book review · Shar

A Girl Like that: Diverse but how gritty is too gritty?

I’m about to start university again, so I’m thanking past me for writing a lot of book reviews. Will they be enough to get me through the semester? Only time will tell. However, this is a very good book and you should definitely read my review thx.  Continue reading “A Girl Like that: Diverse but how gritty is too gritty?”

book review · books · shanti

Labyrinths and Loss

Hi Virtually Readers! Hopefully you have not been tracking my online activity and obscure references to my whereabouts with any kind of fervor, in which case you will not know that I just returned (like a week ago) from Indonesia. I had a marvellous time, pretended I didn’t have university responsibilities and read quite a bit. Now I am back and my life is consumed by chaos and I have so much to do and mostly I am happy about it (really relating to shar’s blogging struggles tbh). Anyway, one of the books I read was also about chaos: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova. This is going to be a short review because I gotta sleep but enjoy anyway.

Continue reading “Labyrinths and Loss”

book review · books · shanti

Along the Indigo and Towards Me

This book was not what I expected. I guess I vaguely skimmed the synopsis when it came out, then placed a hold on it and got it some weeks later, then didn’t read it, then waited weeks more for my hold to come through and finaaaaaallly read it a few weeks ago. Anyway, it turns out that it is not a high fantasy about an innkeepers daughter (which is good because I’m going to write that book) but instead an urban not-quite-fantasy about a girl living in a small town (as I found out from another reviewer, in the eighties) that she wants to leave.


 

Continue reading “Along the Indigo and Towards Me”

book review · shanti

The Last Beginning review

The Last Beginning was thoroughly disappointing. I read it mostly because, when I read The Next Together two years ago, there were a great deal of unanswered questions and I wanted answers. Everyone who has read it seemed to have enjoyed it, and judging by social media and her excellent third book, Lauren James is a cool person. How let down I was.

24550848Sixteen years ago, after a scandal that rocked the world, teenagers Katherine and Matthew vanished without a trace. Now Clove Sutcliffe is determined to find her long lost relatives. But where do you start looking for a couple who seem to have been reincarnated at every key moment in history? Who were Kate and Matt? Why were they born again and again? And who is the mysterious Ella, who keeps appearing at every turn in Clove’s investigation?

For Clove, there is a mystery to solve in the past and a love to find in the future. (blurb from goodreads)
I couldn’t help but compare The Last Beginning to another time travel book I’ve read this year: Invictus by Ryan Graudin. It’s tightly plotted, easily explained without infodumping, and clear. You understand how the time travel works, the nature of paradoxes, and how and why the characters do research to blend in. There is none of that in The Last Beginning. Clove is, to be frank, a complete idiot. She turns up in the past with a dress which is an romanticized approximation of historical dress, and then travels with no flipping clue if it’s going to work or not. Obviously, it does. Then she’s wandering around with no clue how to blend in or where to go TELLING PEOPLE THEIR FLIPPING FUTURE LIKE AN ABSOLUTE IDIOT. I have never time travelled or taken a physics class, but even I know that that is a BIG NO NO OH MY GOSH. Then it changes the future, and then she has to fix it. I didn’t mind that Clove was thoughtless or whingy; she’s sixteen, that’s forgiveable. But she’s supposed to be smart, and she absolutely does not behave like that. How could no one in the past—surely some of them aren’t time travelers have noticed how out of place she was? So that bothered me.
There were several things that made no sense in this, and James doesn’t even try to explain (I get that she has science degrees, yay, but the science seems thin imo. She is tangled in the practical sciency bits and the romantic possibilities, which contributes to the chaotic, all-over-the-place nature of the book; there is no attempt to bridge these dual possibilities, unlike what Graudin does so masterfully). The plot lacks coherency; it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and contorts strangely to involve documents and explanations for The Next Together. It works only because it is clamped to the events of that book, and not because it has any meaning on its own. It’s a shallow sort of book, and my lack of engagement with it reflects that.
I also found the writing exceptionally juvenile. It could be that I’m getting too old for YA, but there are such swathes of sophisticated YA with elegant writing that it’s hard to blame that. Lines like “she had never expected anything like this to ever happen to her”, or “she was never going to talk to Meg ever again” felt overwrought, excessively dramatic. Maybe it’s just Clove’s voice. And everything the parents (Jen and Tom) say is blatant and cheesy. I mean, the writing got the job done, but it certainly grated at me in places.
I didn’t mind the characters. That is, they were idiots, but they were lovable idiots. We have Clove, teen with a mission! and lots of moaning and melodrama, but that comes with the territory. There’s Spart, your average robot with a personality; Ella, mysterious for no reason; and the various Katherine and Matt’s, adorkable and straightforward. Because the documents make it clear that Ella and Clove are endgame, I never felt invested in their relationship. None of the characters were very dynamic, but they were probably too confused by the time travel.
I think I sound angry at this book, and I’m really not. It was not entirely without merit; the fact that I finished it says that alone. It just…oh, I don’t know. Rubbed me up the wrong way. All of these reviews are so positive, and I didn’t find that as I read. The Last Beginning is tangled in the beginnings and the legends; it doesn’t take a step back and see the bigger picture and that, to me, was the saddest thing about it.

Well that was quite ranty! whoops… I think it’s really hard to get time travel books right and maybe (just maybe) I have high standards. anyway have you read this? and what’s a book that was ruined in details for you?

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone: Settings vs. Character

Hi Virtually Readers! It’s almost Christmas oh my goodness! I am in New Zealand now which is bizarre but I’m dealing with it. However, I do have a lot of things going on in my life, so I’m not sure how active I’m going to be blogwise for January–but I’m still trying to make Setting in Stone happen. And I would be delighted (not to mention surprised) if you, yes you, joined in. In my last post I mentioned that I was going to write a post about diversity of seting vs. diversity of character. I have not planned this at all but here we go.

Continue reading “Setting in Stone: Settings vs. Character”

book review · books · Shar

#minireviews The Upside of doing Truths and Dares

Hi Virtually Readers! I haven’t mini-reviewed in ageess, but I’m in that kind of mood, so here are two YA contemporaries that deal with very different themes but are both rather good. Also, warning: these reviews have a slightly varied writing style. I don’t know why. I’m just rolling with it. Also, these aren’t as mini as they should be! Oopsies. Continue reading “#minireviews The Upside of doing Truths and Dares”

books · discussions · features · shanti

Setting in Stone 4: Finding other settings

Hi Virtually Readers! Today, you are reading another episode of Setting in Stone, my discussion feature about how settings work. I started this whole thing with a post about the lack of variety of settings in YA novels, so today I’m going to find the flipside of that, and talk about how to find less common settings and how to support those books. Also, it’s hopefully going to be shorter than most of the posts in this series, but I make no promises. Continue reading “Setting in Stone 4: Finding other settings”

books · discussions · Shar

Two problems with the phrase ‘diverse’

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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!’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

book review · books · shanti

A Quiet Kind of Thunder (my heart, beating)

Hi Virtually Readers! Today is a review day, and I’m reviewing the truly excellent A Quiet Kind of Thunder, which I loved (so much that I immediately went and got the author’s other book from the library) The narrative was nuanced, Steffi an appealing main character, and otherwise it blended ‘cute’ and ‘contemplative’ very effective. These qualities totally made up for what was otherwise quite a predictable plot (the foreshadowing was as subtle as a sledgehammer)

Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.
Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder.

30197201Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

Barnard has obviously done lots of research, and that totally showed in the story. I’m not part of any the minorities–Deaf, black, anxiety, whatever, but I think she managed to not make a huge deal of ‘LOOK AT MY DIVERSITY’, it was just incorporated into the story of healing. I loved that the characters talked about how they found spaces of both exclusion and inclusion. Steffi’s mixed up family was also dealt with really well imo. I don’t know, I just felt like the whole narrative was honest, and the diversity was excellent–not ignored, but also not shoved in your face. I loved that I learnt quite a lot from the story too, especially about British Sign Language.
Steffi is a wonderful main character. She’s quiet, obviously, and aware of that. But she’s also so strong. I find that in a lot of ‘issue’ books, the character’s only flaw is the issue, which doesn’t make sense, because anxiety and so on are just part of who you are. But Steffi did get frustrated easily. She was over sensitive about things, and a bit self obsessed. She had problems in her relationship which she had to work out. She was not perfect, and that’s what made her such a delight to read. The strength of her character–her friendships, love of dogs, family, and desire to go to university–pulls this story together. It’s not a strong plot, but it’s how she overcomes obstacles and becomes more herself.
This book has the sweetness of first love, balanced by the rounder, fuller flavours of loss and mental illness and fear and how they intersect with life. This balance worked so well for me. The book is addictive, a perfect full meal that is enjoyable the whole way through. It made me happy to read, and I loved that so much. The different elements of the narrative combine in really wonerful ways–not too overwhelming, just lovely and fits-just-right.
The plot is kind of non-existent, but this was very enjoyable and well thought out and I love all the characters, so that makes it worth it. I’m so glad I read A Quiet Kind of Thunder, and recommend it to anyone who wants to read about dealing with anxiety, and falling in love, and most of all, learning to listen.

books · discussions · shanti

Wanted: Settings from Elsewhere (ideally, ownvoices)

Good day, Virtually Readers! (I’m trying to mix up the greeting, clearly at risk of sounding like a stuck up 19th century nobleperson) I love love love talking about settings (did The Bookish Planet or my guest post at The Silver Words clue you in?) so today I thought I’d talk about why I’m sick of some settings. (I kind of alluded to this in my North of Happy post) Also, why setting matters so much. I kind of did this in my ‘exotic’ post, but you know, it’s been a while and I’ve had more ideas. So.

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Firstly, some settings I’m sick of

  • small town America
  • New York
  • LA
  • Medium sized town America
  • Boston
  • Rural America
  • actually anywhere in America
  • London
  • anywhere in Europe if the character is not European
  • Cruise ships
  • magical islands
  • magical forests
  • Medival European fantasy worlds

These settings aren’t inherently bad. There are a lot of people who live there—in fact, that probably includes most of the people who read and buy YA. But for me, who has never been to America, who hasn’t spent much time in Europe, I find that these settings don’t describe my lived experience. That’s fine. I have a vivid imagination; I can imagine myself in those places. In fact, at this point, I basically feel like I’ve been there. But I wish that there were more settings outside these narrative boundaries.

What makes me really sad is when stories bend to these expectations. A story doesn’t have to be #ownvoices for setting, but I’ve seen New Zealand, Australian, British, Mexican and Indian writers set their stories in the US, when the settings could just have been the countries they come from, which I’d prefer. I don’t know why this is; maybe they write it that way, maybe the setting proved a point, maybe the publisher asked for it. But it seems like a power imbalance to me.

When you belong to the setting you’re writing, it’s going to be more authentic. It’ll have details that generic, nameless settings won’t. That makes a difference to me, even if it’s not a setting I’m familiar with.

So I’m going to segway into part two: some settings that I do want to see more of—or that I wish existed.

  • South American settings/inspired tales. There are an okay number of Latinx characters in YA books, but very few Latin settings. Give me a story in the Yucatan peninsula or Bolivian highlands or Colombian coffee plantations or Atacama desert.
  • Sci-fi and dystopia that is outside of the US and is international. Something that always troubles me about dystopias like The Hunger Games and Divergent is that they never mention other countries. I want more stories like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (futuristic South Africa).
  • Contemporary Middle Eastern stories. This goes for China as well: there are lots of fantasies that use elements from these cultures, but I want more. (I’m very demanding)
  • More #ownvoices fantasy, with Pacifika people, or maybe Caribbean, like Brown Girl in the Ring.

I don’t really know what this post is about. The need for #ownvoices settings, I suppose. And that’s really on the publishing industry, what they decide is sellable. But readers are the ones who buy, and if I don’t buy bland American settings, if I buy ones like the ones I’ve described, or even ones I can’t imagine, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi or dystopia, I can make a difference.

I’m a good like individualistic capitalist. The corporations are fond of me. (Sorry, I’m reading Beauty Queens right now and anarchy is on the mind)

I have a lot more to say about setting and why it’s important to me but I have a lot more time to say it, so I’m going to leave this here.

Do you like your settings to be ownvoices? What’s a setting you’d love to read about? (and yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘the place where I live’) Tell me in the comments!