Out of the forty books I’ve read this quarter, I’ve picked out my top nine, in three catagories, Best Mainstream Read, Best Genre Reads and Best New Series and then added in my Most Disappointing Read by way of contrast.
Best Mainstream Read of the Quarter
“Excellent Women” by Barbara Pym showed me London, immediately after World War Two, through the eyes of Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter of modest independent means, who works mornings in a charity for aiding impoverished gentlewomen, is active in her local High Anglican church and is, at a little over thirty, on the cusp of becoming a spinster.
Mildred is a bright, public school educated woman who spends large portions of her life doing things for other people. She has a well-developed sense of the absurd and a, mostly compassionate, insight into the peculiarities of expectation, habit, manners and introspections that shape her own behaviours and the behaviours of the people around her.
The plot is largely a series of opportunities to explore the lives and choices of the, often ignored or patronised, “Excellent Women”, who make lives for themselves that aren’t centred around marriage and children. It seemed to me to be an incisive, compassionately humorous contemplation of the need rehabilitate spinsterhood.
Best Genre Reads of the Quarter
I did a lot of genre reading this quarter but four of them stood out.
How do I best get across the impact of “The Lost Man” , Jane Harper’s third book?
Do I say that I slowed down towards the end because I didn’t want the book to be finished?
Do I point out what a great decision it was to set aside the detective format and immerse the reader in the unforgiving environment of the Outback where two brothers are neighbours but their houses are a three-hour drive apart and getting separated from your car can mean death from exposure in less than 24 hours?
Do I talk about her ability to evoke a place as both a home and a threat? To let me feel the pressure of years of isolation, guilt, abuse and rage? To explore what being the sons of an abusive man does to brothers? To make me change my mind time and again on which character is “The Lost Man”? Or to keep me guessing, right up to the end, about what really happened?
The thing to do is sit on the steps in the shade, look out over the property to the horizon, towards where I know the Stockman’s grave is, raise a cold one to Jane Harper and say:
“It’s good, mate. Bloody good.”
“Annihilation” is a deeply disturbing exploration of the truly alien. It’s a difficult book, not because it’s hard to read but because it’s hard to stop, no matter how uncomfortable reading on becomes.
From the very beginning, this story is a quiet nightmare that won’t let you wake up. It’s a vivid hallucination with a pervasive sense of threat, a compulsion to continue and a heightened awareness of your own helplessness.
The writing is vivid, the narrator fundamentally unreliable and the nature of the narrative is literally mind-bending.
I highly recommend this book if you’re in the mood for a thoughtful and sometimes challenging read, filled with strong emotion and beautiful prose.
“Random” is an original and compelling story of an unusual serial killer
This is not some Hannibal Lecter evil-genius anti-hero, nor the all too common I-like-to-cause-women-pain serial killer, or even the Dexter “dark passenger” kind of killer.
This is a story of a disciplined man, following a plan with minimal emotional involvement. A plan that will get him an outcome that he greatly desires.
At least, that’s how it starts.
Executing the plan costs our killer. It eats away at his humanity. It stresses him to the point where he struggles to keep control and starts to give way to paranoia and anger.
The whole story is told from the killer’s point of view and we get to watch him fall apart. A lot of the power of the novel comes from the fact that our killer is a fully developed character. Someone I could feel pity for. Someone who has lost himself. Someone doing things that he knows are unforgivable but which he makes himself do anyway.
Being inside this man’s head is not a pleasant experience but it’s not a trip to loony town either. It’s unpleasant because any of us might find ourselves where he is.
“My Sister, The Serial Killer” both is and is not what the title and the cover would lead you to expect.
It is a book set in Lagos about two sisters, the younger of whom, Ayoola, has, by the start of the novel, already killed three men and the older sister, Korede, has always helped clean up the mess.
It is not a “normal” serial killer book. This isn’t a who did it and how were they caught mystery, nor is it a voyeuristic gorefest. The emphasis on sister is much stronger than the emphasis on serial killer in this story.
The story is told from Korede’s point of view. She’s the big sister: organised, cool-headed, deeply protective of her younger, more attractive, more impulsive, sometimes lethal sister.
It seems to me that the book is about taking sides. Korede has to decide whether to side with the men who have or who are going to, fall prey to her sister’s need to kill or with her sister. It explores the bond between them, the family history that forged that bond and the society that both stresses and strengthens it.
I know nothing about Nigeria, but the Lagos of this book is vividly evoked as a modern, vibrant city with a culture very different to my own, from the attitudes of the bribe-me-or-I’ll-arrest-you traffic cop, through the I-am-a-chief-so-you-girl-are-mine-if-I-wish-it, to the I-enforce-my-will-with-this-cane father and head of the household.
This is the backdrop against which Korede has to choose sides. Personally, I think the choice is not a hard one but the road to it is difficult and beautifully described.
Best New Series of the Quarter
“An Accidental Death” is one of the best British police crime novels I’ve read in a long time.
The first thing in its favour is that the whole novel is character driven.
DC Smith is a wonderful invention: cliché-free and deeply imagined. In this first novel, he constantly surprised me, yet each new thing that I learned about him added to a picture that was as credible as it was intriguing. I liked his quietly unconventional, more than slightly subversive way of dealing with power and threat. The people around Smith are also much more than plot devices.
The second thing in its favour is the tone of the novel. The writing is assured, delivering the story at a pace that feels unrushed but never drags. “An Accidental Death” feels very real and very English. The police procedural elements are strongly grounded in the climate created by the crippling cuts to the Police service that Theresa May, as Home Secretary, had already begun inflicting when this book was published
The final thing in its favour is the structure of the plot. The current case under investigation is unusual without being sensational. It covers contemporary topics from school briefings on drugs through to international terrorism and is designed to provide as much insight into DC Smith as it does to the causes and execution of the crimes being investigated.
“A Curious Beginning” is a splendid late-Victorian romp introducing the indomitable Veronica Speedwell: adventuress, lepidopterist and reader of crime mysteries
“A Curious Beginning” is a boys-own-adventure where the adventurer is a young woman with a self-confidence and a knowledge of the world that would make Holmes look shy and make Watson blush.
This simple inversion, combined with a cute-meet involving taxidermy, a hero who provides eye-candy as well as competence and a few set pieces where our heroine bedazzles the soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet hero with her knowledge, wit and sheet impertinence make this very entertaining.
Veronica Speedwell is a fiercely independent, widely travelled woman who makes her living capturing and selling exotic butterflies. She is a woman of strong passions and deep intellect with a talent for science, a hunger for adventure and firm rules about never taking Englishmen as lovers.
She is also, for reasons she does not yet understand, at the centre of a complex plot by shady characters who seek to abduct or kill her. The plot, when it is revealed, has the advantage of being truly bold in scope and (just about) plausible. The threats to her lead to her taking refuge with Stoker, an eccentric, irascible but pleasant to look at almost-hero who hides her first amongst the members of a circus/freakshow and then amongst the equally strange members of the English aristocracy.
I was deeply impressed by Raybourn’s ability to sustain a playfully humorous tone while still developing her main characters into real(ish) people and unrolling the plot of the mystery at an effective pace. It’s really quite masterful. The result was a refreshing and entertaining read, which I was much in need of
My reaction to reading “Leviathan Wakes” was this:
Reader looks up from the last page, murmurs, “Wow.” Sits stunned for a few moments and then asks, “Is there more?”
“Leviathan Wakes” delivered everything I expected: a vast space opera, clever tech, detailed world/universe building, a vast cast of characters and a fiendishly complex plot. It did all of those things exceptionally well. I loved the way my understanding of what was going on kept expanding like a Fibonacci sequence for the imagination which kept cranking up the tension.
It also delivered something I didn’t expect: two introspective characters whose decisions and actions are driven primarily by their values.
Holden, the Earther, is a more traditional Science Fiction hero: believing in the importance of transparency, in the truth setting people free and in the need to confront, expose and defeat evil. He’s a good leader, a strong tactician and unconsciously, unthinkingly righteous. That his righteous often leads to escalating violence and the death of people he cares about is something he’s trying to come to terms with.
For me, the best character in the book is Miller, a Belter born and bred, and a cop of sorts. He’s a man who believes in doing what needs to be done, no matter how unpleasant and regardless of the consequences for his own peace of mind. In the first half of the book, he slowly falls apart. This could have been shown in the familiar external view of a lonely, divorced, high functioning alcoholic cop who’s seen too much and has died a little inside. Instead, I was given a seat behind Miller’s eyes and asked to consider what it’s like when you know those things are happening to you.
Miller and Holden are constantly bounced off each other as the plot unfurls, each challenging and sometimes changing the other.
By the end of the novel, I liked Holden a little better (perhaps because he’d had his nose broken physically and metaphorically – as his XO tells him, he’d been too pretty before) but it was Miller I was rooting for.
“The Darkness” is original, compelling, unforgiving and completely believable. This is Scandi-Noir at its best.
The main character is complex, easy to believe in and empathise with but with some serious flaws and deep scars that make her intriguing to discover.
The storytelling, which moves skillfully along multiple timelines and from multiple, initially unnamed, points of view is perfectly structured to feed tension, curiosity and empathy.
One of the things that makes this first-in-a-series book original is that the main character, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir, is sixty-four years old and about to retire, rather reluctantly, after a successful career in the Icelandic police which has included some high profile cases and a collision with the glass ceiling.
I liked the realism built into Hulda’s response to being confronted with retirement, the physical realities of getting older and the challenges of building a future when your career is over and you live alone. There’s no “golden years” gloss here, just a review of the possible and the inevitable
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
Abandoned at the 10% point, “The Last” probably holds the record for going from “I’m excited about this book that I pre-ordered because the ARC reviews were so strong” to “This is going back to Audible for a refund”.
I was hooked by the idea of a murder mystery being investigated by an American academic stranded in a remote Swiss hotel when a nuclear war kicks off so, when the book arrived in my Audible library, I dived straight in.
I abandoned the book at 10%, with the body discovered but the murder investigation not yet underway, because nothing about the Swiss setting made any sense.
I think the problem is that I lived in Switzerland for sixteen years and I’m very familiar with its hotels, with its government and with its arrangements in the event of a nuclear war. Hanna Jameson seemed to be writing about an alternative Switzerland that I’ve never visited. When you decide to set a novel in a real place, some basic research is expected. If I can’t believe the setting, why should I believe anything else?
Perhaps I’d have stuck with this if the main character hadn’t been such a zero-charisma wimp. An academic historian who seems to lack the ability to think things through. Perhaps he’s just drifting along in shock but that doesn’t make him a great choice as the POV to write the story from.
Maybe there’s a fascinating murder mystery here, which, if it were reset on an abandoned space station or a hotel in Alaska, I’d find fascinating. I’ll never know as I’ve already returned the book to Audible.