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.)