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white daffodils

Against Those Against YA

Earlier today a retweet popped up in my timeline pointing me to an “interesting and provocative” case (though the retweeter also said he disagreed with it) for why adults should be embarrassed to read YA. Here’s the article in case you’re interested.

I can see why the retweeter thought, on first glance, that the article is well-argued. Actually, it’s just (fairly) well-written and so it simulates a good, reasoned argument – without actually offering one.

One small thing punctures the writer’s whole case: she assumes that adults who read YA *only* read YA.

Or (shock, horror!) YA and detective fiction.

<pause for collective shudder>

Ultimately, her argument is based on the premise that adults who read YA miss out on literary fiction. Instead, most of the YA-lovers I know – adult or young adult – read widely and voraciously across many, many genres. (And, yes, I think YA is primarily a genre rather than age category – but that’s an argument for another time.)

Reading YA doesn’t mean you *only* read YA. Yesterday I finished Apple Tree Yard: today I am reading We Were Liars. I don’t think I’m especially atypical. Different genres collectively deliver different things: that’s why we group books into genres. But most people also recognise the huge variation in books within genres. That’s why Crime has diversified into categories as wide-ranging as ‘hard boiled’ and ‘cosy’ – not to mention the huge number of extraordinary literary crime novels as exquisitely written and constructed as anything in the plain ‘literary’ category.

Ruth Graham unintentionally makes a good, if blinkered and somewhat “smug” (to quote an incensed friend), case for YA… if read alongside books from other genres. Which is the case for most readers. Where does that leave her article?

I suppose she could, instead, have argued that adults should be embarrassed to read YA if that’s all they read, but let’s face it: she wouldn’t have received nearly as much air-time for that article. Not least because lots of people would agree with the gist of the argument. Not the bit about  being embarrassed by your reading choices (better to read something than to read nothing, surely). But I think most readers would agree that reading YA – or any other genre to the exclusion of all others means you miss out on the wonderful diversity of literature.

I’d counter-argue that YA is incredibly diverse – arguably the most diverse genre/category out there – but I still wouldn’t want to be restricted to just that section in a bookstore.

But leaving aside the gaping flaws in her premise, Graham goes on to say some downright silly – and ignorant – things, notably this:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.

I don’t disagree that a lot of YA is slightly neater than a lot of literary fiction in terms of endings: literary fiction is famous for messy (and often irritating) endings. In point of fact, quite a few literary books would be better for a neat ending rather than one that’s only messy to make a pretentious point: if the story hasn’t lead to messiness, then tacking it on at the end is worse than starting and following a path to something relatively neat and satisfying.

But as for the claim that YA endings are “uniformly” “simple” and “satisfying”… Well, Graham has obviously not read much YA, recent or classic. On this point she is patently and unarguably wrong. And it’s not too often you can say that about anything to do with literature.

Take the first example to pop into my head… double Carnegie winner Patrick Ness. Ness’ writing is extraordinary. He’s up there for me with writers that would presumably meet Ruth Graham’s approval, like Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver. This is a person who has a unique, fascinating voice. Who does creative things with language without doing them as a statement of how creative and unique he is: this is how his mind works, the words it conjures – just as it is for the best literary fiction writers. And his endings are anything but neat, simple, tidy. Sometimes they’re not at all ‘satisfying’ – at least in the simplistic ways Graham is criticising. Some are as complex and difficult as anything in literary fiction.

How about the lovely Tim Bowler or the challenging Siobhan Dowd, just to look at other Carnegie winners who come quickly to mind? There are so many other writers I could mention in this regard. Take Ruta Sepytys’s wonderful Out of the Easy, recently shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. This is fully equal to Sarah Waters’ historical fiction for literary value in my opinion: I’d argue that it is often even more nuanced and difficult and “unsatisfying” (in Graham’s terms). How about YA fantasy, which Graham rubbishes at the start of her article? Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter delivers a messy, difficult ending that doesn’t satisfy in simple terms at all… but does satisfy on all the more complex levels Graham is talking about; it’s what probably would happen; it’s realistic and interesting and difficult. I’m still chewing away at my feelings about it.

Last (and not to blow my own trumpet but because it’s the book I know the most about) there’s my own debut novel, The Bone Dragon. I defy Ruth Graham to say that the ending is simple, neat or simplistically satisfying. One of my favourite reviews, by Isabel Popple at The Stardust Reader and on the Waterstone’s site, says this of the ending:

Other reviews I’ve read for The Bone Dragon are all massively praiseworthy, calling it wonderful, captivating, magical, hypnotic. And it is certainly all of these things, but it’s also extremely unsettling – and this is the predominant feeling I’ve been left with. Darkness overlays everything else within, no matter how beautifully constructed it might be. Tread lightly, readers.

She concludes that the book “left me feeling itchy inside my skin”. That’s exactly what I hoped readers would feel. For me, while I’m inside the book the ending is satisfying and empowering and tied up in a neat little bow. When I step outside the book, the ending becomes anything but. It becomes frightening and sad, tugging me in at least two directions. It’s a book that can’t end happily for everyone – not just inside the book but once the cover closes – and that is the whole point. It’s a book with no answers, just a lot of difficult questions.

So I challenge Graham to read this or any of the other books people must be pouring in to offer as examples of the fact that she has managed to be outright wrong in a field where that’s actually pretty hard.

Or we could just go back to the beginning of the article and the fact that the whole piece is built on a silly, badly thought out premise.

So here are my thoughts…

Read. Read widely. Be proud of reading. Be proud of reading widely.

Just don’t be snotty about it.

There’s room for all sorts of books and the world is better for that fact.

 

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Women You Should Know About screencap from Emerald Street article

Women (writers) you should know about: Reading women on International Women’s Day

First some good news! I am so honoured that the amazing Suzi Feay has picked me as one of her top four up-and-coming women writers. Read the full article here. Suzi will be on two fantastic panel discussions ‘On Reading Women’ (at the British Museum, Saturday 8th March 3.30-4.30opm: find out more here) and ‘Celebrating Women Writers’ (Working Men’s College, London, Thursday 13th March, 7pm: find out more here).

I was planning a post about reading women writers anyway, so here it is!

Now that people can start calling themselves feminists again without everyone assuming that they subscribe to any of the sillier brands of academic feminist theory (a legitimate worry if, like me, you’ve ever worked in academia), we can get back to the business at hand: recognising that although things have moved forward men and women are not yet equal in the world and we must continue to strive to make it so.

But please let’s do it without every second word being ‘phallocentric’ or every phrase involving a ‘binary opposition’ that ‘essentialises’ something. We don’t have to induce a mass headache to make an important point.

‘So what’s the relevance to reading?’ you may ask. ‘Is this going to be just another article moaning about how men get more press coverage, and more reviews are written by men about men, and men are selected more often for prizes and…’ The fact that all this is still true means it’s worth repeating, but it’s not really what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how all this relates to reading habits.

Another thing the statistics show is that while women make up the majority of fiction readers, they read books by both sexes (and, yes, I’m leaving aside the debate about whether there is, indeed, a simple ‘binary opposition’ between sexes) while men tend to read books by other men.

I mostly read books by women for one simple reason: what I read about books by women (in blurbs, in articles, on Twitter, in blog-posts, and in reviews) tends to make me want to read these books, whereas I quite often don’t like the sound of books by men as much. Also my experience is that, as a rule, I’m more likely to enjoy books by women. However,  of my favourite-ever books, quite a few are by men while I’ve read plenty of shockingly dire books by women. I would never not read a book because it was by a man. And I would never not read about a book by a man. I set myself up to read and to like books by men as much as those by women.

It’s probably worth saying here that I quite often ignore the author’s name entirely. I’m dyslexic and I find it very hard to read names I don’t know. I once nearly failed a maths exam because I couldn’t tell if Michael was the name pronounced ‘mi-kal’ or the name pronounced ‘mi-shell’. When I don’t recognise a name, I quite often skim over it – for entire books if necessary. Until someone explained that ‘Her-mee-OWN-ee’ was actually the much more attractive ‘Her-MY-oh-nee’, she was just ‘H’. So for about three Harry Potter books…

I tend to focus on titles rather than author names because names are hard for me and, usually, I don’t think they’re worth the trouble. It’s what’s inside the book, not on the cover, that I really care about. If the author’s initials are given, I rarely try to find out if the book in my hands is by a man or woman. In general, the only reason I ever know is that I read the author’s bio and the acknowledgements before starting a book, and that quite often gives the game away. But the point is that it doesn’t matter to me. Other things have drawn me to the book and it’s only after the fact that I realise that, yes, my reading ratio is 75:25, give or take, in favour of women writers.

But what if you’re the type of person who does look at the author’s name when you pick up a book, beyond pure brand-recognition? Maybe there’s something to be said for making an effort, at least for a while, to go 50:50 on your reading habits… and see if you’re still reading as many books you like as before.

The question I’m left with is this: do men read fewer books by women because they don’t tend to enjoy books by women as much, as a rule, as those by men or are they dismissing these books out of hand? I’d really like to know the answer to that question.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that men and women experience the world differently. Perhaps it’s purely because of the way we’re socialised and the social expectations we live with: I think women expect to be called on to a different extent by a wider-range of people needing a wider-range of things than most men – and, in general, we seem to feel more bound to answer these calls. Of course men have to be different things to different people in their relationships too – some more than others – but I think this is more so for most women. As a result, I quite often find that in books by men the characters seem to lack a normal degree of connectedness with other characters and people in the world of the book: this makes them come across to me as rather odd and asocial (even when they’re clearly not meant to be), cardboard cut-outs driven only by internal motivations rather than also by a web of relationships that mean they need to be different people at different times.

The other key thing I find missing in a lot of books written by men is a sense of how being a woman shapes your life. Most female characters in books by men don’t seem to do things like look into the wardrobe and think ‘Oh, I’d love to wear that’ and then feel they have to decide not to because (a) it’s likely that at some point during the day a man will say something sexually aggressive if not actively try to touch them (and, true, it’s not fair but if it’s avoidable better to avoid it), and (b) because various people will turn up their noses at a little exposed flesh below the neck or above the knee. I quite often do my shopping now in the frumpiest, scruffiest outfit I can find because I am so very sick of men breathing down my neck in queues when I wear, say, shorts and a tank-top or finding excuses to touch me (and, yes, it’s mostly on the arm but it’s still unnecessary, unwanted touching as if I shouldn’t have the right to dictate ALL the touching that involves my own body). Being a woman shapes a lot of what I do, largely because men make it so… and that’s what’s missing from a lot of books by men. It’s not about anger or taking a feminist position or decrying sexism, it’s about the fact that actually women do pay a price for being women pretty much whenever they leave the house. And often in the home too. And that’s not because of all men being beasts all the time, but enough of them are beastly enough quite a lot of the time that it has a real impact on what life is like.

Of course I don’t have any experience of being a man, but it seems to me that men, as a rule, are less aware of being male – with the exception of when something challenges their ‘manhood’ (the physical or socially-constructed version). But maybe that’s not so: I’ve never been a man, so feel free to tell me otherwise.

What I do know is that the people who inhabit a lot of books by men often don’t feel real to me the way that characters in books by women tend to, mostly because in books by men characters often don’t seem to be as intimately connected to a web of people – friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances – as I and most of the women I know are. That’s at the heart of why I tend to like books by women more: the relationships feel more rounded, more interesting, more recognisable as human relationships… and that’s one of the things I’m most interested in when I read: the people and the way they relate to each other.

So here’s the heart of what I’m trying to say… If you don’t pay attention to whether you read men or women writers, but have a tendency to like books by one sex more than the other, then it’s fair enough to have a reading ratio that tilts one way or the other. But if you basically don’t read books by one sex, how could you possibly know? Isn’t it worth making an effort to balance your reading stats, unless you’re truly ‘blind’ to what an author’s name implies about their sex?

Isn’t it always worth being open-minded enough to leave room in your reading for both men and women writers?

WaterstonesChildren'sBookPrize banner

The Bone Dragon shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize

Read it all about it!

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/pages/childrens-book-prize/1185/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookprizes/10633552/Waterstones-Childrens-Book-Prize-2014-shortlists.html

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/faber-leads-waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist.html

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/feb/13/waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist-2014

So thrilled and honoured to be on this amazing shortlist. Happy paperback publication day to me indeed! 🙂

mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but Hot Key’s question today on Twitter pushed me to get on with writing about it, not least because I’m determined to start blogging more regularly again.

What Hot Key wanted to know was how you build a world. It’s not something I’ve done in The Bone Dragon or in MoB (i.e. Book 2). But it is something I’m doing in several of my upcoming novels so it’s been on my mind a lot.

It’s so easy, when you think about building a world, to start with place. That’s what a world is, at base, after all. Isn’t your first image, when you think the word ‘world’, a planet or a map or something of that sort?

It’s a lot of fun to let your imagination conjure up mountains, deserts and seas… vast cities and picturesque villages. What a lovely afternoon you can spend peopling them with fantastic creatures from myth and fairytale or just from your own mind.

But none of this is going to help you write a really good book. A good book starts with a good story. And story is not place. The setting may be hugely important, but usually because it’s almost a character in its own right.

And there’s your answer about where to start: character.

Build your world about the characters you’re going to write about. What sort of world explains who they are? What sort of world will challenge them in interesting and exciting ways, giving you your plot?

Are you doing it again? Are you thinking of your world as a place that will challenge your characters? Do you really want to write a book about people climbing mountains or surviving in the desert? That’s not much of a plot, is it?

Remember, your world is a character.

‘But how does that help?’ you ask. And the answer is… it helps when you remember that it’s only one character. One among many.

There’s the real key: the true place to start. Your world is how all the characters fit together. How does wealth work? How does your setting influence that? How does gender (or the equivalent) work? What are the axes of inequality? What gives people power? What are the social and inter-personal rules? What are the values and beliefs, traditions and norms that underpin these rules?

Those things will grow out of and through ‘place’ – the physical world of your story – but the most important elements of any world-as-story are the people and the structures that dictate how they relate to each other.

Whatever they do, characters are always acting in accordance with the rules or against them: even when characters break the rules, the rules are still there. Which means that whatever characters do, they’re making a socially meaningful decision. They’re inviting consequences and… Hey, presto! We have conflict and tension, risks and rewards, goals and desires, obstacles and aids… We have all the ingredients for a great plot. A great story.

Some of the rules you need to work out to build your world will be relationship rules and some will be social rules… But there are always rules between people: big ones and small ones. Ones for whole societies and sub-rules even within families.

That is the true world you need to build: the world that grows out of who your characters are and the story you want to tell about how they relate to each other.

So don’t start with a map. Start with characters and build your world outwards from them. Don’t ignore your setting, just treat it as one of those characters. But only one of them. Otherwise you’ll end up with a setting to graft a story on, not a setting that is an integral part of your story.

bluebell wood light and shadow

Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

This post marks the start of a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of this blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

 

The Bone Dragon book cover

Reviews, reviews: thank you to all the lovely reviewers!

All traditionally published writers will be more or less familiar with getting ‘feedback’ by the time their book comes out, but reviews are different thing altogether.

Feedback from family, friends, colleagues, friends of friends who are in the book industry, agents, editors, and other people at your publishing house comes in so many different forms that you start to ask yourself ‘how different can a review be?’ The answer is very different, especially in terms of what reviews feel like.

The big difference between a review and feedback is that reviews are generally formal: they look and sound official. Usually, they’re carefully crafted and well-edited. They’re pieces of writing in and of themselves.

Feedback, on the other hand, is often spoken, jotted down or written purely as information. Moreover, feedback is generally geared to unfinished/published work: there’s a sense that the purpose is to inform the writer about your thoughts while there’s still time for this to have an impact. For this reason, feedback given after a book is published usually looks forward to the author’s next book.

The critical thing is that the purpose of written feedback is to communicate with the writer. The purpose of a review is to communicate with the reviewers’ readers. So reviews have a life apart from, though closely connected to, the work they critique. Feedback doesn’t seek to led a separate existence or appeal beyond its usefulness to the book and/or the writer’s other work.

It’s only when I read my first review that I realised how different receiving reviews feels to receiving feedback: how different it is to hear what people think of a book that is done, printed, bound, published and ‘out there’ for strangers to see. It’s certainly more daunting, but with good views there’s enormous confidence to be gained from the fact that they feel permanent because they’re about the finished product. Feedback often feels transient because it relates to a particular incarnation of a work in progress, so it’s harder to decide whether you should store it inside your head to bring out on days when Nothing Works and Everything You Write is Cr*p.

Also, feedback is usually provided by someone with a vested interest in you and/or your work: even freelance editors are not entirely dispassionate, and certainly your agent and editor won’t be. In all three cases, their investment is professional and their feedback is grounded in how they think you book will do: something which will affect their own careers to a degree – at least in as far as their judgement proves correct or incorrect. But reviews are often written by complete strangers. And of course these strangers have their own vested interests in books and literature and all sorts of things – but usually those interests don’t relate directly to the writer. So they feel independent, though they aren’t really any more objective because reviewing is, ultimately, a highly subjective business.

Feedback is invaluable. It’s what makes a writer a better writer. It’s what helps you improve and learn and develop. It’s how you write the best book you can. It’s how you fix problems with a flawed draft that could be a great book. It’s what keeps you going.

But reviews are what you measure your work against. Have I suceeded in writing the book I wanted to write? Did I really communicate the things I wanted to? Have the key issues and questions come across? Has the book worked? Do people like it? Feedback gets you to the point where reviews can give you the answers.

So here, with huge, enormous thanks to the wonderful people who took the time to read my work and write down their thoughts, are the initial reviews for The Bone Dragon. Thank you all ever so much.

Read the first 15 pages at Sugarscape or Wondrous Reads.

The Bone Dragon is in the running for the First Book Award from the Edinburgh International Book Festival and eBooks by Sainsbury’s. If you like it, please vote here by 14 October 2013. If you want to hear more first, why not come along to hear me speak with the brilliant Tim Bowler at the Festival: 25 August 7-8pm.

The Bone Dragon is on the Financial Times Summer Books Guide! “… Beautifully written, poetic and haunting, this is a superlative debut.”

Edinburgh International Book Festival: “…The Bone Dragon is a modern dark fairytale that straddles Adult and Young Adult genres of fiction and has garnered significant praise from literary critics. … The Bone Dragon is a novel that thrives on ambiguity, and Casale is extremely proficient at using it as a literary device. The nature of Evie’s abuse is alluded to but not immediately explained, leaving the reader’s imagination to run riot with what she might have suffered. Similarly, it remains unclear whether the dragon has really been magically brought to life or whether Evie’s active imagination and internalisation of her trauma is responsible. Perhaps the Dragon is just a manifestation of her desire to be brave and take control of her pain. Either way, it is an excellent method of driving the plot forward and allowing Evie to grow, plus the addition of a fantastic supernatural guide steers the novel away from angsty, kitchen-sink tales of teen abuse and into far more poetic and surprising territory.”

Geraldine Brennan, The Observer (The Guardian) reviewed The Bone Dragon alongside Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict, Emily Murdoch’s If You Find Me, and Natasha Farrant’s After Iris in the Summer 2013 Teen Books roundup, calling it “a striking debut novel”: “The metaphor is not overlaboured and the dragon breathes fire into the fantasy adventure episodes, which have a flavour of Alan Garner.”

Suzi Feay, Financial Times (5th May 2013): “In a beautifully crafted narrative that constantly confounds expectation – her friends are kind, her foster parents are saintly – the final act is anything but comforting. Sometimes anger and vengeance aren’t just understandable but essential tools for survival.”

Michael Codron: “A work of startling imagination, that holds you to the last page.”

Wendy Cooling: “Loved The Bone Dragon, gentle and wonderful and hard to put down.”

Lindsay Foley, Weekend Editor Sugarscape: “Absolutely hypnotic”

Mary Byrne, Hay Festival’s Children’s Programmer: “[Alexia Casale] writes beautifully – a complete pleasure to read”

BookTrust: “There are numerous young adult novels dealing with dark subjects such as bereavement, illness and abuse, but The Bone Dragon stands apart from the crowd. Bold, brave and often unsettling, this tale of a teenage girl profoundly affected by a past that she cannot talk about – even to herself – is also both understated and beautifully-written. As well as dealing with challenging issues, with its positive and thoughtful depiction of adoption and adoptive parents, it is a tribute to unconventional families and friendships of all different kinds. An intriguing blend of psychological thriller and fantasy, this is an impressive and unusual debut.”

Sugarscape: “If you like a book that’ll make you think then The Bone Dragon is definitely one for you. Unsettling and at points uncomfortable, this clever novel gives insight into the bruised mind and makes you ask the question; where does reality end and fantasy begin? … Chilling and utterly hypnotic, this will leave your mouth wide open and every bone in your body tingling as it reaches its chilling conclusion.”

We Love This Book, review by Tracy Eynon: “This powerful opening scene is the beginning of Evie’s acceptance and understanding of her past. … This book is the debut of an exciting and mature young writer who shows real skill in writing about the little details of life, bringing a realness to her characters and making the situations she writes about so very believable. The Bone Dragon is a story that combines escapism with the acceptance of reality; of coming to terms with the past by embracing the future. Intriguing, compulsive and wholly absorbing, Evie’s tale is beautifully told and is ultimately warm and uplifting. Written by a young writer who has struggled with dyslexia it is also extremely inspiring, and a rewarding read for both young and older adults.”

Luna at Luna’s Little Library: “The Bone Dragon is wonderful, magical, touching, mysterious, fantastic, unique and so many other words I could use. I love this book. It will be a story that will forever have a special place in my heart. … there is so much about Alexia Casale’s book that is truly outstanding. I feel I should be filling pages of how effective and beautiful her writing is. … Evie is a rare gem in narrator, both lovable and true. … The Bone Dragon is special. Read it.”

The Bone Dragon is among Luna’s ‘Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2013’ and was also Luna’s Book of the Month #12. And it has lovely mentions on Stacking the Shelves #40 and is on the VIP Bookcase. Luna also talked about The Bone Dragon in her Around the World post at Falling for YA. Luna was the first person to read and comment on The Bone Dragon and has been so amazingly generous in telling people about the book and giving it space on her blog and in guest-posts for other blogs. Thank you *so* much.

Michelle at Fluttering Butterflies picked The Bone Dragon as her Book of the Month for June! “I absolutely loved this book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that had such an emotional impact on me. I loved that while The Bone Dragon does contain some darker elements to it, it is still very much a book about healing and about love. I loved how fantasy and reality twined together in this story, I loved all of Evie’s relationships with friends and family, I loved that I was able to connect to it in such a fierce way. I really recommend that you find yourself a copy of The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale sooner rather than later…”

In a recent guest-post introduction, she also provided a further ‘snapshot’ review: “I can say that without reservation, The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale is my *favourite* book that I’ve read all year. I loved it wholly and completely and I absolutely fell under its spell.  I thought it was emotional and beautiful and I really do recommend that you go out and immediately and read it.”

Jake Hope, Lancashire Libraries: “I read it in one sitting and found it utterly captivating and beguiling. The manner in which juxtaposed issues of abuse, neglect against those of family, friendship and belonging were deeply impressive and highly affecting. The dragon which Evie carves with the help of Uncle Ben feels an excellent analogy for the level of meticulous detail and craftsmanship within the story, with its careful interplay between gritty realism and magic.  It feels like a fable for our time, highlighting the way in which our pasts continue to exert influence over our present. I’m going to recommend it to our Virtual Schools team who look after the education of children who are looked after in residential care, a lot of the experiences and feelings that Evie undergoes will resonate particularly with these young people and I think it could definitely help to contextualise their own lives and pasts.”

Katie at Storytellers, Inc.: ” won’t explain how a rib becomes a dragon, or how it opens up the nightscape to Evie, who is so often crippled by pain in the daytime but comforted by the sharp feelings of being alive and awake in a world that should be confined to dreams. The dragon is more important to Evie than it is to her story. And that’s sort of what makes The Bone Dragon that much more interesting that other books that deal with this subject – ‘this subject‘ being domestic abuse – because really we learn very little about what Evie has been through. Casale doesn’t even think about dwelling on the details in that uncomfortable way that those ‘tragic life stories’ so proudly advertise (surely more sick lit than any John Green!). Yes Evie has had a traumatic time but she doesn’t want to talk about it, to her friends or to us, the reader. It’s a brave move that might leave some readers feeling a little (wrongly) mystified; but for me it’s the stand-out feature. Evie is a sweet narrator, honest and endearing and she doesn’t ever really sound like a victim because she’s constantly reminding herself how loved she is now, firmly putting the past behind her and trying not to let it ruin the life in front of her. She’s also wonderfully youthful, which sounds a strange thing to say about a 14 year old and of course may well be a side effect of the abuse she has suffered but she’s in no hurry to grow up and that is so refreshing. … Phee and Lynne have their own serious problems too so it’s unfair to write them off as sideline airheads and Evie wants (needs) their friendship more than she initially realises. Again this is a smart underplaying of a serious topic; Casale’s simple subtlety speaks volumes. Overall, it’s an impress debut and I’m already looking forward to seeing what comes next. For a book so full of ‘issues’ it comes less like a punch in the face and more like a slow creeping presence. The Bone Dragon enters quietly in a dignified puff of dream-like smoke and the gentle pull of his unusual tale might curl around your consciousness for days after you’ve finished reading.”

Laura at Sisterspooky: “I utterly adored this book because it gave me a way of understanding what it’s like to struggle with issues as big as these without ever having experienced them personally.  That’s a real credit to the writing ability of Alexia Cassale.  She’s a hidden gem of writing and I’d be surprised if this book doesn’t get continual praise upon its release date.  It really did break my heart at times seeing Evie struggle so much even after all she’s been through.    The fantasy element really is such a clever way of discuss issues that are so difficult to approach because they are just that awful to even think about.  A truly wonderful book that has the power to make you wish for a bit of magic to exist in the world for those that need it.”

Chrissi Reads: “I was really impressed with The Bone Dragon. It’s such a great debut novel, it felt like Alexia had been an established writer for years. Her story-telling skills are so impressive. I didn’t expect to be moved as much as I was by this story and particularly Evie. The Bone Dragon is a raw and powerful story which for me, could’ve easily been longer and I would’ve still loved it. It’s got a wonderfully magical element which really works. … Alexia Casale has created such a wonderful, interesting character with Evie. She makes the reader really take Evie into their hearts. I’m so surprised at how much I loved Evie. I felt like I knew her. She had that much depth and credit has to be given to Alexia’s talented writing skills because of this! The Bone Dragon is a perfect mix of mystery, magic, pain, loss and truly lovable, relatable, real characters. I wholeheartedly recommend it.”

Betty Maguire at INIS: “The story’s opening, with Evie awakening in hospital after having a section of her ribcage removed, immediately grips the reader and draws them into the plot. Throughout the novel the author makes excellent use of the narrator’s voice, while the other characters are distinctive and realistic. … One of this book’s strong points is that not all of these questions are resolved at the end and the reader is left to ponder and to try and resolve some of those issues … Difficult themes are tackled in this story such as abandonment, abuse, betrayal, bullying and  vengeance, which is skilfully reflected  through occasional references to Hamlet. This is not an easy read, but it is a very worthwhile one.”

Annabelle Hammond at Read, Write and Read Some More: “The Bone Dragon is such a powerful debut novel. …I wasn’t expecting such a raw and powerful story with such a strong main character. Alexia Casale has shown that she is a talented writer who can pack such an emotional punch in her prose. The Bone Dragon left me wanting more, I couldn’t believe when it ended, I wanted the novel to continue so I could learn so much more about Evie. It’s an emotional ride that’s mixed with mystic and magic, set against the vivid backdrop of the fens.  … I am still surprised at the sheer depth to the character and how real she felt. It really feels like I know Evie after reading this book. She is an unforgettable character and one that will stay with me for a while yet. … The Bone Dragon is… There are so many ways I can start this sentence but none of them seem to fully fit the emotion and power this novel has hidden in its pages. You have some incredible characters that are all so realistic, each with their own little flaw.  I particularly liked how Evie could tell by certain things that her adoptive parents were lying. It’s these small details that add to the depth of the storytelling and make it even better. If you’re looking for a promising new writer, then Alexia Casale is the one you want. The Bone Dragon has the correct mix of mystery, pain, adventure, happiness and of course an enchanted dragon. It’s a book that, not only will you enjoy, but it will also stay with you for a long while. So there you have it, I don’t even want to say goodbye but this review is already long. The Bone Dragon is simply a book that you should all read.”

BookBabblers: “The Bone Dragon is an outstanding debut novel by Alexia Casale. It is a dark, magical story about fourteen year old Evie who has to undergo major surgery and have a rib removed. … It is an absorbing plot that blurs reality and fantasy, I was completely hooked. Friendship is also an important aspect of the novel and the relationship between Evie and her two close friends Phee and Lynne is prominent throughout the book. This is a beautifully written book that is full of mystery, suspense, friendship and hope. It is a powerful read that is like a modern day coming of age story. I did not want to put it down and can’t stop thinking about it now that I have finished. I loved the cover of this book, it’s one of my favourite covers of the year so far.”

Children’s book of the week, Dudley News & Worcester News (25th May), review by Lynley Myers: “The Bone Dragon is an enchanting young adult novel steeped in mystery, and will keep young readers guessing until the very end.”

Emily Gale at Readings (Australia): “Evie’s voice convincingly navigates us through both her wisdom and her anguish. At 14, she’s suffered more pain than many of us will in a lifetime, but this is no misery memoir. Through her dream-like visions and the difficult conversations she has with those trying to help her adjust, we learn just enough of her past to understand what she’s up against. However, the focus is on dealing with the present. … While the dragon is a regular fixture, overall the story is fairly light on the magic realism elements, leaving just enough room for the reader to interpret what is happening.”

Editor’s Choice: Trinity Hall College (Cambridge)

Lauren Smith at Violin in a Void [SPOILER ALERT!]: “At first glance, The Bone Dragon looks like a fantasy novel, but in truth it’s more a psychological drama that walks a fine line between fantasy and realism. … It does however, make The Bone Dragon one of the most sophisticated and psychologically compelling YA novels I’ve encountered. As I read, and then as I went through my review notes and re-considered the story, I was increasingly impressed by the psychology of Evie’s character. … I was struck by how dark this novel. It’s not something you notice at first glance. After all, it’s not bleak. Evie is strong, she’s recovering, she’s got a wonderful family. The plot isn’t depressing: there are many happy moments with Evie’s friends and family, we see her work through her problems, and of course she has her magical dragon. And as I mentioned, you don’t relive the abuse with Evie. But there are grim, brutal things that very quietly crawl in under your skin. … Then there’s the ending, which I think would could spark and interesting discussion because that’s where the issue of the dragon’s reality becomes the most important. I think these things creep up on you because it’s not a dramatic book. It just calmly gets on with its very serious, painful and even shocking subject matter, while making room for the positive, heartwarming stuff too. And then it stays with you for a while after you’ve finished. I like Evie more than a lot of YA characters I’ve read, even though she scares me a little. The Bone Dragon is also a more mature and emotionally complex kind of YA than the kind I normally find myself reading, and I appreciate that. Not that I necessarily prefer all my books to be grim, but it’s good to see the genre handling something with such gravity too.”

Catriona Morrison, Waterstones: “An outstanding and heartwrenching adventure What a wonderful, magical and touching book. Evie is a character worth remembering forever.”

Waterstones Picadilly Circus, in-store review: “A magical story about love, friendship and survival. Absolutely Spellbinding..”

Another Waterstones Bookseller review: “How dark is The Bone Dragon?! I was completely taken aback by how well written this is; the descriptions of Evie’s midnight walks with the dragon are stunning. A really unique blend of fairytale and brutal real life. I love that teen fiction is getting a bit more serious”

George Hanratty, Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop: “Alexia Casale’s debut novel is powerful, compelling and moving. I couldn’t put it down.”

The Bone Dragon was also a Staff Pick at Dubray Books for the week June 24-June 30.

Hive’s Recommended books to read this month: “is it for the young adult or the adult? Well I truly don’t know. … [I] feel quite justified in endorsing this as a credible read for both. Evie is 14, she is adopted and her adoptive parents are loving and kind but, and this is a big but, they also have a tragic back story and this is what makes this such a great read – is it a fantasy/fairy tale, is it a psychological thriller, is it about being a teenager and rebelling? It’s all three plus a lot more. … I hope you will read this, as one of many debut writers for 2013, Alexia Casale, has written a most unsettling and challenging novel and deserves success.”

Bibliobeth: “This was a stunning, gripping piece of work that I couldn’t believe fell into the realms of YA, as it’s been a while since I’ve read a YA book with such passion and beauty. The magical undertone I’m always a bit of a sucker for, but it was the style of writing and the blend of both the information you are given and that which you have to work out yourself, that had me hook, line and sinker. My favourite characters were Evie, her Uncle Ben and the Dragon (obviously!) which were beautifully realised and completely compelling. … [a] rich and captivating tale. Would I recommend it? But of course!”

Droplets of Ink: “Unsettling, revelatory and reflective in equal measure, this is a carefully plotted and reflective debut novel by a talented new author who is definitely one to watch.”

Victoria Park Books: “very unpredictable and v edgy. U don’t which way she’ll jump.”

The Bone Dragon selected as one of the top YA reads in May for Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books Blog

Emma Carroll (author Frost Hollow Hall): “I couldn’t wait to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Right from the first page, I knew I was reading something special. The first person narrative powers along, making you feel Evie’s every twinge. Yet don’t be fooled- this is not a straightforward redemption narrative. Evie’s viewpoint is dangerous, often warped by the trauma she’s experienced. At times it’s difficult to trust her; there were moments in this book where I felt genuinely scared for the other characters. The language is poetic, yet for me the most moving parts were where Evie battled to articulate the complexity of what she felt. Oh, and I LOVED the final pages. A very memorable book.”

GoodReads (various), including Karina: “Strange and beautiful and fierce and dark, this is a wonderful twist on the coming of age narrative. Just brilliant – go read it!”

Amazon (various), including Lysistrata [mini SPOILER ALERT]: “This is an astonishing book, life-enhancing and beautifully written, ostensibly for Young Adults but with the power to enchant and move older adults as well. … The nature of the horrors Evie has been through are never spelled out but their consequences are. … It is totally original and does not follow the trend for vampires or dystopias. It is much more frightening. It shows the raw emotional power of a very angry young woman who is right to be angry with a world which has colluded in mistreating her. There is a spectacular and satisfying ending … The psychological depth of the book will intrigue adults; younger readers can revel in the fantasy of owning a Dragon.”

and bookmoviefantatic: “Never judge a book by its cover or title. This is good book but a sad story of a teenager thats suffers horrific abuse.”

and MissFusspot: “This is a very interesting and compelling story, with some almost magical moments. I am not a big one for fantasy/mystical type stuff but this somehow crosses the boundaries for those of us who are a bit sceptical about that kind of thing. Some of it is set at night time in the Cambridge fens, and after reading it you almost feel like you have been out there yourself. It reminded me how amazing it can be to be around nature and to just let yourself experience what’s around you without the usual everyday distractions. There is enough room for you to use your imagination with this story, and some of it feels almost cinematic – but certainly not too in-your-face. I could really believe in the main character, Evie, and wanted to know how things turned out for her and how she would deal with all that was happening in her emotions and her life. It also had plenty going on with other people and events aside from Evie’s inner life, which helped drive the plot and keep you turning the pages. I found the ending pretty pleasing, and while you don’t find out everything, there is enough of a punchline to make you feel satisfied, and it is quite a witty conclusion. I would definitely recommend this book, and I may well read it again. I am 43 but I didn’t really feel like I was reading a book for teenagers. It is a book with a teenager in it but anyone can enjoy it. … PS Don’t buy the kindle version, the actual book is beautiful…I regretted getting the kindle version when I saw the actual one!!”

and A Philosopher: “The Bone Dragon, by Alexia Casale, is an expertly crafted page-turner. At first pass it appears to be a modern day coming of age story about a fourteen year-old girl coming to terms with the abuse she suffered in the past, aided by a feisty magical dragon. But The Bone Dragon is so much more. As an adult reader, I found much in this book to stimulate reflection and discussion. … The author’s clever use of layers of meaning and subtle hints (e.g. the meaning of flowers) blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination. … I rarely keep books of fiction but this is one I will find a space for and come back to read again as I think I will find new insights with every reading. I will also buy copies of this book for my younger friends”

Buy it now from Waterstones, WHSmith, AmazonUK, AmazonUSA (Kindle only for now), the Telegraph bookshop, Sainsbury’s e-books, Lovereading4kids, Barnes & Noble (USA, Nook only for now) and of course don’t forget your local independent bookstore (click here to find a bookstores near you in the UK or here for the USA).