More than the Middle Man: Literary Agents

Once again the crowds flocked for the latest Society of Young Publishers (SYP) event, More than the Middle Man: Literary Agents, swept up to the heights of the Wig and Pen. Sharing their experiences and advice for the evening were Peter Buckman of the Ampersand Agency, and Caroline Wood from Felicity Bryan Associates.

Caroline started the evening by describing how she came to agenting from the world of film production. She said that becoming a Literary Agent is very much about your personal qualities: you must be tough to close sales, you must be thick skinned to face rejection, and you must be a self starter. When she first joined Felicity Bryan, Caroline had the advantage of a stack of contacts from the film world and, coupled with the respectable name of Felicity Bryan behind her, she soon built up a list of authors many of whom she now classes as friends.

The most important thing is to be passionate about the author’s work. ‘If this book is rejected 10 times, will I still love it? The answer has to be yes.’ she tells the audience. Whether it be pulled from the submissions that fly in, or nurtured from the early pages found at the creative writing course she attends, Caroline’s key criteria is a distinctive voice that she wants to fight for. As a literary agent, you are likely to be the most consistent presence in an author’s career and one of the greatest rewards is working closely with an author for decades, and growing along with them.

Peter’s route to agenting was slightly different, and some may argue traditional, having originally worked in publishing and even making it to the Penguin editorial board. Both speakers agreed that agenting is a good second or third job for people who already have knowledge of the publishing industry and rights.

Peter also talked about some of the major issues facing the industry at the moment and predictably, both Amazon and eBooks were mentioned. Surprisingly, he had some positive things to say about eBooks, which many publishes leverage with special offers to get an author to the top of bestsellers. Even reaching the top of the Kindle chart returns minute royalties for the authors (and therefore the agents who take commission), but eBooks can be a really positive route for those who write series because they are able to build a significant following through the online social elements. I would also guess that series are more easily addictive in digital format due to the ability to buy the next one instantly and carry on reading.

Top reasons to be a literary agent:

  1. The balance between creativity and business. You get to focus on the author’s work, help them edit it and be the negotiator once publishers begin talking about the title, the cover and how to market it. But you’re also responsible for securing the best publishing deal possible by trying to get an auction going between publishers and selling international/film rights etc.
  2. You have input into the various stages of publishing without having to attend the endless meetings that publishers are slave to. You also have more freedom than the large publishing houses that will not take risks. Agenting allows you to be nimble and ahead of the game’ – Peter Buckman
  3. You can discover great talents first! Peter told the audience how he got the publishing deal for the book that became Slumdog Millionaire, after being gripped by the single chapter he was sent.
    Caroline also talked about securing a deal for the bestselling The Hair with Amber Eyes after many publishers were unsure how to get the sales team on bored with such a unique and difficult to categorise title.

‘Agenting is the most fun you can have with your clothes on’- Peter Buckman

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I’m Tsu-ing it all.

Tsu, a new social media site, is starting an online content revolution and we can all benefit.Tsu

I have recently been taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in Digital Marketing run by the University of Southampton. (You can find this and many more free course from around the world at futurelearn.com.)

Part of the discussions we’ve been having is based around online content and whether you really own what you create. This has long been discussed with music – it being illegal to burn or share CDs, the discussions around file sharing and even a rumoured case of Bruce Willis suing Apple because they wouldn’t allow him to bequeath his iTunes collection to his daughters.

It has also been discussed with regards to eBooks with the inability to transfer purchased libraries to different devices, and the possibility of the provider blocking you at any time.

But what about your content? What about all your photos, comments, liked pages and even blogs like this one? You may very well have composed these things but once you upload them to social media, your rights to that content are often lost. Have you ever read those long, boring terms and conditions? Well within Facebook’s it states that ‘you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP [intellectual property] content that you post’. 

So basically, they can use it for whatever they like without paying you or acknowledging your authorship. Same goes for channels like Instagram.

Not only can they use your content, but every action you perform is providing them with data to pull in advertisers (ever wondered why a dress you were shopping for keeps popping up in the side bar?)

Tsu is a new social network which, having gained 3.5 million users in its first 6 months, is growing at a much faster rate than both Facebook and Twitter. Their model is based on the idea that “Users should be compensated for their likeness, image and content. It’s simple and it’s the right thing to do.” 90% of their ad revenue is handed back to users so any content you post, like or share earns you actual money.

There are several articles popping up about Tsu, but interestingly Facebook seem to be deleting or blocking any mention of them. Insecure much?

So I’m joining the revolution – or at least, I’m gonna see what the hype is about. It’s easy to set up with an invitation link, has the recognisable personalisation features of other popular sites, includes photo editing and meme-creating tools, and lets you donate directly to charity. I’m still finding my feet with it but so far my only complaint is the inability to search accounts by interest. So join up, particularly any book bloggers among you! https://www.tsu.co/PaperNeverland 

Review: Seed

I am finally starting to get throughSEED the TBR pile that
I collected at the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) and to be quite honest, it’s a miracle that this cover didn’t grab me sooner. Egmont imprint, Electric Monkey, have taken foiling to a whole new level with the iridescent jacket of SEED. Barely visible behind the mesmerising, almost painful glow, is the image of a girl holding a flower to her lips along with the haunting message ‘Seed loves her Seed will never let her go’.

This cover perfectly reflects the mood of the book – it is about nature and power, beauty and secrets, mystique and manipulation.

Fifteen-year-old Pearl has lived her whole life protected within the small community at Seed, where they worship Nature and idolise their leader, Papa S. When some outsiders arrive, everything changes. Pearl experiences feelings that she never knew existed and begins to realise that there is darkness at the heart of Seed.  A darkness from which she must escape, before it’s too late.

I was drawn into this novel instantly as we find Pearl during one of the key moments of a teenage girl’s life, and witness her horror as she thinks she is dying. It is scary to think that this can be a reality for many girls who have not been prepared for their bodies changing, but even once Pearl is reassured that this is natural, she is faced with a new horror. When girls become women at Seed, they must spend a dark and claustrophobic night underground in natures ‘womb’. This is just the start of the rituals within the Seed community that manipulate those who think they live the idyllic natural life.

There are hints throughout that there are dark secrets at Seed. From the voyeur in the attic, to the screaming Forgiveness Room, to the readers’ knowledge of what becoming Papa S’s companion must entail.

When outsiders join the community, it is instantly apparent that they will either bring knowledge that disrupts the camps naivety, or else be crushed into submission. There were so many times that I wanted to shake Pearl who continued to regurgitate ridiculous theories about the world that she had been brought up on and refused to open her eyes to the truth. When she begins to have doubts and starts to have ‘bad thoughts’ about newcomer Ellis and his outside ways, she becomes even more frustrating as this patient boy who is trying to wake her up is shut out. Ellis himself is a fantastic character. Despite his clear view of how Seed operates, he gives it a chance for the sake of his mother’s mental health and happiness and is incredibly patient with what he faces. To his own downfall.

I personally found the ending rushed and neither as haunting nor as climatic as the the build up had promised, however the characters and the secrets in this novel are affecting. The sense of cult-like power is palpable. With it’s precarious balance of worshipping the abundance and beautiful simplicity of nature, and fearfully violent and abhorrent power plays, this is a book that will fully envelop you in its manipulative grip.

Joanne Harris’s ‘A Writer’s Manifesto’

Commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich, author Joanne Harris has created ‘A Writer’s Manifesto’ and spoken out about the need for mutual respect between authors and readers.

As blogs are one of the major places we see the discussion of writers’ works, I feel that this is something that should be shared in this space. As a book reviewer, I love to examine what I like about books and what I think could have been approached differently. I have spoken before about the need to remember that writers are people too and I certainly hope that I am always respectful, but this manifesto has given me food for thought and I hope everyone can appreciate that authors never claimed to be able to write for everyone, or even to write perfectly for us as an individual, and they certainly never claimed to fix the world. Mutual respect people.

A Writer’s Manifesto:

1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.

2. I promise not to sell out – not even if you ask me to.

3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.

4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.

5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.

6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.

7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.

8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new – even if the things I try are not always successful.

9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how – not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don’t think you really want me to.

10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.

11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.

12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.

This was created as part of the National Conversation which examines how we produces and engage with writing. You can find out more at www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk.

Review: Girl, Interrupted

The title of Girl, Interrupted Girl interrupted in her musicoriginates from a painting by Renoir that depicts a girl staring pleadingly from her prison-like frame, victim to the gaze of all passersby, but also almost willing them to stare.  However, it is also a metaphor for the life of a girl, swept into a mental institution and suspended there without physical, temporal or emotional connection to the outside world for two years.

This is the true story of Susanna Kaysen told though a combination of her own view at the time, and what she has come to understand since. Interestingly, it also embeds copies of the doctors notes and medical records of the time which, when decipherable, provide a heart-wrenching double perspective of a life changing diagnosis. It makes you question the sense and ethics of mental health care in the 70s, but also makes you question the narrator’s reliability. It is never entirely clear who’s perspective is to be trusted.

Girl InterruptedUndoubtedly, Kaysen was suffering. She recounts ‘arm banging’ episodes of self harm, delusions about the passage of time and in one particularly difficult episode seeks to scratch out her bones to check that they are there. Yet at the same time, her treatment is cold and patronising. Her diagnosis is based on symptoms that ring true of pure adolescence and, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, it is difficult to trust the judgement of the ‘professionals’. She is at first shuffled off into the institution by what seems to be an uninterested doctor, and when a later doctor attempts to use her as a test subject for his analytical skills, she mocks his basic psychoanalytical theories with her own Freudian interpretation of his lifestyle. This further shows the subtleties of what is deemed insane and what is deemed normal – this is not a binary.

The jumpy narrative is extremely effective and
serves to amplify her obsession with the passage of time and her need to allocate and document her own time exactly. It also interrupts the reader’s experience of the narrative which not only reflects the otherworldly nature of the isolation, but also gives a real sense of the interruption of life that the institution causes.

The patients watch the news with a detached sense of understanding and vie with each other for the more serious diagnosis. I did find it uncomfortable how some of the patients behaviours and delusions appear to be displayed for effect. One patient called ‘the Martian’s Girlfriend’ is particularly explicit and seems to be used for sickly comic value. Whilst I don’t doubt the reality of Kaysen’s account, it did jar with me that the girls’ conditions seemed to serve as a vehicle for shock and entertainment.

The entire novel is unsettling. In this horrific, glaring memoir, Kaysen makes the reader feel a fraction of the painful experience of a young girl alone and confused, both outcast from society and member of a complex community, and so we should feel unsettled.

SYP Networking Masterclass

In the first week of the new Oxford Brooke’s Publishing Masters, a flurry of keen students flocked to The Kings Arms for the Society of Young Publishers‘ latest speaker event: Networking Masterclass. The room quickly became packed with bodies and was buzzing with nervous anticipation as each guest was presented with 5 blank cards and a pen upon entry.

Powered by Atwood Tate‘s Claire Louise Kemp and Independent Publishers Guild‘s Charly Ford, the night kicked off with top tips to guide people through the before, during and after of networking skills. From finding events to making lasting connections, here are the key take-aways to become a master networker:

  1. Take advantage of societies and networks that your job may be connected to. There are events going on all the time and your company may have a list of them so just ask. Also look at social media where events will be advertised.
  2. Look at delegate list beforehand so you have an idea of who is attending and can pinpoint people of interest. You can even contact the organiser in advance and ask them to introduce you to someone.
  3. Engage online beforehand using the event’s twitter hashtag. This will give you an idea of what to expect, help you to connect with people and give you a springboard for conversations. It is perfectly acceptable nowadays to say you recognise someone from twitter!
  4. Dress confidently and you will feel confident.
  5. Business cards are a must, it doesn’t matter if you don’t work for a company, just include your name, email and phone number. You could also include your twitter handle and a website if you have one. You can get some really nice unique designs or even design your own to stand out. Carrying these in a lanyard around your neck avoids fumbling in your bag and may also prompt people to ask you for your card. You should also carry a biro so you can make notes on other people’s business cards about what you talked about so you don’t forget (biro works best as some cards are glossy) If you run out or forget them, you can also write your details down for people.
  6. Get there early. It will be less daunting when there are fewer people to start with and this is also a prime opportunity to have some valuable interactions.
  7. First impressions count. Lots of people will be nervous but just say hello and smile; it’ll count for a lot!
  8. Give yourself a target: number of people to talk to, number of business cards to collect, a specific person to talk to. Having this in mind will give you more direction and will help you get more out of the event.
  9. Prepare your elevator pitch. This is a brief introduction about yourself and what you do and it is good to have this pre-prepared, especially if your role is complicated.
  10. Have a conversation starter (or two) ready about a current issue. Read up on related news and have an opinion about it. You can then use this to ask people what they think about it.
  11. It’s ok to politely excuse yourself to talk to others. Everyone is there to network so once you have spoken to someone for a while, either make an excuse to get a drink, or simply say you had better talk to some other people. You shouldn’t set yourself a time limit for conversations though, just see how things naturally progress.
  12. The bar area is a good place to catch people between conversations but don’t feel obliged to drink. If you do drink, don’t get drunk – remember to stay professional and that you want to leave a good impression.
  13. Ask lots of questions – you learn more from listening than talking. Ask people what they thought of speakers, how long they’ve been in their role etc.
  14. Say people’s name back to them when you meet them, this will ensure you are pronouncing it correctly and help you to remember it.
  15. Advanced level networking: try and take a picture of the person with their business card! This will put a face to a name. Although, read the situation as many won’t be comfortable with this.
  16. Don’t ask anything of someone you’ve just met, just focus on building the relationship. Maintaining this could lead to opportunities in the future. Similarly, if you want to give them a CV, don’t bring it to the event as they will have no where to put it and may lose it. Asking if it would be ok to email it to them is a better strategy, particularly as it gives you a reason to follow up.
  17. Follow up: add them on linked in or send an email the next day. Simply be saying how nice it was to meet them and to talk about X, Y & Z will build a more lasting connection. They will have spoken to lots of people so be specific, you want to stay in their memory.
  18. Tweet the organiser to thank them for the event.

  19. If you have a blog, write a round-up of the event and link to the organiser. They will appreciate it and will probably share your post which will gain you more exposure.
  20. Fake it till you make it! It’s a tricky and nerve-wracking skill but you will get better the more you do it.

There were some fantastic questions and suggestions from the crowd, all rewarded with chocolates, and it was fantastic to not only see everyone engaged, but to hear them sharing experiences and offering each other advice.

Finally, the mystery of the cards was revealed. These were to be our business cards and the challenge was to try to collect the cards of five other attendees and to find out something interesting about them. Despite the packed room which made maneuvering difficult, everyone got involved and it was a fantastic chance to try out some of the tips. There were prizes for the winners but everyone was smiling at what they had achieved and, although they agreed it would take practise, there was definitely a good deal of confidence in the room.

Review: All The Bright Places

The last book I remember reading that induced tears like this was Malorie
Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. But where Noughts and Crosses leaves you in a broken heap until the next book, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places battles through the hurt to show the slow light that can come after.all-the-bright-places

“Is today a good day to die?”

This is the first line of the book and what reader can skip over such a line? It is so much bigger than the short question it appears: not just someone contemplating death, but contemplating a choice over death and a judgement of its quality and suitability.

It is the question that plagues Theodore Finch constantly and yet something always stops him from acting on it. He is fascinated by the immensity and the mystery of the world around him: black holes, stars, blue holes – and the beautiful girl that smiles at him with her eyes as well as her mouth.

“And in that moment there’s nothing I fear except losing hold of her hand.”

Following the death of her sister, Violet Markey loses all sense of who she is. Once a popular and inspired student who’s life was filled with extracurricular activities, writing a web-magazine and on a pathway to college in NYC, now she lives only to cross off the days to graduation. Once that day comes she can leave behind the life that is not hers without Eleanor by her side.

Until Finch shows her the beauty that must be there if everyone else sees it, and shows her it is possible to have a perfect day.

“I’d like to live in a world designed by Theodore Finch.”

They meet at the ledge of the school bell tower, both contemplating the end and both scared of what would come next. This sparks a journey for both of them, wandering the beautiful places of Indiana and trying to save each other.

Finch has some magic about him that brings Violet back to the world of the living. As a boy he confessed the thoughts that danced around his head and has since been labelled a freak, an outcast. He has grown up as several versions of himself, shifting between ’80s Finch’, ‘Badass Finch’ and ‘Nerd Finch’ to name a few. He is both uncomfortable in his skin and restless to experience different lives, painfully aware of his status as outcast and goading to those who judge him.

Their love is necessarily slow to flourish: they are from different worlds, they are both young, and they are both damaged. Because when Finch is not eccentrically running around, he crawls into darkness, a sleep, that he can’t control.

the-waves-virginia-woolfNiven writes poetically of the mysteries of young love,
adventure and grief,
growing a complex romance through a love of language. Beginning with shared quotes from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Violet and Finch build their adventures around rescuing the positive words and getting ideas out on post its.

The Waves is significant both in its lyrical mapping of their relationship and the strong parallels it evokes between Finch and Woolf’s own struggles with bipolar disorder.

Although I felt Violet was at times an unconvincing character, I wonder whether it was Niven’s intention to create her as a slightly vague and irritating relief to Finch. Throughout the narrative, as Finch begins to shut off his communication altogether, Violet rediscovers the writer in her that she thought had died with Eleanor.

In All the Bright Places, the romance is actually the secondary theme. What Niven delivers with exquisite and wrenching skill is the grip of mental illness. I have never read a character that demonstrates such a turmoil of thoughts and complex impulses with such clarity. The reader is both confused by the darkness and inconsistency in Finch’s mind, but is also drawn into the way he picks things apart. He feels everything with great intensity and the idea of death is not just an impulse but a study – full of facts, history and a larger idea of our place in the world.

Most importantly, Niven shows us an after.

Review: Under the Lights

I’d been following the hype around this book for a while, and enjoying Dahlia Adler’s twitter feed, so when QueerYA offered up a review copy of Under the Lights, I jumped at the chance.

Under the lights is the second in the Daylight Falls series but I had not read the first installment and I didn’t feel as though that inhibited my enjoyment. The book alternates between the narratives of Josh Chester, Hollywood bad boy, and Vanessa Parks, star Korean American actress in the TV show Daylight Falls.

Josh Chester loves being a Hollywood bad boy, Under the Lightscoasting on his good looks, his parties, his parents’ wealth, and the occasional modeling gig. But his laid-back lifestyle is about to change. To help out his best friend, Liam, he joins his hit teen TV show, Daylight Falls opposite Vanessa Park, the one actor immune to his charms. (Not that he’s trying to charm her, of course.) Meanwhile, his drama-queen mother blackmails him into a new family reality TV show, with Josh in the starring role. Now that he’s in the spotlight—on everyone’s terms but his own—Josh has to decide whether a life as a superstar is the one he really wants.

Vanessa Park has always been certain about her path as an actor, despite her parents’ disapproval. But with all her relationships currently in upheaval, she’s painfully uncertain about everything else. When she meets her new career handler, Brianna, Van is relieved to have found someone she can rely on, now that her BFF, Ally, is at college across the country. But as feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship, Van’s life reaches a whole new level of confusing. And she’ll have to choose between the one thing she’s always loved and the person she never imagined she could.

I’m not a follower of celebrity gossip, reality TV, or the language that surrounds Hollywood culture, so this would not at first appear like my kind of book. But this is more than just parties and ‘BFF’s as the character’s in this novel are facing the same issues as regular teens, even if they do it with a lot more lights and drama. The novel explores finding the right future and what it will take, detaching identity from parents’ and others’ expectations, sexuality, rejection, consent, love and friendship.

Josh is an interesting character and, despite his many (MANY) flaws, readers have described how they could not help rooting for him. His sexist comments are not out-dated misogyny, but comments that we regularly hear from the ‘lad’ community which not only gives him real authenticity but also questions some of the things we accept everyday as ‘banter’. He is lazy, self-involved and rude, but I too found myself warming to him the more I read. He is entertaining and it is great to follow his maturation through the novel.

Adler also nicely balances Josh’s distastefulness with his best friend, Liam, who is hard working, successful and in a loving long term relationship. It is nice to see the difficulties of long distance relationships referenced as a modern day reality, but not made a central problem in the novel. Liam’s attitude to women and relationships also provides an encouraging positive role model for teenage boys, serving to highlight Josh’s disrespect for the ridiculousness it is.

Whilst I enjoyed reading Josh’s development, the main strength of this novel is Vanessa and her newly discovered sexuality. Vanessa had never considered girls romantically, but when she meets Bri and is drawn to her in a way she can’t explain, she begins to look back and realise that none of her previous hetero-relationships had given her the butterflies she now feels.

Whilst I felt as though Vanessa was very quick to accept her feelings and jump into things with Bri, Adler sensitively handles different experiences of coming out and, most importantly the importance of consent. She discusses this explicitly in a fantastic guest blog post entitled ‘Why heteromormativity in YA hurts more than you think’, but demonstrates this in the novel when Bri holds back from touching Vanessa and reassures her: “See? Only what you’re okay with, Park. Always. I promise.” With the prevalence of rape culture, victim blaming and the apparent ‘grey areas’, it is vital that we make consent explicitly linked with representations of sex. (Just as a side note, and for anyone struggling with the concept, I love this comparison of consent to tea.)

And wow. That sex scene. Adler is a long time protester against the fade to black in YA lit and she does not disappoint in this hot scene between the two girls. It captures the anticipation of sexual contact with a loved one and it includes the reader in every step in a way that positively introduces teens, and LGBT teens especially, to the pleasurable experience of consensual sex.

Whilst Vanessa decides that she is definitely a lesbian, Brianna is secure in her bisexuality. Bisexual erasure is a real problem in society, with many feeling outcast from both gay and hetero communities, and labelled as greedy or just not being honest about their homosexuality. Bri not only represents a strong and secure bi character, but also tackles some of the common criticism by angrily stating that people calling her a lesbian were undermining the feelings she had felt in previous relationships with guys.

Adler also expertly portrays the concerns that still surround coming out. Vanessa is not only worried about how Hollywood will accept a gay actress, let alone an ethnic minority gay actress, but also coming out to her closed minded parents. Vanessa’s and Bri’s experiences of coming out differ greatly which is so important as it highlights that everyone’s experience is individual. I think it’s also important that whilst Vanessa does not have an easy time revealing her sexuality, the reader is left with a sense of hope that things will improve. I’ve previously discussed how YA lit needs to be honest, even if brutal, but also offer a light at the end of the tunnel and Adler certainly achieves that in her writing.

Review: Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda

“Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it shouldn’t be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I’m just saying.”

Simon Spier isSimon vs the Homosapiens Agenda a 16-year-old student in a close-knit group of friends in a school that doesn’t exhibit the usual high school hierarchy. This is a place where the popular girls, anime lovers and footballers sit together at lunch and stand up for each other when it counts. Simon is also gay, but nobody knows except Blue, a mysterious boy who Simon met online. When Simon’s emails are found by class-clown Martin, Simon finds himself in a sticky situation where he is almost-maybe-not-quite being blackmailed to set Martin up with his friend Abby. It’s not that Simon is scared of coming out exactly, but he is scared of compromising Blue and losing the most important thing in his life.

Navigating difficult dynamics between friends, romances and jealousy, the idea of the world knowing his secret is an extra drama Simon can’t face right now. He wants to do this his way.

The strongest element of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is the way it presents Simon’s feelings about his sexuality and coming out. He is not going through a ‘phase’ of uncertainty, but nor does being gay exclude him from having had girlfriends in the past. He is not worried about his friends or his family’s reactions, and this is not a story that positions coming out as a problem. It does, however, highlight the importance of it being personal. Simon is concerned about being in control of when and how, and of holding onto his own identity in the process.

Each chapter is interspersed by a series of emails between Simon and the mysterious Blue. The two met online and don’t know each other’s real-world identities, but they know each other inside out. Their emails are intimate, supportive and progressively flirtatious, and are heart-melting to read as these two strangers fall in love in a bubble outside of the day-to-day.

Whilst I loved Simon’s character, I was bothered by his self-absorption and hypocrisy. Simon gets wound up by his family’s interest in his life, accusing them of making everything a big deal and not allowing him to change. He gets inexplicably angry at his mum when she notices that he’s started drinking coffee, and yet he is annoyed at his sisters, Alice and Nora, for acting differently and confidently tells the reader that ‘that is not something Nora does’. He also reads into every behaviour of his friends but is slow to accept responsibility for hurting one of his best friends. He is going through a difficult time but it is almost as if he knows he is the protagonist and other people’s drama fall second to his.

Whilst these double standards annoyed me whilst reading, upon reflection they are probably fairly reflective of teenage life. With fluctuating hormones it can be very hard to view situations and relationships in a balanced way, and I can remember the frustration of parents asking questions, particularly when you yourself are unsure of the answers. This can only be amplified when a major part of your life is secret from the people you are closest to.

There is also one particular scene involving a gay club which I found problematic, revealing Simon’s friends to have a naive and simplistic reaction to Simon’s sexuality and showing what I felt was a stereotypical view of gay culture.  I didn’t feel like this scene served to drive the story forward at all, except to show that there was a gay community around Simon, and that his friends were comfortable with it.

Despite these small issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The love story that unfolds, the way the boys slowly negotiate what they are ready for, is beautifully written. But most importantly, Simon’s attitude towards the idea of ‘default’ personalities presents a strong questioning of social norms that encourage us to examine our own presumptions. It’s one thing to be accepting of different types of people, and another to stop prescribing to the idea that there IS a type. If we’re all different, why should there be a distinction?

Review: Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of SolitudeFortress of Solitude is about a young white boy growing up in 70s Brooklyn. When I used this statement to describe this book to a friend, she asked ‘why do you mention that he’s white?’

This question made me stop. Because, in the context of this story it was an essential distinction, but in the real world it is not something people clarify. But had I said it was about a young black boy, would that have illicited the same response?

This is one of the questions that this novel raises. It is about race and being singled out in a community, about trying to emulate the majority, or trying to be invisible. It is about the attributes we assign to race and how they have shifted, or not, over the decades.

Dylan lives in the heart of Gowanas with his artist father and eccentric mother. Despite their financial comfort, Dylan’s mother is set on her son attending the local public school and fully integrating with the community. He resents her naive blindness to the daily bullying he endures, and later says ‘Her mistake was so beautiful, so stupid, so American.” Like a reversed American Dream, she almost fetishises the poverty that surrounds them and throws Dylan into a life where he is destined to live as the outsider.

The blurb presents this as a novel about friendship between Dylan and a young black boy called Mingus. However, whilst the things that connect them are integral to the story, I would argue that it is much more about Mingus’ effect on Dylan than any equality or bond. Dylan is captivated by Mingus from their first meeting. He protects hims when he can but this comes second to his own place in the hierarchy, and as they grow up they begin to drift apart.

Mingus introduces Dylan to comics (a love that stays with him and one I wish had been covered more) and to tagging (a form of graffiti). But significantly, Dylan never forms his own tag, opting instead to propagate the fame of Mingus’ alter-ego: Dose.

The other element that connects them is the ring. This is the single fantastical element of the entire novel: a ring with super powers that Dylan inherits from a flying drunk homeless man. The ring inspires Dylan to create ‘Aeroman’, but this is another gift that he grants Mingus, taking a back seat in their superhero adventures.

As I said, this friendship is not about equality but presents an interesting dynamic where unusually it is the white protagonist who is the outsider. Dylan who is desperate for acceptance and spends his whole life as a mirror to the community around him, always one step behind everyone else. It is this childhood dynamic which not only triggers his lifetime obsession with negritude, but also forms the fortress of his existence: a history that he never moves on from.

Dylan’s life is ruled by music. From his connection to Mingus and his musician father, Barrett Rude Jr, to his alignment with the punks in Manhattan, to the way he designates people by their ‘Beatles’ persona. This follows him into adulthood where he becomes a music journalist and writes liner notes for compilations. His experiences and relationships are all associated with music and this is reflective the way many of us process and store memories. However, this can make for heavy, and at times distracting, reading and I couldn’t help but feel alienated and jerked out of the narrative by my lack of reference. Perhaps if this were in digital form, the music would have better resonance with the story.

The musical connotations even govern the format of the book as a set of Dylan’s own liner notes divide the novel into an A-side and B-side, the before and after.

Once at college among the white middle class, he embodies the role that he could never achieve on the streets, once again positioning himself as the outsider. From then on, no matter where he ends up, he is constantly haunted by past connections and perpetuates his own condition through lingering obsessions with his past.

The ring does make a reappearance towards the end and, although some have criticised its sparse focus, I think it was important for the ring to play a background, puppeteer role. It lends Dylan a sense of power that is not overt, but affects the way he interacts, and instills in him a sense of agency over the fate of others. His childhood chess games are echoed in the way he positions and plays those around him.