YA Lit Recommendations

It’s been a long while, so lets talk YA lit. Not dystopias, fantasy or sci-fi, we’ll save that for later.

The draft of this entry was written at two in the morning. I had just finished a novel, and I wanted to talk raw young adult literature – the kind about real life. Two YA authors I currently absolutely adore? David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell.  So much so that this is a review of them, two books by each. 

 

Boy Meets Boy: 

A David Levithan novel, and an absolute classic. Levithan has this way of writing that’s so thoughtful and beautiful that it borders on pretentious, yet at the same time it’s all so down-to-earth. Hipster-y: that’s how I described it as I was reading it. Also, it’s funny as hell, barking mad and LQBTQ+ inclusive (well, LGBQ inclusive, it was missing a trans character.)

It’s set in a town that is generally just a bit bonkers, but in the best way. The star quarterback is also the homecoming queen and is also a drag queen. She gets into arguments with the school’s other drag queens. The protagonist was informed that he was gay by his kindergarden teacher. Everything is accepting and surreal and it’s one of those worlds you’re able to just sink into and become a part of. As the title implies, it’s effectively a rom com between two guys, but it feels like cheapening it to say that’s all it is.  

 

How They Met:

The other David Levithan book, this is one an anthology of short stories. Short stories about love, the first of which was written when he was still in high school.

I’ll admit it. I have never been huge on short story collections, because once I finish one I’ve never felt the same drive to start the next as you would with book chapters. But that wasn’t the case with this. Every story was charming: some funny, some sad, some thoughtful. They featured a range of different situations, sexualities and characters, possibly leaning, as is Lethithan’s way, towards gay relationships. Not all had happy endings, but all were worth reading. 

 

Fangirl: 

My first Rainbow Rowell novel, recommended to me by the internet. I swear, I saw stuff about this book popping up everywhere. 

First of all, I have to say that it’s really, really weird to read a book with a protagonist you relate to as much as I related to Cath. I may not have anxiety, but a lot of it felt spot-on. This is where I should point out that Fangirl is a book about just that. A fangirl. An awkward, fanfiction-writing, slash-shipping fangirl. It’s great. 

The novel, to me, seems like a coming-of-age story. It’s about a girl going to university, separated from her twin sister for the first time. There’s an element of romance, an element of comedy, and a little more of an element of drama. I loved every sentence.

 

Eleanor and Park:

The Rainbow Rowell book I just stayed up reading. It follows the story of two teenagers in the 1980s, who despite getting the same bus and living in the same town have drastically different lives. The best YA love story I’ve read in a while. 

There’s very little I can say without giving away plot, but I will say this: don’t be fooled by how awkward and adorable everything is at the start. Don’t forget what’s going on at home. 

Perhaps I’m just emotional because I only finished it 45 minutes ago, but I think Eleanor and Park is the best on this list. It is, along with everything else, a look at attitudes poverty, race and sexuality in the ‘80s. To be frank, not enough has changed that it isn’t still relevant now.

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Platonic Themes In Fiction

Ok, so I love a good romance as much as anybody else (maybe a little more), but that doesn’t mean I don’t get sick of it sometimes. You get constantly bombarded with romance to the extent I think it’s easy to forget how important friendship is.

So I’ve complied a list of fiction that focuses on platonic relationships, in case you, too, want a bit of variety. Apologies that so many are action/crime based, that’s more a reflection of my own preferences than anything else.

Book: Skulduggery Pleasant
For a series of action-comedy books about a teenage girl and a skeleton detective, these books are surprisingly complex in character, mood and relationship. You wouldn’t expect them, for example, to be a truly excellent example of a close platonic relationship – one which gets stronger books by book despite various bumps in the road. Valkyrie is has various love interests, but it’s an accepted fact that for Val, Skulduggery comes first, and her romantic interests have to accept that for the relationship to work.

Book: Harry Potter
You didn’t think I’d be able to resist this one, did you? Love is literally the most important thing and all kinds of love beat darkness. The romance is most certainly a side-plot.

TV: Elementary
It always amuses me when people claim Elementary made Watson female to make her and Holmes’ relationship more socially acceptable, because they clearly haven’t been watching the show. Joan and Sherlock’s relationship is remarkable in its equality and simplicity. Both characters appear to be heterosexual (an interesting decision for the character of Sherlock Holmes, but it works) and yet there is nothing remotely sexual or romantic in their relationship. It’s a refreshing change and it says a lot about the state of television that a close male-female platonic relationship is considered new or daring.

TV: Merlin/Supernatural/Atlantis/Sherlock/ect
Two cisgender straight white males have a close platonic relationship! Oh my! I’ll mock the bromance trope until the day I die, but at the end of the day I do have to put them on this list. It is a platonic relationship, after all.

Film: The Avengers
A superhero movie without a romantic subplot. Sure, all the movies that it’s a sequel to have them, but I was having quite a bit of difficulty coming up with a film I liked without sex or romance and this is the best example I can find. Aliens are attacking New York and there’s no time for romance! But seriously, an action movie that focuses on the team dynamic rather than the save-the-world-get-the-girl trope is nice.

Film: Frozen
If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, see it. A Disney film that clearly says they’re getting bored of the typical “true love’s kiss” cliché and heroines getting married on the first day of meeting their prince. The day is saved by platonic sisterly love! In a Disney film! What a refreshing change.

Video Game: Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney
I know it’s not a book, film or TV show, but hear me out. Ace Attorney is a series of narrative-heavy, logic-based video games for Nintendo DS (a little similar to the more popular Professor Layton games). It’s a work of fiction that centres around platonic relationships, and romance really only comes into play in the third game, when it’s plot-relevant and minor. The game’s key relationships are ones of friendship, mentorship and rivalry, and I bet you’ll be surprised how heartwarming and sad a game series about Japanese lawyers in a fictional legal system can really be.

Organising My Thoughts on Sherlock Series 3

So, as you undoubtedly are aware, the third season of Sherlock has just aired. I love Sherlock. Absolutely love it. But after season 2, I was worried this season wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Luckily, I have a lot more positive than negative to say. Actually, I just have a hell of a lot to say.

[SPOILERS for the entirety of Sherlock season 3, obviously]

The good:

  • John and Sherlock’s reunion. In the books, John fainted. In the TV show, he basically beat him up. I know which I prefer.
  • Those crackpot theories as to how Sherlock survived. A lovely nod to the fandom which spent the last two years coming up with theories as to how he did it.
  • Sherlock’s wedding speech. It was clever how they interspersed it with what had happened in the six months that had passed since The Empty Hearse, and it was just really, really touching to see such an insight into John and Sherlock’s relationship.
  • Mary Morstan. How do I even begin to describe how much I adore Mary Morstan? She’s an absolutely excellent, much-needed addition to the show, and Amanda Abbington is so perfect for the role I can imagine nobody else. We got a developed, funny female character who gets along with Sherlock right from the get-go. At last.
  • The direction and cinematography was amazing. I don’t know much about such things, but wow. All the mind palace scenes were visually stunning.
  • Molly Hooper and Sherlock’s relationship. I never really liked how the writers treated Molly in earlier seasons, passing her off as a silly girl who’s bumbling and whose whole personality is “in love with Sherlock”. Ok, that’s a little harsh, but you get the idea. But this season, she’s become the only person who can see through Sherlock’s facade of happiness to how he’s hurting. (Anybody see how she was looking at him when John and Mary were dancing?) Her slapping Sherlock not once but three times and giving him a proper telling-off was perfect – as was Sherlock telling her she wasn’t being John, she was being Molly. Very sweet.
  • All the interaction between John, Mary and Sherlock. Oh so domestic.
  • The woman that Sherlock strung along getting her well-deserved revenge in the form of tabloid scoops, a One Show interview and a freaking cottage. Damn right, she should be pissed off Sherlock did that to her.
  • Magnussen was delightfully creepy.
  • “Did you miss me?” Oh God yes.

The bad not-so-good:

  • Not so fond of the secret-agent identity plotline of Mary’s. But maybe it’ll grow on me, things like that have in the past.
  • A couple of dodgy transitions. Lestrade and Anderson’s coffee cups becoming John’s eyes, for instance.
  • While I get that they wanted Anderson to become a fan, driven a little mad by the guilt of Sherlock committing suicide, it was distasteful. Obsession (to the level of stalking, and losing his job over it) shouldn’t really be the joke it was made into. Anderson needs help, not a funny scene of him hysterically pulling down theories of how Sherlock survives.
  • Not a lot of Donavan, which was a shame.
  • I feel like Sherlock’s drug use was skipped over. And, again, played for laughs. People really should have been more worried Sherlock was using again, rather than just passing over it when the plot moved on.
  • The first two episodes were a little light on actual cases and canon references. That final episode may have made up for it, though.
  • That damn “high-functioning sociopath” line. No. Shut up. I don’t think you know what a sociopath is. Or a psychopath, for that matter.

Thank you, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, you wrote one hell of a show. Here’s to another two years spent waiting for a series that only takes two weeks to air.

Books That Left a Lasting Impression

Well, that was a longer time gap between posts than I was anticipating. Sorry. Life happened.

I want to share some books with you. These books are not necessarily my favourites (although many of them are) but they are all books that had plots, themes, concepts or characters that stuck in my head well after I’d read the final page.

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Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury:
Bradbury wrote this book in 1953, but it could have been written yesterday. It’s commentary on censorship and our obsession with technology is still so applicable to the lives we live now and the amount of technological advances that he accurately predicted is scary. I finished reading and just had to sit for a moment, thinking about morality – I’m not even kidding.

Quicksilver – RJ Anderson:
Another sci-fi novel, but this isn’t on the list because it made me think deep thoughts or anything. Aside from having the kind of plot that means I devoured the novel in a single day (as I did with the first in the series, Ultraviolet), Quicksilver is an excellent example of diversity in young adult fiction. The main character is asexual, a hideously under-represented orientation, and it doesn’t dip into stereotypes or misinformation. Just perfect, seriously.

Paper Towns – John Green:
John Green gets a lot of hate, but I will go down fighting that his books have genuine merit. Paper Towns, at first, appears to be the typical young adult romance novel, featuring a privileged male protagonist chasing after a girl who fits the trope “manic pixie dream girl” to a T (google it). I’m not sure at which point I realised that it was, in fact, a complete deconstruction of said trope, but by the end of the book I was doubting half the romances I’d ever watched or read. And I have’t looked at the “dream girl” archetype the same way since.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern:
This book it beautiful, and I mean that in the most basic way. Until I read it, I have no idea that written words could create such a powerful aesthetic, but there you go. The plot is interesting, sure, but the setting, scenery, concept and description is what has made me never forget it.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen:
A lot of people say this is one of those “everybody should read this” kind of classics. I’m not so sure, but everyone who’s ever enjoyed a period piece or loves a good romance should. You read it, and you enjoy a seriously toe-curlingly good soppy romance with the bonus of people calling you cultured. It’s win-win! In all seriousness, though, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are two characters I’ll never forget.

Fyre – Angie Sage
The final in the Septimus Heap series, a children’s fantasy series set in the typical ambiguously medieval setting. Why is it on this list? Simple. It ended with the revelation that the whole thing took place not in an alternate universe, but in the far future. I’m not kidding. It ended with an Arthur C. Clarke quote: “any technology of sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.”

A Woman’s Wit: Irene Adler and Feminism

Let’s take a minute to talk about Irene Adler, the antagonist of the Holmes case A Scandal in Bohemia, the only woman to beat Sherlock Holmes, and the subject of this blog’s title.

For most readers of Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler is one of the first characters they become acquainted with. A Scandal In Bohemia is the first case of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the short story collection new readers are most likely to start with. (more knowledgeable readers may choose to go chronologically by Holmes’ timeline and start with A Study In Scarlett, but The Adventures remains the first published and thus the most popular.)

Isn’t it interesting, therefore, that most people’s first experience with Holmes is a case he ‘loses’ – and to a woman? But Irene Adler is not a villain. She acts entirely to protect herself, and this is why I love her character.

For a woman written in 1891, Miss Adler (as I shall continue to call her, despite her marriage) is a surprisingly feminist-friendly character. She acts for her own gain, using the photo “only to safeguard” herself, rather than to blackmail. It can be argued without much effort that she married for love. She uses her knowledge of theatre to dress in men’s clothing, taking advantage of the “freedom” it gives.

Miss Adler also has hints of the playful, clever nature of present day heroines and antagonists alike. When escaping the country and in disguise she “rather imprudently” wishes Holmes goodnight, and the tone of the letter she leaves Holmes is surprisingly amiable. Of course, she is writing in the knowledge that by the time Holmes receives the letter she will have won, and her pleasant tone is almost mocking. “You really did it very well.” she writes, “You took me in completely.” Its almost a pat on the back, and attempt to make him feel better about the fact he was thwarted by a woman.

Of course, Irene Adler is far from perfect. She is a character of her time, after all. Holmes is able to successfully manipulate her simply through his knowledge of women based entirely on stereotypes. Her beauty is frequently mentioned (she’s “the prettiest thing under a bonnet on this planet”) and it’s implied that some of her success is due to this.

Now would be time to talk about adaptions of this famous character, but something tells me that’s a rant for another blog post.

For now, let’s just not forget that “the best laid plans of Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit.” Irene Norton, neé Adler, is awesome.

Mind Mapping to Cure Writer’s Block

So you’ve started a project. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re writing a novel. Only now you’ve started to avoid writing. It’s not fun anymore.The words don’t flow. Everything you do write, you hate. Congratulations, you have creative block – also known as writer’s block. Now here’s a method to solve it using mind mapping.

The first step is to ask yourself “Why am I stuck?” In fact, that’s your title. Go ahead and write that in the middle of the paper you were undoubtedly smart enough to have on hand.

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Ok, good. The next step is to brainstorm reasons. Maybe you’re not 100% sure what’s wrong – maybe you’re not even 50% sure. Just write down every little thing you’ve been having problems with, but make sure you keep some space around each idea. Here, I’ll give you an example.

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Brilliant. Next, ask yourself why/why not. Go ahead and wrote down that question, too. And then write down some answers around the outside.

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Ok, so you have a better idea what the problem is now. Ask yourself, then, “What can I do to fix this?” and write some suggestions around the outside. Is it’s still not looking fixable, move onto another reason you’re stuck and try from there.

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Great. From here, it’s up to you to work out which questions need to be asked. Keep asking questions until you know how to solve your block. It might be scary. It might involve discarding work you’ve already done or going down a route you didn’t plan to.

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Be daring. Be brave. Be creative.

Good luck.

 

 

5 Ways to Help You Understand Shakespeare

If you study English Literature, you’ll probably have to study Shakespeare. This can be difficult if you, like me, prefer contemporary literature. Shakespeare is tricky – it’s rewarding and interesting, too – but the language can make it very difficult to understand, let alone enjoy. But speaking as something of a Shakespeare convert who still has a lot of difficultly working out whats going on half the time, here are some ways to do both:

1. Watch the play. A lot of people seem to forget that Shakepeare’s plays are designed to be performed, not to be read. Without the emotions of the actors as a guide it can be even harder to work out what the characters are saying. Preferably, find somewhere it’s being performed and go, but that can be both difficult and expensive. If you live near London, check what’s on at the Globe – standing room tickets only cost like £5. If not, see if you can dig up a copy of a film that uses the original script. Joss Whedon recently directed an excellent adaption of Much Ado About Nothing and the BBC recently produced a TV series of some of the historicals called The Hollow Crown.

2. Try alternate methods of reading. Reading the play as lines of text with minimal descriptions of scene or setting can be dull, dull, dull.  As a good way of getting into a new play is reading the graphic novel. I’m not kidding – there are Shakespeare graphic novels.  My first experiences of Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and A Midsummer’s Night Dream were all from a series of books called Manga Shakespeare. They used an abridged version of the text but were great for tone and plot.

3. Buy a fancy copy of the play. Despite Shakespeare being in the public domain, if you spend a bit of money on your copy of the text you can get versions with extended footnotes or even whole separate pages of explanation of what’s going on. They’ll often include “translations” of Shakespearean turns of phrases that can be a little hard to understand as a modern audience, and some will even give you little bits of analysis, character lists or explanations of allusions. I recommend the Arden Shakespeare editions, which are the ones we’ve been recommended in class and are really very useful.

4. Keep a dictionary on hand. To be precise, keep a dictionary app or website on hand so you don’t have to flick through pages and pages of a conventional dictionary for words that may not even be there. If you’re reading the play on a tablet or e-reader then you’ll be able to highlight a word and get an immediate definition. It speeds up the reading process if you don’t have to wonder about the meaning of various archaic words.

5. If all else fails, try No Fear Shakespeare. This is a subsection of the website Spark Notes that gives you the original text next to the same scene in modern English. Not every play is on there, but lots of the more popular ones are.