I’ve never cared much about getting older, and I try not to regret things from the past, but do I wish YA fiction had been available when I was a teenager, hell yeah!
There are many reasons that I read, write, and love YA: it pushes boundaries and explores topics other fiction is scared to go near, it gives a voice to teenagers who are frequently pushed to the side and their opinions dismissed. One of the things I love most about YA is the amount of LGBTQ+ that can be found among the pages, which makes it relevant to me, and speaks to me in a way that a lot of “adult” fiction never did.
I don’t think YA fiction is perfect or has it sorted in terms of representation. There is still a lot of trans characters being written by cis writers, there is a lot of gay and lesbian teenage characters being brought to life by straight writers, and there is still an under-representation of colour, bisexual, intersex, genderqueer, asexual YA characters. What YA does have is a passion for is pushing this forward and for getting better, and that seems something to be optimistic about.
Below are a few of my recommendations of YA books I think everyone should read:
Simon James Green – Noah Can’t Even
I won’t go on and on and on about how much I love this book (you can read my review here) but my first recommendation is the very British, utterly cringe-inducing, hilarious life of Noah Grimes. I’ve read reviewers describe Noah as gay, I read him as probably bisexual, when my girlfriend read the book she wondered if he was asexual. I think this book is a brilliantly written exploration of a young man who is confused about his sexuality, wondering what it says about him and obsessed with what other people think.
Meredith Russo – If I Was Your Girl
One of the few novels I’ve read with a trans character written by a trans writer, and it shows. A story of a trans girl growing up in America and trying to navigate the line between honesty, being yourself, and protecting yourself from the prejudice still so prevalent for all trans people.
David Levithan – Two Boys Kissing
This novel is about more than just two boys trying to break the world record for the longest kiss, there are four stories interwoven into the novel, all related to boys coming to terms with coming out and the reactions of the people around them. The overall narrator is the voice of an older generation of gay men who have lost their lives to AIDS. It is these narrators that really start to pull the emotional punches as they lament the glorious possibilities the lives of young men have now, possibilities that were so cruelly denied to them.
Nina LaCour & David Levithan – You Know Me Well
I couldn’t write a blog post to coincide with Pride month without including this fantastic novel. Told in alternating view points it follows the story of Kate and Mark who become best friends after one moment of bonding in a gay bar. It shows LGBTQ+ young people comfortable with their sexuality and receiving support from the people around them. We need more novels that explore LGBTQ+ friendships and that explore the importance of having friends.
What I want to read more of is books that feature more genderqueer teens, more bisexual teens, more non-white characters – and if these could be British that would be amazing. Give me your recommendations of the best YA you’ve read recently.
I often wonder what decisions I would make if I were a young adult now and had available to me the amount of information, in the form of blog posts, youtube videos, and books, that trans people are putting out into the world. So much of what we read about being trans comes from cisgender voices attempting to understand or diminish the lives of trans people.
In the last 12 months I have read some amazing articles and books that have helped me come to a better understanding of all the ways in which gender can be present and represented in a person and I want to share some of these with you.
Mark Gevisser’s 2014 article Self-Made Man is one of the more respectful articles I’ve found looking at the lives of trans young people. I’ve recommended it to many cisgender people who find the topics of gender-identity, and the terminology that comes with it, hard to get their head around. As a genderqueer person I found it a well written sympathetic piece that, at the very least, is a good start.
The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry
A fascinating insight exploring masculinity in the world today. Grayson Perry offers his own view on the damage that ideas of masculinity do to boys, men, and the rest of society. He offers, with intelligence and sensitivity, a vision of a different way that men can be. A thought provoking book that raises more questions than it answers.
C N Lester – Trans Like Me
An engagingly written book that deftly combines memoir, opinion, and academic research. It presents the journey for trans people from history (distant and recent) to current challenges, on to future hopes. Exploring the full spectrum of gender identity, this book offers the best explanation of trans I have ever read, challenging what we think we know and seeking a better way to live.
Juno Dawson – The Gender Games
In this no holds barred memoir Juno Dawson lays bare her life, thoughts, and hopes for the future as a trans woman. This is a personal story of Juno’s experiences and is told with humour, passion, and a clear love for all people to understand one another and support our journeys as we stand up against the ever-present forces of Gender.
This book is a fascinating look into the life of one trans woman, who is quick to point out she is not speaking for every trans person, and can only speak for her own experiences. It’s worth reading to understand how our experiences differ from each other, and the ways in which they’re similar. If you’re not a trans man or woman then I would urge you to read this book, it is definitely for you! It will make you look again at what you thought you knew about gender and reassess the bullshit way it affects all our lives.
A deeply personal memoir describing one man’s journey to discover what it means to be a man. Thomas Page McBee is a trans man who has written an honest, emotional, and oftentimes necessarily uncomfortable account. Through memories of child abuse and adult violence, Thomas talks with empathy and compassion about how he faced the journey for the truth of who he was and where he fitted into his family and the world. This memoir is beautifully written, with even the most harrowing events told with a light touch that makes the reader unable to do anything but sympathise with the circumstances that lead people to make the decisions.
Writing this article I was struck by how all these books are from white writers. These books aren’t difficult to find and are widely publicised by their publishers, so I wonder where the voices are from trans people of colour, are they being written? Are they being published? Please recommend me some if you’ve read any.
Coming of age and coming out in the 1980s & 90s, the books that I had access to consisted of the very small village library, and even smaller library in my Catholic high school – not so much queerness there. We didn’t have the money to buy books, and there was no internet, so I relied on librarians to provide me with a queer education.
I relished the opportunity to read anything that hinted at gender non-conformity, homosexuality, women’s sexuality (not for the male gaze), but my options were limited.
I don’t remember how I knew about Oscar Wilde and his history, but I was definitely already aware of his sexaulity when I found a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray tucked away in a corner of my school library. I checked it out and remember reading it on the school bus, copying down into my notebook the lines that moved me deeply, even though I had no idea why. I don’t think I understood the book at all when I first read it aged 13, but I read it every year after that until it finally hit me just what story Oscar was telling.
When I was 15 I spent £1 on a book of short stories that, I’m not gonna lie, I totally bought just because it had a naked woman on the cover. I hadn’t heard of Anais Nin, had no idea what the book would be like, and oh my was I in for an education. Never before had I read stories from the perspective of a strong woman in charge of her own sexuality and desires. It completely changed my life and I realised that it was possible to be a woman and to be powerful when it came to sex.
A move to a bigger town when I was 16 meant I finally had access to a larger public library, but it was still hard to find books by LGBTQ authors or about LGBTQ characters. I spent hours scouring the shelves reading blurbs, desperate to find anything even vaguely not-heterosexual. My rescue came in the form of an amazing English teacher, and an introduction to Jeanette Winterson.
I remember watching Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit on TV, so when my A’Level English teacher gave us the book to read, I knew what to expect. I finished it in a day, and took great enjoyment from watching my fellow classmates uncomfortably try to discuss it without actually saying the L word. At the end of one class my teacher said to me, a throw-away comment as I exited the room, “the college library has a few other Winterson books”. I don’t think I’ve ever run towards a library so quickly.
Jeanette Winterson was my first literary love. I’d never read books that I knew were written by a lesbian author, books that blurred the lines of sexuality, gender, feminism, and history. Every time I re-read one of the books I first devoured as a teenager, I find something new that I didn’t appreciate the first time.
I grew up at a time when it was illegal to talk about being gay in school, when the only LGBTQ representaions on TV or film were gay men or lesbian women, who usually ended up alone, miserable, or dead. Trans representations were restricted to men who wear women’s clothing and are the punchline of jokes. AIDS was a terrifying spectre used to demonise an entire community and keep us in our place.
One of the things that lead me to become a librarian was a passionate belief in the importance of libraries. If it wasn’t for my public and school libraries, I would never have been able to read these tiny glimpses into queer life.
There are so many more great works of LGBTQ literature and non-fiction that I could have read growing up, but many were deemed inappropriate, banned, or hidden away from the teenagers like me who desperately needed them.
I’m trying to make up for this now by reading as many LGBTQ books as I can, from those published in previous centuries, to not yet published future classics. I’ll be posting a lot more blog posts about these in the days and weeks to come and discussing some of the more recent additions to the #BooksThatMadeMe
With his debut novel Simon James Green has written one of the funniest books I have ever read. I wouldn’t recommend reading whilst eating (I nearly choked) or whilst drinking (I nearly spat my tea all over the pages and ruined them) or whilst…sitting (I nearly fell off my chair laughing). I may be being too cautious, but the danger is real!
Noah Grimes is painfully awkward, socially uncomfortable, and has an amazing knack for getting himself (or talking himself) into the most ridiculous situations.
Noah’s life is already difficult enough, trying to stop everyone finding out his mum does a Beyonce tribute act, and trying to get Sophie to like him, but his world is turned upside down when his best friend Harry kisses him at a party. What follows is a turbulent journey through Noah’s path of self-discovery.
Noah is an incredibly likable character and is written with a distinctive voice unlike anything I’ve read recently. Funny, charming, emotional, and an outstanding exploration of a young man trying to understand his sexuality whilst also trying to just be as normal as everyone else. I love this book so much, and I really hope we get to read more of Noah’s adventures in future.
Genres: LGBTQ+, Contemporary, Young Adult
Published: May 4th 2017 I bought my copy of Noah Can’t Even from Wordery
If I’m going to keep this post in line with other Where to start with posts then I shouldn’t be recommending the book everyone has probably heard of, Tipping the Velvet. But love affairs in music halls is not a bad place to start.
Sarah Waters is sometimes summarised as writing “historical lesbian fiction” but whilst that is true, her books are so much more then that sweeping generalisation would have you believe.
The Paying Guests brings us to 1922, when the aftermath of the war is starting to change people’s lives. Frances and her mother can no longer afford their house without taking in lodgers and when Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, Frances is captivated by the modern style and attitude Lilian introduces. The effect the paying guests have on Frances and her mother is told with Sarah Waters’ typical sensuous and rich language, deftly creating drama and suspense through her portrayal of flawed but utterly real characters.
When I first readFingersmith I was describing it to everyone as “Dickensian lesbians”. This flippant remark wasn’t only because of the setting of the novel, but the themes of poverty and desperation. The manipulation of women by men is a current that runs throughout the many twists and turns of this brilliant novel. Sarah Waters chooses each word so carefully that you can’t help but feel the tension and barely disguised sensuality present in most chapters.
When a trilogy comes to an end what do you do with your life? Go back to staring at walls and mumbling about how the world is a cold and lonely place, obviously.
Let’s look back to 2015, when I first encountered the world gifted to us by Melinda Salisbury in The Sin Eater’s Daughter. Little did I know what joys I was letting myself in for.
Before I read The Sin Eater’s Daughter I didn’t read much YA, or fantasy, or trilogies – now I’m addicted to all three.
It tells the story of Twylla, the living embodiment of a goddess, betrothed to the prince, and with the ability to kill with a single touch.
What I loved so much about this was all the things I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting Twylla to be as vulnerable and lacking in power over her own life, but still be able to take charge and face up to a world that feared her, with courage and dignity.
My favourite character after Twylla was Lief, her guard. I loved his complexity that was never fully explained but seemed so very human.
I remember where I was when I finished reading the book, because I screamed out loud and ran around telling everyone how amazing it was.
I was expecting a lot from the second book, The Sleeping Prince, and I was not disappointed. Once again the book hit me in unexpected ways. I thought it would continue right where we left off, but instead we get told another person’s story.
Errin is not living so much as surviving. After the death of her father and the disappearance of her brother Lief she finds herself caring for her sick mother and barely managing to keep her head down and unnoticed by those around who who might not have her best interests at heart. When war comes to the village Errin is forced to make difficult decisions and rely on those she isn’t sure she can trust in order to save what is left of her family.
The Sleeping Prince delivers a complex and well developed plot, drawing in multiple layers of folklore and history. Errin’s world is full of uncertainties and her cautious but confident approach to getting what she wants makes her a character that I instantly loved.
By the second half of the book all the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together and draw the first two books closer. I love the way Melinda shows us the interconnected nature of the characters’ lives and how there can still be strength in vulnerability.
By the time book 3 came out I was not emotionally ready for this story to be over.
The Scarecrow Queen takes us into the final battle with Errin and Twylla fighting to save the people they love and themselves from The Sleeping Prince as he attempts to destroy everything around them.
I’m not going to say any more about the book so I don’t give away any spoilers, but if you’ve not read any of them I urge you to get hold of a copy now.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter trilogy is a brilliantly written tale. It gives us two young women who find the strength to stop all the forces that are intent on taking away control from their lives. It gives us flawed characters that aren’t romanticised or excused, but are presented to us as real and oh so human. It is a gripping, beautifully imagined, rich fantasy world you won’t want to leave.
It’s hard to know what else you can possibly add to a book that already has all the glowing reviews in the world. There is a reason some books are hyped, and everyone says “you need to read this”, because sometimes it’s true.
What Belongs To You tells the story of an American teacher living in Bulgaria who first meets Mitko in a public bathroom, where he pays him for sex. Throughout the subsequent years Mitko’s continued involvement in his life gives us a view into a relationship that is hard to define.
This is an intimate story detailing every minute aspect of a mans life as he tries to navigate his way between the deep sensual attachment he has to Mitko, and the undercurrent of violence and anger always present. Theirs is a relationship of obsession, lust, love, and dependence.
Garth Greenwell’s writing is effortlessly exquisite, building beautiful sentences that call out to be re-read and re-read time and again.
I love books that detail the small connections between two people and What Belongs To You is one of the most honest and human portrayals of that intimacy that I have read in a long time.
What Belongs To You is on the longlist for the Green Carnation Prize and I bought my copy from Wordery
Before I start, a short disclaimer: Whilst I did furiously take as many extensive notes as I could nothing below is a direct quote, and I have sometimes shortened a longer point to address the overall idea of what was said for brevity. Any errors are my mistake and unintentional, please let me know if I’ve got anything incorrect.
Some highlights of the evening were Mel introducing herself with reference to her super cute brace-induced lisp; Mel expressing an interest in writing raunchy Mills & Boon Nana stories. There were things other than Mel being adorable though, of course.
I should start by saying a thank you to Blackwell’s Oxford for hosting, and Peter Meinertzhagen for hosting and asking the questions.
The panel started by bragging about all having been on panels with Alwyn Hamilton so I believe this is now the benchmark for success as an author. Have you spoken alongside Alwyn? Yes? Then you’ve made a successful career!
On a panel about YA writing you may have noticed that not everyone’s books are always categorised as YA. While Samantha’s books are published by the adult arm of Bloomsbury in the UK, in some countries they are classified as YA and often deal with YA themes (more on that in a bit). Kiran’s books are sometimes classified as Middle Grade (MG) or YA, and Mel’s books are strictly YA.
Peter started by asking all three about how they got into writing YA/Children’s, and if it was deliberate.
Kiran didn’t know she wanted to/was writing a children’s book from the start. As part of her masters in creative writing she started off writing poetry, but also had to write some prose and it was in this that she first wrote the story of a young girl. This character stuck with her and she kept on writing. It was whilst doing this that realised perhaps she was writing a children’s book (or a YA/Childrens cross-over). Her agent was the one who suggest a shift toward MG but Kiran just wrote what she wanted to, without a strict adherence to what one market wants.
Samantha isn’t technically a YA author but everyone in YA is happy to steal her and claim her as one of their own. The main character of The Bone Season books, Paige, is 19 and this is an awkward age for YA (a little too old) but also awkward for adult books (a little too young). In YA a story is oftentimes about a protagonist discovering what makes them different, finding their place in the world, and this is why The Bone Season books fit so well into YA.
Mel wrote YA on purpose and it’s her favourite kind of book to read because YA is the category that pushes forward the most. YA is the most exciting, diverse, innovative area of publishing. Adult publishing is so far behind, YA is the one pushing boundaries. YA is about the immediacy of life because that’s what being a teenager is like. I was struck by Mel’s obvious adoration of teenagers, especially teenage girls, and her respect for them.
Kiran said that the age of her protagonist in The Girl of Ink and Stars was changed by the publishers, from 12 to 13, as the publishers thought it was the most appropriate age for what the character goes through. In her new book, The Island at the End of Everything, the main character’s age was changed from 10 to 12, Kiran doesn’t have a problem with this. It is important you trust your publisher, and that you can talk to them and you know you can push against things – but they know what they’re doing so if you trust them, go with them.
Peter then asked how important the age of the protagonist is in YA.
Samantha talked about The Priory of the Orange Tree and how all the characters are different ages, the oldest being a 64 year old. She hopes it still appeals to lots of people as she’s never had problems relating to characters who were younger/older than her. When she started writing The Bone Season she made Paige the same age as her, 19, and thought it would be nice for them to grow up together. However, she’s since overtaken Paige because she underestimated how slow publishing moves.
Mel talked about how marginalised teens are and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in YA. Mel hates it when adults who review YA books say the teen characters are making bad choices. YA needs to reflect teens and there is so little space for teens (especially girls). So often the things they’re interested in get devalued, it’s important for YA to validate them.
Peter noted that some claim YA is read mostly by the over 25’s, do YA authors have a responsibility to write what teens want to read, rather than adults?
Mel said that people over 25 didn’t have YA which is why they read it now. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is the book she wanted to read as a teen. Mel’s theory is that the first book you write is the book you needed as a teen.
Kiran‘s favourite book when she was 13 was I One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and this style and use of language informs the way she writes now.
Samantha said that adults connect with YA because at any age the issues are relevant. There are always debates on twitter about YA but it’s important not to forget the teen readers in all that.
Peter then asked the panel if they find it easy to get feedback from teens.
Mel said that Twitter is for old people, but she gets a lot of interaction from teens by using Instagram and Snapchat (but not Facebook).
Kiran does a lot of school visits which is great for immediate feedback. It’s hard to know how successful you are with children because they’re not on social media. So much marketing is the author self-promoting and social media is a big part of this.
Samantha gets a lot of feedback from reviews, although these are mostly done by adults. It’s a shame the Guardian books website shut down, because that often had content written by teens. Her books are in the limbo between YA and adult but she feels that she has more freedom with what she can write in an adult book. While some of the more adult content makes it better as a adult book, a lot of the themes are very YA.
Everyone then went on to discuss what the themes of YA are.
Kiran said that for The Island at the End of Everything she was asked to tone down certain aspects (of a sexual nature) which she is happy to do as long as it doesn’t change the heart of the book.
Mel and Samantha talked about how YA and Children’s books are often categorised together which is why sometimes it can be difficult to know what’s appropriate. Sex in YA is fine.
Kiran identified hope as a theme in children’s books, a book must have hope at the end. In YA this isn’t as necessary, hope can be turned down a notch.
Mel spoke passionately about fan fiction – it’s changed the rules. Teens seek out what they want to read – they want sex scenes. Mel is glad that the era of preachy YA books that are toned down has gone – it’s not what teens want. We owe teens some damn good fiction after this week!
Peter talked about a recent Daily Mail article (to sighs from the room) which said that YA books are too gloomy, and asked what the panel’s thoughts were on that.
After Kiran pointed out how dark Watership Down is, Samantha talked about how much light there is in YA, as well as the dark, but YA writers are pushing boundaries. Books are dark because they reflect the world, and the outlook for many is bleak at the moment. Sam quoted Neil Gaiman when he said that fantasy exists to show us that dragons exist and that they can be defeated.
Kiran said that being a teen has always been hard but YA is writing a way out of the darkness. There is kindness in YA, good doesn’t always prevail but it teaches teens to stay true to yourself and find your people in the darkness.
Mel said that hope is continuous, YA is full of it, just not packed in a friendly way that lies, it gives bites of hope instead.
Peter then started a discussion of the craft of writing and what makes YA different to adult fiction.
Samantha said that YA is slightly more plot driven than some literary fiction. When she was editing The Song Rising her usual editor was on maternity leave so she worked with a someone different who was a YA editor. It was a very different experience, with more cutting, the book was slimmed down so that it was more focused. She found it an exhausting process to write a fast-paced book and would be happy not to do it again.
Mel noted that life as a teen is more plot driven, adult life is more meandering, and that this is reflected in the differences between the types of books. Things happen quickly to teens, they live life at a faster pace, they’re asked to be adults so quickly. As an adult you get more room but teens are asked to make decisions quickly. There is an immediacy to being a teen that seeps into writing. There are more emotional milestones to tick off, as well as life milestones (exams, school, etc). Teens are asked to define themselves quickly.
Kiran pointed out how the first draft of The Girl of Ink and Stars was over 100,000 words long, but the final published version around 50k. There was lots of landscape description which was the first thing to go, it was originally in the third person now in first person. Kiran said it’s important not to get too hung up on differences between YA and adult or on writing to type, just write what you want to.
Peter then asked what could adult fiction writers learn from YA to which Mel immediately responded with “humility”. She went on to say that some adult fiction talks down to you and there is a lot of peer pressure to be living a certain life that is presented in adult fiction (general and literary – not in genre). Kiran agreed and noted that in adult literary fiction there can be a tendency to lie to yourself about what you enjoy so that it says something about you. Some literary authors aren’t earning the attention they get, adult authors are sometimes told they’re great and we’re supposed to believe that without them having to work for it.
Mel then talked about how YA books are rarely seen as “important” or game-changing, but recent exceptions to this are The Hate U Give and Asking For It. Despite the great attention and praise these books have received, they would probably be getting a lot more attention if they weren’t YA. There was a general agreement from the whole panel with Samantha when she said that YA fantasy is doing so many important things that are being ignored, even within YA. The contemporary issue books are the ones given the most attention and praise.
Peter asked if it can sometimes be damaging for a book to be labelled YA? Does it change who reads it and how seriously it’s taken?
The whole panel agreed that YA is taken less seriously. Mel said it becomes seen as frivolous precisely because teen girls like it. But is there a better way of marketing it? Mel doesn’t think so. She said that publishers are passionate about YA and getting it out there, they think it matters.
Kiran agreed, YA is not institutionally supported, children’s authors are not taken seriously, “commercial” is a dirty word. YA and Children’s books are the ones that are making the money but they are not getting the credit they deserve.
Samantha said that how we talk about YA needs to change. In interviews or at events she is never asked questions that adult/literary authors get asked such as “tell us about your character, what are their motivations”. Instead, YA is talked about in simplistic ways – if YA was talked about and reviewed as adult then things would change.
The event finished with Peter asking everyone on the panel what one piece of advice they would give about writing.
Kiran: Write the book you need to write, leave the marketing to someone else. Don’t worry, good writing will out. Focus on the writing and leave everything else to someone else.
Samantha: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Marketing of books is category driven but leave that for someone else to worry about. Keep breaking boundaries. If what you’re writing is a mix of genres that’s fine – it’s okay to write weird!
Mel: Finish your book! You can’t be a writer if you don’t finish. Don’t start planning your career without a finished draft. First drafts are shit, they’re rubbish, they make no sense. Once your first draft is finished you can work on it. Don’t compare your first draft to a published work, there is no comparison. Publishing is what happens when a bunch of experts come in and tell you how to make it possible, they make it good.
Thanks for reading this excessively long post. I know many people were unable to make it so I wanted to cover as much as possible of what was said without interjecting my own thoughts.
This was a fantastic event and it was inspiring to hear three authors I admire so much talking so passionately about the respect we owe to teenagers. Thanks to Oxford Writing Circle for organising and to Kiran, Melinda, and Samantha for such a great evening.
It was 1987 and my mum told me a story about her day at work. She’s a nurse and that day she was working in A&E, attending to patients waiting to go up to a ward. She tells me how she started her shift being told by another nurse “that patient has been asking for water, I’m not taking it to him, you do it.” Baffled, she asked why that nurse, and others, were refusing to take water to a patient. “He’s got AIDS”, my mum was told, as if this was answer enough for why a nurse would refuse to go near a patient. Mum thought, ‘well, I have no idea what that is, but I’m a nurse, so I’m going to help a patient’. She spent all night trying to get hold of the patients partner, a married man who was unaware his partner was possibly hours away from death.
I was 7 years old when my mum told me this story. It’s hard to imagine, for anyone who was born after the first cases of HIV were diagnosed, what it was like at the start. The lack of information on what this new disease was, the lies and rumours about how it was spread (even after it was known how, the denials that it was anything other than a gay disease).
There are some great novels and works of non-fiction that can educate and enrich your understanding of what life was like when this disease began to destroy lives, so I’m going to recommend a few you may want to start with.
If you want to learn more about just how horrific a time it was for those infected and their family and friends, you should start with How to Survive a Plague by David France. This book (and there is a documentary of the same name available) tells the story of a group of activists whose tireless campaigning changed forever the availability of drugs to combat HIV.
Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time (which I reviewed a few years ago) is a devastating first-hand account of AIDS. Published in 1998 it is an intimate account of love and loss which has haunted me since the day I first read it.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt in a novel which brings HIV into the lives of young people through the eyes of a 14 year old who loses her beloved uncle to the disease. She has to confront prejudice and secrets caused by both HIV and homophobia within her family and her community.
The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín is a novel which doesn’t focus on AIDS as a central theme, but where the disease seeps its way into every aspect of the character’s life. Set in Argentina in the 1980s it tells the story of Richard, his family struggles, and relationship difficulties, set against a backdrop of political turmoil.
I’ve recommended the books above because these are the ones that I’ve read, but there are many more that explore the early days of AIDS and its effect on individuals, communities, and the world. Let me know your recommendations of any you’ve read. I really want to read some contemporary novels that deal with HIV so any recommendations are welcome.
I first became familiar with Jeanette Winterson due to the dramatisation of her first novel, Orange Are Not The Only Fruit, which aired on the BBC in 1990. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a lesbian growing up in a religious community in England and explores family relationships, sexuality, and religion.
I finally read the book as part of my A’Level English course and loved Winterson’s storytelling so much I tried to read everything she’d written. This was easy given, at that point, she’d only published six novels. Since I first started reading her work, she has published (if I’ve counted correctly) 16 novels, many collections of short stories, screenplays, and a memoir.
If you haven’t read Oranges I’d recommend you start with that, but following on one of my early favourites is Written on the Body.
Written on the Body is a very difficult novel to define. An intimate portrayal of lust and love, the gender of the main character remains undefined throughout, forcing you to read the book not as a response of one gender to another, but as desire for a physical body.
For a completely different story, try Tanglewreck – a children’s fantasy time-travelling tale. A sci-fi Dickensian exploration of quantum physics that is full of adventure and humour.
Winterson has also contributed to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of re-tellings which have been released since 2015. I’ve not found the time to read The Gap of Time, her re-telling of The Winter’s Tale, but the story sounds fascinating so I’d recommend giving that a try.