I love all your books. They are amazing, especially the ones about Aud. Are there any books that you would recommend for someone who likes The Blue Place, Stay, and Always?
Tricky. It’s difficult to make a recommendation based on only one set of preferences. It’s like trying to triangulate location based on one signal. But, hey, okay, let’s give it a go.
- are about lesbians
- occur in other times, places, and/or mindsets
- involve water (frozen or free-flowing)
- spend an inordinate amount of time among the trees
- feature women who grow and change
- linger lovingly on food and drink
- often revolve around journeys, internal and external
- delight in parsing systems
- enjoy educating the reader
- characters learn to trust each other (and are sometimes betrayed)
- in which people fight (and a woman always wins)
- who characters think about (and indulge in) good (and bad) sex
- use sly humour (which, sadly, slides right by many readers)
- aren’t shy about throwing bad situations at the protagonist
- end on a hopeful note (mostly)
So here are some books that do most of that. First among equals (today, anyway) are Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, twenty of them–which are basically one long novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, about the friendship of two very different men, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. It’s set during the Napoleonic wars. Battles. Lots of water. Brilliant language. Humour. Love. Idiocy. Friendship and trust. Betrayal. More nature than you can shake a stick at. Amazons (in the South Seas, on a raft). And one lesbian affair (very late in the series, when Jack’s wife’s mother runs off with her best friend–blink and you miss it). Start with Master and Commander.
Then there are the Modesty Blaise books, by Peter O’Donnell. (Read my thoughts here.) No lesbians, but the woman always wins, there are fights, sex, good clothes, plenty of excitement and a wonderful friendship between Modesty and her male sidekick. Female James Bond, complete with 1960s supervillains and nifty weapons.
Anything by Robin McKinley, though my particular favourites are three fantasy novels: The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Spindle’s End. Again, no lesbians–but swords, magic, dragons, women who win, lots of friends, some good food, and brilliantly humane.
Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed: SF with aliens, gender shenanigans, women who win, fights, and general awesomeness. Just don’t read Ancient Light, the sequel because, if you’re anything like me, you’ll get so cross you’ll fling the book through the window.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, starting with The Killing Floor. Set in modern day US. Reacher is a loner, ex-army cop, a kind of straight boy Aud: he fights a lot, and always wins. Always gets the girl, for a while. He doesn’t change, doesn’t grow as a human being, and they could be better written, but they certainly clip right along.
Barry Eisler’s Rainn novels: lots of covert ops, body-language-and-martial-arts stuff. Set in Japan.
A couple of Sara Waters’ books: Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. Lesbians, lesbians, and more lesbians, gambolling about in the Victorian underworld. Fabulously plotted. Melodrama on purpose. Excellent reading.
David Stone‘s Micah Dalton novels, starting with The Echelon Vendetta. These are witty, off-kilter, eccentric covert ops stuff, set in Europe, stuffed with sex and ghosts and bombs. No lesbians that I recall, not many trees, but lots of water, lots of fighting, lots of humour.
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre. 1970s SF. One of the books that went into the making of Ammonite. Wonderful novel about post-apocalyptic Earth, with a woman who heals.
The Watchtower, by Elizabeth Lynn. 1970s fantasy. This is probably where I first heard about aikido. Fabulous book (with two others in a loose trilogy): lesbians, swords, fights, honour, destiny, woo hoo!
Then, ah, hell, look, here’s a list of many excellent books I like, many of which influenced my work, and so which have a fighting chance of being aligned with something you might like. Knock yourself out:
• Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel (comic strip covering close to twenty years, now, of dyke life; if you plan to read this, begin at the beginning–there are ten or more collections, I think–and you’ll end up with a very clear notion of the history of a certain kind of lesbian community in the US and–with slight differences–UK)
• Patience and Sarah (earlier title=The Two of Us) by Isabel Miller (pen name of Alma Routsong), lovely romance set in 19th C. America, full of hardship and love and stubborness. I wept shamelessly (in a cathartic way) thoughout the last chapter.
• Olivia, by Olivia (real name: Dorothy Bussy), the semi-autobiographical tale of an English girl sent to a French (I think) finishing school; full of yearnings, largely unspoken and delicious
• Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (yeah, memoir is non-fiction, I know, but it was my first brush with African American dykeness and I admired Lorde’s clear voice)
• Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault (real name=Mary Challons) (yeah, I know, it’s about gay boys, but this is her best; Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship felt familiar and thrilling. I read this book and thought, If I could write a book as this one day, I’ll know I haven’t wasted my life)
• (Extra)Ordinary People (short science fiction by Joanna Russ, with what to me is probably the most fun hey-gender-is-a-game story ever, “The Mystery of the Young Gentlemen”)
• Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (the only fiction of Woolf’s I’ve read and enjoyed–her non-fiction is great–the story of a woman who is a man and a woman and a man etc. and yet manages to remains her(him)self throughout)
• Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeannette Winterson (a first novel, and, in my opinion, her best–unselfconscious, committed, touching, wickedly funny, and full of Northern English dykeness, which I’d never seen written about at book-length before)
• A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, by Amy Bloom (short fiction about love between various people in various situations–much of it lesbian, but not all; I don’t like her other stuff very much, though)
• The Needle on Full, Caroline Forbes (short science fiction, written very much from the late 70s/early 80s lesbian feminist milieu and extrapolated therefrom–but wrenching, in parts, and fun in others, and much better written than, er, certain US dyke sf of the time)
• Benefits, Zoe Fairburns (this was a very scary book when I read it, in the early 80s, much scarier and more realistic than, say, The Handmaid’s Tale, but less grim, too; I enjoyed the book and will reread it one day)
• Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule (this was probably the first Real Fiction by and about a lesbian that I ever read; it made me sit up and think, “Okay, this is the goal, then”–also it has a happy ending)
• Trash, Dorothy Allison (talk about emotionally naked. Wow. As I read I kept thinking, You can *do* that in fiction?? you’re *allowed*?? A good lesson in the outlawry required to Really Go There in writing.)
• Moll Cutpurse, by Ellen Galford (pure fun, the story of Moll Cutpurse–rogue, dyke, slapstick humourist in the sixteenth century: there’s love, gypsies, theatre, plague, and lots of high jinks–and nicely written throughout)
• Hothead Paisan, by Diane DiMassa (angry, funny, true, frightening, wicked, delicious comic book about a dyke–and her cat, Chicken–who has a caffeine-fuelled rage against the world)
• Les Guérillères, Monique Wittig (the first theory-as-fiction I’d read, and it worked–it changed my understanding of Normal and Other, and alerted me to the existence of a whole body of theoretical work I’d never suspected)
• Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (a sexually friendly utopian novel–or not, depending on your POV; this was the first Buffy-is-really-in-the asylum novel I ever read; another novel, Small Changes, is also very good)
• Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of science fiction stories by James Tipree Jr (aka Raccona Sheldon, real name=Alice Sheldon; some of these pieces will rip your heart out; some will make you think; some will help you see the world anew. Tiptree does love and science, dire warnings and the real world in equal measure, and she has no peer)
• Walk to the End of the World, and Motherlines, by Suzy Mckee Charnas (all about dykes and gay boys by an ostensibly straight writer–but she gets it right. I couldn’t have written Ammonite if this book, and work by Tiptree and Le Guin and Russ, hadn’t come first; it’s unsettling, not to say terrible in places, but not claustrophobic like Atwood’s dystopia, and a ripping good read)
• Twilight Girls, by Paula Christian (two novels about lesbian lurve in the 50s or 60s, poignant and anguished in that delicious thank-god-it’s-not-me way)
• The Work of a Common Woman, by Judy Grahn (I loved the strength of this poetry, along with the acknowledgement of the possibility of frailty)
• The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone (non-fiction; I’ve no idea how relevent it would be today, it’s one of the few books on this list I haven’t reread, but it was an early, elegant, impassioned and intellectually rigourous–or at least appeared that way to me–headlock forcing me to pay attention to feminism and its underpinnings)
• New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (she writes about nature, and her response to it, with awe that inspires awe in me; almost as good as walk in the woods)
• My Ántonia, by Willa Cather (I understood instantly that though this novel of the nineteenth century prairie was ostensibly narrated by a man it was a lesbian novel through and through; it made me yearn for…something, I still don’t know what)
• Six of One, by Rita Mae Brown (this, I think, is RMB’s best novel–funny (like Florence King, but without the nastiness) and mature, with a plot, and acknowledgement that not all dykes are the same)
• E.M. Forster’s short fiction (yeah, gay–and pretty subtextual at that–but it felt like the things I’d felt, it meant something, and “The Machine Stops” is an excellent SF cautionary tale on the dangers of shutting out the real world)
• Sappho (I’ve read a zillion versions of these poetry fragments and prefer Mary Bernard’s translation; good poetry is like climbing a mountain, or reaching that ecstatic part of a hymn as the sun is setting and pouring through the stained glass window: it’s like understanding the entire world at once, like swallowing god)
• Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (the first novel I remember carrying even to the toilet: I wouldn’t let it go until it was done; the first novel about which I remember thinking, “Now if I could do *this*…”)
• the OED (what, you thought I could get through a whole post without mentioning the fount of everything?)
• Kindred, by Octavia Butler (this is the novel that taught me most, taught me viscerally, about race in America–and, by extension, the UK; read it)
• Sir John Masefield’s poetry, various sagas, and Homer (I’m a wide-screen kinda gel, love those epics and exotics, and this is where I learnt that love)
• She, by Rider Haggard (the next step in exotic adventure, and, oh, I wanted Ayesha, I wanted her, all that power and loveliness, and she was rich, too)
• Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd (the book that taught me you could fuck with time and POV; Slow River would not exist without this novel)
• The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (I read this when I was ten–most of it went over my head, of course, but when I was done I had begun to grope my way towards and understanding of History and how it worked)
• A Shortened History of England, by G. H. Trevelyan (this history was written in the 40s, way before academics got so careful they wouldn’t speculate at all–it’s conversational, stirring, brilliantly written and, even though I know parts of it are wrong–moulded my notion of the formation of my native land)
• The Golden Strangers, by Henry Treece–anything by Treece, really, I just picked this one at random (his novels are set in England in times past, anything from the bronze age to the Vikings; he writes of woad and wood, mist and menhirs; he eschews the Great Man view of history for scrappy, gritty realism that, at the same time, feels majestic and mystical; from Treece I first learnt that history happened–and is happening now–to real people)
• The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (this novel about the formation of Merlin is still one of the best historical-with-fantasy fictions I’ve ever read; I can smell it, see it, taste it, understand the whys and hows; fabulous)
• Asterix the Gaul, by Goscinny and Uderzo–trans. by Anthea Bell, though sometimes I read the French (hey, it’s a comic, it’s not hard…)
• Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (my first brush with any kind of counter-culture, read as a teenager; I loved it, though haven’t seen any of it for fifteen years)