In Support of Sexy Books

I’ve been thinking about sleaze.  I haven’t really – I just wanted to use the word, because it’s a great word.  SLEAZE. But what I actually want to talk about is sex.

The reason this came to mind?  Among other things, it was the fact that I recently read A COURT OF FROST AND STARLIGHT.  (*Mini review* I’m a Feysand shipper all the way so this was a must-read. I’ve read a few reviews reacting with a certain cynicism to this novella, described as ‘bridging the gap’ between the events of A COURT OF WINGS AND RUIN and the next book, which I hear will focus on Nesta and Cassian.  I can see why some people have been frustrated by it, as it’s definitely a different proposition to the previous three books. It’s more a study of domestic detail – a meander through the daily lives of the inner circle as they prepare for the solstice. But I loved this. Tbh I had occasionally found myself longing for these quieter moments, particularly towards the end of the original trilogy when there was so much action and jeopardy and huge-scale stuff happening.  I really enjoyed this more contemplative study of relationship dynamics and how places and people heal after wars, running alongside the usual cheeky banter and antics. *Mini Review Ends*)

I rate a lot about Maas’ writing (her world building, her dialogue, her characterisation) but another thing I REALLY rate is the way she writes sex.  Sex is so much harder to write than people think and I think she gets it so right (when it’s so easy to get so wrong). What I love is how distinctly female it is – how owned by the female perspective.  For so long women have had sex ‘happen’ to them in books – even when it’s seen through their eyes they are taken; they are preyed on like a predator (or in the case of FIFTY SHADES – whipped by a psycho!  Sexy?! In what world?!). Maas’ heroines are full of a real, visceral passion, a desire that they are willing to indulge and act upon.

Maas has this amazing talent to write gorgeous men who are powerful and strong, but who are also looked at and enjoyed as things of beauty by their female partners, and by the readers. There is something genuinely empowering in reading her love scenes – a sense of equality that is at once exhilarating and inspiring.  I balk at lending these books out in the school library where I work, but only for fear of what the parents of my patrons might say if they read Chapter 55 of A COURT OF MIST AND FURY (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read these books and, if you haven’t, this chapter is one of the reasons why you must). In terms of what I myself feel is right and wrong for young people to read I am more than happy with these books.  I think sex positivity is important, and these books have that in spades. I am a dedicated member of the movement to eradicate the idea of young women (in their own minds as well as those of men) as sexual prey. I am also a dedicated member of the movement to eradicate the idea of young men (in their own minds as well as those of women) as predators. I have two daughters, and I want them to come to maturity in a world where sexual dynamics are aligned along a principle of equal partnership.

And I think we’re getting there.  Politics is one thing, and it has its part to play, but art (and therefore culture) also has a massive (maybe bigger) part to play in the story of us.  Humanity and its history are just the stories we tell in any case. And so the movies we make and watch, and the books we write and read (especially when we’re young and still forming our ideas) are going to be a crucial part of how we see things in the future.

I’ve never shied away from love scenes.  I love writing them and I’ve been told I’m not too bad at them. On the other hand I’ve also had feedback to suggest that some people think I go too far.  But I’m sticking by what I’ve written and here’s why: I want young people to read my books and feel empowered by the idea of wanting someone and being wanted back.  I want them to feel strong and sexy when they’re admired by someone they admire. I want them to look at the person they desire and see how beautiful they are and allow themselves to think that and feel that and say that and act upon that.  They don’t have to justify these feelings, or moralise them. Everybody makes mistakes so those are OK too. It’s fine to let it get messy – after all, this stuff is, by its very nature. If people think that’s going too far, it’s just something that I’m going to have to live with.  I’m not going to settle for anything less than brutal emotional honesty when contributing in my own small way to the story of us.

I know I can’t write sex like Sarah J Maas (can anyone?), but I’m going to keep writing it all the same.  And I’m going to keep writing it the way I do. It’s a brave new world, sexual politics wise, and I think it’s incredibly exciting.  I find myself constantly questioning things now that I had never even realised were so ingrained in my psyche. For a new generation coming through, free from those old beliefs, I believe that beautiful writing about desire and sex is going to be so important in reinventing the way they see themselves and their encounters.  So I think it’s important that I (as well far more skilled writers than me) keep writing about young people who own their own desire, and aren’t afraid of it, because these are the kind of people I think we’re all hoping to see in the shiny new future that increasingly feels like it’s just around the corner.  

A Cool Spanish Springtime of Talked-About Books

So, it’s a long story, but I ended up sitting in hospital waiting rooms for something like thirty hours at various points during spring.  And obviously there were a few downsides to that, but for a bookworm like me there was an upside too – namely, that I got to make a dent in my ever-replenishing tbr pile.  Here was a snapshot of it taken in April and it seems I have knocked a few off, while just as quickly adding more (and going on a few detours too).  It’s the Forth Bridge of books, but that’s just the way I like it.  *Quick roundup of the books I read during an unusually cool and hospital-heavy Spanish springtime follows!*

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN

Worth the long wait for a new novel from this guy… I love John Green and I love how personal this one is, dealing as it does with anxiety.  And it’s done well, since the MC’s anxiety is something that’s just a part of her, something that’s made entirely relatable and understandable, yet causes problems for her and within her close relationships in a realistic way; her friends get fed up of it, her mum upset.  She needs to work her own way through it. The other characters have their own problems… nobody is anything other than fully three-dimensional here. I know people criticise the over-sophistication of JG’s teenage dialogue but I find his faithful rendering of modern teens (if not their speech patterns) works for me in the same way that Dawson Creek and the OC once did.  You know what – it’s just occurred to me as I write this that JG’s books occupy a similar place in my heart? In the same way they’re compelling, uplifting, entertaining, with characters and situations that draw you in. The fanfic stuff seemed a little thrown in, but maybe that’s just me. Look, JG’s just awesome and we all know it. Stop pretending.

THE PROBLEM WITH FOREVER

I was into this.  I thought the portrayal of ex-care kids with baggage was sensitive and well done and thoughtful.  It was really intimately focused inside the MC’s life and head and heart. And the love interest floated my boat for sure.  I mean, at times he was SO ‘Brooding YA Hero’ it was crazy. He was even called Rider – which is such an ultimate cliche it makes me wonder if it was done on purpose (it must have been, right?).  But, whatever – he worked for me. He had the sweet sensitive bad boy thing down so great it was like he invented it. And Paige growing up and coming into her own and navigating the world she’s growing up in was well rendered.  Read the heck out of this in one straight sitting.

THE CHALK MAN

I had heard so much about this book that I just had to read it.  I think the comparison to Stephen King was what got me (I was the BIGGEST King fan in my teenage years, like a lot of people I guess) and I can completely see where that comparison came from in that this book is dark and scary and goes deep into the murky underworld that exists beneath the veneer of small town life.  There’s something very filmic about it and I can totally imagine it getting adapted – is that happening yet?  It also has a whole thread that’s set in the eighties in a nicely Stranger Things kind of way. I read this with the book club I’m in, and everybody to a man loved it.  A page turner for sure.

CARAVAL

Oh yes, very cool; so unique.  Maybe I’m crazy but it reminded me a little of where I live (mad Marbella on the Costa del Sol) as I read.  All this decadence and parties and wild, unpredictable stuff around every corner. So vivid and crazy – sights and sounds and colours and SMELLS – so many smells – CARAVAL feels like a feast for the senses.  It seems the MC is even a synesthete – which actually fits in super-well with the whole vibe. Some great characters are created here, a complex sister relationship at its core, and a decent side order of darkness to keep the whole thing close to the edge.  Really curious to read the next installment actually and see how this dark tale continues to unfold.

So onto a hot and sultry summer of more reading… and I’m hopefully shifting venues from hospital waiting rooms to *POOLSIDE BABY*!  More book-related ramblings will be forthcoming, only next time I’ll be browner.

Distant Beings and Falling Stars on Offer

To celebrate the release of THE TRUTH OF DIFFERENT SKIES this week, both THE LONELINESS OF DISTANT BEINGS and THE GLOW OF FALLEN STARS are now 99p on ebook for Kindle (in the UK).  Bargains!  I know deals like this are always music to my ears, so I thought I’d spread the joy.  This means that during the whole of the very merry month of May, you can complete your Ventura Saga collection for less than a tenner!  You can’t say fairer than that.  Follow the links below to make your wise purchases

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Loneliness-Distant-Beings-Book-Ventura-ebook/dp/B0119EPOKQ/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1525179553&sr=8-1

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ventura-Saga-Glow-Fallen-Stars-ebook/dp/B071LM6Z5K/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1525179613&sr=1-1&keywords=glow+of+fallen+stars&dpID=61V7yI9kXVL&preST=_SY445_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

The Soundtracks of Different Skies

My Spotify soundtracks for the Ventura series are a combination of:

  • songs I listened to a lot while writing the books
  • songs that (lyrically or musically) fit with the narrative and mood of the story.
  • songs that feature on my fantasy soundtrack for the movie adaptations that I daydream about ALL THE TIME. Can’t even tell you how much time I spend on this. It would be embarrassing to admit it.

Most of the time it’s a combination of all of the above. Either way, these are the songs that have come to be associated with my books, for me anyway, and every time I hear them I’m right there, watching the non-existent movie adaptations as they play on the big silver screen in my mind.

I’ve just finished putting together the latest, for THE TRUTH OF DIFFERENT SKIES (out this Thursday – squeeeeeee!).  One of the characters in this part of the series has an obsession with the late seventies, and most of the songs in this playlist from that era are about breaking free. The others contain the pain and longing and heat and desire that this story is imbued with throughout.  It can be found on the link below and should be listened to while reading, after reading, or just whenever you’re in the mood.  I mean, I have pretty great taste in music so – believe me – you can’t go too far wrong.

Book Review: When We Collided

cover-for-when-we-collidedI thought it couldn’t get any better than the depiction of bipolar disorder in All the Bright Places, and maybe it doesn’t. But if there ever was a contender, it could be right here, in the beauteous, luminous When We Collided.

In it we are transported to a small, pretty coastal town where enigmatic, charismatic mini-Marilyn Vivi meets sensitive, handsome Jonah whose father has recently died, devastating his family. His mother’s subsequent grief and depression have left him and his older siblings caring for his younger ones, struggling to pay bills and attempting to hold together the family business. Into this world of cares and responsibilities Vivi comes like a whirlwind, or maybe a rainbow, since the particular brands of joy, fun and love she is offering extend not only to Jonah but to the rest of his family too. And in bringing the sunshine back into their lives, she also begins to expose the darkness that they are all living with, including Vivi herself.

Riding around town on her Vespa, Vivi lives up to just about every MPDG stereotype except one – unlike most of her kind she does have her own trajectory, her own story, her own journey to go on. This is assured by the clever use of the dual narrative, in which the two voices are distinct and through which we get a heartbreakingly intimate and wholly convincing first-person view of the struggles of living with bipolar disorder; the sheer colour and exhilaration of the highs (and the accompanying recklessness), versus the debilitating and inevitable self-destruction of the lows.

I literally read this book in a matter of days. This is one of those that end up responsible for a series of 2am bedtimes on my part. There was just something so compelling about these characters, their oh-so-normal and yet otherworldly setting, the sense of doom that hung over even their most star-filled, swooping and gorgeous moments. Honesty, truth and beautiful little nuggets of wisdom shine out of the rich and sumptuous prose and will stay with me, meaningfully, for a long time. I mean, it’s just so quotable I can’t even pick one to include; suffice it to say that the things it pointed out to me and made me consider left me feeling that this is a book everyone needs to read.

So I’ll end with an advisory: do not read this book unless you are prepared to be moved, to be surprised, to be compelled into staying up late to read one more chapter, to end up falling quite deeply in love with the characters, and to return from the journey it takes you on changed forever and for the better.

Book Review: Our Chemical Hearts

Our Chemical HeartsWhen the immensely likeable, self-deprecating and sensitive Henry first encounters the enigmatic, damaged Grace, they are being made joint editors of their school newspaper. They build a tentative friendship, and Henry finds his feelings for her growing, but it soon becomes clear that Grace’s life has been complicated lately, and that this has taken its toll on her body and soul.

There’s quite a lot of YA books that deal with similar subject matter to that of Krystal Sutherland’s Our Chemical Hearts – first love, heartbreak, grief – but I have rarely seen them dealt with from so fresh a perspective. The real nuts and bolts, the most truthful of emotions, are sensitively depicted. There are no platitudes here. What’s more, each character is given the space to show their darkest and lightest sides (and every shade of grey in between). We are not presented with heroes and villains, or innocent victims – Grace, for example, is depicted as someone who is cruel and difficult, as well as someone who is deeply wounded by what has happened to her. The visceral pain of unrequited love, loving someone even when we know we shouldn’t, is all here, but treated with so light a touch that there is also space for lively, witty dialogue between the leads, and a great many warm and charming comedy moments from the quirky ensemble cast.

At times, Sutherland overlays a contemporary and familiar setting with some beautiful imagery, elevating ordinary suburban locations into something as ethereal and otherworldly as the philosophical questions posed in the themes of the book itself. There are a number of tonal shifts in the story, but not one of them seems abrupt or inappropriate. In fact, as with life, the collection of different moments, moods and emotions captured in this narrative come together into a compelling and mutually enriching whole, which is wistful, beautiful, thoughtful, truthful and sad, while also managing to be funny, unusual and irresistibly readable.

Book Review: Seven Days of You

sdoyThere is nothing like the last week in a country you’ve been living in for several years: the intensity of every moment, the burning desire to absorb every sight and sound, the constant postponement of final goodbyes, the sheer exhilaration that is mixed in with the fear and pain of everything that has made up your life disappearing around you.  I should know, I’ve done it several times in my life.  And this is the genius premise behind Cecilia Vinesse’s Seven Days of You, which I just devoured and am already missing.

It’s not just that her characters are unusual and well drawn and likeable (but they are), or that her Tokyo is so vividly described it literally leaves the taste of miso soup in your mouth (but it is), it’s also that her narrative is beautifully crafted around a literal countdown to the moment it must all end, so that we’re feeling every second that ticks by.  I love the peppering of Japanese throughout the prose and, despite having zero experience of the country, never felt disorientated by it.  Instead I felt like I was part of the cool Tokyo scene, heading off to karaoke, buying weird candy at the konbini, watching the sun rise over the neon galaxy of the cityscape.

SDOY is a gorgeous exploration of something that any long-term expat (or in fact anyone) can identify with – where is home?  Once you’ve been gone a certain amount of time from where you started, will anywhere ever really feel like home again?  But what even is this thing we call ‘home’ anyway?  Sensitive, gripping, beautiful – SDOY is an exhilarating, sparkly, all-night stroll through Tokyo, and I loved every minute.  

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books For Young Readers and NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: Optimists Die First

optimists-black-ukAs soon as I read the title of this I had to read it.  I mean, this is actually a philosophy I hold pretty dear.  I go into most situations expecting the worst – after all, that’s the only way to guarantee you’ll only be pleasantly surprised.  

But there’s a lot more to the path of Nielsen’s protagonist than pessimism.  She’s recovering from a horrible horrible tragedy, and doing it by pushing people away and approaching every situation with dread.  We see everywhere the tatters and echoes of a formerly happy life, which imploded the day her baby sister died.

There is a love story at the heart of this novel but at all times it feels like there is also a lot more.  Petula (great name!) is in the process of rebuilding her shattered soul piece by piece, and this means a lot more than just falling in love.  It’s about her friendships, her family, the things she used to love doing and all through the narrative these are woven together into a rich tapestry.

I love the quirky details of Petula’s world – the endless cats (and cat videos), the crafting and particularly the band of misfits at her art therapy group.  I’ve been in one of those myself actually and so I don’t think of this part of the story as far-fetched at all – they’re pretty interesting places.

What’s even better is that this isn’t all about the big happy ending; this is about the way people fight to survive, even when it seems impossible.  Inspiring, touching and funny by turns, Optimists Die First is a vivid and absorbing read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: The Last Thing You Said

tltysWinter is winter, even where I live in the South of Spain.  It’s scarves and cold floors and lighting the woodstove and dark mornings.  Which is why an escape into a balmy midsummer in Minnesota lake country was exactly what I was looking for when I picked up The Last Thing You Said.

A year after the heartbreaking tragedy that drove them apart, Ben and Lucy are working summer jobs and hanging with friends and trying to move on.  The only problem is that every time they look at each other it all comes flooding back.  Told in a dual narrative, we are drawn into every detail of the protagonists’ lives – their jobs, their families, their romances, their friendships, the constant struggle to move on and put the pain of the past behind them.

Aside from the intensely evocative setting which leaps off every page and surrounds you with starry skies and sun-drenched lakeshores as you read, one of the great strengths of TLTYS has to be its cast of supporting characters.  Friends, family members and love interests are so well drawn and defined that you become almost as invested in them as in the two leads.  And while there was much that was idyllic about these summer days, the life portrayed was grounded in responsibility, tainted by doubt and pain, shadowed by guilt.

There was much to like about the deeply flawed Ben, and this was where the dual narrative really came into its own.  While his behaviour, from the outside, had Lucy’s friend Hannah declaring him a “moody little prick”, getting to see things from his perspective made it clear how deeply his actions were rooted in his pain.  Intimate touches like his collecting and polishing of rocks and the building of the inuksuit (I loved learning about these) added depth and sensitivity.  I’m not a fan of dual narratives when it seems like there’s no real point to them, but in this case the narrative was largely driven by the gap between the perception of behaviours and the truth of them, which was also completely appropriate within the context of looking at the different ways people deal with grief.

Flawed but likeable characters, a rich and unusual setting, emotional honesty – TLTYS is an atmospheric, absorbing and touching read.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: The Sky Is Everywhere

img_2032“There were once two sisters who were not afraid of the dark because the dark was full of the other’s voice across the room”

I don’t have a sister, but there are several pairs that I love very dearly and am very close to, including my own fourteen-months-apart daughters.  It says something about how special the bond between two sisters is that even as a bystander these relationships have been inspirational and important in my life.  So important in fact that reading The Sky Is Everywhere I found my heart breaking a little bit on every page.  I never cry at books and yet here I was wiping away tears.  Lennie’s devastating loss, the loss of her sister, was one that, even as someone without a sister, I couldn’t help but feel keenly.  

Which makes this sound like a harrowing downer of a read, when in fact it couldn’t be more uplifting.  The beautiful contradiction at the heart of Lennie’s life is that she is simultaneously experiencing the worst and best moments of her life.  While in the depths of grief she finds herself, ironically, coming to life, waking up, seeing the world in vivid technicolour and, most crucially, falling in love for the first time.  The reader is thrown into this swirling mass of emotions alongside Lennie and her family, in all its raw joy and beauty.

Because Lennie’s sister Bailey spends the entirety of the book already dead, she could be a shadowy figure and one that remains enigmatic, but she is evoked so beautifully through tiny, subtly woven memories of her that she’s almost as much a character in the book as any other.  This ends up making her loss even harder to bear, with Lennie’s little guerilla poems, written on scraps and scattered through the narrative, recalling childhood memories and giving a perfectly executed (and devastating) depth to the sister relationship:

But it was all a ruse – we played so we could fall asleep in the same bed without having to ask, so we could wrap together like a braid, so while we slept our dreams could switch bodies”

Gah, I was in bits reading that – and that is so rare for me.  I blame my love for my daughters mostly (who sneakily co-sleep whenever they can get away with it), and how precious their relationship is to each other and to me.  But it’s also that Nelson seems to so elegantly capture, in just a few words, the way the little moments, the ones that seem so insignificant at the time, are actually the true building blocks of the way we love each other.

The way characters are portrayed is so detailed – the minutiae of their appearance, manner, dress, their bedrooms – that for a brief time we are in their world, living it, inhabiting the space along with them.  I would think this was why we feel their emotions as keenly as we do but it’s more than that; rather it’s the way Nelson describes things in a way we all experience them but have never actually been able to explain before, almost like she is the translator between us and life, putting into words the things we never could.

I think it’s also the brutal and wonderful honesty that renders this story into such vivid life.  While Lennie berates herself for what she sees as her inappropriate response to her devastating grief, we readers are given such a beautiful and detailed insight into her inner turmoil that it seems wholly appropriate and completely understandable, even when her actions fall into the category of (what she considers) unforgivable.  Destroyed and uplifted at the same time, surrounded by the heady scent of roses, spooked by the creaking of the giant redwoods, head over heels in love and drowning in the depths of grief – life, in all its glorious contradictory intensity, is just so richly evoked in every line, making this a spellbinding, poignant and achingly beautiful read.