Looking for a good book?

I’ve branched out in my reading a little lately, and sampled some non-fiction, crime, chick lit, historical and of course, good old fantasy. Here are three books you might enjoy:

Midnight Confessions

midnight confessions

With all the sparkle of a Jennifer Crusie novel, Midnight Confessions reels you in from the very first scene and doesn’t let go until the end. Jenna, still miserably in love with her ex, is nevertheless attending his engagement party when she meets Mitch, a soap star. Mitch isn’t really her type, and she’s still in love with the undeserving Drew anyway, but as a favour to her friend she agrees to go out with Mitch.

She’s supposed to be pumping him for soap-star gossip, but somehow they seem to spend more time talking about her. He’s so easy to talk to, and there’s certainly a spark of something there—but he’s not her type, right? Except every time she tells herself that, we are less and less convinced, and Mitch is so determined, and so hot …

Sometimes I wanted to shake Jenna! Mitch was so perfect, so patient and understanding, and so hot—did I mention the hotness??—and she was so determinedly looking for love in all the wrong places. But her obsession with Mr Wrong and the insecurity of her bruised heart were very believable. Jenna and Mitch were both great characters, and their verbal sparring was very amusing.

In fact, the narration all the way through, told from Jenna’s point of view, was very entertaining. How could you not love a book whose first line is: “The only reason I even agreed to come to Drew’s engagement party was so I could see if his fiancee is prettier than me”? Jenna is an easy heroine to get behind: her insecurities and her yearning for a lost love would be familiar to most women, and by the end of the book I was rooting for her to sort herself out and find happiness with the delectable Mitch.

The Fire Mages

fire mages

You know how people are always complaining that fantasy worlds shouldn’t be so patriarchal just because most of them are modelled on the Middle Ages, and that someone should write a fantasy where the women have true equality in society?

Well, someone has. Her name is Pauline M Ross, and the book is The Fire Mages. It’s a great read, full of magic and adventure, and tells the story of Kyra, a very level-headed young girl who has big ambitions to be a law scribe and wield magic through written spells. It’s a big dream for a village girl, but Kyra is prepared to work hard, and refuses to be turned aside from her plans.

As the novel opens, the local lord’s steward throws the first roadblock in her way by bringing her an offer to become the lord’s drusse, a kind of legal mistress. Kyra’s mother sees the advantages of this position, but Kyra refuses to be swayed. Through sheer determination she makes it to the city and begins her training, rising through the ranks with her hard work. She even manages to find herself a powerful mage as patron, and everything seems to be going well, until the steward comes calling again, this time for her sister. Her sister agrees to become the lord’s drusse, but begs the half-trained Kyra for a simple favour. Of course it turns out to be anything but simple, and everything goes so wrong that Kyra’s dreams are shattered.

In her quest to find out what went wrong, Kyra discovers power she had never dreamed of, and uncovers the mysteries of the deadly Imperial City of the ancient mages. She faces many dangers along the way, and does so with a refreshing pragmatism. There are no hysterics for this capable young woman.

I loved Kyra’s world. It was full of women being real people, not just serving wenches and prostitutes. There were female stablehands, translators, wagoners, inn managers and guards—just about any job you could imagine had women working alongside the men. In a nice touch, there were even male “companions” to be bought for a night’s pleasure at the inns, as well as female ones. How’s that for equality? It certainly made a nice change from the usual male-dominated fantasy worlds. Throw in an interesting new magic system and you have a very well-developed world. Ross has obviously put a lot of thought into her society, its politics and its history. It’s a fascinating place, so I’m glad she has other books set in this world to explore. This one was certainly a compelling story.

Pope Joan

pope joan

This was a novelisation of the life of the probably-real female pope, Pope Joan. So few records remain that historians cannot agree on whether she actually existed, and the “facts” of her life are few, so the author had lots of scope for invention. Her use, more than once, of amazing coincidences to get Joan out of trouble bothered me, but I couldn’t fault the historical side of the novel. She obviously did a lot of research, and has recreated the look and feel of an often-overlooked part of history, which made for a fascinating read.

And, reading this book, you know why they called it “the Dark Ages”. Her vivid descriptions of the life people led back then, and the terrible attitudes and superstitions of society, made me very glad I didn’t live in those times. Everyone suffered, even the wealthy, but the poor lived short lives of deprivation and hardship. To be a poor woman was the worst of the worst, with men firmly convinced that women’s brains weren’t able to be educated–that even to try was a sin and an abomination–and that women were no more than a useful chattel.

Joan, in desperation to escape this limited life, seizes her opportunity to impersonate her dead brother, and takes his place as a monk at a monastery, where her clever mind delights in learning. Thus her gender-bending life begins, a life that takes her all the way to the Church’s highest office, with no one any the wiser that “John Anglicus” is really a woman.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the mindset of the people of those times. Though their attitudes were enough to make a modern woman grind her teeth, it was interesting to get a feel for how people saw the world in those times. These characters aren’t just modern people parading through the book in ninth century costumes. They truly are from another world. I’m glad that world is gone, but it was interesting to read about.

A boy, a sphinx, and an unanswerable riddle

I have a new story out! It’s only a short story (quite tiny at 4,000 words), but it makes me feel all accomplished and author-y to have two books to my name—even if they are only ebooks at present. (Don’t ask my why the paperback of Twiceborn isn’t out yet. Sigh.)

So, new story: it’s called “The Family Business”. Here is the cover. Cute, no?

The Family Business small

The blurb is:

“Renardo and his brothers are up to their eyeballs in debt, with one last chance to save their merchant business (and their gonads) from the moneylender. The great city of Tebos is holding its Festival of Song in three days’ time, and they have a wagonload of songbirds to sell.

There’s just one large, man-eating problem: the bored sphinx who guards the city’s gates, and her deadly riddle game. Renardo doesn’t even want to be a merchant, but somehow it falls to him to outwit the sphinx. No pressure. All he has to do is come up with an unanswerable riddle.”

It’s on sale at Amazon for only 99 cents. Grab a copy and fill in a happy fifteen or twenty minutes on your next commute, or while you’re waiting at soccer practice/the doctor’s surgery/whatever.

And speaking of 99 cents: Twiceborn is also on sale at that bargain basement price for the next few days, so if you’ve been meaning to grab a copy of that but haven’t quite gotten around to it, now would be a good time! It was featured on Valentines Day on the Kindle Books and Tips blog. Not exactly your typical Valentines Day fare, unless your idea of romance includes homicidal dragons, but oh well. Not being much of a romantic myself, the significance of the date had slipped my mind when I made the booking!

So, you may be wondering why “The Family Business” has suddenly appeared. Weren’t you supposed to be working furiously on The Twiceborn Queen, Marina? You never mentioned anything about some random short story being published in that big long list of things you were going to achieve that you blogged about recently.

Well yes, that’s true. Life, as they say, is full of surprises, and one that landed in my lap mid-January was a sinus infection that is still ongoing. Surprise! At its worst I was getting maybe three hours’ sleep a night, and let’s just say that the revision schedule fell a little behind.

I decided to call it early on and shift my deadline with the editor from 1 March to 1 April, which meant that it would be four months between releases instead of the three I’d planned. So I decided to put out a short story instead, one that had already been published a couple of years ago in a magazine, so it didn’t need any work from my end apart from organising a cover and the formatting.

I’m still on the first revision of The Twiceborn Queen, a little over halfway. That’s not where I’d like to be, obviously, but all the new scenes I had to add were in the first half, so hopefully progress will be quicker from here.

The Carnivore even took the ducklings out on Valentines Day so I could work without interruptions. To a writer, that’s the best Valentines Day present ever!

When they came home, Drama Duck presented me with a single rose, nicely gift-wrapped.

“It’s from Dad,” she said.

They were both grinning like idiots, and she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“We totally didn’t find that on the train where some guy had left it behind,” she added.

The Carnivore gave me a fond smile. “You’re worth it, honey.”

Hope you enjoyed Valentines Day, if you celebrate it. Did you get anything nice from your significant other (scavenged or otherwise)?

Book covers and headless bodies

How do you feel about headless bodies on book covers? Not as in decapitated and spouting blood, but the kind of cover where part of the model’s head is cut off by the top of the book.

Like this:

 

Or this:

Love ’em? Hate ’em? Never even thought about ’em?

There are some people (and Drama Duck is one of them) who will pass over a book if the cover shows the model’s face. They don’t like the image interfering with their own imagining of what the character looks like. I don’t know how many of these people there are, but there are enough to have spawned a trend in cover design for obscuring the model’s features. Sometimes that’s done with shadows or positioning the head at an angle, but quite often the top of the face is just chopped off.

I like both those covers I showed you, but I must admit I’m more of an “eyes are the windows to the soul” kind of person – I like to see a face. Not that it influences my buying habits at all. I’m usually drawn to colours first anyway, and if I stop for a closer look it will be the blurb and a sample of the writing that decides whether I buy or not.

But now I’m working with a designer on the cover for Twiceborn. The great thing about self-publishing rather than going with a traditional publisher is you get complete control over what your cover looks like. Trad-pubbed authors get little or no say in their cover design, and are sometimes stuck with covers they hate.

But having to make all the decisions can also be the bad thing about self-publishing! Headless or full-faced? Which do you prefer in covers? Or isn’t it important to you? (I could well be over-thinking the issue, I realise. Maybe most people really don’t care and I should just take a deep breath and move on.)

What do you think, Internets?

First impressions

Like people, a story only has one chance to make a good first impression. I love a good first sentence, especially if it’s a funny one. Here’s a great one from Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia:

“On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.”

With an intro like that, how could I resist? Nor was I disappointed. If you like your action flavoured with werewolves, vampires and lots of snark, it’s a good fun read.

And then there’s the opening of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, which I reread recently:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

How can the army possibly use a 75-year-old recruit? Immediately you’re drawn in. The answer is very thoughtful as well as highly entertaining. I enjoyed it even more the second time round. If you like science fiction and you haven’t read it yet, grab yourself a copy ASAP. You won’t be disappointed.

How about you? Read any good books lately?

Coverlicious

You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? Well, yes … and no.

Sure, some great books have lousy covers, and some pretty ordinary books have very attractive covers, so the quality of the cover doesn’t necessarily match what’s inside. In that sense, judging a book by its cover can lead you astray.

But in another sense, of course you can judge a book by its cover. That’s what they’re for.

Publishers spend a lot of time and money on covers. They’re a selling tool, meant to entice you into picking up the book and purchasing it. And potential buyers like to know what they’re getting.

Ever looked at the spines of the books in the science fiction and fantasy section? You can tell which ones are the science fiction books at a glance, because they nearly all have black spines, whereas the fantasy ones are more likely to have coloured artwork extending into the spine.

In the same way, if a book’s title is in flowing script above artwork of a hot bare-chested man, hot woman in a flowing dress, or a hot bare-chested man embracing a hot woman in a flowing dress, it’s a romance. Readers know what “their” kind of book looks like, and they search for more of the same.

There are trends within genres too, of course. Not so long ago, most fantasy covers featured a dragon – even if there was no dragon in the story. Twilight spawned a whole host of copycat covers after the success of its black-cover-with-single-dramatic-image style.

Different countries have different preferences in covers. What will sell a book in the UK won’t entice US buyers at all. Australian customers don’t go for European covers and vice versa.

Which means that one book may have many different covers. Different covers for release in different countries. Different covers between the hardback and paperback versions. Different again for later reprints or when rebadging a series.

What makes a cover enticing to potential readers? If publishers could pin that down every book would be a bestseller. They may know the genre conventions, they can look at past successes and try to reproduce that “winning formula”, but in the end it’s a lottery. Just because lots of YA covers have photos of girls from the neck down doesn’t mean that whacking a headless girl on yours will sell the book.

In the end, what attracts a reader to a particular cover is subjective. People’s reactions to covers are as varied as their reactions to the stories inside. Consider Exhibit A, the cover of Liar by Justine Larbalestier:

Leaving aside the whole controversial “whitewashing” aspect (a storm of protest over the white girl on the original cover — the protagonist is supposed to be black — forced the publisher to come up with this cover instead), I wouldn’t cross the room to pick up this book. And that’s the effect a cover needs to have. Note, I’m not suggesting this is a bad cover, just demonstrating how subjective perceptions are.

This version of Liar’s cover, however, I find intriguing. I love the way the letters change, graphically illustrating the point of the book, that words can’t be trusted. This is such a clever cover when you’ve read the book, as it’s not just about lies but physical changes from one thing to another, and these letters are morphing from one form into something else. What that something might be isn’t clear, yet their red colour suggests blood, which leads you to assume it’s something sinister or dangerous. I’d definitely walk across the bookshop to check this out.

Then there’s Backseat Saints.

This cover hits the themes of the novel, but for me the visual appeal is so-so.

This one thrills me so much I actually squeaked with excitement when I found it in the bookshop. Same great book inside each one, but wow! this cover blows me away. The glorious saturated contrast of that vibrant red and green is the first thing that hits me, and then there’s the image. OMG just look at that hair!! WHY DID SHE CUT IT OFF??? I couldn’t wait to read the book to find out. Talk about a cover that did its job.

And sometimes an author gets lucky. I’ve seen two versions of Jennifer Hubbard’s The Secret Year, and both of them have that “pick me! pick me!” quality to them.

This one’s very striking with all that black and the partial faces. Combined with the title, you just know these two are hiding things, and you want to read the book to find out.

Then there’s this one. I am so drawn in by that girl’s melancholy gaze it takes me a while to notice she’s in bed with a naked guy. She looks so troubled I wonder if it’s because she’s hiding secrets from him or vice versa. Once again I feel compelled to read the book and find out.

So what’s an author to do? How can you make sure your cover’s going to attract the greatest number of readers possible? It’s a good question but I don’t think there are any good answers. Readers’ taste in covers are just as subjective as their taste in stories. In any case most authors won’t get much of a say in the design of their cover.

The ironic part is I would have read these three books even if they came covered in brown paper. I was choosing on the author’s name and familiarity with their writing through their blogs. And the reality is that the one factor that most helps to sell a book is name recognition.

So maybe a good cover helps, maybe it doesn’t. All an author can really do is write the best book they can … and then cross their fingers.

Favourite books of 2010

I read 75 books last year, including non-fiction, fantasy, sf, young adult, paranormal and the odd general fiction or thriller. The bulk of them were young adult or paranormal, which are two genres I didn’t read only a couple of years ago. I guess I got tired of my usual diet of epic fantasy, and went looking for something new.

Nevertheless, one of my favourites last year was the biggest, fattest, most epic-y epic fantasy I’ve read in years, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.

If epic fantasy is your thing, don’t be put off by the stupendous size of this book. So what if you give yourself tennis elbow just holding it up? It’s worth it, I promise you.

Sanderson’s worldbuilding is fascinating. He has the same wonderful knack as Glenda Larke for creating a truly unique ecosystem. His world is ravaged by huge regular storms, which has shaped the way people live and all the creatures that exist. There are also tantalising hints of world history, and you get the sense this is a real world, with all the complexity that entails.

His main character is Kaladin, currently a slave, formerly a talented warrior, who is embroiled in an ongoing war in a very dangerous role. He is part of a crew that carries a bridge for the regular soldiers to cross the chasms that snake through the unusual battlegrounds where the war is taking place. Bridgemen drop like flies all around him, and his struggles to keep his crew alive and find a better life for them make compelling reading. So compelling that I did my usual thing of skipping all over the book. I got so caught up in Kaladin’s chapters that I skipped the ones dealing with the other characters and read Kaladin’s through to the end first, then came back and read the whole thing again in proper sequence.

Not that the stories of the other main characters aren’t interesting – far from it! It’s just that Kaladin was the best-drawn character in a book full of great characters. A win-win situation, really. The only downside is I have since discovered this is the first book in a projected series of ten, which means I’ll be waiting a long time for the end of the story, á la Robert Jordan and George RR Martin. Let’s hope Sanderson is a faster writer than either of those guys. At least Book 1 did have a very satisfying conclusion, while leaving some of the larger series questions open.

The other real stand-out of the year for me was Liar by Justine Larbalestier, a Young Adult which I’ve already reviewed here. A truly mindblowing book.

I read lots of other fun YA too, including some of the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan and the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy. Skulduggery is a detective, and the books are fast-paced, full of magic and mayhem. The really fun part is that Skulduggery is dead – he’s a skeleton, and a wisecracking one at that.

Derek Landy visited Australia in 2010, promoting the (I think) fifth book in the series, and we went to see him at our local children’s bookshop. He was very entertaining, much like his books. Demon Duck asked him where he got the idea for a skeleton detective.

“Out of my incredible brain!” he said.

I found some new authors on my visit to Aussiecon in September, and one of them was Tansy Rayner Roberts.

Her Power and Majesty is the first in the Creature Court trilogy, and I’m eagerly awaiting the second instalment, due out in April, I think. This book starts with a bang – naked guy falls from the sky, off his face on drugs, observed by our country bumpkin heroine, who’s just arrived in the big city to take up an apprenticeship as a seamstress. When it turned out she was the only one who could see him because of her hitherto-unsuspected magic, I thought I knew where this book was going. But no – instead of becoming her mentor, he takes her magic with her blessing.

And that was just the first surprise this book had in store. Later ones were much more jarring, so much so I had to reread pages several times to be sure what I thought had just happened really had. Roberts isn’t afraid to inflict suffering on her characters, and there are some pretty dark and dangerous ones in this book. Also lust, betrayal, a strong heroine and a very strange and as-yet unexplained adversary. I was so eager for more that when the book ended I had to read the whole glossary, something I never usually even look at, just so I could stay in the rich world of Aufleur a little longer.

Another world I like to visit is that of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels. It’s southern USA, only changed by the discovery that vampires are real. They “came out of the coffin” when Japan invented a synthetic blood they could live off, and the revelation has had profound political and cultural effects on society. It’s also made Sookie’s life a lot more complicated than it used to be. She’s a telepath, so not only are the vampires after her body, they’re after her mind as well.

Dead to the World is my favourite of the series so far. I could tell you the telepathic barmaid is a great character with a distinctive voice (true), and each book in the series adds new and interesting complications to the overall story (also true), but why do I really love this series?

Hot romance! Gorgeous vampire lovers!

I know, I’m shallow.

And this book is my favourite because it’s the one where Eric, the powerful (and hot – did I mention the hot vampire lovers?) regional overlord, who’s been lusting after Sookie for three books now, loses his memory. Instead of being a menacing (but hot!) figure, he has a complete personality change and becomes endearingly dependent on Sookie, who finds him running down the road near her house in the middle of the night. It’s romantic. The hot sex doesn’t hurt either. Ahem.

Okaaay. Moving right along.

Sex as oppression this time. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff was a very interesting exploration of what it means to be a wife in a polygamous marriage. The novel actually tells the stories of two nineteenth wives – a woman in a present-day Mormon sect accused of murdering her husband, and the based-on-historical-fact story of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of one of the founders of the Mormon church, and her struggle to end polygamy.

The modern story is narrated by a teenage boy. His mother is the nineteenth wife, accused of murdering his father, neither of whom he has seen since he was thrown out of the sect at 14 and left to fend for himself. This part of the story follows his efforts to prove his mother’s innocence, no easy task given the sect’s attitude to outsiders.

Woven together the two stories present a damning indictment of the practice of polygamy. It was fascinating to read but also depressing to consider how much misery is caused by men using religion as an excuse for not keeping their libidos under control.

On the non-fiction front my favourites were two books I’ve already discussed on the blog.

Get Everything Done by Mark Forster is a great tool for procrastinators, as discussed here. Even works for procrastinators’ children. Drama Duck finds the oven timer trick very helpful for getting homework done.

The other one is The Sweet Poison Quit Plan by David Gillespie, which I discussed here.

You know how people talk about “books that changed my life”? Well, this one really did! If someone had told me at the beginning of 2010 that I would give up peppermint chocolate that year I would have laughed.

Me? Give up peppermint chocolate?? Inconceivable!

Yet I not only did, I don’t even miss it. In the process I also gave up headaches every morning and about four kilos. Not a bad deal, I say!

I wish I could make everyone in the world read this book (David Gillespie probably wouldn’t mind that either!). The facts it presents are quite scary, and make a compelling argument against eating sugar. Anyone whose New Year’s resolutions revolve around healthier eating or losing weight could do worse than have a look at it.

There were lots of other good books on the reading list, but those were the stand-outs. I have plenty of happy reading to look forward to this year as well, since the To Be Read pile has hardly shrunk. Books just seem to find their way into the house, and I’m always looking for new things to read. Does anyone have any recommendations for me of something they’ve enjoyed?

Nano carrots

“What the hell’s she talking about?” I hear you say. “That’s just a photo of a pile of books.”

Work with me here, people. You’ve heard the expression about the carrot being a better motivator than the stick. Well, I explained this one to the two eldest ducklings this month, along with a practical demonstration.

They both signed up for the Young Writers’ version of Nano again this year. In order to avoid a repeat of last year, where Demon Duck stopped writing after a week and I had to take 1500 words of dictation from her on the last day to get her over the finish line, I bought her a book she’s been begging for.

“This is your Nano carrot,” I said. “You don’t get to read it till you finish Nano.”

Hers is the Young Samurai novel, and she finished her 3,000 words before school this morning.

Drama Duck had no trouble finishing last year – she was done a week before the deadline. That suggested to me that her wordcount goal was too easy for her, and I wanted to encourage her to tackle a bigger project. Out came Nano carrot number two, the new Rick Riordan novel.

“If you make your goal 8,000 words instead of 5,000, you can have this book when you finish.”

And hey presto! She marched up the stairs last night, having finished her wordcount, and swiped the prize off the pile in triumph.

The third one, of course, is for me: Jackie French’s new novel Oracle. I read a good review of it in the papers a couple of weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to it. Adventures in ancient Greece are always fun.

And yes, I get to read my Nano carrot too. I put in a big effort yesterday, because I knew today would be crazy, wrote nearly 4,000 words and just scraped across the finish line. Thank goodness. It was a real struggle this year.

Just to add to the challenge, our computer guy arrived in the middle of the day yesterday and took over my computer for a couple of hours. Aaargh! What’s a girl to do when she’s thrown off her computer?

Why, go and sew something to relieve her feelings, of course.

I’m so in love with this bird fabric, this is the third thing I’ve made with it, and I’m not done yet. The whole of that particular range is so delicious I could eat it. (If, you know, I had one of those weird disorders where people eat stuff they’re not supposed to, like coal or chalk. I would eat only the most bright and beautiful of fabrics.)

Isn’t it gorgeous? I think this will be a pillow for my bed. Yum yum. Someone pass me a knife and fork.

Amnesia as a genre

Hands up if you know anyone who has ever suffered full-on amnesia. I’m not talking the “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman” kind so favoured by politicians, but the kind where someone has an accident and wakes up missing the last several years of their life.

Don’t know anyone? How about celebrities then? Have you ever read about this happening to a well-known person? You’d think it would be in all the papers, wouldn’t you. No?

Me neither. So why does it happen so very often in fiction? It could practically be a sub-genre all on its own.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I love a good amnesia story. It’s like the ultimate mystery, where the puzzle the detective has to solve is their own life. I never get tired of it.

I read a couple last year, which made me think about how often I’d seen it used. There was The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson, a slightly science-fictional Young Adult contribution to the genre. A teenage girl comes out of a long coma with no memory of her life at all. She has to watch family videos to relearn her history. But why doesn’t her grandmother seem to like her? Why are her family hiding her away from the world? There’s an awesome moment when you find out what’s really going on.

About the same time I also read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, a more typical entrant in the genre. There usually seems to be some crucial emotional entanglement the heroine (and yes, the amnesiacs are always women) has forgotten. In this one Alice has forgotten the last ten years of her life, so she thinks she’s happily married and expecting her first child. In fact she has three children and she and her husband are separated.

Or there’s Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella, where the heroine thinks she’s happily married because she’s forgotten the existence of her lover. Or Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult. Who wouldn’t want to wake up with no memory only to find they’re married to Hollywood’s most gorgeous star? Until you start to remember what he’s really like …

It was also a popular plot device in the Mills and Boons I read as a teenager. A particular favourite, whose name I’ve now forgotten, involved a woman who lost her memory in the same car accident that killed her husband. Later on she discovered, in very dramatic circumstances, that the child she’d thought was her husband’s was actually the hero’s. She’d forgotten that her marriage was unhappy and she’d been about to leave the husband for the hero.

So why do you think it’s such a popular theme in fiction, when it never seems to happen at all in real life? Is it a kind of wish fulfilment? A chance to see what life would be like if you could start fresh with a clean slate? Are there a whole bunch of women out there wondering if they would still have married their husbands if they met them as the people they are now? (and just in case you’re wondering, dear, my answer to that would be yes).

Anyone got any other good amnesia books to recommend?

Favourite books of 2009

I read 54 new books in 2009. New to me, that is, not necessarily new in 2009, though many of them were. Quite a few old favourites got reread too.

I enjoyed most of them – the ones I don’t enjoy tend not to get finished – but here are a few of my particular favourites in case you’re looking for something new to read.

I took the plunge into a new field this year and started reading paranormals. The Carnivore did too, and he’s actually read more of them than I have, so it’s not true that these kind of books only interest women. One series we both enjoyed was Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series, which starts with Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Kitty is a late-night DJ whose talkback show centres on the supernatural, a topic she’s well qualified to discuss, since she’s a werewolf. Each book in the series is a stand-alone adventure in Kitty’s complicated life but they also show interesting developments in characters and themes over the series. Lots of fun to read.

I read a lot of Young Adult this year. This stuff is not just for kids! I’ve read so many great YA books this year I couldn’t pick a favourite.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, for instance, has the most awesome first line:

“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

How could you resist reading on after that? The premise is fascinating too. Todd lives in a world where men are afflicted by “the Noise” – they broadcast their thoughts constantly and uncontrollably, so there’s no peace or privacy anywhere. There are also no women, since they were all killed off by the germ that caused the Noise. At least, that’s what Todd has been brought up to believe. But just shy of the birthday that marks him officially as a man, he discovers everything he’s been told is a lie – and then the killing starts.

A warning though – it has a shameless cliffhanger ending, so you might want to wait till you get your hands on the next books in the trilogy if that bothers you.

World Shaker by Richard Harland is a YA with a completely different feel, though it too deals with a young man’s discovery that his whole world is a lie. Col’s privileged life aboard the massive rolling city World Shaker is very British and proper. Think cups of tea and cravats. Col’s grandfather is the Supreme Commander of the juggernaut, and Col takes his place at the top of the food chain for granted until the night an escaped Filthy bursts into his room. She begs him to hide her from those who would torture her and change her into one of the zombie-like Menials.

Col is both fascinated and repelled; he has never in his sheltered life seen a Filthy or the frightening Below where they work. He hides her in spite of his certainty that Upper Decks people would never stoop to torture, but of course he’s wrong, and his entanglement with the Filthy girl opens his eyes to the truth of his privileged world and the rottenness at its core.

The worldbuilding is phenomenal, with the marvellous World Shaker itself, the Victorian culture, even the way they speak and think very convincing.

Another culture I love to visit in fantasy novels is the Asian-inspired one, and Alison Goodman’s The Two Pearls of Wisdom is a fine example (also published in other countries as Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye or just plain Eon). I’ve actually read this one twice this year, having just reread it this week, and it’s well worth a second visit.

Eon is struggling to complete the harsh training necessary to become a Dragoneye, one of the lords who communicate with the powerful spirit dragons that protect the realm. Struggling because he’s a cripple, but also because he is actually a she – a secret that would prove fatal if anyone should discover the imposture. But when the Mirror Dragon returns after an absence of 500 years and chooses Eon as its Dragoneye, Eon is suddenly thrust into the centre of a desperate struggle for the emperor’s throne, and the secret of her gender is no longer the most dangerous secret she has to hide.

Vivid characters in this one and interesting themes of loyalty, honour and identity and how gender impacts on them.

And for more on themes of identity, how about an amnesia book or two? I’ve read quite a few books where the main character has total amnesia and is trying to rediscover the truth about themselves – it seems to happen in fiction a lot more than it does in real life, thank goodness. It’s a storyline that never gets old for me. It’s like the ultimate detective story.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson is a YA science fiction take on the theme. The mystery at the core of Jenna’s identity caught me completely by surprise and was very cool.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty is a mainstream adult novel asking the same question: who am I really? When Alice wakes up in hospital after an accident at the gym she’s forgotten the last ten years of her life. As far as she’s concerned, she’s happily married to the love of her life and expecting her first child. It’s a bit of a shock, therefore, to find she has three children and is in the process of divorcing her husband. What went wrong? And what aren’t people telling her about the best friend she doesn’t remember?

This is Liane Moriarty’s third book and I’ve enjoyed them all. They’re layered with good characters and subplots. They may only deal with the small dramas of a woman’s life, but they do it in a big way, addressing universal themes of love and loss.

Liane is a Sydney girl, too, and her books are set in Australia, which is a nice touch for us Aussies, when so many books we read are set in America. I used to work at the same company Liane did, though our paths never really crossed. It gives me a special interest in her career – but, trust me, her books are worth your time no matter where you live.

A couple of other books I loved last year that also weren’t fantasy (see, I do occasionally branch out!), were gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson and, for sheer good fun, Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer.

I’ve read three of Joshilyn Jackson’s books and loved them all. They’re all set in the deep South of the US, full of marvellously colourful characters living in dysfunctional families. Her writing is beautiful, insightful and witty. Incidentally, she also writes just about the funniest blog on the internet,

Agnes and the Hitman is fun from start to finish, the literary equivalent of eating a whole box of chocolates at once, only without the feeling-sick-and-guilty-afterwards part. Agnes, a feisty chef, is catering the wedding from hell in her own dilapidated Southern mansion. If that’s not bad enough, men keep appearing in her kitchen trying to kill her. Luckily one of these strangers turns out to be Shane. He’s a hitman too, but he’s on her side, sent to protect her by a shady uncle. Mayhem and romance ensues.

Glenda Larke’s The Last Stormlord I already told you about here, but it remains my favourite adult fantasy of the year. Amazing worldbuilding – a real treat for fantasy lovers.

The Margarets by Sheri S Tepper made my brain hurt, but in a good way. I had to work hard for this one. It’s complex but immensely rewarding science fiction. At various parts of her life, different aspects of Margaret’s personality split off and disperse throughout the galaxy, taking on different names and living different lives. One is a queen, one a healer, one a slave. One is even a man. Their stories intertwine throughout the book until the finale, when all the different Margarets must come together again to save mankind.

Putting it so baldly doesn’t do the story justice at all. It’s richly imagined and detailed, and each of the seven stories would make a good book just on its own. Deep and surprising.

I didn’t read much science fiction, but another of my favourites was sf too – Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. I’ve only read her military sf before, so this one was a surprise. It is a deeply moving exploration of the questions: Is autism a disease that should be cured? And if you were offered the possibility of a “cure”, should you take it, knowing that, though you might be “normal” afterwards, you might lose the very things that made you “you”?

Lou, a man with high-functioning autism, faces these questions and tells his story in his own voice. You feel as if you’re really inside his head, seeing the world with all its frustrations and difficulties the way he sees it. And yet you can also see that the life he has is a good one, and the often astonishing capabilities autism brings him are not things to be thrown away lightly.

It’s an amazing insight into the mind and life of an autistic person. I can’t help thinking that this book could have been a bestseller like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, another book with an autistic narrator, if it hadn’t been marketed as sf. The only science fiction component of it is that a cure is available for autism. Everything else is perfectly mainstream. Yet other books with more sf in them, like The Time Traveller’s Wife, get marketed as mainstream and make a killing. The Speed of Dark deserves a much wider audience than it has. Hell, it deserves to win literary awards. Even if you never read sf, you should read this book. It will blow you away.