Tag Archives: reading

Lymond 4: some great writing

I haven’t posted for a few days, because I am lost in Checkmate, the sixth and final book in the chronicles. I got off the tram today just as I finished reading a hugely dramatic scene, and walked all the way down the wrong street in 40-degree sun.

So I thought I’d just share two of my favourite pieces of writing from this book:

Nostradamus giving romantic advice to Philippa: “Here you have a hawk of the lure, not of the fist. He will not come to you. If you would have him, you must lay your heart upon your hawking-glove; and feed it to him.”

Aside from just being a very evocative statement, this makes me smile, because it’s so typical of the books. Love and passion, but love that risks everything and is inextricably bound to death.

A lie is a broad and spacious and glittering thing, sweeping belief before it from its very grandeur. But the truth fits, like an old man cutting cloth in an attic.

I love this image. An old man cutting cloth in an attic doesn’t have anything to do with telling the truth, but it feels absolutely right, and describes a feeling I immediately understand.

It reminds me a little of the image at the end of Banville’s The Sea, of the waves moving along the beach like the ripple of material falling from a seamstress’s machine. (I am baldly paraphrasing, by the way. I’m sure Banville would disapprove from the literary heights.)

ode to my local library

since we moved to the city, one of the greatest joys in my week is racing the trams down Bourke St on my bike and ducking into Flinders Lane to go to the Melbourne City Library.

I took my sister there recently, and when I self-checked the books she said “Wait, don’t you have to pay or something?”

I couldn’t say anything for a second and then I explained the “library” concept to her.

“You mean you can just come and take as many books as you like and you don’t have to pay, as long as you bring them back?”

Yes, dear reader. For anyone who was never taken to a library as a kid and hasn’t quite discovered them as an adult, it is time. They are the last bastion of free public spaces where you aren’t required to buy or do anything.

And here is the neighbourhood of my local library, to express better than words can why it’s such a highlight:

the Lover Revealed review

this is really hard one, because there’s something in this book I just can’t get past. It’s made me realise that one of the reasons I love romance is that it doesn’t leave you wishing something were different.

This book did.

It’s the fourth book in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, which I’ve been devouring. And it’s timely that I just wrote a post about the homoerotics of the series, because this is the thing that I can’t get past.

In the last book, the love between the brothers – and the way they physically express their love and loyalty – were an aspect I loved. It was an integral part of the love story at the core of the book.

In Lover Revealed she pushes the male/male relationship further – especially between the hero and his roommate (don’t let the word fool you, the guy’s a giant vampire warrior). For me, every truly tender, truly passionate part of this novel happened between those two men.

And the heroine just wasn’t enough to convince that our hero would turn his back on his roomie. So I just ended up resenting her.

And when the two males share an unbearably intimate embrace as part of a vampire ceremony, then part and “the parting was complete and irrevocable. A path that would not be walked. Ever.” it kind of broke my heart.

All kudos to Ward, that she could write the men’s relationship such that it developed with subtlety and longing, without ever being outright. But I think an author has to be so careful what longings they set up in their readers, if they’re not going to answer them.

So I am left with an achy kind of melancholy, which I suppose is not an entirely bad thing.

the family thing

not my family, so chill.

(I’m probably getting too old to say so chill. Or something.)

Was talking with a friend recently about “Why exactly was Twilight so good?” Yeah, that old chestnut. To give context, I discovered it randomly at a bookstore in Berlin just as I was reaching the end of a looooooong, dark winter. I had never heard of it, and much as I tried to tell everyone I knew that they should read it, no one would listen.

I got to experience it in a vacuum, at a time when it was most welcome, and, yeah, I loved it.

Why though, and why so much?

One of the reasons I came up with was the whole family vibe. What I mean by that is that the disparate characters come to be this sort of family together – and it’s a family you want to belong to, spend time with.

Reading J R Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series at the moment has brought this home to me all over again. Even a book and a half into the series I still wasn’t sure whether I even liked it – but I had to keep spending time with the characters.

She’s built such a solid – if out-of-this-world disfunctional – family that I just couldn’t put them away for ever. I wanted to hang out with them.

So I guess the moral of the story is: don’t underestimate the powers of loyalty, love, and I-will-do-anything-for-you,-you-are-my-family on a reader.

Oh, and I think more often than not, that kind of love is expressed through fights, insults and punches.

The Perils of Pleasure review

I still don’t know what I really think about this book.

The writing was an absolute revelation – beautiful, unique and interesting by any standards, not just “for a romance novel”.

But soon she would be on a ship, a speck ploughing through the Atlantic Ocean, and some weeks after that she would land, tiny and anonymous as a seed, on American soil, and grow her life all over again from the ground up.

I think one reason her writing is so startingly original is her choice of metaphor and simile. Our writing teacher is always telling us to be absolutely critical of our word choice, to interrogate over and over again whether we have used the most precise word to evoke an image.

She asked us to consider the following completions of the sentence “black as

cart grease

her heart

Tommy’s left eye after I kicked his head in

the C minor concerto.

Every version is no more or less a true description of the colour black, but it gives tremendous insight into the character. Julie Anne Long doesn’t resort to the obvious trimmings of Regency life for her metaphors. She reaches for the most precise image to invoke her particular characters. They are wholly unique and themselves.

One effect of this is that the world feels current. I absolutely love when books or films manage to do that – to make you feel like people didn’t live back then with the consciousness that they were living “back then”, in a different time. Her characters think about clubs and parties in a way that I can relate to. They have genuine desires for themselves that have nothing to do with a kind of melancholy self-consciousness.

Another effect was that I believed absolutely in these two falling in love – and in their initial indifference and resistance to it (which is so, so hard to do). And here’s one of the things that confounds me about my reaction to the book: On the one hand the love story is absolutely convincing. On the other, they are so very in love – these two, specific people who couldn’t be replaced with Hero/Heroine figureheads – that it almost felt intrusive to be in there with them. Like I had stumbled on an intensely private moment.

Hey, this isn’t by any means bad. It just meant that at the same time as enjoying what is a curiously unique experience in romance writing, I also didn’t get much of the vicarious thrill of the genre. The obliqueness of character that allows you, as a reader, to fall in love as well.

I also felt that the writing, beautiful and surprising and joyful as it was, was not edited to my tastes. Her style can very easily fall into melodrama – which I absolutely love, but which has to be doled out in just the right amounts, at the very moment of emotional piquancy – and was at times allowed to unravel a bit with word repetitions and sloppy word choices.

I felt that with just a small amount of tightening and interrogation, the writing would serve the story as a whole much better. It is such fresh, talented writing, that I think it’s a shame not to push it that bit further.

Another disconcerting element was the plot, which doesn’t follow the normal genre lines. The narrative is split between a number of voices at different times – not just that of the protagonists. The protagonists themselves don’t even begin to really fall in love until well into the book.

I loved the detail of her plot though: A woman mercenary steals the darling of society from the scaffold on the day of his hanging and they spend the next week running about London and the countryside trying to stay alive and clear his name before his brother marries his sweetheart. Their adventure takes the oddest turns – again, she doesn’t resort to Regency cliches. Among other things they meet a doctor who tries to justify to them his use of stolen cadavers – a world of detail and interest and moral ambiguity arising from the conversation.

The one truly disappointing part of the novel was the moment of capitulation. This is hard for any romance novelist. I know for me it’s by far the hardest part of the book. How do you convincingly have a character who has resisted love as though their very life depended on it decide to risk everything for it? For such a great writer who obviously knows her characters inside-out, Long gave lip-service to the moment in this book. It didn’t really matter though, because all the hard work had been done.

I loved this book while I was reading it, because it surprised and delighted me – and I could respect the characters and felt that my intelligence was respected in the writing of it. But still I can’t declare it one of my favourite romance novels. And I still don’t know why.

what I’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part lll

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).

day one: the moment that forgives everything else

My girlfriends and I keep a continuous facebook chat going, so that we can be in everyday contact even though we live on the four corners of the world.

I recently wrote to them:

I’m still feeling clucky, but I also feel like everywhere I look, parenting looks harder than it looks joyful.

Blech. I just want to know that it’s also rewarding and that there are times when it’s fun and when you all come together and it works. And more than just moments every now and then. Pure biology might not count, if there aren’t nice bits like that.

I’ve also talked a lot with my friend Adrienne, who’s step-mum to a three year old, about how hard it is to parent other people’s children, when you don’t get the unconditional love in return. (Read here for my issues with my niece. Little people can be terrifying.)

But today, I am happy to report, despite all yesterday’s apprehension, I had a moment. The moment.

I was sitting on the couch with the day all wintery and cold outside, my nephew leaning on one arm, my niece (fresh from her afternoon sleep = warm, snuggly and silent) tucked under the other, reading The Magic Faraway Tree.

“Saucepan, have a plum?”

“Crumb?” said Saucepan, in surprise. “Is that all you can spare for me–a crumb?”

“PLUM, PLUM, PLUM!” said Moon-Face, pushing a ripe one into the Saucepan Man’s hands.

“Oh, plum,” said Saucepan Man. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

I am right back in a world that I loved intensely as a child – these were the first books I ever read to myself – and my niece and nephew’s faces are lighting up with the same imaginative joy.

If life’s about anything, then surely this is it.

the Ten Things I Love About You review

Okay. The very first thing I need to get clear is this: I love Julia Quinn.

I think she’s a damn good writer, her characters grab you by the throat (or heart, maybe) and don’t let go, and no one else writes a hilarious scene as well as her.

Think the argument over the word purview in What Happens in London.

Speaking of which – I think that was a masterful book. No plot gymnastics needed. Quinn made a superb book out of two people simply falling in love. How many novelists – particularly romance novelists – pull that off? I mean, just look to Quinn’s first novel Splendid and count the number of obstacles she threw in her protagonists’ path to make up for her lack of experience.

Okay. Now that we’re clear:

I was disappointed. And disappointed to be disappointed.

Her writing is as tight, funny and engaging as ever. But I think I’ve pinpointed the problem. One: I didn’t really like Annabel. Is that terrible? I just found her an unimpressive mixture of naive, wholesome, confused and bursting with sexuality. Sort of.

Two: I kind of didn’t feel like she deserved Sebastian…I wanted someone who challenged him and made him vulnerable. And while Annabel did that as far as the plot goes, I felt like Three: Sebastian was made less, not more by his transformation. And I had the feeling that Four: he was attracted to her because she was attractive – I just couldn’t really figure out what else about her drew him in so strongly.

Which leads to Five: from the scene on the Heath I was skeptical. I could imagine two attractive people sharing a kiss, but Six: I didn’t think they had much chemistry. Which is a shame, because Seven: the unfolding story relied on them having reacted really strongly to each other.

I admit that Eight: I spent a good part of it hoping Sebastian was going to run off with Annabel’s lovable cousin Louisa. Louisa was funny and endearing and insecure in such a wistful, plucky way. She would have surprised Sebastian, I think. I would have been excited for him to kiss her.

Okay, so there’s no point rewriting the book in my head, but you get my point, I hope.

I wasn’t on team Annabel. And I felt that Sebastian became less and less clear to me as a character as the novel progressed and that he was diminished from the dashing cousin in What Happens in London. Speaking of which (again), Harry and Olivia were just as great in this novel as in their own.

Also, Nine: I have this pet peeve about women shrieking during sex. Maybe if the scene is built and built and he does something particularly naughty to her… Maybe. But just for licking her nipple? Did any of you ever shriek for such a thing? Maybe it’s just the way I read the verb, but to me it’s kind of startling – and loud, and to do with fear.

Ditto writhing. (Of which there was none – whew!)

Anyway, there you have it, and I’ve no doubt there are hordes of people out there who disagree with me. I wish I could disagree with me.

Oh, and Ten: it made me pull silly faces like this:

Ten Things I...Love? About You