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My Favourites

So I'm sitting at my desk musing sadly about office life and how very necessary it is for me not to cast off my shackles and fly away. After all, this money will be spent on vitally important things like going to see Tintagel. (King Arthur's castle, y'all. Oh, Arthur. I know you probably had face ulcers, but my love for you is above the pustules of the flesh. I would never have cheated on you with that French harlot Lancelot.)

Recently, in a place far away from here by the name of New York, I reluctantly had to disclose that I have no definite deal-breakers when it comes to books. This has led to my dubious achievement of having slogged through some really astonishing piles of crap. I read the Anne Rice books until Blood and Gold. All of them, including the witch books and the erotica.

I do, however, have deal-makers. I'm unlikely to love a book unless it makes me smile, makes me empathise with at least one character, gives me at least one really charged scene, and at least once puts things really beautifully. Because there are people like me who can swallow almost anything in book form, it becomes increasingly important to recommend the really lovable books out there. Otherwise we may end locked up in a bathroom reading the dictionary. (Stop looking at me like that! I was young!)

Without further ado then, some of my recent (and not so recent but just that good) favourites by category.

Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. Romance is usually not for me, since I have a dislike for sex scenes and stereotypes. (I do have a pure and holy love for bad sex, and subverted stereotypes.) Heyer is an exception for me, because she is so witty, and even though I freely admit her books are fluff they make me happy. Cotillion is undoubtedly the best of the bunch.

Featuring an innocent young heroine fresh from the countryside named Kitty, a dashing rakehell named Jack, a feigned engagement and an eccentric but wealthy guardian, when I first opened it I thought I knew exactly where I was headed, and then I began to have my doubts. One of my favourite characters ever in this genre is the Honourable Freddy Standen, chiefly concerned with affairs of fashion, speaking in amiable shorthand like Peter Wimsey without the irony, and regarded by all as the fool of his family.

Make no exception - he is the fool of his family. At no point does everyone realise he has been hiding his light under a bushel and strike themselves while exclaiming 'how could I be so blind!' Freddy also does not aspire to be anything other than what he is, and Heyer shows us and the heroine, without ever telling us, that very different types of intelligence exist in the world. Plus, the book is adorable. And hilarious. And includes the only adorable and hilarious avengings of a lady's honour ever seen.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee. Buy, buy, buy! I have never loved another sci-fi novel. I have laboured mightily with sci-fi. I tried to like Dr. Who. I tried to like Star Wars. I tried to like Ursula LeGuin's sci-fi and Iain M. Banks' sci-fi. I am consistently underwhelmed by the genre, and frankly the mere thought of space by now bores me rigid. At this point I simply drop a book when I realise I've mistaken sci-fi for fantasy, as if I have mistaken a scorpion for a baby.

With this one shining exception. You guys, it pulls off second-person POV for the first portion of the book. It deals with child abuse, that most risky of topics, in space by space pirates, in a believable and poignant way. It creates a character who is so messed up he's apparently turned off his sex drive and doesn't change that, even though said character is a beautiful blue-eyed boy who the reader would certainly be interested in seeing in a romance. And the sequels don't let it down. It's like a miracle.

His Majesty's Dragon (or 'Temeraire') by Naomi Novik. Fantasy's a hard pick for me, because I love the idea of fantasy so much, and it has such potential, and yet it lets me down a lot, and then sometimes it DAZZLES me. And then there are authors I love, like Patricia McKillip or Robin Hobb, who have fatal flaws so I do not feel I can heartily recommend a particular book. (McKillip - lovely writing, I invariably love the books, I'm seldom viscerally grabbed by an emotion or a character. I was in Alphabet of Thorn, but then the romance that grabbed me was cast aside by the narrative.)

His Majesty's Dragon commits none of the sins of fantasy, and for that alone I cling to it. The world-building is a beautiful meld of history and fantasy, as well done as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but, uh, also featuring characters I actually liked and worried about. Laurence is the perfect hero of his time, a man dedicated to duty and honour but completely human, and the dragon Temeraire is a youthful, funny, engaging but believably alien voice. And I loved them both, and I loved their relationship, which was a powerful and unique one and yet obviously, brilliantly different from any human relationship - because it's a human and a dragon. Also, I love the American title, it's so eye-catching and evocative of the spirit of the book, and this is an Irishwoman speaking who had no truck with that Sorcerer's Stone nonsense.

The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones. I love Diana Wynne Jones, and I don't believe I've ever said so. I love Diana to a degree that, on finishing Half-Blood Prince, I picked up Conrad's Fate at the airport and deeply confused my loving mother by relating to her the entire plot of this brilliant book. She eventually protested, what on earth happened to Harry? Is Christopher a Slytherin?

I actually don't like Wynne Jones' adult novels as much, but I can read her children's books again and again. Power of Three and Howl's Moving Castle are also enormous loves of mine, but I have a soft spot for a good series and an even softer spot for Christopher. Christopher's an idiot while being too clever by half, and he doesn't want to be a mighty wizard, he wants to play cricket, God damn you all! I believe I was ten when I read it first, making it one of the few books I read as part of the target audience, and I loved every word in this book. Particularly the part where Christopher literally raises the roof.

Valiant by Holly Black. I read this in the first day of the New Year, delicately moving about Holly's house with the fear my head might topple off my shoulders. I was not at my best and brightest, and I was mildly alarmed at the thought of reading the book where the author could see me do it, since I am perfectly incapable of feigning a positive response to a novel I don't feel.

Three minutes later I had no headache, I barely recalled I had a head at all, and I was eating my nails whimpering 'oh, poor Val!' Starts with a hell of a punch, delivers all it promises, has a brilliant bad sex scene, has a brave, believable heroine and then, of course, there's Ravus the troll. Oh, Ravus. I never thought when my love came along he would have tusks. Valiant takes the fact that unconventionally attractive characters can be sexy and runs with it all the way to China. The hero is brave, loyal, true, romantic, deadly with a blade!(tm), bitter but not too broody and he has green skin and tusks. And I would marry him and I would breastfeed his betusked babies. This is brave (not to say valiant) writing, y'all, and it succeeds.

Oh come on, nobody thought they were getting away with a book post of mine without this category, did they? Yeah, I didn't think so. Actually, of course, it's Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen but a) I assume everyone has read it and b) I am completely incapable of talking about it like a rational human being. So I'll take Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope.

Another book with a hero who is a bit of an idiot sometimes, and that's all right, because he's intelligent enough, loyal, lovable, brave and able to appreciate a woman smarter than he is. Lucy Robarts is Trollope's best heroine by several miles, since I love me some wit, and an irascible mother-in-law is actually made a sympathetic main character in her own right. A good way to start Trollope (and then continue on with forty-plus of his novels, careening onward to addiction and madness).

Now, tell me your favourites. (Reading the dictionary in the bathroom, you guys! Pity me.)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 10th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
Retroactive feedback
Hello dear Sarah,

I must manage to write this comment before reading too much of your journal and becoming hopelessly starstruck. It is a matter of contagion, you see, as I have suffered a sort of induction phenomenon, something between static electricity and viral outbreak, the cause of which is a very close friend of mine who has been following your journal since, as she put it, "tenth grade" (in the interest of preserving the value of this statement, she is finishing medical school this year... but I digress).

I don't think anyone has ever asked me for a top of my favorite books and so I jump at this opportunity, if not in hope of starting a dialog, at least as a means of fulfilling a moment's fancy.

Herman Hesse - an author so German that, by using unrelenting structure and discipline, manages to transcend his very innate rigidity. The Glass Bead Game is without a doubt my favorite book as of yet, since it demonstrated the uncanny ability to weave itself into my life, like an ink stain slowly spreading over many a monochrome memory. It is a book of contrast, as it can withstand sixteen hours in a train compartment, with seven people bent on eating as many onions, slices of buttered bread and potent alcoholic beverages as humanly possible, and still inspire the illusion that the air is clean, the mind is transparent and fresh and time, while being of the essence, is "a kind god". It is a book written as much in and between the lines, which makes me a very happy reader, most of the time.

Coin locker babies - Ryu Murakami
A novel of overwhelming sensory overload. To experience a book by feeling the rough, burning sand between one's toes, the taste of some strange poison on one's gums, an untold number of textures ranging from ostrich feathers to cold, scaly, throbbing crocodile skin, the smell of burning fingernails and the sound of heartbeats turned into music, that is a privilege which no other book has offered me to such an extent. And the empathy, the heartbreaking empathy, held in check, always, by the shocking cruelness and insanity of the characters, each with his own brand... A treat indeed.

The Gate - Frederick Pohl
I am an avid reader of sci-fi, although I must confess I am unfamiliar with most of the authors you mention in your post. I judge sci-fi by the ability to "be needed", as it were. In other words, a good sci-fi story is to me one which I cannot instantly picture in a non-sci-fi setting. I realize this is a double-edged sword, I do however believe that The Gate illustrates my point to the letter. Such a wondeful set of rules to be tested, such potent character portrayal and psychology, such unlikely and subtle romance... and it's written from a rather dim guy's perspective, which makes it all the more charming.

Wit - Margaret Edson
The main character of this play would make you believe you are held at bay by wit alone in your empathic response, up until the breaking point, when your own mental mechanisms get mangled by her meltdown. It is drama at its best, as far as I can tell, by far.

His Dark Materials series - Phillip Pullman
I, much like yourself as it would seem, am a reader who dives head-first into books. Predisposition to empathy, Don Quixote-at-the-puppet-theater syndrome, call it what you will, methinks I've got it. The literary gimmick of creating so many "two-in-one" characters (the human and her daemon, sides of the same coin, n'est-ce pas?) as a chance to delve deeply into relationship crafting and situation spawning, the slow and steady buildup, the fascinating clockwork of the narrative, mirrored closely by the clockwork parallel dimension, epic psycho-analysis, quantum physics, issues of religion, parenthood, love, sacrifice, morals, armored polar bears and objects of such vibrant energy that they become characters themselves... I think I might be failing to speak about this book as a "rational human being". It is however one of my all time favorites.

And so, my eyes screeching for sleep, I end this... well, letter, I should say, with my thanks for asking and reading.

(Rather than pitying you, I pity the dictionary: poor, solitary tome, it must feel so... used)
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:20 pm (UTC)
Sarah, honey, I'm commenting here because this was the last open post I had in front of me after trawling through your book rec tags all last night. I was gifted with a voucher from Book Depository UK for my birthday, and thought of all your wonderful book posts. I now have a stack of new books coming to me, nearly all picked from your fantastic rec posts. (not to mention a wish list that will keep me busy for quite a while) Thank you so much for continuing to share your joy of books and reading, and providing me with so much food for thought.

And I've been dreadfully slack in coming back to you about Demon's Covenant, despite the fact that I advance ordered it from the UK and read it without stopping to draw breath. I've been having the most wonderful time in your world - I admit I was almost worried about shifting the narrator away from Nick, but once I got into Mae's head I loved it there. There were times I wanted to hug her, and the odd time when I wanted to slap her, but mostly a part of me wanted to be her, which is the best part of a good book - being dragged inside and feeling the adventure of it in your bones.

Now I want to stay there, in Mae's head, and find out what she experiences next, but you have justifiably won my faith in your decisions, and so I will watch the next instalment through whichever eyes you offer me, and dance with happiness to be back in your world. (even if it isn't all puppies and kittens - which is a good thing, really, because Nick + puppies / kittens does not leave me with a happy picture).

I love that no matter where it goes, the underlying issue of who Nick is, and the how and why of whether he chooses to try and be more human, continues to drive the arc. That no matter how alien he is, there is a bond between him and Alan that has and will continue to mould him and shape his decisions. Seeing that spread out, no matter in how small a way, to others now as a result, is a wonderful journey.

I should have said all this sooner. Back in the old days I wouldn't have hesitated to rave at you over a new instalment of something wonderful. I guess the forum for communication has shifted slightly - I feel more comfortable doing this here on an old post where my gushing is less likely to be noticed by the public.

You continue to be amazing - and I continue to be amazed watching your journey.
Jul. 21st, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
I am saddened you don't feel comfy - it feels much the same to me, except comfortabler! Because there are way fewer people around now, but I know these ones like me. ;)

But I am very happy you liked Covenant, and very happy you told me so wherever! I'm also much pleased that the switch to Mae's pov worked for you. Switching povs every book I knew was a risk and a crazy thing to do, but having a narrator like Nick was a lunatic thing to do in the first place, so - I go my own way, like Kipling's cat, and hope for the best.

I am also thrilled that you have recs flitting your way - I like the book depository's style a lot. And I hope my recs do not let you down! I continue to be grateful to have you watching my journey. ;)

Jul. 21st, 2010 10:48 pm (UTC)
Goose! Don't be saddened. I was thinking about it all, and the why, because I wanted to understand it myself. So, I guess I'm writing this to explain, but it's mostly for my own clarification. Partly, I think, it's because when I read something of yours before, it was written in a post, or linked from a post, which created a direct connection between you as the poster, your work, and me as a reader and commenter. And so the process of commenting was a direct outcome of that connection: I read, I felt, I typed, and it was a closed loop of action/reaction/response. Reading something wonderful, something that moves me, always leaves me with this great welling up of emotion. With fanfic, I have the ability to vent that - I can try and share that directly back to the author, and it's (for the most part) an immediate outpouring of that reaction.

I don't read books in the same way I read fanfic. I don't sit in the same places, or do it at the same times in my day, because they are different media and I access them differently, and for different reasons.

So, when I finish a book, I'm not at my laptop or computer, and I don't have that ability to instantly respond with what I'm feeling. And while there are plenty of posts 'about' your books (which are wonderful and informative) - there's not one that forms that connection between you, me, and the reading process. So I have to consciously make a point of raising it as a topic somewhere less natural, or email you specifically - and to me, email is a very direct method of communication, and one which pre-supposes a different or established kind of one-to-one relationship.

And I also think that in part it's that your journal serves a different purpose now, and for you as a different entity. Although we communicated in the past, for the most part, as author and reader, as a fellow fan and fanfic writer you were someone with whom I knew there was at least one point of shared interest which was external to us both. We both liked the same thing, played in a shared world, and chose to express that in the same way as a reader and writer (regardless of respective skill levels or visibility). We could take that for granted as a kick off point to whatever exchanges we shared, and essentially we were there at the same level - both fans.

You've made that jump from fanfic writer to professional author, and I'm insanely proud of that for you. That you've done it with such style and success is brilliant and deserves celebrating. But the natural outcome of that is that you are, now, that professional writer, and that's a whole different world. And the point at which we both sit in it is different. The roles have changed, even if the shift, for you, has been a natural progression and possibly the process of writing and sharing what you've written may not feel very different. You're now the writer/world builder, and I'm a fan.

Apparently I'm much more shy commenting on your work, and your posts in general, as a fan than as a fellow fandomer. ;)

(although apparently it doesn't stop me writing long-arsed comments about 'stuff')

ps. and thank you. I'm getting too old to be happy about birthdays, but the prospect of books makes it a little more bearable. :)
Jul. 21st, 2010 10:58 pm (UTC)
Well, we both like the same thing now. ;)

But I completely take your point on the direct connection, which is a valuable one I think, and is something I try to fix by having my book is out! discuss! posts, but one that given the different media (no click to comment at the end of the book) is not entirely fixable.

My journal does feel much the same to me - about my life and my writing, minus an element that became distressing and limiting to both, and I encourage you not to be shy! But also I do not Command the Waves, or other people's emotions, so all I will say is that reading your thoughts is always lovely. ;)
Jul. 22nd, 2010 05:50 am (UTC)

You mean the mental image of Nick's arse in black leather? Ooops, who said that? He does make me want to be 16 again, damn his black eyes and brooding mystique.

I'm glad you've retained a journal, and been so generous in what you share. You always bring a smile to my face (I think your journal was the first one I ever started reading out to my partner, just to share the laughs).

Aye, Aye, Captain! *salutes smartly*

Seriously, I have always had a bit of an issue with feeling awed by writers whose work I admire, so it's pretty much my own problem. But I will try and get over myself, and remember that reviews and feedback feel good regardless of the forum. Because the desire to still share and say thanks for the fantastic time hasn't changed one bit.

(I think a click to comment button in books would be excellent, and probably not far away in the world of ebooks - but I do like my paperbacks, the tactile weight of them when I'm curled up somewhere comfy, and seeing my favourites lined up on the shelves over my desk. By the way, you might recognise at least two of them on that shelf. ;) )

Also, I seriously need an appropriate icon.
Jul. 21st, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Also happy birthday! Books = the best presents.
Apr. 14th, 2011 11:30 am (UTC)
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Before I met my husband, I'd never fallen in love. I'd stepped in it a few times.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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