Sunday, March 1, 2015

YA Guy Talks History

YA Guy's currently reading the bestseller by Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See. It tells the interweaving tales of two young people, one a blind French girl living through the Nazi occupation of her homeland, the other an orphaned German boy who's both an electronics genius and a recruit in one of the Reich's elite paramilitary corps. It's very well written, of course, and tells an intriguing story. I'm about a third done, so I'm not ready for a full review yet. But I'll admit I find one aspect of the book deeply troubling.

Doerr's book distributes sympathy evenly among the suffering French and the (supposedly) equally suffering "ordinary Germans" who are taken advantage of by Hitler's regime. Poor youth like orphaned Werner are abused, terrorized, and victimized by their ruthless Nazi overlords, while back in Werner's home, chronic poverty among the German masses contrasts starkly with the wealth of unscrupulous Nazi officials. To which I say:

Nonsense.

Obviously, not every German benefited from Nazism. But most did. While those who were directly persecuted by the Nazis were relocated, incarcerated, or exterminated, the vast majority of "ordinary Germans" saw rising employment, sinking taxes, and a booming economy. It's one reason so very many "ordinary Germans" enthusiastically supported Hitler and the Nazis, even during wartime. The idea that most Germans opposed the Nazis but were afraid to speak their minds is a myth that's been exploded by modern historians. Only when the war started to go badly--that is, only when they started to suffer in ways similar to the human beings their society had persecuted--did significant numbers of Germans begin to grumble about the Party and its leader.

I think it's important to set the record straight on this, because there have now been not one but two massive American bestsellers based on the proposition that Nazism was a terrible trial not only for its millions of victims but for the German people as a whole. The first of these books was The Book Thief; now there's All The Light We Cannot See. Neither of these books is, strictly speaking, YA; but both have young protagonists and appeal to young readers. While there's nothing inherently wrong with books like this, I can't help thinking we're seeing a revisionist strain in young people's understanding of the Holocaust, and I also can't help thinking it's rooted in the tendency of books for young readers to reduce the complexity of how totalitarian societies actually work.

Think about Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Harry Potter series, or President Snow and the Capitol in The Hunger Games, or any of a number of comparable YA or MG dystopian novels. The understanding of totalitarianism in these books is that a very small, ruling elite reaps all the benefits while everyone else silently suffers. While there are some historical examples where that model more or less applies--Stalin's Soviet Union being the most obvious, and the one George Orwell's 1984 used to set the pattern for dystopian literature--I find it disturbing to see this model creeping into the literary representation of the Holocaust. It's almost as if the tropes of dystopian YA have been read onto the historical record, rather than history being used to inform the tropes of historical YA.

Maybe I'm wrong about all this (hey, it's been known to happen). Maybe my reading of Holocaust literature for young people is too limited (though I've read quite a lot of it over the years); maybe two examples don't a trend make. If so, I'd love to hear some examples of YA novels that tell the true story of Nazi Germany--the story of "ordinary Germans" benefiting from, and for the most part suffering no qualms over, the incalculable suffering of those who were the Reich's true victims.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer!

In YA Guy's previous post, I said I review only those books I can recommend. And that's certainly the case with today's review of Nancy Farmer's THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION.

Not that Farmer's book needs my recommendation. It's a bestseller, a multiple-award winner (the Newbery Honor, the National Book Award, and the Printz), and, so I've heard, a movie-in-the-works. My older brother, who unabashedly admits he never reads anything but the sports page, read it and loved it.

And there's lots to love. The concept is intriguing: in a future drug empire carved out between the United States and the former Mexico, the drug lord Matteo Alacran (known as El Patron) creates a clone of himself, Matt, for unknown purposes. Told from Matt's point of view as the boy grows up in a society that treats clones as inhuman beasts, the story traces Matt's journey to manhood. The surrounding cast of characters--including the sympathetic bodyguard Tam Lin, Matt's surrogate mother Celia, and his playmate and social conscience Maria--are all well rendered; the science fiction world is wildly imaginative and, for the most part, coherent. I have no hesitation in recommending this book; chances are very high that you'll like it a lot.

But here's the thing: I didn't.

For all its strengths enumerated above, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION never caught fire for me. I didn't connect with Matt as I expected to, and I didn't find the narrative, whereby he discovers the evil machinations that lie behind his birth and his patron's empire, compelling. I recognized how well written the book is, and I completed it in hopes I would connect with it at some point, but I never did.

What does this mean?

Nothing earth-shaking. It simply means this wasn't the book for me. More broadly, it means that no matter how good a book is, no matter how worthy of recommendation--and remember, I am recommending this book, because I appreciate its strengths even if they didn't work for me--some people won't like it. That's just the nature of reading.

Those of us who are authors wish everyone would love our books as much as we do. We relish the positive reviews and feedback, and we cringe when the negative reviews come in. But we have to accept the reality that the reader-book connection is a very individualized and idiosyncratic thing; readers who might love a book similar to ours might hate ours, and vice versa. Or they might hate our book when they're fifteen then come back to it when they're thirty and love it. Or vice versa. There are too many variables involved to predict a particular reader's reaction to a particular book at a particular time, and so we'd probably be better off not trying.

We'd definitely be better off just writing. The reading part will take care of itself.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

YA Guy Discusses... Reviews, Then and Now!

When it comes to book reviews, the conventional wisdom is that the internet and social media have opened up a Pandora's box of nasty, vicious, knee-jerk responses. Back in the day, some believe, when book reviews were published only in newspapers and such, book reviewing was so much more polite and reasoned; but today, with anyone who has access to the internet able to broadcast their reviews, the craft has sunk straight into the gutter.

YA Guy says: nonsense.

Book reviewing has always lent itself to nastiness, pettiness, and spite. Take the case of Herman Melville. His early novels, including the adventure stories Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were widely read and positively reviewed (except in the powerful Protestant press, which raged against Melville's attacks on South Seas missionaries). But then along came Moby-Dick (1851), the book most people today agree is his greatest novel--indeed, some will argue, the greatest novel in the English language. Here's a sample of what reviewers said about it:

This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. . . . The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English. . . . Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise. . . . Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature,--since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.

[Melville's novel] is phantasmal--an attempted description of what is impossible in nature and without probability in art; it repels the reader instead of attracting him.

There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic.

Both the story and the style are sufficiently absurd.

[The novel reveals Melville's] old extravagance, running a perfect muck throughout the three volumes, raving and rhapsodizing in chapter after chapter--unchecked, as it would appear, by the very slightest remembrance of judgment or common sense, and occasionally soaring into such absolute clouds of phantasmal unreason, that we seriously and sorrowfully ask ourselves whether this can be anything other than sheer moonstruck lunacy.

The book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. . . . [Captain Ahab's] ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico against all the parties.

Had enough?

Though the above reviews differ in degree of vehemence, they all point toward one end: accusing Melville of insanity. How's that for the polite literary culture of days gone by?

Now, in point of fact, Melville probably did suffer from mental illness (likely bipolar disorder), and he probably did produce parts of Moby-Dick during periods of mania. He also suffered from alcohol abuse, possibly an attempt to medicate himself in the days before effective treatments for mental illness were available.

But come on! These reviews absolutely crushed Melville, and they effectively killed his career; he produced a couple more novels, but the critical bandwagon had decreed him a lunatic, and his increasingly metafictional prose met no favor there. He more or less retired from writing, though he did produce some good Civil War poems (which no one read) and one great novella, Billy Budd, which was published posthumously. The vitriol of the reviewers, in other words, was one factor that deprived generations of readers of experiencing Melville's existing works, and deprived all of us of the works he might have written had his career flourished.

This is one reason that, as a writer, I review only those books I can heartily recommend. (Occasionally, with a classic work where my review can't possibly harm the author's reputation or career, I'll indulge in polite critique.) I don't want to play any part in harming a fellow writer, a fellow human being. We're told as writers to develop thick skins, and we do try--but we're people too, and reviews like the ones Melville received really, really hurt.

On the other hand, if you're suffering the sting of a negative review at the moment, you can perhaps be thankful you didn't receive this one:

The Judgment Day will hold him liable for not turning his talents to better account. . . . The book-maker and the book-publisher had better do their work with a view to the trial it must undergo at the bar of God.

Yes, that's a reviewer condemning Herman Melville to eternal damnation for writing Moby-Dick. Compared to that, today's innuendo and f-bombs seem positively polite.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

YA Guy Hosts... Kai Strand's SUPER BAD Cover Reveal!

It's always a pleasure to welcome Kai Strand to the blog! Today, YA Guy hosts her cover reveal for SUPER BAD, the conclusion to the Super Villain Academy series. Check out the cover, read the excerpt, enter the giveaway, and pre-order a copy of Kai's latest!
 
 

Watch out. Things are about to get really bad.

Excerpt from Super Bad:

Looking around the room Sandra asked, “Is this an FVA party? It seems too far away.”
“No. SVA. You didn’t even know which school’s party you were crashing?” Disdain dripped from Oceanus’s words.
The condescending tone was too much. Hadn’t she been nice to Oceanus when she dropped by unexpectedly? Anger surged inside Sandra. “What does it even matter? The schools are all balanced now anyway. Thanks to you!”
Lexa’s mouth dropped open.
Oceanus clenched her fists. “I told you, I had nothing to do with it.”
Before Sandra could spit back a reply, a boy sidled up to Oceanus, his eyes scanning the partygoers.
“Hey, babe. Those mozzarella things you made were a huge hit. Can you make more?” The boy ran his hand down her back and finally dropped his gaze to Oceanus. “What’s wrong?”
He followed her glower and squinted at Sandra. “Do I know you?”
“Aaaahhh!” Sandra yelled. “You arrogant jerk.”
She spun toward Lexa, who was all but drooling over the boy. “Let’s go!”
“What?” Lexa exclaimed.
The boy frowned. “So obviously I’m supposed to know you.”
“Set, it’s Sandra. Polar’s sister,” Oceanus grumbled.
“Ah, right. You cut your hair,” he said.
“Yeah, one does that after it’s burned off!” Sandra tugged on Lexa’s arm. “We can’t stay here.”

SUPER BAD The unexpected conclusion to the Super Villain Academy series.

The world is in chaos. Violence and thievery reign. And with the supers still balanced, it’s only getting worse. Without good versus evil, the supers care less and less. In order to restore purpose, the world needs its super heroes and its super villains, but the one who balanced them in the first place is missing.

Sandra’s concern over finding her brother, Jeff, isn’t her only problem. Her pathetic excuse for super powers has left her needing a new ankle. And though she’s still very much committed to her boyfriend, Source, she’s growing unreasonably attracted to Set, the boy who double crossed Jeff by stealing his girlfriend.

When Sandra is taken and held as bait by kids who want to unbalance the super world, it becomes the inciting event that changes things for supers everywhere and forces them to answer the question, “Hero or villain?”
 
***
 
Super Bad is scheduled for release in June, but there have been whispers of it releasing sooner. Don’t miss out. Subscribe to Kai’s mailing list and be among the first to know.
 
***

King of Bad - Jeff Mean would rather set fires than follow rules. He wears his bad boy image like a favorite old hoodie; until he learns he has superpowers and is recruited by Super Villain Academy – where you learn to be good at being bad. Is Jeff bad enough for SVA?
Polar Opposites - Heroes and villains are balanced. After Oceanus is kidnapped, Jeff learns the supers are so balanced, they no longer care to get involved. Ironically Jeff’s superpowers are spiraling out of control. Will they find Oci before he looses it completely, and will they find her alive?
 
***
 
Win a $10 Amazon gift card or an ecopy of either King of Bad or Polar Opposites. Plenty of chances to win. Open internationally. Enter here:
a Rafflecopter giveaway


About the author:

When her children were young and the electricity winked out, Kai Strand gathered her family around the fireplace and they told stories, one sentence at a time. Her boys were rather fond of the ending, “And then everybody died. The end.” Now an award winning children’s author, Kai crafts fiction for kids and teens to provide an escape hatch from their reality. With a selection of novels for young adult and middle grade readers and short stories for the younger ones, Kai entertains children of all ages, and their adults. Learn more about Kai and her books on her website, www.kaistrand.com.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

YA Guy Hosts... Kat Ross's SOME FINE DAY giveaway!

Kat Ross is giving away some goodies to celebrate the February 17th release of her YA thriller from Skyscape, SOME FINE DAY! The Grand Prize is a Kindle Paperwhite with a custom cover, with second and third prizes of two signed copies and two CD audiobooks.


Here's the synopsis:

A generation ago, continent-sized storms called hypercanes caused the Earth to flood. The survivors were forced to retreat deep underground and build a new society.

This is the story that sixteen-year-old Jansin Nordqvist has heard all of her life.

Jansin grew up in a civilization far below the Earth’s surface. She’s spent the last eight years in military intelligence training. So when her parents surprise her with a coveted yet treacherous trip above ground, she’s prepared for anything. She’s especially thrilled to feel the fresh air, see the sun, and view the wide-open skies and the ocean for herself.

But when raiders attack Jansin’s camp and take her prisoner, she is forced to question everything she’s been taught. What do her captors want? How will she get back underground? And if she ever does, will she want to stay after learning the truth?

Some Fine Day is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can find more reader reviews on Goodreads.


About the author:

Kat Ross was born and raised in New York City and worked several jobs before turning to journalism and creative writing. An avid traveler and adventurer, she now lives with her family—along with a beagle, a ginger cat, and six fish—far enough outside the city that skunks and deer wander through her backyard.

You can find Kat on Twitter and her website.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... THE PREY by Tom Isbell!


YA Guy’s been waiting for Tom Isbell’s THE PREY for a long time.

I first learned of Isbell’s debut YA novel way back in 2012, when I was agent-hunting for my own debut. The concept immediately gripped me: a post-apocalyptic society, the Republic of the True America, in which teenage males referred to as LTs (Less Thans) are raised to be hunted by the elite. It’s got HUNGER GAMES qualities to it, sure, but also an original flair. Sounded like just the thing for YA Guy.

Well, now I’ve read it at last. And it was worth the wait.

THE PREY is narrated in alternating chapters by Book, a scholarly LT, and Hope, a teenage girl who’s been subjected to twisted experiments in the perversely named Camp Freedom. (The LTs, meanwhile, are housed in Camp Liberty.) When the mysterious Cat, a teenager who seems to know the inner workings of the LT system, appears in Camp Liberty, some of the boys plan a prison break, hoping to find their way to a nearby territory where they can seek shelter from the ruthless Republic regime. Joining forces with Hope and some of her fellow inmates, they set out on a dangerous journey across a landscape ravaged by a past nuclear war, with the Hunters hot on their trail.

This is a grim book, and Isbell doesn’t pull any punches. The Republic of the True America is Nazi Germany revisited, with its storm troopers, concentration camps, human experimentation, and plans for wholesale extermination of “undesirables.” But the horrors of this world are redeemed by the simple faith of Book and the desperate courage of Hope, two appealing characters who fight for what little good is left in the world. Readers will identify strongly with them and root for them as the non-stop-action plot unfolds toward its measured conclusion.

Isbell’s writing is spare and straightforward, his command of dialogue (not surprisingly for an active playwright) impressive. There’s not a scene in this book that isn’t expertly paced for maximum effect. And as in the best YA, there’s always a light that shines through the darkness, leading the characters and the readers on.

There were a couple of elements to this book I didn’t care for. The alternating perspectives (first-person past tense for Book, third-person present for Hope) made sense when the two were separate, but when they joined forces, the switching seemed redundant. And though Book and Hope are highly likable in themselves, the romance between them seemed perfunctory and routine: boy and girl see each other, can’t stop thinking about each other, share a kiss, encounter a conflict in the form of girl’s attraction to another guy, etc. Partly that’s just me: I don’t see why every YA, even dystopian science fiction, needs to have a romance. But I do feel in this case that if the romance needed to be there, it could have been handled more originally.

But hey, those are minor quibbles about a book this rich, compelling, and readable. I sped through its 400 pages in three days, which is unknown for me. There will be sequels, though I’m not sure of the publication dates.

So now I guess I have to wait again!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

YA Guy Rants about... Self-Publishing!

YA Guy's noticed a trend on the internet of late. (Or maybe it's been a trend for a long time, and I've been out of the loop.) It has to do with self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and it goes like this:

Self-publishing advocate (blogger, etc.) talks about how screwed up traditional publishing is. Then goes on to talk about what idiots the people are who don't self-publish. Then advises everyone who has half a brain to self-publish. Then says something else, though by that time I'm not paying attention anymore.

I've seen this in many places, but what really ticked me off was when I saw it on the blog of someone I know well (and who knows my book is traditionally published). He opined that the only "rational" choice is to self-publish.

In other words, I'm irrational. As is everyone else with books from traditional (large, small, whatever) publishers.

WTF?

Look, I don't go around saying self-publishers are irrational. I don't say word one about the quality of their books, much less their brains. If people want to self-publish, it doesn't in any way threaten me, so why should I criticize their choice?

Do self-publishers feel threatened by traditionalists? Maybe. Do they feel envious? I don't know. Or are some of them just jerks who like to make fun of what other people are doing?

Beats me.

The reality is, the publishing world today offers a wealth of options. Depending on who you are, what you want, what you're willing to sacrifice (and all forms of publishing entail certain sacrifices), what you hope to gain, and a host of other factors, you'll make whatever decision you make. Sound advice from those who have tried one form of publishing or another is always welcome.

But can we stop acting like children? Can we stop with the name-calling and finger-pointing?

Okay, YA Guy's done. I'm going to go work on another irrational manuscript I irrationally hope someone equally irrational will irrationally decide to publish.