Tag Archives: 30 Days of books

Messy, Screwed-up, So-wrong Kisses

Day 20 – Favorite kiss

When it comes to fictional kissing – or sex scenes, or romance in general – what I love most of all is when they get it wrong. When the timing is off, or the situation is completely wrong, or it’s inadvertently funny. Part of the reason that I love romance in fiction but tend not to enjoy fiction that’s too close to the romance genre is that I can’t stand any implication of perfection. It’s BORING. I don’t want to know how beautiful she is or how strong his chest is, or how this kiss is more amazing than all the other kisses in the history of the universe (yes, Princess Bride, I’m looking at you).

Have you ever tried to write a kissing scene? Suddenly all the appropriate words seem awful, and you find yourself desperately trying to get away with not using the word ‘kiss’ and then you’re back to the time you had to read that scene in the Star Wars novelisation ten times to find where the kiss was because Mr Dean Foster was being so damn SUBTLE about it.

I take my hat off to someone who can write a kissing scene that is fun and real, and has nothing to do with perfection, and has everything to do with being with the right person at the right moment (or the wrong person at the right moment, or the right person at the wrong moment… whatever, it’s about the moment).

One of the reasons I think I love YA romance so much more than the kind of romance usually written for adult women (except that written by Jenny Crusie) is that there is a lot less fear about making kisses awkward, or funny, or mis-timed. Embrace the mess! Kissing is weird.

In illustration, I give you Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie, from Second Helpings, by Megan McCafferty.

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Once Upon a Time, there was Lipstick and Goons

Day 18 – Favorite beginning scene in a book

Soooo many good beginnings. Here are four favourites:

“The trouble started the day Howard came home from school to find the Goon sitting in the kitchen.” (Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones)

DWJ kicks arse at openings. In this one, the first novel of hers that I knowingly read and the one that set me on an addiction that would continue for more than a decade, the first chapter sets up the situation: Howard and his sister Awful come home to find a ‘goon’ in their kitchen. He has come from someone called Archer, and he is demanding payment of ‘two thousand’ from their Dad. By the end of the chapter we have learned that the payment is two thousand words, not pounds, and that Archer farms power. It will take the whole book to discover exactly what all those things mean.

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes. It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddle-plate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the streets unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women. I was standing in the Forum. She was running. She looked overdressed and dangerously hot, but sunstroke or suffocation had not yet finished her off. She was shining and sticky as a glazed pastry plait, and when she hurtled up the steps of the Temple of Saturn straight towards me, I made no attempt to move aside. She missed me, just. Some men are born lucjy; others are called Didius Falco.”
(The Silver Pigs, Lindsey Davis)

A Philip Marlowe style detective in the mean streets of Ancient Rome. Lindsey Davis had me at hello. But this paragraph beautifully introduces the dry, self-deprecating voice of Falco the informer, and the powerful character of the city of Rome, which (soft-shoeing on the subject of slavery aside) she conveys quite beautifully.

The world is full of little towns that people want to leave, and scarcely know why.”
(Growing Rich, Fay Weldon)

I only love two Fay Weldon novels, and I came to both of them from excellent TV productions – the other is Big Women, which has a more convoluted opening but rather beautifully uses as it’s theme the iconic phrase ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. Growing Rich introduces its three protagonists by page 2: three sixteen-year-old girls, Carmen the leader, Laura the pretty one and Annie who was quite desperate. They long to escape from their small town of Fenedge, East Anglia, and the Devil has already overheard their complaints while speeding by in his shiny black car. This is basically, now I come to think of it, The Witches of Eastwick with teenage girls, and none of the characters are entirely likeable, but it’s a book that has always had a powerful hold over me.

“I’m standing on the door of the Less is More club, thinking about my fingernails.”
(Fabulous Nobodies, Lee Tullock)

Long before Ab Fab or Gossip Girl, Reality Nirvana Tuttle (Really for short) trained me to adore shallow characters who were obsessed with artifice and fashion, as long as they did it with humour. This book, full of frocks named after famous divas, best friends who think they are Audrey Hepburn, clubs and magazines and nail polish, was one of my favourites and total comfort reads for many years. Unlike Tam Lin, I’m a little afraid to actually reread it now, in case I learn something about myself that I don’t want to know.

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Who Needs Chicken Soup For The Soul When There Are Stories

Day 17 – Favorite story or collection of stories (short stories, novellas, novelettes, etc.)

I think I have to go for Kelly Link’s beautiful stories in the collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, though I have to give a shout out for the recent paperback collection Pretty Monsters, which I bought despite having copies of all the stories inside! No one writes stories like Kelly Link.

I also deeply adore Kim Newman’s Diogenes Club stories, which are collected in two volumes so far.

In my teens the most important anthologies to me were the Sword and Sorceress collections, which showed me that there was a world of fantasy fiction that was all about female characters. I used to lap these up, and discovered many awesome authors thanks to them.

Probably the short story collection which has stayed with me the longest is one called Dragons and Warrior Daughters, which I loved so much I even painted a copy of the dragon from the cover on my bedroom wall. Among other things, it introduced me to Diana Wynne Jones’ fantastic “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” which I read at exactly the right age for discovering Diana Wynne Jones, and yet didn’t actually discover her until my twenties. Later, reading a collection of her short stories, I was stunned to discover that one was by her.

Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan, is a collection that means a lot to me, not only because I read it for the first time in manuscript form, but because it has some of the most powerful and lyrical stories in it which redefine what fantasy is – and of course it has Singing My Sister Down, which I don’t dare re-read now that I have children. I remember discussing how amazing it was in the group, and being mildly surprised that, while I knew it was brilliant, the other women in the group had such a visceral, horrified “I love it but never want to read it again” response to the text. They were all mothers.

I liked Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but didn’t love it. It was so heavily male-centred that it felt empty to be. And then I was drawn to the gorgeous grey cloth-covered hardback of her short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and bought it without even thinking about it. The stories in this collection are amazing – beautiful and lyrical, and all contribute to the worldbuilding of her faery-contaminated version of history. It’s a book I would buy multiple copies of, in order to give away as presents.

The short story collection I’m most excited about this year (and it has lots of healthy competition) is Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, coming out imminently from Small Beer Press.

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Come Buy, Come Buy!

Day 16 – Favorite poem or collection of poetry

My first thought is Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, one of the sexiest fairy stories ever told, and a truly splendid story of sisterly love and friendship. As with songs, my favourite poems are the ones that tell stories.

She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me ?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

As any good classicist I’m also a huge fan of Homer, Sappho, Catullus and Ovid. Special mention for Sulpicia, a young Roman woman whose elegies only survived because they were written on the back of the works of Tibullus.

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Girl Mages and Lady Knights

Day 15 – Your “comfort” book

It’s probably time that I talked about Tamora Pierce, and the Tortall books. I discovered Alanna of Trebond at the perfect time – my early teens – with the second book of four. I have read every book Tamora Pierce has written since. One of my favourite comfort reading routines was to read through all the Alanna books, then the Daine books, and finally the Kel books. Each heroine is my favourite, when I am reading her.

When I’m not actually reading the Alanna books, it’s easy to be critical of her. There’s something about an author’s first hero – and I did this too – that tends to smack of self-indulgence. She’s a teenager with red hair and purple eyes who becomes a knight AND has magic AND has all the boys in love with her AND has a cat who talks to her. We should all be hating her and hurling Mary Sue accusations in her general direction…

And yet.

There is so much brilliance in these books. Long before YA fantasy became the powerhouse genre it now is, Tamora Pierce was writing about these amazing, capable young women who blew the expectations of female roles in fantasy fiction out of the water. And every time I go back to them, I remember just what made Alanna great.

(some spoilers below)
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Some Of My Favourite People Don’t Technically Exist

Day 14 – Favorite character in a book (of any sex or gender)

Miles Vorkosigan
Miles is one of the most complex fictional characters I’ve ever read. He is pure charisma and ego, overcoming some of the most extraordinary physical limitations to become a truly legendary figure. His ability to talk his way out of (or into) any situation is nothing short of breathtaking, and watching his career and life unfold is a truly fascinating journey. I’m very excited to see what is next in store for him when the new book comes out soon!

Nanny Ogg
I know, I know. Granny Weatherwax is one of Terry Pratchett’s most amazing, iconic and timeless character creations. But I still love Nanny Ogg best. There is a brilliant confidence about her, a madcap humour, and a complicated history that unfolds every time she opens her mouth. She is outspoken, bossy, uninhibited and for such an old lady, kinda sexy. I love her to bits. Or maybe I just want to have a dozen faceless daughters-in-law who do my housework for me…

runners up: Alanna of Trebond, DJ Schwenk, Falco, Alyx, Countess Ashby de la Zouche, Spenser, Calypso Grant, Sophie & Howl, Cordelia Naismith, Nancy Blackett, Harriet Vane, Peter Wimsey, Granny Weatherwax, Mia Thermopolis, Nick Ryves, Scarlett & Spencer Martin, Trixie Belden, Young Jolyon Forsyte, Elizabeth Bennet and Freddy Honeychurch.

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A Worm Called Rover

Day 13 – Favorite childhood book OR current favorite YA book (or both!)

I planned to talk here about Arthur Ransome or Enid Blyton or even my slightly insane addiction to vintage Grange Hill novels, but then I had another thought.

Eva Ibbotson now writes the most beautiful historical YA novels, about German cakes and war and lost aristocrats and all that sort of thing. Beautiful, beautiful books. A new one is always a pleasure, the kind of save for a treat and read while drinking hot chocolate on cold winter nights.

Before that, though, she did a good line in surreal, funny and dark children’s novels. Which Witch is a book I read so many times that, while I haven’t touched it in years, I think there’s a layer of it somewhere under my skin. The premise is that Arriman, the baddest and wickedest wizard in all of England, has grown tired of being Big and Bad and wants to retire from his position, but he can’t until he has an heir. His advisors devise a plan to find the most appropriate mother for Arriman’s baby, in order to make the evilest possible baby wizard: they stage a contest to find the wickedest witch in the land. First prize: Arriman’s hand in marriage.

It sounds like a novel you could publish now, with a reality tv angle – this was 1979, long before the Bachelorette or Beauty and the Geek. One of the best sources of both worldbuilding and humour in the book comes from that old reversey-tastes thing that used to fascinate me as a child. You know, the paradox about how Oscar likes being unhappy cos he’s a grouch, but unhappiness makes him happy? The “wickedness” of the witches and wizards in this book is much the same. They revel in a cartoon kind of nastiness that would put the Addams Family to shame.

Belladonna is the underdog in the competition. Everyone knows she’s just a little bit… well. The term white witch comes to mind. She’s just a bit blonde and soppy, and bluebirds do tend to sneak in and do her washing for her when she looks the other way. But she falls hard for Arriman, and the only way to get his attention is to perform the darkest, wickedest piece of magic she can, and win the contest.

Even now I can remember bits and pieces of the story that make me smile like crazy. The old lady witch who turned into a swam of flies! The baby kraken in the bucket! Ultimately, though, it’s one of those rare stories in which a comic series of misunderstandings drives the plot, and it WORKS without being stupid. Arriman and Belladonna actually both want the same thing, which means that their romance and the obstacles in its path has a little seed of potential even under the huge weight of amusing and elaborate reasons against it.

Oh. I just remembered the ghost of Sir Simon, plashing his hand against his forehead to make woeface. Oh. I love this book SO HARD. Might have to read it again right now.

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The Lady’s Not For Burning

Day 12 – A book or series of books you’ve read more than five times

Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean.

It’s probably been close to twenty years since I first discovered this, one of the few perfect books in the world, and I would have reread it every year or two since. Not for five years now, since my last Great Re-reading phase. I would like to again soon, as it’s the kind of book that grows up with you.

It’s basically a love story to a liberal arts college education. I read it for the first time before I attended university and the real thing could never compare to this – to the beautiful stone buildings and dingy dining halls, to the friendships made thanks to random rooming lotteries. To the lectures and seminars about Shakespeare and poetry and Latin.

(by the way, all Classics students are crazy)

This leisurely, poignant read follows Janet, the daughter of two professors, a girl who loves books, through her college years. Here, she befriends frivolous Tina and awesome Molly. She falls in love with earnest, music-loving Nick and hangs out with his friends, dramatic Robin and rude, cranky but ultimately romantic Thomas. She reads a lot of Shakespeare, and forgets to write poetry. She takes fencing, and goes for long walks in Autumn, and resists the pressure to take up Classics, because English is really her thing, honestly. She goes to plays, and parties. She and her friends all sort out contraception, and have sex for the first time.

And of course it’s a fantasy novel, but exactly how it’s a fantasy novel is not clear until the end, in fact a lot of layers of story do not make sense until the every end, like why Robin laughed, and why his name and Nick’s are written there, and why Thomas was rude that day, and who rode those horses, and why the Classics students are all crazy, and what happened that time with Professor Medeous…

Which is why it is a book to be read and reread and reread, though there’s a magic here and somehow every time I try to pay attention to the important details, they slip away like water because there are all these gorgeous other things to re-experience like a youthful discovery of Shakespeare and a paper theatre of The Lady’s Not For Burning, and homemade signs that say Must Take Pill, and first love, and imperfect love and broken love, and friendship that lasts forever, and that other love that was under her nose all the time…

I read this book by accident, not knowing what I would find. Best accident I ever had.

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The Price of Expectations

Day 11 – A book that disappointed you

Most recently, Kraken by China Mieville, which I discussed in the last Galactic Suburbia – I do blame myself for this, not so much because of reading it as an e-book (I’m over that) but because I failed to notice ahead of time the obvious signs that it was a text heavily influenced/inspired by Lovecraft, and even once I worked that out, I failed to take into account just how hard I bounce off any fiction at all which is heavily influenced/inspired by Lovecraft. And I just continued on, nursing my expectations for the book based entirely, let’s face it, on the awesome title.

I really like kraken, but I do not like this book, and I’m okay with that. Plenty of people are busy liking it for me.

Also, since I have the newly-acquired DVD sitting right here to remind me, and thinking back into the deep mists of time, I have to say that I was deeply disappointed by each of the sequels to the Mists of Avalon, a little more each time. I gave up on them at about the third and there have been many since. There are some books so awesome that they simply should not, ever, be diminished by sequels.

Going even further back, I would say that the Dune sequels had the same effect for me. How sad that Herbert was basically forced to continued writing in that world in order to be published, and that his readers and publishers would not accept anything else from him. A magnificent book, let down by everything that came after.

The worst thing a book can do to us is to fail to reach our expectations, or to thwart them in some way. Likewise, the worst thing we can do to a book is to impose unrealistic expectations upon it. Really, it can be a toxic relationship between reader and text!

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