Zombies and Horny Nuns

A few weeks back, I blogged about how the romance part of “Dark Romance” often left me cold. My Hollywood based chum, Vanessa immediately suggested that I should check out The Forest of Hands & Teeth by Carrie Ryan, (published by Gollancz in the UK) if I wanted a more enticing offering.  I know that theoretically we now have the same publisher, but regardless of this little fact, you should stop what you’re doing and read Forest NOW!

Gloriously combining three YA trends, zombies, dystopia and doomed love, Forest tells the tale of a colony of zombie apocalypse survivors living in a puritanical compound ruled by the powerful Sisterhood and policed by the Guardians. The title refers to the Unconsecrated – the undead beings who test the fences relentlessly in their hunger for human flesh. Neatly, the Z-word isn’t mentioned in the whole book.

My previous article expressed concern over some of the girls in other YA series, particularly a certain Bella Swan. Thankfully, Forest gifts us Mary, a fully rounded character who gives readers a feast of food for thought. Shunned by the fellas, Mary is whisked away to the sisterhood only to develop a serious crush on her best friend’s betrothed, Travis. Much hot and horny, breathy ear whispering follows, with no hesitation from Mary. In contrast to many of her contemporaries, Mary is unapologetic of her teenage urges – her only regret is that she’s doing the dirty on her best mate. Ryan has dared to go where Meyer did not: teenage girls have sexual desires. There, she said it.

However, what makes Mary a truly fascinating character is that her story doesn’t end there. It’s hard to write more about her without spoilering the plot, but her motivations run much deeper than her raging horn for Travis, especially when she realises there might be a world outside the compound. One night she discovers the Sisterhood have been lying to their sheltered community, and the reader is drawn into a mystery and a quest. As the story progresses, Mary is granted something which Bella, Nora, Katniss et al were denied…ambition. I think this is a very positive message for young female readers in particular.

The forest of the title isn’t the only metaphor. The Sisterhood, the Guardians, the village can all be interpreted in various ways – the text can be read with a feminist slant quite easily, but don’t be put off! Forest is more literary than much of the genre, but never alienates the target audience. As the angstometer starts at 11 and is cranked up to about 20 by the end, Forest isn’t always a fun read, but never fails to captivate. Ryan’s prose is beautiful and somewhat sensual, oddly poetic for a novel about flesh-eating hordes.

The Forest of Hands & Teeth made a somewhat bigger splash with US than UK readers, becoming a critical hit and a New York Times bestseller. It spawned two sequels, The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, released soon. Rumours of a movie are also floating about the Internet, so as I said before, read it now and brag to your mates that you read it before it was passe.


Sh*t Got Real


Finally! I can tell you my amazing news! Earlier this year, after a rollercoaster year, my debut novel, HOLLOW PIKE has been purchased by INDIGO, the new Young Adult imprint at the marvellous Orion Publishing Group. Here’s what The Bookseller had to say about it.

Aimed at the over 12s, HOLLOW PIKE is a darkly comic, twisted thriller set in a small town with big secrets.  That’s all I’m giving away for now, as the book isn’t released until February 2012 (provisionally), but if you keep an eye on the Hollow Pike section of the site, you’ll see some clues hinting at the mystery of the sinister town.

Regular readers will know how bumpy and roadkill-strewn the road to getting published can be, but the thrill of making a sale defies description, it really does.  And it’s only the beginning!  When everything’s calmed down a bit, I’ll share more details of the last few months and how mental everything has been.  For now though, it’s enough to say I’m so excited to launch my books on the world, and I can’t wait for people to finally read my stuff!  That’s surely the whole point, no?

In case you missed the news, INDIGO is a dedicated new imprint releasing titles of all genres for teens and young adults. They’re publishing “exciting new voices” (LOOK! THAT’S ME, MUM!) and established megastars such as Harlan Coben, Sally Gardner, Marcus Sedgwick and Cliff McNish. I’m sure you’ll agree, this is “exciting” and “doesn’t suck”.

In the meantime, it’ll be back to business as usual – me waffling about books I’m reading, songs I love, TV I hate, only now with an added blob of book news!  As always, thanks for reading.


James x

Mary Sue Hummel

In literary terms, a “Mary Sue” is described as a character who serves as a wish fullfillment fantasy for either the author or reader.  A character who is just a little too perfect to be real.  The term derives from a piece of Star Trek fan fiction written by one Paula Smith in 1973 – in which “Lieutenant Mary Sue” is “the youngest lieutenant in the fleet, only fifteen and a half years old!”  The piece was parody, meant to poke fun at how teenage fans were predisposed to writing themselves into the Star Trek universe.

Literature is littered with authors transposing themselves into their own books.  I do it all the time.  My personal favourite, though, is Armistead Maupin’s “Michael Tolliver” from the longitudal San Francisco chronicles Tales of The City. No writer is immune to a shade of “self-insertion” (which sounds FANTASTICALLY dirty).  Agatha Christie, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Darren Shan and Stieg Larsson are all thought to have immortalised themselves as fictional characters.  And where’s the harm in it?  Everyone says you should  “write what you know”, so it’s easy to see why basing a character on yourself is a safe bet at punching out a believable hero.

The criticism of Mary Sues is that when an author writes themselves, they are often far too kind, removing any significant flaws.  After all, who wants to paint themselves in a negative light?  Writers are accused of heaping “kind” flaws onto these avatars – the odd crooked nose, unusually coloured eyes, annoying laughs – that sort of thing.  It’s also a chance for the author to “put right what once went wrong”.  Didn’t get the girl at the high school dance?  YOU DID NOW!

And now to the main event.  TV’s biggest Mary Sue.  Kurt Hummel from Glee.  If you’re unfamiliar with Glee, allow me to quickly bring you up to speed.  William McKinley High School has a choir, but they call it Glee Club.  Each week, the young singers and their choirmaster battle a ferocious (yet AMAZING) coach and sing lots of (autotuned to the max) songs.  Kurt, played flawlessly by Chris Colfer, is a trendy young soprano who comes out as gay in the first series.  The poor wee thing is tormented by a school bully, must deal with his feelings for soon-to-be step brother, and fight for his place in the choir.

Is Kurt a Mary Sue?  The case for the prosecution.  Show creator and lead writer Ryan Murphy is a 45 year old gay man, who came out as a teenager.  While at school he performed with his schools show choir, “The Singing Hoosiers”.  Okay, so far, so Glee.  Kurt is stylish, well liked by the New Directions members, talented, and the perfect son – caring for his sick father and later planning him a lavish wedding in (seemingly) days.  Furthermore, it is revealed that his tormentor, Karofsky, actually desires Kurt AND he attracts the attention of  uber hot public school totty, Blaine.  Similarities AND wish-fullfillment. Ladies and gents, I present a Mary Sue.

The case for the defence:  Kurt is given flaws.  If nothing else, Ryan Murphy has (like me with my own Mary Sues) had some insight into his creation.  Namely, in the first half of the second series, the possibility that Kurt is actually sexually harrassing the other Glee guys is discussed.  Certainly, Kurt manipulates his crush, Finn, into sharing his bedroom.  If a guy did that to a girl, eyebrows would be raised for sure.  I applaud Murphy for allowing Kurt to be a little darker occasionally, although the storyline was offset with the suggestion that Finn was at fault for not fully accepting Kurt’s sexuality. Some viewers also argued that Kurt’s love for divas, showtunes and fashion is a flaw in itself – doing nothing to challenge dated and sterotypical views of homosexual men. Perhaps more disappointing is that the other gay character, Blaine, has exactly the same interests. Ugly Betty also struggled to show any diversity within the gay community, but that’s dead and gone now, while Glee lives on.

The verdict? Kurt Hummel is, without question, a Mary Sue.  However, the character is much too important to face a penalty.  Ryan Murphy has put an out, gay, teenage character centre stage.  He’s not the sidekick (Willow – Buffy the Vampire Slayer), he’s not asexual (Will and Grace), he’s not 35 (Jack – Dawson’s Creek).  He’s gay, and week after week raises issues surrounding his sexuality.  The bullying storyline has been fantastically handled, and clearly designed to hold a mirror up to the US schooling system.  In the current episodes, showing in the UK on E4 and Channel 4, Kurt has defected to a school with a “Zero Tolerance” approach to bullying.  What I like about the scripts is that they very explicitly talk about the issue. Never mind popstars telling you “it gets better”, this is Murphy depicting his personal experience of high school and examining the failings of some schools to provide a safe environment for all pupils.

More than that, it gets young people talking about diversity.  That can only be a good thing. Characters from ethnic minorities have been a staple of children’s TV for decades, but LGBT characters haven’t been given the same freedom (although the recent Hollyoaks transgender storyline has merit).  Russell T Davies introduced time-travelling bisexual Captain Jack (John Barrowman) into Doctor Who, and some YA fiction has explored sexuality, but Glee is in a different league.  It’s watched by millions of children worldwide, and they are getting the message that being gay is fine, and you don’t have to stand for any shit.  This is good.

In conclusion, Ryan Murphy created a Mary Sue. However, it’s worth noting that “Kurt Hummel” was invented especially for Chris Colfer after the actor auditioned for another role.  It seems to me that Murphy saw an opportunity to tell a worthwhile story with a talented young actor and seized upon the chance.