Sunday, August 23, 2015

YA Guy Reads... Historical Fiction!

YA Guy's always been a voracious reader. (Like, what author isn't?) Though there are certain genres I've focused on--YA and science fiction, most obviously--I've dipped into lots of others over the years, including biography and memoir, travel narratives, epic fantasy, mystery, and many more. I'm too restless a reader (and writer) to exclude anything!

So now, I find myself reading historical fiction, something I haven't done much of in the past. My new fascination with the genre is largely due to the fact that I've begun to write a historical novel myself, centered on Thoreau and his relationship with abolitionist John Brown. I'm discovering that there's some really good stuff out there, and while I'm in the thick of it, I thought I'd share it with you here.

Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown. Ralph Waldo Emerson was married twice, first to Ellen Tucker, who died shortly after their marriage from tuberculosis, and then to Lydia Jackson, who bore him four children and lived with him through the rest of his life. This novel is told from Lydia's point of view, and it delves into the frustrations of being a woman in the nineteenth century, even (or especially) when one is the wife of a famous man. Though it's a bit disconcerting to delve into Emerson's intimate life, the book does a good job of humanizing characters whom most people think of as pure symbols or icons.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. There are many novels written about John Brown, and this one, which won the National Book Award, is well worth reading. Purporting to be the narrative of an escaped slave who rode with Brown in Kansas and survived his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (no such person actually existed), the novel seeks to deflate the Brown myth through comedy and satire. I wasn't crazy about that at first, but the book gains richness and resonance as it goes on.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Told in alternating points of view by Sarah Grimke, a southern slaveholder who became an abolitionist, and Handful, one of Sarah's slaves, this Oprah's Book Club novel does an excellent job of portraying the lives of antebellum women, black and white. For me, it bogged down a bit in the middle with its focus on Sarah's romantic entanglements, but it picked up thereafter, weaving other historical figures expertly into the tapestry of Sarah and Handful's lives.

Raising Holy Hell by Bruce Olds. Another John Brown novel, this one a kind of postmodern pastiche that combines actual quotations, newspaper clippings, slave laws, and other historical material with an inventive, fictionalized portrait of Brown. While I didn't agree with the author's representation of Brown as a complete madman, I found the technique intriguing.

Woodsburner by John Pipkin. Based on an actual event in which a young Thoreau accidentally burned down part of the Concord woods he so loved, this novel felt particularly well researched to me. Its cast of characters includes not only Thoreau but an opium-addicted minister and a businessman who discovers the new art of photography (and thereafter trades in pornographic images). You'll have to read it yourself to see how all of these strands tie together!

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. Yet another John Brown novel, this time narrated by Brown's son Owen, who accompanied his father to Virginia but stayed behind at Harpers Ferry and thus survived the raid. I haven't finished this book, mostly because it's nearly eight hundred pages long (!!!), but it promises to be another good read.

So there you have it! If you know of any other good historical novels--especially ones focusing on Thoreau, Brown, the Transcendentalists, and/or antebellum slavery--drop me a line!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

YA Guy Celebrates... SURVIVAL COLONY 9 in paperback (plus a giveaway!)

The paperback edition of SURVIVAL COLONY 9 comes out September 1, and to celebrate, YA Guy’s offering some goodies to readers. Here’s how it works:

Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below. Provide me your mailing address in the free entry tab, and I’ll send you signed SC9 swag (bookmarks, postcards, and bookplate)!

But wait! It gets better. You’ll also be entered in a grand prize drawing to win one of three signed copies of the SC9 sequel, SCAVENGER OF SOULS, which releases in summer 2016!

And it gets even better! For each of the next three Rafflecopter options that you select (following me on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog), you’ll get an additional entry for the grand prize drawing!

Okay, now you’re saying, “it couldn’t get any better,” right? But you’d be wrong! If you preorder a paperback copy of SURVIVAL COLONY 9 before the September 1 release date (from Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, or any other retailer), you’ll get FIVE additional entries for the grand prize drawing! All I need you to do is select that option on the Rafflecopter giveaway and then send proof of purchase (screen capture, jpeg, etc.) to, and you’ll get the extra five entries.

So, to sum up:
  • Leave me your address for signed swag and one entry in the grand prize drawing.
  • Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog for additional entries.
  • Preorder the paperback of SURVIVAL COLONY 9 and email me proof of purchase for an additional five grand prize entries.

The contest runs from today until the day before the paperback release date: August 31, 2015.

So, what are you waiting for? There’s only a month left!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

YA Guy Hosts... Laura Lee Anderson, author of SONG OF SUMMER!

Pittsburgh is home to lots of great kidlit authors, and one of the newest is Laura Lee Anderson, whose YA debut, SONG OF SUMMER, releases as an e-book today! Let's hear from Laura as she tells us about her book and about one of the main characters, whose deafness plays a key role in the story!

song of summer cover

The thirteen qualities of Robin’s Perfect Man range from the mildly important “Handsome” to the all-important “Great taste in music.” After all, Westfield’s best high school folk musician can’t go out with some shmuck who only listens to top 40 crap. When hot Carter Paulson walks in the door of Robin’s diner, it looks like the list may have come to life. It’s not until the end of the meal that she realizes he’s profoundly deaf. Carter isn’t looking for a girlfriend. Especially not a hearing one. Not that he has anything against hearing girls, they just don’t speak the same language. But when the cute waitress at Grape Country Dairy makes an effort to talk with him, he takes her out on his yellow Ducati motorcycle. Music, language, and culture sing back-up as love takes the melody, but just how long can a summer song last?

From the first moments that I envisioned Song of Summer, I knew that I wanted it to be in dual point of view- from Robin's perspective as well as from Carter's perspective. Which meant I had to do a LOT of research. I'm not deaf, I didn't have any deaf friends, and it had been a long time since third grade, when I taught myself the ASL alphabet so I could communicate with my best friend during Library class. Here are some things I learned about deaf culture while I was researching Song of Summer:

1) Sign language cannot be written. Like, it CANNOT be written. It is a visual language. Direct word-for-word translations are incorrect because facial expressions and body language are SO important! All of Carter's (and his family's) signed sentences are translated into English in the books because they have to be! It's impossible to write sign!

2) People who are deaf deal with: Hearing people questioning their driving ability/right to drive, hearing people shouting at them, hearing people offering them Braille menus, hearing people staring at them, hearing people showing them the one (rude) sign that they know... the list goes on. I tried to incorporate these into the book to educate hearing people on all the crap that people who are deaf go through! Go here to see more! (warning: swearing in video)

3) There are different stages and types of deafness. Most people who are deaf have some hearing available to them. The idea that people who are deaf have absolutely no hearing is usually false. Carter has next to no hearing and tells Robin that he's in the minority because of it.

4) Hearing aids are completely different from cochlear implants. So much so, that when I originally had Carter explain a cochlear implant as, "a really invasive, high-tech hearing aid," one of my friends corrected me. She told me that it would never be described as a hearing aid because the two are so different. Rather, it would be described as a "device that helps with hearing." So that's what Carter calls it in the book now! Also, cochlear implants are covered by medical insurance. Hearing aids are not usually.

I learned a lot more when I was preparing to write Song of Summer, and I am blessed to have learned a lot of it from the wonderful people at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where I took two semesters of ASL classes and got to know some great people. One of my favorite experiences is chronicled here: When I arrived to the first class 15 minutes late and nobody was allowed to speak.

If you want to read more about Carter and his culture, go ahead and... Click here to order on Kindle from Amazon. Click here to order on Nook from Barnes and Noble. Click here to order from Kobo. Click here to order from ibooks.

Thanks, Laura! If you want to learn more about Laura and her writing, visit her website!

Friday, July 3, 2015

YA Guy Talks about... Faith in YA Fiction!

You might have noticed that YA Guy's been quiet recently; that's because I was on vacation with my family in Moab, Utah, right near Arches National Park. (Very similar to the landscape I imagined for SURVIVAL COLONY 9 and its sequel, by the way.) During our week-long visit, we stayed in the house where Edward Abbey wrote parts of his environmental classic DESERT SOLITAIRE. Though the temperature was in the 100s all week--hey, it's the desert, right?--it's easy to see why Abbey saw this area as a profoundly beautiful, spiritual place.

Interestingly, the two YA books I took on my trip both deal seriously with spiritual matters. That's fairly rare in YA, where faith and spirituality tend to be caricatured as oppressive adjuncts of the Regime or the Older Generation. By contrast, both Kelly Loy Gilbert's CONVICTION and Stephanie Oakes's THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY treat religious belief as complex and conflicted--capable of causing harm, to be sure, but also capable of offering redemption and grace. The books share a great deal in common: not only are both about faith and fanaticism, but both center around murder mysteries and the secrets that keep families together (and tear them apart). Perhaps most importantly, both are terrific debuts that deserve a wide readership.

CONVICTION tells the story of Braden Raynor, a top high-school pitching prospect whose father--a religious talk-show personality--is accused of killing a police officer. While his father is in jail awaiting trial, Braden's older brother Trey, long estranged from the family, comes to take care of his younger brother. Tensions mount as Braden struggles to renew his relationship with Trey, to prepare for an all-important baseball game, and to provide testimony during his father's trial--testimony that may either doom or save the man who's been both Braden's rock and his tormentor his entire life.

Gilbert is an exceptionally fine prose stylist, and her glowing sentences work perfectly for this story of people struggling to find light in the darkness of their lives. Braden and Trey are both remarkably well-rendered characters--but even more remarkably, their father, who could easily have devolved into caricature, emerges as a fully human being, at once grandiose and self-loathing, loving and manipulative, inspirational and horrifying. The enigmas of faith, the human desire to find meaning and certainty even at the greatest of costs, are played out brilliantly as the story shifts back and forth in time, giving us glimpses into Braden's troubled relationship with his father and brother. If I have any reservation about the book, it's that some of the baseball material doesn't feel quite right--the language and scenarios sound more like the work of an educated fan than of an actual player like Braden. (This wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that for Braden, faith and baseball are integrally connected.) But that's a minor complaint about a book that's otherwise so rich and rewarding.

THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY was originally scheduled for a 2014 publication, so I've been waiting for it a long time. When I heard that the story was loosely based on a Grimm fairy tale about a handless maiden, I expected the book to be fantasy--but it's not. Instead, it's a realistic story of a teenage girl, Minnow, who escapes a brutal religious cult only to find herself incarcerated in a juvenile facility after she commits a violent crime that may have been induced by her traumatic past. As with Gilbert's book, SACRED LIES moves back and forth in time as Minnow recalls her life as a cult member, her growing doubt in the cult's charismatic leader, and the loss of her hands as punishment for her disobedience. It's a chilling story, and a complex one to tell--indeed, at times the temporal shifts struck me as a bit awkward. But if more lurid and macabre than CONVICTION, the book is equally adept at exploring the paradoxes of belief; Oakes's great strength as a writer lies in getting under the skin of people who'll risk everything for their faith, even their own and their loved ones' lives. Minnow's story is heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting, and it'll keep readers up at night not only while they're reading but after they're done.

Turns out I couldn't have taken two better books along on my western pilgrimage. I look forward to more explorations of faith (and other subjects) from these talented YA writers!

Friday, June 19, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... Non-YA Books!

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, YA Guy's taking a little break from YA this summer. Maybe that's because I've read over 150 YA books in the past three years (plus writing several more), and I felt a need to read outside my genre. Personally, I think YA writers need to read widely; I think you can learn a lot about writing YA by reading things that aren't YA. But leaving aside the benefits as a writer, it's just fun to read other stuff from time to time.

Last summer, I read non-YA science fiction. This summer, I'm focusing on classics. I've read only two in the past month--they take longer to read than YA!--but they've definitely been worth it.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Way back in graduate school, I taught a class on science fiction, including H. G. Wells's novel The Invisible Man. My graduate mentor visited my class on the day I was discussing the Wells novel, and she was totally confused because she thought I was teaching the Ellison book! But I hadn't read it at that point, and I didn't read it until this summer.

It's a pretty zany book. Some of the scenes--such as the oft-anthologized Battle Royal or the scene in the paint factory where the anonymous narrator's job is to mix black paint into white--are almost preposterously allegorical, and as such they have little realism. But other parts of the book--in particular, the Harlem episodes, including the narrator's struggles with the Brotherhood (a thinly-veiled Communist Party)--are striking as realistic representations of urban African-American experience in the middle of the past century. And the narrator's voice, at once learned and naive, bellicose and timid, hopeful and cynical, is one of the great inventions of American literature.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

You have to go even farther back in my history for my first encounter with this book. I read the Classics Illustrated version of it when I was nine or ten (the version pictured to the right), when my parents were trying to introduce me and my siblings to great literature. (That was the way I discovered a lot of classics I'd later read for real: Frankenstein, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and more.) I've read many Dickens novels since, but for some reason, I never read A Tale of Two Cities. So I decided it was time to take the plunge.

I'll admit, it took me a while to settle in to Dickens's verbose, orotund style. I've heard that Dickens protracted everything because he was paid by the word for his serialized fiction; whether true or not, it was a bit much to take at first. But once I got into the story, I was able to accept the style. Dickens produces some great set pieces, particularly those surrounding the events of the French Revolution, and some great characters, particularly the ominous Madame Defarge, who scares the hell out of her own creator but who I saw as a precursor of many "kick-butt" female characters of the present day. And the novel's title, I discovered to my surprise and delight, has less to do with the two physical cities in which the action takes place--Paris and London--than with the two metaphysical "cities" sometime protagonist Sydney Carton struggles between: the hellish city of selfish sensuality and the heavenly city of selfless sacrifice. I don't remember much from the old comic book, but I do remember Carton's ultimate action and concluding speech. They were powerful to me back then, and they're still powerful to this day.

So I think I'm going to read either Les Miserables or Crime and Punishment next. Then it'll be back to the great YA novels I've got waiting on my Kindle!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

YA Guy Lists... His Top Ten Superhero Movies!

YA Guy, being YA Guy, loves superheroes.

I read all the comics when I was a kid, drew my own characters (like the one pictured above), dreamed of becoming a comic-book artist like Jack Kirby or John Byrne (some of the biggest names in my day). When the movies started to come out in the eighties, I was first in line. Still am.

But the thing is, I'm becoming very disappointed in the direction superhero films are taking. I saw the latest Avengers installment today, and it was a huge let-down: too chaotic, too noisy, too full of unconvincing computer-generated mayhem and too-obvious philosophical truths (there is evil in all of us, etc.) at the expense of plot or character development. (In this respect it was only marginally worse than the first, which had all the above problems but a somewhat more coherent script.) Maybe I'm getting too old, and maybe I shouldn't complain if movies about caped deities seem immature. But the best superhero movies have always struck me as intense, inventive, and emotionally complex explorations of what it means to be human. They don't need to be sophomoric video games.

So here, for fun, is a list of my 10 favorite superhero movies. Enjoy, and feel free to suggest others!
  1. X-Men. By far the best of the bunch, this film about super-powered mutants is a trenchant analysis of prejudice and victimization with a brilliant cast, great special effects, and compelling story. The conflict between Magneto and Professor X is incisively drawn, the relationship between Wolverine and Rogue surprisingly tender. And some of the action sequences--most notably, Magneto's game of Russian Roulette at the train station--are utterly stunning.
  2. Spider-Man 2. I'm talking about the original series here, with Tobey Maguire in the lead role. I found this one of the most emotionally gripping of all superhero movies, with the hero struggling to reconcile his responsibilities with his desires. And the performance by Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus was amazing. Not surprisingly, novelist Michael Chabon shared story credits on this film.
  3. Batman. The Michael Keaton/Tim Burton original. Without lavish special effects, this film gets to the heart of the Batman mythos in ways the overblown Dark Knight films can't touch. Keaton was a surprising but perfect choice, Jack Nicholson was great as the Joker, and Burton managed to satisfy the demands of the genre while keeping his own eccentricities on a tight rein (something he failed to do in the bizarre sequel).
  4. Iron Man. The first and best of the three-part series (all of which are pretty darn good). I had a few problems with the film's politics--which seem to suggest that it's okay to produce weapons of mass destruction as long as they don't fall into the hands of the "bad guys"--but the great performance by Robert Downey Jr. and the gritty realism (for a film in this genre) redeem it.
  5. Daredevil. One of the things I've always disliked about the Dark Knight films (and comics) is their tedious repetition of the timeworn cliche that heroes and villains are actually the same deep inside. Yeah, yeah, yawn. But in Daredevil, vigilantism is represented with something like its true psychological complexity. Plus, the movie's villain--an over-the-top Bullseye--is hilarious.
  6. X-Men: First Class. Another classy chapter in the X-Men series (in truth, there's not a bad film in the bunch), this one anchored by the astonishing performance of Michael Fassbender as a young, tortured Magneto. The scene in which he confronts escaped Nazis in Argentina is worth the price of admission in itself.
  7. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In general, I don't see the need for all these "re-boots" of existing superhero movies. (I just heard that a new Fantastic 4 is coming out this summer.) And I didn't much care for the first installment of the new Spider-Man franchise, which seemed to add nothing to the old except an unconvincing green monkey-dog supposed to be the Lizard. But the second film in the new series hits all the right notes, with Jamie Foxx expertly cast as the bumbling loner-turned supervillain Electro, and with a surprise death at the end I never expected the filmmakers to have the guts to carry out.
  8. Guardians of the Galaxy. All right, this one is fairly chaotic, but at least it's chaotic in the name of fun and not in the super-serious, portentous fashion of so many overblown superhero flicks. The moment the hero entered a secret lair on  a remote planet to the tune of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," I was hooked.
  9. Spider-Man. The first film in the Tobey Maguire series. The Green Goblin as played by Willem Dafoe was a great villain, and the young actors did a terrific job of capturing teen angst and insecurity. The third film in this series had too many villains and too much stuff going on, but the first two are solid.
  10. The Incredibles. I'm cheating a bit here, since this Disney/Pixar film isn't based on a comic book. But I loved how deftly the film turned superhero conventions on their head while still paying homage to the spirit and style of the genre. Kind of an Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for the silver screen.
Yes, I know that's my second Michael Chabon reference in this post--and that's no mistake. Great superhero movies should aspire to the status of art, not just escapism. All of the above do precisely that.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... Climate Change Books!

Here's a little known fact: YA Guy has a passion for the environment.

Well, maybe that's not such a big secret. Some of my blog posts are environment-related; my novels are set in a desert world radically altered by environmental degradation; and I'm sure if you checked my Twitter feed or Facebook page you'd find environmental stuff there too.

But did you know I've been an environmental activist for almost ten years? And that the focus of my activism has been the fight against global warming?

It's true. Ever since I saw the film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, I've been involved in raising popular and political consciousness about the threat posed by a changing climate. I've organized and participated in marches and rallies, met with politicians, developed a regional citizens climate change network, hosted teach-ins on climate change, taught the subject in my college classes, sat on a local college board dedicated to reducing campus emissions, and done whatever else I could to highlight the issue of climate change and advocate for personal and political action to combat it. I sometimes feel I haven't done enough, but I've sure tried.

Nor do I see this side of me as inconsistent with being YA Guy. I believe (and the science backs me up) that climate change is the greatest challenge future generations will face. While my existing novels are not in any way political polemics (and none of my works-in-progress directly addresses climate change at all), I believe YA literature has a responsibility to dramatize this issue.

Lots of great YA books do just that: Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, Mindy McGinnis's Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, Sherri L. Smith's Orleans, Emmi Itaranta's Memory of Water, Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries, and many more recent YA books use climate change as either a backdrop or central feature of their fictions.

A new scholarly book by Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (2015), barely touches on YA (which is one of its weaknesses), but it's an interesting analysis of the emergence of climate-change fiction (which some, following the coinage of Dan Bloom, call "cli-fi," but which Trexler calls "anthropocene fiction"). Trexler asks two main questions: how can fiction help us to conceptualize and address the problems we're facing and will continue to face in a climate-changed world? And how will fiction itself be changed by the changing climate and all its ramifications? Though I take issue with Trexler's claim that there is "entirely too much science fiction" (6) among climate-change novels--as if science fiction is a poor substitute for realistic fiction rather than the thought-provoking genre it has always been--this review and analysis of anthropocene fiction is a welcome addition to the literature of (or about) climate change.

The same is true of journalist Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014). Klein argues that the truly inconvenient truth about climate change--something Al Gore's film refuses to admit--is that we can't meaningfully address the changing climate without radically restructuring the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of the society that has caused the problem. In other words, so long as we remain addicted to capitalism's mantra of limitless growth, we'll never be able to resist the fossil-fuel mania that is driving anthropogenic climate change. Klein argues that local economies, democratically organized, are a necessary alternative to our current global economy, an economy ruled by corporations whose sole mandate is greater profit even at the expense of people and planet. I tend to agree with Klein; the cheery idea that we can solve the problem utilizing the same models that produced the problem strikes me as fulfilling the classic definition of insanity. Whether we as a species can actually take the radical steps Klein advocates is, of course, another matter.

As a writer, an environmentalist, and a father, YA Guy certainly hopes we can.