Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Just Another...Book Crush (#17): Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes

Just Another...Book Crush! is a monthly feature where I invite an author whose book I've recently reviewed and loved to write a guest post and share their three latest book crushes. It's a feature I'm starting mostly because I'm often very shy to approach authors, especially ones I admire, and also because I love reading guest posts since, more often than not, they convince me to pick up a book even when the reviewer cannot. 

Can you believe this is the first "Just Another...Book Crush!" post since August? You probably can. Ever since entering college I have begun posting far less frequently than I typically do and, sadly, that meant reducing the amount of time I had to send out e-mails and hunt down authors who would be willing to write a guest post for the blog. I am incredibly excited, however, to have Paula Stokes back on the blog today. Paula wrote The Art of Lainey which debuted last year and--if you re-call--I loved it. She was gracious enough to return to the blog this year to talk about her sophomore novel, Liars, Inc. which is both incredibly compelling and vastly unique. I cannot recommend this book enough and I guarantee that you're going to want to run into the stores to buy it after reading Paula's incredible post. It discusses all the topics I feel most passionately about and crave in the YA genre so it's an absolutely perfect fit for the blog. Enjoy!
Max Cantrell has never been a big fan of the truth, so when the opportunity arises to sell forged permission slips and cover stories to his classmates, it sounds like a good way to make a little money and liven up a boring senior year. With the help of his friends Preston and Parvati, Max starts Liars, Inc. Suddenly everybody needs something and the cash starts pouring in. Who knew lying could be so lucrative? When Preston wants his own cover story to go visit a girl he met online, Max doesn’t think twice about hooking him up. Until Preston never comes home. Then the evidence starts to pile up—terrifying clues that lead the cops to Preston’s body. Terrifying clues that point to Max as the murderer. Can Max find the real killer before he goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit? In a story that Kirkus Reviews called "Captivating to the very end," Paula Stokes starts with one single white lie and weaves a twisted tale that will have readers guessing until the explosive final chapters.


Let me start by saying I’m thrilled to be back on Ivy Book Bindings, a blog that has a diverse, intellectual readership and brings out my analytical side. I write commercial fiction—unapologetically—but that doesn’t mean I can’t think deeply about it, right? ;-)

I am a huge fan of racial and cultural diversity in literature. THE ART OF LAINEY could have had more, but the manuscript did have more until some of the elements were challenged by people higher up than I am (the average author is not very high on the power hierarchy) who felt some of Bianca’s original portrayal was stereotypical. Was it? Maybe? But definitely not in a negative way. I won’t bore you with the details, but I modeled her and her family off the Mexican friends I had when I lived in St. Louis.

In hindsight, do I wish I had fought harder for some things? Sure, but it’s important to strike a balance between advocating for your book/characters and being humble enough to recognize that the people who have been doing this a lot longer than you might be right. What mattered most to me was that Bianca wasn’t reinforcing negative stereotypes about Mexican people. I feel I accomplished that and I’m proud that my future books include a whole slew of racially diverse characters—both main and supporting—that will hopefully feel authentic to most.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about racial diversity; this is supposed to be about going beyond that. So: here’s a question. Why is it important to have YA books with diverse characters? The two reasons I see proposed the most are so that different groups of people can see themselves represented [realistically, positively] on the page, and so that people outside of those groups can become more educated. I think these are both noble goals, and I think we should be striving to achieve them not just for readers of different ethnicities and sexual orientations, but also for readers who are differently-abled, mentally ill, physically ill, different religions, different socioeconomic classes, and even for readers of different personality types and so on. [Thanks to Keertana for providing the framework for this post when we were discussing topics. She mentioned how a lot of YA main characters seem to have the same basic personality types and I realized I feel similarly.]

Obviously, not all writers will feel comfortable writing for all those possibilities, but we’re probably all comfortable writing for at least a couple of them. I wrote Max and Parvati, the main character and the love interest (book-girlfriend?) of LIARS, INC. with several of those groups in mind.

MAX: Max Cantrell is an 18-year-old white male living in Southern California. On the surface, he’s one of the least diverse characters of all. But I’m going to challenge that idea. For one, in YA novels, there are more female protagonists than males, especially males who feel like actual guys. [So far reader response of Max’s portrayal is very positive, so I hope Max feels authentic to you too.] He’s also the adopted child of two parents who love him, which isn’t something you see in books every day. Prior to being adopted at age ten, Max was a foster kid and then homeless for almost a year. Because of all that he’s got some mild PTSD that affects his willingness to form deep connections with people. Finally, he’s lower-middle-class—poor enough for it to show in his thoughts and actions, but not so much that it’s a major plot point. Foster kids, the homeless, people with PTSD, lower-income families—all of these populations are sometimes marginalized. But the thing I find most fascinating about Max, for lack of a better term, is that he’s Factionless. And I am not talking ALLEGIANT “violent uprising” Factionless.” I’m talking DIVERGENT “if anyone needs me I’ll be sleeping under this br—oh wait, no one will ever need me” Factionless. Think about it—don’t most book boys slot neatly into the Dauntless, Erudite, or Abnegation camps? Don’t most protagonists of both genders fall into those groups?

Max is none of those things. Sure, he shows smarts occasionally and a bit of bravery or selflessness, but probably the most special thing about Max is that on the surface he’s utterly unspecial. He’s a loner with only a couple of friends. He has no idea what he wants to do after high school. He’s that guy in the back of the classroom who falls asleep while the teacher is lecturing. I was a Type A overachiever in high school and kids like Max were invisible to me. (And I know that’s a sad thing to admit, but I also know I’m not the only one.) It wasn’t until I student-taught high school that I started wondering what was going on inside those “slacker kids’” heads.

 It’s funny--the proofreader sent a query that read: “You have Max in Algebra as a senior and both his best friends are in Calculus. Did you want to make this Algebra II?” No, I didn’t, because Max is the kind of guy who is only going to take the required amount of boring classes he needs to graduate (which doesn’t make him a bad person or “inferior” to us), and for a California diploma all he needs is Algebra.

So why write about this guy? Because of those reasons mentioned above about why we need diverse characters.  There are plenty of kids like Max and they don’t usually get to have stories—especially not ones that end well. [I’m not going to say LIARS has a happy ending per se, but Max does get to grow and change and become better throughout the book.] I want those kids to see themselves in LIARS, INC. and think “Hey, I can have the affections of this ambitious, pretty girl and this awesome adopted family. I can come out a winner. I am worth reading about.”

And then for the people like me, who all but ignored the Max-types during high school because we couldn’t be bothered with them, there’s the second reason. I want to show there’s more to Max than what you see on the surface—that it could be a huge mistake to write off a human being because superficially they don’t impress you. Since I got [a lot] older and [a little] wiser, I have dated some Max-types and found them to be all kinds of amazing. Max is far from perfect even at the end of LIARS, INC., but throughout the book he’s loyal, honorable, and trying to be a decent person. He takes responsibility for his screw-ups. He feels bad when he does the wrong thing. Even if you read LIARS, INC. and find him hard to love, I think these traits will make it easy to respect him.

PARVATI: I don’t give characters different ethnicities to fill some sort of moral quota. Props to authors who can “insert diversity” in that manner and have it feel organic, but my first loyalty is always to the story. And for me, just as the wand chooses the wizard, the story often chooses the characters.

Sometimes they show up with their races, personality types, and basic traits already apparent and I will only force changes in them if the storyline demands it. Max’s girlfriend was Indian from the very beginning. [Note: throughout the book she is described as half-Indian because that is how Max knows her and her father is white, but she looks 100% Indian and there might be more to that story.] She didn’t come fully-formed, though. I made her Indian because I knew she wanted desperately to work for the CIA and the CIA heavily recruits people of color because they are easier to place in overseas posts. I chose Indian specifically because I have close family friends who are Indian and they served as resources for some of my cultural questions. [That’s not to say you can’t write any type of character you want. You might just have to work a little harder to get it right.]

But there’s more to Parvati that her ethnic heritage. She has a personality disorder that causes her to make some destructive choices, but it doesn’t keep her from having big dreams. She possesses a really cool makeup of “traditionally feminine” and “tomboy” traits that I don’t see a lot of in YA. She’s similar to Lainey in that she likes pretty clothes and eye makeup, but she’s also really athletic and fierce, including having a brown belt in karate. [Note: the seeding of her brown belt was left out of the ARC on accident. There are more mentions of this in the finished book.] She’s a mix of ambitious/intellectual and wild/irresponsible. She’s very Western in the way she dresses and thinks and acts, but she embraces parts of her Indian heritage too.

For me, Parvati is a study in contradictions—a message to people that you don’t have to put yourself in a box. You can be many different things. You can screw up massively and still consider yourself responsible and hard-working. You can like some things about where you came from and dislike others. Putting on makeup doesn’t make you less of an athlete. Having emotional problems doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great things. I know there are plenty of readers who don’t need these messages, but some do, and I consciously strive to create characters who encourage acceptance—both of other people and ourselves.

So as you can see, a lot of thought went into the creation of Max and Parvati, and I’m proud of both of them, even when they’re making bad choices and doing things they probably shouldn’t do. However, nothing in this post is meant to downplay the need for racial diversity in books, or to say one type of diversity is more important than another. For too long, literature and film relegated characters of color to the roles of second-rate superheroes and sassy friends. It’s exciting to see such an influx of diverse lit in the past couple of years and the future looks bright. But not all authors will feel comfortable writing main characters outside of their gender or culture or sexual orientation, and that’s okay. Knowing your limitations doesn’t make you prejudiced. Just remember that there are lots of readers out there who are underrepresented in fiction. Reach out to the ones you can.

And finally, if you’re a writer, never let anyone tell you a certain type of character is off-limits. I went to a diversity panel discussion recently and one of the speakers was asked:

“So what are the key points to remember when trying to craft a POC who is believable but doesn’t fall into the trap of being a stereotype?”

The speaker’s entire answer was that if we want these types of stories we need to support authors of color. And as much as I agree we need to support authors of color, the subtext there—that white people can’t do it right and shouldn’t even try—really bothered me. For one, it puts the entire responsibility of creating diverse lit onto authors of color, which is unfair. And second, if you do your research, get feedback from beta-readers, and try your best to write POC characters in a way that is authentic and respectful, then it shouldn’t matter what color you are, should it? You tell me.

Just Another...Book Crush! 

These aren’t the newest, but I decided to stick with the diversity theme and highlight some of my past favorites:

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka 
This is the book the movie THE EDGE OF TOMORROW is based on, and the translator managed to maintain the lyrical cadence of Japanese language. Keiji Kiriya dies and comes back to life again and again on the battlefield as he faces an army of alien invaders. What’s so special about him that he’s getting so many chances, and can he use his gift to figure out a way to beat his unbeatable foes before he dies for good?

Piper bets the school’s rock band she can become their manager and land them a gig. The problem: Piper is severely hearing-impaired. This book is a fun and heartfelt musical odyssey featuring a girl who refuses to be owned or defined by her disability. A prime example of a non-hearing-impaired author who did his research and crafted a superb book. Winner of the Schneider Family Award.

GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray 
In addition to being another MC I would label as Factionless, Cameron just happens to have Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy—the human form of mad cow disease. Sure, there probably aren’t a ton of BSE-afflicted readers out there, but I’m sure there are some chronically ill readers tired of reading depressing cancer books. In GB, Cam sets off on a quixotic quest in search of a mysterious time traveling doctor who might have a cure for BSE. Friendship, love, music, and snow globes collide in a book that made me laugh, cheer, and weep simultaneously.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing such a thought-provoking post, Paula! What do you think about diversity in YA Fiction? Be sure to look out for Liars, Inc. in bookstores on March 24th! (If all goes as planned, I'll be reviewing this book before it hits the shelves in case you need any more motivation to put it on the top of your TBR!)


  1. Fantastic post! A great insight to your characters, Ms. Stokes. :) I love the diversity, and the fact that your choices aren't superficially manufactured. I have read books that tried so hard to include characters of different culture/colour just for the sake of diversity. This makes me want to meet Max and Parvati. :)

    Thanks for sharing, ladies!

  2. Fun guest post! I loved this read and I did in fact, love how diverse and different everyone was, plus I loved how honest Max was, especially considering the lies that got him into trouble to start with. ;)

  3. Wow, what a fantastic post Paula!

    It's fantastic that every day there's more diversity of every way, racial, sexual, physical and even as you said mental disabilities and mental illness.

    Learning about people different than us makes us more aware and make us grown and understand others all the better, and books can provide us with a way to do so out of our regural social circle.

  4. I love this post!! I still haven't read The Art of Lainey but I remember the Book Crush post for that book as well. I am convinced I need to read both of these books! I didn't really know what Liars Inc was about so I'm glad to get such information on it. I think I'd love these characters. But it is so true what Ms. Stokes says about characters like Max, I don't believe I've ever read about a character like him. Even the "bad boys" have some incredible skill or intelligence. Great post!!

  5. I enjoy this feature so much, girl! I'm glad you were able to start it up again.
    This was a really well written piece, and so interesting. I haven't read Liars, Inc, but this makes me want to bump it back into my TBR pile.
    As for those crushes, I haven't met any of them, but I'll be checking them out on Goodreads. :)

    Lovely post, K!

  6. I love love love this post Paula, I agree we definitely do need more diversity in books these days, so I'm glad to see that you took this chance with both of your characters, I love your explanations for how these characters came about. Also thank you for your book recommendations, I have been considering giving Going Bovine and Five Flavours of Dumb, for the longest time!

  7. Perfect post and I totally agree. I hate that I get so excited about a diverse book. I mean I shouldn't get so excited since it should be the norm. There is a movement about writing girls/women as HUMAN. Seems like the post boils it down to the same thing. I do hate stereotypes in my book and it is so good to see a author feel the same way.

  8. Thank you guys so much for your comments. I was afraid to come look all day because I Googled Tl;dr this AM with respect to something else and I was like "Oh hell. That's every blog post I've written. This is why no one comments, isn't it??"

    There aren't easy answers which is so vexing--I like to fix things that are broken, but how? Even writing this was hard because I feel like "diverse" shouldn't be a moniker for people of different races because that marginalizes the other diverse groups.

    And even calling someone a POC or character of color just sets off alarms in my head because although I think everyone should embrace their heritage as they desire, POC makes it feel so "us vs. them" doesn't it? I'm not saying I'm color blind because I don't think anyone is completely, but I don't meet someone and sort them into White or POC. GAH! CAN'T WE JUST ALL BE PEOPLE?? :)

    Sorry. Many feels. Many many feels and no answers, but if we just keep talking and thinking and sharing ideas, then I think we'll keep moving in the right direction <3

  9. YAY DIVERSITY!!!!! Yet another reason I need to pick this book up immediately! I'll have to check out the other books she mentioned as well because I've read none of them. Fail. *sigh* One of these days I'm going to just take a month off work and read all the books I want to Keertana!

  10. As you miiiiight be able to guess from my books, I am very pro writing diverse characters whether or not you share their background. Obviously this needs to be done with care, research, and respect - that's baseline - and though of course I support authors of diverse backgrounds as well, I find it so disheartening when I see conversations like "White people should stop writing PoCs." For one thing, exactly what you said - it shouldn't be on any one group to take responsibility for writing about everyone of that group. I have no desire to write YA about Orthodox Jews, so who am I to tell Una LaMarche she took that away from me by doing it first? (She didn't, *and* she did a damn good job with her depiction of Orthodox Judaism, too.) And for another, there are a LOT of genres, and a lot of different kinds of people and characters.

    If I *were* a Korean-American lesbian, as the main character of my next YA is, and I wanted to find myself - I could! In fantasy. And that's great! But I don't read fantasy. And I could support every single author of color there is and every single queer author there is (and I try to!) and it's still not resulting in Korean-American lesbians in contemporary, especially not in celebrity roles.

    So I can wait for someone to write it who has more of a right to than I do, or I can make sure the category has it, now. I choose the latter. And if an Asian-American author comes along and writes something similar somewhere down the line, I'll support the hell out of that book too.

  11. Great post! I do think there need to be more books with diversity, and diversity that extends beyond race and sexuality (even though those are totally important too). Liars, Inc sounds really great - I'm curious to check it out.


  12. This is an amazing post and I enjoyed reading it a lot, Paula. As a Filipino who rarely sees Filipino characters in the books I read, I yearn for more diversity, not just of race but, like you said, of different backgrounds, religions, disabilities, etc. I want to see what it's like in their shoes, I want to see the world in their eyes, because this is something that I won't be able to achieve in real life. I want to be able to understand them, and I think the only way for me to do that (at least effectively short of having a heart-to-heart conversation with one) is through reading their account in a book. I don't mind white people writing about them, because hard as it may be to accept, they actually have more opportunities to do this than PoCs do because of how abundant they are in the publishing world and I would be forever be grateful to them if they could write more about US that would eventually result to a more balanced population in the writing scene. You go, Paula, and many others who aren't afraid to show the world there is more to it! :D

    Faye at The Social Potato

  13. I haven't read this book! But you definitely make me want to pick it up with this post. I love seeing the thought that the author put into her characters and her story, and it's also interesting to see how some of her choices in her previous book were changed because of the publisher's reactions. Anyway, I did want to say that I love FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB. I don't hear about that one a lot but I that it was a fantastic book when I read it ages ago before blogging.


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