Books That Made Me Cry

On twitter yesterday I was briefly embroiled in a conversation with the lovely Kim Curran, regarding what makes a good opening paragraph; when you start reading a book, what is it about those first sentences that keeps you reading? I’d just started reading The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and it had occurred to me that I like books that start with dialogue, or with characters doing things – I also like a good descriptive passage of course, but it has to be really good. My priority when starting a book is finding out if I want to go on a journey with these characters, and dialogue or action can be a good indicator. “The opening of a book has to up and kick you in the eyeballs” I said.

Anyway, it got me thinking, on this, World Book Day, about books that kick you in other parts of the anatomy. Namely, your guts. Your heart. Books that leave you shocked and diving for the tissues in your bag, or bravely attempting to keep a stiff upper lip on the top deck of a bus. Which books, in short, make you cry? In no particular order, my top three (there may be mild spoilers for these if you haven’t read them yet):

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A Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

The chances are if you’ve read this book, then you will know which bit made me cry. And you will know what a punch to the gut it was too. This series is chock full of shocks and surprises, a series where no one is safe and the worse could always happen. It’s one of my favourite things about it, actually. In the first book, A Game of Thrones, sure, everything looked quite bad for Ned Stark, but I was still confident he would be okay. He was the hero, after all. Even more so, he was a good bloke. ASOIAF is a brilliant lesson in how effective a book can be when it decides to a) ignore the tropes and b) not give a fuck about your feelings on the matter. I didn’t cry for Ned as such, it was almost too much of a shock, but I cried for Arya and Sansa. As for A Storm of Swords, well… let’s just say I can’t wait to see this series depicted in the HBO series. It’s going to be amazing.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Gosh, these are some emotionally exhausting books. I’ve actually had to give myself breaks between them because I am a wimp and couldn’t quite deal with it all at once. Ness’ brilliant YA series about a world where men’s thoughts are broadcast out loud is a tremendous piece of work touching on all sorts of very important subjects – I genuinely hope they are being taught in schools, because the truth in this fiction is devastating and real. Ahem. Anyway. The relationship between Todd and his dog Manchee in the first book is so well crafted it absolutely cuts you to the core. I’m still a little bit heartbroken over that book, to be honest.  

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I Shall Wear Midnight by Sir Terry Pratchett

I’m a huge fan of everything Sir Terry does, of course – he is a genius and one of our greatest writers – and I think the Tiffany Aching books are pretty special. They’re “Witch” books, which immediately puts them above everything else for me of course, but they’re also terribly wise books about growing up and making your own way in the world. I imagine they’re incredibly important to young people experiencing that right now, but as an adult reader remembering that time, I Shall Wear Midnight struck a deep chord. It’s also an incredibly brave book, willing to speak about things that are rarely discussed by adults, let alone in children’s books; domestic abuse, old age, euthanasia. I’m not too proud to admit I cried several times reading it, but at least I had a watery smile on my face by the end of it.

That is the power of books; they take us on journeys, and they make us care, and sometimes when they’ve broken our hearts they mend them too.

Which books made you cry?

Fantasy Characters I Would Like to get Drunk With

I was talking to the lovely Ren Warom the other day about the potential mead-soaked mess that would be a night out with Wydrin – of all the characters I’ve written, she is the one I would most like a night on the town with. It would be dangerous, that’s for certain, and everyone would likely come home with a certain amount of memory loss, a pounding headache and several more tattoos than they had at the beginning of the evening, but it would be fun. So that got me thinking: which fantasy characters would I most like to share a tasty beverage with?

 

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Tyrion Lannister

 

Charming, witty, and the cleverest character in a book series full of clever characters, Tyrion would be an excellent dinner companion (and it would have to be dinner as well – I could hardly resist the chance to try out one of the endless medieval banquets continually happening in A Song of Ice and Fire); not only is he funny and shrewd, he’d happily talk books all evening, and you know the wine would be the finest vintage imaginable. Just don’t mention his sister.

 

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Nanny Ogg

 

Really, who wouldn’t want a drink with Nanny Ogg? (apart from her many daughters-in-law, perhaps). A woman of rude wisdom and deep earthy intelligence, you would certainly go home knowing a few more things than you did previously – mainly about who is doing what to whom, and whether her husband knows about it yet. I imagine drinking scrumpy with Nanny by the fireside, slowly getting sozzled and learning the words to various rude songs, before passing out in a rocking chair just before the sun comes up. A perfect evening.

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Oghren

 

If you haven’t played Dragon Age: Origins you probably won’t be familiar with Oghren, which, believe me, is a shame. Think of him as a cross between Yosemite Sam, Gimli, and a vat of ale. When you first meet Oghren he is wandering Orzammar as an occasional angry drunk, although once convinced to join your quest and seek out darkspawn to destroy, he fully commits to the cause of drinking and shouting, and quickly becomes one of the more amusing companions to spend time with. In one memorable scene, you can talk to Oghren at the camp site while he apparently ingests alcohol through his skin until he finally shouts “ASSLESS CHAPS!” at you and falls over. I love him.

           

So tell me what characters you would most like to share an ale with? All genres welcome.

 

A Number of Small Updates Ultimately Signifying Nothing

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It occurred to me that I haven’t done one of those straight-forward, what’s going on at the minute sort of posts for a while, so here we go; prepare your ears for my latest escapades!

 

Ahem.

 

At the weekend I went to see Spirited Away on the big screen with my lovely friend Jenni. Spirited Away is one of my favourite movies (and I suspect one of Jenni’s too) so it was a real treat to see it in all its glory, and with an audience full of equally appreciative fans. Obviously Studio Ghibli have produced a lot of truly excellent films, but Spirited Away remains special to me for reasons that I can’t really put my finger on. Part of it, I think, is demonstrated by the picture above- the film makes me feel oddly peaceful, even in the midst of stink gods, No-faces eating everyone, and other weirdness. It’s impossible to watch this film and not feel quietly happy at the end of it.

 

Also at the weekend, I finished Camp Nanowrimo with a day to spare. Hurrah! And I appear to be doing the whole thing again this month, because I apparently want to test my sanity to the limits. This is good though, because it means I’ll have a complete first draft of The Snake House in two months, which I’m pretty certain would be something of a record for me. Dead Zoo Shuffle was almost that fast, but I wrote a Steampunk novella in the middle of it and that confused matters somewhat.

 

As for The Snake House itself, I will cautiously say it is going well. I’ve had to write about some very dark and nasty stuff, which has been more challenging than I expected, and in many ways I miss the freedom that straight-up fantasy books give you in terms of world-building and making up your own rules. However, my three old lady characters have been enormous fun to write and I’m finding out more and more about them every day, via that wonderful habit characters sometimes have of going off and doing whatever they like, or saying the wrong thing at exactly the wrong moment. This seems to happen even more with old lady characters.

 

I’m re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I know, I know, I only just finished A Dance With Dragons, but after a brief break to read Full Dark, No Stars (which was pretty good) I’ve decided to throw myself straight back in. There is a certain delicious fangirl joy in knowing what will be significant later, so you can pay extra special attention to certain events, and what this character says to that character at this time. I’ve got the first four books all together on a kindle edition, so I’ve been reading for a day and a half and I’m still only 1% in. Hmm.

 

 

And that’s it for now. There is other stuff to talk about coming up on the horizon, but I shall leave it where it is for the time being, like Chihiro’s distant lights. See you on the other side of Nano!

 

On Finishing A Dance With Dragons (no spoilers)

So, that’s it. I have moved A Dance With Dragons from my “currently reading” file to my “finished” file (after having ritualistically read through the index of character names and houses- am I the only one to do that?) and I am bereft of book. I won’t do a big lengthy review or anything, but I will say it was great, I enjoyed it immensely, and that George Double R’d Martin is a wily sod. Despite the horrendously painful cliff-hangers he likes to torture us with, I can genuinely say that it was more than worth the wait. Big books take a long time to write (even small books can take a while, let’s be honest) and big excellent books with huge character histories, complicated intrigues and rollicking adventures… yes, they can take years to write. And I’m fine with that.

 

I expect I shall sulk for a while now, as I listlessly pick up other books and put them back down again, finding them lacking in some vital way (dragons, mainly) until I eventually have to accept the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty damn special, and I will have to read something else as we begin the agonizing wait for the next book.

 

Unless I just read them all again from the beginning. Then I can make a little folder on my kindle just for ASOIAF! Woot!

Women and Wizards- The Warlord Trilogy by Bernard Cornwell (potential spoilers for the first two books!)

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I’ve just finished the second book in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord trilogy (a gutsy and gritty retelling of the Arthur mythos) and a bloody good read it is too. I’ve still got Excalibur to go, which I shall be reading as swiftly as possible before A Dance With Dragons comes out, and indeed these tales of swords, beards and heroism make a lovely almost-fantasy appetizer for the next George R.R Martin book.

 

What has impressed me in particular is the quality of female characters in the first two books (The Winter King and Enemy of God, go and grab copies) – previously my only experience of Cornwell was via the TV series Sharpe, which my partner is a big fan of (I rather like it myself), but it has to be said the ladies in the series don’t have a lot going for them. His first wife, sure, the Spanish rebel who kicked ass in her own right, she was excellent but inevitably she didn’t quite last the whole series, and then after her most of the female characters in Sharpe (the TV series, at least) are consigned to breathing heavily in garments not made to stand such stresses and throwing themselves (understandably, perhaps) at the eponymous hero. Even worse, one of his wives turns out to be an absolute rotter, who simpers and faints and gets off with Wesley Wyndham-Price instead.

 

However, in his King Arthur stories Bernard Cornwell has given us a cast full of extraordinary and interesting ladies; characters who are perhaps more memorable even than the male characters you remember from the Arthur mythology. There is Nimue, Merlin’s high priestess and childhood friend of our narrator- she is clever, ruthless, intermittently mad, and utterly determined. The portrayal of Guinevere is a fascinating one, as we meet a woman who is beautiful and knows it, and has infinitely more ambition than even Arthur himself- a woman constrained by the times she lives in, and looking for ways to break out. Even Ceinwyn, who could easily have been a winsome blond princess with little else to do but be the caring one, keeps things a little subversive by taking a vow never to marry, and instead takes her own path through life.

 

This is more like it. And there’s tons of other stuff to admire about the books of course, particularly Merlin, who is devious beyond measure and very, very funny, and Cornwell gives us a portrayal of pagan Britain that feels real, even if it is nearly impossible to know exactly how it all went down. I’m expecting to zoom through the third book now, and only partly because I know Westeros is waiting for me at the end of it.

 

Oh, and if you haven’t done so yet, please do check out the short story I posted below… it’s not Arthurian Fantasy but I am very close to 100 views and every plug helps! 😉

 

On the Importance of Being a Reader

Still no review of Dragon Age 2 I’m afraid. This is largely because I’ve, well, started playing it again, but I’m sure that my second play through as a bisexual mage will add all sorts of nuances to my final verdict (I called him Theon in the end, rather than Spanky).

 

Instead I’ve been thinking about the importance of reading in regards to the process of writing. Lovely twitter peep @RozD has started a blog recently detailing her current challenge to read 100 hundred books (go here to check it out) and we briefly discussed the idea of reading as procrastination. But the truth is reading is an enormously important part of the writing process too. To be a writer, we are told, you must:

 

a) Write

b) Read

 

But, it’s a little tricksier than that I think. The actual physical act of writing, sitting your bum down and getting the words out, is obviously the key to being a writer. BUT, I am tempted to put reading on an equal footing. Firstly, if you don’t read, then why are you writing? If you don’t love books, then why do you want to make them? It sounds daft, but I have encountered people before who were rather in love with the idea of being a writer- on the surface it sounds cool, like you’re an eccentric lone wolf who drinks neat whisky and stares broodily out of windows whilst scribbling in a notebook*. But when I asked said people what their favourite books were and who they hoped to emulate, they would shuffle their feet and shrug and indicate that, well, they were only really interested in their own books. When they finally got around to starting them, that is.

      Also, without reading you have nothing to aspire to. Or, if you like, you won’t experience that snarky little rage that causes you to twirl your moustaches and think, “I could do better than this!” You would never be inspired, or informed, or enlightened by the simple marvellousness of the fiction that is available to us. If I hadn’t read Perdido Street Station, for example, I might still be labouring under the misapprehension that all fantasy had to look and sound a certain way. If I hadn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire I’d never have gotten a girl-boner for swords and written The Steel Walk (although I’m still unsure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing). The idea of writing without reading is incomprehensible. Mind-boggling. And so, when we spend hours giggling over Wodehouse or days dallying in the world of Jonathan Strange (as I have been doing lately) then we must not feel guilty, or that we are neglecting our writerly duties.

 

Because to write you have to a) write, and a) read.

 

*this is an accurate depiction of my life, obviously.

 

Vote to Help Name my Sword!

After a couple of days of swishing my sword about and heroically posing, I have finally whittled my choice of names down to three. Tell me which one you would go for in the comments- I can't promise I'll go for the most popular one in the end, because I'm fickle like that- but I'd love to know what you all think. All the names are from Dragon Age Origins (I know, I am a lame fangirl) so here are the choices and my reasons:
 
Starfang– a rather nifty sword you have made for you in the game after you find a deposit of meteor rock. Definitely the coolest looking sword in the game, and the cut sequence where you acquire the rock is full of lovely Superman references.

Vigilance– this is on the list souly because it's feels like the name of a sword, and Vigilance appears in the Grey Warden's oath ("In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice."

 
Oathkeeper– not only is this a good slice 'em and dice 'em blade in Dragon Age, it's also a reference to the sword that Jaime gives Brienne in A Song of Ice and Fire- two of my favourite characters in my favourite series of fantasy novels.
 
Which name will bestow the most honour upon my mighty blade? (arf!)

Fevre Dreams

I recently finished reading Fevre Dream by George R.R Martin, and I thought I’d spend a little time on here recommending it as highly as possible to all of you. Yes indeed.

I don’t often do book reviews on my blog, partly because as an amateur writer myself I find it a bit rude to criticise the work of other writers (I know that might be a little silly) and partly because I tend to be reading back and forth through backlists- does anyone care, at this point, what I thought of The Stars My Destination? It came out quite a while ago, after all.

(This is especially daft because I love reading book blogs, no matter if they’re reviewing new or old stuff. Perhaps truthfully it is because I don’t think I’m very good at it)

And besides, I can’t say all that much about Fevre Dream without giving away all the juicy bits to people who have yet to read it. I think I’m safe in saying that it is about vampires, and it is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, along the Mississippi river. If that feels a bit Interview with the Vampire-ish, then I suppose it is a little, but that’s really where the similarities end.

I wanted to say a couple of things about this book. Mainly, that I love the main character, Abner Marsh. A larger than life steamboat captain with a bristling black beard, warts, and a tendency to shout at people and poke them with his hickory stick, Abner is the sort of character that you might expect in a supporting role. When he turned up in the first chapter, I admit I thought, “Well okay, I suppose the dashingly handsome hero will turn up in the next scene”, but Abner is about as heroic a character as you can get, warts and all.

He reminds me of Martin’s other great hero-in-disguise, Tyrion Lannister from the Song of Ice and Fire books. Technically Tyrion is a dastardly Lannister, and you spend much of A Game of Thrones thinking you really ought to hate him along with Cersei and Jamie… but if you’re me, by the end of book two, he was fighting out the top spot for favourite character along with Jon Snow and Arya Stark.

Martin excels at the flawed, human characters, the ones who make mistakes and do bad things but then make it up in brave, human ways. They are the ones you root for in the end, and the ones that stay with you once you’ve finished the book, as Abner and his hickory stick will.