A Bookish Lament: The Pain of Waiting

I finished reading A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir the other day. It’s the sequel to An Ember in the Ashes and it’s excellent. I raced through it in two days and tormented myself into a state of such high excitement that I felt compelled to check when book 3 is coming out. And this is when my life was destroyed. Because the next book is due out in 2018.

Yes, 2018. As in 2 years from now.

Here are some things that will have happened by 2018: I will be 35; my daughter will have started actual school; we may well be living on the moon or something; I will most definitely have forgotten everything that happened in A Torch Against the Night. This is no reflection on the quality of Tahir’s writing, but, in fact, a sad indictment of my terrible memory for plot details, character names and lists of who actually survived the last book. I appreciate that it takes a long time to write a book; I respect that. But forcing me to wait so long (because, let’s be honest, ‘2018’ might mean ‘December 2018,’ which would be more than 2 years) is deeply distressing because of my comprehensive lack of patience.

Ahh, patience. I have often been told that it would be a good idea for me to acquire some of this mystical trait. When I told my dad I was applying for teacher training, his bemused response was, “but don’t you need patience and tolerance to be a teacher?” (Clearly not. I’ve been doing it 10 years, so, haha, dad.) It turns out that patience would be a far more useful skill in my reading life than in my professional one.

A Torch Against the Night isn’t even the only example of this torturously delayed gratification. I have been waiting a year for Gemina, the sequel to Illuminae, and the release date was recently put back a week so that it now comes out on the day I go on holiday and will thus be unable to read it until at least a week later. I was deeply excited to take delivery of my copy of Crooked Kingdom on the day of its release, having waited a year for it; a year in which, it turns out, I have forgotten about 75% of Six of Crows and had to secretly Google the plot to remind me who the bloody hell Kuwei is. My excuse is that I read a lot of books and, consequently, it is inhumane to expect me to actually remember anything from any of them.

Sadly, my lack of patience also means I am unable to wait until a full series is out before starting to read. I was lucky enough not to discover either The Raven Cycle or Jeff Vandermeer’s outstanding Southern Reach trilogy until they were out in full, so I could read whole series in the space of a few weeks. It would, however, be highly unrealistic to attempt this with any of the bookish franchises which are so widely discussed on Twitter, because of those annoying people who can’t help but spoil things. I hate those people.

My impatience doesn’t end with waiting for the next book in a series. The second I place an online book order, I start looking through the window for the delivery driver. This is not even an exaggeration. Even with pre-orders, which I know won’t arrive until the day of release, I check the status of my Amazon orders every day just to see if it might come early. The same applies to library reservations; I have been waiting for a copy of Hot Milk by Deborah Levy for approximately 7 thousand years and it is starting to make me lose my grip. Never mind the fact that I have a house full of books to read. I want that one.

I’ve always been like this. My mum would make me choose the books I wanted to take on family holidays weeks in advance (she’s one of those packing-3-weeks-before-departure types) and I’d spend the next fortnight sneaking the suitcase out from the cupboard to read my embargoed tomes. And let’s not even get into how often I impatiently whizz through the end of a book; not because I’m bored with it, but just because I can no longer wait to start the next one.

Do I need help? Does anyone else suffer in these terrible ways? While my chronic impatience is a source of great amusement to those around me, it is less fun when you’re actually living it. If all authors could just help me out by publishing a whole series at once, that would just be super.

A Library Is Not A Luxury: A Love Letter to the Places With All the Free Books

 

If you’re in the UK, you’re probably aware that the government is making serious cuts to library funding. In my local area, several libraries are being threatened with closure and others are facing reductions in staff, opening times and services. Along with the rest of the right-minded population, I think this is horrific, for all the obvious reasons: libraries provide opportunities to read to people who might not otherwise be able to; libraries are a hub in a community and a place for isolated people to find companionship; libraries provide a wealth of services, including access to computers and the internet, which some people would otherwise lack. And, obviously, books. Beautiful, life-changing, comforting books.

Libraries are really important to me, probably not for most of the reasons mentioned above. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy a lot of the books I want to read, and I can access the internet at home. But there’s something really special about just being in a library – something about the wealth of opportunity involved in being surrounded by so many ideas – that can’t be matched anywhere else.

I’ve been a devoted library user from a very early age. In my home town in Essex, the library used to be housed in a deconsecrated church, lending an appropriately reverential mood to my bookish browsing. This library, for some reason, had multiple copies of The Wizard of Oz, all with different covers; in my innocent youth, I checked out every one of these to see if the story was different. Newsflash: it wasn’t. It was in this library that I first began arguing with librarians about my access to the full range of books; denied an adult ticket when I had read all the books in the children’s section, I had to ask my dad to come in with me and bully the powers-that-be to give me the holy grail: an access-all-areas, no restrictions adult ticket. Perhaps the librarians were merely worried about my immortal soul. Or maybe they were just mean.

Soon after this, the library relocated to a purpose-built, shiny building over the road, and I graduated to being old enough to be left there while my mum did boring mum-stuff like going to Iceland (NB the shop, not the country). On one occasion, we had misread the closing time and I was forcibly removed from the library before my mum came back. This was a time before mobile phones; I had to stand and wait outside, like the bookish outcast that I was. Around this time, a controversy erupted: The Man was trying to force the library to open on a Sunday and the librarians were up in arms. “Sign our petition!” they cried. “Ooh, you’re going to be open on a Sunday?” I gleefully replied. It’s weird how they kicked me out into the cold, isn’t it?

Every summer, I eagerly participated in the library’s summer reading scheme. On the first day of the holidays, I’d be there brandishing my card, desperate to snap up one of the new releases; once finished, I’d return, ready to be quizzed on the story and waving the sheet the librarians would stamp to confirm that I had read the book. I think you had to read four books to complete the challenge; obviously, being the sociable child of many varied activities that I was, this took me about two days. And they accused me of cheating! It was the greatest outrage of my life. Once again, I was forced to enlist the help of a parent to fight my corner and point out that I just hadn’t spoken to anyone for the time it took me to read all the books. Sadly, the damage was done; being presented with my certificate at the first school assembly of the new term was irreparably tarnished.

In case you’re thinking I probably developed social skills when I got to uni, stop being silly; I just spent all my time in the library there too. And what a library it was. I was always pretty convinced I could have moved in there and been perfectly happy. Hungry, but happy. On more than one occasion, I was bullied into going for a beer on a Friday night, but only conceded defeat having already been to the library. True bookworms take a pile of books about Shakespeare to the pub.

These days, my library trips consist primarily of sitting on a seat that is ever-so-slightly too small for my backside, reading books about talking animals to my little girl. And it’s brilliant. At home, she’s got a bazillion toys, and Paw Patrol on the TV, and biscuits to eat; at the library, she’s 100% focused on finding stories for us to read together. I want to bottle those moments and keep them forever.

At school, I look forward every fortnight to my library duty. Partly this is because, this year, my library duty is first thing in the morning and all the sixth formers are still in bed rather than pretending to revise in the library. Even the most boring piece of marking is made brighter when you’re marking it in a library.

All this explains, hopefully, why I’m so saddened by the news that the government have decided that libraries are superfluous in this age in which we can find whatever we want online. Firstly, that isn’t even true; to suggest you can read every book in PDF form is ridiculous. Secondly, that isn’t even the point of libraries; nobody can deny the value of reading and, to suggest that this is best done sitting in front of a screen is more than reductive – it’s insulting.

I’d love to hear your library stories in the comments. I know it’s not just me whose heart does a little flutter every time I walk past a place where they let you take away books for free.

Thank You for the Music(al References in Books)

If there’s one thing that rivals my love of books, it’s my love of music. While I’ve very occasionally found myself less obsessed with reading than I am these days, music has been a constant companion; whereas rereading a much-loved book requires time and effort, listening to my favourite songs again and again requires earphones and 3 and a half minutes. Music has made me as much as literature has, and so it is one of my favourite things ever when I find characters whose music taste is a feature of their personality.

Because of this,  I have become a bit obsessed with music references in books and now get very excited when I find one. It’s a way into understanding a character: a shortcut to really getting them, perhaps before their persona is otherwise fully formed.

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Exhibit A: Oreo cupcake on literary side plate. No, I do not need to get out more.

It’s been at least eight minutes since I last mentioned Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (she says, while eating an Oreo cupcake from a Simon Vs plate), so let’s start there. Simon is lovable enough without his awesome taste in music, but the fact that, within  6 pages, he’s already listening to Tegan and Sara, just adds to his immense appeal. Obviously, Simon’s main musical obsession is Elliott Smith, and this is a perfect example of how a musical reference can help an author to show, not tell; as soon as Simon puts in his earbuds to listen to Smith, I know exactly what kind of person he is. Only awesome people love Elliott Smith. I love the way that Becky Albertalli uses this to develop the gorgeous relationship between Simon and Blue; with Blue using “the mighty Googler” to find out about Smith and learning more about Simon as a result – a fact that renders Simon “speechless.” And isn’t that just completely perfect? That moment when someone listens to an artist you love and understand why you love them so much?

 

Adding to my love of Simon Vs is the fact that Simon’s love of Elliott Smith means he and Mim from Mosquitoland by David Arnold could be friends, which makes me very happy indeed. I adore Mim, and, as with Simon, much of that love stems from the fact that her taste in music is exemplary and we could consequently be friends. Music is so important to Mim that her narrative even features analysis of her musical loves:

Even the music I listen to now has a certain tragic honesty to it. Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire – artists whose music demands not to be liked, but to be believed.
And I do.
I believe them.

Mim spends so much of Mosquitoland isolated, alone and doubting herself, there’s a raw emotion in this statement which makes me want to cry a bit. And, while we’re talking about music taste reflecting the listener, Arnold’s phrasing could just as easily apply to Mim herself here: it is her “certain tragic honesty” which makes her such a goddamn amazing character. I love Mim. Have I mentioned that? And her mum is a Johnny Cash fan, so she’s awesome too.

While I’m match-making friendships between fictional characters – Simon and Mim, serpentmeet Lydia from Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. She displays a level of music fascism which I completely relate to and, although she can be a little much, her impeccable taste shows me exactly who she is, citing Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry, Natasha Khan, Jenny Lewis, Patti Smith, Meg White, Florence Welch, PJ Harvey, Beyonce and Stevie Nicks as her musical influences. Just read that list again and tell me Lydia doesn’t have the most flawless taste possible. Lydia also states, in no uncertain terms, that “Love Will Tear Us Apart is my favorite song on Earth,’ and you can’t argue with that. Yes, perhaps she’s a tad precocious for an 18 year old, but, man, I wish I was that cool when I was 18. Or now.

sevenwaysSadly, Matt from Seven Ways We Lie would probably be ruthlessly bullied by my supergroup of teens with good taste, as he freely admits, “I have this thing for whiny pop-rock, lots of Nickleback and Avril and latter-day Weezer, and it’s morbidly embarrassing, but it can’t be cured, not by my mom’s classic rock or Burke’s hipster Bon Iver shit.” I mean, ouch. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to read Jesse Andrews’ new book, The Haters, I have seen that here, too, poor old Bon Iver gets a bashing, described as “way too emotionally high stakes for casual listening in the sense that it makes every single part of your life feel like the part of a TV show where you are in a hospital saying goodbye for the very last time.” Mim, sort these heathens out. Also, I REALLY want to read The Haters.

So, I feel like I’ve proved that YA authors use musical references very cleverly to show us subtle aspects of their characters. This isn’t exclusive to YA; the brick that is City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg features teens with an intense love of Patti Smith, as well as a fictional band who are clearly supposed to be the New York Dolls. Further impeccable musical touchstones. And, because the rest of the book was so terrifying, I retain a particular amount of love for Patrick Bateman’s epic rants about 80s pop in American Psycho. I love Huey Lewis and the News. I’m not even sorry.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a ridiculously long time, and consequently have developed actual theories about the topic. Primarily, I think music references only work if a) the character would genuinely listen to that artist, b) the reference is relevant, and c) if the artist mentioned will stand the test of time. Becky Albertalli can sleep soundly at night knowing that Elliott Smith will be known, if not world famous, for as long as people are listening to good music. Likewise, Lydia’s choices are safe because Dolly, Debbie and Stevie have already proved their lasting appeal, and there’s basically no chance anyone will forget them.

There are times when I don’t think music references work. For example, in Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things, the main character wears a Haim t-shirt. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Haim. I question whether anyone likes Haim enough to own a Haim t-shirt, and I also wonder how relevant that choice is going to look in a couple of years’ time. Conversely, Mim wears her mum’s old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and I’m pretty sure Led Zep aren’t going out of fashion. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (which,  I will admit, I did not like) name-drops Skrillex and London Grammar, which are clearly relevant to the teenage characters in 2016, but surely won’t resonate a few years down the line. In my view, music references only work when they mean something to the characters, not just for the purpose of showing how cool the writer’s taste is.

So now you know the extent to which I ignore actual plot details in favour of putting post-its next to references to Arcade Fire in books, help me out. Is this something you’ve ever thought about? If you have any more music references to add to my collection, please share in the comments.

Also, this was really long. Thanks for sticking with it. You are nice. As a treat, here is a playlist.

 

The Curse of the Terrible Magician

Ahh, the rubbish hero. When did this become the key trope in YA fantasy? Oh wait, I know. It was Harry Potter.

Look, I understand that there would be little fun in someone discovering they have magic powers and mastering them straightaway. I understand that, for most of the characters I’m going to discuss here, developing the ability to actually use their abilities is a fundamental part of their story. I completely grasp all these things. It is just that, on reading anything taking place in a magical setting, I now groan audibly every time someone who previously had no powers suddenly discovers they do and proceeds to spend the next four hundred pages complaint about how crap they are at using them.

dorothyTake Amy Gumm, from Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die series. First of all, let me
make it clear that I really enjoy these books; I dig the inversion of Oz into a dystopian horror-show and Paige’s writing has really made me re-examine L. Frank Baum’s original novel as well as the film. But there is something ever so slightly tiresome about Amy, who is pretty whingy at the best of times, complaining about how rubbish she is at magic.

How about Alina from Shadow and Bone? She’s grown up in awe of the Grisha, the shadow.jpgmagical people who populate Leigh Bardugo’s writing, and suddenly finds out she’s one of them. She has a reasonably cool power that is something to do with creating light (okay, I’ll admit I can’t completely remember what Alina’s power is all about. I’ll Google it), which is obviously super-important in a world where darkness appears to be taking over. But like Amy, she spends way too much time complaining about her teachers and how completely unreasonable they are to try and, you know, teach her stuff. Seriously, people, just make notes when you’re in a lesson. It’s really not that complicated.

glassswordIf you’ve read Red Queen (and Glass Sword too), you’ve probably been shouting the words “MARE BARROW” for the last five minutes, possibly while rocking back and forwards and shuddering. Yes, Mare is the standard-bearer for being rubbish at magic and being in a mood about it. Elsewhere, I’ve gently suggested that Red Queen is basically The Hunger Games with less appealing characters, but a major point on which it diverts in its use of magic. The world of Norta is divided into Reds (normal people with poorly constructed houses) and Silvers (kings and rich people and stuff) who have a dizzying array of magical powers. Early in Red Queen, Mare discovers she has somehow got magic powers too, involving something that doesn’t actually seem particularly helpful. Mare spends an inordinate amount of time bitching about being taught anything, including how to fight (oh wait, this bit is like The Hunger Games too then) and is too absorbed in moaning about everything to actually learn how to do anything constructive with her powers.

I am going to forgive Simon Snow from Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On for being a bit shit carry on.jpgat magic because, firstly, that’s kind of the point, and secondly, the whole thing is parodying Harry Potter and he is the original crap magician. Also, the other stuff going on in Carry On, principally Simon’s relationship with Baz, is much more interesting anyway. Mercifully, Carry On picks up Simon’s story towards the end of his magical journey, so most of his attempts to master his powers are elided anyway, and we get to see the more interesting aspects of the story, like Simon accepting that he is rubbish at magic.

The thing which, I think, annoys me most about this over-used trope is that, however much these rubbish magicians struggle with their powers, it seems to be the case that, as soon as they are threatened, they suddenly and unaccountably manage to use them effectively. This makes no sense. I recently read a YA fantasy book which will remain nameless to avoid spoilers, and at the exact moment when I thought ‘I am so pleased that this book is avoiding the annoying oh-wait-I-am-magic-now situation,’ that is exactly what happened and I wanted to scream. Also, usually people are not good at things the first time they try them. I, for example, am a horrible snowboarder. The

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See, terrible magicians: PRACTICE.

first time I made my daughter’s Cheshire Cat birthday cake, it was a disaster. I do not know the words to Taylor Swift songs the first time I hear them. But I practised these things (except the snowboarding, which I gave up instantly because it was a horrible way to spend time) and I got good at them. I did not complain about having to do this, because I am not a moron.

Please, YA fantasy authors of the world, write a book about a character who discovers they have magic powers and then works really hard in an uncomplaining fashion to master them. Perhaps they use Powerpoint to give useful presentations, or we see them making revision notes on Post-Its or something. But, for the sake of my sanity, can we just have one book in which nobody is shocked to discover they are magic and then moans a lot about not being instantly good at things. Please and thank you.