Wednesday, May 29, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... TAKEN by Erin Bowman

Lots of exciting stuff going on at YA Guy today. For starters, I’ve created a new website! It’s really, really new--as in “started building it this morning” new--so it’s not full of bells and whistles just yet. But never fear, I’ll be putting up new content on a regular basis. So check it out, post a comment, and let me know what you think!

Also today, for my recurring Wednesday review feature, I bring you the novel Taken, Erin Bowman’s YA sci-fi debut.  And what a debut it is!

In the town of Claysoot, there are no adult males, because all boys disappear in a bright beam of light on their eighteenth birthday. This disappearance, which the townspeople call “The Heist,” is a complete mystery--because once you’re Heisted, you’re gone for good. The story begins as seventeen-year-old Gray Weathersby awaits the Heist of his older brother Blaine. Once Blaine is gone, further unexplained events lead Gray to climb the Wall surrounding Claysoot in search of answers. No one’s ever come back from climbing the Wall.  But maybe Gray will be different....

Well, of course he’ll be different, or there’d be no story. I’m not going to give anything else away, but suffice it to say he makes it over the Wall and discovers a lot of really cool stuff.

Taken is impressive in a number of ways. The writing is crisp and clean, as in this description of a crow feasting on a deer’s carcass: “The bird is a filthy thing: slick black feathers, a beak of oiled bone.” The characters are well rendered, and the pacing is fast (maybe even a bit too fast; Gray’s impulsiveness sometimes seemed excessive). The imagined world is intriguing and suitably original. At first I feared it bore too close a resemblance to the Holy Grail of YA, The Hunger Games--the Heist seemed reminiscent of the Reaping, while the narrator, Gray, is a hot-headed hunter who favors the bow and whose relationship with a sibling is central to the plot--but Bowman takes the story in new and surprising directions. The revelation of the mystery behind the Heist wasn’t quite as awesome as I’d hoped it would be, but it was awesome enough. Especially for a debut, Taken is good stuff.

But I hear the purists in the audience crying: “Wait a minute, this is YA Guy. Bowman isn’t a guy! How could she possibly write a GUY book?”  Let’s think this through.

First, Bowman is undeniably not a guy. Find her author photo online, and I think you’ll agree with me.

But that’s irrelevant, as I’ve said before. No sexual discrimination on this site, folks. I review books that I think guys (as well as non-guys) might like to read, and the gender of the author just doesn’t enter into the equation.

The narrator of Taken is a guy. In itself, that’s also irrelevant; guys can certainly read and enjoy books with female protagonists. But in the case of Taken, I was particularly impressed by Bowman’s ability to write from a male perspective. The voice of the teenage boy Gray felt very authentic to me--and having been a teenage boy, I’m something of an authority on the subject. Gray is strong-willed and temperamental, but he’s not some caricature of a guy, all full of raging hormones and sports clich├ęs. He’s a regular guy, and I liked him (and Taken) for that.

And finally, Taken isn’t simply told by a guy; the major conflict of the novel revolves around guys. With boys being Heisted at the young age of eighteen, Claysoot society has had to force young males into an unnatural and abbreviated adulthood: they become fathers a year or two before they become non-persons. As a father myself, one thing that really resonated with me about this book was how irrelevant men are to Claysoot: they never really get to know their children, to raise them, to participate in the economic or political or religious life of the community. They’re breeders, essentially, whose job is done once they’ve helped perpetuate the species. Whether this was Bowman’s commentary on absentee fatherhood or a way to dramatize the twisted effects of sexual segregation, it rang true to me.

Some YA novels, like Gennifer Albin’s Crewel, imagine future worlds where women are reduced to irrelevance.  Taken imagines a world where the same thing happens to men. And in both cases, it’s a nightmare.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

YA Guy Interviews… YA Guy!

If all goes according to plan, in the not-so-distant future I’ll be interviewing YA writers, agents, editors, bloggers, and others on this site!

But for now, since I’m just starting out, I decided to interview myself.  You know, so you could get to know me better.

And so, without further ado....

YA Guy: So, YA Guy, tell us a bit about yourself and your path to publication.

YA Guy: Gosh, this is so awkward.

YAG: Just relax and pretend you’re talking to yourself.

YAG: Okay.  (Deep breath.)  Well, I’m a guy who writes YA fiction.  But it was not always thus.

I got a Ph.D. in American literature almost twenty years ago, and for a really long time I wrote academic books, full of citations and convoluted syntax and multisyllabic words.  I loved it, too: very stimulating intellectually, very exciting to participate in a field of knowledge.  But several years back, I decided I’d done enough in that vein, and it was time to move on.  I wanted to get back to the kind of writing I’d loved ever since I was a kid: fiction!  And so that’s exactly what I did.

YAG: You make it sound so easy.  Was it really?

YAG: Well, no.  I had a serious crisis of confidence when I made the switch: you know, “Can I really write fiction anymore, it’s been so long, etc., etc.”  I took a summer class at a local college to brush up my skills, then I started writing literary fiction and some sci-fi.  Got some stuff published, mostly in online journals, which gave me the needed confidence boost to attempt a novel.  Started to write one based on my life as an academic, but it sucked.  Stopped it after about 100 pages and started to think of writing something else.

YAG: Do you think it was because the novel was too similar to your real life that it sucked?

YAG: Boy, you ask leading questions, don’t you?  Of course that’s why it sucked!  I had no distance, man.  So I started thinking about other genres I enjoyed as a reader, and fantasy popped to the top of the list (I’m a lifelong fan of Tolkien, Zelazny, Donaldson, and others).  I wrote a fantasy novel that pleased me, but I guess it didn’t please anyone else, because it’s still sitting in a virtual drawer.  Then, one day, while reading to my kids, I said, “Young Adult!  I love Young Adult!  Why don’t I try that?”  And the rest is history.

YAG: Oh, come on, there had to be more to it than that.

YAG: Okay, you got me again.  The first thing I did was ask my daughter to read the first few tentative pages I wrote, and she liked them--I mean, really liked them, not “I’m lying to my old man so he’ll buy me a new MP3 player liked them.”  I plodded on, working nights and weekends and summers (when I wasn’t teaching and the kids were asleep and/or at camp), and I finally had a complete draft of my futuristic YA novel, Survival Colony Nine.

YAG: And then what?

YAG: Then I got an agent who acted totally excited about the book at first but ended up telling me it stank and I’d need a professional editor to whip it into shape.  I got really depressed, fired my agent, revised the manuscript, and searched again.  This time I found the amazing Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency, who loved the book and got ready to send it out.  A few months later, acceptance came from Karen Wojtyla of Margaret K. McElderry Books.

YAG: So roughly how long was it from first word to acceptance?

YAG: Almost two years, from summer 2011 to spring 2013.  And it won’t be out until fall 2014.

YAG: Wow!  That’s a long time!

YAG: Tell me about it, bro.  But I’m cool with the time spent, because I know it made the book better.  The manuscript went through five complete revisions, and I’m sure my editor will want even more, and in the end, it’ll all be worth it when I turn out a kick-ass book!

YAG: I notice you refer to Survival Colony Nine as “futuristic.”  Explain, please.

YAG: Publishing is very niche-driven these days, which means very genre-driven.  Everything has to be labeled.  Is it paranormal, urban fantasy, dystopian, romance, chick lit, high fantasy. . . ?  But I don’t think Survival Colony Nine can easily be stuffed into a single genre.  It has elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, dystopian, literary, family drama, and so on and so forth.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I think that’s what makes the book interesting.  My feeling is that the best YA books, like the best books in general, don’t fit neatly into little boxes.  In fact, that’s one of my frustrations with the YA genre: too many Harry Potter clones, or Hunger Games clones, or whatever clones.  With Survival Colony Nine, I wanted to write a book that couldn’t easily be cloned.

YAG: Very ambitious of you.  So with that introduction, why don’t you tell us some more about the book?

YAG: You know, you could get the answers to a lot of these questions if you’d just read my other blog, “Bell’s Yells.”

YAG: Humor me.

YAG: If I must.  Survival Colony Nine tells the story of Querry Genn, a fourteen-year-old boy living in a future world that’s been devastated by war and environmental catastrophe.  Human civilization has virtually collapsed, and what’s left are small, mobile units of a hundred or so people called Survival Colonies.  The climate is hostile, water supplies are low, modern technology is mostly gone.  To make matters worse, so many people died in the years before the book starts that there’s been a huge loss of cultural memory: things like snow, amusement parks, and marshmallows are just words, with no connection to anything anyone can remember.  And to make matters even worse, at the end of the wars of destruction, a new species appeared on the planet: creatures called the Skaldi, monsters with the ability to infect and mimic human hosts.  No one knows what they are or where they came from, but the Survival Colonies are trying desperately to stay one step ahead of them.

YAG: Whoa!  That sounds pretty intense.

YAG: It is.  And here’s the thing: Querry, my narrator, can’t remember anything either.  He was in an accident six months before the book starts, and his past beyond that point is completely erased.  So you’ve got a narrator thrown into a dire situation without the background knowledge or history that might help him deal with it.  And the commander of Survival Colony Nine--Querry’s father, Laman Genn--doesn’t make life one bit easier for him.

YAG: Okay, that’s enough to go on.  So tell me this: is it a “guy book”?  You’re YA Guy, after all.

YAG: Technically, so are you.

YAG: Let’s not get cute.

YAG: Fine.  When I started writing the book, I didn’t think about its “guy-ness.”  It has a male protagonist, and there’s a father-son relationship at its heart, but Querry’s conflict, his struggle to know who he is, seemed to me to be a universal one.  As I said, my daughter was the first to read it, and she never made a peep about it being too guy-ish or whatever.  I’ve written short stories with female narrators, and I’ve always prided myself on creating strong, well-rounded female characters.  (Survival Colony Nine has a bunch of them, including Laman’s second-in-command Aleka, the scout Petra, and the teenage girl Querry crushes on, Korah.)  It was only when my agent’s reader praised me as a “guy writer for guys” that I started to think about myself and my book that way.  But I still believe the book will appeal to all kinds of readers, whether they’re guys or not.  I don’t believe there are pure “guy books” any more than there are pure “gal books.”

YAG: Great.  I think that wraps it up, unless you have more to say.

YAG: I always have more to say, but this blog isn’t going anywhere, so I’ll save it for later.

YAG: Thank you for agreeing to this interview.  We’ve been talking to YA Guy, host of the blog YA Guy.

YAG: Your fly is unzipped.

YAG: You just couldn’t resist, could you?

Friday, May 24, 2013

YA Guy Yaks About... Boy Books

Let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

In a previous life, before I became YA Guy, I was a scholar of American literature.  I had a Ph.D. and everything!  (Still do; they haven't taken it away from me yet.)  And as a scholar of American literature, I wrote scholarly books and articles, most of them about my sub-specialization, antebellum American literature, or my sub-sub-specialization, antebellum Native American literature.

One of the things I learned as a scholar is that, during the nineteenth century, boy books--adventure stories written by men and aimed at preteen-to-teen male readers--were big business.  It's a little known fact that Herman Melville was famous in his own day not for Moby-Dick (which actually killed his popularity) but for boy books based on his experiences as a sailor.  His first two books were titled Typee and Omoo, and they were pure boy books, full of high seas adventure, male camaraderie, sexual innuendo, and howling savages.  They were the precursors, in fact, to the wildly popular genre of boy book that would arrive with the next century: the Western.

Other male authors of the time built their reputations on boy books as well.  Mark Twain, for example, did a booming business with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn--the latter famous for its experiments with vernacular and first-person narration, but still a boy book through and through.  James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, and Zane Grey were all boy-book specialists, as were Richard Henry Dana, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, John Neal, William Gilmore Simms, and others.  Nathaniel Hawthorne was a bit of an outlier, but many of his short stories are boy-bookish at the core: "Young Goodman Brown," "Roger Malvin's Burial," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," and others all tell the tale of young men confronting a hostile wilderness, both outside and within their own hearts.

And then of course there's Poe, who....  Well, Poe is Poe.  The less said there, the better.

But it's worth mentioning that his one novel, the wildly unpopular Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was an undisputed attempt to cash in on the boy-book craze, marred by the breakneck speed with which the cash-strapped Poe composed it and by his inability to resist parodying the very genre he was copying.

Native American authors did a pretty brisk business in the boy-book market too.  George Copway (Ojibwa), Charles Eastman (Sioux), and Luther Standing Bear (Sioux) all capitalized on the public fascination with stories of young men--in their case, young Native men--braving and triumphing over the wild.

So what happened?  If boy books were such hot properties then, where are they now?

Well, first, they're still here.  Never went away, really.  The Hardy Boys stories were the boy books of my own youth.  The Harry Potter series, female author notwithstanding, certainly follow in the boy-book tradition.  So do the books of Roland Smith, Christopher Paul Curtis, Rick Riordan, and others.

But in the nineteenth century, the dawn of the boy book, another literary development was set in motion that would ultimately eclipse the boy-book phenomenon: the appearance of the girl book.

These consisted principally of romance stories written by women for middle-class teenage girls and young housewives, and they sold like hotcakes.  They sold in the hundreds of thousands--in some cases, in the millions--which are mind-boggling numbers when you factor in the relatively small size of the population, the lack of universal literacy, and the relatively high cost of books.  Their authors were people you've probably never heard of: Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Mary Eastman, and (one you certainly have heard of) Harriet Beecher Stowe.  For all their popularity, boy books couldn't compete with girl books.  They were trounced.

There are two main reasons why.  First, with middle-class females less well represented in the workforce than males, they had more time for leisure reading, and they gravitated toward books that reflected their own experience.  Second, with authorship being one of the only professions in which women could hope to make a good, independent living, women of talent were drawn to writing in greater numbers than were men.

These two factors are less prevalent today, but they laid the groundwork for the modern publishing industry's predisposition toward female-authored and female-centered YA.  The audience and the authorship were prepared over a hundred years ago, so why mess with a good thing?

Now remember, I'm writing this not as a means of railing against the current trends.  I'm simply trying to provide some literary-historical perspective as part of my project to validate and celebrate YA of all stripes, whether it be male-authored and male-centered or not.  Our reading habits have histories, and those histories help us understand who we are today.

Okay, class dismissed.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... ROOTLESS by Chris Howard

Every Wednesday, I'm going to post a review of a great YA book.  Most of these reviews will, of course, be of YA books by and/or for guys.

To get things started, let's talk about the novel Rootless by Chris Howard.

Rootless tells the story of a future earth without trees.  As a result of the Darkness, a phenomenon that plunged the world into artificial night for years on end, all plant life has died (with the exception of corn, which has been genetically engineered and monopolized by the company GenTech).  In this desert world, the narrator, a young man named Banyan, builds artificial trees out of metal and wire and other scrap left over from the ruins of the old world.  His mother is dead; his father, a tree-builder before him, has disappeared.  And Banyan believes his father's gone for good too, until he discovers a photo, a recent photo, showing his father chained to a tree.

A living tree.

So begins Banyan's odyssey across a landscape controlled by corporate thugs, punk pirates, and ruthless slave traders.  He's accompanied by the bodyguard of a former client, a female pirate he might be in love with, and a woman who knew his father and whose mysterious tree tattoo might be the clue to the location of his father and the world's last surviving trees.  Starvation, double-crosses, and despair are ever-present threats in the hostile world Howard has created.  But the bleakness is balanced by small and fragile mercies: hope, and artistry, and friendship, and the love of a son for his father.

Rootless is Howard's debut, and it's stunning.  The world he builds is utterly convincing, the characters fully rounded and human.  Banyan's voice is fresh and original, both familiar and surprising.  There aren't many new ways to say "my heart skipped a beat," but Howard finds one: "My heart thought twice about beating."  And then there's this beautiful sentence: "My father stared up at the canopy and I stared at it with him, listening as the wind blew tunes through the branches, watching as the breeze shook rhythm from the leaves."  There are lots of sentences like this in Rootless, and that's fitting, since at some level the book is about the power of art to heal a damaged world.

A sequel to Rootless is, I understand, in the works, and I can't wait to get my greedy YA Guy hands on it.  If you're looking for a gritty, unsparing YA dystopian with a driving plot and a breathtaking vision of the future, Rootless is for you.

YA Guy Wants to Know: What Makes it a Guy Book?

What makes a YA book a guy book?

Is it that the author is male?

That the protagonist is male?

That there are lots of references to Kevin Durant and LeBron James?

Or is there something more mysterious that appeals to guys?

YA Guy is going to go with the latter.

Authorship doesn't mean a thing.  One of the best books I read as a preteen was Judy Blume's Then Again, Maybe I Won't.  I didn't care that it had a female author.

Ditto with the narrator or main character.  Then Again had a male MC.  But I loved lots of Blume's books, including Deenie and Blubber, whose narrators were girls.  I love The Fault in Our Stars, whose narrator is a teenage girl with terminal cancer.  I love The Hunger Games, whose narrator is the poorly named but incredibly well realized teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen.

And okay, Katniss does hunt with bow and arrow and kick lots of butt, so you might think that's what makes the book appeal to my testosterone-driven existence.

But actually, what I like most about her is the choice she makes, the choice to save her sister.  I think that's what most readers, male and female, find most appealing about her.  It's not only the book's defining moment--the "inciting incident," the incident from which everything else follows--but one of the great moments in all literature.  Who couldn't like a character who sacrifices herself to an uncertain fate in order to protect her little sibling?

So there you have it.  Guy books are books that enable guys to see the best in themselves, to envision themselves as they could be even in the worst of worlds: as protectors, decision-makers, brave souls who stand up for others and for what's right.

That those are not exclusively "guy" characteristics is, of course, why such books appeal to male and female readers alike.

Let's write more books like that, and guys will read them.

***

Here's a list from J. King of YA books for boys.  Note what's at #1.

YA Guy's Top 10

What should teen boys be reading?

Well, here's what YA Guy was (and is) reading (and though biologically I've grown up, I still read the same things I read in my YA years!).

Note: this list is in no particular order.  Everything on it is guaranteed, bona fide great!

1. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.  Not technically YA, as the category didn't exist in Tolkien's time, but close enough!

2. James Dashner, The Maze Runner.  And its sequel, The Scorch Trials.

3. Roland Smith, Peak.  Wonderful storyteller, great economy of voice.

4. Chris Howard, Rootless.  Amazing dystopian novel about a world without trees.  Sequels forthcoming.

5. J. Barton Mitchell, Midnight City.  Totally creepy alien-invasion novel.  Beware the Tone!

6. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games.  Just plain a great book, for boys and girls.  The sequels rock too.

7. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Still one of the greatest boy books--scratch that, books--of all time.

8. John Green, The Fault in Our Stars.  Female narrator, but so what?  This is Green's best book--and that's saying something.

9. M. T. Anderson, Feed.  A world hooked on the internet.  Wait, is that the future?

10. S. E. Hinton, The Outsiders.  Hinton initialed her name so no one would know she was a woman.  But her book remains one of the all-time great boy books.

So there you have it.  If I'd allowed myself fifteen or twenty or a hundred, I could have gone on and on.  What would you add to the list?