Jilly: Word Candy

Word CandyRegular 8LW commenter Rachel Beecroft recently introduced me to Gail Carriger (thanks, Rachel!). As I read the first few pages of Soulless, I felt a smile spread across my face and a great big Ahhhh! bubble probably formed above my head. The heroine Alessia Tarabotti’s world is complete and beautifully drawn and the characters are fascinating, but most of all I loved the author’s voice, which is witty, and rapier-sharp.

Most of my favorite books are written in close third person POV, which figures, because it suits the style of romance I like, where both hero and heroine get a voice and the story is experienced entirely through the eyes and thoughts of the viewpoint characters. There’s no place for anything that puts distance between the reader and the characters, be it asides from the author or words like ‘saw’ or ‘thought’. (For more on close or deep POV, check out this great post from Kay.)

Sometimes though, I read a book where the author’s voice is so confident and engaging and their word-smithery is so wonderful that at least half the fun is in listening to them tell the story. I don’t want them to step out of the way and let the characters get on with it. I want their take on what’s happening. Chances are it won’t be a romance, but most likely everything written by that author will find its way on to my keeper shelf.

I’m still working my way through Ms Carriger’s oeuvre, but I’m hooked. Here’s the heroine’s take on her preternatural state:

“she had made certain to read oodles of ancient Greek philosophy dealing with reason, logic and ethics. If she had no soul, she also had no morals, so she reckoned she had best develop some kind of alternative.”

Here are snippets from half a dozen of my longstanding word-candy favorites. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Terry Pratchett. Pick any page from any of his books and you’ll find something wonderful. This is from Men At Arms:

“Three and a half minutes after waking up, Captain Samuel Vimes, Night Watch, staggered up the last few steps to the roof of the city’s opera house, gasped for breath and threw up allegro ma non troppo.”

EF Benson. I love his genteel and deadly social warfare. Mapp and Lucia begins:

“Though it was nearly a year since her husband’s death, Emmeline Lucas (universally known to her friends as Lucia) still wore the deepest and most uncompromising mourning. Black certainly suited her very well, but that had nothing to do with this continued use of it, whatever anybody said.”

Dorothy Dunnett. Her first book, The Game of Kings, introduces the dazzling bad-boy hero Francis Crawford of Lymond:

“Lymond’s own men had known he was coming. Waiting for him in Edinburgh they wondered briefly, without concern, how he proposed to penetrate a walled city to reach them.”

Loretta Chase. Lord of Scoundrels doesn’t stick to deep third romance POV. We do go deep in the hero’s head, but there’s plenty of authorial exposition throughout the book. There’s also a prologue, and many a sittin’ and thinkin’ scene. I wouldn’t change a thing. Here’s the author telling us about Dain v Jessica:

“He didn’t know that throwing her was the exact opposite of what he wanted to do. He didn’t know that the lessons he wanted to teach her were those of Venus, not Mars, Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, not Caesar’s De Bello Gallico.”

Peter Temple. I don’t often read thrillers and I’m picky about books written in first person, but I love Australian ex-journalist Temple’s hero Jack Irish. Here’s a sample from the beginning of Bad Debts:

“There were dirty shirts and underpants all over the main bedroom and its bathroom. The mirror-fronted wall of cupboards held three suits, two tweedy sports jackets and several pairs of trousers on one side. On the other hung a nurse’s uniform, a Salvation Army Sally’s uniform, a meter maid’s uniform, and what appeared to be the parade dress of a female officer in the Waffen SS. With these went black underwear, some of it leather, and red suspender belts. My respect for Mrs Pick, florist and signatory to the house’s lease, deepened. By all accounts, she had a way with flowers too.”

Christopher Brookmyre. Another thriller writer, very Scottish, foul-mouthed, dark, violent and very funny. Not recommended if you’re easily offended. Even his titles are unmistakable –Boiling A Frog, A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, The Sacred Art of Stealing, All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye. This is the opening paragraph of One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night:

“William Connor was standing outside a disused cattleshed on a bright Highland summer’s morning, ankle-deep in cowshit, liquidised mercenary raining splashily down about his head from the crisp blue sky above. He wasn’t an overly superstitious man, but this was precisely the sort of thing that tended to make him wonder whether fate wasn’t trying to drop just the subtlest of hints.”   

Are there any writers you read for the pure pleasure of the author’s word-smithery?


28 thoughts on “Jilly: Word Candy

  1. Michael Pollan springs to mind — I know, he’s non-fiction. But I love, love, love the way he writes. I think he over-romanticizes the meals and food of the past, and would like every day in modern times to be a feast day of abundance, simplicity and family and friends. Which is not a bad fantasy, as far as it goes.

    Case in point: “Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place . . . . (S)itting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.” (*Cooked*, page 7.) Isn’t that a beautiful thought and collection of words? I am sure there is some sort of truth in there somewhere.

    I’m a big fan of the throwaway line that reveals a lot of characterization, too. (-: Being throwaway lines, they often need a lot of context to make sense, though.

    • Fiction, non-fiction – good writing is good writing. I must look up Michael Pollan. Have you read Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything? I guess he’s a different kind of foodie, but his pieces are very interesting and well-written.

      Oh – and I forgot Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. That’s take-no-prisoners Brookmyre-style food writing, but it’s a great read.

      • (-: I’ll have to take a look at Jeffrey Steingarten. I started with *The Botany of Desire* for Michael Pollan, which combines his gorgeous writing with tracing the histories of four plants that changed the world (apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes). Not as much of an agenda as *Omnivore’s Dilemma*.

        I’ve heard of Bourdain, but I haven’t read anything. (-: Food, food, food. I love reading about it and how it interacts with society.

        • Me too, Michaeline – and of course I forgot George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London. So many good books, so little time 🙂

  2. I love your choices Jilly… Mapp and Lucia are one of my all time favourites, though to my shame I have never quite got round to reading Terry Pratchett. Anyone who has a recommendation for a good starting point, please shout out. I know the exact feeling you mean about the Ahh! bubble forming over your head and, for me, it is that combination of good writing and just the perfectness of the world they’ve created that does it for me. I am going to dig out a couple of examples to post this evening…. but right now I have just an hour while the children are asleep (hurray for afternoon naps) to throw some words at the page and hope they stick.

    • Happy writing, Rachel, and see you later 🙂

      I like almost everything Terry Pratchett’s ever written, but my absolute faves are anything involving the Watch (Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet Of Clay) or the Witches (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad), plus Thief of Time.

    • Another Pratchett fan, here. There are several story lines, and I think each book really does stand alone, for the most part, but it’s a richer reading experience when you can follow the books in order (or even the parts of the arcs). My absolute favorites are the witches, as well, but they are all good. The guards series is good, and I’m quite fond of Rincewind, even. I adore the Unseen University, but didn’t like *Unseen Academicals* quite as much, IIRC.

      I was going through a pagan phase and read *Hogfather* along with two other non-fiction books that I swear were part of Pratchett’s source materials. Mindblowing experience. I wish I could remember the two books . . . . *Hogfather* deals with winter and death and sacrifice, and why red and white are not such cheery colors. (It probably deals with some hilarious stuff because it’s Pratchett, but what I remember is this deep, dark stuff.)

  3. I am a heathen. I don’t appreciate word-smithery in novels. I don’t object to it, I just don’t care. I read for characters, and their interactions, and that’s pretty much it. I do, however, read poetry and I read that more for word-smithery than for profound meaning. I’d like to think that makes it all balance out in the end, but I suspect that just makes me even more of a heathen. 🙂

    • So we both like a tightly-written story, plus you like sparkling poetry (not my thing) and I like sparkling prose. I don’t think anyone who finds joy in the written word is a heathen 🙂

      • I like this line of reasoning! I wonder if there is any way I can adjust it to convince my foodie husband that my cravings for McDonald’s fries do not mean that my palate remains undeveloped… 🙂

        • With you on that one, too, Jennifer! The only time we ever have McDo’s is at the airport, when we’re going on holiday, so I’m conditioned to feel positive about the Golden Arches.

        • (-: The fries are the only decent thing from McD, IMO. And when they are done well, they are one of the most magnificent foods on the planet. Can’t stand the shakes or the burgers, and I can only barely tolerate the chicken sandwich. I thought their fresh fruit and yogurt and glazed walnuts were marvellous, though (if the restaurant served enough that the fresh fruit was fresh. I had some rotten fruit plate at a McD in Valentine, Nebraska, of all places, and it was pretty miserable). They don’t serve the fresh fruit plate in McD Japan, though.

    • I laughed at ‘I am a heathen’, but was also interested because when I posted earlier I was going to say that it wasn’t so much the word-smithery I cared about but the feeling of entering the world that my favourite authors create. Then, I thought, well, there is something about the actual writing too – so maybe it is not so much that it is ‘good’ writing, but a style that grabs me in some way. Here are two examples:

      This is the very beginning of the first Amelia Peabody book, A Crocodile on the Sandbank:
      When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome –
      (I am informed, by the self-appointed Critic who reads over my shoulder that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply what I am told they imply to the vulgar I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

      The second is the start of the first in the Deanna Raybourn Lady Julia Grey series, Silent in the Grave:
      To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

      When I read both of those Jilly’s Ahhh! bubble came over my head – but why? I wish I could pin it down. And bottle it to use in my own stories. Imagine the sheer wonderfulness of someone reading words that you have written and thinking Ahhh!

      • ‘Imagine the sheer wonderfulness of someone reading words that you have written and thinking Ahhh!’ Exactly! That would have been a great reply to Michaeline’s post yesterday.

        Both your examples grab me, too, Rachel. They’re both first person, which I often don’t go for because it’s such an all-or-nothing choice and a whole book is a long time to spend with one character. Both voices are so strong, confident and engaging that I immediately want to hear more from them. That’s two more for my TBR list, thank you!

        • You’re quite right – it would have been a good reply yesterday! I noticed that I had chosen two first person narratives, which was interesting as I don’t read first person that often – not, in fact, but choice, but because I find I don’t come across it that often in the types of books I choose. I think it’s the all-or-nothingness you mentioned – when it works, it really works well. Both of these are the start of series and I think first person works well in a series. I’m keen to experiment with first person later this year. By the way, thanks for the Terry Pratchett recommendations – I’m off to amazon now.

        • Oh, I’ve just been to Amazon (or as Kay put it more vividly, trotted off to Amazon) – I notice that Guards! Guards! is the 8th Discworld book. Is it okay to start with number 8?

        • I love Amelia Peabody’s voice! I think she had a strong influence upon Gail Carriger, actually.

          And I love first person when it’s done to my taste. I hate to say “well” because some of the first person I love are quite frivolous — Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books, or Mary Janice Davidson’s Queen Betsy the Vampire books. Or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, too. A lot of people think those girls sound like airheads, but I love catching glimpses of the depths of their characters.

        • That’s interesting, Michaeline – I can’t bear those airhead protagonists like Bridget Jones and Shopaholic, even though they’re very well written. It drives me crazy when the ditzy girl gets the to-die-for hero. It’s the antithesis of my very favorite trope: smart, sensible, usually-overlooked heroine gets to-die-for hero (thank you, Georgette Heyer).

          Freudian, much :-)?

      • Short answer Rachel – yes, it’s fine. Book 8 is the first guards book, and I think it would be a good place to start!

        Wikipedia describes the Discworld novels (there are 40) as ‘broadly standalone independent works set in the same fantasy universe’, though some novels can be grouped together in grand story arcs, like the guards or the witches. The books wander off in all kinds of directions. They do cross-refer sometimes, but apart from the ones I mentioned, I don’t think it matters. I’m not sure I could tell you what order they follow, but Wikipedia has a chronological list which shows groupings so if you like Guards! Guards that might be worth a quick scan.

  4. I love this sample, Jilly! I trotted over to Amazon to “read inside this book” and check out Gail Carriger. Now there’s another book in the TBR pile. Plus, all those other new authors…

    • Oh, good, hope you enjoy, Kay! Gail Carriger really got me invested in her characters. She even hooked me with a cliff-hanger at the end of a book (about the relationships, she resolved the plot) and I wasn’t angry – just shook my head in admiration and read the next one immediately which is not what I had intended to do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week.

  5. HH Munro–Saki. “It was autumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer; a trustful season when one buys bulbs and sees to the registration of one’s vote, believing perpetually in spring and a change of Government.” My all time favorite line is when he describes a woman in a state of some undress–“she was more tout. than ensemble.

    • Saki! Yes, Jeanne, and I haven’t read him in years. Going upstairs to dig out my copy of his collected short stories right now.

    • That . . . is gorgeous. I’m going to have to look up Munro-Saki.

      Subject for another, newer post perhaps, but do you think genre editors would put up with that kind of prose? It’s so wonderful, but I can see some new editor slicing it up to bits. (-: I know I’m not supposed to care what genre requirements are, and just write.

      Amelia Peabody gets away with some phrases somewhat like that, and so does Gail Carriger, but that’s because they are period (specifically, Victorian/Edwardian/steampunk). I think.

      I’m going to have to think about that. I would love to write like that — if I could.

  6. I’ve read all 5 of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate novels, to include Soulless immediately after it released in 2009. I’m with you, I positively love her style of writing, and the seeming lack of effort in crafting a believable and unique world (paranormal crossed with steampunk crossed with romance crossed with Victorian era propriety…and it works). I “regret” to inform you that all of the other ones are really good too, and the overall arc of them is awesome.

    • Thanks for the confirmation – I suspected as much. I’ve bought them all, and they’re calling to me from the bookshelf, but now I’ve realised how good they are I’m resisting the urge to binge. I’m saving the last two Parasol Protectorate books, and the first two finishing school books, for when I need an extra-special pick-me-up.

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