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And I’m back to talk some more about books! This time I’ll be discussing SF/F novels I read and liked this year. Most of the titles I’m going to be talking about are fantasy. A few of them are alternative history, and one of them is post-apocalyptic. I’ve been feeling a little sad I haven’t been reading more good science fiction lately, but hopefully next year! And I did read some really great fantasy novels this year, so there are compensations.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton. SF alternate history

This book is fascinating to me because I feel like it shouldn’t have worked but for me it totally did. The premise of the novel is that it follows the life of a single female protagonist who makes a key choice rather early on in the novel, and then the books splits into two potential life (and world) paths and follows them both to their conclusions. The book focuses very intimately on the life of this one woman, and in a lot of chapters, nothing much happens. You’re just watching this woman live her life in two different trajectories, with all the normal life minutiae you would expect. So why is it compelling? I think it must because of Walton’s deft characterization and selection of minutiae, and the interest of watching the world unfold in two distinct ways.

SPOILER: My one main quibble is that the branching-off decision is about a man, namely, whether the protagonist will marry him or not. While I think this is a super realistic branching off point for a life, I wish the entire narrative hadn’t hung on this choice in particular. Still very worthwhile to read if this premise sounds interesting to you.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Fantasy

I love this book so much. I know not everyone did, so you might want to take a look at the synopsis or maybe try out the first chapter before committing (which I am assuming you’re doing anyway), but I was spellbound by it. The protagonist isn’t the most likeable ever, which I see as a feature since I enjoy flawed characters. Plus given her history of being deeply affected and afflicted by imperialism from an early age,  I feel like her development and the decisions she makes are completely understandable, if sometimes tragic. The worldbuilding here is ambitious and fascinating. Probably the least successful component is plot, and even that is not bad but does drag a bit from time to time.

This novel is the first of a series (or a trilogy? I’m not sure) but in my opinion stands on its own.

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. Fantasy

City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett. Fantasy

Last year everyone was talking about how great City of Stairs was. They wouldn’t shut up about it. And yes, it turns out I agree with them. The sequel/companion novel City of Blades is also strong, although by necessity lacking the freshness of worldbuilding that was part of what made the first installment so stunning. The worldbuilding and characters both shine in these books, and the mystery/spy plots are fun to follow.

Wylding Hall, By Elizabeth Hand. Fantasy

I keep thinking about this novella even though I read it many months ago. I think it’s one of the most effective haunted house narratives I’ve ever read. I like the framing device of having many first-person accounts of what happened after a period of years have passed. The handling of music is also deft and realistic, which I appreciate.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Horror.

Speaking of haunted house stories, I finally got around to reading this classic. And big shocker, it’s a classic for good reason! I didn’t love it as much as I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is possibly one of my favorite novels of all time, but it was pleasingly creepy and well crafted.

Farthing, by Jo Walton. SF alternate history/cosy mystery

This mystery, which takes place in an alternate UK that made peace with Hitler, is so charming. Okay, and horrifying in that the reader has a front-row seat on watching fascism descend on Great Britain. Not a novel that is AT ALL RELEVANT right now, oh no. This was like reading a top-notch Agatha Christie mystery with added social commentary, aka Amy awesomesauce.

For reference, the second book in this trilogy is fine although not as good as this one, and the third one, well….not my cup of tea and doesn’t have what I consider to be a plausible resolution. But the first one is excellent!

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison. SF

This book is so dark. It is so dark you might not want to read it. But if you are willing to slog through depressing most-of-humanity-is-shockingly-terrible level stuff, this post-apocalyptic novel is probably worth it. The premise is that most of humanity was wiped out by some plague, a disease that killed a lot more women than men. Atrocities ensue. Our protagonist is a female nurse trying to survive the end of the world. If this sounds bleak to you, that’s because it really really is.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Fantasy

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin. Fantasy

Everyone was talking about how great The Fifth Season was last year too. It turns out I agree again! In this case I’ve really enjoyed Jemisin’s work in the past so I wasn’t surprised.

What can I say to encapsulate these novels? Well, they’re dark. Not as dark as The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, though, not that that’s saying much. The worldbuilding is excellent. The characters are flawed and compelling. (Are we sensing any trends here?) The plotting is a teensy bit uneven, but not enough to seriously impair my enjoyment. There is a really fun reveal in the first book. I can’t wait for the last book in the trilogy to come out!

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Rumbullion, by Molly Tanzer. Fantasy

This is a weird little book. And it is transgressive in the most enjoyable ways. A young aristocrat attempts to discover what actually went on at a party of his that went askew. This book is part reaction and speculation from said aristocrat and partly an archive of the letters he collects while trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and reveals are skillfully woven throughout. If you’re in the mood for something out of the ordinary, maybe give this book a shot.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges. Speculative

Well, after hearing about Borges for–ten years, maybe?–I finally got around to reading some of his stories. They were both what I expected and not what I expected. The prose was on the dry and academic side; its style reminded me a bit of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Also pretty much no women to speak of. And rarely are the stories very character-focused. No, these stories are almost purely idea stories, and they really are jewels of that genre. There’s also a fair amount of metafictional aspects at play here, which I tend to enjoy. Borges leaps through all kinds of intellectual hoops and experiments with a particular flavor of magical realism, and it is very enjoyable to watch him play. Overall these stories aren’t emotionally moving on a deep level, but occasionally one of them sneaks up behind you and packs a wallop. The rest of the time it’s pure enjoyment to watch a great mind wrestle with interesting questions and fresh metaphors.

And that completes my review of my reading in 2016. Overall I feel like it was a decent year reading-wise, in spite of various challenges. Looking forward to seeing what new gems reveal themselves in 2017!

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It’s time for my year-end reading wrap-up posts. It’s been a weird year for many reasons, but over the course of the year I’ve still been able to read about the same amount as last year, so that makes me happy. As does talking about my most interesting reads!

First, some stats. I’ve read 56 books this year, and I expect I’ll probably read a few more before the year ends. About a third of the books I read were speculative fiction for adults, about the same as last year. Only 20% of the books I read this year were YA, which is less than usual, and I also read much less nonfiction than last year. The difference was made up in literary fiction and mysteries. 79% of my reading was by women, so I guess my theory that my ease in reading lots of women writers is because of my YA reading is only partly true. And 23% of my reading was by writers of color, which isn’t as good as last year but still not horrible. Given everything else that went on this year, I’ll take it!

In this post I’m going to talk about YA, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Then I plan to write another post all about the speculative fiction I read this year. Some of these titles are new and some are not, but they are all new to me.

YA titles:

Complicit, by Stephanie Kuehn. YA contemporary

I read this at the beginning of the year and so my memory of it is a bit fuzzy. But what I do recall is that it has some interesting unreliable narrator stuff going on, which I tend to enjoy when done well. Also some sibling stuff, which I also tend to like.

The Spectacular Now, by Tim Tharp. YA contemporary.

Apparently a movie has been made that is based on this book, and it’s supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t seen it. What stands out to me about the book is its voice. Also it’s really dark, and it’s dark done well.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. YA magical realism

This book is so messed up, and I mean that in a good way. It’s beautifully written, and kind of strange, and you should just go read it right now.

Enter Title Here, by Rahul Kanakia. YA contemporary

Disclosure: Rahul is a friend of mine. This is his debut novel, and it features an unlikeable female protagonist who kicks butt (and who, incidentally, I like in spite of (or is it BECAUSE OF) her unlikeability). It also has some metafictional aspects that were fun.

Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King. YA magical realism

I really like A.S. King’s work, plus by looking it up just now I’ve realized I’ve missed a title, so I’m feeling much joy. In this book, the protagonist begins meeting versions of herself at different ages as she struggles to come to terms with an abusive home life and what it means to be an artist. It’s kind of off-beat, and I love it. My favorite YA read of 2016.

Mystery titles:

The Peter Wimsey Mysteries, by Dorothy Sayers

I’ve been reading these during my convalescence, starting with Whose Body? Since I’ve already read almost every mystery Agatha Christie wrote, these are the next best thing. They are not overly taxing while still being interesting, which is not an easy feat. Lord Peter Wimsey is not my first choice of sleuth (he’s more in the Columbo school as opposed to the Poirot school that I like best), but he’s definitely been growing on me.

Nonfiction titles:

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley (essays)

Would this book have made this list if the election had gone differently? Unclear. Hurley does write one mean essay. But I have found it to be of especial comfort given current events.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (memoir)

This book is beautiful and raw and it hurts to read and you should read it. It isn’t an easy read but not all reads are meant to be. 

Literary fiction titles:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

This is one of those novels that could be classified as literary or speculative, and was shelved in literary because of Atkinson’s previous work. It follows the life (or rather lives) of a female protagonist born in England shortly before World War I. Every time she dies, the book loops back and starts her life again, so we get to see all sorts of possibilities. You probably have to love this conceit to enjoy this book, and I do love it when it’s done well and isn’t too painfully repetitive. Atkinson did a good job on that front, and the book captured my imagination.

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Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

I’m slowly chipping away at Atwood’s significant oeuvre, and this one did not disappoint. What she does here with voice and tense and POV is interesting and masterful. Set in Canada soon before the Civil War, a young doctor tries to determine if an imprisoned female servant is innocent or guilty of a double murder that happened many years before. It unfolds somewhat slowly but I found it to be entirely gripping.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This is a cycle of stories, all of which in some way or another feature the character Olive Kitteridge. In some stories she is the POV character, in some a supporting character, and in others she merely shows up in passing. In this way we get a multi-dimensional view of who this woman is and what her life has been. Strout is insightful about human behavior and has a keen eye for convincing details. One of my favorite reads of the year.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

One of my other favorite reads of the year, so much so that I wrote a love letter blog post to this book. I want to read it again, along with Olive Kitteridge. I feel like one time was not enough for either of these books.
All right then. Next time I’ll write about some speculative fiction I read this year. And in the meantime, let me know what books you most enjoyed this year. I could particularly use some YA recommendations, but all are welcome.

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I got my first Kindle in the summer of 2009. It was a birthday present after seeing my first Kindle at Wiscon (my first convention) at the end of May. I loved the idea of being able to have so many books in one device, but I didn’t embrace it enthusiastically until a few years later when I had to move. Suddenly the idea of not adding to the volume of books to be moved seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had. And since then, I’ve read much more on my Kindle.

Fast forward six and a half years. In this day and age, that’s a good run for an electronic device, but this fall I began to notice my Kindle’s battery life was not what it once was. And then for Christmas, I received a Kindle Paperwhite.

I love my Paperwhite! I love it so much! I hated setting it up, and I hated learning the basic UI, and I understood that I always kind of hate those things, and then I was done with them, and it was LOVE.

What I Love about my Paperwhite:

  1. It is small and light! But the screen is the same size as my old Kindle. So I’ve lost nothing and gained something great. Maybe my purse won’t break so quickly this time around. (This is actually a serious problem for me. I break my purses. Mostly because of Kindles and books, which are heavy.)
  2. It has an automatic light! I can read it comfortably in any lighting situation, from bright to pitch dark. When I was on the plane this weekend, I didn’t have to bring along an extra light. I didn’t have to turn on the overhead light. I could be lazy and read my novels in peace.
  3. The battery life seems to be okay even when its wi-fi is on. This was not true for my old Kindle, so I always had the wi-fi off. But with the wi-fi on, it is even faster and easier to buy new books, and also there’s a little blurb when you open a new book telling me what it’s about, which is great because I can’t always remember why I bought the book in the first place.
  4. I can see book covers again! My old Kindle was all text, showing only titles, but now I see a beautiful display of book covers, which also helps remind me what these books are.
  5. There are options for measuring your reading! You can pick between page number, time left in the book, and time left in the chapter. I keep switching back and forth because I love them all. The time left feature is great because it allows me to plan my reading better, and no surprise, I adore anything that lets me plan smarter.
  6. Touch screens are cool. I understand we’re already kind of accustomed to them, with smartphones and smartpads and everything else, but seriously, they are cool.

My joy and rapture over my new Kindle has already convinced two people to buy one for themselves. Just as my joy and rapture over The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson has already convinced a few people to buy the book. (Because it’s so good! The buzz was actually true!) I don’t know if I’m being unusually convincing lately, or if these things are just so amazing, it’s hard to resist their allure. (I suspect the second.)

Anyway, here’s my new Kindle, and there’s Nala in the background pretending to be blasé. But don’t let her fool you; we are very excited about this! (You can tell by the liberal use of exclamation points in this post.)

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I have a lot of books on my coffee table. I used to try to clean it off before anyone came over, but over time, I have become lax. Also, I have an excuse: I’m a writer. Of course I have books on my coffee table!

My friend was over the other night, and he asked about the book on top: Stiff, by Mary Roach. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m supposed to read that for research for my book. I should actually do that.” And then I was struck by an idea. “Ooh! I wonder if Mary Roach is a person of color.”

A quick flip to the back of the book and the author photo nixed that idea. “No. White, white, white. Gah!” I threw the book back on the coffee table in disappointment. (Okay, I didn’t actually throw it. I am physically incapable of throwing a book. But I set it down with gusto.)

My friend laughed at me, but it’s true. Since I started my POC authors reading challenge last year, this is my reaction upon finding out a book isn’t written by a person of color

The reason? Because almost all the books I have just lying around, or that I’ve heard buzz about, or that I pick up and want to read at the bookstore, or that I’ve selected to read for research are by white people. The number isn’t a hundred percent, but it’s close enough to be really freaking appalling.

The most important thing I learned from my POC reading project last year is that reading books written by authors of color takes real effort and mindfulness. This is because of the way publishing works right now, and let’s not beat around the bush, because of racism.

Fewer authors of colors are published than white authors. A LOT fewer. Books by authors of color are not given the same publicity campaigns. They are not reviewed as often. They are sometimes shelved in the wrong category, making it difficult for readers to find. They are not put on as many lists. When they are talked about at all, authors of color are often talked about for being authors of color instead of because of the merits of their work. They are placed on panels about race instead of panels on other subjects on which they are experts, which means they don’t reach as large an audience at conventions. And this is just a scratch on the surface of what’s going on here.

All of this means that when we don’t read mindfully, we’re a lot more likely to not read very diversely. And when we don’t read diversely, publishing can continue to tell the same old story about how diversity doesn’t sell, and nothing will change.

My reading project wasn’t really about setting a quota for myself. It was about challenging myself and stretching myself outside of my reading comfort zone. It was about trying different authors and different books to see if I would enjoy them (and the answer in many cases was a resounding yes). It was about reading more diversely so my reading experience would be more reflective of the world around me. It was about choosing new experiences for myself. It was about building my own awareness of how institutionalized bias was affecting me personally.

So every time I metaphorically throw a book down because it’s by yet another white author, that’s a victory. Not because there’s anything wrong with reading books by white authors. I do it all the time. But because now I’m aware of the imbalance. I’m aware of the problem.

And it is through awareness that change becomes possible.

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I keep a log of all the books I read every year, and when I looked down my list at the end of last year, I noticed something. I was doing a great job reading many women writers. I was happy that I was branching out and reading a variety of books, not just YA and SF&F. But the number of POC writers on my list was low. Eight percent of my total.

I looked at past reading years (I’ve been logging since 2009), and I found that no matter how many books I read each year, the number of POC writers I was reading consistently fell between seven and ten percent. Not completely horrendous, but also not great. So I told myself, I’ll try to pay more attention in 2014 and up that number. (It would require another post to discuss why I think this is important. I’m adding it to my list.)

I did a little bit of research to find more POC writers I thought I might like, and then I did a little bit more. It was more work than I’d thought it would be, because a lot of the lists repeated the same few names over and over again, or they turned out to be about books with POC characters written by white writers, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

And then yesterday I was looking over my reading list so far from the year, almost three-quarters of the way in, and I realized I’m not doing enough. POC writers only account for eleven percent of my reading this year, which is only a few percent higher than years I wasn’t paying any attention at all. I decided I’d have to be more systematic if I was actually going to improve.

So I spent more hours combing through the internet, looking for writers and specific books that I think I might enjoy (sometimes I can be a bit picky). I poured through lists of POC writers, I read some posts from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign from earlier this year, I peered at author photos and read their bios and interviews, and I combed my bookshelves. And I compiled a list.

It is a somewhat strange list. It doesn’t include any books I’ve already read (hence the glaring omission of Octavia Butler, among others). It includes certain books because I already happen to own them. It doesn’t include certain books that I’m not interested in reading right now (this is a list that is supposed to help me read more, not discourage me from doing so). It has lots of different types of books so I can find something I want to read no matter my mood. And I’m going to keep adding to it because I know there are so many more books out there by POC writers that I’d love to read and just don’t know about yet.

Here is the commitment I’m making to myself. I’ve recently joined two book clubs (yeah, I know, I don’t know what I was thinking either), so I can’t control the reading for those. And sometimes I need to read something specific for a writing project I’m working on. But aside from that, the next six books I choose to read will come from this list of works by POC writers. That should bring me to more like twenty percent for the year, given how much I expect to read. And between those six books and my book club reading, that might be about all I have time for.

I’m publishing my list because I don’t think there are enough of these lists out there, and I was surprised at the amount of time it took me to compile it. I’d also love to hear about any books by POC writers that you would like to mention or recommend in the comments.

Adult SF/F:

  1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
  2. Falling Sky, by Rajan Khanna (out Oct. 7)
  3. The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin
  4. Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
  5. The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  6. The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  7. Mindscape, by Andrea Hairston
  8. Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi
  9. The Best of all Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord
  10. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
  11. White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
  12. Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
  13. All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  14. Harmony, by Project Itoh

Other Adult:

  1. Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  2. The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. Lullabies, by Lang Leav (poetry)
  6. Follow Her Home, by Steph Cha
  7. Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata
  8. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  10. Bitch is the New Black: a Memoir, by Helena Andrews
  11. The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, by Ernessa T. Carter

YA:

  1. The Silence of Six, by E.C. Myers (out Nov. 5)
  2. Since You Asked, by Maurene Goo
  3. Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
  4. Charm & Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn
  5. The Young Elites, by Marie Lu (out Oct 7)
  6. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
  7. Prophecy, by Ellen Oh
  8. Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
  9. Rivals in the City, by YS Lee (out of print)
  10. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
  11. Champion, by Marie Lu (this is the 3rd book of the trilogy)
  12. Once We Were, by Kat Zhang (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)
  13. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin
  14. Control, by Lydia Kang
  15. Unravel Me, by Tahereh Mafi (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)

And here is a (very partial) list of resources I used to compile this list:

We Need Diverse Books and 27 POC Authors

We Need Diverse Books Summer Reading Series

You Want More Diversity in Your Pop Culture? Here’s How to Find It

100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read

Diversity and List of Books by 23 Asian American and Other POC Writers Part I and Part 2

For more information on this campaign, visit weneeddiversebooks.org.

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This weekend at Legendary ConFusion I’m going to be on a panel in which we discuss recent science fiction and fantasy novels that we thought were good, along with some that are coming out soon that we’re looking forward to. So it’s basically a recommendation panel. The perfect time for me to write about what I think about recommending books.

The problem with book recommendations is that taste differs. The biggest mistake I see people making with their recommendations (or at least the one I notice most often) is that they assume because they liked a book, that means I’ll like the book, even when they know nothing (or very little) about what I like and dislike. Which is another way of assuming everyone will like the book.

Everyone will NEVER like every book. I know this all too well because I have what I’ll call a distinctive sense of taste. This doesn’t mean I think my taste is better than other people’s, or even particularly developed. It means that there are plenty of books–particularly adult science fiction and fantasy–that are extremely popular and that I either really didn’t like or can’t force myself to get through.

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As it turns out, readers enjoy different things and are bothered by different things. I read primarily for character, although I also appreciate a good plot. (See my love for Agatha Christie. A lot of her characters are pretty cardboard, but the mysteries are so compelling to me that I don’t care.) If the characters are interesting to me, I don’t mind a slower pace and I’ll even overlook some sloppy plotting (aka a coincidence or two). I am bothered by characters who don’t seem real, by extremely dense prose, by large and gaping plot holes, and by most large infodumps. I can sometimes let fairly far-fetched world building go, especially in the high-concept stage of the world, as long as the world remains consistent and the characters are involved in a struggle that captures my imagination. But even I have my limits. (Love is a disease that everyone is cured from when they’re 18? Nope. Couldn’t believe it.)

I don’t mind dark fiction, and I don’t mind sad endings, but I’m less excited if the entire novel is just flat-out depressing to me. (I couldn’t finish Revolutionary Road for this reason.) There are certain fantastical tropes that I’m pretty tired of, including: werewolves, Fae anything, dragons, and portal quests. That being said, I still read novels with these elements, I’m just more picky about how they’re handled. For some reason I have more patience for vampires, witches and other magic users, and the politics associated with monarchies. There is a whole complicated system of subgenres that I’m more likely to enjoy or bounce off.

This is all to say, recommending novels blindly is like doing anything else blindly: your success rate is not going to be all that great. So when I recommend novels, I prefer to do it by describing what a novel is like and leaving it to my audience to decide if it fits into their taste. For example:

  • This novel is like this other novel you might have read or heard about, and this is how.

  • This novel is great if you don’t mind the silly central world building idea. If that kind of thing bothers you, though, give it a pass.

  • This novel is this particular sub-genre, or maybe these two sub-genres combined.

  • This novel is fast- or slow-paced.

  • This novel concerns itself with this fantasy or science fictional trope. (If I think it’s a fresh take on the trope, I’ll say that as well.)

  • This novel is on the literary side. (If questioned, I can then try to define how I think this expressed itself in the particular novel under discussion.)

  • This novel is all about the action. This novel is light and fun.

  • This novel really made me think. (And if I can say about what, all the better!)

It’s okay that we’re not all going to love exactly the same things, whether they be books, movies, or activities. And not all recommendations are going to be equally successful for all people. To me, a book recommendation is more like a blip on my radar. Now I know the book exists, and I can make my own decision as to whether to read it or not.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to try new things, educate our taste, and expand our horizons. No one else can do it for us. They can only offer ideas and possibilities of which directions to go exploring.

Can you describe your taste in novels?

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A friend of mine wrote me awhile back and asked me if I could write a post about resources for the YA writer. I’ll admit, I was stymied. In spite of the fact that I began writing in the YA genre, and as such it is my first true literary love, I realized I didn’t know nearly the number of resources that I could spout if he had asked the same question about speculative fiction. There is SCBWI, of course, the teenlitauthors yahoo group (although it tends to get a bit bogged down with congratulations and personal news), and Vera Kay’s Blueboards (where I’ve rarely been active). I’m sure there must be how-to-do-it books on YA (mustn’t there?), but I’ve never read them. Likewise, there must be various relevant blogs, but the few truly YA-focused ones I used to read are rarely if ever updated anymore.

Meanwhile, YA continues to be hot, hot, hot, even while agents and editors are cautioning writers that there is a glut of YA, and maybe writing some quality MG wouldn’t be a bad idea right around now. They say this at conferences, in any case, but I’m still hearing stories of agents recommending that their actual clients write YA, even if they’ve gotten their start in writing for adults. (Which incidentally tends to make me cringe. I understand intellectually that there is more money for fiction writers in YA, and the sales might be easier to make due to the aforementioned hotness, so it makes sense from a business perspective. But I’d like to think there’s more to writing YA than just good business sense; that it’s the end result of receiving a calling, of having some kind of affinity to teenagers, of what kind of stories a writer deeply desires to tell. I’m not saying a writer can’t write both YA and adult fiction–I do that myself. I just want it to be a case of good business uniting with a true interest in writing for teens. But I digress.)

I could write another whole post on the differences between the speculative and YA communities from where I sit (and maybe I will), but the fact remains that I don’t have a treasure trove of resources to share. Instead I will give three pieces of advice (which you can take or leave), advice that unfortunately does not offer any shortcuts but has helped me learn more about YA in the last three years than anything else.

READ YA. Read a lot of it. Read MODERN YA written and published in the last ten or so years (at least some of which has been published in the last three years) so you know what’s going on now instead of what was going on when you were a kid (trust me, unless you’re close to being a teenager yourself, it is different now). Read some MG (Middle grade) so that you understand the difference through examples instead of relying only on my handy-dandy list. Read different genres of YA; you might only be interested in writing science fiction YA, but read at least a few paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary novels as well. Read a few of the really “girly” book series so you know what’s going on there. Read the blockbusters of the field. I don’t care if you don’t like Twilight; if you want to write YA, you should read it anyway (at least the first one) so you can understand what about it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time and understand the ripples it generated (and still generates). Likewise, you should read The Hunger Games, and even though much of it is MG (in my opinion), you should read at least some of the Harry Potter books. Then go read some obscure titles no one has heard of.

STEEP YOURSELF IN TEEN-NESS. If you haven’t spent any in-person time with teens since you were a teenager yourself, it’s time to change that. I don’t care how–you can hang out with a family member, volunteer, teach a class, offer to mentor a teen writer. If all else fails, you can scout out where the local teens hang out after school, go there, and shamelessly eavesdrop. You can watch TV shows and movies targeted at teens (just NOT during your writing time, please): Buffy the Vampire Slayer is old school but still helpful, and lately I’ve been spending time watching Veronica Mars, Glee, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl (and I’m sure there are others). I don’t watch these shows thinking they are necessarily a realistic representation of teenage life, but to watch for more widespread trends: how do relationships/hook-ups work now? how do teens use technology? what are the latest fashion trends and the current slang? how do the characters speak to each other? what issues tap into today’s teen experience that might be a little different from your own teenage years? Sure, if you’re writing a far future dystopic novel, today’s slang might not be so relevant, but it’s still important to try to understand how your readers see themselves now.

REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE. Not just the clichés, and not from a superior, “now I’m a wise and mature adult” perspective. How can you understand as deeply if you’re looking down at someone? No, exercise that empathy muscle and try to remember how you actually felt: the frustration of not having complete power over your life, even if you were spending a lot of time watching adults royally screw up; the surging hormones and confusion when trying to deal with lust and affairs of the heart; the uncertainty of not knowing exactly who you were and how you fit into the larger world (or perhaps bending self perception of who you were to fit into a fantasy); the endemic unfairness; the world-crushing importance of everything going on in your life; the huge milestones bearing down on you, one after another (and whether you looked on them with excitement, horror, or a co-mingling of the two). And then remember that all of the above plays out differently for different people, both in terms of which ones are relevant to each person and what’s going on inside versus the show they’re putting on for the outside.

That’s all I’ve got. If you know of any YA resources I didn’t mention, please give them a shout-out below. Also, if you think all a modern YA writer needs to read is the juvenile Heinlein oeuvre, tell me that too because then we can have a truly epic argument.

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