it's more realistic than his book is likely to be and that's why it matters.

Book Recommendations

1. Basically anything that Courtney Summers writes - All of her books are raw and gritty, they have fierce female characters who aren't likeable but you can't help but like them in spite of that. Her characters make mistakes, big ones -- they say and do things that should make it difficult to sympathise with them but you do anyway because they're well written, because they're complex, because they're human.

2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - I can't get into specifics about the moral complexities of this book without spoiling it, but it's about two best friends during WW2 and let's just say they have difficult choices to make. Elizabeth's other books are good for moral complexity too.

3. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson - This is the story of two siblings, twins, and the time leading up to and after a big loss in their lives. There's so much moral complexity in this book, with the characters doing things they regret that they can't ever take back, with them having to decide if it's better to be stay quiet or tell a truth that will hurt people they care about. The book has romance in it, but even that is complicated (with issues like sexuality and age differences playing a part in them). 

4. Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma - This's kind of the epitome of morally complicated. It's about the consensual incest between two siblings. It's about their absentee father and their negligent, barely present mother and the choices they have to make every day to keep their family together. It's about mental illness and kids making decisions in the heat of the moment that have ripple effects they'll regret for the rest of their lives. It's, well, complicated. 

5. Stolen by Lucy Christopher - This is a story about Stockholm Syndrome. A girl is kidnapped by a man and taken to the Australian outback. It's often easier to feel sympathy for the kidnapper in many parts than it is with the girl...because it's complicated, very emotionally and morally complicated. And the reader is left trying to untangle their feelings at the end because what we feel and what we know to be true get all knotted up while reading. This is the book that made me really get what Stockholm Syndrome was all about in a way that hadn't quite clicked before. 

6. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - This is the story about a young girl who was raped and the impact it has had on her life. She didn't report it, but then she sees her rapist at school and she has to make a decision -- say nothing, move on, or risk speaking up and facing all the backlash of that. Risk not being believed. But if she says nothing, what if he does it again? That'd be on him, but she'd feel like she should've tried to do something to stop it. That's a moral dilemma that way too many girls have to face. 

7. Entangled by Cat Clarke - This is a story about grief and mental illness and relationships that are wrong and unhealthy. The main character isn't always the easiest person to like and the characters that seem good sometimes do awful things because good people are capable of bad things. (Really trying not to spoil the story, which is why I'm keeping it vague.) Actually, quite a few of the Cat Clarke books I've read have been pretty dark and morally complex -- tackling bullying, suicide, sexuality...even manslaughter/murder in one of them, if I recall correctly. 

8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - He was pretty dismissive of this genre, and this series in particular, but I completely disagree. There is a lot of moral complexity in this book -- for one thing Katniss isn't always a good person but I wouldn't say she's a bad person either, she is a reluctant face of a revolution...she never set out to change the world she was in, all she wanted was to save her sisters life. Even when the revolution was already in motion, she didn't want to be a part of it until it was having a direct impact on the people or things she cared about. If you look to the past or even the present, The Hunger Games isn't all that far fetched -- the specifics of it may be, but people rising up against a corrupt government? And the way we can be so desensitized to violence and compartmentalize it until it's impacting us directly? That's reflected very much in our reality. 

9. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly - A historical novel about a girl who has to choose between the life she feels she should have and the one she actually wants. Where she has to decide whether pursuing the truth is important enough to risk her life and the lives of others. Where she has to decide if justice is worth ruining the lives of people she cares about, if it's worth throwing away her money and social status and everything she's ever known. She has to choose between her own happiness and the happiness of her family. 

10. Me and Mr J by Rachel McIntyre - This is a book about a girl who is bullied. It's a book about a girl who has an unhappy home life. It's a book about a girl who has a romantic relationship with her teacher. That is pretty morally complex. The teacher, he's not a bad guy, he's not vilified in the book...but it doesn't condone his actions either. They're not a bad couple if you ignore the age difference and the fact that he's her teacher -- except those facts can't be ignored. This is one of those books that really highlights what is wrong with those sorts of relationships. A lot of young girls find themselves in that sort of position -- perhaps not with a teacher specifically, but with a guy that is older and he's interested in them and making them feel loved and wanted, except the power dynamics of those relationships are wrong and they can be so damaging. 

11. The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta - All of her books really, she writes the most excellent characters, but if you're looking for moral complexity then this series takes the cake for so many reasons that I don't even know where to begin. And yes, it's an epic fantasy series but that doesn't mean it should be dismissed -- the world may be vastly different to our own, but the characters and their emotional struggles are still universally human.

12. All Fall Down by Ally Carter - I can't explain the big moral grey area in this book because it would spoil the ending, but trust me, it's way more morally complicated than a girl killing bad guys to save her dad. (Also, Heist Society and Gallagher girls too -- realistic? No, but it has teen criminals and teen spies, so... Plus, the books don't treat strength and being stereotypically feminine as if they're mutually exclusive traits).

13. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas - The main character in this is an assassin. And she's one of those reluctant heroes too, which I appreciate. It's easy to root for someone who is all about overthrowing the corrupt leader no matter the cost, but someone who is a little bit selfish, someone who has to grow as a character to reach that point where they want to fight for the greater good? Those are the ones I like best. And the witches and characters like Chaol? A whole lotta moral complexity right there.

14. Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves - More the latter than the former, all you need to do is read the summary to figure out why... It's about two sisters, the daughters of an infamous serial killer, who follow in their fathers footsteps and go on a killing spree of their own and amongst all that it's about family, it's about growing up and growing apart and figuring out who they want to be on their own and out of their fathers shadow.

15. Pretty Little Liars and The Perfectionists by Sara Shepard - This one probably received some eye rolls from some people, but... The books are full of teacher/student relationships, murder, stalking, bullying, characters lying to the police, their parents, each other, mental illness. These books are those fun, entertaining reads but even they are full of morally complex situations and characters.

And those are just a few of the morally complex YA books out there. I've read more than I can count (nearly every YA book I've read this year alone could make this list) -- the only way anyone could argue that YA books aren't morally complex is if they have a very narrow minded view of what constitutes moral complexity.

This isn't intended as a personal attack on Scott Bergstrom, the reason I wanted to make this post was because this isn't the first time I've seen those sorts of comments. They crop up way too often -- people being dismissive of YA, of it's readers, people oversimplifying the category or making it out to be lacking in depth or merit... And what's worse is, these comments are too often coming from people trying to write YA.

I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't try to write something without first understanding it. That goes for men writing female characters or white people writing non-white characters or slim people writing fat characters... Just, anything outside your own realm of experience, research it first. The same goes for YA -- don't write for a category without first exploring what already exists in that category, especially if you're going to claim you're doing something new.

Assuming anyone read my rambling to this point: Are there any YA books you'd recommend that are morally complicated?


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

These Shallow Graves
by Jennifer Donnelly

Summary: Jo Montfort is beautiful and rich, and soon—like all the girls in her class—she’ll graduate from finishing school and be married off to a wealthy bachelor. Which is the last thing she wants. Jo secretly dreams of becoming a writer—a newspaper reporter like the trailblazing Nellie Bly.

Wild aspirations aside, Jo’s life seems perfect until tragedy strikes: her father is found dead. Charles Montfort accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. One of New York City’s wealthiest men, he owned a newspaper and was partner in a massive shipping firm, and Jo knows he was far too smart to clean a loaded gun.

The more Jo uncovers about her father’s death, the more her suspicions grow. There are too many secrets. And they all seem to be buried in plain sight. Then she meets Eddie—a young, brash, infuriatingly handsome reporter at her father’s newspaper—and it becomes all too clear how much she stands to lose if she keeps searching for the truth. Only now it might be too late to stop.

The past never stays buried forever. Life is dirtier than Jo Montfort could ever have imagined, and the truth is the dirtiest part of all.
Do you ever read a book and when you finish it, you just hug it because you loved it so much and you're not ready to be separated from it just yet? Or is that just me? Either way, this was one of those books for me.

I loved the first Jennifer Donnelly book I read (Revolution) and I loved the second book of hers that I read (A Gathering Light) -- I went into this book hoping it would live up to the expectations those ones set, and it did. I expected it to be just as good as them, but it wasn't... It was even better.

It was well written, just like the others, with an awesome, independent, fierce female character. Jo was the main reason I loved the book and I loved her pretty much from the start, she's one of those characters I'd love to be friends with if only she were real. The other characters were great too (I adored Fey so much, and Eddie and Oscar), but Jo was my favourite.

And, the book was so wonderfully feminist -- within the first 100 pages of the book, there were so many "omg, yes!" moments whenever Jo was talking about what it was like to be a girl (although, it is a little saddening to realise that those things are still sort of relevant today, although to a lesser extent, even more than a century after the story was set and it makes you realise that we've come a long way as far as equality goes but we're not quite there yet). And, she totally shoots down one of those "you're not like other girls" lines that bugs me so much.

The plot was predictable but incredibly addictive in spite of that and even when I'd guessed where it was going long before it got to the point where the characters knew, I still loved reading the mystery play out. Sometimes it's frustrating waiting for characters to figure out things that feel obvious, but it wasn't in this, I happily enjoyed the journey even when I knew the destination.

And the romance? The romance was so cute -- it was one of those ones that felt really genuine, like they brought out the best versions of themselves when they were together and helped each other be the people they wanted to be and reach/realise their potential. I loved that the romance was a subplot, not the focus and I really loved that it felt like Jo would be, even if things didn't work out for her romantically, she'd be okay, because her future and happiness didn't hinge on romance and that was really refreshing to read. Basically, I loved Eddie and Jo together, but I also just appreciated the way the romance was written in general.

I'd rate the book 5 stars out of 5. I thought I loved Jennifer Donnelly's books before, but this one is my favourite so far -- this one has left me with that "I need to read every book this author has ever written" kind of feelings.


Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Top Ten Authors/Books I'm Thankful For

This weeks topic is a Thanksgiving themed Freebie. I'm not American, and we don't do the whole Thanksgiving thing here in Scotland but I like the sentiment of this, so I'm going to go with ten books and/or authors I'm thankful for.

These books/authors are going to be for vastly different reasons and in no particular order.

J K Rowling/Harry Potter - Kicking off the list with an obvious one. I don't think I even need to go into all the reasons I'm thankful to J K Rowling. I grew up with Harry Potter, like so many people did. I'm thankful for the impact it had on my life and the lives of so many other people. And, just... the world/reading in general really.

Melina Marchetta - For being probably my favourite, if I had to choose, I think she might win. She's writes beautifully -- from the actual writing to the complex characters she creates, and the relationships, and worlds and stories. She's incredible. She's written about grief and she's written about depression and growing up, and she's written contemporary and high fantasy -- worlds I can find myself in and ones I can lose myself in. She's the kind of writer I wish I could be. 

Bram Stoker/Dracula - For being the first classic I remember falling in love with. The first one I remember picking up and reading on my own, not for school. I read this when I was about 12 and I remember I'd stay up late reading it. I haven't reread it since then, partially because I worry I won't love it as much as 12 year old me did, but it'll always be special to me for being my first classic.

Roald Dahl/Matilda - Again, like with J K Rowling, I grew up with his stories. Matilda in particular is a favourite -- this beautiful story about a little girl who loves to read, who hasn't had the best experiences or been surrounded by the best people but she still manages to see the beauty in life. It was one of those stories that gave child-Lanna a tiny spark of hope that magic exists... I'm thankful for having a character like that be a part of my childhood. Not only did Roald Dahl write stories that I grew up reading/had read to me, but my nephew read them too, and now my niece. 

John Green/Looking for Alaska - John Green is like...a household name in the YA community, but he earned a place on this list back in 2007, back before all the Youtube fame and movies and stuff. I stumbled across Looking for Alaska on someone's Myspace roleplay page and I was intrigued and I read it know when you read a book at just the right time in your life? That happened with this one. I was going through stuff, the book sort of helped me make sense of some of the stuff and I'm thankful for that. 

J M Barrie/Peter Pan - For worming its way into my heart when I was little and being a story I can always go back to when I need to be reminded of a time when life was still beautiful and innocent and hadn't been broken by pain or grief or reality of growing up and being grown up.

Stephenie Meyer/Twilight - Judge me for this one all you like. Talk of Twilight's flaws, I'll probably wholeheartedly agree -- doesn't change the fact that it'll forever be a problematic fave of mine. I'm thankful for this because it made me realise that I'm content to like what I like, even if other people trash it. It's the reason this blog exists -- or at least, the reason it still exists and made it past the first year (Julie and I met through the Twilight fandom). It's also one of the first books that made me want to write a novel...I've always loved making up stories, but this one made it click with me that I want to write novels, that I want to be published someday if I write something I like enough. It also had weird, unexpected ripple effects on my life too -- my best friend met her husband because I wrote funny TwiFics for a while (long-ish story).

Eloisa James - For being the first regency romance author to make me love the genre. A lot of people have this pretentious kind of view of this genre and it really irritates me. Books are allowed to just be entertaining, they're allowed to be fun, they're allowed just to be an escape. Regency romance books can normally cheer me up no matter what mood I'm in, they're also really good at snapping me out of reading slumps. I'm so glad I realised I love this genre, and I'm not sure I would have had it not been for Eloisa's fairytale retelling's. 

Jandy Nelson and Stephen Chbosky - I'm grouping these two together because while their books are wildly different my reasons for being thankful for them are the same. They've written books that have put into words things I've thought or felt but couldn't find a way to explain on my own, they helped me make sense of things I've experienced. Their books are fantastic in general, but I'm thankful for them for being those books that make you realise that you're really not alone in your thoughts or feelings, that there are people who understand and that maybe you're actually normal in your brokenness or your sadness.

Khaled Hosseini/A Thousand Splendid Suns - For writing beautiful stories about Afghanistan, particularly the women of Afghanistan. For making my eyes open a little wider than before, for making me realise my own ignorance about certain things, for sparking a desire in me to read more stories like the ones he writes -- stories from a different perspective of history. People like me grow up and we learn about the wars our countries have fought, but only through the eyes of people like us...but the other sides of the story are important and just as valid as ours and those stories matter too and it's so important that we learn them.

So maybe the reasons weren't so different after all -- it all comes back to the fact that each of these authors has had an impact on me somehow.

What books/authors are you thankful for? :)


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Classics Review: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride & Prejudice
by Jane Austen

Summary: When Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr. Darcy she is repelled by his overbearing pride, and prejudice towards her family. But the Bennet girls are in need of financial security in the shape of husbands, so when Darcy's friend, the affable Mr. Bingley, forms an attachment to Jane, Darcy becomes increasingly hard to avoid. Polite society will be turned upside down in this witty drama of friendship, rivalry, and love—Jane Austen's classic romance novel.
Ever had one of those books that you've just seen so many adaptations and read so many retelling's of it that you've become so familiar with the characters and the plot and it just feels kind of redundant to read the actual book? Or is that just me?

Anyway... This has always been one of those books for me -- and I'm happy to say that I was wrong. I've always loved the story of Pride and Prejudice and now I'm glad to say I can include the source material in with that too, whereas before it was just retelling's/adaptations of it.

I'm fussy with classics. I usually feel like reading classics--even if I loved the story and characters--is more of a chore because of the writing style. The way classics are written (at least the majority of the ones I've read/attempted) is often so still and formal and wordy, to the point where the book feels bogged down by it...and I was convinced Pride and Prejudice would be one of those classics. And it was. But it also wasn't?

The writing style took some getting used to, but I got into it much easier than I thought I would. And the characters...they had so much personality -- I always liked Mr Bennett in other adaptations but I adored him in the novel (especially the fact that it acknowledges his flaws) and Jane Austen has this pleasantly subtle humour. I hadn't expected the book to be funny/witty, but it was and I enjoyed it very much.

Basically, the writing style was, as expected, quite formal and wordy...but it wasn't a chore to read because it had all these other elements that hooked me. I'd sit down intending to read one chapter and end up reading 50-100 pages in one sitting. The only complaint I have about the writing style is that Austen (in this book at least) has this awful habit of writing the most long and mundane conversations out in full, stuff that isn't always particularly relevant to the plot...but then she'll just sum up, in a paragraph/sentence, conversations that are actually important or interesting (like scenes with Elizabeth and Darcy). That, I admit, got really frustrating.

I don't think I need to go into any more detail about the book than that -- it's one of those stories that nearly everyone and their mother is familiar with.

To sum up: I loved the story before I read the book and surprisingly loved it even more after. And I'm surprised I enjoyed it so much when I expected it to be one of those books that are dated and dull in spite of their literary merit. I thought it was one of those books worthy of being remembered and being studied because of the impact it has had on the world and literature, but not the kind of book you'd pick up for fun.

...I'm rambling. The point of the review is really this: I was wrong. Not all classics are like that -- they can be fun and totally engrossing, they don't have to be difficult to get through or something we only pick up for assigned reading. Like with modern novels, it seems, it's just a case of finding the right classics. And Austen? Totally the right author for me. And now I want to read all of the Austen. Or all of the classics, because she can't be the only author whose work I click with.



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