Top Five Young Adult Novels This Year

In the literary world, young adult novels are typically looked down on as being less high quality than fiction produced for adults, and not worthy of the same critical inspection and praise. I totally disagree. Not only is that assessment an insult to the authors of these books, it’s an insult to the readers. In any case, 2017 has been an excellent year for young adult novels. Here are my picks of the top five young adult novels released this year.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green is widely known for his previous young adult novels along with his YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, co-hosted with his brother Hank Green, and dozens of other online projects. Unlike his previous works, however, this one feels more authentic and gripping, as Green reveals, via his narrator Aza Holmes, the terrifying prison of thoughts created by OCD and anxiety (which Green himself suffers from), and the realities of living with a mental illness.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s often assumed that teen literature can’t really discuss intense and/or controversial topics, or talk about them well. It’s also often assumed that debuting authors aren’t doing the best work out there. Angie Thomas proves both of those assumptions totally false in her stunning debut work. The novel revolves around its narrator, Starr, who navigates the worlds of her poor black neighborhood and her wealthy white prep school, and the fallout when her friend Khalil, unarmed, is shot by the police. Thomas dives right in to the subjects of police brutality, race, and class with nuance, thoughtfulness, and grace.

I Hate Everyone But You by Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn

If you’re a fan of the hilarious YouTube comedy channel Just Between Us, then you’ll love this fun and charismatic novel from its two creators, Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn. The story is told through a series of emails, text messages, and other communications between its two main characters, best friends Ava and Gen, as they begin their first year of college. Just as they do in their YouTube show, Raskin and Dunn tackle everything from coming out to mental health with boldness and humor in this awesome debut.

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

When the protagonist of this story, Griffin, finds out his ex-boyfriend, Theo, has died, it sets off a terrifying spiral of downward thoughts, secrets, and obsessions. Author Adam Silvera adds this emotionally devastating tale to his other, critically acclaimed works including the New York Times bestseller More Happy Than Not. In this book, Silvera explores loss, grief, mental anguish, and how we learn to let go.

A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Another stunning debut novel, this one from Robin Roe, A List of Cages tells the story of high school senior Adam Blake, who finds himself reunited with his former foster brother, Julian. However, Julian is keeping a few secrets. As Adam struggles with ADHD and tries to navigate Julian’s issues, his desire to help Julian pushes up against the reality of both their situations. Roe gives us an amazing debut novel, and leaves us eager for her next work.

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We Become Visible: A Review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘Go, Went, Gone’

A group of asylum seekers stand in protest in Alexanderplatz. They refuse to eat. They refuse to speak. They hold a sign that reads:We become visible. So begins Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone.

In her latest novel, Erpenbeck sheds light on Europe’s refugee crisis and the harsh realities faced by asylum seekers. The narrative follows Richard, a retired professor of Classics. In the beginning, Richard fails to notice the protesters, despite the fact that he had passed through Alexanderplatz many times during their demonstration. Instead, he finds out about the protest on the evening news. Disturbed by his lack of awareness, Richard sets out to become involved in the lives of the refugees. He seeks them out, asks them questions and listens to their stories; out of their exchange grows immense compassion and will to action.

As a recent retiree, Richard is confined to the home; he takes boxes from the office and “incorporate[s] their contents into his private realm”. Not only is Richard restricted in space, but he is captive to habit. Erpenbeck lists the minutiae of Richard’s routine. Richard is reading the newspaper, drinking tea, buying groceries, or folding sheets. He goes through the motions.

But it doesn’t take much for Richard, a well-to-do European, to break free from daily patterns and constraints. Unlike the refugees who truly have nowhere to go, no work, no country to return to, Richard’s confinement is not prohibitive. As he engages with the protesters, he finds new work supporting their cause. When he invites migrants to stay in his home, his solitude unravels, private life is made public and ritual meals are transformed into social gatherings. For Richard, isolation is more of a habit than a necessary state of being.

If only Germany could do the same. Germany is certainly in the habit of isolation, but it need not remain that way. Germany, more than any other nation, should understand that habits may be broken, social constructs rearranged. For Richard and his East German friends Sylvia and Detlef, “the sense that all existing order is reversible has always seemed perfectly natural,” for they have known the collapse of German Socialism and the marriage of East and West. They realize that enemies can become neighbours overnight.

But Germany is loath to open its boarders to refugees. Erpenbeck condemns the German public for their ignorance and indifference. As Richard frets over African refugees who drowned on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, he finds others to be cruel and callous. On the internet, DontCare writes: “The only ones I really feel sorry for are the coastguard workers!” In an effort to highlight the absurdity of the policies that make life impossible for refugees, Erpenbeck is explicit. She cites the Dublin II regulation, and the 70,000 vacant assistant positions that Germany is unwilling to give to refugees; she even takes time to outline the official punishment for foreigners who have committed theft.

These political details don’t grow organically out of plot, but are deliberately arranged throughout the text. At times the narrative feels bogged down by facts. Still, this book would not be nearly as effective without them. Erpenbeck includes the specifics because they count. It is only in taking time to learn the details that we can understand, with acuity, the migrant’s dilemma and the impact of our apathy.

Erpenbeck also explores prospects for communication. She understands that you cannot will away a lifetime of cultural embeddedness by the snap of your fingers. Even Richard finds it difficult to keep all the Africans’ names straight, and applies nicknames like Tristan and Apollo, drawing on his European, academic background; Rashid, a refugee from Niger who Richard befriends, is quite like the thunderbolt-hurler. On the flip side, she understands that nobody enters into a new culture instantly or seamlessly. The African migrants are taking language classes and their German is fairly rudimentary. Their conversations with Richard aren’t particularly nuanced. Of course there remain shades of meaning that Richard will never grasp, himself lacking an African background.

When we struggle to communicate, it can be difficult to cultivate a sense of compassion. The African refugees seem so foreign to the Berliners. But Erpenbeck believes in a common ground. Her prose is simple, steady, and unaffected. As she does away with stylistic flourish, she achieves total clarity and opens a space for connection. Hers is a language that everyone may share.

The attempt to communicate is more critical now than ever. Germany’s September 2017 election marked increasing polarization within the country over issues regarding refugees. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, opposed to Angela Merkel’s open door policy towards migrants, took over 13% of the national vote. The AfD hopes to alter the German constitution to abolish asylum seekers’ right to individual hearings. They want to immediately deport all those with rejected applications regardless of the safety of their home nations. Not to mention, many members of the party have been accused of espousing neo-Nazi beliefs.

Erpenbeck speaks against the attitudes of the alt-right. She argues for a world in which borders do not have the final say on who is able to live and prosper. Richard wonders about the divide between human beings. Is there “one true critical border”? Is it “between languages?” “Those who call dinner fufu and those who call it stew?” “Is it between one day and the next?” We find that there are no real borders but only multiple habits and imaginary lines.

Erpenbeck uses fiction to approach the refugee crisis in a way that other mediums never could. Images of people-packed boats and crowded refugee camps flicker past us on television screens, but we have grown indifferent towards these endless reels. Erpenbeck offers another kind of witness; she offers a focused, meditative, and entirely human encounter with the crisis and its victims. As Richard watches the news he wonders, “what stories lay behind all the random images”.  Go, Went, Gone, provides us with these stories. They become visible.

 

Novel Ideas: Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

When I first started The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s sixth novel, I felt this sense of anticipation that continued through the whole book, as though every part of the story was only there to serve as an explanation or background for the real, important part.

I guess that makes sense in a way. The bulk of the story takes place while the main characters (including Julia, the narrator) are in grades 7-9. Is there any other time in life that just feels like a transition? Kids already too old to be kids, not quite old enough to feel like full-fledged adolescents. It’s a painful transition, one that Messud tackles gracefully. Julia and her best friend Cassie begin to grow apart only at the outset of puberty, as they develop into their own personalities and mature at different rates, toward different courses of action.

One Halloween, when both girls are in the seventh grade, crystalizes their differences. While Julia assumes the two will go trick-or-treating, Cassie informs her she’s been invited to spend the night watching horror movies at another girl’s house, which turns out to be “a boy-girl party, complete with Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle”, where Cassie also begins a relationship with a boy Julia has a crush on. Julia spends the night handing out candy and seeing her own classmates trick-or-treat at her door. It’s such a stark difference, and Messud takes care to show us Julia’s dual perspectives, answering the door with an air of not caring, while of course caring deeply on the inside.

Cover of Claire Messud’s ‘The Burning Girl’

Most authors tend not to see any emotional complexity in pre-teen girls or young teenage girls. I was worried at first that Messud would fall into the common trap with young girls whose friendship falls apart. One girl becomes the cool, popular, already grown-up while the other stays innocent and kind. And we, the ready, are always meant to sympathize more with the latter, to see her as the sweet Madonna to the former Whore. The latter always wants to stay friends, and the evil ex-best friend can’t wait to pull away.

But things are rarely so simple, and Messud doesn’t want us to think they are either. Julia is initially hurt by Cassie pulling away, but never really makes the effort to really come back together. Instead, she tries to forge her own identity, getting into her own life and new friends, and watching from afar as Cassie does the same. Julia half-heartedly tries to defend Cassie every now and then from various accusations from her friends (Cassie’s a slut, Cassie parties too much), while still privately harboring the same thoughts.

And rather than leave us to wonder about Cassie, Messud instead takes the time to dive into Cassie’s home life, and its many stark differences from Julia’s. Julia is solidly upper-middle class. College is an expectation, not a fantasy. She has a supportive relationship with her parents. She tells her mother everything. Julia has no need to rebel, as she has nothing so terrible to rebel against.

Author Claire Messud

On the other hand, Cassie has a strict, religious mother, whose strictness becomes even more pronounced when she begins a relationship with a man called Anders Shute. Messud never levels any explicit accusations at Shute, but he remains the most shadowy character in the book. By Cassie’s word he never does anything specific. But he seems all too interested in how short Cassie’s skirts are, how late she it out, if she is in a relationship with a boy.

Anders, like a few of the adult men in the book, straddle the line just so, between creepy and concerning. In one scene, Cassie is picked up while walking down a highway late at night by a concerned neighbor. While we never know Cassie’s thoughts at the time, Julia wonders how Cassie must have felt. She had no reason to fear him, but every reason to fear him. Both Julia and Cassie, despite their differences, feel the keen awareness of their own vulnerability, of being a young girl out in the world.

If the Burning Girl, for all the brilliance of Messud’s writing, has any faults, it’s that she occasionally writes heavy-handedly about the dangers lurking for young girls, which feels more like exposition from an adult pretending to write as an adolescent than the actual thoughts of the said adolescent. And yet, perhaps we can overlook this. If Messud discussing how terrifying the world is for young girls is meant to feel like some new revelation, it’s because it is for Julia.

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5 Queer Authors Working Now

Like most things, the literary sphere is mostly dominated by straight white cis men, with LGBTQ folks struggling to have their voices heard (so to speak). That’s not to say that there haven’t been to amazing queer literary giants, from Sappho to Oscar Wilde and so on. Still, you might be hoping for some people who are currently working today.

A little while back I told you about 5 queer artists working today. Now, I’m going to tell you about 5 queer authors. 

Mariko Tamaki

First off, if you’d like to hear Mariko Tamakis full life story (and see some baby pictures that look like author photos), I’d highly recommend watching her keynote address at the 2017 Queer & Comics Conference. You can also read this Canadian graphic novelist’s incredible works, Skim and This One Summer (both with her cousin Jillian Tamaki). Both show incredible grace in telling coming-of-age stories, and talking about girlhood, among other issues. Tamaki has a brilliant way of writing about growing up that is honest and authentic without ever coming across as patronizing. You can check out all of her thoughts on her blog.

David Levithan

I first came across David Levithan when I read his 2003 novel Boy Meets Boy. I remember I was about thirteen or fourteen, and it was the first gay book I had ever read. As a queer kid, I was so excited to see myself represented and to see the characters in his book not be outliers or horribly depressed or oppressed but simply being themselves, be they gay, bisexual, trans, or anything. While Levithan has occasionally veered out of the young adult genre with some excellent titles like The Lover’s Dictionary, he is most famous for his young adult works featuring LGBTQ characters including Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and The Realm of Possibility. You can find out more about him on his website. 

Kai Cheng Thom

According to her website, Kai Cheng Thom is a “fiery writer, performer, spoken word artist, and drag dance sensation.” Throughout her career, she’s written countless essays for Everyday Feminism, BuzzFeed and many more on everything from trans identity to race to privilege. She also wrote the novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, and the children’s book, From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, and has also had some of her poetry published. You can see more of her work and lear about her at her website.

Fiona Zedde

While queer women are underrepresented in literature in general, literature created by and about queer women of color, particularly black queer women, is almost non-existent. That’s part of what makes Fiona Zedde’s work so exciting. Much of her work, from her brilliant short stories to her delightful romance novels, center around queer black women, dealing with relationships, lust, family drama, and, occasionally, some vampires or other supernatural elements, living their most honest lives. Zedde has published twelve novels and two short story collections. You can read more about her work on her website.

Shyam Selvadurai

If you’re looking for an intense yet beautiful coming-of-age story, I would have to recommend Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel Funny Boy, which is set in the 1970s and ’80s in Sri Lanka, and is based partly on Selvadurai’s own experiences growing up gay amidst tensions and civil war in the country. Selvadurai has also written several other novels concerning similar themes of sexuality, love, diaspora, and youth, including the books Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, Cinnamon Gardens, and The Hungry Ghosts. Selvadurai’s work is superb, understated, and contains some of the best character writing I’ve ever seen. He’s also written numerous articles for various online publications, and edited an anthology of Sri Lankan fiction and poetry. You can find out more about him at his website.

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Ten Independent Publishing Houses To Check Out

Image by And Other Stories

On the lookout for some interesting reads? Well look no more! Below are ten of my favourite independent publishing houses who curate and publish some of the most daring and experimental works.

Archipelago Books

Seeking to fill a gap in the literary world, founder Jill Schoolman established the press in order to delve into literature outside the Anglosphere. With such a vast literary world beyond the “West”, Archipelago aims to illuminate, as Schoolman says, “other ways of seeing and being”. And it, in its ten years of translation and publication, has done so with the works of Scholastique Mukasonga, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, and Meng Hao-Jan.

And Other Stories

Focusing primarily on contemporary international fiction, And Other Stories is another publisher that values translated fiction. Its titles range from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home – a novel that meditates on class and families – to SJ Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds – a short story collection, translated from Afrikaans, that focuses on death, loss, and the subcultures of gay, expat, and artistic communities.

Sundress Publications

A non-profit, woman-run publication, Sundress is a publication group that includes Wicked Alice, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Rogue Agent. Alongside working with its member publications, Sundress publishes chapbooks and full-length books that often defy and challenge concepts of genre, as well as an anthology of the best online literary works.

Dancing Girl Press

Based in Chicago, Dancing Girl Press focuses on writings by women. Its chapbooks have intricately handmade designs and explore the relationship between the visual and the literary. Its titles include Anne Graue’s Fig Tree In Winter, Rebecca Valley’s The Bird Eaters, and Azia Archer’s Atoms and Evers.

Horse Less Press

Publishing chapbooks, pamphlets, and full-length books, as well as running an online literary journal, Horse Less Press focuses on imaginative and innovative poetry collections. My personal favourites include Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Houses and Sara Woods’ Sara or The Existence of Fire, both of which are moving and challenging with exquisitely written imageries.

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Publishing contemporary fiction and long-form essays, this London-based press focuses on works in translation as well as in the English language. Its titles include Alejandro Zamba’s My Documents to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. With each publication, Fitzcarraldo aims to introduce ambitious and innovative writing to the literary scene.

Pushkin Press

Established in 1997, Pushkin publishes everything from novels to children’s books, from classics to contemporary. The press is home to writers from around the world, including Antal Szerb, Gaito Gazdanov, and Edith Pearlman, and has easily become home to some of the most acclaimed and compelling writers.

Salt Publishing

Based in the UK, Salt works to discover and publish contemporary British literature. Publishing everything from fiction anthologies and novels to children’s poetry, Salt is best known for Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many.

404 Ink

Established by freelancers Laura Jones and Heather McDaid, 404 Ink entered the literary world just last year. Known mostly for its publication of Nasty Women – a collection of essays, interviews, and writings that discuss the lives of women in this politically chaotic and deeply disparate world – 404 Ink aims to bring to light innovative and trailblazing writings.

Portobello Books

We have Portobello Books to thank for 2016’s Man Booker International Prize winning novel The Vegetarian. First established in 2005, Portobello is known for its fiction in translation, working with writers from all six continents. Portobello also has a non-fiction strand, publishing investigative journalism, travel writing, memoir, and reportage. Having received some of the most impressive literary awards, the press is renowned for the originality and individuality it brings to the publishing scene.

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