ya novel · young adult

Does this YA novel really deserve an award?

joss stirling, struck, helena fairfaxToday I’m going to do something I very rarely do, and that’s write something negative about a book. I never post a review less than 4 stars, as most authors work hard to get a book out, are struggling to make a living from writing, and can do without negative comments from other writers. Usually if I haven’t enjoyed a book, I just shelve it and move on to the next, but I felt quite strongly about this one, as you’ll see.

When I heard that a YA novel had won the Romantic Novelists’ Association prestigious Romantic Novel of the Year Award, I was really excited. Joss Stirling’s novel Struck had beaten finalists in five other categories to become the first YA novel ever to win the award in the competition’s history, and it was up against a compelling list of contenders. The judges were fulsome in their praise, and I couldn’t wait to start reading.

This is the story: Raven, the heroine, has lost both her parents and is now living with her grandfather, who is caretaker at a posh boarding-school. Raven has won a scholarship to attend the school, but there are strange things going on, and she’s the victim of bullying. The head doesn’t do anything about the bullying, because of the shenanigans the school is involved in (trying not to give any spoilers) and also because she resents Raven being there as she isn’t the sort of upper-class pupil she’d like in the school.

Two teenage boys arrive. They’re part of a sort of teenage secret service organisation (run by adults) and have come to get to the bottom of the strange goings on. Up until their arrival I hadn’t been particularly enjoying the book, but that’s OK. Maybe it just wasn’t for me. But after the boys arrived things started to go downhill, and there were quite a few scenes where I really got quite annoyed.

Take this one, for example. The heroine has been abducted and tied up by a gang of teenagers, and she does a pretty good job of handling herself. I don’t think heroines necessarily have to be kick ass all of the time, but it’s good if they can show bravery and strength of character, and Raven did. After this event, she offers to show one of the teenage boys (Kieran, the romantic hero) some self-defence moves. She doesn’t know Kieran has already been instructed in self-defence by the best, and that he’s just going along with her.

He enjoyed playing dumb as she clearly got so much pleasure from instructing him…

‘Now this evening I’m going to show you how to leverage your weight.’…

‘I thought leverage your weight was something hedge funds did for their assets by using sugar derivatives.’

‘Come again?’

OK. So Raven didn’t do financial sector jokes. ‘Nothing.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘OK, Mr Storm, stop making incomprehensible remarks that go over the head of mere mortals and get your butt here.’

He grinned, loving it when she got bossy with him.”

I found the hero patronising here, and it was hard to believe what I was reading. “Got bossy.” I did a mental “ugh” when I read that phrase.Β  Why is it when boys give instructions they’re being assertive and showing leadership skills, but when girls do it, they’re being bossy? That one really annoys me, but it’s especially bad when it’s used in a novel aimed at teenagers.

And how about this passage? Kieran’s boss has ended up in hospital. Kieran goes to visit him, and asks:

Do you need anything, sir? Shall I call a nurse? I’ll see if I can find a pretty one to tuck you in.’

Ugh, again!!! I know a lot of teenage lads probably think this way, but surely not the romantic hero in a novel aimed at teenage readers. Does he really have to be such an arse? Nurses are a professional body of people (women and men, by the way) who must be sick to death of this type of patronising joke when they’re actually trying to do a job that includes saving people’s lives. I was tutting so loudly, at this scene, my husband begged me to put the book down.

There were lots of other things I tutted at, but finally, here’s another scene I really found “wrong.” Kieran’s friend has told Raven that Kieran comes from a wealthy family, but it turns out Kieran’s mum is actually a down and out alcoholic, living on the streets in London. Bear in mind, as I’ve said already, this is a book for teenagers and young adults. There are many, many teenagers who live with a parent who is an addict, or who have a relative who is an alcoholic.Β  I have personal experience myself, as one of my own really good friends is an alcoholic, and another friend’s sister died of an alcohol-related disease. The author might be surprised to know that, far from living on the streets, both these people held responsible jobs and lived in houses they obook openwn after paying off the mortgage. Being an alcoholic is a lot more complicated than the one-dimensional bag-lady portrayed in this novel.

If you’ve been taken out of your home environment as a child and are being looked after by a godparent, as Kieran is, then it’s up to that godparent to manage the situation as well as possible whilst still maintaining a link between parent and child (unless there’s a very good reason not to, and the fact that the mother is an alcoholic isn’t enough reason to cut her off altogether). Kieran’s godparent and mentor has allowed Kieran to sever all links with his mother. Kieran’s godparent (also the leader of the secret society) has been “bribing Gloria [his mother] for years to keep her distance to allow Kieran a chance to have a solid education and stable home.” I just didn’t get any of this, at all. When Kieran bumps into his mother in London, she comes across as a pathetic creature who still loves her son. If there is money there, then why not pay for the mother to go into rehab? None of this scenario made any sense, and having the mother be down and out seemed like someone’s lazy stereotype of what an alcoholic is. To be honest, after reading the scenes involving Kieran’s mother I felt sorry for any teenagers with alcoholic relatives who might read this book. This book will reinforce their shame and embarrassment and do nothing to prevent misunderstanding about what it is to be an alcoholic. It’s a difficult background for the hero. I didn’t really understand why the author had felt it necessary for him to have an alcoholic mother, but once she’d gone down this route it could have been handled a lot better.

By the time I’d finished this book I was very disappointed and had more questions than answers. Is this really the best romantic novel of the year? How have the scenes I mentioned above where the teenage hero is being patronising to women got past a good editor, let alone all been accepted by all the readers who have read for the award, and double let alone all the judges (who include Alison Flood, a journalist for The Guardian – a newspaper that prides itself on its feminist stance and general right-on-ness)? Why did no one challenge the stereotypical portrait of the alcoholic mother? Is it just me? Do I think too hard about these things?

I really am puzzled by the accolades this book has received, and that’s a big part of the reason why I wrote this post. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions. If you have any comments at all – if you agree with what I’ve written, or if you strongly disagree – please let me know. I’d really like to know what you think!

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21 thoughts on “Does this YA novel really deserve an award?

  1. What an interesting post, Helena. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the book yet, though it doesn’t grab me from the storyline above. You make some valid points. The only thing I can say about Kieran’s attitude (without having read it) is that it does seem to portray his rather sexist character well and perhaps that’s what the author intended? This should certainly make some people want to read it now to see if they agree!

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    1. Hi Rosemary, that’s a good point about whether the author intended Kieran to come across as sexist. I’d thought about that, too, but came to the conclusion that it wasn’t her intention. If it was, then she should have had his actions challenged by one of the other characters, but none of it is remarked on and these scenes went by without comment.
      I agree this review might make people want to buy the book now, so I don’t feel too bad about the negative comments. Not if it adds to sales! If you do find time to read it, I’d love to know what you think. Thanks for your interesting comment!

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  2. Having read your interesting post, Helena, I can see why you feel so strongly. I’ll do a little research next time I’m on line with my teenage creative writing students. It’ll be fun finding out what they think.

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    1. Hi Marina, I think the Twilight books struck a chord when paranormal romance was popular, and as far as I know, Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fic and took off partly because of that. I don’t really know enough about the books to comment, though. But it is interesting how some books really take off. That would make a whole other post! Thanks for your comment!

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  3. You certainly felt strongly about this book to write a negative review. I believe you stated your disagreement and backed it up well with your examples. I looked up the book on amazon.com and it isn’t listed. Then I went to amazon uk and it is listed, but the information indicates this book was originally pubbed as Storm and Stone in 2014, then re issued by Oxford University Press as Struck. There must be a story behind that. Storm and Stone is on the .com site. Politics involved in selecting this book?? Hmmm, I bet you could write a story about that!

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    1. I did feel strongly, JQ. It’s not my usual style of post to be negative, and I’m genuinely interested to hear comments from others who may have read this book. I heard Struck was originally published as Storm and Stone, but I didn’t know it wasn’t available in the US under its new title. Perhaps it will be released there soon.
      To be fair, I don’t think politics were involved in selecting the book. The RNA has a system of choosing readers for the award who aren’t involved in the RNA themselves. I’m still puzzled, though, what the readers and a panel of experts saw in this novel, out of the many romantic novels that were longlisted.
      Interesting to hear the info about Amazon US. Thanks for taking the time to check it out.

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  4. Hi Helena, It is always interesting to read your posts, and that certainly includes this one. I have often wondered about what makes a book popular, and we could all cite to examples from the adult best seller lists of recent days. I doubt that I will ever read this book, so I should keep my comments to a minimum, or I will be like those people who censor a play or book without reading it. However, I have to agree that the portrayal of the alcoholic mother as you described it leaves much to be desired. I wonder if the problem is that we think that a book should teach as well as entertain.

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    1. Hi Ken, that’s a great point about whether a book should teach or entertain. I thought very hard about that, too. I think if a romantic novel is aimed at teenagers, then the hero should be portrayed as a person with flaws, like anyone else, but his flaws should be challenged. Teenagers can be influenced by what they read, and they’re looking for answers to life, especially if they’re not getting guidance from the people around them. If you’re writing for that audience you should take care to send a thoughtful message. (That’s only my opinion.)
      And I like the way you refrain from commenting on the book. There are too many people who jump on a bandwagon without thinking about it. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

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  5. I read a book a few years ago that won a really big Canadian award. When I read it, it was just okay. Nothing ever happened. You were always waiting for it to happen, but it just kept sailing along. Still don’t know why it won that award.

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  6. I haven’t read Struck, and now have no interest in it. Authors who write for a teenaged audience have a responsibility. It sounds like this author failed to take this into account.

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    1. Hi Heather, your comment and Ken’s have made me think. Now I realise the reason I feel strongly about this book is because of the audience. If it was aimed at adults, I would have just let it go by. If you did ever read it, I’d be interested to know what you think of it. Sometimes I wonder if authors in the US are more conscious of issues of sexism, etc, than we are here in the UK. I read a lot of review sites and American reviewers seem to pick up on points like this far more often than we do, and they voice their opinions more strongly. I was reticent about posting a negative review, but it’s opened up a lot of comments and made me think more deeply.
      Thanks for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment.

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      1. Hi Helena,
        Actually, we try to have a message in all of our books, but I would agree that an author has a higher degree of responsibility if he is writing for a younger audience. Just where the cut off is would be a sticky problem and I am sure my younger self would have been outraged at the idea that authors should write differently for the young. I remember once buying a novel from our local library at a book sale. The librarian gave me a hard time about because she felt it was not appropriate. Of course I bought the book. It was Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.
        In any event, your topic has made for interesting comments and thoughts.

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      2. Hi Ken, what a great comment. That’s another point that got me thinking. Where is the cut-off point? When I was growing up, children’s books ended around age 14. After that, it was just general fiction. Why do we now have YA literature, when even ten years ago we didn’t? The teenagers in this particular book are in the sixth form (16-18). You’ve made me try and put myself back to that time, and now I remember when I was that age, I was studying King Lear, Hamlet, Albert Camus and Voltaire. I suppose if I could analyse those sort of texts, like you I would have been very cross to find people were writing down to me! And now I’m going to check out Dalton Trumbo. Thanks again for your interesting thoughts on this.

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  7. HI Helena, I have heard about this book in different circles and I must say, I’m not in any hurry to read it. I have found over the years that many award-winning books have fallen short of the mark for me. They are incredibly boring or filled with such negativity and death. It’s depressing when you read from the NYT Bestseller list.

    I’m glad you had the courage to write a negative review. Far too often no one says anything and readers are disappointed/discouraged at reading a bad book.

    Have a great weekend! :)

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    1. Thanks very much for dropping in, Mrs N! I think another reason I was disappointed is that people so often don’t take me seriously when I say I write romance. The romance genre in general is looked down on, and I find it a real drawback when trying to get publicity in the local press. I wanted this book to be a really great book, so that I could show people romance novels can be judged alongside the best. It did take courage to write this review! Have a great weekend, and thanks again for your comment!

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      1. I hear you about romance being looked down upon and I don’t why because it is the largest piece of book revenue every year. Keep your head up, your books are worthy of many awards! :)

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  8. Two thoughts: nobody dares say the Emperor has no clothes; and perhaps despite the possibly mediocre writing (described as such in an AMAZON review), STRUCK has what Stephen King called the GOTTA factor “I gotta find out what happened,” mentioned in MISERY…

    While locking Joss Stirling up with Annie Wilkes somewhere off the beaten track in Colorado might be a fun idea, and acknowledging I myself haven’t read STRUCK, another AMAZON review mentioned “gushing prose” or some such and I can’t help suspecting that, to use a cliche deliberately, luvviedom triumphed, and an author who should have learned how to occasionally put the boot in but good swept the board up on a tide of sentiment and they all got carried away a bit.

    As a previous comment mentioned, “many award-winning books …are incredibly boring” and I think this may in the end be it: the chattering class of literary connoisseurs may well have been throwing their pink slippers in the air but that doesn’t mean the rest of us will necessarily be impressed!

    Also, re the “gush,” I think Groucho Marx once said “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me” and while Joss might like being in the club, maybe she should find that slightly anarchic, twisted, rebellious streak that makes for good writing sans too many flowery adjectives…

    Maybe she’d better go see Annie Wilkes for a creative writing seminar she’d never forget!

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    1. I like the phrase “gotta factor.” That’s a great way to describe it. Struck was a page-turning read, despite the elements I didn’t like about it. It’s not easy to do the “gotta factor” well. I like the image of throwing the pink slippers in the air, too! And I could do with a creative writing session with Annie Wilkes myself at the moment. Maybe she might persuade me to finally finish my wip.
      Thanks for your comment, James!

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