I have talked before about missing out on a generation of YA novels that appeared around me being a teenager up until my mid twenties, a time when I got the least reading in my life done due to work, school and crushes.
David Levithan is one of those authors that falls into the hole, and is something I’ve been meaning to explore more after reading his charming queer co-write with Nina LaCour, You Know Me Well.
I decided to go deep into his backlist to find a book that he wrote solo — he often writes with LaCour, John Green and Rachel Cohn — and decided to choose Boy Meets Boy, a story about falling in and out of love.
Paul is gay, and open about it. He’s known it his whole life, and that’s fine, while his best friend Tony has to hide his sexuality from his religious parents. He’s experienced kissing the straight boy Kyle, who inexplicably has started talking to him again, and he’s desperately trying to cope with the fact his other best friend Joni is falling in love with completely the wrong guy. At a friend’s gig at a local bookstore, he meets Noah, the mystery boy of his dreams and he falls fast. But things soon get extremely complicated; will Paul survive his first heartbreak?
This is a book that set out from the outset to present an ideal, a world where kids can be who they are, open about their gender and sexuality in ways that they perhaps were not actually able to be in 2003. I’m totally here for it. There’s still plenty of teenagers in their small towns, wishing and hoping for a future life where they can have a whole group of queer friends, feel safe in being who they are openly, and I think this book is the hope that many of them need.
However, this novel has in its fifteen years of shelf life dated a little, especially in how Infinite Darlene is described as drag queen when it appears that actually she’s more of a trans woman, as she appears to permanently live as Darlene. Saying that, Darlene is a character generally treated with utmost respect and is possibly one of my favourite characters I’ve read in a while — bossy, forthright and always on the mark.
This is a bubblegum of a ya novel; adorable and sweet and painful in all the right ways. A story of hope and possibilities and things to come, as all upbeat young adult novels should be.
If you’re here and haven’t read The Loneliness of Distant Beings, get out of here! Check out that review and pick up the first book in the Ventura saga before you come back here, because MAJOR SPOILERS abound, my friends.
Let’s wind back a little bit to Distant Beings — this was a science fiction YA firmly rooted in the idea of making sacrifices for humanity, sacrifices you’d never reap the benefits of and the implications that can have for individual mental health. It’s a topic that has popped up across science fiction and always makes me ponder; how would people on long space explorations really cope with knowing they’d never see a home, and that the ship would be all they knew.
Where Distant Beings dealt with the implications of that life, The Glow of Fallen Stars explores the implications of abandoning it.
In Fallen Stars, we find Seren, Dom, Ezra and Mari crash landed on Huxley-3 having fled the Ventura on the promise of true love and a new life. What they find on their new home is not paradise, but a series of hope-crushing events that highlight just how vulnerable the teenagers are. And without the forbidden nature of their love, things between Seren and Dom become complicated as the shine of first love and raging lust begins to dull.
Honestly, every few pages I was like okay, that must have been the worst of it right? I was always wrong.
This novel has a lot of interesting questions and takes a plot direction that I completely was not expecting but absolutely loved involving coral reefs and hallucinations — yes really. Fallen Stars also seeks to answer a number of the questions posited in Distant Beings, specifically around Seren’s mother who we know also suffered from a variety of mental health problems before passing away.
I’m now even more keen to read the final book in the Saga, The Truth of Different Skies, which is not a trilogy-finale in the traditional sense, but actually a prequel to Distant Beings. Once you’ve read Fallen Stars, you will also be clamouring for this final book, which lands in May this year.
The Ventura Saga is a great series of young adult fiction that explores philosophical questions around sacrifice, love, mental health and exploration. I’ve been impressed in both books how Ling will take time to build concepts and situations, only to dismantle them either subtly without you noticing or by taking a whopping great sledgehammer to it. Either way, it’s thrilling stuff.
This is a book that I’ve saved for a long time. I’m not sure why, but I strongly believe that books have a right time to be read (and if you’ve read this blog, you’ve seen me say that many, many times).
Moxie was a book I won through the “I’m a Moxie Girl” giveaway at YALC this year — lovely Melinda Salisbury sung its praises to me and during her second panel in a row, I had to go for a long walk to pop all my joints back in place, and happened to walk into the Moxie-girl-giveaway-person in question. What luck!
In a week when I was all about finishing books on my list, I started having a meltdown. As an autistic person, this happens quite a lot and I find one of the best ways of managing myself is getting in the bath with a very particular brand of smart, funny, feminist literature — think Holly Bourne, E Lockhart. Moxie was there on my pile, resplendent in pink with white stars. I grabbed it, and immersed myself (both literally and literaturally… I’m sorry, that’s not a word).
Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu was exactly the book I needed right at that moment. Moxie was inspired by the riot grrrl movements of the 1990s which I was slightly too young for but experienced in proxy by stealing my sister’s chokers and catching whispers of The Cranberries on Radio 1 (on that note, rest in piece Dolores O’Riordan).
Viv Carter is fed up. Fed up of sexist dress codes, fed up of boys’ sexual comments, fed up of structural inequality she sees around her daily. One night when hanging up washing, she discovers her mother’s secret My Mispent Youth box, filled with zines and photographs, a portal back to the riot grrrls of the 90s. While her grandparents saw her mother’s attitude as “always looking for a fight”, Viv recognises the moxie herself and decides that she needs a little of that in her own life.
Frustrated by cries of “make me a sandwich” and sexist t-shirt slogans, Viv makes a zine of her own for Moxie girls, distributed in secret around the school. What she begins is a movement that changes the face of her school forever.
I absolutely fell in love with Moxie, an empowering manual for young women determined to see changes in their immediate environments and the wider world. Viv is a great character who grows into a change-maker, through challenging herself and her own doubts. I really enjoyed her romance with Seth Acosta, and his own evolution through the book, as well as her new friend Lucy Hernandez.
Also, let’s be real — any book that gets another generation into Bikini Kill is a good thing. May I thoroughly recommend the Spotify Riot Grrrl Playlist as a great place to start your education.
What I really like though is the message that if you can be the change you want to see in the world. If you don’t like something, talk about it. If you want to change something, ask how you can change it. Listen to others — what oppressions do they face daily, how can we be better allies to them and work towards a more inclusive world? I think these are questions that everyone needs to ask themselves daily, and Moxie is a great seed for starting those thought processes and conversations. This is a book I would have loved to read as a teenager, and hope that it features prominently in every single school library.
Now, I know that Spring is immediately around the corner and we’re all begging for some sunshine but I’m going to encourage you to take a step back, think of the deepest winter colds and dive into The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. The first in a new series, this novel is the quintessential wintry fairytale set in medieval rural northern Russia.
Vasalisa Petrovna (Vasya) is the daughter of a farmer and a woman who hears the call of the forest, who knows her last act will be bringing Vasya into the world. Strong and brave, Vasya regularly visits the dangerous forest, converses with the house-spirits, rides like the wind and tries to defy the limited expectations thrust upon her. Raised on the stories of housekeeper Dunya, told by the warmth of the oven, Vasya soon realises that these tales are not fiction, but very much real. And she can feel the rising darkness in the forest.
As new characters enter Vasya’s life — her stepmother Anna, her new sister Irina, the preacher from Moscow — she must fight to stay true to herself and protect the forest that she loves and fears
Ahhh I loved this book so much. It’s just the perfect intersection of folklore and whimsy and danger and brilliance. This is my favourite kind of novel, a blend of tidbits of history mixed with folk legends added to an original, exciting story.
The story is itself is a slow burn, following Vasya as she grows into a young woman facing marriage and the fears and mistakes of the adults around her. Arden successfully builds tension with every new mention of the waning house-spirits and the ice-blue eyes and the mysterious stranger in Moscow; it creeps upon you like frost up a window pane.
I really enjoyed the terse relationship between Vasya and Father Konstantin Nikonovich, both so determined that their understanding of the world is correct. Despite him playing a sort of antagonist role alongside Vasya’s stepmother Anna, I ended up having a lot of sympathy for this man so completely out of his depth in poverty and the harsh winter
This is marketed as a literary fantasy in the general fiction or possibly SFF sections of bookshops, but I think it would be readily enjoyed by fantasy young adult fans (and for the sake of gift giving, I can’t think of any content unsuitable for teens).
Also, Arden has helpfully included a glossary in the back, which I urge you to glance over before you start reading.
I strongly recommend you pick this book up, especially those of you currently enjoying a Spring snowfall as it is a book that begs to be read in the dark of the night before an open fire while snow falls outside. I was very delayed in getting round to it, having been bought it for my birthday by my wonderful friend Grace. Don’t be like me, don’t wait, especially if you also live for chilling fairytales and brave intuitive girls, because this is the book you need to be reading right now.
The second book, The Girl in the Tower, is published in hardback on the 25th January so you’ll be able to swoop from one to the other and commiserate with me as we wait for the next instalment of the Winternight saga.
In one of their most recent episodes, Alice devised a series of questions about what sort of reader you are, and I decided I’d answer them too — thanks to Alice for sending them over to me! I answered them before Christmas and then appeared to promptly forget about posting this, but anyway, enjoy.
How many books have you read so far this year? How do you keep track?
It is currently the 22nd of December and I have read 258 books. This figure is massively inflated due to reading several 20 volume long romance manga earlier this year, but we’re still looking at around 170 full length novels, which I’m pretty pleased about. Quality matters most over quantity, of course, but I’ve managed to read some great things and avoid most stinkers.
One at a time or do you jump between books?
I currently have around 10 books on the go according to GoodReads, which is a lie really. There’s one memoir about Wales that’s been on there for over a year, and I gave up on American Gods mid-year because I felt so pressured to finish it before the Amazon show came out that it was sucking the joy from it.
Saying that, I do often have several non-fiction books on the go — right now I’m reading an essay at a time from Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Trans Britain by Christine Burke and All the Weight of Our Dreams by the Autism Women’s Network. This means I can appreciate each section of the books separately but also think about their place in a wider context. Or at least, that’s my excuse for having so many going.
I often have one or two fiction books on the go, as well as a poetry collection and a series of manga. My bedside table is a mess, unless I’ve cleaned it recently… like today.
Do you push through to the end no matter what, or do you give up on books?
I never used to give up on books, but I realised that life is too short. I’m lucky that I’m rarely sent anything I don’t like but I’ve had to DNF (did not finish) a few books in 2017 that I thought I was going to enjoy but just could not get into for a number of reasons.
I think also that timing is so, so important with books — a book that you can’t get into today might be perfect for you in six months time.
Where and when do you tend to read?
Everywhere and anytime. At home I tend to read on the couch or in bed, usually after breakfast and a play with Nerys, then for a bit in the afternoon and then all evening. I always read in the bath. I read on the tube sometimes too, but I’m often distracted by podcasts or music from 2005-2007 (the golden era).
What’s your ideal reading session set up?
Bed, with the dog on my feet, and a big cup of tea next to me. Occasionally, I’ll treat myself to a Tomy Moly sheet mask to go with it. Low lighting, with my Lumie lamp, Totoro light that Lilith bought me for secret Santa and a candle on the go. Very therapeutic.
Do you reread books? What’s your most reread book?
For years I swore I wouldn’t, and then I realised that’s ridiculous. I rewatch movies with a passion — literally, I might finish a film and put it back on again because I liked it so much. This might go on for… some time. Oh autism, you massive lol.
My most re-read book is either Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which I’ve definitely read at least four times, or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
How do you mark your place?
I used to be a page turner but so many people were disgusted I was a little bit shamed out of it, though with proofs I’m not so precious and will still do this. I like a good bookmark but I’m forever losing them. Receipts and train tickets, or even any old bit of paper, end up replacing them.
In fact, this reminds me that years ago I found a strip of photographs from a booth of two people in an Ali Smith book and I tried really hard to find the owners using the power of social media, but no luck. The two of them look so happy and besotted with each other that I kept them, and sometimes I use that.
Do you use an e-reader?
I have done in the past. I’m very glad they exist, as when I was in the Philippines with an enormous ear abscess and couldn’t dive for a week all I had was my trusty kindle and my hammock. Thanks to that I was able to read all of The Hunger Games, Brideshead Revisited, Little Women and a couple of other books, narrowly avoiding complete madness (it looks beautiful but I was literally trapped in my research station on the rocks for over a week).
Now, I don’t. I realised quickly that my ability to retain information from reading on Kindle and other screens is very limited. I’ve always been a print-it-out kind of person, and that extends to books too. It’s a pity because I could be such a minimalist, but as it stands I have to stick to physical books.
How do you decide what to read next?
This depends on a few things. I have quite a big list of books that I have for review noted in my bullet journal, alongside important dates I should ideally publish reviews by and promote on social media. I was all prepped earlier this year to stay on track but then I went and started an independent press with some friends so I’m very behind.
So I have my review TBR, and my recently purchased TBR, and also a drawer full of books I’ve picked up in charity shops. Sometimes I just go with my heart, even if I have a lot of other things to read, because at the end of the day you might not love something as much as you could if you read it at the wrong time, or push it (see my point about American Gods above, which I will return to).
Where do you buy books?
All over the place. Waterstones, independent bookshops (though admittedly not as much as I should), and direct from small presses such as 404 Ink, Dead Ink and Unbound. I’ve had to emergency Amazon a few things this year before hosting last minute events. Needs must, I suppose, but I try not to actually buy books from there even if I do use their website to create the most complex wishlist system.
Which book shop sections do you like to browse?
Children’s is always my go to floor, followed by fiction. If there’s a queer reads or BAME writing section, I will always gravitate to there — luckily in Waterstones Piccadilly they are right next to each other, separated by the independent presses; basically my favourite corner.
I like to hate-browse gender studies sections, and very occasionally hide transphobic or whorephobic writers behind books by great people like Sara Ahmed or Melissa Gira Grant. I’m an ex bookseller so I know exactly how annoying this is, but I can’t stop myself.
Do you judge a book by its cover?
Yes, of course. While a bad cover won’t prevent me from reading a book — I’m looking at you, Europa editions of Elena Ferrante — but a good cover will encourage me. I am a magpie, especially for beautiful clothbound editions in that scratchy material.
Do you own multiple editions of the same book?
I try not to. I might rebuy a copy, especially if I’ve been sent a proof and fallen in love with the book; I want to support the authors however I can after all, and proof copies are not made to last and provide the author with exactly zilch. Once I have a new copy, proof goes in the recycling bin or older edition goes to charity shop/someone who wants it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a tweet by Roxanne Gay. One of her books (I believe it is Nasty Women) has been recovered for a special edition and someone said they were going to rebuy it, and she asked instead that they spend their money on a debut author. Whenever I consider rebuying a book now, I try and consider this more.
Saying all this, if a series changes cover half way through, I will end up rebuying because non-matching covers makes me feel a little physically sick (again, thanks autism).
Do you lend your books to other people, and if so are you particular about their condition on return?
I literally lend my books to three people, and even then I can feel nervous about it. It’s not because of condition; I am terrible at losing track of who has my books and I get really, really upset if they go missing (which has happened many times). I only lend books if I’m not bothered about their condition upon return, because its hard to expect other people live up to your anal standards.
I never borrow books from people because I instantly forget they belong to someone else, and are immediately incorporated into my bookshelf. Admittedly, I worry that people who borrow books from me might be as irresponsible as I.
I would much prefer to buy someone a copy of a book rather than lend them my copy, and tend to keep an eye out in charity shops for books that people have asked to borrow so I can get them their own copy.
Do you write in your books?
Very, very rarely do I make a note, or scribble in a book of my own. I like dedications very much, especially when a friend has gifted you it. It makes a copy so much more special, and it always hurts my heart a little to find books in charity shops with dedications inside them.
That’s it! All my weird behaviours. What about you guys? Do you have any strange book habits? Tell me in the comments.
What a treat I have to share with you today. Emily Critchley is the author of Notes on My Family, a young adult novel published in November of last year about an autistic girl Lou and her life with her extremely complicated family. I really loved this family drama, rife with wit and heart. As an autistic author writing a novel about an autistic main character, Emily found the experience illuminating and agreed to share her experiences with me.
When I began writing Notes on My Family, I was unaware of two things. Of course I was unaware that the book would be published and I wondered, almost daily, if I would be able to finish writing it, but the two important things I was unaware of were that Lou was on the autistic spectrum, and so was I.
I had written Notes on My Family before I carried out the bulk of my research into the ways autism specifically affects girls and women, and before I got my referral through the NHS. I then wondered if I had a problem. The novel I’ve written, which is soon to be published, is, in parts, a deliberately funny book, even though Lou is quite clearly on the autistic spectrum. For me, this isn’t a problem, but I find myself wondering about the book’s reception, how readers will react.
I feel that if those who read Notes on My Family find the book offensive they are missing the point. Life can be funny, even when at its darkest. My teenage years were extremely dark and I believe that reading a funny book, or a book that presents, as inseparable, the positive and negative aspects of being human would have been far more beneficial to me than reading a book that accurately reflected my mood and experiences but left me without hope. I think it’s very important when writing for young people to provide an element of hope.
For me, comedy has always been an integral part of life. I grew up in a family that joked around a lot. My dad has, and my grandad had, a very dry and, at times, wicked, sense of humour. I learned early on how to laugh at myself. I was small and skinny. My dad used to joke that I had to run around in the shower in order to get wet. I remember standing in the kitchen with my dad and my older sister, who must have been about twelve. My dad is laughing because my sister is hopping around complaining her mouth is on fire after eating the end of a chilli from the chilli plant. There was always laughter in our house and most of the time we were laughing at each other. You learned to give as good as you got.
Joking around with my friends and family has always made me happy. Humour can shed light on a dark situation and can bring about a change of mood quite unlike anything else. Laughter, as the saying has it, is a powerful medicine.
There are touching moments in Notes on My Family. There are also moments of despair when we see how Lou struggles so valiantly with life. The comedy in the novel helps provide a contrast to the dark times. It gives Lou a greater depth of character. Sometimes Lou knows she’s being funny but more often she doesn’t, and that’s okay. If we laugh at Lou that’s okay too because she would most definitely laugh at us. Neurotypical people may think autistic people are a little odd but, believe me, we think neurotypical people are even stranger. Comedy in fiction can be used not only to provide tonal contrast but to highlight diversity.
I have a very good friend with cerebral palsy. She has mobility issues and walks with the aid of two sticks. When I saw her recently she told me a story. She was in the park with her Italian friend. My friend tried to get up from the grass, using her sticks and her Italian friend slapped her bum, causing her to fall back down. They both rolled around on the grass laughing. My friend told me how horrified those around them had been that not only had he failed to help her up but that he had slapped her bum and actually caused her to fall. My friend loves those who see her before they see her disability. She loves people who aren’t afraid to joke around with her. Having cerebral palsy does not impinge upon her ability to laugh at herself and the world. Of course there are times when laughter is inappropriate, but I find those times occur less often than you might think.
I also think it’s important to teach teenage girls that being funny isn’t just for boys. Girls can be funny too. It’s brilliant to laugh and to make others laugh. Making others laugh is a wonderful gift.