Tag Archives: David Levithan

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

What I’ve Been Reading

I don’t have to do disclaimers for any of these books, because I don’t know any of the authors.

Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung, was a fascinating collection of memoirs, short stories, essays and poems by a range of Asian-Australian writers, some of them famous (Shaun Tan, Tony Ayres, Cindy Pan, Benjamin Law and Kylie Kwong), some of them less well-known, but nearly all of them with interesting things to say about racism, cross-cultural communication and family life in Australia. As in any anthology, the quality of the writing was variable, but overall, I think the editor did a fine job of balancing powerful (and often depressing) pieces of writing with lighter, more entertaining, tales. I did wonder how ‘Asian’ would be defined and it turned out to mean mostly Australians of Chinese or Vietnamese descent, with a few writers whose families were from Korea or Thailand, which probably reflects the relative proportions of these ethnic groups in the Australian population. There were also a couple of Indians1 and I may have been biased towards them, but my favourite piece in the book was a short memoir by Shalini Akhil, in which she discusses her love of Wonder Woman with her Indian grandmother (“You can fight all the crime in the world, she said, but if you leave the house without putting your skirt on, no one will take you seriously”). They go on to imagine their own Indian version of Wonder Woman who “could wear a lungi over her sparkly pants, and that way if she ever needed seven yards of fabric in an emergency, she could just unwind it from her waist.” The grandmother also explains that rolling perfectly round rotis is a magic power, then cooks super-hero eggs with chilli for her granddaughter’s lunch. It was a very endearing piece of writing and now I need to track down this author’s novels.

'A Few Right Thinking Men' by Sulari GentillA Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill has been on my To Read list for a while because, hey, a novel about 1930s Fascism, set in Sydney? Yes, please! And this turned out to be meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, so I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s the first in a historical crime series starring Rowland Sinclair, a gentleman artist with some disreputable friends, who sets out to investigate the murder of his beloved uncle and finds himself entangled in the conflict between Communists, Fascists and the authorities. I knew a little bit about the New Guard due to their hijacking of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but had no idea about their rival Fascist organisation, the Old Guard, or about how violent some of the confrontations became. It was also interesting to me to compare the Australian Fascist organisations to their British counterparts (with which I’m more familiar). While both had charismatic, upper-class leaders and were obsessed with nutty schemes, conspiracy theories and ridiculous uniforms, the New Guard forbade any female involvement, whereas women (many of them former suffragettes) were a significant part of Mosley’s British Union. I think that says something about how blokey Australia was (and is). I have to say that the writing in this novel was slightly clunky – a bit too much tell-not-show, a few too many information dumps – and I never quite worked out whether the leisurely pace of the mystery plot and the verbosity of the prose was a homage to early twentieth century literature or simply inadequate editing. However, Rowland and his friends were very appealing characters and the historical background was intriguing enough for me to consider reading more of this series.

'Two Boys Kissing' by David LevithanTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan was a novel I didn’t expect to love as much as I did. Firstly, it has a stupid premise – two boys try to break the world record of more than thirty-two hours of continuous kissing2. Secondly, it’s a YA novel narrated by a chorus of old dead people in the second person. Thirdly, as much as I admire David Levithan’s prose, none of his books will ever pass the Bechdel test. He writes exclusively about gay, white, middle-class American boys3. Sympathetic girl characters, if they exist at all, are merely support crew (literally, in this particular novel). Despite all these ominous signs, I found myself engrossed in this book and was reduced to tears at several points where the dead men talked about their lives in an earlier, less tolerant society. I’m a bit older than David Levithan, old enough to remember the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when each edition of Sydney’s gay newspaper contained pages of obituaries and every community social function was a meeting about the Quilt Project or a fund-raiser for the HIV/AIDS ward at the local hospital, and this book brought back those days vividly for me. The chorus in Two Boys Kissing is there to explain to the teenage characters how much easier life is in the twenty-first century, and while I wholeheartedly agree (life is easier for most gay teenagers now than it was twenty-five years ago), I did wonder what teenage readers might think about this. So I was interested to read Anna Ryan-Punch’s review of the book in the latest edition of Viewpoint, in which she states:

“The use of their commentary comes off as heavy-handed, mawkish, and often didactic . . . there’s a patronising sense of authority, which is likely to put many readers on the defensive: ‘They are young. They don’t understand.'”

I can see that this book might not work for all readers, but it really had an impact on me. And I do agree with Anna Ryan-Punch that this book’s cover is “a literal and lovely picture of progress”.

Finally, I decided to start reading Lives of Girls and Women the day before the author, Alice Munro, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is because I am psychic. Not really. She’d been on my To Read list for ages, and now I’m kicking myself for not picking up one of her books sooner because this novel was utterly brilliant and I think it would have changed my life if I’d read it as a teenager. Her writing is so lucid and honest, each sentence beautiful and full of meaning – this is Serious Literature without being pretentious or incomprehensible or self-consciously ‘literary’. I was torn between wanting to linger upon each page to savour her wisdom and racing ahead to the next chapter to find out what would happen to Del, the teenage narrator, who is growing up in rural Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. I especially liked how the author described the limitations placed on women then (often by other women, not men) and how Del could so easily be a girl of today, her sexual desires clashing with what society determines is ‘correct’ for girls. This book was a bit like Anne Tyler combined with Margaret Atwood’s autobiographical short stories and they’re two of my favourite authors, so I think I should now read everything Alice Munro has ever written.

_____

  1. Although I don’t tend to think of India as being part of Asia – to me, it’s geographically and culturally closer to the Middle East than to places like Japan and Singapore. But I’m aware most journalists, politicians and diplomats have a different viewpoint on this.
  2. I hate the whole idea of world records, but especially when it involves stretching enjoyable activities into ridiculous feats of endurance. Seriously, do something more constructive with your time and energy, people.
  3. It was nice to come across this interview with Malinda Lo, which suggests David Levithan has an awareness of this issue.

My Favourite Books of 2011

Okay, it’s not the official end of the year just yet, but here’s my list so far. It was a bit easier to compile than last year’s list, because I now keep a book journal, which allows me to report the following statistics:

Number of books read so far this year: Fifty-seven (not including the two novels I disliked so much that I couldn’t finish them)

Number of books read that I’d previously read: Seven (actually, there were more than seven, but I stopped noting them down in my journal, so most of them aren’t included in this book tally)

Number of Young Adult books read: Fifteen

Number of children’s books read: Eight

Number of memoirs read: Three

Number of other non-fiction books read: Nineteen

Number of graphic novels read: Three

Number of anthologies read: Two

Number of books by Australian writers: Fourteen

Number of books by British writers: Twenty-seven

Number of books by North American writers: Fourteen

Number of books by Scandinavian writers, translated into English: Two

Number of journals subscribed to this year: Two (Viewpoint on Books for Young Adults and Australian Author)

And now, here are the books I read this year that I loved the most. Note that none of them were actually published in 2011 (I’m still trying to catch up with reading from the nineteenth century).

Favourite Novel About Terrifying Creatures with Supernatural Powers

'Let The Right One In' by John Ajvide LindqvistI don’t read many horror novels – if I want horror, I can just read the newspapers. However, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist received a lot of favourable publicity when the two film versions were released, so I decided to give it a try and it was amazing. It’s incredibly gruesome, but the author does such a terrific job of narrating events though each character (even a squirrel, at one point – truly) that I could not put the book down. I must say, it doesn’t paint a very pretty portrait of late twentieth-century Sweden. Practically every character is desperately lonely, an alcoholic, a drug addict, mentally ill and/or a violent criminal, and yet all the modern-day villains (and there are many of them) have plausible reasons for their vile actions. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story about two outsiders helping one another. I should also note that this is one of the few translated novels I’ve ever read where the prose was completely seamless, as though it was originally written in English – the translator of the edition I read (whose name I forgot to write down) did a wonderful job.

Favourite Novel About Victorian Clergymen

'Barchester Towers' by Anthony TrollopeBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is a clever and very entertaining satire of church politics and middle-class English society – think Jane Austen with added snarkiness, or Charles Dickens without the sentimentality. I’m not sure who is my favourite villain – Mrs Proudie, self-appointed Bishop of Barchester, or the oleaginous Reverend Mr Slope, the chaplain who rapidly falls from grace after he gets tangled up in a few too many love affairs. There’s also a good BBC television series based on this book and its prequel, The Warden, with Alan Rickman as Mr Slope.

Favourite Short Story

‘Different for Boys’ by Patrick Ness (in Keith Gray’s YA anthology, Losing It) is one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. Vibrant teenage characters, a school that felt completely authentic, real sex and real heartbreak, lots of jokes, all in forty-four pages.

Favourite Graphic Novel

'Tamara Drewe' by Posy SimmondsAdmittedly, I only read three graphic novels this year, but Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds would probably have been my favourite even if I’d read fifty of them. It’s a loose modern adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, set mostly in a writers’ retreat in rural England. There’s lots of biting satire about self-indulgent writers, academics, celebrities, middle-aged philanderers and ‘liberated’ young women, but the story is engrossing and includes a sad but realistic portrayal of disenfranchised rural teenagers. The art is great too, expressive without being too fussy (and is it just me, or does Glen, the American writer who’s moved to England, look exactly like Bill Bryson?).

Favourite Book About Punctuation

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which I have previously discussed here.

Favourite Children’s Book

'Millions' by Frank Cottrell BoyceMillions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is the very best sort of children’s story – funny, exciting and moving. A bag containing thousands of pounds lands in young Damian’s lap, and he and his brother Anthony have only a couple of weeks to spend it before it loses all its value. They trigger hyper-inflation in the school yard, realise that material goods don’t buy happiness, and discover that trying to do good in the world is harder than it seems (for example, when they give a large donation to the Mormon missionaries down the street, the men spend it on a dishwasher and foot spa). Damian’s family are beautifully portrayed, but so are all the secondary characters – Damian’s long-suffering teacher, the local policeman, a lady who visits their school to explain about the introduction of the Euro dollar, the various saints who appear as visions to Damian, even the robber trying to retrieve his stolen money. Highly recommended!

I must also mention two other children’s books I enjoyed: The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell, about two best friends gradually growing apart during sixth grade, and Cicada Summer by Kate Constable, an intriguing time-slip story set in a drought-stricken Australian country town. (I also re-read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, which is still awesome.)

Favourite Book About Germs

I read quite a few ‘popular science’ books this year, some written by journalists, others by scientists, and I decided I much preferred the ones written by people who actually understood the science they were writing about. Anyway. Killer Germs: Microbes And Diseases That Threaten Humanity by Barry E. Zimmerman and David J. Zimmerman was a very clear, interesting account of the history of microbiology, with technical but accessible descriptions of how germs cause diseases. It did have an overwrought ‘We’re all doomed!’ chapter about bioterrorism and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and so on, and the edition I read was out of date (published in 2003), but overall, it’s very good. Also, it was written by science teachers who are identical twins (I’m not sure why the book pointed that out, but I couldn’t help imagining them as looking like the Winkelvoss twins).

An honourable mention in the ‘popular science’ category (although this book is not specifically about germs) goes to Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All by Rose Shapiro, which examines a variety of ‘alternative medicines’ popular in the UK, ranging from chiropractic to homeopathy. The author points out that there is no scientific evidence to support most of these treatments, and she laments the money and time that the UK government devotes to ‘quack remedies’ that can be very dangerous (for example, chiropractic neck manipulations can cause strokes, and some herbal medicines contain toxic levels of lead and mercury).

Favourite Novel About Teenagers

'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' by John Green and David LevithanI really enjoyed Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, a book about friendships between teenage boys – some gay, some straight, but all of them interesting, realistic characters. There was lots of humour and the story moved along at a perfect pace, but most importantly, it was emotionally resonant. I cried at the end, but I didn’t feel manipulated into it by some sentimental epiphany on the part of the characters, because their emotional journeys seemed real. I also liked that while being gay wasn’t ‘normal’ in this book, it wasn’t the cause of unending angst, either. Maybe the girl characters could have been nicer or had more depth, but overall, I thought this was a great YA novel.

So . . . I don’t seem to have read many new books this year – perhaps because I was so busy writing. I was reading online newspapers, magazines and blogs, but not that many books made out of paper (even though I don’t own an e-reader, iPad or laptop, and my only internet connection is extremely slow dial-up). I do have a list of To Read books for 2012, but it’s too long to type out, and I still haven’t read a couple of books from my 2011 To Read list.

I hope that you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2012 brings you many entertaining and intriguing books!

More Favourite Books of the Year:

1. Favourite Books of 2010

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).