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?

Writing, Telepathy and Merricat’s Sugar Bowl

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Since I’ve been editing and reading more than writing at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes me stick with a book. More than that, actually, what makes me love a book. There are lots of things, of course, but I think part of it is writing that really makes you see.

 

When I was a kid I wasn’t tremendously fussy about what I read. In fact, I would read anything left in front of me for too long, including my grandad’s newspaper, my nan’s historical novels, cereal packets, instruction manuals… These days I’m a lot pickier, and I will dismiss a lot of books out of hand because they don’t grab me in the first few pages, or give me a clear idea of what my mind should be looking at. Does this make sense yet?

 

In Stephen King’s book On Writing (which is a great read even if you’re not interested in the writing process) he talks about how writing is the truest form of telepathy, and I think that’s what I’m trying to get at. Through words on a page the writer attempts to convey to you what is in his or her mind; when the writing is really good, you see it vividly, almost as if you were really there.

 

Not all fiction works this well. Sometimes you plod through a book and although you enjoy the story and like the characters well enough, you never really feel like you’ve been transported. You never experience that delightful sense of dislocation that comes when you’ve been so immersed in a story that coming back to reality is a serious jolt to your sense of self. I love that. I search for that when I’m looking for a book to read.

 

Terry Pratchett is a good example for me; the Discworld has always felt like home, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are practically family. I can see the Chalk and I know the streets of Ankh-Morpork. When I was reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House I felt disorientated right along with the characters, and in an even creepier example, the section where the House tricks them all into being relaxed and happy, I felt relaxed and happy. That is a strange and wondrous piece of magic right there.

 

Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (one of my all time favourites) was almost like a fever dream, full of vivid weirdness – I could see Merricat clearly in my mind’s eye, and will see her forever, I suspect. You know when the writing really sings – the world around you drops away and you’re with Merlin in the crystal cave, or trawling through the haunted halls of Faerie in search of the man with the thistledown hair…

 

George R.R Martin said that we write fantasy to see the colours again, to speak in the language of dreams, and I think that’s what I’m looking for when I’m reading (and when I’m writing too, of course). Writing is magic, like friendship and My Little Ponies.

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!

In Praise of HBO’s Game of Thrones

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First of all, I should probably state straight away that I’m an enormous fan of George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I read them at the beginning of last year after hearing endless praise for the books, and immediately fell in love. Here was a fantasy series that knew people, one that was driven by fabulously written, utterly believable characters. There were no totally blameless goodies, and even the really bad baddies, the ones who you totally despised and hated with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, could end up being your favourite characters three books later. A Song of Ice and Fire is an excellent series because it gives us unforgettable, believable characters and it gives us staggering, heart wrenching surprises.

 

So, in the long tradition of the rabid fan, I was either going to violently hate the HBO adaptation, or love it. I’m pleased to say it was the latter.

 

We were lucky enough to go and see the Bafta screening of the first two episodes, followed by a Q&A with Sean Bean, Mark Addy and Harry Lloyd. It’s fair to say that Marty and I were entranced from the very beginning, and I may even have had a bit of a lump in my throat at the title sequence, a beautifully appropriate whoosh across the map of Westeros, where locations such as Kings Landing and Winterfell pop up as little clockwork confections, reflecting the machinations of power and the complexities of the story. Really, it totally gave me a fan-boner.

 

And that’s how I’d describe the whole thing really. For someone who adores the books, seeing the places and people brought to life with such love and attention to detail is like some marvellous, hour-long fangasm. The casting is nigh on perfect, with the young actors who play Jon Snow and Arya Stark standing out as particularly impressive, and in Peter Dinklage I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect Tyrion. The sets and the landscapes all look lived in, evidence of a fantasy world that has a long and relevant history, and everywhere you look there are details that let you know this is the story that George R.R Martin was telling in his books; Catelyn wears a fish-shaped broach on her dress, the sigil of the house of Tully, the spinning sun of bronze in the title sequence shows the defeat of the House of Targaryen through the symbols of deer and dragon fighting to the death, Winterfell is grim but sturdy, with Dire Wolves haunting every corner… a large portion of my second viewing was spent excitedly pointing out these details to Marty and the living room at large.

 

Obviously, as such a big fan it is difficult for me to tell if I am giving you an unbiased opinion, but I do also believe that this is good telly, well made. And as fantasy and genre fans I think we need to give it a bit of support. After all, how often to we get something like this? A fantasy series with actual money spent on it, on a channel known and respected for its approach to drama? A traditional fantasy series, in fact; a secondary world fantasy that is set entirely within its own reality with no links to Earth or Earth history. How often do we get that? I shall you-  bloody never. So as a fantasy fan I will be clutching this series to my bosom and lavishing love upon it, for Game of Thrones deserves it.

 

If you’d like to hear more of what we thought, including much appreciation for Sean Bean and his ability to wear leather and look rugged, you can listen to our Box Room Game of Thrones special below (podcast contains plenty of swearing, but no significant spoilers). I also invite you to admire a picture of us watching Game of Thrones for the second time at home, wearing our Greyjoy and Targaryen t-shirts and drinking mead. Yes, we do love this programme.

 


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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!)

Blank-Spacing

A sort of updatey blog post today.

Progress on The Steel Walk continues in patchy fashion. I have to admit, writing for an hour in the morning before work does appear to work, and I’m certainly getting more words done on a regular basis than I have ever done before. I’m up to around 63,000 words at the moment, which is traditionally where the story grinds to a halt and I wrestle with the idea of just jacking the whole thing in (A Boy of Blood and Clay imploded at this point). Fingers crossed, that hasn’t happened yet, but I do know from the previous two books that the last 40-50,000 is always a bitch, and it certainly isn’t going to get any easier.

In happy news, I’ve had another short story accepted by The Hub, which should be in the next issue. Hurrah! I’ve been reading George R.R Martin’s short story collection Dream Songs, which is equal parts inspiring and daunting. I think what impresses me the most about his short work is that with many of them I could see an entire book written about the characters featured, or just set in the worlds he has created. I’d love to get this sense of scope in my own work, but I think that’s a way off yet.

I have also been thinking about blank-spacing. You know how you often find that ideas occur to you when you’re doing some sort of monotonous physical task and you’re not thinking about anything in particular? It’s day dreaming I suppose, and it’s an important part of a writer’s life. I notice that a lot of writers talk on their blogs about going for walks (especially when stuck for ideas) and this often helps them on their way. Justin Cronin, author of The Passage (soon to be gracing tube carriages everywhere, no doubt) came up with most of that book while out running. I have found that I often come up with short story ideas while I’m in the shower or washing up (this rather suggests that I need wet hands to think of anything good…)

Anyway, it appears that simply sitting and staring into space is not enough; we need to be physically occupied, as if once our bodies are distracted our brains can start thinking again. I have decided to call this Blank-Spacing- mainly because it sounds all business wordy and more official than Day Dreaming, and it sort of describes how you need to empty your head about before excellent ideas fill it up. When I was little, I used to ride my bike around the close on an endless circuit with one of my soft toys stuck in the basket, and I used to tell him or her stories as they occurred to me (usually it was Louie, Donald Duck’s green baseball cap wearing nephew, or Mousie. I think you can guess what sort of toy Mousie was).

Ideally I’d like to go for a few walks, or perhaps take up skipping. Or knitting. Or kung-fu. Or break dancing. This blank-spacing/day dreaming period is quite vital I think, but what with life and writing already taking up all my time, it is very difficult to allocate a decent amount of time to it.

I’d love to know how other writer’s handle day dream time. Is it vital to you? Does it happen when you’re supposed to be doing other things? Do you consciously pursue it? Tell me!

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.