Posted in review, young adult

Downcast – Cait Reynolds

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Blurb: “It’s the start of Stephanie Starr’s senior year of High School, but sadly, this is no life of the prom queen. Stuck at the bottom of the high school social totem pole, Stephanie is forced by her domineering mother to wear lumpy dresses and eat organic tofu for lunch in a world of mini-skirts and pizza. What Stephanie doesn’t anticipate is gorgeous and cocky Haley Smith who breaks social convention and pursues her with a determination that is both terrifying and flattering. Afraid that Haley is simply trying to set her up for humiliation, Stephanie does her best to push him away… But the more attention he pays to her, the more she runs, and the more everyone else begins to notice. Stephanie is forced to grow up, find herself, and learn the truth about her past in order to save her mother, her friends. and her town. When the truth is revealed, nothing can prepare her for the outrageous reality of her existence… and nothing can save her from her fate. Except Haley.”

This book was sent to me by Booktrope Publishing and I was also involved in the blog tour for Downcast prior to release. Cait’s post on my blog can be found here.
So let’s get into it!

Downcast is narrated from the perspective of Stephanie, a high school senior coming up to one of the most important crossroads in her life. What doesn’t help this is the fact that her mother is very controlling: dictating everything from what she eats, wears, what she does, who she sees and constantly informs her of health risks. She reminded me a lot of the mum in Stephen King’s Carrie in regards to obsessive control of her child. But not as creepy… Okay maybe a little bit creepy. The only chances Stephanie gets to breathe are at work and school. However, her social status doesn’t make school much of a walk in the park.

One day Stephanie goes to school and discovers that there are some new kids on the block: male twins Haley and Zack Smith. In typical YA fashion, Stephanie takes more of a shine to Haley – he’s mysterious, quiet and drop dead gorgeous. Why wouldn’t she? And of course, Haley seems to like her too. At several points in the book he reminded me of Edward Cullen from Twilight by how he shows up at random times and mumbles a few words.This oddly gave me a bit of  a giggle.  Zack Smith on the other hand is precious and needs to be protected at all costs (me? having a favourite brother? How out of character! *shifty eyes*), Zack does the stereotypical approaching Stephanie and warning her about Haley and that he is just a sexy ball of anger mad at the world.

The introduction of Haley to her life makes Stephanie begin to wonder why her mother is so protective of her. Not only that but why she has never seen or heard of any other family members. Does she have any? Who is her father? Where is her father? These are questions she finally plucks up the courage to ask her mother only to endure negative consequences.

This book is a retelling of Greek Mythology and there’s not a lot I can tell you without giving it away and I try to be spoiler free on this blog. My knowledge of Greek mythology goes as far as the Disney movie Hercules *intro of Zero to Hero begins to play in background* so I couldn’t appreciate those elements of the same level of someone who loves it. But I still enjoyed seeing how they were incorporated to the story.

The aspect of Downcast that stood out to me the most was Stephanie’s character development. She starts off the novel as this timid, inexperienced, isolated teen who gradually builds up her confidence and starts to stand up for herself when the popular girls try to get a few digs in.  She becomes self-assured and such a strong character that we need more of in YA.

I found the writing a bit awkward in places but that could be down to how picky I am when it comes to phrasing. But when I can’t put a book down, and when I can’t stop thinking about the characters and imagining various scenarios when I am forced to put the book down,  that when I know it’s a good book.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading this, whether you have a big interest in Greek mythology or not, it’s still a very fun read.
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Posted in young adult

When, How, and What I Read (Because I’m Weird) – Downcast Blog tour

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About the book: “It’s the start of Stephanie Starrs’s senior year of high school, but sadly, this is no life of the prom queen. Stuck at the bottom of the high school social totem pole, Stephanie is forced by her domineering mother to wear lumpy linen dresses and eat organic tofu for lunch in a world of mini-skirts and pizza. When Stephanie doesn’t anticipate is gorgeous and cocky Haley Smith who breaks social convention and pursues her with a determination that is both terrifying and flattering. Afraid that Haley is simply trying to set her up for massive humiliation, Stephanie does her best to push him away. But the more attention he pays to her, the more she runs, and the more everyone else begins to notice. Instead of a loving family to support her as the mean girls make their play, Stephanie’s mother begins to unravel mentally, her possessiveness of Stephanie spiralling to new and frightening extremes. Stephanie is forced to grow up, find herself, and learn the truth about her past in order to save her mother, her friends, and her town. When the truth is revealed, nothing can prepare her for the outrageous reality of her existence… and nothing can save her from her fate. Except Haley.”

Today I have the wonderful Cait Reynolds on my blog as part of the blog tour for her new novel Downcast published by Booktrope. So I will hand over to her!

When, How, and What I Read (because I’m weird)

I think it’s fair to begin with a warning.

Right?

I have strange reading habits.

Okay. You have been warned.

I will only read particular types of books at particular times of day or in particular places. I read so fast that my mom used to complain I “ate my books whole.” I am so oblivious to mortal things when I read that I often need to be touched to get my attention – I won’t hear you.

I obsessively categorize my favorite books in my head until it resembles a Pinterest board gone bad mated with the Library of Congress. I am ruthlessly picky about what I read. I am no longer ashamed of anything I choose to – or not to – read.

The first time of day I sit down to read is breakfast.

Yes. I read at the table during meals. I always have. Mom used to sit with me, reading at the same time. Dad was seeing patients late at the office usually, so it was just us, and I loved the companionable silences with our literary meals.

I will read during breakfast, lunch, and dinner…but I will only read certain types of books. These are invariably old friends. They are not upsetting, not too riveting, generally amusing, and delightful, relaxing companions. I don’t have to work too hard at them, so I can enjoy my food as well.

I read and re-read these books over the years, and by the time I’m done with the whole list of them, the first books seem like dear, old friends come to visit. You know all about them, but there’s some fresh quirk you’ve missed or forgotten.

These books tend to be written by English authors and set between the two World Wars in England (with the exception of Judge Dee, who takes me back to Tang Dynasty China). Especially in Benson and Wodehouse, there’s a great deal about food and humor about food, and it makes me feel like I’m enjoying a lovely gourmet meal (Oh, what could Anatole do with peanut butter and jelly?).

Books to Eat By:

–           Anything Agatha Christie

–           The Lucia Series by E.F. Benson

–           Anything by P.G. Wodehouse

–           The Judge Dee Mysteries by Robert Van Gulik

I do not read fiction at night. Absolutely not. To me, that is the equivalent of having an espresso while taking speed. Even with mediocre books, I have trouble putting the book down until I know exactly how everything ends. But, even then, I have to think about it for a while.

With a good fiction book? I’m a nasty, grumpy, book hangover-ish mess the next day. So, what’s a girl to do?

Read non-fiction at night.

That’s right. Pick a subject and surf Amazon until you get some really good books on a subject and then read them. Maybe it’s just a few pages at a time, or maybe a chapter, but you learn something, enjoy some good writing, but are eased into falling asleep.

Also, I read paperback or non-backlit Kindle before bed. That’s the only way to get my eyes to relax.

Books to Read Before Bed

Example reading list – a few years ago, I became interested in the Amazon, after my husband gave me The Lost City of Z. I ended up collecting a nice little set of books about the topic.

–           The Lost City of Z by David Grann

–           The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker

–           Exploration Fawcett by Col. Percy Fawcett

–           The River of Darkness by Buddy Levy

–           The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Nowadays, I work from home, so my train commute is gone. But, when I did ride the subway to and from work, I found it was a nice, safe time to engage in a little fiction reading. I would also read on my lunch break (when I did take a lunch break). This would keep me from staying up all night to finish a particularly amazing story.

However, now, I don’t have that luxury. So, I save my books for plane rides, travel, and vacation. The greatest indulgence for me is to sit outside in the shade and spend hours reading. That’s it. I’m happy. Okay, maybe I get up and go walk on the beach or play in the ocean, but really, that’s it. I’m happy.

My husband and I went on a five-day trip to the Dominican Republic back in March, and I brought six books and two astronomy magazines (yeah, whatever, I’ll get to that part). By the end of the flight back to Boston, I was working as hard as I could to stretch out my last magazine.

That’s how much I am committed to literary catatonia on vacation.

I also don’t particularly like fluffy books for fiction on vacation. They’re good for a day off now and then, but I really love engrossing, complex literary thrillers.

Books to Vacation By

–           The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

–           The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

–           Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

–           In the Woods by Tana French

–           Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt

–           Fangland by John Marks

Just writing this list makes me itch to go over to Amazon and thumb through my wish list to see what I’ve got on tap for the week on the beach this summer. But, I will resist.

For now.

Finally, I will leave you with magazines.

I subscribed to two magazines: Discover Magazine and La Cucina Italiana. Apparently, America is full of Philistines who never heard of and never subscribed to La Cucina Italiana, so they stopped producing the English language version of the magazine. I was devastated.

For a while, I was down to Discover Magazine, and I hoard that thing like my life depends on it, doling out the articles with painful precision because I have finally found a source for science that explains it in simple sentences and shows all the amazing things about our bodies, our world, and our universe.

You could also call Discover Magazine the “Plot Bunny Magazine” for me, because almost every story makes me want to write a book. My favorite stories, however, tend to be about astronomy.

This year, for Christmas, my husband struck gold. Not only did he order a ton of non-fiction books from my wish list for me, but he got me a subscription to “Astronomy” magazine, put out by the same publishers as Discover. I fully admit that I don’t get all of the science – it’s for a far more astronomy-knowledgeable crowd than myself, but I still love this magazine.

I use Discover and Astronomy as my breathers between non-fiction books at night. These were also good for commuting and lunch breaks.

I can’t read fashion magazines because they make me anxious. I feel like I’m supposed to be paying attention to all this stuff in there and interested in things that just have no appeal to me.

Oh, one other magazine I enjoy? Vanity Fair – but not the celebrity interviews. I always skip those. I like their dirty little digging on politics, society scandals, murders, and the like. Yeah, I know. I’m a baaaaad person. I’m probably going to hell.

But, on the upside? It will be warm, and I’ll have all the time in the world to tackle the rest of my wish list.

About the author

cait reynolds

Cait Reynolds lives in the Boston area with her husband and 4-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking delicious meals, running around the city, rock climbing like a boss, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes. Reynolds is able to pull from real life experiences such as her kidney transplant, and her writing reflects her passion for life from having to face the darkest places and find the will to laugh.

Links

Check out Cait’s Website

Check out Cait on Twitter

Buy Downcast from Amazon

Buy Downcast from Barnes and Noble

Follow me on Twitter

Posted in discussion, young adult

Strong Female Characters in Young Adult Fiction – What Are They and Why Do We Need Them?

“Screw writing ‘strong’ women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write women who kick ass. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anyone thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all these thing could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.”

I stumbled across this quote two years ago in the depths of Tumblr. Sadly, the origin is unknown. Ever since I discovered this quote it has stuck with me. As a Young Adult writer whose protagonists are primarily female, I’ve found myself sat in the planning stages of writing thinking “how can I make this character a strong woman?” But why is having a strong female character important? And why is there such a high demand for them?

You’re probably already thinking about some “strong” women in YA books you’ve read and due to the movie adaptations, I’m sure that Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Beatrice Prior from Divergent are among them. But what makes them strong? Is it Tris’ rebellion against the faction system? Katniss volunteering in place of her sister who is chosen for the games? I think everyone can agree that they are strong and when I posed this idea to fellow book blogger Bookbitchreviews he said that he thinks most people’s opinions would fall to “badass” female protagonists like Katniss and Tris. However, they’re not his idea of a strong character. He likes his female characters to be relatable:

“We constantly say that characters from the Fantasy of Dystopian genres are strong, and some of them are, but you can also get strong female characters in contemporary. Mia Hill from ‘If I Stay’ and ‘Where She Went’ is a great example. She’s lost the most important people in her life and may not survive herself, but while in her ‘out of body’ state, she’s there for the ones she loves. She’s fighting to come back. And the reason they’re so important to YA fiction is so that we can see ourselves in them. Most people I know who read and blog are shy in person, but while reading that book they’re not. They are fierce, they are powerful, they are independent.”

Kieran makes a fantastic point.
With the success of dystopian movie adaptations being the forefront of the Young Adult market, it’s just too easy to forget that women in YA contemporary can be “strong” too.

Tragedy

This links quite nicely onto Hazel Grace Lancaster from The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. One thing I hate in YA fiction (and fiction in general for that matter) is that some kind of tragedy must have happened in order to make a woman strong. In this case, terminal cancer. Hazel is sixteen, living with stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastasis and uses a phalanxifor to breathe. Does this automatically put her on the list of strong female characters? If she wasn’t fictitious I’m sure that those around her would use “strong” to describe her. But what makes her strong beside that? Is it how willingly she sticks by Issac when he goes blind? Or how she drives to a gas station in the middle of the night when she gets that horrific emotional phone call from Gus? Or is it simply her acceptance of the life she has been dealt? In the book’s narrative she is so matter of fact about her condition. She knows she’s going to die and she knows it will probably be soon and that her “parents won’t be parents” anymore.

Straying slightly from the path of YA fiction, another common character device used is the inability to have children. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are subjected to some of Black Widow’s backstory. She is trained to be an assassin and at the “graduation ceremony” she is sterilized so that children won’t “interfere with future missions.” Black Widow then tells Bruce Banner that she’s a monster too. But why does this type of device make women strong when surely giving birth is strong too?

Another prime example is Tauriel in The Hobbit trilogy. I recently found out that she doesn’t exist in the books. So why make this addition? I personally felt like it was a breath of fresh air to have a woman, taking part in battles, in a male dominated film. However, the excitement this brought was quickly lost when it became clear that her main contribution to the plot was a love triangle between Legolas and Kili. Kili inevitably dies trying to save her, in that action she loses someone she loved. BOOM tragedy.

Relationships

Relationships are a part of life that most of us will experience. But when I put forward the question to several people if Bella Swan from the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer was a strong female character, most of them were unable to contain their laughter. When I posed this question to a close friend she said that she doesn’t think Bella is strong because everything she does is about Edward and her life seems to revolve around him: she’s constantly talking or thinking about him. Also, she’s so desperate to have sex with him that she even accepts his offer of “getting married and then trying.” However, my friend says that the only time she sees Bella as strong is when she becomes a vampire. But why is this? Is it because she’s no longer a fragile human? Or because she has an ability to control her hunger when Jasper doesn’t?

Rebellion

Naturally, we see the return of Katniss and Tris here. In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers for the games in place of her sister who is chosen from the reeping. When she makes it down to the last two alive, she plans to eat poisonous berries with Peeta so no one wins, sparking a rebellion in the districts. Katniss becomes the face of the movement. Her progress throughout the trilogy seems to undoubtedly earn her a place on the list of “strong women” because she demands change in an unfair world.

A similar situation is that of Beatrice in Divergent. The world is split into factions: Amity (valuing peace), Erudite (valuing Knowledge), Candor (valuing honesty), Dauntless (valuing bravery) and Abnegation (valuing selflessness). At sixteen, teenagers have to choose either to stay in their current faction or leave their family behind and change faction. They take an aptitude test which reveals the best faction choice for the,. Beatrice’s results reveal that she belongs to more than one faction making her “divergent” , a danger to society and the Erudite want them dead.. Much like in The Hunger Games  there is rebellion and and all out war. But is she strong because she carries on after she sees the death of her parents? Or is she strong for staying focused after discovering her brother’s betrayal? Or because she stands up against a broken system?

Flaws

When I asked Victoria Aveyard, author of Red Queen what she thinks makes a female protagonist strong, she said:

“Not necessarily good decisions, but decisions that are their own.”

I think we can all agree that the best characters are flawed. A flawed YA character that comes to mind for me is Tally Youngblood from Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. In this post-apocalyptic future society, teenagers upon reaching their sixteenth birthday undergo a surgery to make them “pretty.”
When Tally’s friend runs away to live in a refuge called The Smoke, the Doctor in charge of the surgery tells Tally she won’t have the operation until she finds the location of The Smoke and turns in the rebels. So Tally begins her adventure. But does making this flawed decision make her strong by sacrificing her only friend? Or does it make her selfish?

Change: Handling New Situations

Something any fictional character goes through at some point in their story is change. Author Kim Slater said that a strong women for her is “someone who ploughs through other people’s opinions to follow her heart and the path she had chosen.” She also told me that she believes strong female characters are important because “young readers can vicariously experience a tough journey and see that is it possible to survive it and come through it.”

Similarly, when I posed the question to Cait Reynolds, author of Downcast, she had this to say:

“I think that strong YA female characters are determined by how they deal with change – either when it is happening to them or whether they have had to make the change happen for themselves. Take Stephanie, for example, she is not a typically or traditionally strong character in the beginning of Downcast. But by the end of the book, because of all the changes that have happened to her and the changes she put in motion, she is stronger and better all around.”

Going back to Keiran’s point, I think flawed characters are the strongest because they’re not perfect. They mess up just like pople in the real world, and they have to deal with change just like us, and seeing that they can come out the other side, gives the reader hope.

Let me know your thoughts!

Victoria Aveyard is on Twitter

Cait Reynolds is on Twitter

Kim Slater is on Twitter

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Kieran is also on Twitter

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