In the past three months, I’ve read thirty-seven books: six were excellent and five I chose not to finish, three more I finished and wished I hadn’t.
In this post, I’m revisiting the nine books that make up my Best Mainstream Read, my Best Genre Reads, my Best New Series and my Most Disappointing Read of the quarter.
Best Mainstream Read of the Quarter
“The Queen of Blood Everything” is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It tells the story of Dido Jones and her relationship with Edie, her unconventional mother.
Daughter of a flamboyant, convention-challenging. larger-than-life mother and absent any knowledge of her father, Dido has no greater desire from the age of six to thirteen than to be normal and in a “real” family. She satisfies this desire initially by adopting the family next door, weaving herself into their lives so thoroughly that her presence is taken for granted.
Starting with six-year-old Dido moving from a London squat to an Essex village in the exceptionally hot summer of 1976 and carrying on into Dido’s adult years, “The Queen Of Bloody Everything” captures the language and attitudes of the times perfectly, displaying them to through the eyes of a child and the adult remembering being that child.
It is a riveting read, filled with strong, believable characters, realistic dialogue that is crammed with life and truth and scenes that capture moments of triumph, deep cringe-worthy embarrassment, abuse and loss and sometimes, a little bit of hope.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “The Queen Of Bloody Everything”. Kelly Hotten’s narration is perfect.
Best Genre Reads of the Quarter
My genre reads have been dominated by espionage and murder. I tried my first Josephine Tey, which transported me to an England now long gone, my fourth Robert Galbraith which showed me that even a good series can continue to improve, a rare (for me) insight into a Japanese murder mystery, and finishing with another visit to Mick Herron’s Slough House spies set in a very recognisable modern London.
Josephine Tey’s “Brat Farrar”, is a mystery novel, published in 1949, about a young man who pretends to be the assumed-to-be-dead heir to a minor English estate.
As I began this novel, I was struck by the distinctive flavour of Tey’s English. Listening to it is like travelling in time. The words are, for the most part, unchanged from current usage but the rhythms of the prose, the expectations the writer has of the reader’s attention span and the taken-for-granted use of complex sentence structures, speak of a time when clothes were tailored, food was prepared by servants and education was what demonstrated that you were one of us. This is language as time travel.
We no longer talk or think the way Tey and the people in her world talked or thought. They are our distant cousins, using a dialect that we understand but which, in subtle ways, we find ourselves translating.
Although Tey’s the plot of Tey’s novel seemed to be about fraud and possibly murder, she used it to do something much more interesting, to display the virtues and weaknesses of an English yeoman family, comfortably-off but not ostentatiously wealthy. making a life for themselves on the same lands that they have owned for generations. Tey isn’t blind to their privilege or their opportunities to abuse it but she focuses on their decency and their commitment to each other.
The family makes its living from horses and horses play as large a role in this story as mendacity or murder. One of the most vivid scenes in the book describes a horse fair and a horserace.
In the end, it seemed to me that Tey was displaying a set of values that were under threat throughout the book. They are the values of a previous age and a different class but she made me root for the ones who were behaving decently nonetheless.
“Lethal White” is the fourth Cormoran Strike book. I returned to this world with great pleasure. The writing is so skilful, making the emotions, decisions and misunderstandings of the two main characters painfully and credibly clear, avoiding simple answers to complex problems and setting the whole thing against a nuanced and slightly acerbic understanding of the dynamics of class and power in England.
This book reminds me of an elegant broach: the plot provides a complex silver fretwork, interesting in its own right but really there to display sparking gems of scenes between well-drawn characters with dialogue so accurate and attitudes so authentic, that you feel sure you’ve met these people.
Every scene, every interaction, is so well-observed, so nuanced that I was left wondering what it must feel like to see the world so clearly and to be able to display its essence at will. I doubt it’s a comfortable thing.
At the literal heart of the story, lie Cormoran and Robin. A lot of the energy of the book comes from gaining a deeper understanding of each of them and the relationship between them. At one point, Strike comments on the number of couples or pairings in the puzzle he’s trying to solve and it seemed to me that this “twinning” was also being used to discover and display Strike and Robin.
I came to see how similar they are: both overlapping with but not fitting into the worlds they investigate, both driven by a need to know, both damaged in ways that might disable them from doing the work they love but refusing to accept the constraint.
I also saw the fundamental difference between them, that drives their responses to the people close to them and their reaction to failure and threat. Robin is anxious to succeed, to prove to herself that she is not still a woman broken by rape, living with her parents and hiding from the world. Strike is almost belligerently confident and driven by a need not to fail himself or the people he cares for.
I’m fascinated by Japan, perhaps because I’ve never been there and perhaps because so many of the assumptions and behaviours seem to be different to the ones I’ve grown used to, including a very different approach to storytelling
“The Devotion Of Suspect X” was my first taste of a Japanese crime novel. I found it to be a very satisfying read: original, thought-provoking and full of small surprises, it was fresh, entertaining and worked on many different levels.
“The Devotion Of Suspect X” sets out to do something different than a normal crime story. We know who killed whom and how pretty much from the beginning. The rest is about defeating the police investigation by out-thinking them. It becomes a reluctant duel between two genius-level thinkers who were at Imperial University together decades earlier. One is a mathematician working to cover up a killing. The other is a physicist curious to work out what really happened. This gives plenty of scope for the discussion of the nature of problem-solving, the role of assumptions in disguising meta-problems and the nature of proof.
Yet this is not a dry abstract, book. The plot is driven by ordinary people wanting ordinary things and this makes it much more than an intellectual puzzle. It’s about happiness, purpose, devotion, and guilt. It’s about what gives you the will to live and the ability to kill. Even the “dual” between the two mega-minds is not what you might expect. It’s based on a respect and understanding rather than enmity of moral conflict.
“London Rules” is the fifth, and think by far the best, Slough House book. Like its predecessors, it takes a sideways look at modern MI5 through the lens of the place where it sends it screw-ups to live in tedious servitude designed to make them resign rather than be fired. “London Rules” brings together the same elements used in the earlier books but each element has grown stronger, is used with greater assurance.
The violent prologue of the book reminded me of one of those young woman / old woman optical illusion drawings. I saw the scene perfectly in my head, tragic but familiar, up until the last paragraph, when everything changed and yet everything remained the same. This way of leading me to see the familiar differently and surprise me while he does it, it what makes Mick Herron’s Slough House books so appealing.
One of the things I enjoy about the Slough House books is how fearlessly, sometimes even viciously, they comment on the current British political culture. The most brutal and most nuanced assaults are made by Jackson Lamb and so might be seen as part of his irascible persona (“There’s a Donald Trump Junior?”, Lamb said, “And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.”) but the disdain for the people who made the insanity of Brexit and Trump possible is shared by most of the characters in the book except for the shamelessly self-serving Pols themselves.
This contemporary pulse-taking is also more than decorative. It provides the issues that drive the plot, giving the plot more credibility and showing us the damage that these people of “middling ability but supreme self-confidence” are doing to us. It invites us to recognise that self-delusion, confidence without ability and the pursuit of personal power at the expense of personal integrity are a plague on our society.
Best New Find of the Quarter
“Bearskin” is a rare find: a literary thriller that is as lyrical as it is muscular.
Instead of choosing between writing a literary book about how a man can surrender himself to the dark sentience of an ancient forest and walk out more himself than he was before or a thriller about a man deeply maimed by violence who, although living an almost invisible life in the wilds, knows his past will catch up with him, James McLaughlin has written a book that is both a literary achievement and a page-turning, viscerally realistic thriller.
Rice Moore, the man at the heart of this book, is a great creation. Recent acts of extreme violence against him and by him have left him emotionally scarred and subject to fugues states and hallucinations. A solitary man who no longer entirely trusts himself to play well with others, he seeks isolation, partly to hide from his enemies and partly to avoid people. Alone in the forest, feeling its pulse next to his own, his inability to let go of his territoriality or his instinct for violence, repeatedly draws him into conflict with the people around him.
Yet this isn’t a one-man-triumphs-against-the-world sort of story. Moore is losing his mind. His fugue states, his obsession with protecting the black bears on the estate he is warden of and his personal ghosts, lead him down a path where he literally puts on another skin and enters a different kind of consciousness. James McLaughlin’s ability to help me experience this altering of states as something real and raw was deeply impressive.
Best New Series of the Quarter
Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Trail Of Lightning” is the start of a fresh, vibrant Navajo urban fantasy series.
The Sixth World concept the series is a potent mix of post-apocalyptic devastation and Navajo-based Urban Fantasy with a monster-slaying female lead who sees herself not as a hero but as a monster in waiting, someone contaminated and abandoned who knows only how to kill and yet dreds becoming nothing more than a killer.
Patrica Briggs, Faith Hunter and C.E. Murphy have all given us Urban Fantasy that draws upon Native American myth (albeit Cherokee and Blackfoot rather than Navajo) but “Trail Of Lightning” is the first time I’ve seen Native American culture take centre stage rather than being an atavistic accident that makes the heroine a misfit in mainstream American society.
In the Sixth World, white America has been mostly destroyed by flooding, the Navajo Gods have returned and their lands have been protected from the chaos by four huge walls, raised by magic. For once, the Dineh are not the ones getting the crappy end of everything.
Maggie is not the now-normal urban fantasy kick-ass heroine, with the smart mouth, the lethal-but-sexy weaponry and the dangerous-to-everyone-but-her love interest. She is slightly broken, very much alone and is only truly herself when she is hunting.
Maggie is intriguing, an essay in guilt, fear and anger. Partnering her with the smooth, wrap-around-shades wearing I’m-like-a-Medicine-Man-but-way-cooler Kai Arviso displays Maggie well and doesn’t take us in any of the normal Urban Fantasy directions.
“The Stepsister Scheme” is one of the few books recently that I’ve stayed up until the early hours to finish. It was a lot of fun. It was quirky, original, not afraid to handle dark themes but ultimately powered by selfless bravery and optimism.
It tells the tale of three Princesses who set out to rescue a handsome Prince. These are not Disney Princesses with phenomenal hair, over-large eyes and chart-topping singing voices. These are Princesses who have survived the appalling abuse handed out to them in the original Grimm fairy tales and have gone on to become resourceful, talented, dangerous women who won’t necessarily get to live happily ever after.
You’ll recognise the three Princesses as the story unfolds, but you won’t have seen this side of them before. Jim Hines presents his Princesses with a wonderful mix of humour, tension, excitement and I-want-to-stand-up-and-applaud originality that is a joy to read.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
I bought “The End We Start From” as an audiobook. It has an intriguing end-of-days setting. It’s poetic in its intent and execution. It’s been highly praised and heavily hyped. It’s two hours and two minutes long and yet it felt like a test of my endurance.
I found the lyricism self-conscious and over-wrought. There are many fine sentences but having them layered endlessly on one another becomes a burden of blessings. The whole here is much less than the parts.
The rhythm is punishingly slow. The narrative drifts through dense prose that is vivid but directionless. There is no “why?”, no “what next?” just a relentlessly drab “right now” that is soaked in dispassionate disassociative observation.
This is probably a wonderful book in the same way that Philip Glass probably writes wonderful operas, it’s just that neither of them is for me.