Welcome back to the Dark Side, YA Genre

In the last few years, I turned away from the YA genre.  I attributed this to two things – 1) I’m now an adult and 2) the YA genre lost quite a bit of its darkness.  When I was younger, the books for YA were much darker in themes and characterizations.  I recall reading R. L. Stine’s Fear Street Sagas and seeing the villains win the day and the gory plot twists penned by Christopher Pike.  Blood, guts, and devilish deals were par for the course.  While fluffier fare has always been dominant in the YA section, the darker stories have been fewer and far between in recent times.  The Hunger Games felt like a throwback to those times.  But recently I decided to pick up the YA fantasy Finnikin of the Rock and its sequel Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta, and I was blown away by the amazing world building and use of language she employs.  She was able to deftly convey through euphemisms and minor specific instances the darkest and most brutal parts of human nature – rape, slavery, subversion, mass murder, and the near destruction of a civilization.  It was nothing short of brilliant.  Unfortunately, the third and final book, Quintana of Charyn, comes out in Australia next month but the American release won’t be until 2013.  Oh well, I should be done working on my novel and doing my homework for three courses until then.

Now on shelves are at least two books featuring teen girl assassins, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers.  The former is YA fantasy and the latter is historical paranormal fiction.  Also coming soon is the sequel to Cornelia Funke’s novel Reckless (which I think doesn’t belong in YA because everyone in that story is well over 18 years old, and falls into the same nebulous YA/adult borderline fantasy category that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett often find themselves in), currently listed as Fearless on GoodReads.  Reckless is Supernatural (Seasons 1 & 2) and the Brothers Grimm meets Through the Looking Glass.  I haven’t had the chance to check out Cassandra Clare yet and my reading list is still a mile high.  In general, I’ve noticed a greater shift toward adventurous, epic YA fantasy novels this past year.  I hope this keeps up, because I’m enjoying every minute of it.

The Big 1,000

Whoa, it’s been a year since I wrote on WordPress. Well, it’s because I was busy with grad school and work stuff. But let’s kick this return off!

I never really kept track of how many books I’ve read over the last quarter of a century I’ve been around. Reading has always been a regular habit with me, like breathing, so I never thought to actually count how many books I’d read over my lifetime. While I suspected it was a large number, it wasn’t until I finally started a GoodReads account this year that I realized just how many. My current GoodReads number is in the 800 ballpark, but the thing is, I’m not done backlogging the books I’ve read and I know there are a large number of books I’m not remembering off the top of my head (I’m kind of caught between if I want to root through physical/online/GR collections for missing books I didn’t tag or just letting it go at the current stat). Plus, books I’ve read that aren’t “officially published” but posted online is somewhere in the range of ~200 if my collection of links and tags is up to scratch. So, all things considered, I might have hit the 1,000 mark somewhere late last year or early this year.

The craziest thing is trying to wrap my head around it… 1,000 books?! ONE THOUSAND BOOKS. WTF?

My friends and family rolled eyes at my announcement, to them that was hardly a surprising turn of events. They asked if I was out of stuff to read and were offering suggestions, but the truth is that I don’t feel like I’ve read all the books I’ve set out to read. There are tons of books still on my to-read list (i.e. A Song of Fire and Ice, Mistborn, Wheel of Time, etc.). But now every book read will feel anti-climatic.

At the end of the day what does this number mean to me? I never cared before about how much I read and thought about my reading in terms of numbers. Maybe I’ll just work to 5,000 from here? I doubt I’ll be reading as much as I do now when other life factors come into play. But I did manage to read 1,000 books in about a quarter of a century, and considering I couldn’t read for the first three years, I’d say that’s not too shabby.

When It’s Done Right

Here is a rare gem indeed – I’m going to rant about a historical romance done right.

The characters are multi-dimensional, humanistic rather than characteristic, and there’s a level of genuine drama, not melodrama lingering between them.  Connie Brockway has been on my radar since last year, but I hadn’t touched her McClairen family series until now.

The trilogy is formulated around the three Merrick silbings, whose tragic family history haunts them and their truly villainous father Lord Carr is at the heart of it.  This hearkens back to my theory that a hero is only as good as his/her villain, and Lord Carr is the exact scheming, mad and cunning evil genius that keeps the heroes on their toes.  He isn’t the usual caricature Jafar villain of historical romances, he’s actually got his hands all over the pot and proves difficult for his children and their respective spouses to combat.  His greedy motivations and deft ability to play the role of wolf in sheep’s clothing puts him in a league above 98% of the other historical villains I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of those).

The stories unfold like a chess match.  It is a true battle of wits in order to survive, and the Merrick children pull it off in such a smart and heart-felt way.  Though they love, Brockway makes it natural and subtle rather than large pronouncements and obnoxious repeats of how in love they are.  No crying around virginity being the exaltation of being, though there are female virgins.  And Brockway knows how to conduct romantic tension like it’s the New York Philharmonic. She takes time to develop the plot and the romance together, rather than tacking on a plot to the romantic plot.

Elements of foreshadowing and Gothic flair add to this series.  The conclusion is befitting, though rushed it works.  While there are some weak points, I find that this has to be one of the best romances I’ve come across and it deserves way more credit than it has.

How Writers Age Stamp Themselves

I loved the book Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.  It was an amazing story with deep and rich characters, and I fell in love with Etienne and Anna over and over again on each page. That said, the one and only thing that bothered me about the book was the use of technology.  Or lack thereof.

The characters have computers and email, but the technology felt very 1990s.  Anna was solely dependent on phone calls and occasional email to communicate with her friends and family back in America.  I’m part of the first generation to grow up with Facebook, Twitter and everyone in class having a cell phone, so I immediately was confused by the lack of communication.  In college, students abroad felt like they were still at school with us through pictures and status updates and instant messaging and Skype.  My best friend and I went to high school together, but 80% of our relationship was online based.  I spend hours chatting with friends on messenger services.  My cousins that live internationally send pictures and messages from their BlackBerry Messenger service so there are no fees.  While reading, the emails were entirely text based and there were no mentions of any of the technology that is pretty standard in this day and age.

Did this make a difference in the overall story?  Well, yes and no.  The characters and the story were still amazing, but it’s anachronistic.  How we send and receive information does have an impact on how things play out.

1) Pictures — Anna doesn’t take pictures with her new friends, no one is taking pictures.  These days, if you go to Paris (or even the corner market) someone is always snapping pictures of everything and somehow they end up online.  Senior year of high school, we took as many pictures and video-taped as much as we could with anyone we could.  If Anna went to Paris recently, she would be photographing and uploading like crazy, as would her friend Bridgette.  Also, this would have alerted Anna immediately to the fact that Toph and Bridgette were dating or something was going on.

2) Phone calls/email — I mentioned this earlier.  My friend joked that I did have a valid gripe with the whole phone call thing once in a blue moon notion, and that today your phone can probably make coffee (hey, there’s probably an app for that somewhere).  Also, even though cell phones get mentioned, they’re not as pervasive in the story as in real life.  I know people in third world countries with better technology than the novel explored.  Anna would have Skyped with her little brother if she missed him so much.  The occasional emails would have still occurred, but it being the majority of her communication with her best friend seemed odd.  Toph wouldn’t have called her, he would be posting on her wall and commenting on everything she posted.  There would have been a greater chance of them staying connected while she was away as well, and I know people who have made their entire relationship digital while the other had to be away and stayed together through the other person’s return.  That’s the power of communication today — you don’t have to be there to be there.

3) No Social Network — It didn’t need to be Facebook, but anyone in school in the last few years has an account there.  Even when I was in high school, we had Friendster and Xanga and LiveJournal that people used.  I can’t imagine a world where you’re not blogging or updating, and the amount of high school drama that caused.  Again, this would have changed Bridgette and Anna’s relationship because it wouldn’t have been as disconnected, and Anna would have a clearer idea what was going on back home.  She would be spending time looking at profile pictures to remember her friends and relationship status is kind of a dead giveaway.  Also, she would have friended her new friends at school and learned more about them that way rather than talking.  This is a huge thing that changed the social dynamic of the modern world and how people get acquainted and stay in contact.  People don’t ask if you’re seeing someone anymore, they check your profile status.  Also, all bands these days keep website or host a web page.  To not see Anna fussing over a guy’s website or profile was odd.

Not every current YA story needs to have mentions of technology, but in this particular instance it really dated the book and its author because a subplot was a breakdown in communication due to technological limitations.  Basic utilities of daily life were unavailable, and that’s something that makes writing YA difficult these days.  The speed of change in the way we communicate rapidly and rabidly changed in a span of less than ten years.  I think the college interns should get a peek at these manuscripts to make sure that loose ends like this don’t fray the story.

Kindle PC and other ways to ruin my story experience

I know, it’s been almost a month since my last update.  Time flies when you forget about your blog.  Also the weather’s been great so I’ve gotten more sociable.

Anyway about a week or so ago, I broke and got Kindle for my laptop just so I could collect book freebies.  Don’t look at me like that, I go to the library for most of my book needs and I’m an author myself (shut up, I’ll finish a manuscript one of these days).  I was super-excited to see a book on my to-read list (it’s Melissa Marr’s novel Wicked Lovely) was up for grabs today.

As I scroll through the freebies, I can’t help but reading the reviews.  Except I’ve found that reviews don’t correlate to how much I like the book, and I miss the days when I’d just browse through the shelves and not worry about the book’s larger success.  I know it helps to screen books for poor content, but I’ve read quite a few books that had great reviews on Amazon that in real life I’d give only two or three stars to.

So far, I feel like I’ve got better instincts with books in reality.  I also get too caught up in reading reviews that in the end aren’t helpful with me choosing and enjoying a book.  I miss the days of just browsing then figuring out for myself if I liked it.  It also makes guilty pleasure books ten times harder to read because it’s completely in your face that most people think the book isn’t worth their time.  Also, if a friend were to browse through my Kindle application, trashy reads would remain there for pretty much forever for everyone to see and I’m old fashioned about privacy.  It’s kind of like eating an entire large carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream then leaving the container on your desk forever for everyone to see and comment on.

I guess I’m still old school when it comes to reading.  Digital stuff is good for long train rides, but I still prefer the library for the best free reads around.  Of course, my high school teacher once told me that I grew up with a good public library system (technically, I have cards with all three in the five boroughs), if we were in the ‘burbs or boonies, then the reading selection would look more like a drugstore’s.  My mom says Americans rush too much and have little time and respect to appreciate the things around them.  I think that’s being driven home by the growing number of people who don’t think reading is worth their time anymore because it gets in the way of “multi-tasking.”

Some days I feel too utilitarian for my own good.

The Art of Being a Loser

I know I’m a bit late in posting this, but author J.D. Salinger passed away on January 27, 2010 which has led to the celebrity he avoided in life consuming his death.

A slew of articles were done on one of the most recognized American authors in history, but one in particular left me scratching my head. Newsweek decided to let someone who was not a fan of Salinger write an article about his death entitled J.D. Salinger Outlived His Legend. I usually like contrasting viewpoints on a person, and using only fans to comment on an author isn’t as circumspect. It’s like only letting Nazis comment on Hitler’s death. I’m not a fan of Hitler nor Salinger (to a far far lesser extent than the former) so I was curious to see what Malcolm Jones had to say.

The article was wholly obnoxious based on this opening alone, “Holden Caulfield was certainly no more interesting than I was, and back then (oh, heck, even now), I wanted the people in the books I read to be a lot more interesting than me. But there was almost nothing in that book for me to connect with. I didn’t have a sister. I didn’t go to prep school. I had no idea what taking the train into New York meant. And Holden himself seemed like sort of a drip.” J.D. Salinger was dismissed because Holden had a sister and the author didn’t? Really? This is coming from a journalist on a national publication?

I should point out that I grew up in New York City at the turn of the millennium and took the train to public school every morning (I read The Catcher in the Rye on the ride over), came from an immigrant family, don’t have a sister, oh and for good measure, I’m female. Based on that, I should hate the book because Holden isn’t me. This also eliminates from my reading list about 99.99% of the English literary canon from my good graces – how did I manage a degree in that subject that so obviously wasn’t about me? God forbid Jones does a commentary on Star Wars – it’s pointless and boring because unlike Luke, he doesn’t have a sister, let alone lived on Tatooine.

Any literary critic worth their ink (or I guess these days, typeface) knows that while we might not like a certain book, that does not mean their contribution to the literary canon ought to be discredited (unless you’re teaching a course in English lit and choose not to put certain books on your syllabus). Jones writes from the perspective of his 13 year old self back in the mid-60s, not the journalist in his late 50s. Those reasons for dismissal aren’t valid at that age either.

I was 14 years old when I had to read The Catcher in the Rye for English class, and the vast majority of us couldn’t stand the book. To this day, I really don’t know any teenager that does. I’ll admit that we pecked out Holden for being the rich New York elite that we felt looked down on us, but that was hardly the reason I actually disliked him. As one kid put it, “Holden Caulfield is messed up in the head.” While the teacher kept badgering us that we should feel kinship with an angst-ridden teen from New York, Holden was not the kid we wanted to be. He was pathetic, a failure and constantly pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Our generation gap was vast and all we could think was ‘You’re rich, suck it up.  I know plenty of people with worse lives that were broke…  I could have pulled that off with my hands tied behind my back…  I think you’re screwed up because you just want to be…’

Looking back on it, it was one of those teen novels not really meant for teens, but nostalgic pieces written several years after the author’s youth. Salinger wrote Holden Caulfield’s story in the 1940s, which put him in his 30s at the time. He wrote of a nostalgia for innocence that many teens don’t experience nor understand until their 20s (or at least that was my case). I think that high school students shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye until their junior or senior year in order to get the full effect, because at 13 and 14, they’ve only started acclimating themselves to being “teenagers,” so how can they feel the loss of their youth when they haven’t experienced it? That’s what Salinger wrote about so compellingly. Sure the story wasn’t to my tastes, and there are many who disavow it’s literary merit, but it is the grandfather of all teen angst stories.

Without The Catcher in the Rye, we wouldn’t have had The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dawson’s Creek, SuperBad (or pretty much Judd Apatow’s entire career) or many of the other teen films and TV shows and books about that teenager whose family doesn’t get him and he struggles to find his way in the world. Anyone worth their literary pedigree could tell you that sure Holden Caulfield was lame and a loser, but he paved the way for loser, angst-ridden teens everywhere to get their stories told.

Holden Caulfield made being a loser into an art form.