Category archives: Books

Young Adult is Not a Bad Word - But You Still Shouldn't Say It

by June 10, 2014 in Books

I love reading books that are commonly categorized as Young Adult. Recently, however, I’ve begun to question the usefulness of the term, and whether or not it should be employed along with other common genres when referring to books. Does it inform potential readers the way describing a work as "science fiction" might? Unfortunately, I think due to a combination of ambiguity surrounding the term, and unfair prejudices readers have about it, Young Adult is at best uninformative, and at worst harmful for the books it is applied to.

Ambiguity

As a description Young Adult results in ambiguity because there is no clear indication of what the term is meant to represent for the potential reader. Does it mean the book contains characters who are teenagers? If so, does that mean all books about teenagers are Young Adult novels? Or that any novel that focuses on older, or younger characters cannot be Young Adult? If so the logical extension of this is that all books with children for protagonists are children's books, and those with adult characters are adult books.

Ender's Game, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Oliver Twist all contain young protagonists. Are they suddenly children's books? Is the The Hunger Games no longer Young Adult if Katniss Everdeen is twenty-five instead of seventeen?

Another possibility is that Young Adult doesn't describe the characters, but instead the appropriateness of the content. Even if this is accurate, is it helpful? Do teenage readers choose books because the content is appropriate for them? I would think in many cases the exact opposite is true. I know as a teenager I sought out things beyond both my vocabulary level and my maturity, and I doubt much as changed since.

Moreover, we do not classify classic literature that we task our high school readers with as Young Adult, despite them being appropriate for them to read. And on the flip side, based on the Young Adult novels I have read, the classification has no bearing on the appropriateness of content. The variation between, say The Goose Girl and Unwind, is rather severe.

Harmful

Most reasonably, the term is applied to books which have Young Adults as the target audience. While it may be true that readers of a particular age will be more inclined to enjoy certain books, is the term helpful when used this way? One could argue that it is as informative as other genre descriptions, giving the reader a general idea of the themes, tone, or style present in the book. While this may be true I think it is also, combined with the ambiguities above, the reason the term can be harmful to the books it is applied to.

Consider this non-exhaustive list of other common genres: fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance. If I were to tell you a book is science fiction, you may be immediately reluctant to read it, because your own experience with books in the genre has led you to believe that these are not books you enjoy. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction for you to have. If, however, I mention a book is Young Adult, you may be similarly disinclined to read it. Is this the same thing?

No, because science fiction (along with the other items listed above), tells you very clear things about the book you are going to read. Young Adult, however, does not. Unless the implication is that themes a younger reader might be interested in differ drastically from those of an adult reader. Or, even more absurdly, that adults are somehow above reading about teenage-relevant themes.

Shannon Hale recently went on a rant on twitter about the subject, pointing out that saying adults should be ashamed of reading Young Adult books is like saying they should be ashamed about caring about issues that teenagers are dealing with. I would take this further saying that even if Young Adult, as a genre, means "books that deal with events and struggles that teenagers are dealing with", how does that inform the average reader? Do you approach the book store considering how you might relate to the themes presented in the book? Or do you read in order to better understand, experience, and empathize with countless different perspectives?

As a practical example, take The Book Thief, a novel that I have seen classified as Young Adult. Were I to recommend this to my mother with a description as "a really great Young Adult novel about a girl in war time Germany" she would be less interested than if I were to instead say "a really great fiction novel about a girl in war time Germany". Is this because my mom is not interested in what happens to a young girl? Of course not! Instead, it's because Young Adult does not inform her the same way describing it as fiction would.

In fact, it gives her less information about the book than if I were to just say "a book about a girl in war time Germany" because of the terms ambiguity. Fortunately my mom has read and loved The Book Thief, but this does exemplify how the ambiguity of Young Adult could result in readers avoiding books they would enjoy. On the other hand, if I told her about The Goose Girl, a fantasy love story about a young girl, I completely understand if she doesn't want to read it. This time, however, it's because the genre "fantasy" informs her, accurately, that it's not the type of novel that she enjoys.

Conclusions

Okay, perhaps I'm right. Perhaps Young Adult is at best an ambiguous genre, and at worst it causes unfair reactions from readers. What is the point of writing all of this? I want this to simply serve as a word of caution for those of us who like to write and talk about books. When we are describing a work to friends, family, or writing posts about it, let's be clear and concise in our word choices.

We can't change the marketing power of big publishers, but we can improve our own language around books. If a novel has fantastical elements, call it fantasy. If it has elements that are not appropriate for young readers, mention them. Young Adult is not a bad word, but it does suffer from enough ambiguity that I'm going to try to avoid using it, focusing instead upon clearer, more informative terms that let the books stand on their own. In other words Young Adult as a genre either gives us irrelevant information (the protagonist is young) or it attempts to give information that we should simply state explicitly (appropriate reading age or thematic elements).

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Tangled Up in Denna

by June 6, 2014 in Books, Fantasy, Recommended

Tangled Up in Denna

One of my favorite aspects of reading is the way a good book will permeate everything else I take in, whether other books, music, or just everyday conversations. I recently had one such connection when, while listening to Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue", I considered the relationship between Denna and Kvothe in the Kingkiller Chronicles. Though the connections aren't literal - Denna and Kvothe don't partake in any of the various events or situations in the song - for me there were definite moments where listening to the song feels like reading about Kvothe and Denna's back and forth relationship.

My reaction starts with title of the song. In The Name of the Wind one does not enter into a straightforward relationship with Denna. You become wrapped up, trapped, and tangled up with her. She permeates your thoughts and life. This obsession is more apparent with the men she entraps, but Kvothe suffers from it as well.

The second verse elicits more similarities:

She was married when we first met

Soon to be divorced

I helped her out of a jam, I guess

But I used a little too much force

Denna is never married, of course ...

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First Line: Dangerous

by May 7, 2014 in Books, First Line, Recommended, Science Fiction

First Line: Dangerous

"The warehouse was coffin dark."

Initially this may strike you as a really solid opener - it gives a sense of foreboding and danger with just a few words. However, as it turns out, I found this first line to be pretty disappointing because of what immediately follows in the one page prologue this sentence initiates. The prologue continues with the sense of fear, finally culminating in "But I didn't want to kill again. And I didn't want to die."

Honestly, this probably wouldn't strike me as such an overplayed, melodramatic start of the book if not for the painful similarities to the opening of each book in the Twilight series, and for the fact that the first sentence in the first chapter was so much better.

"Every superhero has an origin story."

I enjoy this opener so much more for several reasons. First of all, it doesn't bring to mind unfortunate comparisons to Twilight. This book is not a melodramatic romance wrapped inside a silly vampire story. Instead, it's an exciting sci-fi action adventure with original and well-wrought characters. Don't get me wrong, sometimes you want a melodramatic and silly book to read, but ...

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The Lord of the Rings: a Calendar

by April 26, 2014 in Books, Fantasy, Recommended

The Lord of the Rings: a Calendar

At some point in college I remember thinking "The Lord of the Rings is so well-constructed that you could probably put together a complete, day-by-day calendar of events, so that the age old question of "what happened on my birthday in The Lord of the Rings?" could finally be answered.

Well, 10+ years later and I've finally started down the long dark road of creating such a calendar. The efforts so far, which consist of the first book only, can be found here: Today in the Lord of the Rings. There are a few caveats that I should mention. First, since it's only the first book, it only has events from 9/21 until 2/26. Second, Tolkien did not follow our actual calendar, but instead used a calendar with 12 30-day months. As a result, there will be no results for the 31st of any month, and February will have entries on the 29th and 30th.

I'll keep adding entries as I work through the 2nd book, so more days will get added over time, and not all at once like the first. Any questions, suggestions, or corrections are welcome, as are comments reiterating what I ...

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Begging the Spoiler

by April 14, 2014 in Books

Begging the Spoiler

Spoilers come up a lot online when people are discussing books. Recently Charlie posted about them, concluding:

I'm not keen on spoilers but I can’t say they have 'destroyed' any books for me. And as much as I'd like to not be able to say this, sometimes they improve my reading.

I feel similarly, in that I think any good book will easily withstand any amount of spoilers, though I generally attempt to avoid them, and warn others when they will appear in my posts or reviews. For now, however, I'd like to discuss a phenomenon with spoilers I call "Begging the Spoiler".

In philosophy, begging the question is the logical fallacy in which the conclusion is assumed in the argument being presented. I think a similar situation arises with the discussion of books, when the presence, or significance, of a spoiler only becomes apparent after the spoiler's existence is identified.

For example, if you read the dust jacket summary of a book you may not think anything of it until someone else who has read the book notes "I can't believe how much of the ending they spoiled in the dust jacket summary ...

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First Line: The Supernaturalist

by April 10, 2014 in Books, First Line, Science Fiction

First Line: The Supernaturalist

SATELLITE CITY: THE CITY Of the FUTURE, proclaimed the billboards.

A straightforward first line, but also one that contains some insights into what we can expect from The Supernaturalist. First of all, we immediately learn where the story will take place - Satellite City. From this it's safe to assume that this will be a science fiction novel that takes place in space, or something like space. Both perhaps obvious from the back cover, but if you are like me and don't read such things, it's good to know what you are getting into from the beginning. This is especially true with a title that may imply a plot that is more about ghosts than aliens.

More than that, though, we can just pick up on the disillusionment that the narrator must have with the claim of the billboard about Satellite City being the "City of the Future". I don't think we would read "proclaimed" if Satellite City actually were the City of the Future, instead it would simply be presented as a fact. "Satellite City: The City of the Future". Obviously Satellite City is not the perfect paradise this advertisement implies.

Finally, I can't help ...

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Japanese Literature: Some Advice on Where to Begin

by March 26, 2014 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Japanese Literature: Some Advice on Where to Begin

Seven or eight years ago I was burned out reading what felt like the same type of book, by the same type of author. In my effort to resolve this I decided I wanted to read something “foreign”, and so ended up picking up Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. Since then I have read over fifteen books written by Japanese authors and, while I am certainly not an expert, I feel like I can at least offer some recommendations on where interested readers could start.

Ultimately, I think there are three different ways to start reading Japanese literature, depending on your reading goals and your long term commitment. You could start at any of these points, or use them to build upon one another, but I’ll present them from least to most commitment required. Finally, this list is by no means exhaustive, but simply an attempt to provide a less daunting path in.

Getting Started

The easiest place to start is with Haruki Murakami, the most popular Japanese author worldwide. Murakami’s books cover a wide range of subjects, and themes, while still being filled with consistent elements across books. These consistencies are especially fun as you ...

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Earning the Ending: Here, There be Dragons

by March 18, 2014 in Audio Books, Books, Earning the Ending

Earning the Ending: Here, There be Dragons

I have previously stated that I think the first line of a book is extremely important. However, for as critical as the first line may be, the ending is even more significant. It's what sticks with you, and in many cases, it determines what you think of the book when you reflect upon it.

In this new feature I'll be discussing the ending of various books, and whether or not I think they "earn" their ending (in the case of a strong ending), or if it is a let down compared to the rest of the novel. Obviously, as I'm discussing the ending of the book, there will be spoilers, but I think endings are important for readers and so we shouldn't shy away from potentially spoiling them. Plus, this book specifically is rather bad, and so I don't feel guilty for potentially ruining the ending and discouraging you from reading it.

For our first entry (and the one that inspired the feature) I'd like to talk about Here, There be Dragons by James A. Owen. This is the first novel in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series, and it tells the story ...

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Redesign and New Features

by March 11, 2014 in Books

If you're familiar with the old some smart, some don't, you've probably noticed that the site looks completely different. These changes, however, aren't just superficial. I've completely rebuilt the site using the django framework instead of wordpress. What these means, practically, is that the relationship between everything on the site is much smarter and more integrated.

For example, I've related this blog post to William Morris' Wood Beyond the World, which means if you click through to the single entry view, you'll see the book listed on the right. This relationship works both ways, as well, so if you head to the book's page it will link back to this post, and any other post about the book. These small, but significant, relationships now run throughout the site.

Another new feature is the favorites page, which will hopefully help to distill all the posts, reviews, etc on this site into a single place where you can go to find a list of my favorite books to recommend by genre. The listed genres will update overtime as I add new entries to my favorite lists.

If you have any suggestions for additional features ...

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First Line: Sanshirō

by March 28, 2012 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

First Line: Sanshirō

There are going to be a few thematic spoilers to this book, but I'll be careful not to spoil too much for those who want to read Sanshirō.

"He drifted off, and when he opened his eyes the woman was still there."

Despite its simple appearance, this is a really great first line. Even without being informed by the rest of the novel, we can learn a lot about Sanshirō as a character from this opener. If we build the imagery of what is happening here in our minds, we see that Sanshirō took enough interest in the woman nearby to notice her, but allowed himself to drift off to sleep. When he does awake from his brief rest, he immediately notices the woman again.

What does this mean? Clearly women are something of interest to Sanshirō, evident by the fact that nothing else about his surroundings is mentioned as he falls asleep, or as he wakes up. And yet, there is something about the choice of the word “still” that implies Sanshirō is not entirely comfortable with the woman nearby. As though by closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep Sanshirō hoped the woman would be gone ...

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