Thursday, March 23, 2017

YA Guy Researches... History!

Years ago, in the days before YA Guy was YA Guy, I wrote a number of works of literary criticism. (That's what you do when you have a doctorate in English and teach at a college.) Eventually, I decided I'd rather write my own literature than write about it--but I'm still very proud of my academic books, which I think are well-written in their own right. I don't recommend them to the non-scholar--they're written for an academic audience, full of language and concepts only specialists fully appreciate--but I had fun writing them, and I'm glad they're out there.

One of the things I loved most about academic writing was the research that went into it. For each of my books, I spent years reading, filling up my file cabinets with photocopies of obscure seventeenth- through nineteenth-century documents, many of them accessible only on microfilm or microfiche, some of them available only at specialized archives. I found that, though technically I was a literary scholar, I ended up doing as much historical research as literary research; I wanted to know as much as possible about the time in which the works of literature were written in order to understand them in their own context. At a certain point, in fact, the line between "historical" and "literary" research blurred; much of what we know about history we know through written documents, and when you're reading the journal of an eighteenth-century traveler among the southeastern Indians or the spiritual autobiography of a nineteenth-century Ojibwa convert to Christianity, are you reading "history" or "literature"? To me, history and literature have always been intertwined if not inseparable, and I loved exploring the many ways in which they come into contact with each other.

Which is also why I'm so excited about my new work-in-progress, a historical novel called Polar. Based on Commander Robert E. Peary's final North Pole voyage, which took place in the years 1908-1909, Polar is speculative history, not straightforward; I take considerable liberties with the facts in order to tell the story I want to tell, a story that includes some paranormal elements. But I'm still having to do a ton of research to understand the world of the time, the biographies of the real-life people involved, the details of Polar exploration, and more. And I'm coming across a lot of great historical material in the process.

For example, check out this cover page to the New York Times from September 7, 1909, the date on which the paper first reported Peary's ostensible (though now disputed) discovery of the geographic North Pole:

Or take a look at this photograph of Peary dressed in full Eskimo (Inuit) garb on the deck of the steamship Roosevelt, named after then-President Theodore Roosevelt, who sponsored Peary's final voyage (and who plays a walk-on part in Polar):

There's much, much more, but that'll do for a start. I can't wait to see what other gems I discover as I continue the research process.

Writing science fiction, as I've done for my first three YA novels--including the forthcoming Freefall--involves a degree of research; I've had to learn about parasitic organisms, deep-space travel, and more. But it's especially fun to be doing the kind of sustained research a historical subject requires.

I guess I could say it's great to be back home.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

YA Guy Interviews... Marty Reeder, Author of HOW TO BECOME A PIRATE HUNTER!

YA Guy is excited to welcome Marty Reeder, author of HOW TO BECOME A PIRATE HUNTER, to the blog! This time-travel fantasy for young readers is a lot of fun, with a boy who feels he doesn't have any talents discovering that he's a natural born pirate hunter! Marty stopped by the blog recently to chat, and here's what he had to say...

YA Guy: Welcome to the blog, Marty, and congratulations on your new book! How did you come up with the idea for How to Become a Pirate Hunter? What do you think is the most fun or fascinating thing about this story?

Marty Reeder: I hear the phrase "natural born" every now and then, and I once wondered what my natural born talent would be. Well, I couldn't think of a modern one, but I thought that it would be cool if I were a natural born pirate hunter (that's where my mind usually wanders). I knew there wasn't much I would be able to do about it ... unless I wrote about it in fiction. The idea stewed for a while until the story came into focus and I finally got to live my dream of what it would be like to hunt pirates!

My favorite parts in the story are those parts that came as surprises to me. While I had the story pretty much figured out, as I was writing some of the important scenes, the reasons for the protagonist to achieve his triumphs were subtly different from what I expected. I'd like to think that it's because there is hidden truth there that refused to be let out of the story.

YAG: I'm a big fan of discovering the truths in my story as I write, too! What do you enjoy most about writing for young readers? (If you have a particular story to share, please do!)

MR: I never write for a young audience. I write what I think would be interesting to read. As it turns out, I must be young at heart because once I started getting serious about doing something with my writing, I found out that I had to label my audience before submitting it to publishers. I realized that my protagonists are all youth--I had been writing to a younger audience this whole time and didn't even notice it. It's probably why I ended up being a high school teacher ... it's about my maturity level!

YAG: Walk us through a day in your life as a writer. Any habits, quirks, or special ways you approach the writing process?

MR: Because I have a family and day job (high school teacher), my writing process has taken some necessary adjustments since my lonely bachelor-writing days. Generally, however, I've found that I write best in the morning and edit best in the evening. The morning is when I am most alert (not the case for everyone, I know!) and my mind is fresh and ready to spill out ideas. By the evening, I'm tired from the day and don't have the endurance for solid writing sessions. However, my mind is calmed down enough that I can take a sensible look at my morning's work and help it make more sense. I suppose it's sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach.

YAG: I like that approach: draft early, revise late. Speaking of writing, what are some of your favorite YA or MG books? How have they influenced you as a writer?

MR: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Treasure Island as an influential young adult work for me, especially in the context of How to Become a Pirate Hunter. I've long had a fascination with history and sailing, and I'm not sure if Treasure Island started that or simply furthered it, but either way it is such a strong piece of literature in plotting and characters I would be hard pressed to find a single piece of (non-series) young adult literature that matches it. Lloyd Alexander is another stalwart author from my youth. Going back and reading some of the stories of his that I loved to lap off the library shelf as a kid, I realize how efficient and engaging his writing is, a combination that is truly difficult to sustain. His more known series is the Chronicles of Prydain (The Black Cauldron and The High King earning Newbery Honor and Winner awards, respectively), but one that I simply love is the tight and emotionally investing Westmark Trilogy.

YAG: Now that we know what you've read and what you've written, tell us what's next for you and your fans!

MR: First of all, we'll have to see if I have any fans! But for anyone even remotely interested in How to Become a Pirate Hunter, a sequel is in the process of being written. I know that's pretty common for most young adult stories, but for the longest time I did not think there could be a sequel to Pirate Hunter (and I have had this story finished or close to it for years). But last year, just before it got picked up by a publisher, an idea sparked and I realized that there was a story that I still wanted to tell within this world. I'm a few chapters in and I'm pretty excited by it, so hopefully fans will be too! For now, however, I'm just satisfied with this fun process of letting the story go out there and see how far it reaches.

YAG: Thanks for visiting the blog, Marty! Personally, I'll be on the lookout (in the crow's nest?) for the sequel to PIRATE HUNTER!

Readers, here's some more information about Marty and links to find him on the web!

About the author: Marty Reeder lives in Smithfield, Utah with his wife and five children, where he teaches Creative Writing and Spanish at the local high school. Though not a natural born pirate hunter, he taught sailing at Scout camps for many years and uses his history degree to fuel worlds of piracy and compensate for perhaps being born in the wrong time and place for his passions.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017


If you know anything at all about YA Guy, you know that my favorite movie of all time is King Kong (the 1933 original). I first saw it when I was a child, and like many people who've made and loved fantasy films--Ray Harryhausen, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson--I was blown away by its combination of humanity, grandeur, and wonder. Though it's possible to argue that stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien's effects don't stand up today, it's impossible to deny how revolutionary and influential they were at the time. Kong is very nearly a perfect movie in every respect, and it's simply not possible, in my opinion, to do it better than it was done back in '33.

But they keep trying. And they keep failing.

There was Son of Kong, another O'Brien vehicle that was mysteriously budgeted much lower than the original blockbuster and that suffered from a flabby script, overacting, and a white-furred, comic baby Kong. There was the 1976 fiasco, supposedly featuring a life-size Kong but actually, in all but a single brief scene, sporting makeup artist Rick Baker in an utterly unconvincing gorilla suit. There was Jackson's homage to the original, wisely set during the Depression but very unwisely drawing out the story to twice the original's length, much of that extra footage wasted on interminable, implausible CGI battle sequences. And now, there's Kong: Skull Island, about which the less that's said, the better.

I watched the movie today, and I'm sorry to report that it's idiotic on every level. Kong himself is ridiculously big, presumably so he'll be matched in scale with Godzilla for the upcoming remake of the Japanese film in which the two monsters duked it out. He's also, for all his semi-realistic fur and musculature, utterly weightless, which is a problem the CGI gurus have simply not been able to figure out--everything floats around without the merest appearance of mass, making the creatures look like preposterously realistic cartoons cavorting in live-action settings. Completely lacking in personality, this Kong is nothing but a hundred-foot-tall wrecking machine, doing equivalent amounts of damage on helicopters, giant octopuses, and stupid-looking giant lizard-things with human arms but no legs. The cast is full of actors (Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman) whose careers are clearly bottoming out, if being eaten by stupid-looking giant lizard-things is any indication. And the supposed "message," something about how the Earth doesn't really belong to us and we should treat it better, falls completely flat amidst all the mayhem. This was a movie that should never have been made, and my sole regret is that I wasted nine bucks and two hours of my life on it.

There are still some great fantasy and science fiction movies being made. Arrival, based on the Ted Chiang story, was terrific. So was the stop-motion masterpiece Kubo and the Two Strings. The Star Wars movies of recent years, though no longer revolutionary, remain well-crafted and engaging. The Martian had the benefit of great source material (the Andy Weir book) and a great director (Ridley Scott). So it's not as if I've given up on this kind of film, even when, as is so often the case, substance takes a back seat to spectacle.

But I think it's time to admit that Beauty killed the Beast for good. Ever-more frantic attempts to resuscitate him are doing nothing but heaping ignominy on his once-majestic career.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

YA Guy Is Looking to Buy... YA Historical Fiction!

YA Guy's currently putting the wraps on a science fiction novel I plan to send to my agent. After that, I think I'm going to turn to a genre of YA that's new to me as a writer: historical fiction.

I love history almost as much as I love literature. In fact, I often think of the two as intertwined, if not interchangeable. Back in the days when I was writing and publishing literary criticism, I did as much historical research as literary research, and I was fascinated by how historical documents can be read as literature (and vice versa). So I'm eager to sink my teeth into a project requiring research and (unlike the novels I've written to date) the imaginative creation of a world from the past, not the future.

But here's the thing: I haven't read a whole lot of YA historical fiction, and I'd like to get my hands on some good models so as to immerse myself in the genre. I've read THE BOOK THIEF, CHAINS, ELEPHANT RUN, and some other excellent examples--but I want more. For the next several months, I want to read nothing but YA historical fiction, until it seeps into my pores and pours out of my fingers as readily as science fiction does.

So here's what I'm asking you, dear readers: suggest some YA historical fiction titles that I should read. If they're books you love, chances are I'll love them too. If they're your own books, all the better--I'm in the mood to buy, and review, and publicize. In fact, I plan to buy the first 10 titles recommended to me that sound interesting enough. Ten books should keep me busy reading for a while.

Leave your recommendations in the comments section, and if you want to direct me to the book, leave a link as well. I'll read straight YA historical fiction from any place or time period, and I'll also read YA alt-history if you've got any. I'll read hybrids too: YA historical horror, for instance. The only books I'm not eager to read are 1.) steampunk (I'm trying to stay away from sci-fi) and 2.) books that plop a conventional YA love triangle into a historical period and call it historical fiction. I like romance if it serves a larger historical purpose--for instance, I'd love to read a YA historical novel featuring an interracial couple set during a time of intense racial conflict. I'm just not looking for any teen bodice-rippers.

YA Guy thanks you for your help, and I look forward to your recommendations!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

YA Guy Lists... His Top 10 YA Sci-Fi!

In an earlier post, YA Guy promised to get around to listing my favorite YA science fiction novels. Having written that, I decided there's no time like the present. This list isn't in any particular order; everything on it is as good as it gets.

Chris Howard, Rootless. A wildly imaginative novel about a world without trees and a young man who constructs artificial ones. The imagery is wonderfully bizarre, the voice unlike any other. The two books that follow, The Rift and The Reckoning, aren't quite the equal of the original, but they're well worth reading nonetheless.

Fonda Lee, Zeroboxer. I give this book a slight edge over Lee's follow-up, Exo (though as you'll see if you read my review of the latter, I loved that book too). The story of a young athlete who fights in zero-G arenas, Lee's debut is distinguished by its visceral and very convincing fight scenes, its otherworldly settings, and its perceptive social commentary. Many sci-fi writers excel at either action-packed or thought-provoking stories. Lee excels at both.

Phillip Reeve, Railhead. Set in a galaxy where light-speed trains (not starships) zip from one planet to another, this book is a bit short on characterization but light-years long on dazzling, innovative world-building.

J. Barton Mitchell, the Conquered Earth trilogy. I've been singing the praises of this series for years, and I hope people are listening. Comprising Midnight City, The Severed Tower, and Valley of Fires, this epic story of aliens who master humanity via a telepathic signal that reduces all but teens to slavery features some of the most imaginative settings I've ever encountered, particularly the Strange Lands, where the laws of physics go haywire. The representation of diverse teen-led cultures that have developed in the absence of adults is notable too, as is the appealing cast of characters.

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker.  Unlike many YA science fiction writers, Bacigalupi writes sci-fi for adults too. And it shows: Ship Breaker feels like the work of an artist with a deep knowledge of and respect for the genre, not that of a dabbler trying to cash in on a craze. Ship Breaker, the tale of a young man's odyssey in a post-fossil fuel era, is excellent, and its sequel, The Drowned Cities, is nearly as good, particularly in its further development of the most fascinating character from the first book, the hybrid "half-man" Tool.

M. T. Anderson, Feed. The twisted tale of a future society in which everyone sports a "feed"--a link to the internet wired directly into their brain--this book is hilarious and scary in equal measure. One of the best YA science fiction satires I've ever read.

Mindy McGinnis, Not a Drop to Drink. Along with its sequel, In a Handful of Dust, this stark representation of a world with barely any potable water is just barely science fiction--which is not to say it's not believable. On the contrary, without resorting to high-tech gadgetry or other hallmarks of the sci-fi trade, McGinnis does an utterly convincing job of portraying a future that looms dangerously close at the present moment.

Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Illuminae. When I first heard of this book, I'll admit I thought it sounded gimmicky. But when I read it, I was blown away by the technique, as the story of a spaceship fleeing interplanetary assault and at the mercy of a HAL-like computer is told through a series of hacked documents and mind-blowing typographic effects. The tale isn't quite as original as the telling, but the two in conjunction will keep you rocketing along. I haven't read the next book in the series, Gemina, but I'm definitely planning to.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy. There are not only a number of great sci-fi contrivances in these books--mutts, the Arena in Catching Fire, the pods in Mockingjay--but on the whole, the series offers a highly effective satire of violence in the entertainment media. What makes the endless copycat stories so vastly inferior is their failure to attempt anything similar: they've got a girl with a gun, but they don't have the sharp satirical sensibility of Collins's books.

James Dashner, The Maze Runner trilogy. The prequels are terrible, so don't waste your time. And the trilogy gets increasingly frantic and unbelievable as it progresses. But the Maze and the Grievers are brilliant sci-fi inventions, with the Scorch not far behind.

So there you have it, folks. Enjoy these books, and drop me a line if you have any suggestions. I'm always looking for good, original, compelling YA sci-fi!