Books Like Liar

Some of the people who enjoyed Liar have started telling me that they want to read something else like it. I’m not sure what to tell them. I can’t recommend one of my other novels because they bear no resemblance to Liar and readers would just be disappointed.

Here are three novels that people have compared to Liar:

  • Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly. This is hugely flattering. Softly is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I think Liar has some of the emotional intensity of Softly and it shares an NYC setting—with Central Park playing a key role in both novels. If Liar evokes New York City even half as well, then I’ve done a bang up job, haven’t I? This book will not satisfy the urge to battle with an unreliable narrator, however. Though it will gut you.
  • Roger Cormier’s I am the Cheese. If I have read this it was so very long ago that I don’t remember it. Maybe someone will say what the points of similarity are in the comments? NO SPOILERS.
  • John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside. Again I haven’t read it. All I know is that it features not one, but two, unreliable narrators. I can tell you, though, that the Marsden books I have read I’ve liked a lot.

Anyone got any other suggestions for Liar read alikes? Thank you!

The Audience of Leviathan

I recently tweeted a really interesting review of Leviathan by Tansy Rayner Roberts. It’s my favourite review so far partly because she puts into words something Scott and I have been noticing:

I find it interesting that so many people are talking about this as the latest Scott Westerfeld novel without really acknowledging that this is such a departure from his more recent work. I would not be surprised if some of the audience for the Uglies and Midnighters and Peeps books (at least the teenagers) were less interested in this new series, even as Leviathan draws in an entirely new generation of readers. It’s always interesting to see an author whose work you admire move on to pastures new.

Note: she’s NOT saying that teens aren’t reading Leviathan, she’s just saying that some of the teen fans of Scott’s other YA books will be less interested in the new series. But that a whole new audience will be.

This is exactly what we’ve been finding. Especially amongst the hardcore Uglies fans. Many of whom won’t read any of Scott’s books other than the Uglies books. Here’s a conversation Scott had at almost every stop on his recent tour:

Fan: OMG! I love the Uglies books SO MUCH. You are my favourite writer in the entire world! *hands Scott multiple editions of every Uglies book to be signed plus extra copies to be signed for friends*
Scott: Thank you! So many Uglies books. Amazing!
Fan: When will you be writing a new book? I can’t wait for the next one!
Scott: Well, I’m on tour for a new book. *points to giant stack of Leviathan*
Fan: *looks at Scott blankly*
Scott: Leviathan is my new book.
Fan: Um, when will there be a new Uglies book?

Now, Scott has plenty of fans who read every single book he writes. There are even a few who’ve tracked down his very first publications: kids books about Watergate and the Berlin Airlift. And a few more who are proud owners of Scott’s choose-your-own-adventure Powerpuff Girl books. However, there are a substantial group who are not Westerfans per se, but fans of only one of his series.1 Especially when it comes to the Uglies books.

Now, this is not at all uncommon. There are plenty of Dorothy Dunnett fanatics who only read her Lymond books and have zero interest in the others, Scalzi fans who only like the Old Mans War books, McCaffrey fans who ditto the Pern books and so on. I myself am a Georgette Heyer fan who only likes her regency romances. I won’t touch her straight historicals or detective fiction with a barge pole. So I totally get it.

It is, in fact, a small percentage of readers who will follow a prolific and diverse writer throughout their career and read all their books. This is true even for writers like Stephen King. Plenty of his readers read only the novels and ignore the short stories and non-fiction.

I frequently describe myself as a huge Margeret Mahy and Diana Wynne Jones fan. Yet I have not read all their books. Most, but not all. There are fans and then there are fans.

What’s been so interesting about Leviathan is that it seems like the same percentage of Uglies fans that didn’t pick up Midnighters or the three New York books2 are also not picking up Leviathan. The difference is that a whole bunch of folks who never really heard of Scott before are picking it up in their place. Leviathan really does seem to have brought Scott a whole new audience.

Broadly, we’re noticing way more boy readers than before and a much wider age spread: from eight year olds up through eighty year olds. Scott toured with Sarah Rees Brennnan, Robin Wasserman, Holly Black and Cassie Clare. At pretty much every event, boyfriends of these other authors’ fans, who had come along in a suffering kind of way, saw Scott’s presentation and wound up buying Leviathan, stunned that something could possibly interest them at such an event. Leviathan has also drawn in two specific groups who’ve had little interest in Scott’s books previously:

  • Steampunk fans
  • History buffs

Obviously there’s a big overlap between those two groups. But it’s been fascinating to watch the audience of his tour events change. Scott’s always had people coming along dressed up like Tally or Shay or other characters from his books, but this tour he had people showing up in full on steampunk garb. Fabulous. So far pretty much all the steampunkers are dressing in a generic steampunk way. I’m hoping that will change for his 2010 tour. I can’t wait to see the first person showing up dressed like Derryn or Alek.

Now before any of you jump into the comments and say “I’m a bloke! I love military history and steampunk and I’ve ALWAYS read Scott’s books!” I’m not saying you don’t exist, I’m just saying that before Leviathan you were only a teeny tiny slice of Scott’s audience. Now, you’ve got lots more company. Enjoy! We sure are.

  1. There are adult readers who’ve only read The Risen Empire and have no intention of ever touching that smelly YA stuff. []
  2. So Yesterday, Peeps & The Last Days. All three books are set in the same world, by the way. It’s just that Hunter (of So Yesterday) is totally unaware of all the vampires running around. See how the world of products and advertising distracts you from what’s really important? Let that be a lesson for you. []

More on Unhappy Endings

I started to respond to comments on the last post and realised it was turning into it’s own post. So, um, here it is.

Reading all your responses has crystallised something for me that I’ve been thinking for a long time: That there’s a gap between my expectations as a reader and what I do as a writer. The reader me desperately wanted a good ending1 for Lily Bart in House of Mirth and was furious with Edith Wharton for all the misery. Why, Wharton, why?!

The writer me though is unmoved by such readerly desires. I write the books the way they have to be writ. They have their own logic and I cannot force them to go where they don’t want to go. Trust me, I tried to force Magic’s Child to go in the direction I had planned for it. Wound up having to rewrite that ending a kajillion times until finally it was somewhere near where it was supposed to be. Yes, some readers are unhappy with it. Whatcha gunna do?

It fascinates me that, on the one hand, I can be angry with a writer for breaking my heart while, on the other hand, I’m more than happy to break readers’ hearts with some of my own stories and novels.

As a reader I would like to go back in time and force Edith Wharton to make it better for Lily Bart. Kind of a la Stephen King’s Misery. But, you know, without kidnapping or breaking ankles. But were I her I would tell me where to go. It’s not her fault I was under the misapprehension that she was the USA’s Jane Austen. Wharton wrote the best book she could with the ending that made sense given the world and characters she had created. My desire for the ending to be Pollyanna’d is my problem, not hers.

As a writer, nothing will convince me that we owe our readers anything other than the very best books we can write. And, we’ll be the judges of that, thank you very much.

As a reader, who just read a book she was not in the right space for, I think all you smelly writers can go rot in hell.

Yeah, sometimes it’s confusing to be me.

Thanks, so much for the wonderful comments on happy endings. It was lovely to see such a diversity of views.

  1. That good ending does not include Lily winding up with that spineless loser Selden, by the way. []

On Happy Endings or the Lack Thereof

I recently read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time and I was gutted. Unlike, most USians, who’ve at least some inkling of what to expect from a Wharton book I had zero expectations or, rather, zero correct expectations. Wharton is not nearly so well known here as she is in her native country. Those Aussies who do know Wharton tend to know her from the Hollywood adaptations of her novels. I have managed to see none of them. So, I went in to the House of Mirth blind, like a lamb to the slaughter. Let me tell you: There was NO mirth.

I also went in kind of expecting her to be the USA’s Jane Austen. I have no idea why. It was a wrong expectation. For starters there was no happy ending. It was the bleakest most horrible ending imaginable. And the awfulness started about half way through the book, which is when I first started weeping. But it kept getting worse. And worse and even worse. Until it had the worst ending of all time and I was crying so hard snot was pouring out of my nose.

Thanks a bunch, Edith Wharton! If you weren’t already dead . . .

Have I mentioned that it’s a wonderful book? That Wharton is a brilliant writer? That Lily Bart’s dilemma is what ties her to Jane Austen? For there is a connection even across an ocean and nearly a century: their books are about the same matter: what are the options for women of a certain class? Women who are expected to marry “well”?

Marriage, or dependence on relatives, or ruin, or attempting to work at crappy jobs despite never being trained to be anything but ornamental. It’s grim. And Wharton shows just how grim.

I will definitely be reading more Wharton but I’m not exactly looking forward to it. Miserable endings are difficult. And I say that as someone whose has many favourite books that do not end at all well1 I have to steel myself to read them or I have to be in the mood for a good cry.

There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the death of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow. Even though it’s not real. Movies, theatre and television never affect me so badly.2 But there’s something about the intimacy and privacy of reading that increases the emotional impact of a story.

Which is why I understand those readers who won’t read books with unhappy endings. I am in total sympathy with the need for reading that doesn’t take you to a scary, uncomfortable, or painful place. I was not quite in the right place for House of Mirth. I imagine it will be some time before I am brave enough to read it again.

How about youse lot? How many of you need a happy ending? Do any of you read the end first to see if it’s safe?

  1. To be expected when two of your favourite writers are Toni Morrison and Jean Rhys. []
  2. Though they all make me cry on occasion. I am a massive sook. []

On Rereading Persuasion

Well, that was pure unalloyed pleasure. Though I wish I’d written this post immediately after finishing Persuasion, rather than now, when I’m still in post traumatic stress from having just read House of Mirth for the first time.1

Heh hem. Persuasion. Love it. Remains my favourite Jane Austen. With Pride & Prejudice only slightly behind. As I’m doing all this (re)reading in order to think about romance and heroines let’s start there.

The Romance: This books seethes. It’s full of glances, almost everything between Anne & Wentworth is unspoken. Until they get to Bath that is, which doesn’t happen until at least two thirds into the book. The scene where Wentworth writes his passionate letter remains one of my favourites in any book ever. I first read Anne’s speech as a littlie but I still hug it to my chest. Here’s a fave bit:

“If you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

I love that Wentworth is not of noble birth. I love that Anne learns that who you are is much more important than what you were born. Though it does seem she never cared about birth or status because she was more than happy to marry Wentworth at 19. It was smelly Lady Russell who talked her out of it. I like to think that Russell learns at the end of the book that you can be born a prince and still be a vulgar moron, like Anne Elliot’s father, but I find myself not entirely believing it. She’s just a bit too smug and satisfied by her own opinions for my liking. Yet unlike Sir Walter or Anne’s sisters she’s smart so there’s less excuse for it.

One thing I was struck by in this read was Jane Austen’s critique of the artificial means by which romances keep their lovers apart. At the time I’m not sure it was the staple of romance that is now.2 But I can’t tell you how many Romances I’ve read or romcoms I’ve watched where the stupid misunderstanding/transparent lie by “best friend”/missdelivered letter/whatever that has kept the lovers apart is tissue thin and unbelievable. In Persuasion I believe it. Yet here is Wentworth realising they could have been together sooner:

“But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?”

“Would I!” was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.

I can’t help reading that as a swipe at all the dumb misunderstandings that are used over and over that could be so simply resolved. But, of course, in Persuasion Wentworth’s reasons for not trying to reconcile sooner are perfectly clear: He thinks his chances are zero. The Elliots and Lady Russell were perfectly vile. They persuaded the love of his life to dump his arse. And BEING DUMPED? It takes a while to recover. Only the Mr Collineses of the world keep on trying and that’s only because they don’t get they’ve been dumped. As soon as they do they’re off with the nearest Charlotte.

I love Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. I love that it’s agony to them when they are not able to speak and when they are at last, the words come gushing out. There is so much to share, so much to tell that only the other would understand. I love Anne’s restraint and well, manliness. And Wentworth’s womanly passion. It’s he that’s always trembling with emotion, not Anne. LOVE THAT.

I’d also forgotten how funny Persuasion is, you know, in between the seething passion. This bit where Sir Elliot is unhappy with the women and men of Bath cracks me up. Tell me you haven’t known someone like this:

“He hoped she might make some amends for the many very plain faces he was continually passing in the streets. The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. It had been a frosty morning, to be sure, a sharp frost, which hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of. But still, there certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced. He had never walked anywhere arm-in-arm with Colonel Wallis (who was a fine military figure, though sandy-haired) without observing that every woman’s eye was upon him; every woman’s eye was sure to be upon Colonel Wallis.” Modest Sir Walter! He was not allowed to escape, however. His daughter and Mrs Clay united in hinting that Colonel Wallis’s companion might have as good a figure as Colonel Wallis, and certainly was not sandy-haired.

I know that’s a long quote but I could not resist. Modest Sir Walter, indeed.

In conclusion: Persuasion rocks out loud. And if I ever write a romantic heroine as strong and principled and honourable yet not boring or annoying as Anne Elliot then I will die a very happy writer. Persuasion is an incredible contrast with House of Mirth. Both Anne and Lily Bart’s existence are constrained by expectations of their class and sex. Anne cannot sail off to sea to make her fortune without forfeiting everything. And Lily can be disgraced as a whore, while still a virgin. I ached for both of them. My compassion for Charlotte and her dreadful marriage in Pride and Prejudice embiggened once again. I’m so glad I was born when I was and not when they were.

Note: This is not the place to declare your hatred of Jane Austen. We’re here to discuss our love. I’m sure there’s a Jane Austen haters forum you can find somewhere to share your hate. Yes, your hate will be deleted. Yes, I had to delete quite a number of JA haters from the Northanger Abbey discussion.

  1. More on that in another post. Complete with a detailed description of just how hard I wish to shake Selden and Lily Bart. Aaargh! []
  2. At the time there was no Romance with a capital R . . . []

Re-reading Northanger Abbey

As you, my faithful readers, know lately I’ve been thinking about heroines and reader responses to them more than somewhat. This led me to re-reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey because I’ve never had much of an opinion about Catherine and was curious to see where she fell on the blank page spectrum. I adore Lizzy Bennet and Anne Elliot. I don’t like Emma or Fanny Price. Elinor bores me and Marianne gets on my nerves but they both have their moments. But Catherine? I couldn’t even remember much about her other than she’s a bit wet. Cue re-read.

So what did I find? That Catherine and Henry’s pairing is unequal. It’s like the anti-Lizzy & Darcy. Catherine has nothing to teach Henry. He’s older, smarter and wiser. And I simply don’t see what he sees in Catherine. He must school her. Often. He is amused by her not because she’s witty but because she’s an idiot child. It verges on being what Diana Peterfreund describes as “the wiser/more cynical/world-weary/advisor dude who totally has the hots (or vice versa, or mutual) for our naive heroine.”

Except that Henry isn’t really into Catherine, not at first, not for some time:

[F]or, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.

In other words, he came to like her because she was so besotted with him. Which, to be sure, happens all the time. But in this case when he’s so much smarter than her I just don’t believe it as the beginning of a wonderful marriage. In future years I fear they’ll wind up a bit like Mr & Mrs Bennet.

I don’t think Jane Austen believed it either. Northanger Abbey is, after all, a spoof on the novels popular at the time such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and very amusing it is too. But as a romance? For this reader the book is an utter failure. I need equality between my leads. I need for one of them to not be continually patronising the other. Don’t know about you but being patronised is not my idea of sexy.

Okay, now I must re-read Persuasion to see Jane Austen’s writing at its sexy best.

Is This Thing On? *tap* *tap*

Well, that was a long break, wasn’t it? I return refreshed and ready to resume blogging activities.

First boring admin: I have yet to tackle my mail, given all the totally urgent work on my plate, I won’t get to it until the new year. Resend if urgent. I do try to answer all mail so if I still don’t answer in January could be my spam filters ate it.

And now some commentary over at the Misfits’ Book Club on the new covers of E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver books. It made me really happy for two reasons:

  1. It’s a very interesting discussion of covers. I’ve been working on a big fat post about covers for a while now. One of the things I talk about the divide between the way people who’ve read a book see the cover as opposed to those who have not. People forget that most covers designs are aimed at the people who haven’t read the book and haven’t heard of the author. Cassandra Mortmain’s1 discussion of the rejacketing of the Ruby Oliver books perfectly illustrates that divide. She’s unhappy with the new jackets but also hopes that it will bring in new readers. Her and me both.
  2. I’ve thought for ages that the Ruby Oliver books were being overlooked. Just because they’re fluffy and light does not mean that they don’t also have a lot to say about sex and gender in high school. It bugs me how often light books that tackle serious subjects just don’t register with many critics and award committees. For my money every one of the Ruby books should be garlanded with every award going. Cassandra Mortmain agrees with me. Most pleasing.

If you haven’t read the Ruby Oliver books. I strongly recommend that you do so. Rather than me explaining them, let Ruby tell you about the first book, The Boyfriend List:


In the same ten days I —

lost my boyfriend (boy #13)

lost my best friend

lost all my other friends

learned gory details about my now-ex boyfriend’s sexual adventures

did something shockingly advanced with boy #15

did something suspicious with boy #10

had an argument with boy #14

drank my first beer

got caught by my mom

lost a lacrosse game

failed a math test

hurt Meghan’s feelings

became a leper

and became a famous slut.

Enough to give anyone panic attacks, right?

I was so overwhelmed by the horror of the whole debacle that I had to skip school for a day to read mystery novels, cry, and eat spearmint jelly candies.

The Ruby Oliver book in order are: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, Real Live Boyfriends (out next year). Read them!

That is all.

  1. This is a pen name. For those of you who don’t know Cassandra Mortmain is the protag of the marvellous I Capture the Castle. Yes, my feet are in the sink as I write this. []

On the Road Again + Collaboration Quessie

Or getting in a plane again. This time to Istanbul, which is a city I’ve never been before. Am I excited? Yes, I am. But it does mean that blogging may not be as every single day as I like it to be. Might be a couple of weeks before normal service resumes. On the other hand, there may be kickarse wireless in the hotel and I’ll blog like a demon. Just to keep you on your toes.

Have fun in my absence—I know it will be hard—and patient with my slow response to emails and questions etc. If you do have any quessies for me the best way to get a response is to go to the FAQs and ask there. I check them regularly. Whereas questions asked on regular posts often go unanswered. Sorry bout that.

I have a question for youse lot though: What do you feel about novels written in collaboration? I’ve heard some readers won’t touch them, which I find really odd. But I’m curious to know if it’s a widespread feeling. You don’t see that many bestselling collaborations, though there are a few. (I’m excluding ghostwritten books.) I’ve always wanted to do one but the opportunity has never arisen.

Thanks for your answers.

The Problem with Gone with the Wind

Sarah Rees Brennan pointed me to this article about Gone with the Wind by Elizabeth Meryment. It annoyed me. So prepare yourself for a rant. Basically Meryment argues that all criticism of Gone with the Wind (book and film) over the last few decades has been dreadfully unfair, especially from feminists, and why can’t we all just enjoy such a women-centric book with its array of fabulous strong female characters. Now, I happen to agree that Gone with the Wind features many wonderful strong women. However, that being true does not contradict any of the criticisms made of both book and film.

Why do people find it so hard to love something and accept that it’s flawed?

Gone with the Wind is at once a tale of strong women and appallingly racist. Just as there were women who campaigned long and hard for women’s suffrage who were also members of the Klu Klux Klan. Being a feminist does not mean you can’t be racist. Alas.

When I was wee I read the book multiple times and saw the movie almost as often. To this day I can quote the novel’s opening lines: “Scarlett OHara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (No, I didn’t have to google that.) Until my discovery of Flowers in the Attic1 there was no book I loved more than Gone with the Wind. I haven’t re-read it in more than a decade but I still know it better than any book other than Pride and Prejudice. I’m in a good position to unpick Meryment’s claims:

Scarlett O’Hara [is] a woman of substance. No cowering southern belle, here is a woman who is resourceful and resilient and does what she must to survive.

Yet critics and academics, in the seven decades since the film’s release, have been almost unanimous, and disapproving: Scarlett is no feminist but a damsel in distress who relies on feminine charms to get her way. She steals other women’s men, has an insatiable lust for Melanie’s dreary husband Ashley Wilkes and suffers from a chronic flirting problem. Worst of all, she allows Rhett to ravish her during a night of passion that she finds rather enjoyable.

Here’s the thing, all the above is true. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of substance but throughout the course of the book she also relies on her feminine charms to get her way and has flirts with pretty much everyone who’s male and white. She is a multiple stealer of other women’s men—including her own sister’s—she does have an insatiable lust (which she confuses with true love) for the deadly dull Ashley Wilkes, and she does get ravished by Rhett in an extremely scary scene which (in the movie) cuts to her smiling and happy in the morning.2

All true.

As Meryment points out Scarlett O’Hara’s story begins when she’s sixteen and ends when she’s twenty-eight. During that time she lives through a war, sees many people she cares about die, loses two husbands, has three children, and goes from being a simpering southern belle to a shrewd business woman.

“Scarlett is a survivor,” says Toni Johnson-Woods, a professor of popular culture at the University of Queensland. “She’s the sort of person who would cut up the curtains to make a dress. She gets dirty. She works. She doesn’t actually do anything bad. She’s manipulative, but what person isn’t when they have to be?”

Johnson-Woods seems not to have read the same book I did. [Scarlett] doesn’t actually do anything bad. What now? Let’s leave aside all the lying and those two stolen husbands. I mean India Wilkes and Scarlett’s own sister, Suellen, clearly had it coming. Wanna keep your man? Then hold on to him tighter. Let’s put aside Scarlett’s multiple attempts to commit adultery with Ashley Wilkes.3 And let’s forget that Scarlett saw nothing wrong with slavery. She was sixteen when the war started and brought up to believe in such an evil system. But how about her using slave labour after the war is over in the form of convicts to work her saw mill and allowing her manager to beat them half to death? How’s that for an actually bad thing?

Now I happen to think that Scarlett O’Hara’s ethical impairment and selfishness is part of what makes her such a dynamic and believable literary creation. She lies, she cheats, she does pretty much whatever it takes to survive and save herself, her family and her land. But you don’t have to pretend that she never does anything bad to find her complex and three-dimensional. Many of my favourite literary creations—Mouse in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Highsmith’s Ripley, pretty much any character ever written by Jim Thompson—do many bad bad things. I don’t need to pretend that they’re good in order to enjoy reading about them.

Scarlett has many good qualities but she has plenty of bad ones too. Frankly I would not want her for a friend because she’s one of those women who only notices men. She doesn’t even realise what an amazing friend Melanie has been to her until Melanie’s on her death bed. Scarlett is not BFF material. And she’s not a feminist. She doesn’t care whether women get to vote or not, she doesn’t care about women as a group, only about herself and her family. She has no political consciousness at all.

Film critics also have been circumspect about Scarlett’s place as a feminist symbol, as well as horrified, in more enlightened times, by the glorification of the slave life on the southern plantations. As The Australian’s film critic Evan Williams noted in a 1981 review, published at the time of a re-release: “The film’s attitude to blacks (referred to constantly as ‘darkies’), to say nothing of its attitude to women, would scarcely find favour today. Slavery was glossed over; male authority taken for granted.”

Yet, for all its perceived flaws, the film and the novel are deeply loved, and remain the top-selling novel of all time (more than 30 million sales worldwide) and the highest grossing movie ($1,450,680,400 in box-office takings, adjusted for inflation). Now, in the US, where hardcore feminism has been decried for more than a decade, new perspectives about the film are emerging.

Evan Williams is spot on. Pointing out the film’s popularity does not change that. Lots of racist and sexist novels and films are deeply loved and do incredibly well. Success does not render a book or movie free of flaws.

Meryment writes “perceived flaws” as if to imply that Williams and other people who have criticised Gone with the Wind‘s racism are just imagining it. We’re not. None of the black characters in the book are fully-realised, three-dimensional characters. None of them have lives or dreams or aspirations outside of O’Hara and her family. They live in order to serve their masters. Before and after the Civil War. The book and the film are caught up in a poisonously romantic view of slavery wherein the slaves were happy to be slaves, were miserable when the South lost the war, and just wished their masters would keep looking after them. It’s only the bad negroes who make trouble. (The book and film’s language, not mine.)

In Gone with the Wind the Klu Klux Klan are the good guys.

Yeah, right, we’re imagining the racism.

Why just look at the character of Mammy, says Meryment, she’s a strong character! That proves the book isn’t racist:

Of all the strong females, perhaps Mammy is the most galling for ardent critics of the film. Black, enslaved and conforming to 1930s stereotype of the loyal, usually overweight, woman who offered cheerful servitude to her owners, McDaniel’s Mammy is nevertheless a complex and confronting creation. Indomitable and opinionated, she largely does as she likes, whether her masters like it or not. (“I said I was going to Atlanta with you and going with you I is,” she tells Scarlett at one point.)

Mammy is every bit the stereotype. With no life other than to look after Scarlett, which the quote above proves. The reason she’s disobeying Scarlett is in order to look after her. Not to do something for herself like find her own kin. The only reason so many argue that Mammy breaks with the stereotype is because Hattie McDaniel was a wonderful actor, who transcended the extremely limited and belittling role. There’s no such respite from the stereotype in the book. (Don’t get me started on the character of Prissy.)

To echo Meryment’s language, it is galling that a book first published in 1936, when the civil rights movement in the USA was already underway, and turned into a movie in 1939—the year that Billie Holiday first performed and recorded “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the South—could be so astonishingly blind to the evil that is slavery. That it could spend a gazillion pages and hours glorifying a system that was built on the kidnapping and enforced labour of hundreds of thousands of people appalls me. The glorious south that Margaret Mitchell is so nostalgic for was built out of exploitation, murder, and rape. But it’s even more galling that here in 2009 there are still people trying to pretend that Gone with the Wind isn’t profoundly racist so they can enjoy all its other aspects.

Yes, Gone with the Wind is an amazing book and film.4 Yes, it’s the tale of two extraordinarily strong women, Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes, and their enduring friendship5. For many years I loved it. Feel free to continue loving it, but please don’t pretend that us critics are being unfair, or in some way misreading Gone with the Wind when we call it on its nostalgic longing for an era in which the white upper classes lived decadent useless lives dependent on the blood of black people.

We’re not.

  1. I was twelve! []
  2. It freaked me out as a kid—he says he’s going to crush her skull like a walnut!—it still freaks me out. []
  3. Let’s even forget that wanting him is a crime against good taste. []
  4. It’s stood the test of time way better than Flowers in the Attic. []
  5. Even while Scarlett doesn’t realise they’re friends. Another flaw of hers: not very observant. []

Blank Page Heroine

Recently, the brilliant Sarah Rees Brennan talked about her love of romance and reviewed a few in her inimitable style.1 She mentioned in passing her least favourite kind of heroine:

I truly hate the Blank Page Heroine. She is in a lot of books—I don’t mean to pick on romance, because sadly I have seen her in every genre, including my own—and sometimes she seems to be there as a match for the hero who won’t bother him with things like ‘hobbies’ and ‘opinions.’ Sometimes she is carefully featureless (still missing those pesky hobbies and opinions) so that, apparently, the reader can identify with her and slot their own personalities onto a blank page. As I don’t identify with blank pages, I find the whole business disturbing.

I had always thought of this as The Girlfriend. She is in many many many Hollywood movies and is absolutely interchangeable in them. Because it’s the male characters who are important in movies like . . . Nah. I won’t name them so the comments don’t become an argument about how I am wrong and So & So movie is not like that and blah blah blah. The girl, if she’s there at all, is merely decoration and a reward for the hero. She is entirely without personality. And thus completely without interest for me, which is why I do not like such movies.

I was quite shocked to find the same character in books written by women. I’d become convinced that she was a straight male fantasy. Surely women know that we women have opinions and hobbies and an internal life? Why would they write a female character without dimensions? It’s still a mystery. I adore Sarah Rees Brennan’s name for them: Blank Page Heroine. That’s exactly it. There’s no there there. Just a blankness. A very sad making blankness. Bad enough that we women are all too often told to shut up and not take up space in real life, but for it to happen in our escapist literature too? Aaargh!

And what kind of a lesson does Blank Page Heroine Love teach? If the love between two people involves one of them giving up everything for the other one including their personality, their own likes and desires and needs, then that love is not going to last long or end well. Trust me, I have seen it happen. If you have to suppress who you are in order for your relationship to last2 then that relationship does not deserve to last. It’s not good for you or the person you love.

But thankfully, as SRB points out, there have been many wonderful romances of late.3 Heroines who exist for many reasons other than to find the love of that one true hero.4 My favourite recent romance writer is Sherry Thomas, who not only writes wonderfully believable men and women but some of them are even older than 25! Bless! Go check out SRB’s post for more romance recommendations.

  1. Well, I could not imitate it. []
  2. Unless, like Dexter, you happen to be a serial killer. []
  3. And always. Austen’s heroines aren’t exactly blank pages. []
  4. Why some of them are even there for the love of another heroine! []

Ebooks of My Novels

This year I’ve been getting more and more people asking about ebook editions of my novels. This is my general response to that query.

First of all: you’re asking the wrong person. My publishers are in charge of the electronic rights to my novels. If you’re curious John Scalzi has more to say on this question. If you’re desperate for ebooks of my stuff bug my publishers, not me. That will be much more effective.

But here’s what I know: Penguin has made electronic editions of Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child available. But for some reason not the first book in that trilogy, Magic or Madness. Apparently they’re working on it. That’s all I know.

Bloomsbury, who publish How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar, are also working on making them available as ebooks. Possibly it will happen by the end of this year. Again that’s all I know.

I suspect one of the big reasons that my books are not available is that very few teens are reading ebooks and they are the biggest part of my audience. (Bless you all!)

There’s also the fact that those who have converted to ebooks are still a very small part of the market. Tiny even. So there’s no great urgency for my publishers to make my books available. It’s a very new thing for them. Many of the big publishers are still figuring out their approach to ebooks, especially YA and children’s publishers. I’m sure in the next few years, as the ebook market expands, all of my books, and everyone else’s, will be available as a matter of course. But we are just at the beginning of the ebook revolution.

And there you have it: bug them, not me.

Adults Reading YA

Today Louisville’s Courier-Journal has a most excellent article about adults reading YA by Erin Keane. I don’t just say that because I was interviewed for it, but because the article is smart and non-sensationalist, and includes some actual facts:

Young adult fiction’s appeal has grown way beyond the school library. What was once considered entertainment for kids has become big business for adults, who are increasingly turning to the children’s section for their own reading pleasure, according to publishing experts.

Nielsen’s BookScan predicted U.S. book sales will remain flat this year, but amid this industry slump, sales of young-adult titles are expected to continue to rise. It’s not only teenagers who are browsing the shelves

There’s no hint of panic about this anywhere in the article. In fact, you get the impression that adults reading the amazingly wonderful YA books out there is a good thing.

Pinch me now.

A Wish After Midnight

First I must make a confession: I was very nervous about reading Zetta Elliott‘s A Wish After Midnight despite all the good reviews it’s had. I was nervous because it’s self-published and I’ve had some bad experiences with self-published books. Midnight does show a few (minor) signs of not coming from an established publisher such as the margins and line spacing too tight. However, within a couple of pages I stopped being bothered by them, and a few pages after that I stopped seeing them at all because I was lost in the story.

I feel like A Wish After Midnight was designed with me in mind. Because it does so many things I love as well as working as an homage to one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler. It’s a time travel story set in New York City between now(ish) and the Civil War. Both time periods are vividly realised. You can smell and taste and feel the very different NYC (mostly Brooklyn) landscapes between then and now. I adore historical novels that are clearly well-researched and yet all that research is not obvious. It permeates every scene, every sentence of the book, but it never feels like the author was showing off. Story came first. I love social realism that is also genre. Wish covers multiple genres seamlessly.

Then there’s the protagonist. I absolutely adored Gemma Colon. She’s smart, strong, resourceful, but also very young. She’s an outsider at school and doesn’t get on with her two oldest siblings. Her mother is fighting hard to keep the family afloat but that involves working around the clock. Funny how economic stability and emotional stability sometimes work out to be incompatible. If you’re a single parent working two jobs you don’t get to spend enough time with your children. Gemma is in a lot of pain but she channels it all into working as hard as she can at school and at home. She maintains a huge capacity for joy and hope. Can you tell I adored her?

A Wish After Midnight is influenced by one of my favourite books of all time, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. You could almost say that it’s a YA reworking of Butler’s brilliant book. Butler has had an enormous influence on my writing. So when I say that Wish evokes Kindred without ever being overwhelmed by it, that’s a huge compliment. In fact, I was left wanting to re-read Kindred and Wish back to back.

My biggest question about Wish is why it had to be self-published. This is great story telling, it’s totally commercial—i.e. I could not put it down—it’s also an ethically compelling book about race, class and gender. It’s not like other books in the marketplace. I don’t understand why a big house has not picked it up.

As you can tell my streak of reading extremely good books continues. I’d love to hear what you all thought of A Wish After Midnight espeically those of you have also read Kindred.

My Life as a Rhombus

If you haven’t already read My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson I’m really going to have to insist that you do so. As usual I won’t be revealing too much about the plot mostly because I think any plot summary makes Rhombus sound like a problem novel,1 which it really isn’t. It’s a character study of a wonderful, smart, engaging, confused teenager, who’s a total maths geek and wants to go to Georgia Tech to become an engineer.2 It’s a quiet story about surviving high school, working hard, about friendship, love, and family relations that touches on all sorts of big stuff—class, privilege, power—without ever being preachy or obvious.

I adore how not preachy Rhombus is. It’s a gentle book that is never for a second boring. (I made the mistake of starting it when I went to bed. Didn’t put it down till I finished—just shy of 5AM.) I love books where there really aren’t any villains. There are people who behave badly in Rhombus, but you understand why and where they’re coming from even. I felt almost nourished by this book. I hug it to my chest.

Another thing I loved about My Life as a Rhombus: the tables and mathematical formulas and postulates throughout the book. They were funny and wry and even innumerate me was able to understand them.

You want this book! You want to read it! Immediately!

My reading only good novels streak remains unbroken. W00t!

If you’ve read Rhombus I’d love to talk about it with you in the comments. So I guess that’s a warning that the comments might be spoilery.

  1. I have a huge prejudice against problem novels which I may have to reconsider since the last few books I read that could be considered problem novels were all fabulous. []
  2. I kind of wish I’d gone to school with Rhonda. We could’ve obsessed about basketball together. I could introduce Rhonda to the WNBA, which she seems not to know about. []

In Which I Apologise to Megan Crewe

Several months ago, the agent Kristin Nelson got in contact with me via my agent to ask if I would take a look at the debut novel of one of her clients with a view to blurbing it. I agreed to do so, mostly because I love Nelson’s blog, but warned that I rarely blurb cause I only do so when I’m excited about a book. I am picky.

But the book—Megan Crewe’s Give Up the Ghost—hit all my sweet spots. For starters it was a ghost story. I adore a good ghost story. Secondly, it wasn’t the same old, same old ghost story. It surprised me. It was fresh, original and sweet and I cried when it ended. So, yeah, I blurbed it.

Yesterday, was the release day for Give Up the Ghost so in order to let people know that a really beautiful and moving ghost story is now available for them to read, I tweeted it. Unfortunately, I had not had a good night’s sleep. In my first tweet I got Megan’s name and the name of her book wrong. In my second corrective tweet I got only the name of her book wrong. Aarrgh.

I would like to hereby formally apologise to Megan Crewe, who I’ve never met, but might be wondering how someone as hopeless as me can even manage to tie up her own shoe laces. (Hey, I wonder that too.) I am so sorry, Megan! Your book is wonderful and did not deserve me mangling both your name and its name.

Now, everyone, run out and get yourself a copy.

Condescending Reviews are Us (update)

Maybe I’m being unfair, but Dwight Garner’s New York TImes review of LeBron James’ & Buzz Bissinger’s Shooting Stars gave off the distinct reek of Eau de Condescension (via Mitali Perkins):

“Shooting Stars,” a new collaboration between LeBron James, probably the greatest basketball player alive, and Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights,” is a different kind of book. It avoids speaking about James’s professional career with the Cleveland Cavaliers (he was the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player last season) almost entirely. And since James skipped college, well, ixnay on that too.

“Ixnay”? Seriously?

“Shooting Stars” reads like a better-than-average young-adult novel, “Stand by Me” with breakaway dunks and long, arching three-pointers. I suspect it will find its best and most eager audience among the teenagers and preteenagers for whom James is a deserving role model.

Let’s set aside the fact that Stand By Me is a movie not a YA novel1 and have a look at “better-than-average young-adult novel.” Given the lukewarmness of the whole review it’s pretty clear that Garner does not think much of YA. Though if he thinks Stand By Me is a YA novel then it’s more likely he hasn’t read much YA average or otherwise. The whole thing reminds me of Maureen Dowd dissing adult chicklit based on her reading of a satirical YA novel. The New York Times seems pretty hazy on what YA is.

Eric Luper suggests that we need to run a remedial seminar for them and make them read some better-than-average YA. What do youse lot think? And what should we put on the reading list? I suggest five or so books but they all have to be completely different from each other. Here’s my off the top of my head list. I made a point of not including any books by my friends:2

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (historical)
Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis (contemporary realism/comedy)
Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey (fantasy)
All American Girl by Meg Cabot (chicklit)
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (science fiction)
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (contemporary realism/romance)

What would your reading list to school The New York Times book people about YA look like? Remember each book has to be really different.

Update: Scott says I should point out that this review really made me want to read Shooting Stars. So, yes, it’s condescending but now I really want to read the book. But, come on, I’m a basketball fanatic I was going to read it anyway.

  1. Based on a short story by Stephen King which is also not a YA novel. []
  2. I’ve met Cabot and Duey and they are both delightful but I don’t know them well enough that I feel biased recommending their work. []

Flygirl (update)

I have never ever wanted to learn to fly, yet Sheri L. Smith‘s Flygirl almost had me calling up flight schools.1 Ida Mae Jones lives to fly. So much so that she passes as a white woman in order to become a WASP during World War II. The book is about race, class, gender, about friendship, obsession (for flying), love, and family.

Cut for mild spoilerage: Continue reading

  1. I suspect you need to know how to drive a car before you move on to planes. Not that I actually want to learn to fly or drive a car for that matter. Nasty smelly things. []

Electronic Readers, Post the Second

I has one. Back in May I mentioned that I wanted one on account of all the elecronic documents I read. I tried reading on my iPhone but it did not work out: too small and awkward.

After talking to friends and hearing what youse lot think I wound up getting a Sony 505. While it’s not perfect and lacks many features I want,1 it’s made a huge difference. While flying home to Sydney, I did not have to carry the usual 5 books in my backpack on top of the entire suitcase of books. All I carried was the eReader. My back thanks me. Profusely.

It turned out that the incompatibility with my Mac was not a problem thanks to this fabulous software, Calibre, which is incredibly easy to use and is yet to fail me in any way shape or form. Bless you, Calibre.

As predicted I’ve been using it to read manuscripts by friends, books I’ve been asked to blurb, and public-domain research and comfort books. (I’m yet to buy an ebook.) My eyes don’t get nearly as sore as they do when reading onscreen with my computer and I can curl up with my eReader, which I can’t do with my computer even though it’s wee (for a computer).

So, yes, I’m very happy I bought an eReader. However, I’m still waiting for the iPhone to have its own native eReader which is not tied to any particular retailer. Because I would like to have my portable electonic needs—music, mail, podcasts, camera, ebooks, texting, phone calls (ugh)—in the one location. I want an iPHone that’s roughly the same size as my Sony Reader. When that happens I’ll start buying ebooks.2

In the meantime, being able to read Pride & Prejudice, My Brilliant Career, Anne of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, The Getting of Wisdom and Ivanhoe whenever I want to is vastly happy making. I’m off to go make a donation to Project Gutenberg for making that possible (and to Calibre as well). Bless!

  1. It does not produce mangosteens whenever I want them or set off fireworks. Honestly! []
  2. Though I’m not going to buy ebooks without being able to preview what I’m buying. There are still too many companies not providing previews. I’ve had several friends who buy ebooks report that are still companies out there selling ebooks that are poorly proofed scans. Sometimes of paper texts. Not good enough. []

The Right Questions

Most aspiring writers ask the right questions. I worry that my last post, which is an echo of many earlier posts, gives a different impression, so I feel the need to say it loud and clear: the vast majority of aspiring writers who contact me ask smart, sensible, interesting questions. It’s really only the ones who are more in love with the idea of being a writer than with actually, you know, writing who ask the wrong questions. Mercifully, they are massively outnumbered by the people who love writing.

During my events at the Melbourne Writers Festival I wasn’t asked any wrong questions. My audiences were smart and full of excellent questions. The encounter I blogged about was with an adult aspiring writer who button holed me after one of my events, not during, which makes me think they were aware of just how wrong their questions were.

That was my lowlight of the Festival, the highlight also happened after one of my events.

Isobelle Carmody invited me to have a coffee1 with her and some of her fans. They were a lovely group2 some of whom had been reading Isobel’s work for more than 20 years and know it better than she does. They run a couple of Carmody fan sites. At least two of them were aspiring writers. They were full of the right questions. Smart, technical, writing questions. Questions about rewriting, about juggling characters, about how Isobelle and I manage our writing schedules, about Isobelle’s books, about how we’re all fans, about publishing madnesses (of which there are so many). It was fun and intense and I came away deeply impressed by both Isobelle and her fans and feeling joyous about what we YA writers do and the effects it can have on our readers, including turning them into us.3 I was very sorry when I had to leave.

  1. Or in my case, water, because coffee tastes like death. []
  2. Whose names I have forgotten because I have the memory of a crushed gnat. Sorry! []
  3. One of us! One of us! One of us! []

If You Come Softly

Sometimes when people read a book of mine and tell me it reminds them of some other book, especially if I have not read that book, I get in a snit. I am well aware that this reflects very poorly upon me. Please don’t judge.1 So when I was told that Liar was reminiscent of Jacqueline Woodson‘s If You Come Softly2 my first reaction was pursed lipped muttering to myself about the special petal-ness of Liar and how it’s not like any other book ever.3

But after the snit phase comes the getting curious phase. I grabbed a copy of Woodson’s If You Come Softly and read it on the plane back home to Sydney.

Wow. Just wow. I wept for about an hour after finishing. Actually, not true, I started weeping before I finished it. If You Come Softly is an exquisitely written, beautiful, deeply moving and heartfelt book. Much of it is set in areas of New York City that I have at least glancing familiarity with.4 Woodson gets it all right and does so astonishingly economically. This is one of those jewels of a book with nary a word out of place. Yes, beautiful writing makes me cry. I am a sap.

That anyone would even think of Softly in the same sentence as anything I’ve ever written is extremely flattering. I am even more ashamed of my snit fit.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the book except to say that it’s a love story. As long time readers of my blog will know I have a total paranoia about spoilers. I much prefer to know as little about a book going in as possible and I assume my readers feel the same.5 No spoiling it in the comments either!

If you haven’t already read Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly get hold of a copy immediately. It’s a wee slip of a book and won’t take you long to read but I guarantee that it will stay with you for a very long time. I plan to get hold of the sequel, Behind You, as soon as I can.

  1. Well, not too harshly. []
  2. And I’m very embarrassed by this but I can’t remember who told me. []
  3. Which is utter rubbish. Any book that was not like any other book ever would be completely unreadable. But like I said I get snitty. []
  4. I lived in Washington Heights for several months back in 2000-2001 and have friends in Fort Greene. []
  5. Despite all evidence to the contrary. []

Ari’s Guest Blog No. 2: Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!

I’m back! So yesterday I gave you a list of books about poc that I think you should read, although I’m sure I left off some great books by accident. If you want some more lists check out Susan’s at Color Online for specifically sci-fi check this out the Happy Nappy Bookseller’s list and for bi-racial, multi-racial poc go here.

Also I want to share some information with you on the Diversity Roll Call meme. Diversity Roll Call is hosted by Ali at worducopia and Susan at Color Online. Anyone can participate. It’s for two weeks and is basically like a challenge. The meme asks you to really evaluate your reading habits, how diverse are they (gender wise, religion wise, race-wise, economics-wise, sexual orientation).

The current assignment asks you to blog about a book that appeals to both genders, talk about gender in your writing (if you’re an author), or take a book that you love and change the gender of the protag. You can do all or either of these. I highly recommend everyone join in! More details when you follow the above link. If you don’t have a blog, just leave a comment answering the question. Have fun!

You may be wondering: why should I read books about people who aren’t like me? They’re not the same gender as me, the same sexual orientation, race, or religion. I’m uncomfortable reading about what I don’t know. I would never be able to understand them.

My response: No, no, no! Don’t think like that. First of, let me explain. I don’t only read books about poc. I’ve read (and loved) many books featuring white characters (I currently really want to read Eyes Like Stars, Deadline, Angry Management, Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, and Perfect Chemistry). But I don’t just want to read books about people who don’t look like me, so I can understand where the ‘I don’t wanna read about people I can’t relate to’ crowd is coming from.

Sometimes I don’t pick up a book because there’s a white person on the cover and I think ‘I can’t relate.’ But then I stop and think ‘I would hate to know someone else is doing this same thing to a book with a Latina on the cover’ (or any other race/religion/gender/sexual orientation), so I at least read the synopsis. Often I end up getting the book and enjoying it (like You Are So Undead to Me, the Mortal Instruments Trilogy, the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Heat, Private series).

I think it’s important to expand your horizons. Reading books can really put you in someone else’s shoes. For example, Whale Talk is one of my favorite books in the world. I could totally relate to the male main character even though I’m not a guy. Or reading about a lesbian teen (Down to the Bone—on my tbr list!) even if you’re straight can help you experience and sympathize with the hate, ignorance and discrimination LGBT teens and adults often face. They can also make you see that the way LGBT teens feel about their loves and lives are pretty similar to those of a straight person, the only difference is liking their same gender (or both genders).

Also, often when you’re reading a book you may not even notice their ethnicity a whole lot (like in the Make Lemonade Trilogy), they just are what they are. You get so wrapped up in thinking ‘Yeah I’ve been through that’, or ‘I definitely would have said that too’, that you don’t notice a character’s race, religion, or gender or anything else, except that you can relate. That’s awesome. One of the most powerful things books can do is help tear down stereotypes (especially the negative ones). They educate, uplift and make us laugh. Read more books about poc, the opposite gender or sexual orientation, and/or religion and I bet you’ll not only learn something new, but you’ll really enjoy it (maybe not all, but I’m sure you won’t hate all books about guys, if you’re a girl, for example.)

In writing this blog post, I’ve stepped back and really looked at my diverse reading habits. I definitely need to read more books about LGBT teens, Native American teens, Asian teens, and teen guys. So if you have any suggestions do share!

I hope I haven’t bored or insulted anyone. I would love to hear your thoughts on my posts so leave a comment on Justine’s blog, my blog, or email me willbprez at aol dot com.

Thanks Justine for letting me guest blog! I hope you don’t regret it.

  1. These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. []

Guest Blog No. 1 from Ari MissAttitude

Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me today and tomorrow, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!

A little bit about Ari MissAttitude: I’m a teenager who loves to read, dance, laugh, listen to music and just live! I also love my fine brown skin =) I started my blog Reading in Color because I would visit teen book blogs and I never saw reviews of books with poc (people of color). This frustrated me so I decided to start my own blog in an attempt to slightly fill in this gap. I review multicultural fiction about girls and guys, gay or straight, which means books about African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, I cover them all. I highly encourage everyone to look at their reading habits and evaluate if your reading is really that diverse. Read in Color!

Suggested reading from Ari

Hello everyone! Justine invited me to guest blog for her which is pretty exciting! Justine told me that lots of readers have been emailing her asking for suggestions about books to read with poc (people of color) for YA. I’ve compiled a list of books by gender and ethnicity because it was just easier to organize. Also, just because a book is listed under the ‘for guys’ section or the ‘Latino’ section, doesn’t mean that a Asian girl can’t read it. I highly encourage everyone to read at least a few books with people who look different from them.

There is crossposting, all the guy (or girl) books fit under another category, although I don’t always specify. I did some genres as well (only historical and sci fi, the rest are realistic fiction). In making this list, I realized that I have read almost no books about Native Americans so I definitely need to work on that. I realize that I’m probably going to be leaving off some author or book and I apologize for that, but I can’t get them all. Feel free to leave a comment with a book suggestion, I’ll be sure to add it to my tbr pile!

For guys: Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, The Hoopster by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, Tyrell by Coe Booth, The Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes, First Semester by Cecil Cross, Sammy & Julianna in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The Contender by Robert Lipstye, Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

For girls (chick lit, cliques or about girls dealing with cliques): Hotlanta series by Denee Miller & Mitzi Miller, It Chicks series by Tia Williams (more substance than GG), the Del Rio Bay Clique series by Paula Chase (no spoiled rich kids in these books), the Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston, Honey-Blonde Chica series by Michelle Serros, Haters by Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez

Sci Fi: A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott, The Black Canary by Jane Louise Curry, 47 by Walter Mosley, The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okroafor-mbachu (check out another one of her books Zarah the Windseeker), Rogelia’s House of Magic by Jamie Martinez Wood, City trilogy by Laurence Yep

Historical Fiction: Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis, Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith, The New Boy by Julian Houston, Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper, Wolf by the Ears by Ann Rinaldi, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson (series) (all AA, some biracial. I would love to have suggestions of Latino/Asian/Native American historical fiction)

Native Americans: The Brave and The Chief (both by Robert Lipstye), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Latinos: Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa, White Bread Competition by Jo Ann Yolanda Hernandez, Estrella’s Quinceanera by Malin Alegria (she has other really good books), La Linea by Ann Jaramillo, What the Moon Saw by Laura Resau, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (she has many, many books and they’re all fantastic! really, read any of them), Graffitti Girl by Kelly Parra, The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees, Adios to My Old Life by Caridad Ferrer, The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales, Amor and Summer Secrets by Diana Rodriguez Wallach (series)

Asians: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Sold by Patricia McCormick, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa-Abdel Fattah, First Daughter:Extreme American Makeover by Mitali Perkins (read any of her books they’re great! ), Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith, The Fold by Anna Na, Good Enough by Paula Yoo

African American: Kendra by Coe Booth, The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake, Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia, Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson, My Life as A Rhombus by Varian Johnson, Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper, When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright, Hip Hop High School by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Drama High series by L. Divine, Hot Girl by Dream Jordan, Can’t Stop the Shine by Joyce E. Davis

Happy reading!

  1. These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. []

Another Giveaway—Favourite Dialogue (updated x 2)

But first, Morgan, one of the winners of the last giveaway, still hasn’t contacted me. Please do so! Your copy of Love is Hell and the Liar sampler awaits!

Once again the giveaway is based around a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages on dialogue. Way back in January when I did my whole month of writing advice I promised I’d write a whole post about how to write dialogue. But it never happened. I have started such a post but I has not finished it. Sorry!

In the comments please share your favourite bit of dialogue from literature. I’m using that term very broadly, so, yes you can include an exchange from any genre: YA, crime, romance, sf, fantasy, even capital L Literachure if you must, or from a comic book or manga or manhwa.

But no movies or television—literature only. If you give an example from a movie or TV show you’ll disqualify yourself from getting a prize.

This time all winners will get a Liar sampler and their choice of one of the following:

Advanced Reader Copy of First Kiss anthology signed by me and Scott
US paperback of Love is Hell anthology signed by me and Scott
US or Aus paperback Magic Lessons (sequel to Magic or Madness)
US or Aus paperback Magic’s Child (sequel to Magic Lessons)
HC Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

I’m really looking forward to your responses.

Update: Please don’t leave your email address in the comments. Best to beware of spambots.

Update the second: Please give the name of the book and the author. Thanks! How can we find the books to read the rest if we don’t know what they’re called or who writ ’em?


Last week I mentioned how much I loved Coe Booth‘s Kendra. I have much to say about this book but let me start with the notion of realism. I am on the record as saying that I am not a fan. Yet Kendra is indisputably realist. It is set in the real world. There are no zombies, vampires, space ships or magic. So how can I say I don’t like realism when I love Kendra?

Last night I was called on my anti-realism stance. It turns out that when I say I don’t like realism I’m talking about a very specific kind of book. I don’t like most John Updike or Philip Roth. I disliked Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland. When I say I don’t like realism what I mean is that I don’t like unplotted books with protags who are naval-gazing bores. I need plot! I need texture! I need to care one way or another about the main characters! Something other than complete indifference.

I had strong reactions to all the characters in Kendra. Very strong. I wanted to kill Kendra’s mother. And sometimes her grandmother and father. But never Kendra. I worried about Kendra. At the end of the book I had a big ole cry for Kendra. Several weeks after finishing the book I’m still hoping Kendra’s doing okay and that things work out better with her mother. Colour me, cautiously optimistic.

Kendra’s set in the Bronx and Harlem in New York City. It’s the story of a girl who was raised by her grandmother because her mother, Renee, had her at the age of 14. Rather than give her life over to looking after Kendra she concentrates on getting educated and out of the projects. At the beginning of the book Renee graduates from her PhD program at Princeton. Kendra thinks this means Renee’s coming home. It doesn’t. Kendra’s desparate need for her mother’s love and approval and Renee’s ignoring of her is almost painful to read about. She does everything she can to keep her daughter at arms length. Her priority is her career, not her daughter. Did I mention that I wanted to kill her? In the meantime Kendra’s left with her overprotective grandmother who does not trust her at all. (Thus making me want to strangle her.) And occasionally her hapless father.

I will not tell more of the plot and characters. I want you to discover them yourselves.

What’s remarkable about Kendra other than its effortlessly clean and elegant prose is that you wind up understanding everyone in it no matter how much you want to strangle them. It’s also an astonishingly honest novel, rendering Kendra’s actions understandable even when she’s making mistakes. There’s a lot most of us will do to be loved. And that’s what this novel is about.

Highly highly recommended.

Demon’s Lexicon

Lately I’ve read quite a few books people have been raving about and been really disappointed. So it was a relief to read two books that I loved, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon and Coe Booth’s Kendra. Today I’ll be talking about DL, next week I’ll talk about the fabulously brilliant Kendra.

Demon’s Lexicon is told from the point of view of a sociopath. Nick does not get other people. He doesn’t understand what they’re thinking, why they do the things they do, or why they talk so much. He’s a classic case of a character who’s fabulous in a book but I would run a mile if I ran into him in real life. He has no qualms killing! This is not a quality I look for in my friends. Just saying . . .

Demon’s Lexicon is funny, fast-paced, packed with fabulous 3D characters and has some awesomely convincing world-building. I love me some magic that makes sense. I found it unputdownable. It’s my favourite fantasy I’ve read this year. I need want to read the sequel right now.

I have heard from a couple of people that they found it a little hard to get into. I have two responses:

1) People frequently find new books hard to get into. Scott’s even been told that Specials starts too slowly. It begins with a hoverboard raid on an illicit party. Things blow up! It is the opposite of slow. Similarly very exciting things happen in the first few chapters of Demon’s Lexicon. I suspect it just takes some people awhile to get started reading a new books. 2) DL may be a bit hard to get into because it takes a little while to adjust to Nick’s voice. But trust me, once you get into it you will love this book as much as I did. I know this because I already bullied a friend into reading past the first chapter and she loved it and thanked me for hassling her about finishing it. She now wants me to get her the sequel immediately. Even though I have it on good authority that the sequel exists only on Sarah Rees Brennan’s and her editor’s computers. My friend points out that I know both these people and could thus be all ninja-y and steal it. I pointed out to my friend that that would be wrong.

The other objection I’ve heard is to the cover. I’ll be honest I don’t like the US cover either. But books are not their covers. Authors have very little control over the covers of their books. We readers need to get over worrying about the cover. Seriously, readers speculate on which character is portrayed on the cover and how it relates to the the book and blah blah blah. But mostly covers are an image that sales & marketing think will sell the book. The cover artist rarely has time to read the books they illustrate. The author frequently isn’t consulted and if they are and don’t like the cover they are often ignored. Please, readers, let it go. Assume the cover has zip to do with the book. A hideous cover does not mean a bad book. Not does a genius cover mean the book will be brilliant.

Go forth and read Demon’s Lexicon!

Here’s Sarah talking about writing a sociopath. And here’s a prequel story that in no way spoils Demon’s Lexicon but is an excellent taste of what the book is like.


When a Book Sours (Updated)

Recently I gobbled up a book with great enjoyment only for it to fall apart as soon as I began thinking about it.

I will not name the book for it is very popular and has many voracious fans. Long term readers of this blog know that I have a policy of never naming living writers whose books I am less than enamoured with. It is not worth the grief of offended authors or fans.

This has happened to me before but never so quickly. Within half an hour of finishing the book in question doubts, grave doubts, began to creep into my mind. As I read, I thought it was the best book ever. It was only after closing it that certain thoughts crept up on me about plausability and worldbuilding and how the main character had never had to make any hard decisions. I became uneasy.

So I read the sequel. It was the exact same book all over again with all the same flaws. Only they seemed worse because the first book was a direct retread of the first.

Yet the sequel was as sticky as the first book. Once I started reading it I could not stop (though I did skim, which I did not with the first book). This time as I read I was aware of the book’s many flaws. Of how unlikely all the plotting was, how flimsy the world, and how, once again, the main character was spared making any painful decisions.

I have decided not to read the third book. Though given the stickiness of the first two I may succumb.

I will still happily recommend the first book. I had a great time reading it. I will tell people the book is crack but best not to think about it too hard. There are many books of that kind that I adore.

Have any of you had this experience? Of loving a book as you read it? Only for it to fall apart afterwards when you started thinking about it?

Do not name the book if the author is alive. I am more interested in the experience of changing your mind about a book you initially loved than upsetting any authors or fans.

Update: I want to clarify my position on not naming the books. There are several reasons for it. If I name the book and it’s one that sells better or is more critically acclaimed than my own work then it looks like sour grapes. If it’s one that’s less well-received than one of mine than I look bad for picking on someone worse off than me.

But more importantly it doesn’t matter what books we’re talking about. The discussion is about how following through implications of plot/characterisation/world building etc can cause a book to crumble. All of which applies to any number of books. It will be different books for different people. Several readers have complained that my books fell apart for them in exactly that manner. We all read differently. There is no wrong or right on this question. While I am wondering how the hell the books I’m talking about could be so loved when they’re so flawed, there are people wondering the exact same about some of my favourites.

I also want to make it clear that I am not talking about the Twilight books. So you can stop sending me cranky email on that score.

No, I am not going to tell you what books I’m talking about. Please stop writing me and asking me.

Writing Physical Pain

Pain is extraordinarily hard to write about. Chronic pain is hardest of all. How do you write about a character whose every day, every moment, is shaped around constant pain? And not wear out the reader’s sympathy.

It can be done. It has been done.

And when it is done convincingly; those are often difficult books to read.

Half the time we don’t want to know about the pain of people we know in real life. Part of us wants them to suffer in silence. We’re embarrassed by others’ suffering, bored by it, made to feel helpless in the face of our inability to do anything about it, afraid it might be contagious, upset by it, angered, and a gazillion other complicated feelings.

It’s even hard to write about relatively minor injuries. There are gazillions of books out there where the character suffers an injury only for the writer to forget about it for the rest of the book or totally minimise it. I am guilty of this. Reason is injured in the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Somehow telling the story kept getting in the way of showing Reason’s injury and how she dealt with it. (Since the book takes place over a short period of time the injury would not have healed entirely.) If I could go back and rewrite the trilogy that’s one of the many things I would fix.

Pain is something we all go through to a lesser or greater extent. It’s something we all know intimately. Yet it’s so hard to describe and write about. It’s hard to push beyond “it hurts” and not wallow in it and also hold your reader.

I’d be curious to hear about your experience writing characters in physical pain. (For some reason emotional pain is easy as pie.) And also your experiences reading characters in pain. Are there any writers or books you think handle it particularly well?

They’re Just Girl Books. Who Cares?

Sometimes I think the best course of action for me is to simply not read anything in the New York Times about books by women. I just wind up cranky.

Today’s piece by Janet Maslin on this summer’s books by women was astonishing. On the one hand there’s this:

The “Commencement” characters are savvy about, among other things, feminism and publishing. “When a woman writes a book that has anything to do with feelings or relationships, it’s either called chick lit or women’s fiction, right?” one of them asks. “But look at Updike, or Irving. Imagine if they’d been women. Just imagine. Someone would have slapped a pink cover onto ‘Rabbit at Rest,’ and poof, there goes the … Pulitzer.”

They’re right of course. But this is the season when prettily designed books flood the market and compete for female readers.

Too true. Women’s books are routinely lumped together even when they’re vastly different. They’re not deemed to be proper literature just because they’re written by women. And apparently this is especially true in summer which is a time “when literary and lightweight books aimed at women become hard to tell apart.”

So Maslin agrees that women’s writing is frequently compartmentalised and dismmissed. And yet she proceeds to do exactly that for for the rest of the article by lumping together eleven vastly different books and finding tenuous connections between them. All of it under the heading The Girls of Summer. Bless you, sub editor for spelling it out: it’s an article about the frivolous time of year and the frivolous gender. All is clear.

Where is the NYT piece on the boys of summer? That lumps together vastly different books by men. Oh, silly me, that would never happen because boys write real books and girls write summer fluff which is pretty much identical despite the different subject matter:

Amid such confusion, here’s a crib sheet for this season’s crop of novels and memoirs. It does mix seriously ambitious books (“Shanghai Girls”) with amiably schlocky ones (“Queen Takes King”) and includes one off-the-charts oddity (“My Judy Garland Life”). It’s even got a nascent Julia Roberts movie. But the common denominator is beach appeal, female variety. Each of these books takes a supportive, girlfriendly approach to weathering crises, be they global (World War II) or domestic (dead husband on the kitchen floor), great or small.

Let me repeat the key bit: “the common denominator is beach appeal, female variety.”

What now?

I’m confused. Is Maslin saying that no matter what subject these women write about their books are automatically light disposable beach reads because women wrote them? Or is she saying they’re automatically beach reads because of the way the publisher has decided to package the book:

Their covers use standard imagery: sand, flowers, cake, feet, houses, pastel colors, the occasional Adirondack chair. Their titles (“Summer House,” “Dune Road,” “The Wedding Girl,” “Trouble”) skew generic. And they tend to be blurbed exclusively by women.

If only the publishers had given them serious covers with non-generic titles and got a bloke to blurb them then Maslin would have been able to review their books separately and not as “women’s fiction”. Damned publishers confusing poor critics’ brains.

I think my head just exploded.

An Open Letter to All Publishers

Dear Publishers,

There are two things you keep doing that affect my reading pleasure. Well, okay there are lots of things you do, but I don’t have time to go into detail about all your cover sins, and your back jacket copy lies, misinformation, and bad writing, which frequently keep me away from genius books. Thus I will limit myself to two complaints:

Complaint the first and smaller of the two:

Please do not place spoilery acknowledgments at the front of a book. Actually, please don’t place un-spoilery acks at the beginning of a book. Acknowledgments belong at the back of the book. They are back matter. It’s only after we’ve read the book that we understand what the author is thanking people for and what it means.

Complaint the second and hugest:

For the love of all that is wondrous, do not place an advertisement for another book on the page facing the final page of the book.

This is the worst thing in the world.

I just finished Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate.1 It’s a wonderful book that’s intense and involving and made me totally forget I live anywhere but in the world of Blood and Chocolate until I turned to the last page and there facing it was a whopping great big ad for another book by that publisher.


Way to break the spell, publisher people. Why would you do that? You just destroyed my reading experience. You just ruined thousands of people’s reading experience. A curse upon your house. A really nasty curse. One that means you never publish a profitable book again. You will lose all bidding wars, your publicity campaigns will crumble to dust, your most successful authors will leave you.

What should have been on the facing page was nothing. A blank page. There should never be anything facing the final page of a book. EVER. I do not understand how publishers don’t understand this.

Readers want a moment of quiet in which to savour the end of the book. Do not worry, we will eventually turn the page and find the back matter. We’ll read the acks, peruse the ads, and the opening chapter of the next book by the same author. That’s when we’ll be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to your blandishments to buy more of your books. There’s absolutely no need in the world to SHOUT at us to do so before we’ve finished the book.

Stop it immediately.

Yours sincerely,

A lover of books2

  1. I know, I know, everyone else read it years ago. Once again I am way behind the curve. []
  2. Of the ones that don’t suck that is. []

Boys Reading (updated)

Update with warning: Do not post spam here about your boy-friendly book. I am deleting all such comments.

One of the most gratifying aspects of meeting people who’ve read How To Ditch Your Fairy since it came out last September (in the USA) is the number of boys who’ve turned out to be fans of the book. I will admit that given the title and the cover I was expecting an almost non-existent boy readership. I’ve been told a million times that boys won’t touch a pink book and that HTDYF is irredeemably pink. So I’ve been dead chuffed by the boy fans.

While on tour for the book last year many parents asked me if they thought my book would work for their son. I was able to confidently tell them about other boys who’ve liked it. But really I can’t speak for all boys. (Or for all girls.) It depends on what kind of stories your son likes.

During a panel I did recently (at either TLA this year or NCTE last year)1 we panellists were begged by a school librarian to write books for boys. Specifically funny ones with boy protags that have no sex in them. (How To Ditch Your Fairy manages two out of three.) Now I had several thoughts in response to this request:

    1) I’ve never written a book to someone else’s specifications in my life and I’m not about to start now. I don’t even write them to my own specifications. My novels just go where they go.

    2) There are heaps of books like that already in existence and I don’t just mean the Wimpy Kid books.

    3) Why is there so much panic about boys reading? And such a strong conviction that boys will only read boy books?

I also get the feeling that we worry about “boy books” and “girl books” way too much. I talked with several twelve year old boys, who did not feel that their masculinity had been undermined in any way by reading How To Ditch Your Fairy. And, yes, I talked to several who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole even after I assured them there were explosions in it.

I think there are way more boys reading then get counted as reading. On tour I met many boys who read and not just novels. I met boys who love manga and anime who told me they didn’t read because they thought only novels counted. Boys who read non-fiction by the truckload told me they didn’t read because they thought only novels counted. Boys who read manuals and catalogues ditto.

Why do so many boys have the idea that none of those count as reading?

Does anyone else wonder if the panic about boys reading novels may be one of the contributing factor to boys not reading novels?

I am a passionate reader of novels but I do not thing they are the be all and all of the reading experience. Why do we keep trying to insist that they are?

I have no answers to any of these questions. Do any of you?

Update: I have shut off comments because too many people were attempting to spam comments with advertisements for their books. Don’t do that.

  1. Sorry I has very poor memory. []


Okay, who of my readers is a fan of the romance genre?

As many of you already know I am a huge fan of Georgette Heyer.1 More recently I discovered a love of Sherry Thomas. Her first novel Private Arrangements is a total ripper. Funny too. Thanks so much for the rec, Diana!

I discovered there were well-written amazing romances courtesy of Kelly Link. She’s one of those omnivorous readers who doesn’t let genre classifications get between her and a good read. She’ll literally read anything and it shows in her writing in truly excellent ways.

When I met her back in 1999 I was not so open minded. I was disdainful of romance. On the back of having read one very bad Mills & Boon. It was Kelly who pointed out to me that Heyer is a romance writer. She loaned me a bunch of her favourite romances and I discovered writers like Penelope Williamson, Carla Kelly and my absolute favourite, Laura Kinsale. My favourite of her books is Flowers From the Storm which is so amazing I do not have the words to describe it. It’s INSANE.

I don’t read much romance. Largely because since 2003 I’ve been reading mostly YA and since last year only books set in the 1930s2. For some strange reason, I have not been able to find romances set in the 1930s. Why is that? I think someone should fix that immediately.

So which of you are romance fans and what are your fave books and why?

Are there any genres you were snobby about only to discover that you were wrong that there are indeed most excellent books coming out of that genre?

  1. When she’s not being racist. []
  2. The exceptions are books I agreed to look at for a blurb and books I agreed to critique for friends. []

Electronic Readers (updated x 2)

I want one. I read gazillions of electronic documents: friend’s manuscripts, pdfs, public domain books etc etc. I would love to have a portable device to read them on. I’ve tried various different reader software on my iPhone, and maybe I’m old, but the iPhone is too small.

The electronic reader I want doesn’t exist. I’ve been reading up on the two main models, the Kindle and the Sony Ereader, and while the Sony has more appeal there are problems. The biggest one being that the touch-screen version is not Mac compatible. Given that my main use for a reader is for manuscripts and research pdfs that’s a huge problem. (My iPhone has made me a touch screen addict.)

The main problem with the Kindle is that they charge you to download your own documents. As that would be my main use for a reader it’s a HUGE problem. Also I am not a fan of being tied to one retailer no matter how good that one retailer is. And this report made me even more nervous about the Kindle than I already was. Someone being able to turn off my library at the flick of a switch? Does not fill my heart with joy. Also they’re really ugly. Yes, that matters to me.

A reader is in the works from Apple. Right now it’s my biggest hope even though it means I’m most likely going to have to wait till 2010 for a non-DRM, versatile, touch-screen reader. Always with the waiting!

I’d be curious to hear from those of you have a Sony ereader. How’s it working for you?

No need to tell me about your Kindle experience nothing would induce me to buy one.

Update: Please stop defending the Kindle. I’m happy that you’re happy with it. That’s lovely. But I have many many reasons for not wanting one. See above linked story about Amazon turning one Kindle owner’s entire library off. Any reader that can be turned off? I don’t want it.

Update the second: Am turning the comments off on account of some really nasty trolling. Who knew people could get so heated about readers?

Too scary to read

I just read Maud Newton on Will Elliott’s The Pilo Family Circus . She makes it sound fabulous. I really want to read it.

Except for one thing. The cover is so terrifying I can’t even look at it, let alone pick it up. Until it’s repackaged into something that won’t give me nightmares (or I discover the Oz or UK edition has a non-scary cover) I’m not going near that book.

A friend of mine refuses to read Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth because the mere title of it terrifies her. Even though we keep telling her the book itself is not only excellent but not particularly scary.

Don’t get me wrong I love ghost stories. I enjoy reading scary books. I can’t deal with images of scary dolls or clowns but I can totally read about them no problem.

Are there books any of you won’t pick up because cover or title is too scary? But not because you’re afraid to read the actual book. Let’s stick to discussing packaging.

Turning points

Ages ago John Scalzi wrote about being sacked ten years ago and how it changed his life. It ties in (somewhat) with with what I have tried to say about luck, which also has a lot to do with writing novels.

Stay with me. It will all become clear.

Scalzi was telling a story about his life. He was shaping an event into a story and considering how that story might have been different if he had gone a different way. That’s how many of us write novels. As a long story with one or two (or many) turning points. What would happen if your character killed the bully tormenting her? What would happen if she didn’t? What would happen if she turned him into a toad? What would happen if she did that but had no idea she was capable of it until it happened?

Or it could be something really small in a butterfly-flapping-its-wings way. She gets a bindi in her foot and in pausing to take it out sees something she wasn’t supposed to see . . .

My big turning point was deciding which PhD topic to pursue. Doesn’t sound very earth shattering, does it? As I wrote here, it took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to write about:

Depending on the time of day or what I had just read, my thesis was going to be about the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities in Australia; the short stories of Isak Dinesen or Angela Carter or Tanith Lee or Kate Chopin or maybe Flannery O’Conner; or possibly on the use of nightmares in horror films.

I wound up writing about the USian science fiction community (despite not being especially interested in sf), which led to doing research in the US of A. I’m not sure I would have visited the US of A if it wasn’t for my research and if I had I certainly wouldn’t have been hanging out with science fiction fans, writers, editors, and publishers. Now I live in the US half the year and am published there. I’m not sure that would have happened if not for my decision to not write about Elvis.1

If I were writing a novel about me2, I would definitely signal in some way that the PhD topic was a big decision. Indeed, when I tell my story, I talk about it like it was a huge moment. But at the time it really wasn’t. It was more of a oh-crap-I-don’t-know-it-all-looks-cool-oh-you-mean-there’s-a-useful-collection-full-of-primary-resources-here-and-I-could-get-going-straight-away kind of thing.

I’m sure many people have no idea what the turning points are until they look back at them. And depending on what happens to them after a particular turning point they may, in fact, decide on a different turning point when they tell their life story. I could have decided that it wasn’t the thesis topic choice that was the big moment, but getting the extra grant money that allowed me to travel to North America, or meeting the bookseller, Justin Ackroyd, who convinced me that I really needed to go to a real life science fiction convention, rather than just read about them. Or—actually there are dozens of other turning point candidates.

When you’re telling a story, whether it’s the story of your life, or someone’s else’s (imaginary or real) part of what you’re doing is highlighting particular moments and casting them as turning points whether or not your protag is aware of it. Turning points are a useful way of thinking about the structure of your book. As they are for thinking about the structure of your life.

  1. But maybe my life would’ve been even better if I’d written about Elvis. Who knows? []
  2. Which I wouldn’t, ’cause BORING. []

JWAM reader request no. 5: Characterization (updated)

Today I attempt to tackle questions about how to write the peoples in your novels. I believe I mentioned in the initial post for this month of questions that I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers. Today’s post will demonstrate that with bells on. You have been warned.

Julia says:

How do you come up with interesting believable characters? Without them seeming flat, or ridiculous, or confusing, or just completely lacking in personality?

Tim says:

Justine, I was wondering whether there is anything in particular you do when developing the voice of your character (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything you do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

Monica says:

I am pretty new to novel-writing, but I’ve heard a lot about “interviewing your characters” to get to know them better. Is that something you do?

I’ll take Monica’s quessie first since it’s the easiest:

No, I have never interviewed my characters and find the idea of doing so deeply bizarre. However, if it works for you—go for it. That’s the thing about writing advice. Every writer writes differently. Some really do have conversations with their characters, and come up with astrological charts for them, and take them to the movies, some of us most emphatically do not. There’s no one right way. When you’re a beginning writer try anything and everything. Some of it will work and some of it will not.

Actually, Tim’s is pretty easy too.

Is there anything in particular I do when developing the voice of my characters (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything I do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

No, there isn’t. My characters just talk to me and I transcribe what they say. Kidding! (Sort of.)

Any one else got a more useful response than this for Tim? Diana? Maureen? Anyone? (I apologise for my crap answer.)

Now for the tricky question:

How to write interesting characters

So far, I’ve already thought a lot about the questions I’ve answered for this month of writing advice. But I’ve never thought about how I write characters. Not once. Thus trying to give you tips and suggestions is breaking my brain.

I suspect the problem is that writing people and dialogue have always been my writing strengths. I spent a long time learning how to plot, how to write action scenes, transitions, exposition etc. etc. because I was crap at them. (They’re still not my strengths and I’m still learning.) Thus I can talk about how to do those till the cows come home. But the peoples?

Being asked to describe how I write ’em is like being asked to detail how I breathe. I dunno. I just do.

So I did what I usually do in this situation I talked to Scott.


    “Don’t yell. I’m brushing my teeth. I can’t hear you.”

    “If you can’t hear me then how come you’re answering?”

    “Can’t hear you!”

    “Can to.”


    “They want to know how to write characters!’

    Scott emerges from bathroom with extremely clean teeth. “Tell ’em about Aristotle: ‘Drama is character revealed through action.'”

    “Aristotle. Right. What about your funny hat thing?”

    “Fine. Tell them about funny hats. But Aristotle’s key. And choices. Your characters have to make choices. When they make a hard decision, your reader invests in them, because they’ve lived with them through that difficult time. Also zombies.”

You all got that? What Scott said.1

You’re probably wondering what funny hats are. Scott says that when he begins a book all the characters are essentially funny hats: the girl with the big hat, the boy with red hair, the woman who lisps and so on. But eventually they become more than a funny hat, they take on other characteristics, opinions, ways of existing in the world of the novel. As he writes they grow. He does not, however, explain how he makes them grow.

Hmmm. The only simple tip I can come up with2 is to try and avoid writing stereotyped characters. Does the boy who like fashion have to be gay? Does the footballer have to be straight and a thug? Is your protag a reader and super smart and beautiful, but not in a conventional3 way? If you’ve written characters like that are they that way for solid reasons? Do they make your story better? Or do they seem tired and unoriginal?

I really hate it when a character, midway through a book, turns out to have a relative (mother is a surgeon) or hidden ability (black belt in karate) solely because the plot requires it. How convenient. If your mum’s a surgeon or you’re a black belt it would affect who you are. You’d be used to your mother not being around a lot. Being really good at a martial art, or sport, or some other intense physical activity changes the way you move and think about your body. Those are not things you can suddenly pluck out of the air for your characters in the middle of a book.

Check out some bad books with unconvincing characters. Try to figure out why those characters don’t work. Are they too stereotyped? Predictable? Boring? What is it about the way they’re written that doesn’t work for you? Too much description “violet eyes”? Not enough?

I know many of you are going to hate me for this, but when I think of unconvincing characters, I think of science fiction. Especially the science fiction published in sf magazines of the 1920 through to the 1950s. Talk about your two-dimensional characters. Those stories are all plot and no real peoples. They are a nightmare to read.

Why are they so crap?

I suspect part of the answer is that many of the writers, like Isaac Asimov, for instance, were extremely callow and didn’t know much about people. It’s hard to write people if you don’t know many or understand the ones you do know. It’s possible that part of why some writers struggle to create convincing characters is that they too don’t understand people or can’t empathise with how other people think, which makes it very tricky indeed to come up with believable characters.

It could be that as they get older, meet more people, travel more, go through different friendships, work relationships, love relationships, marriage, they’ll learn more about people and find them easier to write. There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.

Another part of it is, of course, practice. But if you’re struggling with writing convincing characters, writing lots of stories may not be that helpful. Why not re-read your favourite books with your favourite characters? But instead of getting caught up in the plot, read closely. Try to pinpoint the moment where you start liking the character. Now figure out why. What has the writer done to win you over? I know I fell for Elizabeth Bennett before she even comes on stage:

“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know they visit no new comers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.”

“You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”

“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

Even though this is still the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice, Mrs Bennett has already been established as a fool, and Mr Bennett as a man of sardonic humour. If Mrs Bennett doesn’t like Lizzy, and Mr Bennett does, then this reader has high hopes for Lizzy.

I hope there’s something in this post that will trigger something for you. But likely not. It’s a topic I need to read and think more about. My apologies for its inadequacies.

I’d really love to hear from other writers. What are your tips on writing believable characters?

Update: Sarah Monette has chimed in with a most excellent post answering many of these questions particularly Tim’s one about developing the voices of characters. Do check it out! (I am so with her on being kind of appalled by what I think of as the acting-school of writing. But as we both say it really works for many writers.)

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. He didn’t really say zombies. But I’m sure he meant to. What would cause your characters to reveal themselves in action faster than zombies? []
  2. and, actually, I stole it from a friend []
  3. Oh, look, she has red hair! []

Up to date correspondence & the joys of fanmail

I am now almost up to November answering my correspondence. There’s only a hundred more emails to answer! Yay!

If you’ve written to me this year and not heard back from me, that means I either didn’t get your email, or you did not get my response. Either way best thing to do is to write me again.

I received more fan mail this year than all previous years added together. (Which, admittedly, was not hard as I received very few until this year.) Of all the fabulous things that have happened to me in 20081 those letters are by far the best. The majority were about posts and essays on this website—especially requesting writing advice. The next biggest group of letters were about the trilogy, and lastly about How To Ditch Your Fairy. Though to put that in perspective HTDYF has already attracted more letters in the few months since it was published than Magic or Madness did in its first 18 months of publication. Yay, fairy book!

Thank you so much for the wonderful letters. Each one gave me a tremendous lift. Even if I was already in a good mood they made me happier still. While I’ve always wanted to be a writer, until my first book came out, it had never really occurred to me to think about what that would actually mean, about what it would be like to have readers. I know that sounds a bit bizarre, but I was so focussed on my writing, and on getting published, that I just hadn’t considered that part of the equation: that being published means being read by people I’ve never met. I’m glad that part didn’t occur to me ahead of time. I think it would have spooked me. But it turns out to be fabulous.

Thank you for all the letters pointing out the typos and errors in my books and my blog. I really appreciate them and do what I can to fix future editions. Keep ’em coming!

Thanks to everyone who wrote and begged for more books in the Magic or Madness and HTDYF universes. I’m pretty sure that HTDYF is a standalone and the MorM series a trilogy, but I’m thrilled my books left you wanting more. The best way to get more is to write it yourself. There are gazillions of wonderful fanfic sites out there. You could add your own stories about the further adventures of Tom and Charlie. Go forth and create more fanfic! Mash up MorM with Buffy or Nana. Or HTDYF with Naruto! What would be cooler than that?

Thanks for all the tips on quokkas and mangosteens and cricket and 1930s fashions and photo sites. Much appreciated! Though I’m horrified that any of you are settling for dried mangosteen or mangosteen juice. Ewww. There are no substitutes for the actual fresh fruit!

Good luck with your writing. Yes, sometimes it can be hard and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. That happens to the professionals too. The only thing you can do is keep pushing through. Don’t give up. But remember to have fun with it too. One of the best things about not being published yet is that you have heaps of time to experiment. Write the same story in all the different points of view. See which one works best. Try writing a story backwards. Starting at the end and working your way towards the beginning. Write in lots of different genres. Muck around! Have fun!

Thanks for your letters, your comments, and all your support. It means the world to me.



  1. Of which more on the last day of the year. []

Debut YA to look for next year

I am going to go out on a limb and predict that these three titles will be the big debuts of 2009:

Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant
Killer uni***ns and the tough gals what fight them. It’s funny and exciting and romantic and has amazing action scenes. What more do you need to know?

Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth
Zombie apocalypse, scary nuns, and a girl who’s never seen the ocean. You know you want this.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon
I have not yet read this one but Scott has and he keeps bugging me to read it. He loved it. I’m a huge fan of Sarah’s extremely witty and wonderful blog so I have high hopes.

They’ll all be out next (northern hemisphere) spring. I guarantee that you will love them.

What books are you all looking forward to next year?

Borrowing books is good

Recently a fair few folks have apologised to me for reading my books, but not buying them. “I borrowed them from the library. Sorry!” “I borrowed them from a friend. Sorry!” “I just can’t afford to buy as many books as I want.”

Never apologise for borrowing a book. On the big scale, borrowing books is good because that’s what keeps libraries alive: the more people who borrow books from libraries the more likely they are to be funded. And the more libraries there are the more people who are reading. Most people can’t afford to buy every single book they want to read. I know I can’t. That’s why we have libraries. That is a very very good thing.

Borrowing books from your friends and talking about them is excellent because it helps strengthen friendships and build communities. Plus it’s one of the best ways of finding out about good books. I heartily approve of borrowing and lending books. Why, I even do it myself.

I also approve of books being loaned and borrowed because it helps my career. Every time someone borrows one of my books from a library that justifies that book’s existence there. And if it’s borrowed often enough and starts to fall apart, the library will order more copies. Or if it has an excessively long wait because too many people want it, the library will order more copies.1

Certain books I loan out to friends never return, so I buy another copy. There are books I’ve borrowed from friends, that I loved so much, I bought my own copy.

All of which helps the author of those books.

Word of mouth is the most powerful tool in helping a book sell. What better word of mouth could a book have than lots of people eagerly borrowing and lending it? If reading a book for free destroyed a book’s chances of success then why do publishing companies give away thousands upon thousands of copies of books in the form of Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs) every single year?

It can’t just be because they’re crazy. Though maybe I should ask Maureen? She knows everything.

To recap: borrowing books is good.

  1. I’m assuming a well-funded library. Sadly, that’s not always the case. []

Reading & walking

Over at Alien Onion, the blog of my Oz publisher, Allen & Unwin, there’s some talk about walking and reading at the same time.

It is a skill I wish I had. My few attempts have been sad failures. Thing is when I read I get so sucked into the story I have no idea what’s going on around me. Which is not good when there are other people around and, worse—cars. Once I walked into a light post. Let us not speak of it.

I suspect my problem is not just reading and walking at the same time but any kind of multi-tasking. I have a slow simple brain that struggles to do more than one thing at a time. Sigh.

What about youse lot? Are you more successful than I am at walking and reading at the same time?

North American HTDYF tour winds up (Oz tour begins?)

In just a few days I’ll be back on the road—to Texas—winding up the HTDYF tour. I’ll also be promoting Love is Hell, answering all your questions, finding out what everyone’s fairy is, and converting those who need converting to the glorious ways of zombies.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing an appearance right here in Manhattan with many fantabulous authors. I did my very first YA author appearance at Books of Wonder. Way back in the olden days with Eoin Colfer and Scott. It was incredible. Peter Glassman (Books of Wonder’s proprietor) has been very good to me and Scott in the ensuing years. It’s always a pleasure to do a Books of Wonder event:

    Saturday, 15 November, 12:00PM-2:00PM
    with William Boniface, P.W. Catanese,
    Suzanne Collins, Joanne Dahme,
    Daniel Kirk, Dean Lorey, Amanda Marrone,
    Ketaki Shriram and Robin Wasserman
    Books of Wonder
    18 West 18th Street
    New York, NY

Do please join us! Also if you attend would you do me the favour of asking every author there to declare their allegiance on the zombies versus uni***n front? We have a right to know!

Then next Wednesday I will be in Austin, Texas, city of amazing food and people and music. Yum! This is my only event of the How To Ditch Your Fairy tour that includes Scott. I think we shall have fun. Not least because BookPeople is one of my fave bookshops in the entire US of A:

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008, 7:30PM
    With Scott Westerfeld
    603 N. Lamar
    Austin, Texas

And then my last event of the tour will be in gorgeous San Antonio. Land of great boots and wondrous food:

    Thursday, 20 November 2008, 7:00PM
    Barnes & Noble
    San Antonio, Texas

And thus will end my HTDYF tour.

Or will it?

Stay tuned those of you who live in Sydney and Melbourne and possibly even Perth. There’s a very good chance that in February and March I will be doing a few events at home for my fabulous Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. Actually the Melbourne event is not a possibility anymore—it’s an actuality! More info as I gets it.

Really looking forward to meeting some more of you in the next few days and weeks! Zombie power!

Love is Hell

In a bit less than a month, Love is Hell, an anthology edited by Farrin Jacobs for Harper Collins will be out. It contains stories by me and Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz, Scott Westerfeld and Gabrielle Zevin. I’ve only read Scott’s story, which is one of my favourites of his, and I heartily recommend it, but I’m sure the others are just as fab.

My story is called “Thinner Than Water” and is the longest short story I’ve ever published. In fact, I think it secretly wants to be a novel. It’s also one of the few I’m happy (ish) with. So I decided to share a teaser with you.1 Enjoy!

I’ve been working on this story on and off for well over a decade. It’s based on various Demon Lover ballads and, I realised just today, stories, too. Like this one by Elizabeth Bowen, which I read many, many times as a teenager. And various ones by Shirley Jackson collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, which I didn’t read till well into my twenties.

But those stories stuck, oh, how they stuck.

I think upon reading “Thinner Than Water” you too will see the influence.

Don’t you love how stories beget stories? I sure do.

  1. Though be aware this is the pre-copy editing version. []

In which I agree with a commenter

Pixelfish had this to say in comments. I could not let it languish there:

At what point did publishers start getting anal about the usage variations between the US and all other English speaking countries? Because my original copies of the Chronicles of Narnia had English spellings, but my new ones don’t and are in the wrong order. My Canadian copies of Harry Potter have the Britishisms intact, even though they don’t use all the slang, but the US ones don’t. I liked it better when US YA publishers let me find out MORE about the world instead of LESS. Part of the reason I read was to get away from my perfectly safe little Utah neighbourhood. But I digress . . . oh boy, howdy, do I digress.

I have no idea when that started. But it is a Very. Bad. Thing. I disapprove. HEARTILY.

Back at home I grew up with books with Commonwealth spelling and also with USian spellings. So Enid Blyton & Patricia Wrightson = colour. Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys = color. Though sometimes the punctuation would be changed.

I really hate the way many US publishers USianise things. I was just reading the US edition of an Australian book set in Oz with Oz characters. Except that the characters compared things to the size of a dime. (We don’t have dimes in Australia.) They discussed each others height in feet and inches. (Australia is metric.) The distances they drove were in miles. (Ditto. We have kilometres.) They used no Aussie slang. Everything that could be even a tiny bit confusing to a US reader was changed.

It drove me crazy. I stopped reading the book. I’ll read the Australian edition when I go home.

How stupid do publishers think readers are? We can figure stuff out from context. If we don’t know stuff we can look it up. Part of the fun of reading a book set in a different country is learning about the differences. Changing the spelling, adding “dimes” and “quarters”, removing all the local slang, wrecks the flavour and rhythm of the book. I think it’s a dreadful editorial decision and I wish they’d stop doing it.

Er, what you said, Pixelfish.

Strange maps

Found via pixelfish a blog devoted to strange maps, which I’m sure you’ve all been giggling over for years, but tis new and delightful to me.

I keep looking for detailed maps of NYC during the 1930s but so far have not found anything. There are precious few books directly about the period either. Though heaps on NYC in the gilded age and the 1920s. I wonder why? The 1930s were every bit as fascinating.

I predict a boom in books about the depression on account of what’s happening to the world’s economy right now. Is it bad that I’m glad that the current situation is helping with the writing of my book? I mean, I’m not glad that the economy is in the toilet and we may be heading into a depression . . . Just that it’s helping me understand the Great Depression better.

Er, um, look over there: flying monkeys!

Zombies! + book divas + banned books week

It is with great sadness that I realise I haven’t posted about zombies in ages. That’s SO wrong. Fortunately, Cecil Castellucci sent me a link to this science article all about how we all have an inner zombie:

[S]tarting in the late 1960s, psychologists and neurologists began to find evidence that our self-aware part is not always in charge. Researchers discovered that we are deeply influenced by perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and desires about which we have no awareness. Their research raised the disturbing possibility that much of what we think and do is thought and done by an unconscious part of the brain—an inner zombie.

Notice that it’s not an inner uni***n; it’s an inner zombie. I think that proves once and for all time that zombies are more powerful, interesting and make for way better metaphors than smelly old uni***ns.

Take that, Holly Black!

I am now off to Michigan to talk about the glories of zombies fairies with the locals. Posting may be erratic for the next few days. Though I will, as usual, do my valiant best to post every day.

I will also be popping in to chat at Book Divas this week: 29 September through to 6 October. So if you’re a member or want to join do go check it out. I will answer any question you might have. Any question at all!

Today, or, oops, yesterday is also the first day of Banned Books Week. Maureen Johnson has a fabulous post about it over at YA for Obama, with which I agree entirely. On some topics she’s completely wrong but when it comes to banning books and zombies you can totally trust her.

Go forth and read a banned book!

Quick answer

I’m getting lots of questions about the HTDYF tour and how it’s going etc. I’ll be posting about the first leg of the tour—Northern California—in the next few days. In the meantime what I’ve loved most is meeting other lovers of YA books—students, readers, booksellers, sales reps, teachers, librarians—and talking about our favourite books. It’s been a blast. Especially this year when there have been so many amazing books.

I can’t wait to find out what everyone’s reading in Philadelphia, Larchmont, and next week in Michigan.

Oh, and don’t forget, next week is Banned Books Week as this excellent editorial reminded me. (Via Lisa Yee.)

NYT: Get yourself a fact checker

Spot the problem with this sentence:

Britons were proud that Tony Blair speaks very good French, just as Australians are proud that their premier, Kevin Rudd, is fluent in Chinese.

Australia doesn’t have a premier, we have a prime minister. Not to mention that it’s a bit sloppy calling Mandarin “Chinese”. I can let that one slide since that sloppiness is pretty common practice but premier as a synonym for prime minister? That’s just out and out wrong.

How come every time I know anything about a subject the New York Times gets it wrong? I thought it was the paper of record not of egregious errors.

Famous in their own country

The responses to my post about gender-directed1 reading reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post about authors who are famous in their own country but not that well known outside it. Specifically, a bunch of you were aghast that anyone could dismiss Flannery O’Connor as “lightweight”. I suspect the reason the lecturer did so—you know, other than him being a dick—was that he probably hadn’t heard of her. O’Connor is not nearly as well-known in Australia as she is in the USA. Angela Carter, on the other hand, he’d most definitely heard of her.2 She’s much better known in Australia than she is here.

One of the pleasant shocks of coming to the USA was discovering how many of its writers I had never heard of. I knew that there were many many Australian writers and artists and musicians USians had never heard of. But I had not realised that the reverse was true. For instance, I had never heard of Shirley Jackson.3 Shocking, but true. I know what you’re thinking. How is that even possible? But imagine the joy of discovering such a genius of a writer when I’d thought I knew all the good USian ones.4

I remember distinctly the first time I heard about Jackson. It was at an sf convention in the bar. A bunch of writers were talking about the first time they read “The Lottery” and the impact it had on them and their writing. When I admitted as to how I had no idea what they were talking about they flat out didn’t believe me. I was accused of lying. None of those USians could get it through their heads that you can get through your schooling without ever being made to read “The Lottery.” In Australia, millions of us have managed exactly that.

They also found it difficult to credit that a wannabe genre writer had managed not to read the writer that one of them described as the single biggest influence on 20th century genre writing.5 That statement of course led to a huge argument that encompassed the entire bar. As cases were made for Tolkien, Heinlein, and sundry others.

While it was going on I retreated to the dealers’ room and picked up a copy of The Lottery and Other Stories, the reading of which put me in the Shirley-Jackson-is-one-of-the-greatest-writers-of-the-20th-century camp. I love her. If one day I write a story or novel halfway as good as her best then, well, WOW.6

The Shirley Jackson thing was a revelation to me. I had assumed that Australians get hit with all things USian. All your tv shows, books, movies, comics, games etc etc. All my life, the assumption and fear that US culture is taking over Australia has been strong. So discovering that it wasn’t true, that the US of A is so much more than the stream of books, TV, movie, and music that make it into the Australian marketplace was delightful. It heartened me. It still does. There is no country in the world whose culture is so dominant that everyone else knows all their famous artists. Not a one.

Wherever you go in the world you will discover new and wonderful things. Even in the United States of America. Hell, if the work of Shirley Jackson is anything to go by, then maybe especially in the USA.

  1. Blog Overlord: What a pretty neologism, Justine.
    JL: Why, thank you!
    BO: Um, Justine, I was being sarcastic. Really sarcastic.
    JL: Well, you can rack off then, can’t you?
    BO: Not really. I’m Blog Overlord.
    JL: I hired you. I can also fire you.
    BO: Whatever. That “word” still sucks. []
  2. Though I very much doubt he’d actually read her. To tell the truth, after a few lectures from that bloke I started to doubt he could read at all. []
  3. Or Joyce Carole Oates, Dawn Powell, and Eudora Welty. []
  4. Wow, was I wrong about that! []
  5. It was still the 20th Century when this conversation was happening. []
  6. I tell you Stephanie-Rice speak is contagious. []

Not liking a good book

I just read a book that’s been getting rapturous reviews. It is every bit as beautifully written as advertised. There were whole paragraphs that were very WOW inducing.1 I loved parts of it and not just because they were about cricket.2 But I did not enjoy this book.

I will break my usual procedure and name the book: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. I’m naming it because it really is gorgeously written. Seriously, it’s stunning. O’Neill deserves the reviews he’s been getting. I think many people will love it. Hell, many people are loving it. I’m writing this to figure out why it didn’t work for me.

The book’s a realist fictional take on the after effects of 9/11 on a marriage, on the narrator, on the city of NYC, centring around the narrator’s experience playing cricket and getting involved with a shady cricket-obsessed entrepreneur. I loved the descriptions of cricket as well as the discussions of the game and why USians don’t get it. I also loved the sequence in which the narrator attempts to get a NY driver’s license. It’s a deliciously funny and accurate description of city bureaucracy.

Yet, other than those glorious parts, Netherland bored me. I found myself skimming, looking for the next mention of cricket.3 I was not engaged by the passive drifting narrator. Worse, I didn’t care about him. I didn’t care about his marriage. I was bored rigid by his reminiscences about his past. He is so distanced from his life, so flat, that he seemed passionless about everything.

But my biggest problem was that there was no discernible plot. Over the course of 250 pages all the dramatic events happen offstage. The more I read the more frustrated I became. Perhaps, though, that’s the same problem: Because I was uninterested—and eventually came to dislike the narrator—I could not look past the lack of plot.

I love Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It has no plot. It’s about a poor writer stumbling around a city starving. That’s the entire book. What could be more boring? I love that book. There’s way less plot in Hunger than Netherland.

Come to think of it, the likability of the narrator is not that big a deal. The narrator of Hunger isn’t likable. I can think of lots of protags I don’t like, but who are immensely engaging. My problem with Hans is not that I didn’t like him, it’s that I found him and his life boring. Almost every other character in the book is more interesting than Hans and yet it’s his head we’re stuck in.

I tried very hard to like Netherland. I can’t remember the last time I disliked a book that was as good as this one. I suspect quite a few of you will like it. Do ignore me and give it a go!

Have any of you experienced this? Read a book that you didn’t like despite being able to see that it’s really really good?

Note: I have now left the bunker but bits of the bunker are still lodged in my brain. It may be a while yet before I catch up on the crazy email backlog. Or my life. Or anything really.

  1. Imagine Stephanie Rice saying, “Wow!!!” []
  2. I just gave away what book I’m talking about, didn’t I? []
  3. Yes, I’m shallow. []

Girl books, boy books

Once again Sherwood Smith is being dead interesting. This time about people who read only books by girl writers or only by boy writers. The comments are also fascinating.

Most of my life I have read more books by women than by men. This was true even when I was first reading. Enid Blyton, L. M. Montgomery, and Rosemary Sutcliffe were my first favourites. A little later on I was mad keen on Georgette Heyer, Tanith Lee, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

I did not notice this tendency until it was pointed out to me in high school by a boy. “Why do you always read such girly books?” he asked with a sneer. I was reading Angela Carter when he said this, who’s not exactly the girliest writer I can think of. As a result I shifted from accidentally reading mostly women to doing it on purpose.

This position was strengthened by my experiences as an undergraduate at university. The only courses that included books by women were the ones on Austen and Bronte. When I asked why a course on twentieth century fiction included nothing by women the lecturer challenged me to name books by women worthy of being on his list. I suggested books by Angela Carter, Isak Dinesen, Flannery O’Connor, and Jean Rhys. The lecturer dismissed all of them as lightweight.1

Dear Blog Readers, I was cranky. I didn’t voluntarily read another book by a boy for a whole year or maybe it was six months. Or it could have been until I discovered the fabulous novels of Jim Thompson. Can’t remember now.

I also started to notice that almost every bloke I knew only read books by men. That this notion that women’s books are lightweight was widespread amongst those of the male persuasion. For many it still seems to be true. When male authors are asked their favourite books they overwhelming name books by their own gender. To such an extent that I keep note of the ones who name women. Such as Garth Nix (big Heyer fan), Kim Stanley Robinson (Virginia Woolf fantatic), and Sean Stewart (Jane Austen obsessive).2

Women are far more mixed in their reading. Even me. I read way more books by women than by men, but I’ve still read a tonne of boy books. Some of there are even quite good. I’d even recommened them to my little sister. Maybe . . .

What about youse lot? Do you notice a tendency one way or the other in your own reading? Do you have idea why? Or do you just read the books that look cool. If so: Bless!

  1. Just as well I didn’t mention out-and-out commercial writers like Heyer or Dunnett, eh? Doesn’t matter that they’re geniuses, does it? They’re women and they write commercial fiction. Oh, the horror! []
  2. I knew Scott was a keeper when I checked out his bookshelves and found lots of books by women. []