Out of the forty-two books I’ve read this quarter, I’ve picked out my top ten, in three categories, Best Mainstream Read, Best Genre Reads, and Best New Series. I’ve added my Most Disappointing Read by way of contrast.
Best Mainstream Reads of the Quarter
What I like most about “The Girl In Green” is Derek Miller’s ability to bring to bear his deep knowledge of the lives of the soldiers, NGOs and civilians who struggle within Middle East war zones, while creating credibly imperfect characters whose worldviews barely overlap and tieing them together in a story arc that stretches decades, embraces difficult moral challenges, recognises that there are no easy answers and yet never slides into voyeurism or despair.
He even manages to pepper the story with the kind of grim humour that offers a way of not losing your sanity when you recognise the cruelties you are powerless to change or stop.
I came away knowing how little we who sit in safety, watching the world through social media and newsfeeds, understand of the reality of the wars being fought in the Middle East. We are fed context-light, often fact-free, ideology-led stories that explain our involvement and our impact with all the depth, accuracy and independence of thought of an informercial for selling exercise equipement to the obese.
“Her Body And Other Parties” is a remarkable debut collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado.
This is a challenging but rewarding collection and I took my time with it. I started in February 2018 and finished in June 2019.
You can find my reviews for the individual stories here:
Best Genre Reads of the Quarter
Most of my reading was genre reading this quarter. I’ve picked four that stood out: “The Wall” set in a post-environmental collapse future Britain, “Dogs Of War” looking at private armies using bioengineered life forms as soldiers, “Storm Of Locusts” set in a post-apocalyptic world where Navajo gods walk the earth and “Big Sky”which sees the return of Jackson Brodie.
“The Wall” by John Lanchester is a grimly plausible, deftly told, brilliantly narrated tale of what happens when we lock the rest of the world out to protect ourselves from climate change.
“The Wall” will make you think. It will also make you cry. I recommend it to you if you want a fresh, clear voice to help you explore a possible future as a warning to our present.
“Dogs Of War” by Adrian Tchaikovsky is engaging, original, intriguing and accessible Science Fiction.
I’m a sucker for anything to do with dogs so how could I resist something that starts:
“My name is Rex. I am a good dog.”?
Ok, Rex is a partly dog-based bioform, engineered to carry out the kinds of acts of war that humans, even most bad humans, would flinch at, but that’s not his fault. He was made that way. The question is, will he stay that way?
In “Dogs Of War” Tchaikovsky delivers speculative fiction at its best. He handles complex ideas in interesting ways that are plausible without being predictable. He creates characters that I care about and who ground the big ideas in the personal and the immediate. He has a plot that unfolds in a way that is both seamless and exciting. And, of course, he has a character that’s at least half dog right at the centre of the action.
In “Storm Of Locusts” Rebecca Roanhorse has achieved something rare, a second book in a series that is better than the first.
It takes place four weeks after the events in “Trail of Lightning”(which just won the Locus Award for First Novel) It’s an original, exciting, vividly told Urban Fantasy that imagines a post-apocalyptic US in which the Navajo gods have returned.
The plot moves so fast that, by the time I was a quarter of the way through I already I had one unexpected death, one interesting new character, tension between all the old characters and a really spooky, creepy, don’t-let-that-thing-get-in-my-hair kind of baddy.
“Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson is a breathtakingly good book.
It is told with beautiful language, an innovative structure, wit, compassion and an understanding of moral frailty.
It is filled with real people, described in ways that capture their individuality while setting them in a closely observed and finally nuanced landscape of class and power.
The plot wraps itself around something dark slithering its ways through the corrupt heart of English power and privilege. This darkness is challenged by Jackson Brodie: romantic pragmatist, ex-soldier, ex-policeman, ex-husband and everyday protector of the weak.
Yet Jackson is not the true centre of the books. That place is held by the women who, in their different ways, decline to be victims and who do whatever is necessary to fight their way back to safety.
Best New Series of the Quarter
As part of my “Thirty Firsts” reading challenge, I’m reading a lot of first in the series books and most of them are pretty good. These four are the best of the best: “The Cold Dish” got me started, ten years or more late, on the adventures of Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, “Kill The Quees” saw Jennifer Estep kick off a new fantasy series that is a massive improvement on her Spider series, “The Diabolic” is a hard-hitting YA SF story about a bioengineered killer who learns to become something more and “Into The Drowning Deep” which is a splendid thriller with killer mermaids.
Some books just click into a slot in my imagination and light it up. “The Cold Dish” is one of them. From the first chapter, I knew that all I wanted to do was settle down and listen to anything Walt Longmire, long-time Sheriff of a small Wyoming town, had to tell me about anything at all.
I know I’m late to the Longmire party, good Lord, the sixth and final season of the TV series ended in 2017, but I intend to make up for lost time. The writing is a delight and the people are intriguing. I’ve already read the second and third books in the series and I’m still hungry for more.
“Kill The Queen” is an intrigue-filled, action-packed romp, set in a classic fairy-tale setting, with castles and princesses, except that some of these princesses hold lightning in one hand and sword in the other.
In this world, ruthless, magic-wielding royals rule, gladiators fight to the death to entertain the crowds and creatures that morph into beasts, dragons and ogres attend royal courts. This is not a happy ever after kind of place. Here the poisonous politics have deadly consequences and the blood and guts spilt by blade weapons are vividly described.
This is the best thing I’ve read from Jennifer Estep. The next book, “Protect The Prince” was published this month and is in my TBR pile.
“The Diabolic” by S. J. Kincaidwas a delight, a Young Adult Science Fiction book that demonstrated that YA has something valuable to add to SF.
It was intense, sophisticated Science Fiction that gripped my imagination, engaged my emotions and kept surprising me.
It is dark and violent and filled with deception and yet manages to explore difficult moral challenges without preaching solutions or exploiting problems. The second book in the series is already in my TBR.
Mira Grant has done something wonderful in “Into The Drowning Deep”, she’s written a speculative fiction thriller that gives me all the things I liked most in the best Michael Crichton books: edgy but plausible science, a growing sense of doom, a big cast of characters to put in peril, really scary creatures and lots of tension-cranking, page-turning, how-will-they-get-out-of-that action. Then she’s surpassed Crichton by giving the leading roles to a diverse set of credibly written women who do what needs to be done without becoming super-soldiers in a dress.
The next book isn’t out yet but I’ll be in the queue to buy it as soon as it is.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
“Recursion” by Blake Crouch was a mis-buy on my part.
An intriguing premise but written in a way I struggled to engage with.
The premise is an intriguing one: in 2008, a well-intentioned and heavily funded scientist sets out to save the world from Alzheimer’s and ends up creating a technology that will undermine our whole sense of who we are. Ten years later, a New York City Robbery Division Detective with a tragic history and a drinking problem is present at the suicide of a woman suffering from False Memory Syndrome. He starts to research the phenomenon and can’t let it go.
I abandoned the book at the 10% mark because of dull delivery, clichèd characters and dubious memory science meant that I didn’t want to spend another ten hours on this book, so I sent it back to Audible as a mis-buy.