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):

storm

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.

220px-Knife_of_Never_letting_Go_cover

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.  

185px-I_Shall_Wear_Midnight

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

Statue

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.

The Pea Roast Post: Manticores and Mondays

Manticores and Mondays is an odd little story. It was one of the first written in what I like to think of as my “grown-up writing” period (that is to say, I wrote it in my twenties and actually managed to finish it) and it owes an awful lot to one of my favourite books, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I wanted to write something about how children behave when they are free of the watchful eyes of their parents. It’s also loosely based around tales my mum would tell me of her summer days spent in the fields behind my nan’s house.

 

It originally appeared in the Farrago Anthology.

 

 

Manticores_and_Mondays_PR.doc
Download this file

Of Swords and Deviltry

I’m reading The First Book of Lankhmar at the moment, and I have to say it’s bloody good fun.

Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, barbarian warrior and thief/dark magician, are vibrant, adventurous and ever so slightly rude, taking you off to distant exotic lands full of evil dukes and treacherous beauties, shoving you right into the middle of fist fights and duels, while at the same time tipping a sly wink to the pettiness of human nature; even in the wild worlds of Nehwon, people are ultimately badly behaved and out for what they can get.

I stumbled across this (huge) collection of stories thanks to a number of articles I read concerning “sword and sorcery”. I had come to the conclusion, to my own vague surprise, that The Steel Walk falls firmly within this genre, when I had never really thought about what “sword and sorcery” actually entails. And you will find that any blog on the subject will mention Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and with good reason; there are swords aplenty, and dark magic, betrayal and lust and greed, and all the really good stuff that epic fantasy sometimes forgets about when its off on quests to defeat The Big Bad Thing in the East/West/Alternate Dimension.

Working my way through it whilst trying to ignore the cover (jeez, the cover is ugly. I have no shame at all about being a fantasy reader, and will gladly wave about on the bus a book with any number of dragons or scantily clad ladies on the front, but this is almost too embarrassing even for me. The huge tattooed man in the foreground looks more like he belongs in Eastenders, whereas the tiny bloke in the background looks a wee bit like Richard O’Brien about to whip his harmonica out. Neither remotely resembles the two main characters, so it is all a bit mystifying. Why, Fantasy Masterworks, why?)- I found myself vaguely reminded of Terry Pratchett. It’s the barbarian heroes, of course, and the Thieves Guild, and the dangerous magic. What it is, of course, is the source. Pratchett without the satire (but certainly not without any humour; Fafhrd’s dealings with young ladies had me chuckling out loud more than once), and it’s a joy to realise that the Discworld had a bigger, juicier older brother… Silly me.

These are the pitfalls and joys of accidentally working your way backwards through a genre, I suppose; I can only say that I wish I’d met up with our young warrior and thief much, much sooner…

Book Meme!

Here we go! This one is doing the rounds at the moment, and it gives me the opportunity to waffle on about books for ages. Excellent stuff on this meme over at Unbound: http://hagelrat.blogspot.com/2010/07/meme-with-relish.html and at Adam Christopher’s Blog: http://www.adamchristopher.co.uk/

One Book That Changed Your Life

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams– I read this when I had just started senior school I think. I’d had one life changing book previous to that; The Lord of the Rings had blown my tiny little mind the summer before, and caused me to dump the chronicles of Narnia faster than a very hot thing. LOTR opened my mind to the idea of epic adventure, of truly risking your life for a noble quest, of heroics and true love and all that good stuff. Hitch Hiker’s Guide had a more subtle, but altogether deeper impact, because it gave me an adult sense of humour. I don’t mean I developed a love of knob jokes, but rather that my idea of funny was utterly changed. Over the course of that book I think I grew up a bit, and it introduced me to science-fiction too.

It’s also the sort of book you can read over and over again at different times in your life and get something new from it every time. Douglas Adams gave us a gem with that book, and he remains my hero because of it.

One Book You Have To Read More Than Once

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett- I’ve read HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy around about 30 times now. Consequently, I don’t think I can read it again for a very long time without going slightly loopy, so for this one I’ve elected Good Omens. I have two copies of this book- the pristine one signed by Mr Pratchett and the copy that has since fallen to bits due to endless readings. It’s enormously funny, full of absolutely memorable characters and even has some nifty things to say about nature, nurture, and humanity. Odd phrases from this book continually float around in my mind, so that I will often think “Buggre ye alle this” when I’m stuck doing something boring, or think of Crowley when I hear Bohemian Rhapsody.

How could I not adore a book that combines two of my favourite authors?

One Book You’d Want On A Desert Island

The Stand by Stephen King- Now, if I was really stuck on an island I’d want quantity as well as quality, and The Stand certainly has that. I love that King appears to have avoided all editing on this book (well, mostly. I’d make sure I’d have the uncut edition) and gives us the juicy details on all the characters and shows us the world falling apart in widescreen. This is King at his absolute best, introducing us to characters we know and love within a couple of pages, then taking us with them on a truly harrowing journey beyond the end of the world. I remember them all, and what they went through, as well as if a good friend sat me down and told me the story.

If nothing else, at least I could reflect that I’m only stuck on a desert island, which isn’t nearly as bad as dying of Captain Trips.

Two Books That Made You Laugh

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson– I don’t read much non-fiction. In fact, thinking about it Bryson is about the only non-fiction I do read, and that’s because he is both laugh-out-loud-on-the-bus funny, and incredibly knowledgeable. Small Island is my favourite because he’s writing about England, and even though I haven’t actually been to all of the places he talks about, the familiarity of the peculiar English character had me giggling like a loon. Gods, we are a strange bunch. An American with a deliciously dry sense of humour, he understands us better than we do, and managed the near impossible task of making me feel patriotic. Even if it’s only for our near obsessive love for stodgy puddings.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe– These little books have me in fits all the way through. Written for a bet to impress a girl (supposedly) they contain more thrilling pirate action, monkeys, and prize winning hams than you can throw your wooden leg at.

One Book That Made You Cry

A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R Martin– Alright, I’ve cheated slightly with this one, but I think it’s worth noting that as a whole, this series has caused more actual blubbings than anything else I’ve read- even a few in public! I read them only recently, finally giving in to the general hubbub of praise surrounding the books, and my goodness… they were an absolute joy. Apart from when I was crying, obviously.

The thing is, Martin is excellent at creating characters you really love (Tyrion might be one of my favourite characters in a fantasy book ever) and then really putting them through absolute hell. I had the misfortune to read about the Red Wedding while on the way to work- I had to catch my breath and stare furiously out of the window so that no one else on the bus would see me struggling not to cry. Strong stuff. Excellent stories.

It’s also worth noting that A Song of Ice and Fire has also given me the biggest number of “OH MY GOD WHAT THE CRAP- ??!” moments. Seriously good books.

One Book You’d Wish You’d Written

American Gods by Neil Gaiman– One of my favourite books of all time, so yes, it would be lovely if I’d written it. It contains all the stuff I’m crazy about; mythology, gods, horror, mystery and weirdness. It’s the sort of book that pleases me deeply as a reader because it gives you credit- there’s stuff running all the way through that’s right there for you to figure out, if you can see it. Each time I read it, I see a little more. I would love to write something that has so many layers to it, and uses the wealth of folklore and mythology so well.

Just before A Boy of Blood and Clay imploded in on itself, I realized it was my own sort of American Gods- a London Gods, perhaps. I hope I can finish it one day.

One Book You Wish Was NEVER Written

Dark Tower 7 by Stephen King– I don’t want to speak ill of books really, especially not when two of the books in this series are some of my absolute favourites. But let’s be honest- this is an easy choice for me. The last book in a series of 7 written over, I dunno, a very long time indeed, this was the biggest disappointment I’ve ever read. I can’t really go into why without major spoilers and getting all narked about it again, but suffice to say that I’d rather have had no ending than the one we got. This is a book where Stephen King himself interrupts before the final chapter to tell you that you probably won’t like the ending, so maybe you’d be better off not reading the rest… The only book I’ve ever thrown across the room at the finish. And it’s a really big book.

Two Books You Are Currently Reading

Storm Front by Jim Butcher, Dream Songs Part 2 by George R.R Martin– I’m also reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, but I’ve finished the first part so I’m taking a little break (apparently “fantasy literature” means completely bananas, but I am enjoying it). The first Harry Dresden book is great fun so far, and G.R.R.M is a master of short stories.

One Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury– I’ve wanted to read this since I read Stephen King’s comments on it in Danse Macabre, but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to it. One of the panellists at Alt.Fiction mentioned it in the Genre Books You Must Read panel, so I really need to get my arse in gear.

By the pricking of my thumbs

I realised an odd thing today. I identify with the witch.

Or at least, I am drawn to witches more often than almost anything else (aside from possibly, uh, child sacrifice). I was reading a short story by George R.R Martin called In the Lost Lands, a lovely thing concerning werewolves and a woman who, although she is never named as such, is almost certainly a witch of a sort. It occurred to me that I liked it especially because Grey Alys was written with sympathy, and not entirely as a dirty ol’ monster.

When I think about it, I come back to witches again and again in all of my work. Bad Apple Bone is the most obvious example, as it concerns a great many witches, some of whom are bad, some of whom are good, and some, in the case of Noon, who are just tremendously lazy. Even if I don’t have a witch by name in my story, I will undoubtedly have a crazy old woman who is more than she appears to be, such as Moony Sue in A Boy of Blood and Clay, a woman who is possibly an elderly wise woman and just as possibly the River Thames. Bird and Tower, and Ink for Thieves both have examples, and in The Steel Walk I have returned to big ol’ groups of proper witches, with the Green Jenny Council- and there’s not a single good apple amongst that lot.

None of this was deliberate, so where has it come from? When I was a kid I was a big fan of the more gruesome fairytales, and most of those involved witches (Hansel and Gretel- when you really think about it, how deeply fucked up is that story? Love it). When it came to Disney films, I was always vaguely on the witchy side, and who can blame me? We had Marvellous Madam Mim, Ursula, Maleficent and the scary old bag from Snow White, all of whom were more interesting than the supposed heroes and heroines of the movies. And the Wicked Witch of the West had flying monkeys at her disposal! That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

And when I went to college I spent a lot of time reading about folklore and fairy tales, even writing essays on it- I might have many issues with my time at art college, but I can’t complain about the freedom of the course; you could write about anything you wanted to, as long as you did it reasonably well. My dissertation was even about witches, in a way; I wrote about the evil mother figure that features as the enemy in so many stories, such as Coraline’s Other Mother, or Yubaba from Spirited away. That research was enormous fun.

But the biggest influence has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, the marvelous witches of the Discworld. I loved the witches novels the best I think, because it was always Pratchett writing at his best; about the conventions of folklore, and the strange and unfathomable ways of people. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were instantly deeply familiar to me, through my own Nan, through my aunts, various school teachers and even the dinner lady everyone was scared of- I knew these ladies, and they both scared me and made me laugh. They may seem like odd examples, given the dark nature of many of my own witches (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg might have been fearsome, but they usually had your best interests at heart) but I believe that Pratchett’s witches showed me that witches were also people; capable of being good and bad, and therefore more realistic. And through that they became the characters I would be most excited to write about.

Go on, tell me. Which is your favourite witch?