books · discussions · features · shanti · writing

Setting in Stone 3: Research Methods

Hello, Virtually Readers! Your, that is, my, favourite discussion feature is back again. Setting in Stone is a series where I explore many assumptions inherent in settings in books, spurred by enthusiasm for this post. You can read all the Setting in Stone posts by clicking the ‘setting in stone’ tag at the bottom of this one. Today, I’m discussing how setting is researched. This information is derived from reading/listening to various authors talking about their research process plus common sense. I’m going to outline the different ways to research setting, and their advantages and disadvantages as I see it. Continue reading “Setting in Stone 3: Research Methods”

books · discussions · shanti

How to get books!

Hiiiii Virtually Readers! It’s Shanti, here to tell you how to get books. I know that this is quite random, but a bookworm’s common lament is how expensive books are, even though we do love to buy them. However, buying isn’t the only option. So this brief (ish) post is going to list a few ideas about locating books without having to resort to the dodgy, illegal Russian website. (Seriously. Don’t do that. Piracy is not cool.) Continue reading “How to get books!”

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 2: Contemporary Worlds

When you think of worldbuilding, you think of sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopia; what are known as ‘genre’ books. (though that definition is less useful in YA). Historical fiction also requires worldbuilding, but it’s usually reconstructed worldbuilding, compiled through research rather than invention (though there is some invention, obviously, and alternate history is another game altogether). But contemporary books also need worldbuilding. This is a very useful post by Jenn Marie Thorne, one of my FAVOURITE contemporary authors about how she does worldbuilding in contemporary books; and today’s Setting in Stone topic is my own take on that.


Setting in Stone is a Virtually Read original series where we (okay, mostly Shanti) talks about setting.

Continue reading “Setting in Stone 2: Contemporary Worlds”

books · discussions · features · shanti

How I Use Goodreads Shelves

Good day, Virtually Readers! Today, I’m going to take you through how I use goodreads shelves. It’s a totally random post, but people were interested. Thank you for being interested, everyone! I do so like goodreads, though, especially when you can see how your reading tastes have changed. I have a very haphazard shelving process because I’ve developed it over the years, so this is basically like revealing the inner workings of my brain. Feel free to friend me on goodreads, by the way-my profile is set to private automatically, but say you came from the blog and I’ll accept your request.

Continue reading “How I Use Goodreads Shelves”

books · discussions · Shar

Books I read this year + stats

Hi Virtually Readers! What have you guys been up to? The other day, just for fun, I was counting all the books I’ve read this year (I keep track on calendars I make for myself) and decided to analyse them a bit. Fun fact: I took stats at school last year, and it was my least favourite class. However, plugging numbers into a program that makes pie graphs is pretty easy. So today I’ll show you each fancy chart, then talk about it.

(disclaimer: I made these with Infogram, but I ended up taking screenshots of the charts because I couldn’t work out how to get the images. Technology is hard, yo)

stats post graphics

Books read by month

screen-shot-2017-08-10-at-9-02-44-am-e1502338536711.pngThe most interesting thing about this graph, I think, is the variation. You can see I read the most books in January, June and July (although august isn’t over; I read 4 books in the first 5 days of August but haven’t finished any since). Why? In January, June, and July, I’ve had holidays. In between, I still read, but I was also studying my butt off trying to finish high school, so I had far less time on my hands.

Books read by genre

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 9.03.06 am

Last year I would have told you I read the most contemporary, which is still true, because they’re fluffy and easy to get through and generally shorter than genres like fantasy or historical. But I also have read a lot of fantasy this year. Curiously, Sci-fi and dystopia are my favourite genres (they often overlap so I put them as one), but I read far less than in other genres. Also, I only had one historical fiction book, although books like Passenger, Wayfarer and A Great and Terrible Beauty would classify as both historical fiction and fantasy. I put them under fantasy; the one ‘pure’ historical fiction book was Black Dove, White Raven. I want to read more historical. Also, look how many classics, adult books and nonfiction I read! #proud.

Books I read by gender of author

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 9.03.25 am

This isn’t that surprising, considering that probably the majority of YA authors are women, but maybe I should read a few more books by men to branch out a bit? The ‘both’ included Illuminae, Gemina, and two short story anthologies.

Books I read by series

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 9.03.39 am

I’ve finished so many series this year! Considering I read the most contemporaries and those are generally standalones, you’d think this wasn’t the case, but I’ve read a lot of books that are in series this year. (ACOL, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, Lara Jean trilogy, HP, The Lunar Chronicles, Black Heart, the last two Raven Cycle books, The Winner’s Trilogy, Passenger… you get the idea)

Books I read by reread or read for the first time

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 9.50.05 am

I really enjoy rereading, and just over a quarter of the books I read were re-reads. (Rereading all of Harry Potter and The Lunar Chronicles definitely helped). I think this is about how much re-reading I want to be doing; it’s good to try new books but also return to old favourites.

Books I read by publication date

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 9.46.36 am

I felt like I read a lot of new releases this year. But I think it’s okay that I’ve also read lots of books that were published earlier than this. (This includes 7 HP books, the Lunar Chronicles, and all the classics and adult books and nonfiction I read as well). I love shiny new releases, and I think this year has had a lot of good books, but I’m glad that I haven’t based my choice of reading material on the publication date alone just to keep up with other bloggers.


This was so much fun to analyse! Thankfully, it involved no t-tests, p-values, or chi-squares (if you know what these are, you get bonus points). Also, these are probably not that accurate because for a few books I guessed release dates and didn’t bother with looking anything up, and also just assumed about the author’s gender sometimes. But whatever. This was mainly a fun exercise, not a precise one.

What do you think of these stats? Which genre do you read the most/least? Do you read more recent releases or backlist books? 

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 1: A Place for a Story

Hey Virtually Readers! You may not remember, but way back in June I published a excellent popular post about setting and how non Western European or North American settings are discriminated against. You guys were really into the post—yay!—which got me thinking more about setting, and so I have decided to commence a new discussion series called Setting in Stone. Shar thinks the name is stupid, but I’m ignoring her. I’m very good at that. I don’t know how long this series is going to go on for—I have about 10 posts planned, and will write as the inspiration strikes, but this first one is going to be about how setting informs story.


Setting is a vital part of the story. It sets limitations for the characters and plot, informs mood and atmosphere, and usually shapes the climax.

How is setting a limit, and why is that a good thing? If a book is set in a small town, it means that the characters are focused on how to get out or how to stay. If a story is set in a city, then the isolation and opportunity will again pull characters in two directions. To some extent, yes, this is a trope, but that’s how settings limit character mindsets.

By the Chekov’s gun principle, a setting also limits plot. If a certain shop is mentioned, it must become significant in some way. If a lake is part of the setting, then something has to happen at the lake. Obviously, an author can make her setting fit her story—in fact, she should make the setting fit the story—but geographical limitations also apply. There can’t be a lake in the middle of a story set in the desert. There can’t be a tornado in a story set in a rainforest. These rules of geography have to dictate how the story unfolds within a setting. In magical realism, perhaps, all bets are off; but still this is a general rule.

Why are so many cute, summery books set in beachside towns during the summer? Because sunshine and beaches makes the reader think of cute fluffy things. Similarly, creepy books are often set in forests or winter time, like Megan Miranda’s Vengeance. These Broken Stars, a space opera with a romance and a mystery, is on a lush but empty planet, conveying an atmosphere of beauty and eeriness, while the harsher, more brutal Illuminae consists of the barren metal walls of spaceships. The connotations of various settings are quickly formed, and, along with writing style and content, contribute to the ‘mood’ of a novel. A forest can mean magic or horror. A cozy college dorm is more like a place for falling in love with someone you didn’t expect.

Finally, setting aids the story by informing character choices towards the climax. For example, in Rebel of the Sands, the climax involves a character raiding a train and discovering a (non-metaphorical) power. If the book had had the same Western vibe but been set in, say, a mountainous region, the climax would have been different, both in details (e.g. sand is everywhere, trains wouldn’t have existed) and in broad terms (how the characters escaped and how they felt).

The effect the setting has on the narrative is impossible to quantify and certainly variable between books. Swallows and Amazons, a classic children’s book set in the Lake District of England, revolves around the lake. The story would be utterly different if set in Iowa. However, while stories set in generic small towns or big cities do depend on their settings, it may not make much difference whether the setting is Portland or London, Derbyshire or Queensland.

It’s safe to say that setting is pretty important, even if it’s not immediately obvious how. Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to show different aspects of the interaction between setting and story, and it’s going to be awesome.

What’s one story where you feel like the setting had a big influence? Are you excited for this series? tell me your thoughts in the comments!

books · discussions · Shar

Books and Series I don’t Ever Plan to Read

There are obviously plenty of books in the world I’m never going to read—for example, medical textbooks or random erotica books or biographies of Abraham Lincoln—but that’s fairly obvious. This post isn’t about these books. This post is about YA books, most of which I think are popular, but I will not read. Because I like to be controversial like that.


  1. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas

I actually read the first book about two years ago and mainly liked it. But it’s a really long series and I don’t want to commit, plus I’ve already been spoiled about Aelin. For some reason I just don’t want to read it?


  1. A Court of Thorns and Rose series by Sarah J. Maas

I know a lot of people really love this, but I just don’t want to read it. One of my friends said all the sex made her kind of uncomfortable and I’d rather not read that, plus it’s actually NA and not YA, and for ever post on instagram I’ve seen about how good these are, there’s another one talking about bad representation and erasure. So, no.


  1. Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan

I just don’t want to commit to this series, basically. (Apparently, I have commitment issues). I liked Percy Jackson when I read it, I liked The Heroes of Olympus, I liked The Red Pyramid (although I don’t plan on finishing that series either), I liked the Trials of Apollo and I do want to finish it, but I guess I’m kind of growing out of Rick Riordan. (I mean, my eight year old sister loves him). And there are just books I’d rather read.


  1. Wolves of Mercy Falls series by Maggie Stiefvater

You can read my full rant review here, but I think it is NEVER, NEVER a good idea to give someone meningitis. Even if you have a good reason for it. Even if you think it’s a good idea. It’s not.

Shanti tells me the series improves in subsequent books, but I just don’t want to find out. I liked The Raven Cycle, and I LOVED The Scorpio Races, but I just don’t want to read this one.


  1. Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz

This is, in all probability, a perfectly good book. But I just don’t want to read it. I really like the songs from Hamilton, and I think it deserves a lot of its success but I feel like this book is basically only going to sell because of people liking Hamilton. Like, the author probably wouldn’t have thought of writing it if Hamilton wasn’t that successful. And it just kind of seems like the book is making money because of Hamilton, and that it wouldn’t if Hamilton didn’t exist. And for some reason, this really puts me off a YA version of Alexander and Eliza Schulyer’s love story. Go figure.


  1. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (because Atticus is racist + it might not have been obtained very ethically?), the rest of the Skullduggery Pleasant series by Derek Land (too long, not interested enough), the second half of the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson (I was willingly spoiled).


What are some books you don’t ever plan on reading? Why? Do you disagree with any on my list?





books · discussions · Shar

Two problems with the phrase ‘diverse’


Hi Virtually Readers! It’s 2017 and #WeNeedDiverseBooks is still going strong, three years after the movement started. Before you read the rest of this post, a disclaimer: #WeNeedDiverseBooks has done really good things for the book publishing world. I wrote a whole post about what I think about it here, but my approach to the matter has changed slightly recently. Rather, I have two big problems with the phrase, which is why I’m writing this. (Side note: I actually didn’t at all remember what I’d said in that previous post and I had to go and read it all again to refresh my memory.) (Other side note: this is the most effort I’ve put into a blog post for a while and I actually did research and stuff)(Final side note: I was kind of worried this was too controversial or I was just wrong but Shanti and Cait told me to post it which was nice of them)

I researched this and found out that We Need Diverse Books was started in 2014 by various children’s/YA authors after a BEA children’s author panel was announced to only have white males on it. Soon the hashtag went viral on twitter as bloggers were like ‘hey look! Most YA and children’s books star straight white cis teenagers who with no disabilities. But that doesn’t reflect the experiences of a lot of readers! We need books that are diverse and star lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds!’

some diverse books

Although this isn’t entirely true, let’s say that before #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the ‘norm’ for a contemporary YA book is a white straight cis character without mental illness or disability who was middle class, either Christian or agnostic/athiest and attended a high school in the US or other developed country.

Diverse means ‘showing a great deal of variety; very different’ (from the OED). We Need Diverse Books mission statement is: ‘Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children’ (source: their website). It wasn’t like there were no books like that before the campaign, but in my experience (or maybe just the books I choose to read) YA has definitely diversified since then. (2014 was when I started blogging and We Need Diverse Books became a thing).

Here are my two problems with the way the phrase ‘diverse’ is used: One, it limits diversity to characters; and two, individual characters cannot be diverse.

pooh look random but pretty photo

Let me talk about the first one. WNDB defines diversity as ‘including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.’ (also from the WNDB website). I think this is a good umbrella for a ‘diverse’ character to fit under. This definition is mostly okay, except that a) it should advocate for main characters rather than side characters with the listed identities, b)it would be nice to see a phrase in there about intersectionality (e.g people who belong to one or more minority groups) and c) it doesn’t specifically promote #ownvoices, which I think is important.

These are only little things, though. My biggest problem with this definition is that it’s only talking about the identities of the characters, which isn’t the only kind of diversity a book can have. What about other experiences that are ‘very different’ from the YA norm? Couldn’t a book set somewhere other than the UK or Australia or the US qualify as diverse just on the merit of its setting? (Shanti wrote a whole post about this here) (Also, what about fantasy based on a cultures other than medieval Europe?). What about if a character is homeschooled or poor or has divorced parents or something else that is outside of the YA norm? These types of experiences aren’t an identity the way sexuality or gender identity is, but I think they also qualify as diverse. WNDB’s vision is ‘A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.’, but for this to happen we need characters as well as settings and other experiences to be diverse. We don’t just need characters with the same skin colour or sexual orientation as us, we need characters with similar cultural backgrounds as well—whether it’s because they live in the country we do or don’t do school the ‘normal’ way.

I’m not asking for all of this in one book—if a book entirely reflected me then it would be pretty boring and too much like my life. But I think as well as characters with traits like ours, we also need characters with the same background in other ways. Diversity isn’t limited to the identity of the book’s characters.

Side note: Some people might say that the main readers in English live in developed countries, so books should be set there. But I know a lot of bloggers are from India, the Phillipines, South America, other Asian countries… all of whom read in English. The fact is that there is not very much of a YA genre in other languages. A lot of Indian writers, for example, write in English.

Fantasy not based on Medieval Europe that I definitely didn’t DNF *ahem*

Point two: ‘diverse’ has two meanings: ‘very different’ and ‘showing a great deal of variety’. If you were the only human in the world, you couldn’t be diverse, because there would be no norm to compare you to. In the same way, a book can’t be different or show variety until it’s being compared to something else.

In my previous post, I said I was diverse. I now disagree with that statement. While my experiences being biracial and growing up in India diverge from many New Zealanders, I myself am not ‘very different’ until I’m comparing myself to an established norm. If I compared myself to a lot of classmates at the school I went to, I wouldn’t be different at all. I guess my complaint is that currently, books marketed as ‘diverse’ are being held in comparison to that cis-straight-white-middle class-not-disabled norm that is (thankfully) becoming less and less common.

A book isn’t diverse until you start comparing it to other books, and realising that it’s very different or shows variety.

The very definition depends on the idea that normal children’s books don’t have characters from diverse backgrounds. If we want this not to be the case, we need to stop treating diverse books as unusual. We need to make diversity in publishing the norm. This hasn’t happened yet. But I hope that one day soon, We Need Diverse Books won’t be necessary anymore. Rather, we have so many that it doesn’t feel unusual to have an Indian, transgender, Hindu, bisexual, non-binary, or wheelchair-using main character, and more people can see themselves in the books they read.

We Need Diverse Books has changed YA, allowing authors with a wide range of experiences to write about characters with experiences broader than the straight-white-kid cliché. I think the movement has done a lot of good. But the phrase is also problematic because it doesn’t encompass all kinds of diversity and also requires comparison to a norm that shouldn’t exist.


Was that post long or what? Do you agree or disagree with me (I really enjoy polite disagreement)? What’s your stance on We Need Diverse Books? Is there anything I’ve missed? Is this way too political and rant-y?


books · discussions · shanti

Moving on Companionably; on companion novels

Hello Virtually Readers! So in the last few weeks I’ve read several sets of companion novels. The first was the Six Impossiverse series by Fiona Wood, three contemporary stories featuring Australians. The second was Dramatically Ever After, the sequel to Bookishly Ever After, which I liked even more than the first book. I’m also partway through What I Thought Was True, a companion novel to My Life Next Door and the Boy Most Likely To. These are all companion novels, so I thought I’d talk a little more about what companion novels are and are not today. Yay!


So what is a companion novel? Without any research, I can tell you that it’s a book that’s in the same universe as other books by the same author, but usually featuring different characters and different themes. Some series do have changing protagonists, so what makes companion series different from normal series is that a companion novel does not continue the overarching plot of the main series.

The Six Impossiverse and the Ever After books are two examples of how companion series can work. The Six Impossiverse has three books, so far. The first one focuses on themes of family and friendship, the second on ideas of identity and loss, the third on identity, but in a much more specific way, poverty, and belief. Each book has a similar format, though, focusing on one or two characters struggles over about a term in the Australian school system, leading up to some ‘big event’ or ‘realisation’ at the end (which is pretty typical for stories anyway). There is one character who appears in all three books, and quite a few who appear in the second and third book (by publication order). Basically, the themes and characters are different, but the format and content are the same.


In the Ever After books, only two of which are out so far, the themes of identity, new relationships, and confidence in yourself remain between the two books. They have a similar ‘feel’ of coziness and fun, but the characters are different. In Bookishly Ever After, the story is set partially during the term and then during a summer camp, with excerpts from various (fake) YA novels. Dramatically Ever After is set a few months later, focusing on Phoebe’s best friend, and set (mostly) over the course of a week at a conference which Em is attending, with excerpts from emails and social media chats.

These are two ways to write companion novels, and both make quite a lot of sense. One is to keep the themes the same but vary the characters, content, and format. The other is to have similar formats but to make the style and themes quite different. There are probably other ways to do it—for example with companion series like Cassandra Clare or Tamora Pierce’s books, the idea of becoming yourself and conquering a war or evil remains, but in totally different ways.

I like reading companion novels for a lot of reason. For one, it’s really nice to get ‘updates’ on where your characters are. With contemporary novels, authors often feel compelled to create ‘drama’ in sequels, break up friendships and couples for the sake of plot, and that’s kind of irritating if you ask me. So I like the this way, that doesn’t have to happen. In fantasy books, or even contemporary, it’s interesting to see a different perspective on the same events, or a different part or time of the world. Contemporary novels make all the other books in the series richer. But because there are often big shifts in characters, content matter, or themes, and each novel can stand by itself, I don’t feel like I have to read the whole series to know how the story goes.


The lines can get a bit blurred—for example, Morgan Matson’s books contain cameos from her other series but I’m not sure if that is enough to count as companion novels, because those easter eggs don’t necessarily make a story richer. In the same way, with My Life Next Door and The Boy Most Likely To, the two books have basically the same set of characters and are set very closely in time and place, but with different key characters and themes—TBMLT is ultimately a lot grittier. And so far, What I Thought Was True seems to be almost totally separate. Gemina and Illuminae are companions in the sense that the main characters change, but the overarching plot of evil BeiTech remains. So the line can blur quite easily. Companion novels are interesting for this reason, and as such, and integral part of the discussion about series and why they’re good and why they’re irritating (the story just goes on!)

What do you think of companion novels? What are some of your favourite ones? Tell me in the comments.