That GayYA Thing

A month or so ago, while I was locked in my Editing Bunker, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere about the lack of gay (and lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer) characters in books for teenagers. It started off as an argument about whether a particular literary agent had asked two particular authors to remove a gay character from their book, and turned into a wider debate about the experiences of LGBTQ authors and the success (or otherwise) of Young Adult books featuring LGBTQ characters. For those who missed it, there’s an excellent summary and discussion at cleolinda’s livejournal. During the debate, Malinda Lo, a YA author, gathered some data, constructed some graphs and concluded that “less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters”.

So: books, teenagers, gayness and maths. How could I possibly resist adding my opinions, even if I am rather late to the discussion? So, here are some of my random thoughts on the GayYA thing:

All of my YA novels contain gay characters. I’ve never had a literary agent or publisher ask me to de-gay my writing. If they had, I’d have gone looking for another agent and/or publisher. I can honestly say that I’ve experienced FAR less homophobia in the YA publishing industry than in my previous career as a speech and language pathologist.

That’s not to say that things in YA Book World are perfect, and I was saddened to read the accounts of YA authors who had experienced discrimination when trying to get their LGBTQ stories published. I’m also wondering how much of this debate is specific to the United States, which (I think) is a more overtly religious society than Australia. The only homophobic comments I’ve seen about my Montmaray books have come from United States readers (one of them was even a youth librarian – how depressing). I know David Levithan would disagree (he made a speech* here a few years back, complaining about how backwards Australia was compared to the United States, regarding attitudes to gayness), but I actually think Australians are more tolerant. Or possibly more apathetic. At least we don’t have crazy book bannings just about every week.

In addition, I’m sad to say I have to agree with Sarah Rees Brennan’s comment about YA books being less likely to be bestsellers if they contain LGBTQ characters. As she points out, books are more likely to sell well if they get a huge push from their publishers, and publishers tend to put a huge amount of effort behind books only if a) the authors are popular already, or b) they think the book is likely to appeal to (that is, not put off) lots of readers. On the other hand, the reasons a book becomes a bestseller are often complicated and mysterious. Certainly, my books don’t sell very well, but I doubt that has much to do with the gay characters. It’s far more likely to be due to the girls in my books being more interested in giving speeches at the League of Nations than swooning over hot male vampires/werewolves/fallen angels.

I’m also dubious about the “less than 1%” statement by Malinda Lo. Her definition of an ‘LGBTQ YA book’ was fairly broad – she counted any YA book “published by a traditional publisher that includes a main character or secondary character that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning; or a story line related to LGBTQ themes.” Even so, her list seemed to have some obvious omissions, some of which were pointed out by commenters on her blog post. (Also, why isn’t The FitzOsbornes in Exile on her list? It was published in the US by a traditional publisher; it has gay and bisexual characters; it’s even been nominated for next year’s American Library Association’s Rainbow Books list. Is Toby not gay enough? Is Simon not bisexual enough?) In fairness to Malinda Lo, she acknowledges her list may be incomplete. And she does note that “even if I double the number of titles on the list, the total percentage of LGBTQ YA will still only be approximately 1% of all YA books”. Which is very low. Although this percentage will probably come as a relief to those Montmaray reviewers who complained about Toby’s gayness – they often went on to bemoan the ‘fact’ that every second YA book nowadays contains disgusting homosexuals.

I think it’s good for LGBTQ teenagers to be able to read YA books about their lives. It’s even better if straight teenagers can read about LGBTQ lives, because that might help to decrease homophobic bullying in schools. But I also know that teenagers often read books that are (gasp!) published for adults. This is especially true for books involving LGBTQ issues (ugh, the ‘issues’ word), because until recently, a lot of those books were published as adult, not YA, in Australia, even when the protagonists were teenagers or young adults. This applied to books by Australian authors (for example, Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas and Sushi Central by Alasdair Duncan) and international authors (for example, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon).

All of this made me think about my favourite books about LGBTQ teenagers and young adults, so here are a few of them:

'Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You' by Peter CameronSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) by Peter Cameron

I love this book – it’s so funny and sad and wise and wonderful. I wish I could have read it when I was a teenager, because oh, how I would have related to awkward, alienated James. The novel isn’t really about being a gay teenager, any more than it’s about surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, although both of these are part of the story. As the starred review in Kirkus said, “Cameron’s power is his ability to distill a particular world and social experience with great specificity while still allowing the reader to access the deep well of our shared humanity”.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

A semi-autobiographical novel about a girl adopted into a Pentecostal family in a mill town in the north of England. Teenage Jeanette is forced to give up her family, her church and her community after she falls in love with another girl. It’s not as grim as it sounds – there’s plenty of humour and originality alongside the rage and heartbreak. What I really liked about this novel, apart from the inventiveness of the writing, is that it doesn’t pretend that being different is easy. It was also made into a brilliant BBC television series.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) by Michael Chabon

About the bisexual son of a Jewish gangster, who spends the summer after his college graduation getting entangled with a charming, sophisticated gay man and his self-destructive friend. I’m not sure if this counts as YA (the narrator is in his early twenties, and it contains explicit – though not gratuitous – sex), but it’s the sort of book that will really appeal to some older teenagers, and the writing is terrific.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan

Mostly about a very large and very gay football player called Tiny Cooper, who writes a musical about himself, his many loves and his friends. It made me laugh and cry.

'About A Girl' by Joanne HornimanAbout a Girl (2010) by Joanne Horniman

I can’t write about this book, because it would be weird and awkward if the author, who is on my blogroll, read it. But I agree with this review.

Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown

I can’t claim this is a Great Work of Literature, but it’s lots of fun. Molly, a feisty beauty from a poor Southern family, fights her way into college, then gets expelled after the authorities discover she’s in a lesbian relationship with her roommate. She then goes to New York to seek her fortune and have many adventures.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) by Hanif Kureishi

Okay, this was a film first, but the script was published (with an autobiographical essay titled The Rainbow Sign), so I’m counting it as a YA book. It’s about Omar, a gay Pakistani teenager who opens a laundrette in London during the Thatcher years, and his lover is a former skinhead, and Omar’s uncle is a drug dealer, and it’s really funny and gritty and wonderful.

More LGBTQ YA reading:

  • Daisy Porter’s LGBTQ book reviews at QueerYA
  • Lee Wind’s LGBTQ book reviews, plus discussion of LGBTQ issues, at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read?
  • Christine A. Jenkins’ bibliography of YA books with Gay/Lesbian content, 1969-2009
  • Malinda Lo’s list of LGBTQ books, 2009-2011 (scroll down to the end of her post for the link to a downloadable pdf)
  • Alex Sanchez’s list of Gay Teen Books
  • The American Library Association’s Rainbow Books lists for 2008-2011
  • William E. Elderton’s annotated lists of gay and lesbian books for teenagers. It hasn’t been updated recently, but contains lots of Australian and New Zealand authors.
  • * The only link I can find to the podcast of David Levithan’s speech is here (scroll down to the first comment for the link).

    Girls and Boys and Books, Yet Again

    Oh, no! The YA publishing industry is dominated by girls! Girls reading books, girls writing books, girls actually allowed to be main characters in books . . . It’s out of control and it has to stop, says Robert Lipsyte in his recent New York Times essay, Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?

    Fortunately for all of us, Aja Romano has now published a brilliant response to this rubbish. Unlike Mr Lipsyte’s essay, Ms Romano’s article is full of facts and logic and common sense, and is written by someone who’s actually familiar with contemporary YA literature. It’s well worth a read.

    EDITED TO ADD: Tea Cozy has a great post about this, which includes a link to another brilliant response by Saundra Mitchell, who also posted a long list of YA books about boys.

    Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

    Last year, I posted a rant about a couple of YA book reviews that had evoked my feminist rage. One of the book reviewers, Malcolm Tattersall, subsequently contacted me and expressed an interest in taking the discussion further. We were joined by the other reviewer, Tony Thompson, as well as Lili Wilkinson and Mike Shuttleworth. An edited version of our online discussion has now been published in the latest edition of Viewpoint. The article is titled Pink and Blue and Read All Over: Gender Issues in YA Fiction, but as far as I know, there isn’t an online version of the article. If that changes, I’ll post a link here.

    William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)I’ve only flicked through the latest Viewpoint, but a review of Aimee Said’s Little Sister and Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye caught my eye, because the first sentence of the review states that “these are most definitely Girl Books”. I GIVE UP! No, wait, I don’t. I just finished reading the review by Jenny Zimmerman. It is mostly positive about both books, but concludes:

    “I must protest about the deeply unhelpful message in almost everything aimed at adolescent girls. You know the one: Then She Met a Perfect Guy and Lived Happily Ever After . . . Mr Right is out there and waiting to rescue you from eating disorders, teen pregnancy, parental divorce or bullying. Unless there’s something profoundly odd about you, you will find him any day now. Is this what readers demand, or what writers feel must be included in fiction for young women? Yes, falling in love is a huge part of being a teenager, but it would be nice to come across some YA fiction which doesn’t assume that a girl without a boyfriend is an unfinished story.”

    Well, I can think of a few YA novels that end with “a girl without a boyfriend”. All of my novels, for example. At the end of The Rage of Sheep, Hester drives off with her trusty dog and her Walkman, perfectly capable of solving her own problems – and I can’t imagine any of the FitzOsborne girls waiting around for a boy to rescue them.

    Hermione Granger Rules The World

    I love the Harry Potter books, but I also agree with Sady Doyle’s feminist criticisms of them. Ms Doyle discusses the REAL hero(ine) of the books in her article, In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger Series, and follows this up with The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger. Both articles are well worth a read, if you’re interested in either Harry Potter or the way girls are portrayed in popular culture.

    (Thanks to Read Plus for the link.)

    Miscellaneous Memoranda

    I’m officially on holiday this fortnight, and I think I’ve lost the ability to construct proper paragraphs. However, here are some things I noticed, but was too busy to post about, during the past month or so:

    Kate Beaton put up some new Julius Caesar comics on her website. Here’s Part One. Part Two involves Cassius glaring actual daggers at Caesar, and the introduction of the truly awesome Dogs of War (even if one of them looks more like a Bunny-Rabbit of War).

    Montmaray has also popped up on NationStates. It used to be The Kingdom of Montmaray, but is currently The Incorporated States of Montmaray and is ruled over by a “corrupt dictatorship”. Its “national animal is the Blue Heeler, which frolics freely in the nation’s many lush forests” and “an increasing percentage of the population’s youth have homosexual parents”. (I had nothing to do with this, I swear.)

    Two authors, Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix, have also published an article about their experiences writing YA fiction. Apparently, writing for teenagers means throwing aside all the rules for good writing, because:

    “. . . readers in Y.A. don’t care about rumination. They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase . . . In Y.A. you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight.”

    Oh, really? But the funniest bit was:

    “The average length of time you get to write a Y.A. book is six months. Compared with ‘literary’ fiction, that’s warp speed.”

    SIX MONTHS? I spent longer than that just doing the research for my last book. Gosh, I wish someone had told me earlier that I didn’t need to put any thought or care into my YA novels. Think of all the time and energy I would have saved myself. Also, apparently ‘YA fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ are mutually exclusive categories. Has anyone told M. T. Anderson, Margo Lanagan or Sonya Hartnett this?

    I’ll be back soon (as soon as I’ve remembered how to write in paragraphs) to post a rant and a rave about some books I’ve recently read. In the meantime, don’t forget my book give-away is still on.

    Oh, Goodreads . . .

    If I were a Sensible YA Author, I’d stay well away from Goodreads reviews of my books. After all, reviews aren’t for authors; they’re for readers. Of course, I’m not a Sensible YA Author (if I was, I’d be writing about zombie mermaids, not 1930s politics), so I do occasionally visit Goodreads, where I get to read one-star reviews like this [warnings for plot spoilers and homophobia]:

    “The story was interesting and engaging until the end when the author suggests the boys are lovers. WHY? For a young adult book–or any for that matter? Too bad Ms Cooper ruined the book.”

    That was the entire review – and that’s a very polite, positive and coherent review, compared to some of them.

    But then, there are also Goodreads reviews that are critical, yet thoughtful and entertaining, such as this one of A Brief History of Montmaray, which begins:

    “Michelle Cooper is the Quentin Tarantino of young adult novels.”

    Um . . . what? It turns out the reviewer isn’t referring to the gory murders in the book, but to Tarantino’s habit of wearing his influences on his sleeve. The review consists largely of complaints about the characters and the plot, but it’s smart and passionate and, most importantly, uses LOLcats to illustrate its points. I loved it.

    Then the same reviewer tackles The FitzOsbornes in Exile:

    “Dear sir or friend,
    I am a princess in exile. My family cannot access our funds unless you, a kind American, will launder money through your bank account and send letterhead, bank statements and personal documents. Thank you for helping.

    Sincerely,
    the FitzOsbournes

    I don’t know why they didn’t just send out a letter like this, if they needed money so bad . . .”

    The review goes on to compare the plot of The FitzOsbornes in Exile to that of the recent X-Men film, and regards Simon as the Clark Gable of Montmaray. It’s absolutely hilarious. Thank you, Mariel, you made my day. Well, my morning, at least. Or part of my morning.

    Now, to slightly more serious matters. Here is my blog’s Spam of the Month:

    “Dude, you should be a writer. Your article is really interesting. You should do it for a living.”

    Okay then, I will! Unfortunately, I’m finding ‘writing for a living’ a bit busy at the moment, so my poor blog has been neglected this month. However, in a few weeks, I will (hopefully) have handed over the manuscript of Montmaray Three (currently known as The NeverEnding Story) to my long-suffering and infinitely patient editor. Then I’ll return to my irregular – but slightly more frequent – blog posting.

    In the meantime, just talk quietly amongst yourselves.

    Fifty Books A Year

    Books

    The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?

    Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.

    Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.

    Number of Novels Read: Ten.

    Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)

    Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.

    Number of Anthologies Read: One.

    Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)

    Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.

    Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.

    Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)

    Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)

    Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.

    Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.

    Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:

    1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).

    2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).

    3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).

    4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.

    5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)

    One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.

    One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.

    That is all.

    Look At This Cover!

    The people who design my book covers have consistently come up with thoughtful, attractive designs, but I think this one is the most gorgeous yet:

    'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover
    'The FitzOsbornes in Exile', North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

    It’s so glamorous! It’s such a great depiction of the mood of the book! And isn’t that model the perfect Sophie? She’s doing the Queen Matilda chin tilt! And her facial expression! Is she sad, or bored, or calm, or curious, or defiant, or all of those things at once? She’s even wearing the pearl drop earrings Aunt Charlotte gives her for her seventeenth birthday. At first, I thought the dress looked more 1950s than 1930s, but it’s an actual photo from a 1930s edition of Vogue. (The dress is probably more daring and fashionable than Sophie would wear, though – and she must have just had her hair done by Monsieur Raymond, the hair artiste.)

    Sitting next to Sophie is Toby. It can’t be Simon, because the figure has fair hair, and it can’t be Rupert, because he seems to be smoking a cigarette. In the background is Veronica, dressed in mourning and dancing with . . . someone. He’s probably not Daniel, not at a Society ball. I guess it could be Simon – in which case, they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of range of the camera.

    I love the colours of this cover, too. I don’t know if the designer planned it, but it brings to my mind the red, white and black of the Nazi flag – a chilling hint of what’s in store for these characters.

    Then there’s the beautiful title, written in a lovely 1930s Art Deco font.

    Oh, it’s all so very pretty . . . and if you live in the United States or Canada, you can buy your very own copy in two months time! (Actually, I guess you could buy a copy wherever you live in the world, as long as you don’t mind paying a large postage bill.)

    I should also mention that the paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is out next month in North America. The cover looks like this:

    'A Brief History of Montmaray' - North American paperback
    'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American paperback, released on March 8th, 2011

    It’s quite different from the North American hardcover, which featured a photo of a castle perched on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. That hardcover design seemed to polarise readers – some thought it was really striking and interesting, others felt it made the book look boring. Which just goes to show you can’t please everyone. This paperback cover does look a bit more ‘fairy-tale princess’, which could be a good or bad thing. I mean, FitzOsborne princesses don’t tend to hang around on tower balconies waiting for a prince to rescue them, but on the other hand, it is a very nice photo of a castle on a moonlit night. (And is that a full moon, hidden by clouds? Watch out for werechickens!)

    North American readers can buy this paperback next month – or they can buy the lovely hardcover edition right now. Or they can buy both!

    To Respond Or Not To Respond (To Reviews)

    That is the question.

    When my first novel was published, I decided I would not respond to on-line reviews, ever. I believed bloggers should be free to say whatever they wanted about a book, and I thought they might feel inhibited if they knew the author was reading their review. Obviously, if a review of my book was negative, I would never, ever argue about it with the reviewer. That would be pathetic and rude. But if the review was positive, wouldn’t it be sycophantic and stalker-ish for me to leave gushing thanks in the comments?

    This policy was easy to follow for my first book, because a) there weren’t that many book bloggers around then, and b) hardly anyone read my first book, let alone reviewed it. (Poor Rage of Sheep. She’s like the plain, nerdy girl who gets ignored in favour of her younger, prettier and more charming sister.)

    Guercino - La Sibilla Persica
    The author wonders whether or not she should respond to that one-star review on Goodreads
    Anyway, things are a bit different now. The YA blogosphere is enormous, and growing every day, so lots more reviewers are on-line. I’m now published outside Australia, which means I have more readers and more reviewers. I’ve actually met some bloggers who’ve reviewed my books (and of course, they all turn out to be super-nice people, as well as having excellent taste in books), and personal connections always complicate matters. I have my own blog, too, and sometimes (okay, not that often) I comment on strangers’ blogs about other topics – so if they subsequently mention one of my books, they’ll probably suspect that I will read their opinion at some stage. Occasionally, mutual friends also draw my attention to a blogger’s post featuring one of my books. And it’s not only reviews – sometimes, one of my books gets mentioned in a ‘favourite books of the year’ post, and I feel even more guilty about not saying a huge thank you to the blogger.

    So, what should I do? It would be polite to say, “Thank you very much; I am so pleased you enjoyed the book” whenever anyone posts a positive review and I get to hear about it. But if I did that, I’d have to comment on EVERY blog post that mentions my book, otherwise people would say, “How rude! She commented on X’s blog, but completely ignored my post!” And, of course, sometimes I don’t see reviews until weeks after they’ve been posted; sometimes I don’t ever find out about them.

    See how it would be easier to stick with my original policy? But then, sometimes bloggers post such wonderfully insightful and/or hilarious comments about my books that I can’t help wanting to contact them, simply because they sound like the sort of people I’d like to get to know. For example, this librarian, who recently blogged about A Brief History of Montmaray:

    “OMG MICHELLE COOPER HIJACKED MY TEENAGED BRAIN! A castle! Nazis! Ghosts! Crazy people! British nobility! NON-British nobility! NOT true love! Diary format! The only thing she left out was sym– wait, she DID include sympathetic socialists. THERE WERE EVEN SYMPATHETIC SOCIALISTS! Who IS this Michelle Cooper person, and HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!”

    Actually, I was laughing too much to comment in any coherent way on that particular post. And it was published last year, and I only read it today, so, kind of weird to comment now, anyway.

    I know some bloggers love having authors visit their blogs. But I’m sure just as many bloggers hate the idea of an author butting in on their frank book conversations with friends. (Yes, I know if it’s on the internet, it’s out there for public scrutiny. But I still regard blogs as someone’s personal space.)

    So, for the moment, I am sticking with my original policy of not responding to on-line reviews. (Of course, if people e-mail me with their thoughts on my books, I always reply, usually with gushing thanks. And the same thing goes if I meet readers in Real Life.) In the meantime, I’d like to say an enormous THANK YOU to any blogger who’s ever posted a nice comment about one of my books. It really is very encouraging and flattering and all-round awesome for an author to read that sort of thing. And to bloggers who didn’t like one of my books: I respect your right to your own opinion, thanks for giving the book a try, and sorry it didn’t turn out to be your cup of tea. (I make an exception to this for the homophobic librarian who was disgusted by A Brief History of Montmaray because it contained non-heterosexual characters. I don’t respect her opinion. Although, of course, I defend her right to publish her thoughts on her own blog, just as I defend my right to pull faces at her behind her back.)

    Authors Seanan McGuire and Sarah Rees Brennan have posted sensibly and eloquently about this issue. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

    My Favourite Books of 2010

    Lots of bloggers are listing their best and worst books of the year, and I’d like to join in. I do have a few problems, though. Firstly, I don’t keep a record of what I’ve read or when I’ve read it, so I’m not entirely certain whether some of these books were read this year, or at the end of last year. Secondly, I’m not going to name any books that I’ve disliked. It is true that I’ve been disappointed by a few books I’ve read recently. In each case, I’d been expecting something great, either because I’d liked previous books by that author, or because there’d been a lot of hype about the book. However, it isn’t the authors’ fault that my expectations didn’t match their books, so I don’t think I ought to criticise them for it. Thirdly, this year has been a bit unusual for me, with respect to my reading. I spent the first few months working my way through two enormous boxes of Australian YA fiction (and some non-fiction), because I was helping to judge a literary award. Then, for the rest of the year, I was immersed in non-fiction about World War Two (with some British 1930s and wartime novels for light relief). Here, then, is a list of the books I remember enjoying (or being intrigued by) this year.

    Australian YA Fiction

    When The Hipchicks Went To WarI loved Pamela Rushby’s When the Hipchicks Went To War, which won this year’s Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a moving account of a teenage girl who goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops, told in a fresh, funny and very Australian voice. I enjoyed all the books on the shortlist for this prize (which is not very surprising, because I helped select the shortlist). I also liked Blue Noise by Debra Oswald. It’s an engaging story about some high schoolers who start a band, with an ending that was hopeful without being too neat or saccharine (also, hooray for an Australian book that is not set in a country town, and a story that does not rely on a teenage girl getting murdered or killing herself). I was also fond of Keepinitreal by Don Henderson (imagine the film The Castle, but with greyhound racing) and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar (an old-fashioned mystery about an intriguing house and its former owner, featuring some beautiful writing).

    Other Fiction

    I must have read lots of other novels this year, but only two (well, three) remain in my thoughts. The Believers by Zoë Heller has had mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. I admit that the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I did find the conclusion to Rosa’s story irritating and implausible. However, I was intrigued enough by this very dysfunctional New York family that I re-read the book, and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

    The Night WatchThe other novel that stuck in my mind was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Really, this book deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say it’s the story of four people living in London during the Blitz, linked in ways that only become apparent at the end of the book, due to the very clever structure of the narrative. This was the first Sarah Waters book I’d read, and I was so impressed by her writing that I raced out and bought The Little Stranger. Which I did not like nearly as much (see what I mean about high expectations), even though it’s a very well-plotted ghost story with a fascinating setting (a crumbling country house in post-war England).

    World War Two Non-Fiction

    I read a LOT of books about wartime Europe this year, but it was for research purposes – I was interested in facts, not the literary qualities of the books. However, a few of them stood out because they were not only useful, but interesting and well-written enough to appeal to (some) general readers. Firstly, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary was a fascinating, heart-breaking (and occasionally infuriating) memoir of a young RAF pilot who was shot down and badly injured during the Battle of Britain. The Last EnemyThe book gives an unsentimental account of his medical rehabilitation (his hands and face were surgically reconstructed by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe) and it describes Hillary’s evolving views on the war. The story is made more poignant by the fact that Hillary somehow managed to talk his way back into the air force (despite having only limited movement in his hands) and then crashed his plane during re-training, dying at the age of twenty-three. For a more general overview of Britain’s fighter pilots during WWII, I recommend Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys, which paints a vivid portrait of the individual (and very young) men who helped prevent Britain’s invasion in 1940. I also liked The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner, about the underground resistance in Belgium and France rescuing Allied airmen who’d been shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.

    The best book I read about the experiences of civilians was Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. Somehow, she managed to describe every aspect of wartime life, from rationing to the Blitz to the ‘invasion’ of Britain by American servicemen, in a way that was clear, coherent and accessible. However, at eight hundred pages, this book is probably only for those with a deep interest in the subject. For others, I recommend Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs, an intriguing collection of photos, cartoons, advertisements and newspaper articles from the war years, with just enough comment to provide context.

    Other Non-Fiction

    The God DelusionI think I only read two non-fiction books this year that weren’t about WWII, but they were both amazing. First was Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough. It reads like a thriller, but also explains the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the end of the book, I had a much better understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and felt thoroughly pessimistic about peace ever being achieved in that part of the world. Secondly, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was, as I’d expected, a clear, rational argument for atheism. What I didn’t expect was that this book would be so entertaining, inspiring and plain laugh-out-loud funny. Admittedly, I’m an atheist, but I really feel this is an important book for everyone to read, regardless of their religious beliefs.

    Phew! I seem to have read a lot of Very Serious Books this year, but this really wasn’t a typical reading year for me. I’m also sure I’ve left out some wonderful books that I’ve simply forgotten (due to my brain being over-stuffed with Very Serious Thoughts). What I have decided is that, from the first of January, I’m going to write down the title of each book I read, with a very short comment. I already have some book titles for my 2011 pile, including:

    India Dark by Kirsty Murray
    Monster Blood Tattoo Book Three: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
    Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
    Anonymity Jones by James Roy
    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

    and possibly, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, depending on how brave I’m feeling.

    Hope you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2011 brings you lots of smart, enthralling and inspiring books!