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.


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


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.

Tie Your Mother Down: Terrible Mums in Literature

Has anyone else noticed that mothers get really bad press in pretty much all forms of literature? From YA to the classics, with plenty of examples in literary fiction, it seems to me that if you’re a character in a book and you decide to have a kid, you are going to end up getting blamed for a lot of crap.

dorothy.jpgLet’s talk about some of the terrible mothers in recent YA fiction. The mothers in Dorothy Must Die and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls are both drinkers, rendering themselves incapable of caring for their daughters properly; in the case of Danielle Paige’s book, we are two novels and a handful of novellas in, and still unaware of whether Amy Gumm’s mum has noticed that she’s gone. We also have ineffectual mothers, like Mrs Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Jonah’s mum in When We Collided by Emery Lord, both incapacitated by grief for their dead husbands, leaving the childcare and housework to their teenage offspring. Even in my adored Mosquitoland by David Arnold, we see the absent and incapacitated mother, with the extra treat of a hated stepmother. One of the most horrific examples in contemporary YA, for me, is Emma’s mum in Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It: a woman who somehow manages to turn her daughter’s rape and humiliation on social media into her own private trauma, showing no empathy for Emma. This one made me particularly annoyed.

Then there are the mothers who show an insufficient amount of interest in their nesschildren. Mikey’s mum in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is career-focused and thus completely absent; I love Patrick Ness and I understand the need for parents to be neglectful in order for teen characters to get up to anything exciting, but I wish working mums got slightly better press. In Jenn Bennett’s Night Owls (or The Anatomical Shape of a Heart if you’re in the US), Beatrix’s single mother works nights, and this means that she has no idea what either of her kids are up to. To take an example from adult fiction, Eva Khatchadourian from We Need to Talk About Kevin also focuses on her career; Eva had to be persuaded to have a child in the first place, and returns to her career as the founder of a series of travel guides as soon as she is able. Refreshingly, Lionel Shriver doesn’t demonise her for this, but the novel does pose questions about whether psycho killers are born or made, and Eva herself questions the extent to which her mothering influence turned Kevin into a murderer. We Need to Talk About Kevin is, incidentally, one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read and almost singlehandedly put me off having children. Also on my list of terrible mothers is Marilyn from Everything I Never Told You, who, having given up her own ambitions to become a doctor, goes above and beyond normal levels of parental encouragement, bullying Lydia into achieving what she never did. And if you’ve read Celeste Ng’s book, you’ll know exactly how well that turned out.

Terrible mothers aren’t a new invention; in my beloved Victorian novels, the mothers who manage not to succumb to death in childbirth tend to fall into the category of ‘interfering and overbearing’ or ‘aloof and inattentive.’ So, not much has changed since the 19th century, then. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell features one of literature’s greatest examples of passive-aggression in Mrs Gibson, who loves talking about what a brilliant mother she is, usually after doing something resembling the actions of a rubbish mother. This martyr-ish attitude can be seen earlier, too, in the infamous Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, although repeated readings of Austen’s book do lead one to wonder whether Mrs Bennet doesn’t just genuinely want the best for her daughters, acknowledging that they don’t have that many options in society and that her husband is literally no use whatsoever.

NotifKilling off a mother is often an essential trope in fiction, with life without her having a formative effect on her children. I’ll Give You the Sun, for example, shows a mother clearly playing favourites and then dying, presumably as some kind of punishment from the literary gods of fairness. Not If I See You First and How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? also utilise the helpful trope of dead mothers, with the protagonists physically and psychologically damaged in the wake of their loss. The Girl from Everywhere takes a dead mother as the central point of the story, with the novel’s time travel plot entirely focused on bringing her back. Rebel of the Sands, so progressive in so many ways, also makes use of a dead mother (even better – se killed the dad too!) to place its heroine in greater peril.

So what conclusions can we draw? Do authors just think that no character can do anything novel-worthy if they have access to motherly heart-to-hearts and Taylor Swift singalongs (my particular brand of brilliant mothering, right there)? Think of fairytales; mothers are usually dead, and stepmothers are all evil, and then adventures happen. I put it to you, the Supreme Court of the Bookish Web, that mothers are the most maligned archetype in fiction and this needs to be addressed. As a mother myself, I would be quite pleased to see my equivalent in a novel actually doing some parenting; perhaps taking care of their child’s physical and spiritual needs, whilst simultaneously being hilarious without also being a crippling embarrassment? I fear for my life in a world where teenagers can apparently only live interesting lives if their mum is dead or unable to get out of bed.

Which fictional mothers have you speed-dialling social services? Did any of these characters particularly annoy you too? And are there fictional mums who make you think, “damn, I wish you were my mother” (to badly paraphrase a ’90s Sophie B. Hawkins song)?

Also, I’m linking up with the Discussion Challenge; you should check out all the posts on Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight. It is super-fun.

Confessions of a Bookworm

At the age of 33, I have come to the realisation that my reading habit, so long in the making, has finally reached a level at which I think it is safe to call it “out of control.” I don’t suppose I am alone in this, but I feel like I need to make some kind of bookish confession, with the internet as my priest, to truly understand the depths of my obsession. I need to know if other people do these weird things or whether I should actually seek help.

Confession 1
I now carry my Kindle with me at all times (including when I go to the toilet at school and while cooking at home), just in case I find myself with seven seconds in which to read a page. I have discovered that it fits perfectly in my coat pocket, so nobody even needs to know I am carrying it with me to weird places.

Confession 2
I have begun to confuse reality with books. For example, last week I was teaching the Seamus Heaney poem ‘Storm on the Island,’ and decided to use a real-life example to add context. “What about Storm Allegra?” I cried. “It is pummelling the east coast of the USA, sinking several major cities forever!” The kids looked at me like I had lost it. Then I realised this was something that was happening in the book I was reading. Whoops. So I have now completely lost my grip on reality.

Confession 3
I hardly ever do anything social. It’s not like I get invited out much anyway, but, even when I do, I tend to see this as valuable reading time lost. Because clearly my fictional friends mean more to me than my real ones.

Confession 4
Sleep has now assumed a lowly position on my priority list. I have trained myself to survive on 6 hours sleep (for a couple of nights a week anyway) in order to stay up later to read. Additionally, if I wake up too early, it is highly likely that I will just stay awake and read instead of doing the sensible thing and going back to sleep. This does mean I am usually basically comatose around 3pm, but I am at work then so I wouldn’t be able to read much anyway; thus, the sacrifice is worthwhile.

Confession 5
My book-buying habit is completely out of control. It was my birthday last week and all I wanted were book vouchers. Some people refused to get me book vouchers, alluding to some completely bizarre theory about having too many books or something. Like that’s even a thing. Having received these vouchers, I bought three books basically immediately. While waiting for these to arrive, I bought two more tog series.jpgbooks. Then I realised two of my most-anticipated reads were coming out, so I ordered them too (along with a whole other book because what is the point in paying for postage when you could just buy another book and have them sent for free, hmm?). And then I read Throne of Glass and bought the entire series, including prequel
novellas. I will counter this by pointing out that I don’t buy clothes or have any other expensive habits (you know, like eating or leaving the house), so I am unlikely to bankrupt myself, but still: this is ridiculous. These purchases are also all in addition to the pre-orders which keep arriving on my Kindle, with me having no memory of having ordered them. And NetGalley requests from ages ago which I had forgotten about. Even as I write this, I feel like I need a therapist.

Confession 6
While looking at possible new houses, my main concern is not a decent-sized driveway or utility room. It isn’t even something useful like location. I am entirely focused on where my books can live. We haven’t even made a sensible offer yet and I have already started sketching out the custom-built bookshelves of my dreams. Is this normal?

Look, you know what I’m talking about. Books are beautiful. They never stop fitting you, they don’t tell you that you’re boring and should go out more, and they don’t ignore you when you tell them to stop throwing pens at each other and do some work. They don’t judge. My obsession is obviously absolutely justified; it is just taking over my life.

Be honest: do you think I am beyond help? Or are all these things completely okay and, in fact, the signs of an interesting person with thousands of brilliant book recommendations for the general public?