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Teenage Lesbians and Other Representation

On Thursday, I went into my local Foyles for some non-purchasing, book browsing. Of course, the non-purchasing went out of the window when I found that their recommended YA novels, which get their own prominent case in the middle of the YA books, were all LGBT. All of them.

Speaking as someone who falls into the LGBT spectrum, I am a sucker for LGBT fiction. Representation is a really big deal as media shapes the way we see society. Plenty of other people have talked about why representation matters but it boils down to helping those who aren’t white, straight, cis gender and able bodied to not feel isolated because they don’t exist in the media we consume and to normalise how diverse our world is. The more we have racial, gender and sexuality diversity in our fiction and on our screens, the more our diverse world is normalised. And so LGBT media is a big deal for me, because it’s reassuring to see myself reflected in the books I read and the TV shows I watch.

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‘Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel’ is great

And so Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan entered my life and I’ve spent the last two days reading it because I couldn’t quite bring myself to put it down.

Tell Me Again is the story of Leila, an Iranian American teenager who is just trying to navigate high school as best she can. The reason she’s finding it difficult, other than cliques and science tests, is the fact that she likes girls.

Now, I don’t want to spoil the story, because (spoiler alert) I’m recommending that you read it. But here are some reasons that make this a good book:

  • Leila is Iranian American. Fairly often LGBT novels focus on white protagonists, so it was great to read a LGBT heroine who wasn’t. It also means that there’s intersectionality in the issues that are addressed. As far as I can tell from my white British perspective, Tell Me Again veers away from falling into tired tropes of how a middle eastern family would react to their daughter coming out as a lesbian, and provides a more nuanced response from varying family members.
  • Leila is not the only LGBT character in the book. There are at least four characters in the book who come under the LGBT umbrella, and means Leila isn’t in isolation in an otherwise straight world.
  • The characters aren’t all great people. There’s a tendency to portray all LGBT characters as saints. And I get it. After being demonised for such a  long time, it’s tempting to make all your LGBT characters exemplary people. But LGBT people are still people, and when you have a cast of LGBT characters, you don’t have to make them all perfect, because the representation doesn’t fall on the shoulders of just one character.
  • The plot is engaging and is well written. Because LGBT representation can be thin on the ground, I’ll read most things with LGBT characters in it. And they’re not always well written. Tell Me Again is not only well written, but I didn’t want to put it down.
  • Happy ending. Okay, yes, spoilers, but do you know how hard it is to find LGBT books (particularly those with focus on the L part of the acronym) that have happy endings where no-one dies? It’s stupidly hard. So this is a firmly postive point.

Of course, it’s not a perfect book. A character who expresses romantic interest in men and women doesn’t want to label themselves and like all YA novels, whatever book the characters are reading in class has some significant meaning, but on the whole Tell Me Again is a great example of a YA and LGBT novel. The standard YA ‘finding where you belong’ plot is meshed with the standard LGBT ‘coming to terms with your sexuality and coming out to family and friends’ plot to create something better than the sum of it’s parts.

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Pockets of Joy

I don’t appear to have done a fat lot this week. Mostly it’s been work and tidying the house, because Christmas was still being celebrated here, even well after the twelfth night.

This means I have no exciting new adventure to tell you about, and I haven’t finished any books, and to be honest, being back at works means I have little brain for flights of fancy. And so I’m gonna tell you about some stuff that’s made me happy this week. ‘Cause the word needs some more joy in it.

  1. Snow
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Photo from One_Small_Beth

Yes, it snowed in the UK. Admittedly, in Birmingham we weren’t exactly fighting our way through huge snow drifts, but exciting none the less. It meant pulling out all of the hat, scarf and glove combinations and figuring out the perfect cold weather outfits .

2. Linguistics

This article has a great linguistic analysis of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. While I don’t hugely enjoy hearing about Trump,  I’m a massive linguistics nerd, and I really enjoyed reading this on the train to work.

3. Eat, Pray, Love

So I bought Eat, Pray, Love in the January Sales and thought that it would be a bit of light reading, that probably wasn’t any good. Facts: I was wrong. It’s hugely enjoyable and at points deeply thought provoking. Expect a fuller blog post at some point when I’ve finished it.

 

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Isolationist Tendencies

This week has been long and full of terrors and sometimes it has felt like maybe going and living in a community cut off from the rest of the world. But that is a stupid idea, not only because to change the world you have to be in it, and anyway, literature tells us that separated communities are a dumb idea.

So have a list of my top three isolationist novels.

1. Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Set in the sleepy town of Stepford, the latest residents, Joanna Eberhart and her family, start to discover the secrets of the town. And none of them are good.

Stepford Wives is a cultural touchstone and reading the book you can see why. A masterful piece of sci fi looking at what society trains men to expect of women and the dangers of the patriarchal system.

2. The Coldest Girl in ColdTown by Holly Black 

Taking place in a world where vampires are real and live in sealed off “Cold Towns”, Tana wakes up in the aftermath of a partu turned massacre, convinced she’s turning into a vampire. Naturally, she heads straight for the nearest Cold Town.

Coldest Girl asks interesting questions about fame and how we live out lives on the internet, as well as giving vampires back a dangerous side, after so many years of popular culture defanging them.

3. Candor by Pam Bachorz

Written for a teen audience, Bachorz creates a community that is perfect in all ways. Except perhaps that everyone is brainwashed to make it that way. 

Oscar is the son of the mayor and he knows the secret. He works to help new teen residents escape but can he do so without being discovered?

Candor is like Stepford Wives for those more interested in YA than 60s fiction, and definitely made an impact on me when I read it at 13. (Do forgive me if it perhaps hasn’t stood the test of time – My copy is at my Dad’s).

There’s plenty of novels on an isolationist theme out there. Margaret Atwood alone has a few. Any you think I missed? Any you think I  have to read?

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How To Train Your Dragon: Meeting Cressida Cowell

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell was first published in 2003. In 2003, I was in the upper years of primary school and that meant I was the target audience for How to Train Your Dragon. I loved it. I must have done – I still remember the book over a decade later. It’s about Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, “the greatest Viking Hero that ever lived” but focusing on “when he was a very ordinary boy, and finding it hard to be a Hero.” He lives on an island called Berk where there are dragons galore. And, as the title kind of gives away, he learns how to train a dragon, despite the useful advice given in world of ‘How to train a dragon? You don’t’. It was great. Is great, in fact.

Fast forward a few years (seven to be exact), and Dreamworks produced a film of the same name, based on the How to Train Your Dragon series, and it was a huge success. Since then, there’s been a sequel film, tv epidsodes and scads of merchandise, including the stuffed toy version of Toothless (the titular dragon) for whom you can buy a Toothless hoodie.

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Photo credit: Maddie Chambers

Toothless was nervous about the photoshoot, so you should write how cute he is in the comments.

There are now at least 11 books in the series, not that I’ve read any of the others. I was at the upper end of the target audience after all and by the time the others came out I had moved on to the realms of YA with all the tangled love stories and lack of dragons.

BUT, on 17th October I was in Birmingham, which isn’t so surprising seeing as I live there. In actual fact I was in Grand Central – the new shopping centre above the new News Street station – and in Grand Central there is a Foyles. For those who have never heard of it, Foyles is a book shop that apparently until recently only appeared to exist in the South. But now it’s in the Midlands too.

It’s a really nice shop. I’ve yet to leave it empty handed. It’s also the bookshop I first saw The Next Together in after the launch party. An excellent addition to Birmingham, though the architecture isn’t as impressive as the Birmingham Waterstones. (This is an equal opportunities blog for book shops). And yesterday Foyles Birmingham had Cressida Cowell open their children’s section.

There was some very impressive face painting going on, as well as headbands for children and free drinks. Also a Viking.  And most importantly you could meet Cressida Cowell and get a book signed. So I joined the queue. I suppose I must have looked very odd, as I was the only one there without a small child. Which did make me feel slightly self-conscious. But I powered through, by picking up a Margaret Atwood book and feeling very glad that I didn’t have to deal with small children when in such a long queue. Small children have small attention spans.

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Viking, viking, viking.

Eventually, I made it to almost the front of the line. Cressida Cowell was most excellent with the kids who were in front of me, telling one delighted little girl that as she had red hair, she must be a Viking. When it was my turn, I was completely unsure of what to say and when Cressida asked if there was a question I wanted to ask, I explained that’d I’d loved the book in primary school, and was hoping that my youngest cousin would love it to. And that’s who I got the book dedicated to. (Shhh, it’s a Christmas present.)

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She insisted I was in the photo. She was very lovely.

With the book signed and stamped with a dragon, I also got stamped with a dragon. Apparently it means I’m officially a hero and I had to promise to work to save the dragons. Dream job, achieved. I also got dragon trading cards.

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#tattooideas

And that was it. Aside from snapping a pic of the Viking and asking if he minded terribly if I put it on my blog. Basically, Cressida Cowell was most lovely, Foyles is an excellent shop, and I still have a dragon stamp on my arm.

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The Next Together

'The Next Together' by Lauren James

‘The Next Together’ by Lauren James. 

Look how fabulous that cover is.

I read it in one sitting. That’s the most important thing I need to tell you. Before I even mention the plot, I have to warn you – I was glued to my tablet screen for five hours, ignoring the siren call of my fridge and the internet. Be prepared to lose time.

How many times have you fallen for the same person? How many times has that gone horribly wrong? For Matt and Katherine, that number rises every other decade. Any normal couple would have noticed, would have realised that it just wasn’t meant to be. But them? They never remember each other and each time their re-meeting sparks off a powder keg – sometimes literally.

Between meeting during a siege in Carlisle, at university in the future or as shipmates headed for the New World, their meet cutes seem too fantastical to be believable. But there’s a typewriter voice threaded through this story, flatly recording all the details of their lives, even shaping those details. With this ominous presence watching over them every time they die and every time they find each other again, it’s difficult to not worry for them. What does anyone want with them? Why bring them back over and over again?

The Next Together by Lauren James is a love story. But it’s not mushy and sentimental, and I never once wanted to throw my tablet across the room. And while it has a love story at its heart, it’s also a historical novel. And it’s a sci-fi novel. ‘There’s something for everyone’ is a cliché but it sums up this book perfectly. Personally, I’ve recommended it to everyone I know in real life. So lovely people of the internet, it’s your turn. You need to read this book. Because it’s got everything and does it all well.

You can find The Next Together at Amazon, Waterstones, and I would assume any other good bookshop.

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A Natural History of Dragons

For my birthday, I was given A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. As in, Marie Brennan wrote the book. She didn’t give it to me. Unfortunately, with exams and the general hecticness of university, I didn’t get a chance to read it until recently. I guess commutes are good for something.

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The book, fabulously displayed by Eddie the dragon.

It wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting a kind of field guide to dragons with anatomical drawings and such. What the book actually is, is an introduction by the fictional Lady Trent to her life, which, it must be said, revolves around dragons.

Set in a fictional world in where it is apparently the 1800s or early 1900s, the world in which Lady Trent lives has real live dragons. Apparently, she has been fascinated by them since childhood and is now an expert in the field. This book is her first memoir, recalling how her obsession began and detailing her first expedition to study dragons.

It’s a well written book, even if I was a little sceptical at first. Like I said, it wasn’t what I was expecting and honestly, the era the story is based on means that as a woman, Lady Trent is discouraged from following her passions. Of course, she overcomes this, but that is largely due to social status and encouragement and permission from her father and later her husband. In the book, she is aware of her privilege, which I greatly appreciated, but this is a trope that I think I’ve read too many times. I’m ready for stories set in a world where women can follow their passions without society telling them that it’s unladylike.

The mythology of dragons in this book is well thought through and consistent, even down to dragon grieving rituals. As the protagonist and narrator, Lady Trent often alludes to vaguely scientific ways of study and understanding the creatures, as you would expect an expert in a burgeoning field to be.

Overall, this is a good book, even if it took me a while to settle into the world it builds. I found out the other day that it’s actually part of series and I do want to read the next one. But I’m not rushing out to Waterstones right this instant. I can wait. And I think that sums up my feelings about this book. It’s enjoyable, but you don’t have to rush to read it. It can wait a while.