Finding inspiration…

I’ve been inspirationally constipated these last few days. Not sure why. It’s hard sometimes to find anything to say – even for me! Plus, it’s been magnificently hot – 27 degrees these last 4 days – and we’ve been outside for a good proportion of the day.

But… something caught my eye this morning and it compelled me to write. Not least because it’s so similar to my own views – although the list is different.

Patrick Ness is currently my favourite writer – teenage or adult fiction aside – and he breaks rules like you wouldn’t believe. Present-tense 1st person narrative with idiosyncratic spelling and font use – he breaks conventions in such interesting ways. Without that, his trilogy starting with ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ is an interesting sci-fi-ish, fantasy-ish quest. It has all the typical quest features – teenage heroes on the cusp of manhood (and never had manhood been so important!), a female sidekick who often saves the day, an animal who proves his worth (and had some of the best dialogue for an animal. Forget Doug in Up, Manchee is the best dog character I’ve seen for a while. Especially when he comes back from his daily constitutional and says “Great poo, Todd!” because that’s what dogs would say. It has your typical villain – Prentiss – and a journey, something sought, a setback in the second novel that finishes on a downturn (think The Empire Strikes Back) but it does it in such interesting ways. It’s part Shakespearean Tempest with colonisation and new worlds being at the forefront. It’s part The Handmaid’s Tale with the subjugation and elimination of women. It’s sci-fi, but gently so. It’s futuristic, but it’s timely. I love everything about it. And then you have a guy who manipulates the written word in ways that are so easy for rule-breaking teenagers to grasp. The sentences and paragraphs that perfectly reflect the tension – I could find a million pieces of text that are as perfectly constructed, punctuation and syntax-wise, as Angela Carter’s prose, so rich and velvety and dense as it is. For all those primary school teachers who say you can’t start a sentence with ‘And’ and you should have a full stop for every other coordinating or subordinating conjunction, they need to (first read KJB and the psalms and then) read some of Todd’s perfectly-constructed prose where Todd’s actions blend seemlessly into one in a very cinematic and visually interesting way.

Anyway… his top 10 books that teenagers should be told not to read (and then they’ll read) is here…

And it inspired my own top 10, in that it mentions at least a few books I read as a teenager that probably I shouldn’t have read. Unfortunately, teenage fiction wasn’t quite as good when I was a teen – I would have loved the phenomenal amount of good teen literature these days. So in between the children’s library in Bury and the adult section, there were two carousels – meagre offerings – of ‘teen’ fiction, most of which I read very quickly – and so I ventured to the adult section, and these are the things that caught my attention:

1. Like Patrick Ness, Flowers in the Attic. I was entranced by this story. Incest, child abuse, rape, whippings, imprisonment… it might be candy-floss, but it’s as much a gothic horror in the style of Ann Radcliffe as anything else. I was hooked on the whole series, and then later by Heaven and the Casteel series.

2. My Stephen King of choice isn’t The Stand, but It. I thought long and hard about which one I’d choose – I remember reading Pet Semetery and Salem’s Lot and either of these could be the one I’d ‘not’ recommend to teenagers. I remember reading Salem’s Lot when I got back in at night and being utterly terrified. Another thing that got me hooked on Gothic Horror as a precursor (in my reading, not chronologically!) for Dracula. It, though, was so long, so intense – and the descriptions of Pennywise are remnants from a very twisted imagination.

3. James Bond. I read all the Ian Fleming books in series – not sure why – but they’re sex and violence and even though they’re repetitive, they made me dream of  a life more glamorous than the one I had. And they’re better than the films.

4. The Outsiders. I know the film came out when I was about 11 – but it was the book that got me. I read it over and over. The film launched many film careers – Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio – directed by Francis Ford Coppola… and if it did anything, it made me love poetry. When Ponyboy recites “Nature’s first green is gold” – it made me love, love, love poetry. I learned poetry by heart because of this book. It also made me read ‘Gone with the Wind’ – and subsequently watch the film. It was inspirational on so many levels: teens writing, tales of friendship I wished I had.

5. Anything by Judy Blume (although I confess I read these when I was 11 and not quite a teen!) Forever is probably far too racy for an 11 year old, but it offered fascinating insights into a world I wasn’t in yet. Plus, it made me realise that books were sometimes rude and real. I was still living in a dreamy Enid Blyton world before that.

6. Steppenwolf. I read this at the other end of my teens, when I was about 16 – and in ways that I never got with A Catcher in the Rye, which I read at 19 – it really got me with that feeling of existential angst and isolation that teens feel and adults don’t always.

7. Maurice by EM Forster. This came out in the cinema when I was about 14. I went to see it at the Cornerhouse, an arts cinema in Manchester. Small screens, old seats, smoky furniture – it was as much about watching it there as an impressionable teen as it was about the book, which I read before I went. I cried buckets. Now I’m not gay, but when you’re a teenager thinking about sexuality, this brings it to the fore. It made me a better person to understand that love is love, no matter when and where it strikes. It also made me realise that sexuality isn’t a choice and shouldn’t be defined by social constraints. The film unfortunately gave me a crush on Hugh Grant (thankfully passed) and Rupert Graves, who is still very handsome indeed. I think it’s probably responsible for a lot of my fag-hagging and attraction to hanging out with gay men. It’s probably a really crap book and I never plan on re-reading it, but for a teenager it was really beautiful and sad.

8. I misquoted the famous line from The Go-Between yesterday (I actually said ‘The past is a different country: you have no jurisdiction over what happened in it and there’s no point worrying about what’s going on there – like Libya. There’s nothing you can do about it and nothing you try to do about it makes a bit of difference’ – which I think is a vast improvement, but then, I’m full of my own self-importance!) and The Go-Between was another really important book. I must have liked reading about doomed love affairs! My English teacher, Mrs Trethewey – a genius of a woman who introduced me to Spike Milligan poetry and to John Clare – made us write a book report at the age of 15 – and this was on the list. I chose it and never looked back. I probably enjoyed Atonement a great deal from having read this. As a loose detour, I’ve just read that Keira Knightley is to star in Anna Karenina. How to ruin a good book. I despise that woman with her wooden acting. She’s like a clothes-horse. A mannequin has more personality and emotion – and not just Kim Cattrell’s Mannequin. Keira Knightley absolutely ruined Atonement with her pouty, skinny lack of emotion. This was a detestable shame, because James MacAvoy was soooooo good. When will casting agents realise that being wooden is not acting, and being British isn’t about being wooden. I digress.

9. Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells – showing how teenage fiction should be done. If ever you want to know why nuclear war is a bad thing, this makes it more than clear. This really affected my views of the world – you can see a lot of these books affected me because they were about relationships but some got me because they were about issues that would come to define me throughout my life. This was one of those.

10. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. At the time, this seemed so cutting edge to me. I read it every year for about six or seven years. It was a totally different type of writing from everything I’d read so far in my life. It seemed such a free way of writing. I think I read it when I was about 16 or 17 and it will always be my book of festivals, my book of long train journeys. My copy has got hundreds of drawings in it and on it – I used to do ink drawings over the text of places I saw, road signs, buildings… I think it really got me about how free you could be, how you could live outside of society – and then, as my teen years finished, I conformed completely for a good 15 year period! Now the romance of On the Road has had a little rejuvenation within my soul.

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