Friday 10 December 2010

My feelings exactly

Thanks to a friend who knows my idiosyncrasies well, a link to Jolisa Gracewood's interview with New Zealand YA writer Karen Healey popped up in my feedreader today.

I haven't read Healey's Guardian of the Dead yet (I've just booked it at the public library), but here's the Goodreads precis:

This is an intriguing YA urban fantasy in the tradition of Holly Black and Wicked Lovely. Set in New Zealand, Ellie's main concerns at her boarding school are hanging out with her best friend Kevin, her crush on the mysterious Mark, and her paper deadline. That is, until a mysterious older woman seems to set her sights on Kevin, who is Maori, and has more than just romantic plans for him. In an effort to save him, Ellie is thrown into the world of Maori lore, and eventually finds herself in an all-out war with mist dwelling Maori fairy people called the patupaiarehe who need human lives to gain immortality.

The strong, fresh voice of the narrator will pull readers in, along with all the deliciously scary details: the serial killer who removes victim's eyes; the mysterious crazy bum who forces a Bible on Ellie telling her she needs it; handsome, mysterious Mark who steals the Bible from her and then casts a forgetting charm on her. All of this culminates in a unique, incredible adventure steeped with mythology, Maori fairies, monsters, betrayal, and an epic battle.

In the interview, Gracewood notes that while YA is relatively neglected in critical literature/review pages, commercially it is thriving, even in the internet age:

From where I sit -- credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and mostly a reviewer of Serious Adult Fiction for Serious Adults -- YA literature seems kind of the fierce but neglected younger sibling who just can't get no respect. Especially in the review pages of Big Important Papers and Magazines. And yet: Harry Potter! Twilight! Mockingjay! Percy Jackson!*

Healey responds:

I don't write YA because I'm not skilled enough to write adult literature, or because I think teenagers are a passive audience who will indiscriminately devour any old garbage. On the contrary, I think they are demanding, involved, canny readers. They won't keep going with something that's "improving" literature if they don't like it - they get enough of that in school. If a book doesn't entertain them in their leisure time, they'll toss it. The YA blogosphere is amazing. These young readers establish international book tours, run prize draws, and engage in social media in a lot of ways that more established review outlets have entirely ignored, to, I think, their detriment.

So yeah, it's annoying that YA is all but ignored in the major review outlets. I think a lot of adult readers are missing out on stuff they would really enjoy, although more and more of them are crossing over into the YA section, where they are very welcome. But, you know, we're doing our own thing. It would be nice to have the big names take more notice, but in the YA world, we don't really need them to get by.

There's an interesting section about the setting of Healey's novel, a very detailed Christchurch. Gracewood poses the query that such detail is unusual in YA-slash-fantasy; Healey points to other examples of such realism. And there's also a good discussion of Healey's decision to use, and experience of using, Māori mythology at the heart of her book.

This reminded me of a book I read and enjoyed earlier this year, Frances Hardinge's The Lost Conspiracy. It's aimed at younger readers than Healey's book, and has a much stronger (based on what I've read so far) fantasy streak, but Hardinge's use of Māori mythology intrigued me. Here's what I wrote at the time:


When Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall a few weeks ago, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.

Like me (and many, many fortunate people) Gaiman didn't get the Christian references in the Narnia series until quite late in the series (me, I had to wait til my born-again uncle told me). He observed, sweetly, that as a Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was obviously a bit of a failure. He felt instead that Lewis crammed into TLTW&TW all the things he loved from Christian, Greek and other mythologies.

I thought of that reading The Lost Conspiracy (titled 'Gullstruck Island' in the UK). It is loooooong, and it is *relentlessly* inventive, and although I noticed both those things as an adult reader, as a kid I would have been head over heels in love.

When I read Elizabeth Knox's YA duo - the Dreamhunter books - I felt she'd failed to provide a sufficiently detailed, sufficiently strange alternate late-colonial New Zealand. The books just didn't have that lushness of imagination, that wealth of detail that you sink into, that The Hobbit or TLTW&TW have.

Reading The Lost Conspiracy is like swimming through a swelling sea of invention - breasting endless new takes on peoples, birds and beats, religion, ancestor worship, and a mythic and physical relationship between a people and a land.

It was also curious spotting a strangely familiar tale of two male mountains fighting over the attentions of a third, female mountain, with the loser fleeing and carving a deep gouge of anger out of the landscape. When I got to the end, it was one of those funny cultural cringe oh wow moments when Hardinge talked about the legend of Taranaki, Ruapehu and Ngaruhoe, and her research into the Tarawera eruption.

The book occasionally feels a little overladen with all this extraordinary detail. But have you ever heard a kid who loves reader complain about a book being too long, or too full of remarkable things? Highly recommended.

*My personal feelings: Harry Potter - meh; Twilight - bloody scary, but for all the wrong reasons; Mockingjay - not as affecting as Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, but utterly engrossing; Percy Jackson - great premise, somewhat predictable.

No comments: