Five books that punch you in the heart

Some books should come with a warning:

Booking Through Thursday asked the question:  What was the most emotional read you have ever had?  To answer that, here are five books I’ve read through the years for which I had no warning that I was about to be sucker punched in the limbic system.

1. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The protagonists in this epic, evocative fantasy trilogy set in a richly textured alternate universe are mostly children, but it doesn’t stop Pullman from throwing the book of emotional trauma at them. So if he didn’t have mercy on his characters, why should he spare you, oh hapless reader? He makes you care about young Lyra Belacqua and her friends so much that when they  get into trouble, you can’t help gnawing your nails until it’s over. When they win, you’re right there with them throwing fist pumps in the air. And when they grieve, holy mother of many worlds, there is nowhere you can hide from the tears. I moped around for days after it ended. Then picked the first book up again to go through all of it once more.

2. The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

There’s an irrepressible part of me which, even if I already know that a story has no happy ending, still insists on holding on to hope until the very last moment. For example, every time I watched any performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I would hold my breath at the climactic scene, crossing my fingers that maybe, just maybe—this time Juliet will wake up before Romeo kills himself. And I don’t even like those two infatuated idiots that much.

When I started The Children of Hurin, I already had a pretty good idea what would happen. I’ve read The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, so I thought I was prepared for the inevitable tragedy of it all. Wrong. It still broke my heart, dammit. It may not be fair to say that I wasn’t warned, but just because you know the train you’re on is going to crash doesn’t make the moment of impact hurt any less. And Tolkien got me on that train. He got me on that train real good.

3. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ve already written twice about my favorite GGK novel Tigana (here and here), so I’m taking this chance to appreciate another brilliant work, The Lions of Al-Rassan.  Set in an alternate history version of medieval Spain, it is a deeply moving story of passion, faith, and valor in the midst of change and conflict. Like always, Kay’s characters are complex human beings you would be willing to follow into any adventure and fight beside in any war. Also, like always, Kay knows how to make you fall in love, he knows how to break your heart, and he knows how to make you feel it was all worth it afterwards. He’s a really good writer, is what I’m saying.

4. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

When a book’s title has the word “miserable” in it, there’s no way it’s going to be a laugh fest, right? Right, I knew that. But I was surprised anyway by how emotionally devastated I was by the (sometimes hopeless) struggle for love and redemption by the downtrodden in post-revolutionary France. I read this while growing up in a small town without a theater to speak of, so I hadn’t seen the world-famous play yet and had to find out what happened next by turning the page. What an unforgettable journey. The musty pages of that old book I found tucked high up in my mother’s bookshelf still have tear stains on them, and my mother still remembers how I wouldn’t shut up talking about it to anyone who would listen.

5. State of War by Ninotchka Rosca

This one is heartbreaking not just because it’s really good fiction, but because so much of it is true. It follows ordinary human beings throughout a dreamy, panoramic allegory of Philippine history and thus takes the story of the Filipino people out of the dry pages of textbooks and weaves it into living, breathing myth. I didn’t know I could grieve so much for what had been lost when I hadn’t even lived when it existed, but State of War brought home for me the damage inflicted on the Filipino psyche by centuries of carnage and subjugation. The novel got me thinking more carefully about who I was as a Filipino, all the while deeply aware of the irony that those thoughts were running through my mind in English. In the end that contrast somewhat describes my cultural identity: confused, fragmented, seeking, and still in the process of defining itself.

When I finished writing this list, I realized that all five of these books are set either in fantasy worlds or somewhere far in the past. Other honorable mentions are Atonement by Ian McEwan and Night by Elie Wiesel (holy buckets of terror, was I traumatized after reading the latter—which is as should be, as the Holocaust should never be taken lightly).

I do get affected by stories in set the here-and-now (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, anyone?), but the ones on this list refuse to be dethroned from their place as soakers of the most number of handkerchiefs. I’ll be making my way around the other posts to discover reading suggestions for when I’m feeling brave again. Or severely masochistic. You know, whichever comes first.



It was too late. Stupid dare or not, she had to see this through.

But she stood frozen by the icy air, suffocated by the thick, putrescent stench filling the room. She recoiled, but the sense of horror wrapped itself maliciously around her, seeping into her pores, oozing into her hair, caressing her scalp. There was nothing to do, no help she could give or receive.

She could only watch.

Suddenly, the book was snatched out of her hands. Her friend’s laughing voice intruded into her imagination.

“Are you aware that you’re reading The Exorcist by peeking through your fingers?”


(This is a response to the 100 words challenge in Velvet Verbosity. The word for the week was “frightened”. This one happens to be a true story. I usually get completely caught up in whatever book I’m reading, provided it’s well written enough, which is why I never read horror. A friend of mine, however, dared me to read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Suffice it to say that I never watched the movie, or read anything like that again.)


On love and persistence

My 2010 ended with a wonderful reading experience, Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling book The Secret Life of Bees. In the novel, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Owens tries to make peace with the mother who abandoned her…and whom she accidentally killed. In this lush, glowing, sensuous novel about the hearts of women and their search for a spiritual foundation, a particular line by August, one of the most memorable characters, struck me:

“That’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love — but to persist in love.”

And I thought, Exactly. How absolutely easy it is to come to love someone. How thrilling and how wonderful to open your heart to the adventure that is another person coming in. The delicious rush, the heady excitement, the beautiful sweetness of it all — people love the idea of love. There’s nothing quite like it.

But it’s the day-to-day realities in the “ever after” part that people seldom talk about. When you find out that the prince isn’t all that charming and the princess isn’t quite the fairest in the land. Or when you grow up and discover that your mother isn’t perfect and your father isn’t larger than life. Or when you realize that who you’ve become isn’t quite who you planned to be. In every kind of love there is a certain level of inevitable disillusionment. What happens after that?

That’s when persistence comes in. Every kind of lasting love that I’ve seen isn’t one passionate movie moment after another. It’s a commitment, a series of daily — sometimes difficult — decisions to love and to keep on loving. And to forgive. Forgiveness, possibly, is more important than anything else. I forgive you for forgetting that anniversary. I forgive you for not understanding the reason I got mad. I forgive you for what you said when we fought. I forgive you for being human.

Because really, where would we be without forgiveness?  Without the desperately needed grace that allows us to be imperfect? If love is given only to those who are easy to love for as long as they stay easy to love, we’d all be alone. The writer Anais Nin says:

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”

Persistence is the decision to keep love alive and to replenish the source. It’s the day-to-day effort to keep seeing someone as flawed as we are through the eyes of grace. Near the end of The Secret Life of Bees, this is what Lily Owens realizes about her mother when she learns to love her despite her abandonment:

“Drifting off to sleep, I thought about her. How nobody is perfect. How you just have to close your eyes and breathe out and let the puzzle of the human heart be what it is.”

I think, maybe, that’s how a part of growing up happens for all of us. When we start to let go of the picture-perfect fairy tale of love and start preparing ourselves for the work that it takes. And when we realize that, no matter what, it’s still worth it.


Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul. ~ GGK

I’ve been on a Guy Gavriel Kay marathon lately, catching up on his books that I haven’t read yet. Last night, after I finished reading The Sarantine Mosaic duology, I headed over to Bright Weavings to check out what the brilliant people there were talking about. My eyes strayed over to the Tigana forum, and click! My utter and absolute love for Tigana, which I reread for the nth time recently, eclipsed anything I had planned to say about Sarantine. It is by far my favorite book by GGK, and if other fans would disagree, I’d say we are lucky to have more than one masterpiece by this wonderful author to choose from.

Tigana. It has made a mark upon my soul, though it is one of wonder and not loss like Alessan’s. I realized just now how very fortunate I’ve been — the first fantasy books that I ever read were The Lord of the Rings, followed by Tigana. After such brilliant first encounters, how can I not love the genre? Since then, I’ve gone on to explore its different forms, from the Christian allegories of C.S. Lewis and the “psychomyths” of Ursula K. Le Guin to the anthropomorphic adventures of Richard Adams and the dark urban fiction of Neil Gaiman. But I always come back, again and again, to where I began.

Peter S. Beagle once said of The Lord of the Rings that it “bears the mind’s handling”. The same can be said of Tigana. My pleasure in it grows after every rereading, and it is with a strange wistfulness that I turn the last page. Every time, there is always something new to discover: an exhilarating turn of phrase, a perfectly rendered moment where one can pause for a while and drink in the mood, a subtle hint about a character’s motivations that previously went unnoticed. Kay respects his readers and writes with the belief that they are more intelligent and thoughtful than pop culture suggests, and this assumption results in a rich, multi-textured work that not only delights but challenges as well. It not only bears, but invites and rewards the mind’s handling.

Some  GGK fans have gotten together online to discuss actors they would like to cast in screen adaptations of Tigana and the others.  It is with both excitement and apprehension that I wait to see if this will happen. On one hand, Robert Lieberman’s disastrous television adaptation of Le Guin’s Earthsea series is a cautionary tale, but on the other hand, Peter Jackson’s masterful handling of the LOTR has shown us that it can be done. It will be a gift to the world if they do it right, so that another generation of readers can discover the joy and the heartbreak of Tigana.

This isn’t a real review. This is just my undisguised attempt to get people to read books that I would like to talk about with them. So go. Read it. I’ll wait. 😉

The real review, by the way, is here. 🙂

You’re far away, beside me

In the silence that followed Devin felt a sadness come over him…. A sense of the terrible spaces that always seem to lie between people. The gulfs that had to be crossed for even a simple touching.

~ From Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Click here to read my new review of an old favorite book on this new page. 🙂

Top Ten Hottest Male Fictional Characters

This list of daydream-worthy characters actually started with an idea that has the potential to land me on if I ever carry it out:

But since I haven’t found the perfect picture to represent a composite of all my fictional lovers yet, this will have do for now:

Top Ten Fictional Characters Who Melt Me

10. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command – You might say a cartoon character is out of place on this list, but I’ve loved him forever (this is Buzz Lightyear from the Disney Channel series, not from Toy Story), so I can’t leave him out. And why should I? He’s brave, heroic, and he saves the universe on a daily basis. Plus, he has the best catchphrase ever: To infinity and beyond!!! Beats Superman’s “Up, up, and away,” if you ask me.

9. Westley – He’s a pirate. In a black ninja mask.  That right there is ten different kinds of awesome already, but there’s more. He also has kickass sword fighting skills, a sharp wit, and a superb intellect. Plus he responds to Buttercup’s every whim with “As you wish.” Learn, gentlemen, learn. (The Princess Bride movie adaptation is hilarious, but it’s got nothing on the book. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out on one of the best comedic experiences in fantasy literature.)

8. Hector – He’s just the most all-around decent guy in The Iliad. No womanizing, arrogance, or war-thirst here — he’s just a guy forced to fight a war he didn’t want to defend the country his irresponsible younger brother jeopardized.  But as mighty as he was on the battlefield, he was also incredibly loving to his wife and child. Both strength and tenderness in a man — who could resist that? It also doesn’t hurt that the gorgeous Eric Bana played him in Troy (a.k.a The Beautiful People Go to War, which is less an adaptation of The Iliad and more of an excuse to show as many bare, oiled muscles as possible outside of a wrestling match). I have a weakness for guys with deep, rough voices, and that man has a voice so manly he could probably make a drag queen grow ovaries.

7. Noah Calhoun – He loves nature, reads poetry, writes love letters, plays the guitar, and loves faithfully and forever. The Notebook should probably come with a warning: High Risk of Causing Female Frustration. I hate you, Nicholas Sparks, for making me fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist!

6. King Mongkut – I know he’s not exactly fictional, but I just loved how Chow Yun Fat portrayed him in the film Anna and the King. All that restrained passion and sexual tension between him and Anna was absolutely delicious to watch. Sometimes a glance is more potent than the most poetic avowals of love. And sometimes glances are all that can be shared. King Mongkut kept himself from promising Anna a future that he knew was impossible, no matter how much they both longed for it. That’s integrity even when it’s most difficult, and it separates the men from the boys.

5. Barney Snaith – The town outcast who turns out to be the best friend a girl can have, Barney is my favorite L.M. Montgomery hero. (You can keep your Gilbert Blythe, Anne.) In The Blue Castle, he introduces Valancy to the magic of woods and hills and fields, and she blooms under his care. They go wandering around the gorgeous Canadian outdoors, or they read together in front of the fire with their two cats, or they just sit on the porch watching the twilight in contented silence. This is the kind of life I want to have, and a man like Barney Snaith is the perfect someone to share it with. A girl can dream, right?

4. Captain Von Trapp* – Again, not quite fictional, but there’s something about stern, masterful men that women find fascinating. Still waters run deep, they say, and we just can’t resist wanting to see the warmth and passion beneath that cool, controlled exterior.  So when the proud captain turns to Maria in that moonlit garden and tells her that he loves her “whether or not [he] should,” you just know that he would turn the full force of his nature into loving her. And  that, ladies and gentlemen, marked my entrance to puberty — when I started watching The Sound of Music not only for the songs but for the drama between the rigid Captain Von Trapp and the impetuous Maria.

3. Alessan di Tigana bar Valentin – An exiled prince, a desperate revolutionary, a brilliant strategist, a gifted musician — the central character of G.G. Kay’s fantasy novel Tigana commands attention from both comrades and enemies alike. And can you blame them? He is both poignantly human and larger than life. And no woman, fictional or otherwise, can possibly resist being told that, “You are the harbor of my soul’s journeying.” Excuse me, I have to swoon.

2. Jesse – I have never seen so much chemistry between two leads in a modern love story as there is between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The way that Jesse looks at Celine — it’s as if he’s trying to figure out how in the world he happened to come across someone so beautiful. Jesse himself is beautiful: witty, articulate, intelligent, spontaneous, sensual. They captivate each other in the most bittersweet, poignant love story I have ever seen on the screen, and they convince us that it’s possible: On the most ordinary day, something unusual might happen and you might end up meeting the love of your life. And when that happens, don’t let go. (Or *spoiler alert* at least get a freaking phone number, for heaven’s sake. Jesse, I would totally have given you mine.)

1. Aragorn – There are so many sides to this Man of the West in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: a scholar, a poet, a healer, a vagabond, a warrior, a king. Also, a lover to Arwen Evenstar, for whom he must win his kingdom back so that he could gain her father’s approval. Elrond played the part of demanding, reluctant potential father-in-law with uncommon relish. Basically, he said to Aragorn, “Sure, you can marry my daughter, but only after you go on a suicidal mission almost forty years from the time you met.” To which Aragorn replied, “Whatever you say, Dad.” So, yeah. I’ll take this scruffy, grimy Ranger over those debonair Prince Charmings any day.

There you have it. A fabulous female friend of mine once quipped, “Honey, if he’s too good to be true, then he probably isn’t.” Well, happy daydreaming anyway. 🙂


* Mr. Darcy has the same appeal, but Captain Von Trapp can actually play the guitar and sing, so more sexy points for him.


A wish can be a dangerous thing

“I know there’s something strange about this well,” I say. “You told me last night that it’s cursed.”

“It is.”


“It grants you your wish — can you think of anything more harmful?”

I shake my head. “I don’t get it. That sounds perfect.”

“Does it?”

– Charles de Lint (The Wishing Well)