Best Reads, Best New Finds and Biggest Disappointments of October, November and December 2018

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I’ve picked ten of the thirty-six books I read between 1st October and 14th December to be my  Best Mainstream Reads,  my Best Genre Reads, my Best New Find, my Best New Series and my Most Disappointing Read of the quarter. It’s been a strong quarter so I’m hoping you’ll find something here you’ll like,

Best Mainstream Reads of the Quarter

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32681108The main joy of “The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr” is that Elvira Carr, Ellie to her friends, is a wonderful person. Not a saint. Not perfect. But someone who is fully engaged with her own life. She’s curious, honest to a fault, wants to help others and is capable of great joy. I fell in love with her immediately.

Elvira is also neuroatypical. This means she perceives and thinks about things differently than neurotypical people.

Only when her mother is hospitalised does Elvira discover, at the age of twenty-seven, that what her mother always referred to as Ellie’s *condition” has a name and that she is not alone.

As she uses the internet to connect to others like herself, Ellie comes to understand that her “condition” is not an illness. She’s perfectly capable, not just of looking after herself but of contributing more widely to her community. She has a job at an animal sanctuary. She helps provide old people at the nursing home with contact with small animals who lift their spirits.  She looks after her neighbour’s young granddaughter.

Ellie’s problems are caused by the often incomprehensible and contradictory expectations and behaviour of neurotypicals, some of whom she believes have the power to “send her away”.

To help navigate the strange ways of the neurotypicals and to prevent her freedom to live an independent life being taken away from her, Elvira with the help of her neighbour develops seven rules. She writes the rules on a spreadsheet and then tests them against her experience, ticking boxes when she uses them, adding examples, guidelines and acceptance criteria to make these imperfect rules work better.

We follow Ellie’s progress in applying these imperfect rules to deal with a series of challenges: her mother’s incapacity, a mystery around her dead father and his frequent trips to Japan, conflicts with members of her neighbour’s family, predatory males and lots and lots of NEW things that create stress.

Ellie’s struggles and her limitations are ones we can all empathise with and perhaps share to some degree which means that her triumphs make us happy.

“The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr” is beautifully written and perfectly narrated. I strongly recommend listening to the audiobook version.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk audiobook

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” tells the story of a young soldier spending Thanksgiving in the early years of the Iraq war with the rest of “Bravo Company” as honoured guests of the Dallas Cowboys as part of a “victory tour” to build support for the war. Billy and the Bravos have been propelled into the spotlight by a Fox News video of a firefight of the Bravos going to the rescue of their comrades that went viral because it gave Americans back home something to cheer for.

As the day goes on we learn about Billy through a mix of memories, reflections and slightly stunned reactions to the often overwhelming here and now. Billy Lynn is literally the heart of the book. He’s nineteen going on twenty, unassuming, just coming to terms with life and what it holds for him,  matured by the war in ways he’s only beginning to understand and puzzled and disturbed by the ferocity with which his fellow Americans talk about the war as they thank him for his service.

Billy is real and likeable. He’s not a message or a symbol. He’s just a guy in a shitty place trying not to screw up .

The momentum of the book is sustained by force of Billy’s personality. By his questions about what everything he’s seeing means. By his desperate desire to live long enough to get together with his hot, Christian cheerleader so that he won’t die a virgin. By his hunger to know more, to do more to be more. By his fantasy of having a wife and children and leading a quiet life one day. By his unbreakable commitment to the men he serves with and by the knowledge that, in a few hours he’ll be back on base and in a couple of days, back in Iraq for the remaining eleven months of his tour.

In the Dallas Cowboy’s VIP suite, Billy and his fellow Bravos are brought face to face with wealthy, powerful people they would never otherwise meet. As these millionaires repeat, with apparent sincerity and sometimes zeal, the same phrases “Honour… Sacrifice… Freedom… 911… So proud… These Fine Young Men… 911…Finest Fighting Force in the world… Real American Hero…  911… keeping us safe.” Billy experiences increasing dissonance. He would follow his sergeant through hell and would die to protect the men he serves with but he finds the behaviour of the civilians he is fighting the war for almost incomprehensible. In a chapter called “We Are All Americans Here,” the reader has cause to wonder if this statement is really true and if it is, what it says about America.

Hollywood is pulled into the book because a producer is trying to sell a movie deal for the Bravos, based on their well-known battle in Iraq. Hollywood is used as an example of the disproportionate power of belief, the worshipping of the fake, the unwillingness to see the real because it looks too fake and the power of the millionaire asshole. Hollywood is presented as the self-serving distorting mirror America holds up to itself.

This is a beautiful book. The language is rich and diverse without being pompous or self-conscious. The themes of war, loss, fear and purpose are handled with a deft, light touch that nevertheless refuses to look away or to pretend.

Best Genre Reads of the Quarter

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I had a fine set of genre books to choose from this quarter so it was hard to pick the best. I decided to go with one Science Fiction, one Horror one Urban Fantasy and one Shifter book as that stand out are

 

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“Magic Binds” is the second book since this series rebooted with a vengeance. The thrust of this book is to put Kate under pressure and see what happens.

Her I-will-dominate-the-world father is the first pressure source. Now the confrontation between them is in open, they seem incapable of not pushing one another. Being who they are, each “push” costs people their lives. Roland’s public demonstrations of how ruthless, powerful and cruel he is are more than just vanity. They’re designed to push/tempt Kate to retaliate in kind. The question as to whether Kate’s true nature is to give herself up to her power and become more like her father is central to the tension of the story.

The second pressure source on Kate is the Oracle’s visions. These are cleverly conceived not as prophecies but as images of pivotal points where Kate’s decisions will change her future. That the pivot points all seem to lead to Kate choosing between Curran’s death or the death of their as-yet-unborn son drives Kate’s aggression but also makes her desperate to find a third way.

The subplots are rich,  the ensemble cast of characters continue to develop and there is some emotionally intense stuff going on between Kate, her adopted daughter and her recently deceased aunt (yeah – that takes some explaining but it works).

As always, Iona Andrews excels at both humour and at big battle scenes.  The book kicks off with an almost slapstick scene in which Curran and Kate ask her Priest of Death cousin to marry them and wit, banter and absurd juxtapositions provide light relief throughout. When the battle finally arrives it is bloody, emotionally charged and intense.

 

Joyland

“Joyland”, an Amusement Park in North Carolina in 1973, sells fun to all the rubes conies who walk through its gates. In “Joyland” the novel, Stephen King sells his readers a total immersion in a time long past, in a youth long-lost and in a Carnie culture now extinct. He sells the possibility of abilities beyond the normal and most of all he sells the possibility that ordinary young people can do things that make the world better.

Part of King’s power to immerse us in “Joyland” is that he doesn’t just set his story in 1973 and hope to take you there. He has the story told as what the now-sixty-year-old Devin Jones remembers of the summer, forty years earlier, that changed the life of his younger self.

This looking back changes the nature of the telling. It gives us the views and experiences of Devin then and Devin now. It gifts us with both intimacy and distance. It also allows the sixty-year-old Devin to be wiser and more articulate than a young man in his twenties was likely to be, allowing him credibly to use phrases like:

“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”

This short (283 pages) book is as richly textured as any of King’s longer novels.

The background is given by the “Carnie” world which exists as an invisible overlay on the world the visitors see. It has its own language, rituals, roles and rules and King brings them all to life the eyes of a young man hungry for something to become part of.

The plot is driven partly by a murder mystery, with Devin trying to discover who killed the pretty girl who is now thought to haunt the House of Horror ride and by a strong sense of foreboding imparted by a  the predictions of Carnie fortune teller,’ who may actually have flashes of The Sight, for people Devin needs to look out for.

The emotional impact of the book comes from Devin Jones’ coming of age story. We see him fall in love with Carnie life because it allows him to become someone more than he has been which leads him  to fall in love first with a dying boy he sees each day on the boardwalk and then with the boy’s mother because of her love for the boy and her strength and of course, because she’s hot.

Into this almost mainstream novel, King weaves the supernatural in a way that enhances the story, rather than letting it become the story. He makes The Sight and ghosts feel as real as the rides in Amusement Park.

BEllwetherConnie Willis’ 1997 novella “Bellwether” was a re-read for me but my first time as an audiobook. I enjoyed it tremendously.

I first read it about twenty years ago, when Chaos Theory was still relatively new to non-mathematicians like me, and what I remember most is how exciting I found the ideas around the relationship between chaos and fads or trends.

This time around I found that, while the ideas still stand up, what impressed me most was the gentle, wise wit that powers this book on how science works. It was a delightful, easy, clever read that made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.

I’m very glad that I did my reread as an audiobook. Kate Reading’s performance is remarkable and captures every ounce of humour and wisdom in the book.

The book itself is a kind of science fairytale, complete with a Cinderella scientist, a not so handsome and distinctly fashion-challenged Prince and a fairy godmother. Our heroine’s research into the causes of fads and her knowledge of the history of scientific breakthroughs delivers a fascinating mix of humour and education.

Despite being twenty-one years old, this book feels fresh and current. If you’re in the mood for a light, witty, well-paced, literate fairytale with real scientists (and a lot of sheep) at its heart, this is the book for you.

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“Lies Sleeping” is a gift to Peter Grant fans. I consumed this book in a couple of days and that was only because I made myself take a break and get some sleep rather than reading it in one gulp.

Peter’s slightly off mainstream centre but ever so accurate view of the world is intoxicating, whether he’s commenting on architectural faux pas, describing how rooms can be lies told by their inhabitants, critiquing the dynamics that result in police officers using terms like “pro-active, intelligence-led operations” or looking deeper into the history of London.

In this book, you can see that Peter has matured. He has people that he’s responsible for, a stable relationship with a woman/goddess who rescued him from Fairyland and a firmer grasp of his own capabilities. Yet he’s still driven by curiosity and deeply angered by the abuse of power.

I liked that Peter isn’t becoming some Doctor Strange figure, fighting the forces of darkness alone. He still sees himself as a policeman and it pleased me to see him working as part of a team with other officers from the Met. I liked the idea of needing PACE-compliant interview rooms for magical suspects and of having dozens of analysts combing data and putting actions into Holmes.

The plot is filled with threat, mystery and humour. It continues to have London itself as a character, with its past and present shaping the flow of events. These events also move the Leslie story arc forward in a decisive way and pull together things learned in earlier books.

I was particularly impressed with the new addition to the Folly. The story behind that made a bridge to earlier books and demonstrated Peter’s growing maturity.

The only thing that pushed me out of the story a little was the way that Nightingale kept getting sidelined by circumstance. I can see that this gave Peter the space to operate but it will be frustrating and not very credible if it continues.

Best New Find of the Quarter

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If ever there was a book that deserved having the term “novel” applied to it, “Old Buildings In North Texas” is it. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

I was hooked from the start. How could I not be with an opening like this:

“The situation: before they’d let me out of rehab, someone had to agree to act as my legal custodian. There it is, the snappy truth about why, at the age of thirty-two, I live with my mother. She now has control over every aspect of my life from my finances to my laundry. One little cocaine-induced heart attack and it’s back to my childhood to start over.”

This is not a Hallmark, “the Twelve Steps saved my life – praise the Lord” view of overcoming addiction. This is not a teaching aid with clear moral messages. It’s the story of a woman in love with cocaine but having to deny her lover if she wants to have a life. It is a story of recovery, rather than redemption. As our heroine (no pun intended) puts it:

“I’m working to get better not to be better”.

Of course, she isn’t always working very hard. She disdains her court-mandated therapist, is irritated by her parole officer and infuriated to be back under her (perfectly reasonable and deeply supportive) mother’s supervision.  So she finds a way to freedom, a personal path to her new life by taking up “urban exploration”- breaking into old abandoned buildings and looting them. Does it matter if her path is built on lies and deception, trespass and theft and placing her heavily pregnant baby sister at risk? Actually, no, it does not. Suck it up.

I liked the voice of the main character, especially as performed by Sally Vahle in the audiobook version. She wasn’t always nice but she was always authentic. Her mixture of anger, denial, simple curiosity, complicated obsessions and determination to escape is beautifully described. She presents her worldview with humour and enthusiasm without allowing herself to sugar-coat the issues – well not much anyway.

Best New Series of the Quarter

 

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In the Bleak TP

 

I took a risk when I bought “In The Bleak Midwinter”. A mystery about a new woman priest and the Chief of Police of a small town in upstate New York could have been a recipe for saccharine scenes, hallmark sentiments and a story targetted for prime time on a Christian TV channel.

I knew I was safe at the 2% mark when the book made me laugh out loud at the scene where the small town Police Chief unexpectedly meets the new priest and discovers she’s female. The Police Chief asks himself:

What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”

“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”

“We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”

I was still surprised at just how good the book was. There’s more to it than smart dialogue, Julia Spencer-Fleming has come up with two strong, likeable characters, with military backgrounds, who have their own, non-clichéd, approaches on how to exercise their authority. The rapport and the conflict between them is credible and engaging.

The Reverend manages to be caring and tough. The Police Chief manages to be authoritative without creating conflict.

The two are brought together when a newborn is abandoned on the steps of the Reverend’s church with instructions that he be given to a member of her congregation and an as yet unidentified young woman who has recently given birth is found murdered.

What follows is a solid mystery that is a pleasing mix of detection, exploration of moral dilemmas/social issues and tense action. This is a character-driven crime story that manages to acknowledge the bleakness of reality without being overwhelmed by it.

The Reverend’s continuing close involvement in work that should be done by the police requires a little suspension of disbelief but is well managed. I found her ignorance of the clothes and vehicles needed to cope with mountain winters a little harder to accept but perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much time in those conditions.

Crimson Lake audiobook cover

Set in Cairns, the grim but gripping “Crimson Lake” tells the story of an investigation by two unusual private detectives, one a convicted murderer and the other an ex-policeman charged but not tried for the abduction and rape of a thirteen-year-old girl, into the disappearance and possible murder of an author of fantasy novels that have a cult following.

There aren’t that many books set in “The Top End” of Australia and even fewer with such apparently unsympathetic main characters but Candice Fox manages to make the location and the people work to produce a compelling read.

Ted Conkaffey, the accused cop is interesting because he looks (very) guilty. He’s been worn down by the process of being imprisoned and released without trial. He’s lost everything from his former life, wife, daughter, reputation, friends. He has nothing left, not even a reason to see tomorrow. Yet you still can’t be sure whether or not he did the things he’s accused of.

Ted’s boss/partner, tattoo-wearing, bicycle-riding. afraid-of-no-one Amanda Pharrell is a wonderful creation. She manages to be full of life, sometimes, even joy, and yet is different in a way that reads as damaged.  Except for some paragraphs in the epilogue, we don’t get inside her head yet her presence, her directness, her courage, even her compulsive rhyming dominates the book.

Together, Ted and Amanda make more sense than either of them do alone and that gives their story power.

The intensity of Crimson Lake’s main characters and its setting is amplified by having three plots tightly plaited together: Ted’s case, Amanda’s case, the disappeared author’s case and spicing them with two unpleasant cops, an untrustworthy reporter, local vigilantes, freaky fans and an author with a secret life.

The second book in the series, “Redemption Point” is already out and a third book is planned.

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter

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“The Retreat” is probably an interesting horror/mystery story. It has a lot of the right elements: a child thought dead but who we know to be abducted, the dark dark woods in the dark dark valley in a dark dark Wales,  a set of writers at a retreat, trying to write but finding themselves haunted and a main character with a tragic past (of course) who has just had a hit with a novel about a monster abducting and eating children.

I settled down for a few evenings of enjoying a creepy mystery in a warm room on dark cold nights and then found that the main impact of the book was to send me to sleep in my chair.

I attribute this mainly to the narrator, Simon Mattacks. Except when he is doing Welsh accents, at which he is quite adept, he narrates with a uniform cadence of the kind used by TV presenters on programs like “Escape To The Country”: blokish, wannabe-charming, inoffensive rhythms that always trigger a mix of distrust and disdain in me, awakening my inner-Northerner who then mutters “wimp”  and “smug git” in my ears.

I returned the book to audible and got a refund. I may come back to “The Retreat” in ebook format but I won’t be listening to any more books narrated by Simon Mattacks.

 

 

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